Note: Spoilers for Skyrim, “The Cursed Tribe” quest ahead, if you haven’t played it 5000 times already
Little things make the experience. I wandered around Skyrim until I ran into that Orc tribe besieged by giants. This already is a “whoa” moment because Orc settlements are tough to find. The Orcs there tell me about their weak chief who cannot combat the giants effectively. The Daedra they worship — their god, for all intents and purposes — thunders, specifically calling out their chief as a coward to you and all the other Orcs. The tribe is cursed by the Daedra, but if the chief brings the head giant’s club as an offering to him, the curse will be lifted.
Your character gets roped into helping the chief. You both battle giants well, fighting almost as brothers-in-arms, and then the head giant is left. That’s when the cowardly chief offers you a bribe to kill the giant and get the club for him. Do this and the chief immediately turns on you so no one knows he was a coward and he can redeem his reputation. If you don’t take the bribe, the chief runs into battle and dies in one hit against the giant. I’ve read that the game is programmed to go so far as this: if you kill all the giants so quickly that the chief cannot have the opportunity to offer you a bribe, when you and the chief return to the village, the chief will be killed by his own people and the Daedra will pronounce that the giants killed him. The tribe, in that case, will have no memory of what they’ve done.
“The Cursed Tribe” quest, then, is a clever and dark comment on the nature of divine judgment. The divine judgment is the opinion the tribe has of their leader, who is in an awful predicament. He cannot fight the giants without outside help, full stop. It doesn’t matter how cowardly or courageous he actually is. The lack of results have put him in a position where he will be considered a coward no matter what, and the tribe has implicitly decided they are better off without him. He reasons that the only way out is for him to perform a feat of arms he cannot possibly perform. He has to try to deceive the tribe, he has to try and kill you.
This puts you, as the player, in a strange position for observing and interpreting events. Your first instinct is to think the chief a coward who tried to backstab you, and you have plenty of evidence for this. The chief doesn’t want to fight the giants alone; he won’t protect his people or their sacred spaces; he complains the whole time about sacrificing to the god and certainly complains about the god’s judgment and your presence. The trouble with this reasoning is the conflation of “can’t” with “won’t.” Let’s be more precise about the obstacles which make the chief’s task impossible: as a melee warrior, the giants will eat him for lunch. Then, his tribe’s lack of faith in him means that trying is virtually a suicide mission for all of them. It’s easy to forget that you’re the Dragonborn, a messianic figure who is in essence the hero of heroes in Skyrim. You’re not just an observer — your mere presence upsets the status quo, which in this case would be that giants will always torment Orcs through brute strength, but the Orcish emphasis on courage being strength will still persist. Of course, your character could be a thief, a conjurer, an illusionist, an archer. It would only be chance that you are a melee fighter who shares the chief’s skillset, or an Orc yourself.
The darkness of divine judgment, that our unrealistic expectations of a given virtue do drive people into suicide or worse, has a reverse side. Michael Dransfield’s ridiculous lines got me thinking about that:
Flying (h/t Ariane Beeston) Michael Dransfield i was flying over sydney in a giant dog things looked bad
I gotta confess: if you’re working to be a better writer, sometimes seeing a few words thrown up like this can be really irritating, especially when you’re struggling for what little attention you can get. Nontheless, I think we can find something of value in our observations and interpretations. The theme of flying always makes me wonder about a god’s-eye-view, and Dransfield’s language helps cement how crazy that notion is. If you had godlike power, you’d fly. You’d miss the mark even with that power: the truly godlike state is no movement at all, being the unmoved mover. Whatever you do with grand power that you attempt to obtain grand knowledge with (or vice versa) is simply silly. You might as well be flying over a city in Australia “in a giant dog.” Your judgment, in the end, will be about as profound as “things looked bad.”
Flying is stupid, and immediately a tempting thought presents itself. What if we could recognize how our judgments are too fatal, too final? What if we recognized the ridiculousness in our many attempts to play God — what if we saw more of those attempts, more clearly? I’m not sure there’s any easy way out of our hubris. There are plenty of people who say “you can’t take a joke” to people who’ve suffered and lost because of the sentiments allowing that joke to persist. Our world is full of ugly myths which hurt us and each other, ones which enable us to turn on each other with especial violence. Maybe I should fly over Dallas in a giant dog. I wonder if I’d see an Orc village there.