Lore Lapses, Part I: Hoag Merkiller

Intro: TL;DR

I’ve had far less time to dedicate to the UESP in recent months. As it stands, it is taking me months to revise one damn page! But giving some much-needed attention to the blog should be achievable. So I will be posting a weekly blog about some inconsistency in TES lore. Don’t worry, they will usually be much, much shorter than this one. Believe it or not, this is the abridged version. My holiday rants can get pretty long… anyway, I’ll try to get a banner or something for next week.

Now, the aim of this series is not to criticize, but to highlight. I believe that Bethesda (and, to a lesser extent, Zenimax) have created the most rich, wonderful, and well-rounded world ever conceived for a video game. It is one of the biggest reasons why TES has demanded such an enormous following. If you want to dive down a rabbit hole of seemingly endless discovery, TES lore is ready to oblige. Ultimately, I am surprised there have not been more lapses.

Nevertheless, the idea that there is one consistent TES world from one installment to the next, and that we can articulate and summarize it perfectly here, is clearly a hopeless fiction no matter how you look at it. But then, so is the idea that little pieces of paper or shiny coins have value, but we maintain the fiction because there’s no reasonable alternative. Similarly, lore editors are typically given no alternative, except to presume that the little scraps of lore we are given maintain their “value” from one TES installment to the next, because the developers rarely give us any sort of notice when they’ve decided to actually retcon something. Sometimes, they may not even be aware they have done it. It’s a big wide world, after all.

There’s a school of thought that there’s no such thing as a mistake in the lore. Not that the developers haven’t made mistakes, but that for any mistake they may make, there’s a reasonable explanation for what happened which doesn’t break the fourth wall. So when maintaining this fiction for the TES-verse becomes difficult, lore buffs may find themselves bending over backwards to explain away some contradiction without saying something like, “Well, Todd Howard didn’t get his coffee that morning…”.

I’m not that extreme. I do not feel the need to concoct some intricate story to explain why the Log of the Emma May says “Tuesday” instead of “Tirdas” (Bonus Lapse #1). I do, however, start from the premise that an apparent inconsistency in the lore is just a plot point waiting to be revealed. I know most of them will never be acknowledged or rectified, but if history is any judge, at least a few will get some tongue-in-cheek attention in a future installment. The most beautiful thing about this medium, and about this franchise, is that the solution to every problem can be just one new game or update away. In pointing out these inconsistencies, my hope is that I may, occasionally, highlight places where a plot twist of the TES universe has yet to be revealed. Or at the very least, to get some dedicated lore fans to do some calisthenics as they jump through hoops to explain away plot holes.

Hoag Merkiller and the Conquest of Morrowind

So let’s get on with it. I don’t know if Hoag Merkiller is the best example to start with, but he’s one I’ve been thinking about recently, and he also hasn’t gotten much attention in … ever. Hoag Merkiller, ancient High King of Skyrim circa 1E 480, doesn’t make sense.

Specifically, the idea that Hoag lived in the days of the Conquest of Morrowind and the founding of the First Empire of the Nords circa 1E 240 doesn’t mesh with most sources. This implication is given in the Pocket Guide to the Empire, 1st Edition (PGE1):

“In the days of the Conquest of Morrowind and the founding of the First Empire, the great Nord war chiefs – Derek the Tall, Jorg Helmbolg, Hoag Merkiller – were all Tongues.”

PGE1 contains a lot of debunked and controverted information (so expect it to pop up quite a bit in this series). Not to criticize the writing itself; it is superb. PGE1 laid much of the framework for the lore which followed. It’s just that if you’re looking for solid TES fact, the fictional author of PGE1 has proven to be particularly unreliable due to bias and an often cosmetic understanding of the cultures which were being summarized. And it is, of course, usually impossible to be truly certain whether PGE1 info has been “retconned”, or if those devious lore writers never meant for that info to be accurate in the first place.

We don’t know when Merkiller was born, but Five Songs of King Wulfharth says he was slain when the Alessians were defeated at the Battle of Glenumbra Moors, an event which is dated to 1E 480 or 482 (Bonus Lapse #2). But the First Empire as we know it fell apart decades before that, in the War of Succession from 1E 369-1E 420. The Nords had been driven out of Morrowind by the united Chimer and Dwemer in 1E 416. PGE1 itself gives the impression that the First Empire was at its peak around 1E 290, about fifty years into the Skyrim Conquests. So to me, it seems like the founding days of the First Empire and the Conquest of Morrowind should be traced to the third century of the First Era, not the fifth century. It doesn’t seem like Merkiller could’ve been around for the First Empire’s end, let alone its founding. You would have to conflate the founding of the First Empire with its entire known existence, and then some, for that to make sense.

Scholarly error on the part of the in-character PGE1 author is a tempting explanation. Whomever wrote it was presumably an Imperial scholar, taking stories from Nords they meet (i.e., drunks in bars), and it’s plausible they just got the wrong impression about Hoag’s place in Skyrim’s history, especially given what we know of the quality of the First Pocket Guide’s scholarship in general. The implication may have been unintended from the start, brought on by imprecise generalities. We are talking about a scholar who is making a general reference to a time period over three thousand years before he lived. What difference is a couple centuries? If that satisfies you, then skip the rest; thanks for trudging this far!

The dilemma with writing off anything as scholarly error, however, is that it is Boring, And Therefore Wrong. This is and should be the guiding principle in anyone’s interpretation of TES lore. The Falmer are just a Nordic myth. Boring, And Therefore Wrong. Alduin is another name for Akatosh. Boring, And Therefore Wrong. The PGE1 author just erroneously conflated Hoag Merkiller with the conquerors of Morrowind and founders of the First Empire. Boring, And Therefore Wrong? TES lore is replete with scholarly error, but it is often impossible to tell which errors are intentional, or whether it’s a loose end the developers ever intend on touching upon in a future work. I’m sure the majority of us could agree this is just a mistake/miscommunication which will likely never get addressed, and we’ll continue to agree on that – right up until it is addressed.

So, perhaps Hoag led an exceptionally long life with magic; there’s one or two ancient Nordic myths regarding the manipulation of the Nordic lifespan, and the full truth may have plausibly been lost to time. Or, heck, screw Occam’s Razor: perhaps there were two Nordic leaders named Hoag Merkiller in the early First Era. If you want to get really freaky with it, perhaps we might be dealing with different kalpas (whatever that truly means). The possibilities are literally endless – but what else can you expect in a fantasy video game world.

But like I said earlier, you would have to conflate the entirety of the First Empire’s known existence with its founding in order for PGE1’s statement to really make sense with what we know of Hoag Merkiller. Well, what if that were the case? “Founding” is a relative term. A newer association might count its founding days in years or decades, but an older association’s founding days could be stretched over centuries. It would be a lot more reasonable to say that Hoag lived in the founding days of the First Empire if the First Empire existed for, say, one thousand years, instead of two hundred.

It’s worth noting that, as far as I know, we’ve never been given a precise date of when the Nord’s First Empire ended. We’re not even entirely sure why it’s called their First Empire, because it’s not like there’s any mention of a second one! We’ve been given dates on the Skyrim Conquests, but those don’t necessarily correspond to the beginning and end of the First Empire. So, the First Empire may have existed, at least in name, for centuries upon centuries after the Skyrim Conquests ended, except it became composed of only Nordic kingdoms within Skyrim by 1E 420, and likely never truly recovered after that. Then, untold years down the line, it was presumably dissolved in some later First Era political shake-up.

So, the point is, the PGE1 statement could reasonably be construed as true if the First Empire of the Nords was considered to have survived until a great deal of time after the War of Succession. Several centuries, at least. While it may seem ironic to suggest that the First Empire was being “founded” during a time when most would consider it to be falling apart, it has the benefit of treating all sources as true without actually resorting to a “scholarly error” explanation. Furthermore, it’s something we kind of expect to see anyways. Both in the game and in real life, empires tend to linger on long after their glory days have faded, often in name only.

But for now, details on the First Empire of the Nords are few and far between, and so are definitive answers. Things like Merkiller and the First Empire were topics which we expected to get a lot of treatment in TES V: Skyrim, given the setting, but we ended up with far less detail than lore fans are accustomed to receiving. The First Empire is explicitly mentioned a grand total of five times in Skyrim, and these were all basically passing references which told us next to nothing. Hoag Merkiller actually gets more attention from ESO than he got from Skyrim, simply by virtue of a passing mention in a loading screen!

Anyway, this is just one of the many situations where we’re forced to parcel out information on one topic from many different sources. Hopefully, this has helped to convey the myriad of concerns and questions which are created when two or more sources become hard to reconcile. Happy holidays, everyone. Next week, I’ll talk about an inconsistency which has been addressed and, in my opinion, rectified. Hopefully, it will help give you a sense of why even the slightest inconsistency can turn out to be the clue to a whole new understanding of TES lore. And it’ll be fun, because it’ll be slightly pornographic.

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