A Traveller’s Guide to the Northern Realms Edit
The fall of the Septim Empire has meant many things to different peoples. For the Cyrods, some would claim that it was our darkest moment. Others would argue that it since brought an age of spiritual enlightenment and revival. Regardless of what it meant for us, it has meant only one thing for the Sons and Daughters of Skyrim; dominance. Since the Empire fell they have grown in strength, expanding their domains and consolidating their power. As a result, the Nord homeland looks quite different to what it did almost thirty years ago.
While it is tempting to simply throw all of the Nords under a single culture, this isn’t entirely the case. While united in spirit by largely shared ideals, they are actually a highly divided society, and in practice there are certain religious and political differences that have caused them to factionalise. These distinct differences can be found across the five Nordic realms. Having visited each, here is a brief description of the regional quirks that can be found within them.
Despite being home to some of the oldest human settled regions in Tamriel, the Province of Skyrim is one of the least populous of the mannish realms. Isolated by mountainous terrain, hunted by all manner of fowl beast, and facing long and hard winters has meant that Skyrim’s population never quite reached the levels it had in areas such the highly fertile High Rock or Cyrodiil. None the less, the people that bred to survive these challenges are a strong and hardy folk, and many times in their history have they been called upon to fight.
Their differences then, aside from which King or Queen they follow, are largely determined by the gods they worship, or more to the point, how they are worshiped. This, alongside various political agendas and local traditions, has resulted in the formation of five Nordic states; The Kingdom of Windhelm, the Kingdom of Solitude, the Kingdom of Whiterun, Greater Falkreath, and Brumahold.
Kingdom of Windhelm Edit
When one says the word “Nord” to the average Cyrod, the closest real life example to the image in their mind will be of the Nords of Eastern Skyrim. Under the watchful gaze of High-King Balor, the kingdom is ruled from their capital of Windhelm, the largest city in the northern-most province of Tamriel. For many of us Cyrods, our most recent memory of the Kingdom of Windhelm was the invasion of Bruma, which saw Windhelm contribute a staggering number of troops to into the venture, though they - unlike many others members of that Nordic Coalition – returned home after the city had fallen. Spanning from Winterhold in the north to Riften in the south, and also including the island of Solsthiem, it is here that perhaps the most stereotypical depiction of the Nords finds its roots. Their culture is deeply steeped in tradition, honouring the customs of their forefathers while remaining just flexible enough to adapt. Each hold within this kingdom, while similar, has a slightly unique flavour, particularly in their cities. In general, Riften has been the kingdom’s centre for land based trade, Winterhold the centre of knowledge and sea trade, Solsthiem the wild frontier and trade outpost, and Windhelm the beating spiritual heart and main military arm, as well as the place where trade lanes for both land and sea meet.
Holds and Settlements Edit
The Rift is a cold-mild land, dominated by deciduous forests, fertile river valleys and lakes, and bordered by the Velothi and Jerall mountains. It’s capital city is Riften, located on the banks of Lake Honrich. The great markets of Riften are renowned throughout Skyrim, with trade caravans arriving from Falkreath and Whiterun, and even as far as Cyrodiil. Here, in the great market square and along the cities canals and walkways, traders peddle their wares to the locals and travellers from far afield. The Rift itself is far more temperate than elsewhere in Skyrim, and is thus home to many farms, the produce of which typically ending up at Riften’s markets. This agriculture, coupled with meaderies and fisheries has resulted in the Rift being the centre for trade and the breadbasket for the region. Unfortunately this relative prosperity has resulted in something of a crime wave within the hold, particularly Riften itself; thieves, charlatans, money-lenders, pickpockets and highwaymen. It is often rumoured that the Thieves Guild maintains its headquarters here. It is quite the shame for without this corruption, even a Cyrod such as myself could find life here more than amicable.
Winterhold once held the honour of being the capital of Skyrim, and though the golden years are long behind it, the city retains great importance and prestige. While the least populous of the Old Holds and arguably the smallest, its importance cannot be overlooked. For within the city of Winterhold lies the College of Winterhold, a source of knowledge in the arcane arts. While spellcraft is largely shunned by Nords and viewed with suspicion, the knowledge contained within the college’s walls is immeasurably valuable, for it contains a large collection of tomes within its mighty library, home of the Ysmir Collective, tasked with preserving the history of Tamriel and all manner of information. Perched near the frozen sea, Winterhold also serves as a final port of call for ships heading towards the mouth of the White River and down to Windhelm. The land itself is covered with snow and ice, its communities making a living hunting horker, seals and whales out on the ice sheets. Great ravines dot the landscape, where the occasional herd of mammoth or elk will travel through. Dwemer ruins poke their heads above the icesheets, hinting of the long lost empire buried deep within the earth. And somewhere in the inhospitable landscape lies the ancient city of Saarthal, the oldest city in Skyrim, utterly abandoned and claimed by snow and ice. For the scholar or archaeologist, the city of Winterhold itself is an enticing destination, but aside from the College and it’s library, there are other Nordic cities one could visit that have similar essence, and with much more agreeable climates.
Solstheim has changed hands many times throughout its long and bloody past. It was here that the Nords struck the final blow against the Falmer with the Snow Prince’s death. It was here that the Skaal made their homes, here that the Septim Empire built Fort Frostmouth to claim the island as an Imperial Province, and here that the Nords went forth to reclaim their island from Imperial hands, an act in which they experienced great success, officially inducted into the Province of Skyrim in 3E 433. Since the schism between the holds, Solstheim remained loyal to the Kingdom of Windhelm, remaining part of that kingdom into the fourth era. Unlike the other parts of the kingdom, Sostheim itself has no Jarl. The land itself is divided into two regions, held by the Nords in the south and the Skaal in the north. These two groups, while racially similar have very different cultures, and spend their time occasionally trading and warring with each other. The south is held by various Thanes who band together in times of crisis, but are otherwise largely autonomous. Once a thriving mining community and trade outpost, these two pursuits have given way to fishing, hunting and lumber, as well as mercenary work and raiding.
Eastmarch, one of the oldest holds in Skyrim, is a land divided into snowy mountain ranges, stretches of open tundra and great expanses of rivers and hot springs. Windhelm, the largest city in Eastern Skyrim and one of the oldest, enjoys greater power than it has held for a long time, once again the centre of a powerful independent kingdom. The city of Ysgramor sits upon the banks of the White River, the final stop for ships heading inland. Windhelm also sits on the doorstep of the only road across the Northern Velothi Mountains, Dunmeth Pass, once connecting the city of Blacklight with Windhelm. However, Nords and Dunmer have a history strewn with violence and mutual distrust. Now, where once was a road that served as a great conduit of trade, the Nords of Windhelm have built a huge wall, an example of both Nordic strength and suspicion of their foreign neighbours. With Almalexia’s rise to power in what can only be described as an outrageously successful coup, coupled with the horrific incident that cost the lives of many members of Windhelm’s royal house, perhaps this suspicion has some justification. Within the city of Windhelm, some of the old crafts are maintained, including how to forge “Cold Steel”, which I have gone into greater detail in one of my other works, “Blades of the North”.
The people of the Kingdom of Windhelm are renowned for their thriving warrior culture that permeates through all levels of society. From the lowliest farmer to the highest lord, it is expected that every male Nord between the ages of sixteen to sixty be ready to fight when called upon by their king. Indeed, so great is this need that in Eastmarch – the hold containing the city of Windhelm – every family is required by law to own at least one weapon and suit of armour so that they may contribute a member of their blood to the army. While they may not be the wealthiest of the Nordic Kingdoms, in terms of military prowess it is undoubtedly one of the strongest, featuring the largest land army out of all the Nord realms.
Isolated from the rest of Tamriel by mountains and by choice, the culture of the Kingdom of Windhelm is a largely insular one, wary of outsiders from neighbouring lands. In recent times, this has even come to apply to Nords from other kingdoms, particularly the neighbouring Kingdom of Whiterun and their old rival, the Kingdom of Solitude. Steeped in ancient tradition, the Nords of the “Old Holds” stem from a fairly traditional branch of god worship. Of great importance to them is their mother Kyne, Shor’s widow, the goddess of wind and lightning, as well as the mighty hero-god Talos. The Nords differ from other religions in that they have two dragon gods in their pantheon; Akatosh, the God of Time, who presided over the beginning, and Alduin, the World-Eater, who will usher in the end. Their pantheon lacks a chief god, as their father Shor - a mighty warrior god who was Kyne’s husband - was slain by Elven gods, and now awaits them in Sovngarde.
On my travels through this kingdom, I noted a strange relationship that was shared between the local Nord population and the Returned Temple. There were moments where I would speak to the locals and there was a common sentiment of mistrust, particularly among the older Nords. And yet, there was nothing in the way of religious persecution as one might expect, and indeed, the religions of the Returned Temple and the Old Nord Faith seem to coexist quite amicably. So why should there be so much suspicion? It took a discussion with one of the scholars at the College of Winterhold to clear the air.
It appears that the suspicion is not a result of religion – as was rightly pointed out to me, the gods of Cyrodiil are hardly a new idea in Skyrim – but of the organisation itself. Having become used to the idea of complete autonomy once more, the idea of another highly organised Cyrodiilic power is treated with caution. However, while this might seem remarkable, the Nords of the Kingdom of Windhelm seem just as wary of Resdayn to the east and Solitude to the West. As a result, it seems less a suspicion of faith and more a suspicion of power that drives the tension between the Returned Temple and the more traditional Nords of Windhelm, the likely reason why they – unlike the rest of the forces present in that Nordic Coalition – did not remain in the city of Bruma after it was taken.
The Kingdom of Solitude Edit
Amongst the holds and cities of Skyrim, Solitude has always been something of an oddity. Virtually unique in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the capital, it still remains in essence a highly Nordic kingdom, albeit one with some Cyrodiilic tendencies. It is a kingdom of contrasts, both in terms of the terrain and the cultures that can be found within its borders. Stretching from Haafingar eastwards to the Pale, westwards to Farrun and Jehanna in High Rock, and encompassing many islands along Skyrim’s northern coast, the Kingdom of Solitude has experienced a period of dynamic expansion and growing economic and military strength. With strong cultural ties to both the Nordic population it rules over and the Cyrodiils with which it has involved itself during dynastic disputes of power, the Kingdom of Solitude is stronger than ever. However, its expansion has occurred perhaps a little too quickly, its system of bureaucracy a little too familiar, its military arm a little too well organised. And with the Returned Temple’s great aversion to anything imperial, the ever expanding power of Freya Bright-Steel, the young and indomitable Queen of Solitude, has made the Kingdom of Soltiude into the uncomfortable elephant in the room.
Holds and Settlements Edit
On its most eastern border lies the inhospitable ice sheets and forests of the Pale. For some reason or another, the Pale is known for the higher than average numbers of dangerous megafauna, and indeed deaths by predation are far more common here than anywhere else in Skyrim. The hold is populated mostly by pine forest and frozen scree slopes to the north, though there is some open tundra in the south. In these areas, hunting and farming are the major sources of income. The Pale itself is something of a contrast itself compared to the rest of the Kingdom of Solitude in that it counts itself as one of the “Old Holds”, a cultural identity that it shares with the other holds that make up the Kingdom of Windhelm. Indeed, the typical Paleman will have more in common with an Eastmarcher than a citizen of Solitude. The union between Haafingar and the Pale was forged not culturally but in marriage when King Thian of Solitude married the Queen of Dawnstar, Macalla. The capital of the Hold is Dawnstar, a large town that serves as an important fishing and trade port, sitting smack bang in the middle of Skyrim’s land and sea trade routes. The Pale is especially renowned in the Kingdom of Solitude for breeding strong warriors, and tough people in general, who often portray the grim and stoic stereotype of a Nord.
Hjaalmarch is a land of cold swamps and marshes, extending for miles and miles in every direction. These, along with the Karth River and the River Hjaal all join to form the Karth Delta, a series of intricately connected waterways that eventually flow out towards the Sea of Ghosts. The south of the hold is dominated by mountain ranges and small scattered smattering of tundra, where the few farms eke out a crop. The only major settlement of note is Morthal, quite large compared to the few villages scattered across the hold, but rather tiny compared to even the modest sized hold capitals, such as Dawnstar and Winterhold. Indeed, it remains one of the least populated holds in all of Skyrim. The people of Hjaalmarch are a highly superstitious group, wary of outsiders and each other. With its many ruins and misty marshland it is often purported to be haunted. For the traveller then, there is little Hjaalmarch to hold much interest save for the ruins of Labyrinthian. Built in a time long forgotten when the hold was far more populous, the ruins now serve as a mighty stronghold during times of war, capable of housing nearly the entirety of the hold’s population within its walls. Aside from this, Hjaalmarch is also described as an alchemist’s dream, as is swamps are said to be home to several ingredients and plants that are rare elsewhere.
The Reachen Holdlyks of Farrun and Jehanna are the northernmost cities in High Rock, sitting towards the tail end of the Wrothgarian mountain chain. Occupying a strip of land known as the Storm Coast, both cities experience the full force of furious winter sea storms. They are the tradition homes of the Bretons, specifically those of the Northern subgroup, and are racially indistinguishable from their cousins in Northpoint. Both have only been brought into the fold of the Kingdom of Solitude since the mid 4E 20’s, though Jehanna has been under Nordic influence since the late third era, taken by Karthian Nords in 3E 397. While ruled by members of Solitude’s royal family, neither can be called a true hold in their own right, nor do they have the same autonomy seen among Skyrim’s holds. As such, they take the role of client states, bound to and reliant on Solitude’s power. Farrun, despite its recent take-over, seems to be largely benefitted by the change of power, and has direct access to Solitude’s trading infrastructure, resulting in it becoming a city of commerce and trade. Jehanna meanwhile has a much darker reputation. The neighbouring penal colony outside the city's walls - first set up by the Imperials - has been maintained by the courts of Solitude, with many convicts working either in the massive shipyards that build and repair Solitude’s Royal fleet or on the treacherous cliff-top mines.
Solitude itself sits within the mountainous Haafingar Hold. Fertile farming land is held at a premium here, as the hold is dominating by the tapering tale of the Druadach Mountains, which span all the way into the Reach and border the Wrothgarian Mountains of High Rock. The city of Solitude itself sits upon the large natural rock formation that bridges part of the Karth River as it flows out to sea. Solitude has long been the centre of trade and bureaucracy; sitting at the other end of the famous Niben Run, it was a major terminal for trade with the East Empire company and still retains much of the trading infrastructure it once did, having a monopoly on the northern most trade routes with ships reaching as far as Northpoint and even Camlorn in High Rock. It is also home to a branch of the Septim dynasty, a rival branch to that found in Wayrest. As such, the ties here to Cyrodiil are far stronger than elsewhere in Skyrim. It is also home to Solitude’s Royal Army and Royal Navy, institutions that echo the forces of the old order, when an Empire still existed.
Unlike their rival kingdom of Windhelm, largely united by shared cultural ideals and race, Solitude’s reach extends over several cultural and racial demographics. From the cold-hardened warriors of the Pale and the insular and superstitious people of Hjaalmarch, to the cosmopolitan and imperialised Solitudeans and the Karthian Nords and Northern Bretons of North Eastern High-Rock, the Kingdom of Solitude is has come together thanks to clever political manoeuvring and the expansionistic behaviour of their monarchy. First, Dawnstar was brought into the fold by King Thian, along with several Imperial fiefs dotted throughout the Sea of Ghosts. Then King Falhof rallied several Karthian Nords and Morthal to their banner. And finally, Queen Morwen annexed the Bretic cities of Farrun and Jehanna (though technically it was two of her surviving three brothers that led their own expeditions with her backing). There is a greater sense of integration to be found here, though all at varying extents. While the Pale holds to the old Nordic traditions as fervently as any hold under Windhelm’s influence, Solitude itself has a very Cyrodiilic flavour mixed into the Nordic majority, while the identities of the Reachen Holdlyks remain tenuously fluid, . A Cyrod such as myself would find living in Solitude not too far removed – excusing the cooler climate - from living in some of the cities of Colovia.
While it does not possess the largest land army in Skyrim – that boast belongs to the Kingdom of Windhelm by a large margin – it does possess the largest fleet, arguably the most formidable armada along the northern coast of Tamriel. Solitude’s Royal fleet patrols the trade lanes that make it the most prosperous of the Nordic realms by far, protecting the coast and merchant ships from pirates and raiders. Further, the Royal Army, while smaller in size than that of its rival in Windhelm, is highly disciplined and well equipped. It is interesting to note the existence of both forces, as they say something very telling about the potential future of Solitude. While the military arms of Dawnstar and Morthal mirror the typical Nordic force of war bands raised in times of need supplemented by martial noble households, the Royal Army and Navy are altogether different beasts. Here instead are found paid professionals, uniformly armed and trained, with highly regimented chains of command. There are also many organisational non-combatants, engineers, log-keepers and so forth that operate behind the scenes. While the organisation known as the Imperial Legion is no more in practice, it would seem that in Solitude at least, it remains in spirit, if not by name. The fact that both the Royal Army and Royal Navy can be found also in Farrun and Jehanna as major garrison forces further reinforces the idea that they are the Solitudean successors to their Imperial counterparts.
The Kingdom of Whiterun Edit
Greater Falkreath Edit