It’s an open secret here at the Press that I’m a pretty big gamer in my off time. A quick romp through a virtual world with an ax in one hand and a fireball spell in the other is the perfect antidote to a long work day of delving deep into manuscripts on economic geography, settler colonialism, or social movement theory.
And like a lot of gamers, I’ve been completely obsessed with Skyrim for almost a month now, spending to date seventy hours playing a character named Gwydion, a Breton with a fetching pencil-thin moustache who enjoys picking flowers as much as he loves trolling Imperial camps and fighting dragons. That I’ve spent more time with Gwydion than I have on some relationships is a testament to Bethesada, Skyrim’s creator, to craft an open world RPG with its own cosmology and coded physics, a world indifferent to the person exploring it. As Tom Bissel writes in his Grantland review of Skyrim, “Like most who play Skyrim, I’m greatly drawn to these incredible environments because the act of exploring them becomes uniquely my experience.”
Many gamers take crafting this unique experience very seriously. Weeks before Skyrim was released, I’d find myself jotting down potential character names, deciding if they’d most fit a wretched Argonian thief or a mysterious but benevolent battlemage. Gwydion, a trickster character from Welsh mythology, fits my spell-wielding, sneaky Breton perfectly.
If you grew up on tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons, you probably take this pre-game process even more seriously, writing down a narrative back story for your character, deciding how they grew up and recording the formative events that shaped their present attitudes. Why are they a callous murderer? Why would they choose to side with the Stormcloak rebellion rather than the Imperial army? Do they prefer men or women? Having a detailed back story makes decision-making in the game feel more natural and more unique to the player.
As nerds seem to be particularly fascinated by Nords these days, it’s worth pointing out that the University of Minnesota Press has recently brought back into a print what I think is the ultimate sourcebook for RPGers, E.R. Eddison’s Styrbiorn the Strong. Originally published in 1926, Eddison’s fantasy is written in the style of the Sagas of old, telling the story of the prodigal son Styrbiorn’s exile from Sweden and vengeful return. Styrbiorn’s nature as a headstrong, combative scion of the North makes him a perfect character to roleplay in Skyrim.
The book is peopled with a host of great characters who would feel right at home in Whiterun or Winterhold. Based on historical or legendary figures from Nordic history, its filled with drunken brawls, thralls, Viking armadas, and moody men brooding through long winters. Reading Styrbiorn the Strong, I can’t help but draw parallels to the frozen mountains and floe-choked seas of Skyrim. For example, Eddison’s description of the rugged coast of Sweden lingers on the “driving mist that made gray and ghostly the whole face of the country-side, blotting out the hills and woods and confounding water and sky in the same hue and tone of pale grey without colour,” a description that could also apply to the beautifully rendered squalls that come in off the Sea of Ghosts near Dawnstar, in the far north of Skyrim. One could read the violence and upheavel of Styrbiorn as a prehistory to Skyrim’s racial and political conflicts, set in the same war-torn Nordic landscape.
In fact, Styrbiorn the Strong could be considered a “sourcebook” for the genre of fantasy as we know it today. After encountering Eddison’s writings in the 1940s, J. R. R. Tolkien would write, “I still think of him as the greatest and most convincing write of ‘invented worlds’ that I have read.” C. S. Lewis admired Eddison’s ability to develop a world that was a “strange blend of renaissance luxury and northern hardness.” For anyone who takes their fantasy worlds seriously, I recommend checking out this classic from one of the original masters of fantasy.
Jason Weidemann is senior acquisitions editor at U of MN Press. He can be found tweeting at @fiveoclockbot or via e-mail at email@example.com.