Race and Religion in Skyrim is a Gray Area. Choose Wisely.

One of the main storylines that goes on in Skyrim is a big civil war. On one side, you have the Imperials, the main army of Tamriel trying to restore order to the nation that has stepped out of line with the emperor’s decree. On the other side, you have the Nord rebels, the Stormcloaks, who are against Imperial control. However, which side to join is not the easiest choice, and without a second full playthrough, you will never get to see both sides. So, I decided to make a list of qualities of both sides to see which one is better to join.

The Stormcloaks are the uprising rebels. At the beginning of the game, you find yourself face to face with the executioner’s axe. Why? Doesn’t matter. Every Elder Scrolls game starts this way. You’re imprisoned or finished your sentence or something. Just a good literary point to have a “new beginning on life”. Alongside of you to be executed is the head of the Stormcloak rebellion, Ulfric, who is proud of his Nord heritage. Before the execution can take place, a dragon attacks and you and Ulfric escape. So, automatically you’re thinking of joining the Stormcloaks as there is already a bond there. So, I visited the Stormcloak’s main city of Windhelm to join up with them… and found the city in trouble. With Ulfric in charge, the other races in the town who weren’t Nord were segregated. If you weren’t Nord, you were nothing. Argonians only live outside the city and are used for slave-like labor on the docks. Dark Elves are relegated to a single area of the city. Racism runs rampant under the Stormcloak rule. So, these people who fight for their freedom from the Empire are also taking away the rights of others. It also doesn’t help that when you first meet Ulfric, he’s kinda a jerk.

This didn’t sit well with me, so I visited the Imperial capital of Solitude. Their side of the story isn’t so clean either. From their side, they are trying to end the rebellion to restore order to Skyrim. However, it also comes at the cost of taking away the right of free religion. During the big war that happened before Skyrim’s beginning, the elves dictated that one of the game’s deities, Talos, a mortal whose accomplishments made him a god in the eyes of the people, was blasphemous to the worship of other gods and his worship was to be abolished. The elves are essentially the main power in Tamriel as they forced the signing of a treaty to end the war. The banning of worship of Talos was part of the treaty. So, the Imperials are also fighting to stop the practice of the Nord people’s primary religious figure.

So, the choice is definitely not one that is supposed to be easy. Side with the racist rebels trying to protect their religious freedom and create a free Skyrim? Or with the race accepting, but anti-religious Imperials who are just looking to establish order? Either way, the choice feel dirty.  Establish freedom at the cost of racism, or create order at the cost of religious tolerance? Personally, I don’t consider myself racist. I think I’m a very accepting individual, accepting others of races and religions not my own. However, freedom is a very important human right. Everyone, doesn’t matter their race or orientation, deserves the same basic rights.

In the end, I see the abolishment of en entire religion to be the bigger offender. Racism will always exist at some level, and though it is terrible, racial tolerance will eventually prevail in the long run. Religious freedom, especially one that doesn’t harm anyone else, might not survive the war if the Imperials win. So, in this case, fighting the war for religious freedom seems more justified. Despite Ulfric being a prick, his fight seems right. Most important, you don’t have to like the leader to agree with their cause.

Aside from the philosophical discussion, I have a gaming goal. Essentially I want to get as far as I can in Skyrim before Guild Wars 2 launches. I’m afraid I simply won’t be able to make this goal as Skyrim is… well… Skyrim. I’ve hit level 42, so not too much can stand in my way at this point… but I STILL haven’t even really touched the main storyline. There’s just so much to do!! I haven’t even visited every major city yet! So, my gaming plan may be to even give the Guild Wars 2 launch a little bit of a pass until I complete Skyrim. I know that by the time I’m completely done with Skyrim, I’ll be so tired of the game that I won’t want to touch another Elder Scrolls game until they release the next one (Hopefully… I know there is an Elder Scrolls MMO on the horizon, but I’m really hoping they don’t stop making the single player titles because of it).

So, anyway, thank you for reading and here are a few more screenshots for your enjoyment.

Game well, my friends.

\\ Ocho

P.S. – I added a few more mods to the game, including ENB Cinematic Lighting, which completely overhauls the lighting in the game. Hence why all the screenshots above look a little more shadowed, bright, and colorful. Without it… the game just looks muted and dull. Plus, light spells, torches, and lanterns are useful again.

11 thoughts on “Race and Religion in Skyrim is a Gray Area. Choose Wisely.

  1. Oops, I had to skip some stuff there because it was sort of spoiling part of the story (I haven’t been much further than Whiterun, really). I haven’t chosen which side to join – I’m not even sure if I will pick one altogether. So far, I haven’t gotten enough information to make that choice. I don’t feel much attracted to the Imperials, since they apparently behead people even if they don’t know what their crime is. The Stormcloaks as underdogs sound more sympathetic, but when I once ran into some in a camp, they went on telling me how much they hated elves (even though I was an elf myself)! I think there isn’t a clear ‘good’ and ‘evil’, just like there is in real politics, which makes the situation more realistic and interesting.

    And ENB Cinematic Lighting ftw! 😉


    • I thought I was pretty good about not posting anything that was a spoiler. Afterall, I haven’t even started the civil war quest line, so I can’t really spoil anything, and the rest was garnered from the introduction, books, or observation. I actually have no idea how the civil war story will progress. 😛


      • Heh, don’t worry, I didn’t mean to criticize you! I just haven’t been further than Whiterun, so had no idea about people getting discriminated in that town you speak of. I really like your article, great topic (and that inspired from a game)! 😀


  2. Religious practices can be oppressed, but faith can not. Taking away someone’s freedom to practice their religion can only go so far as to stop them from taking action or speaking about it in public. While not ideal, it’s at least something you can circumnavigate by keeping faith alive internally. Race, on the other hand, is not something you can internalize. You either are or aren’t a specific race, and if your rights are governed by which race you were born into, there’s no way for you to overcome that. If I had to tolerate the oppression of one or the other, I would have a much easier time overlooking the stifling of religious expression than I would the denial of equal rights on the basis of race.

    I’ve never played Skyrim, but it sounds to me like your response is a cop out. You can’t say that “racial tolerance will eventually prevail” within this context. Or, at least, you have no more a basis for that statement than you do for a parallel statement regarding religious freedom. If there is a rightful assumption to be made that one of these forms of oppression will eventually die out, then there’s no interesting choice. There’s no moral dilemma – you have to go with the temporary oppression. But [as far as I understand it] that’s not what is going on here. The choice you must make is between one form of tyranny or the other. Personally, I’d like to see you grow a set and make a real choice.


    • I see where you’re coming from. From the game’s perspective, the racism is not dealt with directly (at least as far as I’ve made it in the game, anyway). It’s fully implied. You visit the city, and see the effect the leadership has had on the city. However, the fight against the people’s religion is very specifically stated: Worship is illegal and outlawed. It’s never stated that if the rebels win out that suddenly anyone of another race is to be condemned, and in fact the whole area’s lore, though race-based, is still very culturally diverse, which is why it appears that the racism is only temporary or only held in that area. Thus, it is easy to side with the less “permanent” choice. And you’re right… siding realistically with one or the other is a lot more difficult.

      However, this comes to a very art-imitating-life type scenario. In the world today we see examples of both events around us. Every time I see statements like “The 10 commandments should be on the walls of schools and courthouses” or any politician talking about how they’ll “bring back Christian ethics” to society, I’m Christian, but I can’t help but think of how this differs drastically from the foundations this country was built. The practice of religion was one of our founding country’s freedoms, and is a lot like one’s right of free speech. If you denounce others their right to practice peacefully whatever religion they want, you are not just taking away their personal freedom, you’re taking away everyone’s freedoms.

      Now, as I said, I don’t consider myself racist. Personally, it doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s your actions that show your character. But even our society has shown that even though racism is alive and well, that humanity still wins out. Laws have been made and established that prevent racism on the governmental level. It will never be stamped out, but practicing it can, and is, illegal. At least in this country, anyway. This is why I assume that racism is “not permanent”.

      It could just be rose colored glasses, but I think that society has made huge progress against racism. Combating the oppression of religion, though, is something I think we are a LONG way away from.


  3. its really not an easy choice to make – both sides are brutal and flawed. I started to side with the imperials, as I guess initially I saw more danger in the ‘Skyrim for the Nords’ attitude (which was made worse by treating other races as second class citizens) – it just rang rather large and familiar alarm bells for me… Having now sunk more hours into the game, I realise that I don’t really care who wins – I play a wood elf so I think I’ll just do the dragonborn questline, ignore their squabbling and let them sort it out theirselves and then once I’ve done exploring, move on (well stop playing ;))


    • I’ve actually now completely changed my mind. 😛 It’s true, though, it’s a freaking side-quest! Good on them for putting such a gray and morally difficult choice in a fantasy role playing game.


      • ah yes just read your latest post 🙂 I have to say that when I drew the attitudes of each side out to the real world, the Imperials had a strong resonance with the Roman Empire and the Stormcloaks with hmm the far right ~ dark elves living in ghettos is quite alarming. Still there by their choice but I did think that perhaps it wouldn’t be long until they were forced there… I had initially wanted to side with the Stormcloaks seeing as the imperials were going to cut my head off but once I got to know them, I don’t even like visiting their city…

        I do like these ethically challenging questlines, the Dragon Age series also had some hard choices and I really enjoyed those games too 🙂


  4. Firstly, some of your details are wrong. Talos isn’t merely SEEN as a god by his people because of his accomplishments. He actually BECAME a god, ascending to the ranks of the Nine through apotheosis after the end of his mortal life.

    Secondly, you’ve really oversimplified the position of the Empire in banning the worship of Talos. They were forced to do it as a condition of the White-Gold Concordat, but it’s important to note that the Empire itself is NOT “fighting to stop the practice of the Nord people’s primary religious figure.” Rather, it’s been forced into a position of allowing the Thalmor to persecute worshippers of Talos. It’s a questionable distinction, I’ll admit, because the end result is the same, but you make it sound as though the Empire itself is eagerly trying to stamp out Talos worship, and that’s not at all the objective of the Empire. The Empire is attempting to survive, period. Had they not made these concessions, unpopular as they are, they faced complete annihilation under the Dominion. The working idea is to make concessions now, while their weakened state leaves no choice if survival is the goal, so that it (the Empire) is alive to take a stronger stance against the Dominion later. In order to be around LATER, sacrifices have to be made NOW. A temporary ban on Talos was certainly preferable to facing total destruction, I’d think. It’s a question of survival…and that includes Skyrim as well as the rest of the Imperial provinces.

    I find it odd that anyone would think that because racism will always exist in some form, it’s the lesser evil to choose to live with. It’s also a logical fallacy to assume that racial tolerance will somehow magically prevail…why? Because it always does? Not true…history shows that racial tolerance increases with legal enforcement, not just because of some innate natural law…i.e. cultural and social tolerance follows only when legal equality is enforced. You don’t see widespread growth of tolerance in societies where racism is legally empowered, as it would be under Stormcloaks. But more to the point, when someone discusses the two issues of whether racism should be fought against, or religious freedom should be fought for, depending on which issue a given person champions under the directives you’ve listed, I rather think it says more about that individual’s moral outlook than anything else. You clearly think that standing up for religious freedom is more important than taking a stand against racism, and that’s your subjective preference coming to play, rather than either of those issues being objectively more superior to the other.


    • It has been a while since I posted this, but overall, I completely agree with you. It is true I oversimplified (really, I didn’t want the post to be ridiculously long), but I knew about the lore of Talos and of the Empire’s position.

      “You clearly think that standing up for religious freedom is more important than taking a stand against racism” – In the end, I decided to finally side with the Empire. Although the Stormcloaks are trying to keep their way of life and their heritage intact, the racism ended up really bothering me. Personally, it bothered me a lot more than the ending of their religious worship. That, and the weakened Empire would only strengthen the Thalmor position, and in the entire war, the Empire is the true underdog.

      “I rather think it says more about that individual’s moral outlook than anything else” – Thus is the genius behind it. I really have to hand it to Bethesda. Most games will just say “here’s your choice… good or evil”, so I never expected them to make the choice quite difficult and such a moral dilemma.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!


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