I like a joke about how often Skyrim has been released as much as the next woman. One of my favourite things on the internet is that headshot of Bethesda’s director Todd Howard with the words ‘I fear not the man who has released 10,000 games once, but I fear the man who has released one game 10,000.’ It’s not even a very good joke, but it makes me gigglesnort every time I see it. But I don’t actually begrudge Skyrim approaching an annualised release schedule because a) Skyrim is still a good game and b) if more of you bought the really good shit like Prey and Dishonored 2 then maybe Bethesda wouldn’t have to keep redoing the ones it knows you’ll buy multiple times no matter what, so really this is your fault.
The new version of Skyrim I’ve been playing this time is the one on the Switch (and it runs surprisingly well, but ‘surprisingly’ as in it suddenly made me aware of how powerful technology is relative to its size compared to just a few years ago, like how I was a little freaked out the first time I played the original BioShock on my phone, and not as in I expected it to run like shit), and though dragons lose some majesty in handheld mode, it has served to remind me how much I enjoyed the elves in Skyrim.
In Germanic myths, elves were supernatural and beautiful but had kind of an ambivalent attitude towards humans – although specifics apparently changed often, as is the way of myths. Elves have, apparently, been seen as invisible, small, tall, evil, mischievous, the embodiment of good, have been associated with gods and monsters, can be interchangeable with fairies (see: that Shakespeare play where a guy called Bottom is turned into an ass, this kind of dad-joke accounting for about half of all Shakespeare’s humour, while the other 50% is dick jokes) and, most recently, the nightmarish assistants to a man in a red suit who commits repeated breaking and entering offences during December.
In JRR Tolkien’s books they’re distinguishable from humans by being a bit taller, prettier, having ears shaped like leaves (we assume little pointy ones and not massive maple leaf shapes flapping on the sides of their heads, which is a shame because that would be amazing for many different reasons) and being basically immortal. And despite the fact that, historically, elves have been all things to all men and changed all the time, Tolkien’s interpretation, and other high-fantasy stories from around the same time, has had the most lasting impact, especially in games and surrounding nerdery like Dungeons & Dragons.
This is complicated further by how races in fantasy now often end up analogous to race in real life, and famously so in Tolkien’s work (dwarves, for example, he thought of ‘like Jews’ and said their language was ‘constructed to be Semitic’). Humans are usually the stand in for white people, because that’s the quote unquote normal, evidenced by things like the fantastical human language still being, uh, English, just called something like ‘Common’ instead. This leaves the gamut of fantasy races like elves, dwarves, Qunari, Argonian, Khajiit, Kender, Tiefling, and on and on to be interpreted and othered as representing non-white cultures, with apparently varying results – in Morrowind some of the elvish architecture suggested a Japanese influence, but the elves in Dragon Age have had a bit of a grab bag of both Jewish and Native American culture cited as providing inspiration, while Kotaku’s Gita Jackson has written about how she felt playing as a Qunari in Dragon Age: Inquisition ‘fucking nailed’ her real life experience as a black woman.
In the Lord of the Rings cinematic trilogy, though, the elves kind of felt like Aryans who lived in trees; they were white people but, like, super white people, and John Boyega again raised the point earlier this year that big fantasy properties like Game of Thrones and Lord of the rings can be pretty blindingly white. But shit loads of us saw Lord of the Rings (including me; they are good films) so that’s what we think of as elves.
When media subverts the idea, inforced by millions of us going to see Lord of the Rings in the cinema at the turn of the millennium, that elves are just a bunch of impossibly clean and benevolent Cate Blanchetts, it can be interesting; in Lords and Ladies, a book in which elves are vindictive murderous creatures that just use magic to trick humans into thinking they’re cool and sexy. This is because most of us forget that we don’t have to play by made up rules (or, as John Landis apparently told his son Max: ‘You can kill a vampire however the fuck you want, because vampires don’t fucking exist’) so when someone else remembers this it usually makes an impact, one way or another.
The ‘mer’ in Skyrim run the gamut of possible emotions, rather than being a bunch of wise, all-knowing do-gooders. The Altmer, the high elves, are basically in charge like you sort of expect from fantasy, but they can also be haughty, petty pieces of shit rather than just benign, wise beings that want to help humans like an adult shepherds a toddler. When confronted with a small man looking after an important piece of jewellery, they’d be 50/50 on helping him out or killing him, stealing the jewellery, and contriving to make it look like a diplomat one of their neighbouring countries did it so they had an excuse to kick off a war and take over. They’re also not designed to read as an army of homogenous Orlando Blooms when you look at them.
Unsurprisingly this clash between expectation and unreality means the elves in Skyrim consistently catch shit for being ugly, and there are multiple threads about them not being hot enough – or at least “””hot””” from the point of view of the kind of douchebag who goes on BioWare forums to scream that he doesn’t want to fuck any of the women in their games any more as if that is an issue of any kind of import, which generally means ‘more like a white European model from a perfume advert’. Often you’ll see the point argued around what elves are supposed to be like, with the responses split between elves aren’t supposed to be like fuck all, depressing commentary on what people should look like to qualify as hot, and suggestions for mods to make elves all sexy, as God and J.R.R. intended. But these complaints seem to have worked, because elves in The Elder Scrolls: Online are back to being ‘hot’. But I don’t think the elves in Skyrim are ugly, they’re just not explicitly for you.
Is now the right time to point out that ‘hot’ has always been an extremely subjective idea to apply to anyone, and that media sticking to that tired notion of what is and is not attractive based on one narrow demographic is getting ridiculous, particularly in light of the fact that many people are eagerly awaiting the imminent release of a film where a woman fucks a fish monster in a bath?
But, thank God, Todd doesn’t show any signs of slowing down the re-releases, so I can just keep enjoying the capricious and lovely elves in Skyrim.