Please read this first.

Welcome! This blog is devoted to considerations of morality in the The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim by Bethesda. Rather than a fansite, review, or walkthrough, it is a serious attempt to examine the game through a moral lens. Please note that the purpose of this blog is to discuss morality within the context of the game, not to determine whether playing the game is immoral in and of itself; the latter type of "discussion" tends toward tedium and inhibits, rather than promotes, a meaningful conversation.

If you have not visited this blog before, it might be helpful to read the posts labeled "Orientation," most of which are the first few entries in the blog archive (see right). These posts include a short introduction to this project, a content-specific author bio, and a few other pieces that explain key concepts relevant to this study. These posts are of particular use to those readers less familiar with Skyrim (or video games in general).


If you have visited this blog before, thanks and welcome back!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Note About Soul Gems

Soul gems are the "batteries" that power enchanted objects in The Elder Scrolls universe.  In order to enchant or recharge an item, one must use a soul gem in much the same way as one might empty a gas can into one's car.  In fact, the PC can fill an empty soul gem by killing a creature or NPC while a Soul Trap is in effect (either through a spell or a weapon enchantment).  Given the prevalence of magic items in TES games, the filling and expending of soul gems in an integral part of gameplay in Skyrim.

The potential moral issue arises from the lack of clarity regarding the in-game definition of "soul."  While the game tends toward a Western paradigm regarding the soul -- that is, the soul as the immaterial essence of an individual's identity, connected to yet distinct from both body and mind because it exists after both are gone -- the composition of the purplish energy that emanates from a slain, Soul-Trapped enemy is a bit of a mystery.

Some TES sources claim that the personal, conscious soul is trapped in the gem as potential energy, only to be released when the charge is depleted.  If so, then the trapping of a soul within the gem would seem a bit like torture, and would be very hard fate for me to justify, even for an enemy.  After all, when I am killing opponents, it is usually only because my opponents are trying to kill me or someone else, not because I wish them to suffer some kind of existential torment.

Others claim that the "souls" are not souls in the Western sense, but rather a kind of "life force" that powers the body.  This non-personal model regards the soul as similar to other substances associated with life, such as blood or hair or breath.  As such, the soul can be harvested under the same kinds of guidelines that one might use when taking anything else from a dead body, without worrying that the consciousness of the person is somehow enslaved by the process.

Although I routinely collect and use enemies souls, I am still not entirely certain which view is more accurate.  Obviously, I am prejudiced toward the latter view because I would hate to think that I am entrapping the immortal essence of sentient beings for my own personal use.  Even so, I would argue that the second model makes more sense:

  1. Man, Mer, and Beast races of humanoids have souls, but so do Mudcrabs and Charuses (albeit "smaller" souls that require smaller gems).  I therefore doubt that the word "soul" here is equivalent to "transcendent personhood."
  2. In the quest entitled The Black Star, a mage perverts a soul gem so that he could enter it while still alive.  When I went inside this gem myself to expel him, I was also conscious.  Because this act was so extraordinary, I would assume that normally, souls are not conscious entities with the gem.
  3. But for the exception above, soul gems are never associated with particular people, nor is anyone's personality brought back by enchanting an item with a soul gem.
I am therefore going to continue to play under the assumption that soul gems contain an impersonal life force rather than a personality.  If I have no moral trouble looting from a dead opponent, I should have no problem harvesting its "soul."


  1. Have you played the Dawnguard DLC? It adds some complexity to this issue. I don't want to spoil too much in case you haven't played it, but it's making me think long and hard about what I do with filled black soul gems that I find. I'm hoping somebody comes up with a mod to add a way of releasing souls from gems, or destroying them altogether. It's still really vague about non-humanoid souls, though.

    1. No, I haven't played Dawnguard yet, but I read the relevant post on your site, so no worries about the spoilers. Honestly, I feel as though metaphysics in TES is more AD&D than Divine Comedy. Take the Companions questline; Kodlak's concern is that he will end up in Hircine's hunting grounds as opposed to Songarde, which implies that the afterlife is not as dichotomous as the Judeo-Christian model. If I download Dawnguard, and my character learns that entrapped souls are being subjected to some kind of postmortem torment, he might be forced to limit his "harvesting" to enemies who deserve that kind of damnation (Thalmor agents, for example).

  2. I believe there's a book in Skyrim, "A Tragedy In Black," that seems to suggest that there's some level of consciousness even when inside a Soul Gem (it's been a while since I read it). As such, when playing my good characters, I've made a point of only trapping Thalmor agents, Necromancers, and the occasional Master Vampire in Black Soul Gems.

    Also, dropping a Soul Gem out of your inventory empties the soul inside it. Where that sends the soul it previously contained, I couldn't say.

  3. I gave up on enchanted weapons the moment I realized Soul Gem wasn't just a name.

  4. "M'aiq was soul-trapped, once. Not very pleasant. You should think about that once in a while."

    One thing to consider is that the Last Dragonborn is, essentially, a living soulgem, absorbing his slain Dovah foes' souls and channelling their energy and knowledge into their thu'um. It's why they learn shouts so readily. The dragon's soul has become intermingled with theirs.

    It's one of the aspects that I have integrated into my roleplaying. The combined wills of a growing number of dragons resulting in the Dragonborn's growing desire to dominate, even to the extent of performing immoral acts.

  5. I really enjoy your blog. It is very thought provoking, and I return to it from time to time. After playing Skyrim for a fair bit, to include the Dawnguard which includes the Soul Cairn, I think that it is difficult to think any morally upright character would ever countenance the use of soul gems, at least as far as black soul gems are concerned. Even the idea of soul trapping thalmor agents, vampires, or necromancers, while understandable, is a form of punishing evil by doing an analogous form of evil oneself, and an evil that is not necessary for the sake of punishing the wicked or protecting the helpless. I imagine that a morally rigorous character (a strict follower of Stendarr or Arkay perhaps) would eschew enchanting altogether as it profanes the life principle of living beings, to include rational beings. I think this sort of rigor would make for very challenging but rewarding roleplaying.