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, November 11, 2012

The Companions (up to The Silver Hand)

I began writing about the Companions in an earlier post, but the full questline requires its own article. Poignant and morally complex, this quest has lasting consequences for the PC and all subsequent quests.

The opening quests of this line followed what one might expect for a group of mercenaries -- bandit raids and enforcement, all for profit. The main moral issue of the questline, however, was revealed when I agreed to act as backup for Farkas, the Companions' Heavy Armor expert, on a more important quest (Proving Honor). While hunting for the fragments of Wuuthrad, the legendary battleaxe of Ysgramor himself, I got myself trapped behind a iron gate. Before Farkas could free me, he was set upon by a group of thugs who revealed themselves to be members of the Silver Hand -- a band of warriors committed to the extermination of werewolves. The reason for this ambush became clear when Farkas transformed before my very eyes and dispatched his attackers with fang and claw.

After killing the last Silver Hand, Farkas reverted to his more familiar state and freed me from the trap. He explained that the inner circle of the Companions was, in fact, a small pack of werewolves. Some of them, like Aela the Huntress, accepted the lycanthropy as a gift from the daedric prince Hircine, while others, such as the Harbinger (as close to a leader as the Companions will admit to having) Kodlak Whitemane, viewed it as a curse that precluded their proper destiny in Sovngarde. Farkas's revelation shed light on several interesting aspects of the Companions: the tight-knit nature of the group, Aela's fascination with hunting, and the wolf-themed armor of the Companions. We completed the quest (killing several more Silver Hand and draugr in the process) and returned to Jorrvaskr, where, after becoming a full member of the companions and completing another radiant quest, I was eventually given the opportunity to join the Circle, and thereby become a werewolf myself.

The ritual in the Underforge

Some explanation of Skyrim's approach to lycanthropy is in order here. Unlike traditional werewolves, who are bitten and then involuntarily transform during the full moon (or some other external condition), Skyrim's werewolves can assume the Beast Form once a day, and can choose to extend their "beast time" by feeding on their kills. In addition, lycanthropy can only be transmitted through a voluntary ritual in which the initiate drinks the blood of another werewolf. In other words, my becoming "the monster" would be entirely voluntary -- the only negative effects would be the loss of any rest-based bonuses (Rested, Well-Rested, Lover's Comfort). While werewolf NPCs sometimes talk about how addictive the Beast Blood power is, the werewolf PC suffers no downside from refusing to transform. This condition contrasts with Skyrim's approach to vampirism, in which the PC, who typically is infected involuntarily, suffers attribute penalties for refusing to feed.

Given the level of choice available to the Skyrim werewolf, I decided to partake in the ritual. Lycanthropy seemed like an additional power that could be used for good or for ill. Furthermore, I was interested in becoming a member of the Circle, and thus part of the leadership of the Companions. I submitted to the ritual, took on my Beast Form for the first time, killed a few deer, and blacked out.

When I came to in the woods, Aela was with me to "talk me down." We immediately began an attack on the Silver Hand in their hideout at Gallows Rock. During the assault, I learned a few things about the Silver Hand that reinforced my decision to eradicate them. Not only had they been capturing and torturing werewolves, but they were in the habit of skinning them and mounting their heads as trophies. When we encountered their leader, Krev the Skinner, I transformed again and slaughtered her in a manner befitting her crimes. Unfortunately, we arrived too late; Skjor, who had been scouting ahead of us, had already been captured and killed. The quest ended with Aela in mourning, and me left to return to Jorrvaskr alone.

Several moral issues arise in these quests. After the unprovoked attack on my friend Farkas, killing the Silver Hand felt justified, and my discoveries in the later quest only served to confirm my stance. While the Silver Hand might see themselves in the same light as the Vigilants of Stendaar -- that is, righteous warriors ridding the land of an evil abomination -- I could not ignore certain key differences. Daedric cultists tend to commit random acts of violence against innocent people, whereas the Circle appears to be very selective in its use of the Beast Blood power. Given the presence of hostile werewolves in Gallows Rock, I can only conclude that lycanthropy is similar to many other powers, such as magicka or the Thu'um, in that it is a powerful tool that can wreck havoc in the wrong hands. Therefore, the Silver Hand wiping out all werewolves would be on par with killing all mages because some of them misuse their magicka. Furthermore, the obvious delight the Silver Hand takes in fashioning trophies out of their kills, who are basically human, separates them from the businesslike Vigilants. In short, the Silver Hand seems more like a band of thugs with a cause than a noble troop of monster hunters, and killing them seems in line with my character's moral profile.

Another moral dilemma concerns one of the features of the Beast Form itself; the PC can extend his time in wolf form by feeding on the bodies of those he slays. This is not the first time I have confronted the issue of cannibalism in Skyrim, but I would argue that feeding the werewolf is subtly different from the Namiric cannibalism at the center of A Taste of Death. Worshippers of Namira look at their fellow citizens as cattle to be slaughtered and consumed, which they do in their normal, human form. The werewolf, on the other hand, is a beast, and therefore feeds as a beast. The complication, from a role-playing perspective, is that the werewolf form is under the direct control of the character, as evidenced by Aela's behavior during the ritual. Despite being in Beast Form, she is completely in control of her actions. The question, then, is whether feeding on fallen victims while in Beast Form is morally equivalent to cannibalism. The two actions feel different, perhaps because of the usual dissociative implications of lycanthropy, but I cannot yet provide a well-reasoned, empirical distinction.

I can, however, say that feeding on Krev the Skinner felt right. It seemed a just end for the woman who delighted in the slaughter of werewolves and who killed my Shield-Brother Skjor.


  1. "band of thugs with a cause"

    Actually, that perfectly describes my views on the Forsworn as well, as I discussed before.

    1. Actually, by your math, the Silver Hand would come off a little better than the Forsworn. After all, they only seem to be going after werewolves -- who are, in fact, dangerous -- rather than attacking random passersby.

    2. Actually, quite a few times, I've come into Silver Hand areas where I found human corpses stacked up along with the werewolves. While I'm not all that knowledgeable about what happens to a werewolf's body when they die, whether they take human shape or not, the evidence so far still seems to indicate that at the very least, the Silver Hand doesn't care about collateral damage, which even the Vigilants try to minimize and allay. Honestly, they strike me as a group who of bandits hunt and eradicate werewolves as much for the hell of it as opposed to any accidental "good" they may do along the way.

      Also, apologies for these posts some time after the fact. Sometimes, I just cannot help myself. :P

    3. Good point. I had assumed that the corpses were untransformed werewolf bodies, but I guess there's no way of knowing for sure.

  2. The Silver Hand also behaves like bandits in that they attack random passer-bys. They can attack the Dragonborn, for example, even if he hadn't even entered the Jorrvaskr building yet and doesn't even know about the Companions' existence.

    Since the Dragonborn and the Companion Inner Circle is in full control in their beast form, the question is, why do most people of Skyrim attack them on sight when in beast form?

    There's also the selfish consideration of whether you'll like going to Hircine's realm when you die, complicated by the fact that the Dragonborn's soul may belong to Akatosh no matter what.

    1. I'm guessing that the Circle is the exception and that Sinding is the rule, which would make sense. A "pack" like the Circle, which performs public services in their role as Companions, would probably be highly invested in keeping their members' lycanthropy under control, whereas a lone werewolf would be more likely to attack innocent citizens.

  3. As far as I've been able to tell, the form of lycanthropy featured here is unique to The Companions. It involved direct intervention by Hircine and an unfortunate encounter with a coven of hagravens a few generations back, as I recall. There are multiple forms of lycanthropy in Tamriel (though the variety seems mostly in relation to what animal the person transforms into) and some of those varieties may well allow less control over the transformed state.

    This doesn't excuse the Silver Hand at all, by the way. If anything, it paints them in an even worse light. These people have a disease that warps not only their bodies but their minds and instead of offering treatment these guys are killing them.

    1. I agree, Brigid. I think the Circle is different due to the deal their progenitor made with the Glenmoril Witches, due to what's mentioned by Sinding (who wanted to control his transformations).

  4. In elder scrolls lore, one can contract lycanthropy through bites and the changes being willing or not seems to be based on willpower and strength of mind over the beast within, fascinating stuff.
    really cool blog btw, glad i found it