I’ve fallen back into Skyrim, as I always do. It’s opportunities for storytelling and dressup are limitless, provided you like wintry days and vaguely Scandinavian accents. Dressup, battle, and brotherhood are basically all I need from a game, so it speaks to my soul.
Skyrim has no shortage of villains, from the great dragon Alduin to Harkon, the vampire lord of the north. Necromancers and raiders are scattered across the landscape, there are giants and spriggans and bears to fight. And through all that, the nation is caught in the grip of a civil war wrought by the ambitions of one man: Ulfric Stormcloak. Let me run through it and see if anything sounds familiar.
The rebels call themselves Stormcloaks, after their leader. They believe in Skyrim for Nords, their land for their people. Outsiders are looked on as spies at best, and raiders at worst. You’re treated to a scene like this when reaching Windhelm, the seat of their power. A pair of Stormcloaks harass a dark elf lady, jeering at her and calling her foreigner, despite the fact that she was born in the city. The dark elves have been in Windhelm for centuries.
Stormcloaks embrace an ahistorical narrative where everything they have was always theirs. It ignores that much of their land was conquered long ago from another people, a people who still live and practice their traditions in exile, despite Holds putting a bounty on their heads. They long for an age that never existed, when their people lived free, untouched by empire. But when push comes to shove, the first Hold they make war on isn’t one sympathetic to the Empire. Whiterun Hold does its best to remain neutral in the struggle, a house ruled by Nords and steeped in Skyrim’s history, and it’s the first the Stormcloaks attack.
Of course, they make war at the behest of their leader. The first time you meet Ulfric Stormcloak, he’s bound and gagged in the back of a cart, on his way to his execution. Every other time you meet, he’s seated in the Palace of Kings, and there he remains. He sends other people to further his ambitions, and focuses his people with anti-Imperial rhetoric. He won his seat at the head of the rebellion in an duel against the heir to the seat of the High King…Who he literally yelled to death.
Yes, Ulfric has special powers. He made a pilgrimage to the top of a mountain and learned to use the Voice, the language of dragons that lets him literally shout people to pieces. He’s no Dragonborn like the main character, he learned it the hard way. He came down to rule, and saw opportunity in the current strife.
It’s not a rebellion without something to rebel against. The Empire, despite their name, has essentially zero authority in Skyrim. They rule nothing, their military isn’t remotely spicy, and their presence in most cities is limited to a single representative. They’ve lost a lot of wars, most recently with the elves, who demanded that they ban specific kinds of worship in Skyrim. But the rebellion isn’t against the elves (who have a presence everywhere that’s significantly more hostile). The Imperials are a low-hanging fruit for Ulfric’s ambitions. If anything, the civil war grants them more power, with their victories giving them the chance to sway leaders to their cause.
As the main character, you side with Ulfric and be there when he wins. You’ve carried him to victory, facing down the General and Legate of the Imperial forces within their fortress. With their bodies cooling, he laughs. He jokes with his right hand man about the High Kingship, and asks what he should say about you in his victory speech. No mention of free worship. No mention of freedom. None of the rhetoric the Stormcloaks have been shedding their blood for. Only “It’s good to be king.”
Ulfric Stormcloak is a man of ambition, not conviction. He says whatever he has to, applies any leverage that’s needed, and reinvents history as he likes. Hungry for power, he stalks opportunity like a silent tiger. Power before policy. Power before principle. Power before people.
I don’t think I have to say that the Stormcloaks cannot be allowed to win.