Spoilers galore ahead. Not intended to be correct or comprehensive by any means. Certainly not objective. I simply want to make a few observations and get the Elder Scrolls community talking.
1. Once upon a time there were dragons whose power may have stemmed from words. They established a rule of sorts over men. Then the goddess came along and gave man the Voice – the power to use those words. Man defeated the dragons, at least for a time.
If we say that primordial chaos is not “nothingness,” that it could be words floating around, then this tale is some kind of combination of Genesis 1 and the myth of Prometheus. Maybe man is the creature that in putting words together has articulate speech. If so, what are the limits of his power? Much of Skyrim is devoted to a literal dispute over who is a god and who isn’t.
2. Like all political philosophy, the divide between political things and cosmology is problematic to say the least. The political things point to ever higher orders: underneath all the dogma is genuine wonder about what man himself is, where he belongs. But that doesn’t mean there’s any logical link between political things and cosmology.
In Skyrim, there are at least two before your character who used the Voice very differently. One was Talos, who had the Voice, got an army with it, conquered everyone, “ascended into heaven” (see Livy’s account of Romulus’ “ascension” to see what my level 23 Imperial-leaning mage thinks of that story). Then there’s Jurgen Windcaller, who realized that the ability to kill people simply by speaking might be connected to something higher. The Greybeards – monks who offer you guidance no matter what your race, who don’t care whether you’re their religion or not – look to Windcaller for the realization that “the Voice should be used for the worship and glory of the gods, not for the glory of man.”
So let’s say Ulfric is the second coming of Talos, complete with plans for Nord supremacy. And let’s say my heavily biased account above is right and the racism of the Stormcloaks against the Dark Elves is just one aspect of abusing the Voice. Does that mean we’ve derived a morality, a way of acting toward one another, directly from an account of the origins of the world?
Not in the least. For all we know, Talos might be a god. We’ve actually opened up a huge can of worms about our own perceptions. Self-determination is not necessarily a liberal principle. It can entail intolerance and closed-mindedness; early on in the Politics, Aristotle makes some observations that seem to mark any given tribe as tending toward empire. Ulfric’s general, Stone-Fist, is very open about wanting to conquer the elves after throwing the Empire out of Skyrim.
Yet self-determination seems to be an indispensable condition for freedom. The freedom the Empire gives is closer to what we have nowadays as freedom and we find a million ways of complaining about: security and order are paramount. The law is not in our blood but allows a diversity to tolerate each other and form a cosmopolis.
3. And all of you are aware what is above is oversimplified. It’s easy to use Skyrim’s mythology to generate questions. For example: How do Daedra fit into this? They are worshiped, but don’t seem to establish rituals or conventions like the gods of the pantheon do. My provisional guess – I need to play a lot more Skyrim to figure this out – is that they are desire itself for the most part (yes, this includes Daedra who govern things like darkness or twilight). Take the example Daedric prince of hunting, Hircine. Hunting doesn’t quite involve the skill set pottery does. One can characterize it, especially given its signification in ancient cultures, as a display of mastery. One out-beasts the beasts, so to speak. Hircine is insane as a result: he can’t tell who to aid, hunter or hunted, except in terms of creating the greatest hunt possible. The extremes desires lead us to exist outside of us and create situations desire itself cannot work with. Hence, it is another Daedra who created a weapon that can banish his kin. Azura might be the desire of change for the better. That kind of desire rarely likes to hear it is wrong.
Right now there’s a charming book in my inventory called “The Importance of Where” which would more than suffice for a children’s book. “Where” is not simply location or a target: it is the matter of demonstration or proof. The Dark Elves and the Dwemer might be competing over the same story. The know-how of the Dwemer resulted in magnificent creations that outlasted the race. The Dark Elves are surviving through their know-how even as they could be thrown out of Skyrim. I haven’t come across any Dunmer ruins yet.