The beauty of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls games comes in many forms: modability for those on PC, the ability to make your own story while ignoring the given narrative, and the lore that lies about, never needing to be acknowledged or read, but there for those with an interest. When I played through Skyrim, it was the last that most caught my eye. In particular, it was the story of the Snow Elves and how they came to be feared as the Falmer.
In the Elder Scrolls, mer is a designation for one of any number of races who are elves. This means the orcs (Orsimer) and extinct dwarves (Dwemer) are also among those classed as elves. However, in Skyrim we get a close look at the Falmer, who are not extinct, nor one of the classes of elves we can play. In fact, they purely exist as a hostile combatant.
Once known as the Snow Elves, by reading lore books, you find out they butted heads with the Nords for control of territory. Eventually, they were driven underground in a final battle that is detailed in the book Fall of the Snow Prince. From here, they encountered the Dwemer, who offered protection at the same time as they fed them fungi that made them blind. Continuously feeding them these fungi, they created an entire race of slaves for the Dwemer.
When the Falmer finally rose up, they ended up clashing with the Dwemer, until one day they sought to join battle and found the Dwemer had disappeared. From The Falmer: A Study:
“Finally free from the threat of their Dwemer overlords, the Falmer were able to spread freely throughout Blackreach. But years of fighting the dwarves had left them bloodthirsty and brutal. Feeling the need to conquer, to kill, they began mounting raids to the surface world.”
When you encounter them in Skyrim, it is impossible to interact with them in any way that is not hostile. One may well argue there is no common tongue, and they have been bred to be mistrustful of any strangers in their territory, but this is complicated by the fact that the Falmer enact raids on the surface, capturing various peoples and either enslaving, torturing, or killing them. There is no reasoning with them any more.
On the one hand, what is displayed is that a vicious cycle repeats itself: people wronged feel the need to exact revenge on their oppressors. The Falmer have been brutally forced into slavery, blindness, and have all but been forgotten in the world of Tamriel. Their history is a myth at this point, their existence relegated to rumors and speculation. They are a shadowy threat that is always underground.
On the other hand, this type of narrative reads very similar to the ‘fears’ that white people in the US had about slave revolts and riots. These people were enslaved because they were bestial, or less than human. If they were ever to revolt, they would destroy culture as we know it, as they were incapable of producing any culture of their own worth noting.
Beyond basic huts, small villages, and their weaponry, the game itself does little to inform of us any cultural worth the Falmer have anymore. They are depicted as instantly hostile, extremely hardy, and not even human. Within the Elder Scrolls games, one can capture souls into soul gems. When capturing human souls, they are black in color; beasts and monsters are white. The Falmer’s souls happen to be white. While this may get at hinting that the Falmer are no longer considered on a ‘human’ level, that is a rather disturbing thought to contemplate.
Can we subjugate, enslave, and mistreat an entire race to the point of becoming bestial? Unlike the narrative that was used against black slaves in the US, the Falmer, when they were known as Snow Elves, are depicted as a culturally rich native population of Tamriel. It appears their fight is to stave off encroachers, and to fight for artifacts in order to gain an upper hand. When completing the chain of quests that deal with Saarthal, you discover an artifact that may have been the turning point for when the humans decided to rid themselves of the Falmer completely.
Yet, the narrative provided by Fall of the Snow Prince almost seems to suggest the humans saw the Snow Elves as a race that was savage, as the very beginning of the book depicts the Snow Prince as other than they — almost a noble savage:
“From whence he came we did not know, but into the battle he rode, on a brilliant steed of pallid white. Elf we called him, for Elf he was, yet unlike any other of his kind we had never seen before that day. His spear and armor bore the radiant and terrible glow of unknown magicka, and so adorned this unknown rider seemed more wight than warrior.” [Emphasis added]
The structural narrative of Skyrim is that the Falmer are a horrible, despicable race that serve as bogeymen, to drag, torture, and destroy humankind, as can be seen in Liar’s Retreat. If you never really read the books concerning them, that is all they will ever seem. By the structure of the game, they are not a race with which to be reasoned, relegated instead to beasts and monsters by the categorization of the game’s soul system.
Yet, it is that narrative that made me start sneaking past them all whenever I could; I did not wish to buy into a system that told me the only way to deal with the Falmer was to kill them. In a game where I was killing quite a bit, the narrative provided by those lore books made me stand against the system and refuse to obey. As a person playing a rogueish mage, I had no trouble slipping by them, but I wished I had a way to actually help them. These were a people not beyond redemption in my eyes, and they were caught between the narrative told by the game’s system and its lore.