science and scrolls : knowledge and its pursuit in games

Think back to when you first encountered Hermaeus Mora. In my case I don’t have to think too far back because I never encountered him in Morrowind or Oblivion — in fact I never did next to any of the daedric quests in Oblivion save Sanguine’s (I know, I suck).

Skyrim, then, is where I first clued into the Elder Scrolls’ unique portrayal of a god of knowledge as…not a very nice guy. But that’s just a mere personal affectation or character trait. Instead, it comes as part and parcel with being a god of knowledge, and to see that portrayed in a fantasy game interests me. The idea that knowledge and its pursuit inherently comes with this dark undertone of threat and carelessness.


Image from Elder Scrolls Wiki

While it’s not a modern concept — think of the demonization of early scientists, witches, alchemists, and all manner of knowledge-seekers of the past — it’s certainly not something we see stated so baldly nowadays. One of the more striking encounters I remember first having with the concept was when I was told in high school that when scientists built the first atom collider there was some miniscule chance, according to their calculations, that operating it might implode creation as we knew it. And they did it anyway. This fact was delivered to we eager young students with such dropped-jaw bitterness that it took all of us aback. But…science = good, right? We were all enrolled in science classes, after all. They’re required. Surely they knew what they were doing…surely there hadn’t really been much of a chance that we’d all implode…surely?

And there hadn’t been, it was true. Not much of one. But the idea that people might dismiss even some infinitely tiny chance of world destruction as “worth taking,” in the course of the pursuit of knowledge, struck me for the first time that day as not particularly great. Even making that judgment becomes dicey, it’s true, because you can’t learn without experimentation, and of course without antibiotics / immunizations / all manner of scientific advancements, how many of us would even be alive today? I certainly wouldn’t; I was told point-blank a blood infection I got from a cut would’ve killed me. (And I’m not even going to bring up anti-vaxxers because oh my god.) So I very much get why the pursuit of knowledge is, by and large (and especially in one’s formative years!) painted in such a positive light.

But then I think of the quiet streets of Potsdam I walked through on a spring day, as this or that building was pointed out to me as the place eyes were shipped, and then the place eyes were studied. Eyes of Roma people whom a Nazi scientist so very much wanted to compare to the eyes of other people his regime killed. Or I think of the people I know who’ve shown themselves to be more concerned with texts than with living people whilst fleeing a potentially burning building. In that case it’s arguably a kind of possessive attitude, too, and not just an unhealthy passion for knowledge…but really, the latter is really a form of acquisition, too. Unless the desire is for the power obtained by the implementation of that knowledge, it’s very much a hoarding instinct. “I want to know it all / know everything!” is, itself, a statement of the desire to hoard.

While I staunchly disapprove of the way this is sometimes turned on its head to benefit the “god works in mysterious ways” crowd, I can’t approve, either, of privileging the pursuit of knowledge at the potential cost of unwitting lives, only for the sake of knowing a thing. Knowing limits, laws, processes — none of it burns with a need to be known that is worth that loss. Sometimes it seems like those afire with the need to know treat their subjects like lovers — as though the knowledge will care if you court it, or eventually woo it into your bed.

But it doesn’t care. As blunt as the portrayal of Hermaeus Mora in Skyrim and especially the Dragonborn DLC is, it does have the de-romanticizing advantage of portraying knowledge simply as books. Piles upon piles upon piles of books; stacks of books reaching to unknown heights; pages flying around the place in little whirlwinds. But that’s all they are. What attacks you are dark, slimy monsters of ill intent; what populates this dark hoarder’s lair is not composed of words or even the ghost of words. Because the words don’t care: they are mere symbols printed upon paper. Knowledge is inert.

The closest knowledge comes to acting, in the Elder Scrolls, is when its acquisition permanently damages the acquirer (as in the case of the actual elder scrolls themselves vis-a-vis the Moth Priests — though admittedly this act is rather passive; the scrolls simply do this by nature of what they are), and when Sheogorath bewitches the words in books into driving their readers into madness, as is the case with poor Valaste in ESO.


Every time I try to find something comparable to the viciousness with which HM’s pursuit of knowledge is portrayed, I come up empty. There’s Solas, but he’s recovering lost knowledge for a specific, finite purpose — so he doesn’t count. There’s Mark Jefferson but the psychotic pursuit of art (“art”) is not the same as the psychotic pursuit of knowledge, so he’s out. Um. Who else? Most of the examples of “mad scientist” types do in fact comes with that lust for power, too, so most of them don’t fit this bill. Lobotomizer in the Bourne movies? Power. The Alchemist in those cat books I read as a kid? Power. Lanfear? Faust? Dr. Clayton Forrester? Power, power, power.

Even honing in on games alone, where there should be plenty of examples, draws me up short. (Though admittedly I don’t in any way shape or form do horror games, so if you’ve got knowledge-lusting psychos populating those in droves, I wouldn’t know.) Professor Hojo in FF7 may be the best comparison — and that’s granting him leeway around the fact that he did indeed conduct experiments on himself that gave him power; you have to treat that power as a convenient side-effect on the path toward “science and understanding of the Planet” if you want to lump him in with the likes of Hermaeus Mora.

I mention this only to point out that we have a tendency, culturally, to give the pursuit of knowledge a blank ethical check. Of course it’s worth pursuing, right? When such high-minded affairs go wrong — when we write them in the stories we tell as going wrong — we attribute the wrongness to greed for power (whether on the part of the researcher or those paying the researcher). Clearly, if only the scholars had remained loyal toward the pristine, shimmering virtue that is knowledge, everything would have gone fine.

Except, not always. Sometimes knowledge doesn’t improve quality of life. Sometimes it does damage. You don’t need to fold yourself up into an uncompromising religious box in order to find a context to question the single-minded pursuit of knowledge, either. You just need to be in the way of someone bent on acquiring too much of it.

Just ask Septimus Signus.


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