[Trigger warning: brief mention of abortion.]
When I first popped a copy of Skyrim into my Xbox 360, I had no idea I was about sign away the better part of five years to a love affair with RPGs. I’d played video games as a child, but I never felt like those types of games were something I’d be interested in (or, quite frankly, that I’d even be good at them). I began to realize I might have miscalculated after I checked the number of hours I’d spent just rearranging Breezehome in Whiterun.
I still haven’t stopped playing, either. For me, revisiting the snowy, winding steps up to High Hrothgar felt like coming home in a way that playing other games didn’t. I’ve found myself repeating lines like wrapping a well-loved blanket around my shoulders, familiar and safe. Sure, I took issue with the way most women were represented (or rather, rarely represented at all), but my affection for Skyrim never dwindled. It’s ultimately a good thing that I stuck with it despite the flaws, because I recently discovered a plot point so staggering you’d think I’d been hit with an arrow to the knee. (Forgive me, I had to!)
Before we proceed, I’d highly recommend that you play (or watch) the Thieves Guild quest in Riften. Minor spoilers ahead! If you have played it, did you pay close attention to Karliah? She was a dark elf, formerly of the Thieves Guild inner circle alongside Gallus Desidenius and Mercer Frey, and current member of the fabled Nightingales.
What’s so special about her apart from the obvious, you ask? Not only is there strong evidence that Karliah was directly descended from Tiber Septim (yeah, that Tiber Septim), but she could also very well be Dragonborn. Poor ol’ Ulfric. He might want to consider a career in shouting at people on the streets of Whiterun instead of taking over Skyrim. Just my two cents.
Initially, we don’t learn all that much about Karliah despite having helped in her mission to avenge the death of Gallus. She seemed as reticent as she was fearless — even prepared to cross blades with Mercer who, let me tell you, was pretty handy with those poisoned daggers of his. At first glance, this was your typical story of love, betrayal, and a bit of redemption by way of a supernatural force. That is, until you dig a little deeper into Karliah’s past.
Let’s start with the facts. A dark elf named Barenziah was born to the Lord and Lady of Mournhold, a temple-city within Morrowind’s capitol. This, effectively, made her a princess and potential heir to the throne — except Tiber Septim conquered Morrowind and banished the girl from her own home. It’s well-documented that Barenziah grew up in Skyrim, escaped her gilded cage years later, and promptly joined the Thieves Guild (as you do). She was still only a teenager when an Imperial guard finally caught up with her. His name was Symmachus, an adviser and general to the Emperor, tasked with tracking her down.
It was really worth the read if you found any of that as interesting as I did. You can get your hands on The Real Barenziah series for free, which chronicles Barenziah’s journey from Morrowind to Skyrim and back to Morrowind again. But today, we’re more interested in what happened in the third book, because that’s where she met Tiber Septim: first Emperor of the Septim Empire, also known to have been Dragonborn.
“Tiber Septim was nothing like the grim, grey, giant warrior she’d pictured. He was of average height, fully half a head shorter than tall Symmachus, although he was well-knit of figure and lithe of movement. He had a winning smile, bright — indeed, piercing — blue eyes, and a full head of stark white hair above a lined and weathered face. He might have been any age from forty to sixty.”
The romance that quickly bloomed between the two would have been charming if it weren’t for the fact that a sixty-year age gap separated them. He proceeded to manipulate Barenziah under the guise of a powerful man swept up in a love he couldn’t control, but when the teen became pregnant, he was enraged. (Because of course.) The Emperor demanded that she terminate the pregnancy despite her understandable confusion and fear, and that was when the narrative started to get a little, shall we say, murky.
Of course, the story heavily implied that Barenziah did obey his command. But delving a little further into the history of the book itself might suggest a new interpretation.
The Real Barenziah series was written in five parts by a man named Plitinius Mero (an alias) who, essentially, transcribed the woman’s life while in her employ. What if the two deliberately left out the very real possibility that Barenziah continued to bear that child against the Emperor’s command? That information was not only dangerous to her, but to the unborn baby as well. What’s more, she departed a little too swiftly from the Imperial City once her lover reacted negatively to the news. Then, after taking her place as the Queen of Morrowind, it was recorded that she had three children — Helseth Hlaalu, Morgiah, and Dralsi, a bastard child who was sent away from her family to avoid scandal.
And what became of Dralsi, you ask? She joined the Thieves Guild like her mother before her, rose up the ranks to become a Nightingale, and — here we’ve come full circle — she had her own, daughter, too.
Karliah, granddaughter of Queen Barenziah and the last direct blood relative of Tiber Septim. We all know about Pelagius by now, who was presumed to hold that very title before the throne defaulted to his cousin, Kintyra. The family line was said to have officially ended with Martin Septim, the man you helped ascend to the throne in the main quest of Oblivion. All that time, the crown had passed from man to man, further and further away from the Septim Dynasty, when a far more qualified individual lived blissfully unaware of her importance while civil war raged across Skyrim.
I found this revelation particularly interesting when the instigator of that very war, Ulfric Stormcloak, was known to be deeply racist and cruel to the dark elves living in his city. How incredible would that big reveal have been? Ulfric went to all that trouble murdering the High King (a duel to some, an assassination to others) only to be faced with someone who held a stronger claim to the throne than Skyrim had seen in generations. And that person was not only a woman, but a dark elf — the very people he despised so strongly.
But, wait! Wasn’t there only room for one Dragonborn in Skyrim? Not necessarily. When you met up with the Greybeards and pressed them as to whether you were the equivalent of the Sole Survivor, they offered a very clear answer:
“You are not the first. There have been many of the Dragon Blood since Akatash first bestowed that gift upon mortalkind. Whether you are the only Dragonborn of this age … that is not ours to know. You are the only one that has been revealed thus far.”
That left plenty of room for others with the Dragon Blood to exist at the same time the events of Skyrim took place. In fact, this could be supported by your own Dragonborn’s sudden appearance and rapid rise to power. They didn’t always know they had those powers lying dormant inside them, but now they’re fighting a war and rallying themselves against a great evil. Maybe Karliah played her own unique part in this story, or perhaps — and I think this would be far more likely — Bethesda simply teased us with this information with no intention of actually following through with it.
Much of the lore in Skyrim has its twists and turns, and all of this was very much meant to be open to interpretation. For Barenziah — who was known to be a clever woman with a great deal of power in her later years — being able to control what legacy she left behind was a luxury many of us never receive. And that’s pretty damn impressive.
All that said, in The Nightingales Vol. II (a book valued at 500 septims, which is higher than any other book in the game), Gallus wrote about his own interpretation of Barenziah’s lover through the investigations of Karliah’s mother. However, that theory wasn’t confirmed either. We may never know the true story, as all the major players are long dead, but I’m a sucker for broody, mysterious characters who turn out to be more qualified to lead a country than corrupt heads of state. Karliah could have ushered in a new age of inclusivity and tolerance, and yet we’re stuck with knock-off Thorin Oakenshield and that guy from Battlestar Galactica. Sigh.
Throughout popular culture, countless men have been allowed to reclaim their birthright after facing great peril and personal strife. Karliah was just as skilled and worthy of that responsibility as Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings and Jon Snow from Game of Thrones. We just have to, you know, give women a chance to actually have those stories.