The Elder Scrolls

Altmeri Homogenization: An alternative to the narrative of regression in Tamriel

Yes, I refuse to stop.

So a very popular idea is that Tamriel is actually technologically (and magically, if you want to draw a distinction) regressing, each era becoming more and more mundane and primitive than the period before it. This is a very popular idea in fantasy; the Götterdämmerung, the twilight of the divine essence which raises man above his baser state as the apocalypse draws closer, is foundational not only to a lot of real-world mythology, but also to the worlds of Tolkien, Warhammer, ASoIaF, Dark Souls, etc. It is a strong meme because human beings are inherently nostalgic, and as mortal beings experience life as a narrative of largely increasing and inevitable decline. As a result, it is comfortable to project those feelings on the world around us and the fictional universes we create.

And yes, in TES, there's a lot of knowledge of magic and esoteric engineering which is shown to be lost or diminished. Yokudan Shehai, Tonal Architecture, widespread skill in the Thu'um, and the unnamed animal-themed mysticism of the early Nibenese. All of these represent the efforts of different cultures to master the metaphysics of their reality (their "science", by another name) which have been culturally abandoned. So indeed, knowledge has been lost.

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But there's an exception to this rule: The Altmer.

What is conceived of as simply "magic" in the present day of the setting is, when you trace it back, actually the Altmer's own unique approach to mastering the physics of their world. And to this day, it remains basically an unbroken chain of knowledge since it was pioneered by the Psijic Order. In fact, it's advanced basically without major setback since the beginning, becoming more proliferated and sophisticated in every successive time period. To quote Yvonne Bienne of the 4th era Synod, "No pretense is made that this list is complete. New discoveries are made and new enchantments are revealed often enough that this work will eventually become outdated. Those who follow may choose to revise this work as needed."

With this in mind, it may be more accurate to dismiss the idea of regression, despite its romanticism, and instead view the techno-magical progression of Tamriel as one of Altermization. Through a combination of ease-of-use and the fact that it was backed by one of the most influential cultures on Nirn, modern magic was able to slowly kill off its competing methodologies by monopolizing intellectual interest, ultimately cultivating a hegemony over scholarship where there simply weren't enough social resources to preserve the knowledge outside of some isolated pockets. (Tonal Architecture is kind of a separate situation, of course, but generally speaking.)

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This is something which also happens in our reality. Many skills have actually disappeared from the eras, not because they were per-se lost, but because they were abandoned due to being uncompetitive or simply not competitive enough for the reward. The most famous example is the forging of Damascus Steel. The technology wasn't destroyed, guns just became so overwhelmingly competitive that the knowledge was just neglected. There are many less famous examples – there are types of types of clothing we just can't make any more because hyper-specialized types of weaves and tanning methods are just gone.

Those aren't quite comparable to entire traditions of knowledge, of course (a better comparison might be Western vs. Chinese medicine, but that's its own can of worms) but I do think they illustrate the point. What do you think?


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