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).

PLEASE NOTE: HERE BE SPOILERS!

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

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Paarthurnax

As I pointed out in my Diplomatic Immunity post, the main quest of Skyrim does not offer a high number of moral dilemmas.  Even if I were to accept the Greybeards' theory that Alduin's attacks presage the just and inevitable end of this world in preparation for the new world to come, my role as Dovahkiin draws me just as inexorably to a confrontation with the World Eater.  Therefore, despite the high drama and plot tension extant in the main quest, there are only a handful of opportunities for true moral agency.  The quest entitled Paarthurnax presents the fourth and final scripted moral dilemma.

After discovering Sky Haven Temple, Delphine tasked me with helping her to rebuild the Blades.  I was to recruit three warriors whom I thought would be well-suited to the task of hunting dragons and, perhaps eventually, protecting a Dragonborn Emperor.  I chose three followers whom I knew from experience could handle the job: Uthgerd the Unbroken and Lydia (my housecarl at Breezehome) had demonstrated impressive skills in Heavy Armor, One- and Two-Handed Combat, Blocking, and Archery, so they were natural choices; I also selected Brelyna Maryon from the College of Winterhold, whose formidable Conjuration and Destruction talents allowed me to round out a small army of dragon hunters that could bring both melee and ranged attacks into any situation.  Having bolstered the ranks of the Blades to Delphine's satisfaction, we went out on a few successful dragon raids without incident.  I then returned to the main quest, which took me back to High Hrothgar to finally meet Paarthurnax, the leader of the Greybeards... 

[SPECIAL NOTE TO THE READER: While I have clearly indicated in the banner of this blog that spoilers abound, this particular post contains what is arguably the biggest spoiler in the game.  Of course, the game has been out for almost two years now, so anyone reading this blog is probably already aware of the plot twist, but one never knows.]

...who is a dragon!  The animosity between the Blades and the Greybeards now makes sense.  The Blades see dragons merely as a threat to be vanquished, while the Greybeards see them as powerful, near-divine beings, capable of both profound good and cataclysmic evil.

My conversation with Paarthurnax was without a doubt one of the most enlightening in the entire game.  I learned not only about the history of the Dragon War, but also about the conflict at the core of dragonkind: the will to power.  According to Paarthurnax, it is in the nature of dragons to seek power, regardless of mortal notions of morality. He explains his own centuries of peaceful meditation as a constant struggle against his deepest instincts.  For a full appreciation of Paarthurnax's story, I recommend the reader invest some time (about 20 minutes) watching the clip below from another player's YouTube video:



In my next post, I will delve more deeply into the Nietzschean/Hegelian conflict at the core of the Alduin/Dovahkiin battle, but for now, I am limiting myself to the events that occur immediately after this encounter with the "good" dragon.

Aside from teaching me how to use my Shout more effectively, Paarthurnax pointed me in the direction of the Elder Scroll that would enable me to go back in time and learn the Dragonrend Shout that defeated Alduin ages ago.  After finding the Scroll, I returned to Paarthurnax, unfurled the Scroll, saw how a trio of my ancestors banished Alduin from their era, and learned the Shout; this action broadcast my location to Alduin, who showed up to kill me before I could have a chance to defeat him.  Paarthurnax, despite his nature and his previous allegiance to Alduin, battled the World-Eater in the air while I attempted to use Dragonrend to ground him.  Although we did not kill Alduin this time, we managed to drive him into hiding.  Paarthurnax recommended that I find and interrogate one of Alduin's minions in order to learn where he fled -- no easy task.  My next move was to report to Esbern to ask for some advice.

Esbern was more than happy to offer his insights on capturing a dragon, but then he presented me with a new problem; citing his oath as a Blade, he demanded that I kill Paarthurnax, and refused to provide any more assistance to me until I did so.  Delphine seconded his ultimatum, and cut me off from the further services of the Blades.  Once again, I would have to choose sides in a conflict when I'd really rather not.

Actually, Esbern and Delphine express slightly different reasons for demanding the dragon's death.  Esbern points out that, during the first dragon crisis, Paarthurnax was one of Alduin’s lieutenants during the first dragon crisis, and was personally responsible for a whole host of atrocities against man.  The fact he eventually turned on Alduin and helped to defeat him both now and in the past is utterly irrelevant to Esbern; the old dragon must pay for his crimes.  Delphine agreed, but added that Paarthurnax’s betrayal of Alduin indicates a dangerous disloyalty which could turn against me at some point; after all, if he was willing to turn on one of his own, how much more likely that he would turn on a mortal ally?


Of the two objections, Delphine’s was the easier to counter.  By my figuring, there are only two scenarios in which her fears could come true.  Perhaps, at some point in the future, Paarthurnax’s loyalty shifts again, and he decides he was wrong to help me in the first place – or maybe he never really turned on Alduin and was just waiting for his master to return in order to draw the Dovahkiin out.  Should that happen, I am confident that I could dispatch him without too much risk.  The second and more troubling scenario is that Paarthurnax is actually looking to supplant Alduin, and is using me to do it.  What if Paarthurnax helped the original Tongues as a means of getting his superior out of the way?  When they succeeded in sending him into the future (but not destroying him), Paarthurnax decided to wait patiently for Alduin’s return, then teach the Dovahkiin how to destroy him, only to turn on the Dragonborn once Alduin was out of the way.  The problem with this second scenario is that, in order to believe that he could defeat the man who killed Alduin the World-Eater (a dragon he himself dared not attack directly), Paarthurnax would have to be both desperate and foolish, and I doubt he is either.

Esbern’s argument, on the other hand, gave me real pause.  The central question is whether Paarthurnax’s current assistance mitigates his past crimes.  In each encounter with an NPC who has done wrong, I have relied on the presence or absence of remorse as my barometer. To be more specific, I look for remorse in the form of action rather than words.  Sinding said he regretted killing the little girl, but he was unwilling to face justice, so I killed him.  Erandur rejected the Daedric Prince Vermina whom he once served, became a priest of Mara, and risked life and limb to save Dawnstar from its nightmares, so I chose to help him and refused to kill him when Vermina commanded me to do so.  Paarthurnax, as far as I can tell, is more like the latter than the former.  He betrayed Alduin at great personal risk, then devoted the rest of his long existence to helping the Nords master the Way of the Voice.  Furthermore, everyone affected by his previous actions is long dead, so there seems to be little point in retribution.  I fully appreciate the magnitude of his crimes, but to kill him at this point seems unjust. 

Another point to consider: even though they began as an elite squad of dragon-hunters, the Blades served the Emperor as a personal guard, before the Thalmor eliminated them.  I cannot help but be a little put off by the fact that they now refuse to help me unless I follow their commands.  I don’t normally pull rank, but to be fair, I am Dovahkiin.  If anything, the Blades should trust me and follow my commands, not the other way around.  One might argue that the Greybeards would have the similar reaction if I did kill Paarthurnax, but then they never swore an oath to protect me, did they?

Even taking Paarthurnax's crimes into account, I cannot bring myself to kill him.  I may come to regret this decision for a number of reasons, but I believe it would be base ingratitude to kill the dragon who risked his own life to save ours.

23 comments:

  1. but remember, as an Imperial you hunted down hundreds of nords in skyrim, and now that the civil war is over, there are barely any nords left in skyrim, and it is filled to the brim with imperials and elves, and you did that all for "The Empire". You basically destroyed nord culture.

    Now, in order to strengthen your empire, would you not kill paarthurnax and cripple the greybeards? They are of no use to the Empire. Blades however, could be used as agents to be sent to hammerfell, high rock, and morrowind in order to strengthen ties and gather intelligence.

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    1. I really have to take issue with your analysis here. As a Nord Legionnaire, I did not "hunt down" the Stormcloaks; I fought against them in a civil war that they started. Even after the Civil War, Nords still comprise the majority of the population, and Nord culture still dominates the daily life of the Province. I never suggested that I was concerned about "crippling" the Greybeards, nor do I think that killing Paarthurnax would have such an effect. Although I hadn't thought much about the role of the Greybeards in a revitalized Empire, I'd rather have a group of philosophers who can see the big picture on my side than yet another band of fighters. As for using the Blades as agents, I would have to think very seriously about trusting a group of warriors who see no problem issuing me commands.

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    2. Ah. I think I'm just a bit biased after playing a stormcloak route. If I was playing an imperial, I would be ruthless because I envision the empire as iron fisted and such.

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    3. ...That's kind of seeing the whole issue in terms of Black and White (morality), isn't it? Yeesh, the Empire isn't anywhere near being 'iron-fisted' (that DOES, however, perfectly describe the Thalmor)

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    4. imperialism is ruthlessness. The Nords of skyrim don't want the empire, but General tullius wants to force them to be part of the empire regardless. imagine if the dragonborn was an imperial (race) and he joined the imperial legion, and he killed all the stormcloaks. That is oppressive. That is basically telling the nords of skyrim that what they want doesn't matter, and that the only thing that matters is what the imperials and the altmer want. The nords would feel like the slaves of fate. Cogs in the wheel. unimportant cells making up the limb.

      That is why I believe in the stormcloaks. They will make a new, more improved empire. It needs to be renewed, because the Cyrodilic empire is trash.

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    5. ...YOu DO realize that the nords of skyrim are, basically, split down the middle in regards to the civil war, right? Some want to remain part of the empire, while others wish to separate. Or do the opinions of the ones who want to remain not COUNT?!

      General Tullius is just trying to the Empire together. Skyrim needs the empire as much as the empire needs skyrim.

      Look, I won't lie; the Empire IS trying to quell a rebellion. It happens all the time in history, fictional or not. However, calling it "Oppression" isn't wholly accurate; the Stormcloaks, however valid their issues may be, are stirring a pot that was already close to leaking (the issue of the banning of the worship of talos and the Thalmor). The empire's being forced to stop the rebellion (the empire doesn't like the ban anymore than the nords do, but there wasn't a lot they could do but swallow the bitter pill that was the white gold concordant and save up their strength for the inevitable second great war) So is the Empire oppressing the Stormcloaks? Yes, but it's a very morally grey kind of oppression; they don't WANT to kill the stormcloaks, but they feel like they don't have much of a choice. Oh, and for the record, the ban of the worship of talos, however important he is to the nords, is, literally, the only aspect of nord culture that's been banned by the empire. everything else is untouched.

      "New and Improved"? I don't think so. There's racism and stigmata against magic abound, and without the empire, skyrim's gonna be hard pressed against the elder dominion, which has both magic users AND warriors, not to mention the sheer manipulative abilities of the upper ranks of the Thalmor. Not to mention how hard it'll be to support itself for the inevitable second great war. And before you bring it up, yes, the Empire's become somewhat corrupt since the days of Uriel Septim (the fact that MAVEN BLACK-BRIAR gets named Jarl of Riften if the empire takes over is proof enough of that), but the Stormcloaks are HARDLY one's to talk (the Silver-Blood family in Markarth, that is all)

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    6. "My head says Empire, but my heart says stormcloaks"
      -Skyrim Confessions

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    7. Sorry, but what are you referring to? I can't think of a text in the game that says that.

      Like I said, though, the nords who side with the empire certainly don't like it (the heart, I suppose), but that doesn't mean they don't see the necessity of it. Heck, Hadvar (and his uncle) makes a good argument about it.

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  2. I'm glad you covered the Paarthurnax thing. I'd like to point out that, as you wrote in the entry, that Paarthurnax has been fighting his own nature for thousands of years-not to mention that he had to restrict himself to one, very isolated location at the top of a mountain, in wait for the return of Alduin, so that he might try and stop him. Thousands of year without being able to go out and see the world. It kind of reminds me of solitary confinement, only self-imposed.

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    1. the only thing that might cause me to kill Paarthurnax is the usefulness of the blades if they were to ressurect and recruit. Imagine having an army of elite agents and spies at your disposal. Ofcourse, a morally good character would have need to pause and reflect on it before killing paarthurnax, because paarthurnax has his uses too.

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    2. Oh, and he wasn't meditating for centuries-it was for at least 6 MILLENNIA.

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    3. One paradox is that he didn't fight his own nature but rather redirected his own domination to oneself or worse yet, against the nature of the dragons. He is dominating Dragonkind.

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    4. I noticed this just recently myself on a second playthrough. There is definitely something arch about Paarthurnax's post-Dragonslayer dialogue, but I don't see his potential domination of other dragons as a problem for the men and mer of Tamriel. Unintended consequences aside, this seems like an entirely internal matter for the dragons.

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  3. Fun fact! Apparently, Tiber Septim himself ordered the Blades to not lay a finger on Paarthurnax. And, at least outwardly, they obeyed-however, they always kept it in their minds that Paarthurnax would face justice (and they ignored any reasons that Septim might have given in Paarthurnax's defense). So, in effect, they ignored the order of a man who not only became the empire of the entirety of Tamriel, but became a freakin' GOD!

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    1. like I said, the military strength of the blades might end up being more powerful than paarthurnax alone, HOWEVER I personally would not kill him.

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  4. I never hesitated for a moment about this decision. To me it was so obvious, I really couldn't imagine making the alternative call.

    The Blades, as you say, are supposed to be sworn to my service - but I've seen precious little sign of that. They've demanded things of me, and I've helped them, but in return I've never had so much as a free bed from them. (OK, to be fair - I did take a Blades sword from Delphine's secret hideout, and it's an outstanding weapon - I'm still using it at level 40-something, because it's lighter than glass or ebony. But they didn't exactly "give" it to me, they just let me take it, on the basis I suppose that I was "one of them" at that point.) Take orders from them? I don't think so. At this point I would scarcely have a qualm about killing both of them, if they tried to get in my way.

    Paarthunax, on the other hand, has taught me a Shout (or several, if you include the ones I've learned from the Greybeards, whose sponsor he is), he's told me about the Dragon War, he's told me what I need to do to defeat Alduin, and he's actually helped me fight him once. I owe him.

    As for his "past crimes" - he's spent *millennia* perched on some freezing mountain, doing nothing but teach students who are mild-mannered to the point of pacifism. If he'd varied his teaching just a little, he could have been ruling Skyrim - through the Greybeards - all this time. He's more than paid for whatever crimes he committed in his youth.

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  5. I agree with the previous commenteres. When I was first asked to slay Paarthunax, I refused to continue playing until I had found a mod that allowed me to pull rank on Delphine (the Blades are sworn to the Dragonborn's service, after all). Luckily, I'm on PC.

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    1. I'm glad you found a solution! I have made peace with my status as a filthy console peasant by reminding myself that one of the essential qualities of a Kohlbergian dilemma is its inescapability. In the real world, Heinz could possibly engage a "mod" by persuading the druggist to sell him the medicine at a discounted price or perhaps offer a payment plan, thereby avoiding the moral quandary entirely. While that's often how the world works (thankfully), the fun for me as a player starts when I can't have my third way. Much like Lincoln-Douglas debate, the examination of moral agency in a game can really only take off when values are in conflict and a choice must be made.

      In short, as much as I might enjoy telling Delphine to remember her place, I'm glad that the vanilla game forces me to choose between Paarthurnax and the Blades.

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  6. Wow... Paarthunax taught me a Shout and gave me a history lesson... I'm so moved by him... but just because he sits atop a mountain for awhile, he's off the hook for all the genocide he did... murders will do favors for people on there side, but for others... there shit out of luck. This is almost like the Statutes of Limitation on crime. Then again, people have been making excuse for psychopaths and even war criminals for a long time, so it's not surprising that people do the same thing with a video game character... I guess that makes it easier for you people...

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    1. Seriously? He's been sitting on a mountain for *thousands of years!* He hasn't seen another of his own kind in almost as long. He's in self-imposed solitary confinement in one of the most inhospitable parts of the continent going out of his way to make reparations for his past offenses. That's got to count for something.

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  7. I think you dismiss the argument that Paarthunax is using you and the ancient tongues too easily. He doesn't have to believe he can kill you. He knows you, unlike Alduin, will die of old age eventually (unless you become a vampire, I guess) and simply has to play nice while you are alive (which is a very trivial amount of time for a dragon who waited so patiently for Alduin's return) After you are dead, assuming you really are the last dragonborn, Paarthunax has no obstacles at all to taking Alduin's place and cannot be permanently killed by any means.

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    1. Before you read the rest of my comment, understand that this is not particularly a rebuttal; I simply wish to address the idea of the Dragonborn dying of old age.

      I don't know if you've played the dlcs, but think of Miraak, the person who mounted a separate, simultaneous rebellion against the dragons, having refused to cooperate with the Tongues. There's no explanation offered for his being a living, non-vampiric human being after all that time, and there are fan theories involving Dragonborns simply not dying of age at all, either because they're directly conferred such a blessing as part of it or because of the absorption of dragons' souls. My understanding of Bethesda's attitude towards fanon is that it's a-okay, incidentally. Even so, a Dragonborn who was (as many players commenting here seem to be, and as I am) admiring of Paarthurnax might turn a blind eye to many things, even if he/she normally attempted to adhere to certain principles.

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  8. I'm glad I found this blog (Skyrim was the game where I took morality seriously) and I hope you don't mind me commenting after all this time.

    Some background information: I play a miner-turned-thief name Aure Lawless, who fled to Skyrim after too many run ins with the law in High Rock to begin a new life. Because of her Dragon soul, she starts off as something of a barbarian and has some of that species less charming traits (the desire to attain wealth and power, the hair trigger temper and her tendencies to kill everyone when set off)

    Now, normally giving an open moral sandbox in a game is like handing me a free license to slaughter anyone he has the misfortune of crossing my path. This time, however, I chose a story/morality experiment of my own: Could I, to my own satisfaction, believably turn this barbarian thief into Skyrim's defender?

    I decided Aure was torn between three wants/inclinations:

    *Dragon: She wants to dominate because of her nature. She wants to rule, she wants people to cower before her strength and serve her, and she wants to punish those who challenge and defy her. For example, she kills Arvel in Bleak Falls Barrow because she *suspects* he'll betray her and she never accepts surrender from anyone.
    *Pragmatic: She's a stranger in war-torn country whose citizens have no real reason to be kind to her. So she seeks to protect herself by surrounding herself with allies. She's eager to help any Jarl who asks her a favor, so she can get them to protect her if her past ever catches up with her. She also avoids taking sides in major conflicts unless forced to. She puts off meeting with the Greybeards for nearly a year in-game, preferring her own agenda, and she never takes part in the civil war.
    *Idyllic: I think there' a part of everyone who wants to be the hero. Aure will often take on missions that gain her nothing in particular. She goes to bring back Noster's helmet, she gets Braith to stop bullying Lars and adopts as many orphans as she can.

    The end result is a fairly thoughtful, Chaotic Neutral character whose actions at any given moment are guide by whatever want is stronger, but never strays to far from the center.

    I wrote that novel there, because I think the problem of Paarthurnax is a (if not the) defining moment in Aure's development and the one the broke the three way stalemate in Idyllic's favor. It was the first time she made a decision for *purely* moral reasons.

    She chose not to kill Paarthurnax for the following reasons:

    *He had been nothing but a friend to mortals for the greater part of his life.
    *He had spent the greater part of his life atoning for his crimes and preparing mortals to fight Alduin.
    *He had served his time in his self-imposed prison.
    *She is Skyrim's defender, not her judge, jury and executioner. She's an outsider with no authority to mete out punishment in cold blood.
    *The Blades are outside faction with no authority over Skyrim or her.

    It was a surprisingly Lawful Good moment for my Chaotic Neutral heroine, and the real start of her path to the Good side of the spectrum.

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