An Analysis of the Skyrim Civil War, Pt. 1: The Belligerents

One of the most frequently-recurring discussions between Skyrim players is the Civil War questline, the conflict which drives the narrative of the game and works its way into every other major questline and subplot. To this day, fans of the game can be found arguing which side is better: the Imperials or the Stormcloaks. In most of the discussions I’ve seen, however, the main talking points are the same ones espoused by NPCs in the game who support one faction or the other. In depicting this conflict, Bethesda takes a great deal of care to portray multiple sides of the conflict, though they refrain from commenting on which side was ultimately right. A debate with such profound impact on the lore of the Elder Scrolls games deserves to be examined in greater depth, which I plan to do in two parts here. This first installment will provide an examination of both warring factions, including their motivations and the points most commonly made for and against each side.
In many of the discussions I’ve seen about the conflict, the most common arguments made in support of each side can be summarized thusly: Pro-Empire players say that Ulfric is arrogant, racist, and power-hungry, and that a Stormcloak victory in the civil war would lead to the Thalmor ultimately conquering the human races. Pro-Stormcloak players say that the Empire is tyrannically oppressing the people of Skyrim, and is forsaking the needs and beliefs of the people in order to maintain some semblance of their past glory. The kicker is, while the war is touted as one of conflicting ideology (and is even presented as such in-game, vis-a-vis the Talos question), when you look at it closely, it becomes clear that the goals and methods of each belligerent are much the same, and that neither side can truly be called justified.
For starters, let’s look at the Empire. My colleague AKB wrote a blog in which he stated that the Empire is basically running on fumes, and that they’re so focused on maintaining their slipping grip on power that they fail to see their power has already gone. And this is very true. Their determination to keep the human provinces allied against the Dominion has led them to rule out dismantling the Empire and allowing for alliances between independent nations as an option; as a result, they come across as so overbearing that they alienate their allies, a very counterproductive strategy.
Of course, the Empire’s ultimate goal is to rebuild their forces for the inevitable second war against the Thalmor, and unlike Ulfric, General Tullius isn’t so short-sighted that he can’t see the Thalmor’s hand in the Skyrim Civil War. If you talk to him at Elenwen’s Party, he admits “Just between you and me, a lot of what Ulfric says about the Empire is true.” So how do Imperial officers show their solidarity with the people of other provinces? Why, with such sympathetic and tolerant words as “You people and your damn Jarls.” Or such fair and impartial judgment of someone found in the company of death row inmates as “Forget the list! He goes to the block.” I can respect the difficult position the Empire is in with the Thalmor, but if the words and actions of their generals and captains are indicative of their broader approach to provincial disputes, they don’t deserve allegiance. An emperor’s duty is to his people, and when he’s so ineffectual that even members of his high council plot to kill him, it’s time to pack it in.
Then again, the Stormcloaks are hardly able to take the moral high ground in this conflict. Wanting independence when your ruler nation no longer serves your best interest is a legitimate desire, but in all their actions, the Stormcloaks seem very short-sighted. Most of them cite the ban on Talos worship as an unforgivable act of tyranny without stopping to consider that nobody in the Empire likes it either. Think for a second: even during the events of the game, is the Empire itself persecuting Talos worshipers? No, they’re just allowing the Thalmor to do it, and that’s only because they have to. For that matter, one of Ulfric’s stated goals is to take the fight to the Thalmor after defeating the Empire, which is an important goal, though how they’ll manage to win against the Dominion after alienating a large portion of their potential allies is beyond me.
And what about Ulfric himself? “Whenever a group of marauders attack a Nord village, Ulfric is the first to sound the horn and send the men. But a group of Dark Elf refugees gets ambushed? A group of Argonians, or a Khajiit caravan? No troops. No investigation. Nothing.” It’s hard to doubt the legitimacy of this claim when Ulfric has been known to support the segregation of Dunmer and Argonian refugees to slums and warehouses outside the city. And a lot of his supporters seem to hold similar beliefs, which really make it hard for anyone who isn’t a Nord to sympathize with their cause.
What about his reasons for fighting the war and killing High King Torygg? His detractors seem to think he just wanted to be High King himself. In Ulfric’s defense, said killing was conducted in line with Nord traditions (an account corroborated by both Roggvir’s and Sybille Stentor’s descriptions of the event), though killing Torygg may have been a bit excessive. But was that the real reason? According to Ulfric, “I fight for my people impoverished to pay the debts of an Empire too weak to rule them, yet brands them criminals for wanting to rule themselves! I fight so that all the fighting I’ve already done hasn’t been for nothing.” Fair point, and well made. So then Ulfric, if you’re not doing this because you want to be High King, then how would you hypothetically respond to winning the war? By your own words, you’re opposed to the way the Imperials use money to subvert Nordic traditions, so you’d have to wait for the moot to name you High King. How would you respond to that?
Ulfric: “How’d I do?”Galmar: “Eh, not so bad. Nice touch about the High King.”Ulfric: “Thank you, I thought so, too.”Galmar: “It’s a foregone conclusion, you know.”Ulfric: “Oh, I know.”
So, by his own admission, using Skyrim’s traditions and the rights of its people as his ideals is just a rhetorical strategy.
So now that we’ve examined a bit of the Stormcloak and Imperial ideologies, which one of them can be considered to ultimately be in the right?
Honestly? Neither of them. Each side is fighting for causes which can be considered legitimate, but is also driven by causes that are either misguided or self-serving, and at the end of the day, the people of Skyrim suffer under both parties. Eorlund Gray-Mane even says as much: “Comes the end of the day, Imperials and Stormcloaks ain’t much different. Both sides want to tell you how you should live your life.” And it’s true, NPC supporters of each side can frequently be found arguing that other NPCs owe their allegiance to one of the two parties. Both parties also have the same view of the Thalmor, as an enemy that must eventually be defeated. Most importantly, while both parties claim to have nobler motivations, they repeatedly place their own interests above the interests of the civilians and people of Skyrim, and as I said before, a ruler’s first duty must be to his people, because he is nothing without them.
To summarize, this war isn’t depicted as a black-and-white struggle of good versus evil; it’s a conflict between two groups, fighting for the same ideals under different guises and doing nothing but harming themselves and their brothers in the process. However, while this isn’t a struggle of black and white, neither is it a struggle of grey and grey; there’s a third shade of grey in this conflict, a third party that isn’t mentioned in the debate, but is the most important of them all.
To be continued

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