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A note: For the sake of simplicity, I am outlining now the meaning of several terms that will be used throughout this essay; the game that feature the Dragonborn as its main character, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, will be referred to as 'TESV' whilst Skyrim, the location it is set in, will be referred to simply as 'Skyrim'. The term 'Norse' will be used to refer to the peoples of medieval Scandinavia and Iceland, while the terms 'Nord' and 'Nordic' will refer to the inhabitants of the fictional nation of Skyrim, the Nords.
This essay will mainly focus on the events of the primary quest and storyline of TESV, that of defeating the dragon-god Alduin. These arguments cannot necessarily be applied to characters who do not follow this main quest, though one can argue in turn that these characters cannot accurately be called Dragonborn.
The essay also contains significant spoilers for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
The Links between the Dragonborn and Odin-An Essay by Colonel Mustard
From first impressions, the two characters Odin and the Dragonborn appear to be very different in their nature. In Norse mythology, Odin serves as the king of the gods, the Aesir, as well as a god who grants victory in battle and serves as the ruler of the dead in the hall of Valhalla. On the other hand, the Dragonborn, the main playable protagonist of the fantasy role playing game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (TESV) is a mere mortal born with the unique power to permanently kill dragons and to quickly learn their runic language of Thu'um. The Dragonborn is fated with the ultimate destiny of defeating the dragon Alduin, the main antagonist of the game who acts as the God of Destruction in the Nordic pantheon. Indeed, the malleable nature of the Dragonborn, dictated by the choice of each player of TESV makes it seem as if the two could not be any different; while Odin has a distinct personality and nature, as dictated by the sagas and Eddas, the Dragonborn can be of either gender, multiple different races and be played as a mighty warrior, a powerful magician, a stealthy and cunning thief or a remorseless assassin, all depending on how a player chooses to go through the game. However, upon close examination of the role the Dragonborn plays within the main questline of TESV and the actions that he/she takes, it becomes apparent that the Dragonborn holds a far greater similarity to Odin that one might initially suspect.
Custodians of the Dead
One of the most enduring images of Odin in modern popular culture is one of a benevolent, wise warrior-king holding court over the dead in his mead hall of Valhalla. This image is by no means an inaccurate one, but it does not provide the full picture of Odin. As well as being the ruler of Asgard and the father of the gods, Odin is also depicted in the sagas and Eddas as a powerful sage and mystic, and most relevantly to this part of the essay, a keeper and custodian of the dead.
The initial part of this argument is an obvious one; it is common knowledge that the Norse believed that warriors of noble birth and esteem would go to Valhalla after their death in battle or sacrifice for an afterlife of feasting and fighting; at the time of Ragnarok, they would form Odin's host and ride out with the Aesir for the final battle against the giants and the monsters of the world. Odin's servants, the Valkyries, are well known for taking the souls of these dead warriors from the battlefield and carrying them to Valhalla, but it should be noted in some sagas that Odin himself fulfils this role; in Völsunga Saga, it is written; "Sigmund carried Sinfjotli's body into the wood. Sigmund met a ferryman at the fjord. The ferryman offered to help him cross, but the boat was only large enough to take one passenger. So Sigmund allowed the ferryman to take his son's body to otherside of the fjord first. As the boat reached the middle of the fjord, the boat along with Sinfjotli's body disappeared. Apparently the ferryman was none other than Odin. It seemed that Odin was personally taking Sinfjotli to Valhalla." In this scene, Odin himself acts like the ferryman Charon of Greek mythology, personally taking the dead from this life to the next. The Norse, not unreasonably, viewed battle and death as two things that were inextricably linked, and thus Odin, the patron of battles, also served as a keeper of the dead.
The Dragonborn of TESV also serves in this same role, though it is one that is oft-overlooked. While their primary goal is the defeat of Alduin, it should be noted that at several points in the main quest of the game the Dragonborn also helps to grant peace to the restless dead. During TESV there are many occasions where the Dragonborn encounters beings known as draugr, walking corpses who guard and inhabit ancient barrows across Skyrim. These creatures are lifted from Scandinavian folklore, which has legends depicting draugr as vampire-like beings who emerge from barrows to slay livestock and wreak havoc. The idea of tombs, caves and dungeons being inhabited by ravenous undead and vengeful ghosts is nothing new to fantasy role playing games, but instead of simply being enemies to fight in order to gain experience points and earn treasure, the draugr form an integral part of the Elder Scrolls Series' lore concerning the dragons; as explained in the in-game book Amongst the Draugr, the draugr themselves once worshipped dragons as gods, and in death spend an eternity in servitude to the Dragon Priests, powerful magicians and the leaders of the dragon cults. In the book, the author explains the nature of their servitude; "Every day, a different set of draugr would awaken, shamble their way to the sarcophagus of their priest, and prostrate themselves before it…when the next group of draugr came to pay homage to the priest, I noted a sort of transferral happening. A distinct flow of life force between the adherents and the master. It was here that I finally understood the dragon cult's notion of resurrection. The second eternal life was only promised to those who ascended to the priesthood, but the lesser functionaries contributed their life force to sustaining them for eternity. I don't know what sort of eternal wellspring they draw from, but it's clear that each draugr carries only the barest whisper of life in it, and rekindles it nightly while resting in its niche." During the course of TESV the Dragonborn comes into conflict with draugr several times, having to obtain various items from the tombs they inhabit. It is here that the role of a custodian of the dead comes in; the Dragonborn ends the mindless servitude of the Draugr, granting them peace and freedom, and is even able to confront and permanently kill the Dragon Priests that command them. Just as Odin or his servants convey the dead from this life to the next, so too does the Dragonborn, and by doing so through combat, the Dragonborn fulfils Odin's dual roles as a god of death and as a god of warfare.
The task of granting the restless dead a final peace becomes apparent during other parts of the storyline. There are several optional missions within TESV that involve helping lost souls move on to the next life, as Odin does in mythology; the Dragonborn must find the weapon of a general's spirit and return it to him in The Ghost of Old Hroldan and in The Staff of Magnus the Dragonborn relieves the vigil of two ghostly mages who are working to keep a Dragon Priest trapped in its tomb. In the Glory of the Dead he/she helps the leader of the mercenary group the Companions, Kodlak Whitemane, find a way to spend his afterlife in the realm of Sovngarde, a place not dissimilar to Valhalla where Nords believe they go when they die. It is clear through the course of the game that, as well as being destined to defeat Alduin, the Dragonborn serves as a shepherd for the dead, and is instrumental in granting them passage between Nirn, the world that The Elder Scrolls games are set in, and Aetherius, the afterlife of that world.
It is in the climax of TESV's main quest that the Dragonborn truly steps into the mantle held by Odin, one of a god of both battle and of the dead. The scene is the second of two confrontations with Alduin, the first taking place on top of the mountain known as the Throat of the World. The Dragonborn wounds Alduin, who flees from the battle to heal his wounds in Sovngarde by eating the souls of the dead. Aided by the dragon Odhaviing, the Dragonborn pursues to finish him. The sequence where the Dragonborn must fight his way through the undead and dragons that Alduin sets to guard the entrance of Sovngarde are strongly reminiscent of the scene in the Saga of Beowulf, where the hero of the poem goes to battle Grendel's mother and avenge his slain comrades; both battle their way through monsters trying to stop them, and as Beowulf braves the whirlpool that conceals the lair of Grendel's mother, the Dragonborn must leap into a magical vortex that will carry him/her to Sovngarde, both of them going there for a final confrontation with the monster within. Once within Sovngarde, the similarity to Odin's role of god of both war and the dead become all the stronger; when trying to reach the Hall of Valour in order to seek the aid of a band of dead warriors who defeated Alduin once before, the Dragonborn can choose to lead the souls of the dead that he/she meets in Sovngarde to the Hall, fulfilling the same role of Odin and the Valkyries as a guide for the dead. It is even possible to meet the souls of characters who have died in the course of the game.
The allusions to Norse mythology within TESV are at their most obvious within this sequence; the Hall of Valour is a place where Nords go when they die in battle, and in order to reach it, one must cross a bridge formed from a whale's skeleton, like the Bifrost rainbow bridge used to reach Valhalla. Before it can be crossed the Dragonborn must duel Tsun, the Nord God of Trials and Adversity, who stands guard on the bridge in a similar manner to Heimdall, the gatekeeper of Asgard. Within the Halls of Valour, the Dragonborn gathers a small troop of heroes, Gormlaith Golden-Hilt, Hakon One-Eye and Felldir the Old, and they sally forth to meet Alduin in the mists of Sovngarde, the Dragonborn at their head; such a thing is a direct parallel to the Norse legends of Ragnarok, the final apocalyptic battle where Odin gathers together a company of dead heroes and rides out to face the giants. Considering that Alduin is an apocalyptic being prophesied to eat the world, it seems clear that the Dragonborn here is working as a parable figure for Odin, and in Alduin's death and defeat in a final battle, it is clear that the Dragonborn not only saves the world of the living, but also protects the spirits of the dead, fulfilling Odin's twin role as a god of war and of the dead.
The Thu'um and Knowledge of Secret Runes
Odin's roles within Norse mythology are not merely limited to ruling Asgard or serving as a god of death and battle. He is often depicted in the sagas as a sage and mystic, and is also invoked as a source of inspiration, a bringer of poetry and knowledge and one who has learned the power of mystic runes. It is these runes, and the nature of them, that links the characters of Odin and the Dragonborn together.
Within Norse mythology the character of Odin is one that is strongly tied in with the gaining of hidden knowledge and inspiration; in Norse times, Odin was worshipped as a god of inspiration and invoked by poets as a muse, and in the Skáldskaparmál story from the Prose Edda, he is credited with taking poetry for men and the Aesir by stealing the Mead of Poetry, Skáldskapar, from the giant Suttung. It is in the Hávamál poem that Odin gains the knowledge of secret runes, hanging from the World Tree of Yggdrasill. The poem writes;
"I peered downwards,
I took up the runes,
screaming, I took them –
then I fell back."
With the knowledge gained from these runes, Odin is able to use a variety of skills, such as when it says in the Ynglinga Saga: "Odin could change himself…he became a bird or a wild beast, a fish or a dragon, and journeyed in the twinkling of an eye to far-off lands", and in Hávamál claims that he knows spells that can heal the sick, calm a storm, break any bond or stop an arrow with a look.
In a similar manner to Odin, an integral part of TESV's storyline involves the Dragonborn mastering the Thu'um, the language of the dragons. With Thu'um, the Dragonborn is able to perform feats that would otherwise be impossible, able to become intangible, alter the weather or even slow the progress of time. In order to learn various powers of the Thu'um, the Dragonborn must first find Word Walls, ancient structures with the runic language of the dragons carved on them; only by finding these, and reading the magical runes, can he/she learn their power. While one can argue that a hero obtaining secret knowledge is hardly something unique to Norse mythology and that it is an example of a typical mythic archetype, the fact that this magical power knowledge is found in runic form bears noting for its similarities with the events within the Hámavál.
The way in which the power of these runic powers are utilised are also very similar to one another; in TESV the Thu'um is used by performing what are known as Dragon Shouts, where they use their voice to channel the power in the dragon language into a bellow. We know that this is the only way in which Thu'um can be used; when dragons use it in the game to breath fire, the burst of flame is always accompanied by the words "Yol Toor Shul" (which translates as "Fire, inferno, sun"). As well as this, Ulfric Stormcloak, one of the small minority of other characters that can use dragon shouts, is gagged at one point in order to prevent him from utilising it, implying that it cannot be used in any other way. In Hávamál, it says that the spells learned from the runes of the world tree are used as songs. Odin boasts;
"If foes should bind me fast
With strong chains, a chant that makes Fetters spring from the feet,
Bonds burst from the hands…
If I see the hall
Ablaze around my bench mates,
Though hot the flames, they shall feel nothing,
If I choose to chant the spell."
The links between the two characters become clear; in order to use the power of the runes seen from Yggdrasill, Odin must sing or chant (this varies from one translation of Havámal to another), and in order to use the power of the runes learned from the Word Walls, the Dragonborn must shout.
It must also be noted that this runic knowledge for both characters is obtained through a sacrifice devoted to themselves. In Hávamál, it is written that Odin gained the knowledge of the runes by stabbing himself in the side with a spear and spending nine days hanging from the World tree, the god relating;
"I know I hung
on the windswept Tree,
through nine days and nights.
I was stuck with a spear
and given to Odin,
myself given to myself."
This sacrifice is rather similar to that of the Crucifixion in Christian texts, but this is no plagiarism, unconscious or not, from Christian canon; accounts of Germanic peoples sacrificing men to their god Wotan (a precursor deity of Odin) through hanging and/or stabbing were recorded by Roman historians such Orosius and Tacitus.
What is notable about this sacrifice, however, is Odin's offering for the runes is one of his own life, dedicated to himself, and the offering of the self to the self in order to gain runic power is an act mirrored by the Dragonborn. Within TESV, what gives the Dragonborn the unique ability to quickly learn the language of Thu'um and use Dragon Shouts is the fact that they are a mortal born with the soul of a dragon. However, while they can learn the words of Thu'um, in order to utilise their inherent power the Dragonborn must first kill a dragon and absorb its soul. As the Dragonborn gains his/her unique powers by being born as a mortal with the soul of a dragon, the absorbing of dragon souls becomes an offering of one dragon soul to another, the self offered to the self; the Thu'um's power of obtained only through sacrifice and offering, just as Odin's magic is won.
Ancestors and Descendants of Kings
The Dragonborn also bears a notable similarity to Odin when it comes to the idea of them being born with royal and divine blood. In Norse pagan practices, it was widely believed that royalty could trace their ancestry back to Odin himself, a practice mirrored by the Saxons, who claimed descent from their god Wodan before their conversion to Christianity. As the king of the gods and the creator of men, it would have made sense for the monarchs of the Aesir-worshipping nations to claim descent from their gods in order to cement their rule and validate their authority, in the same way Christian kings and queens claimed and still do claim a divinely given right to rule from god.
The idea of a divine ancestor is one that is also used by the Dragonborn, albeit in slightly different manner. In the Elder Scrolls lore, the pantheon of gods worshipped by a majority of its peoples are a group of spiritual beings known as the Aedra, also called the Nine Divines. While all but one of them are spirits, the ninth divine, a god named Talos, was once a mortal by the name of Tiber Septim, who founded the third empire that rules the game's fictional continent of Tamriel. Talos himself was the second of the three Dragonborn that have appear in the history of the series' fictional world of Nirn, and after uniting his emperor ascended to become Talos, the youngest of the Nine Divines and the god of just rulership, civil society and war, and all of the Emperors that followed him, from Pelagius the Mad to the last emperor, Martin Septim, had him as a direct ancestor, in the same manner as the monarchs of the pagan Norse. Tiber Septim himself was Dragonborn due to his blessing from the god Akatosh, the eldest of the Nine Divines and the God of Time, who himself appears as a dragon or as a human with the head of both a man and a dragon; the Dragonborn of TESV has this same blessing, and as the next 'true' Dragonborn with pure dragon blood, serves as a pseudo-descendant of Talos himself. It should be noted as well that some great Norse kings were treated in the same manner as gods; an early king in Norway named Olaf Geirstađaálfr ('elf of Geirstad') had offerings and sacrifices made at his burial mound, in a similar manner to the way that Tiber Septim gained a religious following as Talos after his death.
This idea becomes even more significant when one examines the Norse beliefs concerning the reincarnation of great warriors and kings; it was thought that some monarchs were their ancestors reborn and come to earth from Valhalla once more, and it was not uncommon for them to be addressed by the name of this ancestor. In the Flateyjarbók text for example, it writes; "Olaf rode with his bodyguard pas the howe [burial place] of Olaf, Elf of Geirstad…'Tell me, lord…were you buried here?' The king replied: 'My soul has never had two bodies, it cannot have them, either rnow or on the Resurection Day. If I spoke otherwise, there would be no common truth or honesty in men.'" While the Olaf mentioned in this text was King Olaf the Holy, one of the first Christian kings from Scandinavia, and thus obliged to refute the claim that he was his ancestor reborn, it should be noted that earlier in Flateyjarbók it gives an account of how he was named after his ancestor Olaf Geirstađaálfr and at Olaf the Holy's he was presented with the dead king's sword and ring; as a result, this lead to men believing that Olaf the Holy was the dead king reborn.
This idea of being a dead king reborn is one that is significant to the character of TESV's Dragonborn; as the third of the Elder Scrolls series' Dragonborn characters, and as one referred to in the Prophecy of the Dragonborn as 'the last Dragonborn' there is a strong implication running throughout the game that the Dragonborn themselves are actually Talos reborn, and that Tiber Septim may have been the reborn version of the two Dragonborn before him, these being Reman Cyrodiil and his descendants and the Empress Alessia. For a start, this idea of spiritual descent instead of genetic descent is talked of in the in-game book, The Book of the Dragonborn, where it writes; "The line of Septims have all been Dragonborn, of course, which is one reason the simplistic notion of it being hereditary has become so commonplace. But we know for certain that the early Cyrodilic rulers were not all related. There is also no evidence that Reman Cyrodiil was descended from Alessia, although there are many legends that would make it so… And of course there is no known hereditary connection between Tiber Septim and any of the previous Dragonborn rulers of Tamriel." It should be also be noted that, in a similar manner to Olaf the Holy, the Dragonborn is addressed by the monks known as the Greybeards as Ysmir, a title once given to Talos. The Greybeards themselves serve as the keepers of the magic of the Thu'um, and their order was the one that gave Tiber Septim the title of Dragonborn and prophesied that he would become emperor; their addressing of TESV's Dragonborn as Ysmir is significant simply for the reasons that they are the most versed in recognising the nature of these Dragonborn. Further evidence comes from the Dragonborn of TESV gaining the allegiance of the Blades, an order of spies and warriors who served as the bodyguards of the Dragonborn emperors and were originally a group of dragon-hunting warriors; the Dragonborn may not be a descendant of Talos by blood, but they are treated as a descendant of the god in spirit, in the same way Norse kings believed Odin to their ancestor. It should also be noted at this point that Talos' status as the Ninth Divine may be another link to Norse Mythology; nine was a significant number within Norse paganism and its magical practices of Seiđr, with Odin hanging on Yggdrasil for nine days and learning eighteen runes and spells, the Norse cosmological model having nine separate realms and the spiritual festival of the Blót was held every nine years.
While it is true that there are a good number of aspects of both Odin and the Dragonborn that do not overlap, it is hard to deny that the core roles and features of both characters in their respective narratives bear a strong resemblance. Serving as caretakers of the dead is one of the Dragonborn's most major roles, taking up the mantle as a shepherd the souls of those who have passed away. Not only this, but the Dragonborn's power of Thu'um serves as a direct mirror to the song-spells of Odin, and it is these spells that grant the king of the Aesir his unique power and status. Not only this, but they are both tied by their unique relationship to kingship and divinity; Odin serves as the ancestor of kings, while the Dragonborn is a spiritual descendant of the Divine Talos and may even be him reborn, in the manner of some Norse monarchs. In such ways, both the Dragonborn and Odin become strongly linked as characters.
ˇ The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Bethesda Softworks Inc., 2011
ˇ Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, H.R. Ellis Davidson, Penguin Books, 1964
ˇ The Poetic Edda, Snorri Sturluson
ˇ The Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson
ˇ Völsunga Saga
ˇ The Saga of Beowulf
ˇ Ynglinga Saga
ˇ History of the World, v 16, Orosius.
This post has been edited by Colonel Mustard: Dec 12 2012, 02:13 PM