Squires of Skyrim
From bestowing blessings to being the scourge of a countryside, dragons are encountered in tales young and old. Among their legends, one of the most enduring is that of battle against another powerful symbol: knights. From epic poetry to modern fantasy, a similar pattern plays out again and again: the knight goes on a quest to kill a dragon and thus saves a world; vanquishing these winged reptiles restores peace to the kingdom.
Skyrim borrows heavily from past mythologies, pitting the player against the rise of dragons in Tamriel. These dragons though, instead of being metaphorical harbingers or even imagery on which to hang political satire in epic poetry, are the embodiment of a rising evil in the land, and it falls to the player to stop the spread of destruction and terror from the skies. Just like in classical literature, the hero need only stop the dragons and the threat will be ended. This is not done alone though.
What has been lost amongst the pictures of valor and songs of glory of eliminating ancient dragons is the knights’ support staff: those who helped carry the weapons and fought alongside the hero are often removed from the stories in order to elevate the knight to a place of singular accomplishment. Dating back to even Beowulf, it is his group of thegns (thanes) who help Beowulf take on a dragon initially until Wiglaf alone, distant cousin to Beowulf, follows him deep into the dragon’s lair and provides the distraction needed for Beowulf to land the killing blow. The truth behind the stories handed down as legends is that a knight often traveled with others, particularly the person he was training: his squire.
When the tales of wizards and warriors from the medieval period were romanticized into the fantasy genre of today, it lost one of the most prominent aspects of the time: its educational practices. In order to become a knight, a man would go through a series of stations. First, he would be a page and take care of the lowest tasks such as cleaning and ferrying messages. Once he was trusted and of age, then he would move on to the job of squire: this status that allowed him close access and frequent interaction with a knight who, while traveling and fighting, would bestow his knowledge and skills to the next generation of warriors. In order to progress in any field, a period of apprenticeship was needed; the aged taught the younger through one-to-one teaching.
Skyrim acknowledges this relationship: trainers exist in the world and the player, for the cost of increasing sums of gold, can pay to raise certain skills. Completing tasks and returning lost items encourages characters to teach what they know, which immediately results in an increase in either statistics or skills. Masters in an area can train others in their craft and accelerate the learning process considerably: yet, for all this direct interaction, it has also takes on a strange role reversal as your companions also teach the player’s character.
While your character has some past and understanding of the world, the player does not. They arrive in an assumed tabula rasa state and must be taught through early events how to live, work, and exist in this new world. Any time the player attempts to do something wrong or potentially life threatening, the game intervenes and warn them about the risky behavior they are about to undertake. In Skyrim, companions’ seemingly innocent remarks about caverns, dungeons, and ruins carry a certain amount of dramatic irony: by commenting about the calm of a moment, they clue the player to expect some lurking danger.
The player may be a knight whose job it is to venture into the depths of the world in the quest to stop the dragons, but the quixotic nature of the task (many characters believe your mission to be suicidal) prompts a didactic response from the game. The companions travelling with the player may carry the player’s collection of extra armor and weapons in the place of a squire, but are also placed in the role of explaining certain aspects about the world to the unknowing player. The history of structures and dangers of caves are fed through exposition hooks and casual conversation. Anything that might be needed to tell the player is delivered through this fellow adventurer and frequent mule; the traveling friend is a secret trove of information about the world and its people.
Killing dragons is a tough business and requires an understanding of the world, something most players lack when starting the game. The innocent knight must be learn, and the easiest way to do that is through the knowledge of other people. The companion must be there to carry materials without complaint, and fight when needed. If commanded, they can act without questioning, and always serve as a scout for incoming threats. Yet, throughout all the apparent control the player exerts over the companions, they are also a constant teacher. They inform the player and try to return the errant knight back to their path, whilst acting in the role of servant.
Companions may seem to be nothing more than extra weapons, yet they often take on the status of knights in their own right, remaining standing even as other characters fall. They tell the player what she needs to know as they move together in the world, relaying details in observations and quips. Gradually, the player moves from leader to follower, learning from another character who both a servant and a source of knowledge. The companions are the true, overlooked knights of Skyrim: without them, the player and the world would be lost.