While there is so much to be said about The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind 20 years after its release, there are few aspects of that all-time great game I love to think about more than The 36 Lessons of Vivec.
There are over 300 books in Morrowind, but few (with the obvious exception of The Lusty Argonian Maid) have had the staying power of The 36 Lessons of Vivec. For years, Elder Scrolls fans have poured over the pages of those lessons in an attempt to discover what they actually mean and why they exist. Their collective efforts have unearthed many interpretations that typically lead to one conclusion: The 36 Lessons of Vivec is one of the greatest pieces of lore in video game history.
What makes a relatively small collection of in-game books worthy of that lofty title? I’m glad you asked…
Who is Vivec?
While it’s always important to “consider the source,” that lesson proves to be especially important if you’re thinking of diving into The 36 Lessons of Vivec.
Alongside Sotha Sil and Almalexia, Vivec is one of the three immortal god-kings of Morrowind. Born as a hermaphrodite and sometimes described as a “warrior poet,” Vivec is often recognized as a kind of jack of all trades on a galactic level. They’ve done more than I can possibly recount here without straying too far from the point (which, as we’ll soon see, is also, oddly, kind of the point). This site offers a fantastic recap of Vivec’s various adventures if you’re looking for more information.
For now, what you really need to know is that Vivec has not only seen and done more than even most gods but seemingly exists (or has seen into) multiple realities. That means that their mind functions a bit…differently. Imagine trying to have a conversation with David Foster Wallace after he’s spent about 20 years in the Black Lodge from Twin Peaks. That’s about what it’s like to try to dive into Vivec’s mind. It’s hard enough to keep up with the experiences they’ve had in the mortal world, but when those experiences are being relayed through the perspective of someone who has seen beyond the conventional walls of reality…well, things can get confusing.
That leads us to The 36 Lessons of Vivec.
What Are The 36 Lessons of Vivec?
In the context of Morrowind’s in-game universe, The 36 Lessons of Vivec is a series of books seemingly written by Vivec. Each volume is described as a “Sermon,” but that term is used somewhat loosely. While some of the volumes deal with religious subjects or moral lessons, they’re really just long looks at a variety of topics (which is another way that the term sermon is sometimes used). You could argue that the fact they were written by a god also makes them sermons but…well, let’s not wander down that rabbit hole quite yet.
You should also know that while the 36 Lessons of Vivec are part of a collection, each volume is spread throughout Morrowind’s world. If you want to read them all within the game, you’ll have to hunt each volume down. The fact that the 36 books can’t be found in one location (it’s actually quite difficult to acquire all of them) means that most Morrowind players ended up reading them out of order or only ever saw some of them. Keep that in mind for later.
In the context of Morrowind as a video game, The 36 Lessons of Vivec were actually written by Michael Kirkbride: a former Bethesda writer and designer who is famous for having crafted quite a bit of (often bizarre) lore for the early Elder Scrolls games. He’s also….a bit of a character. Known as something of an eccentric himself within the Elder Scrolls community (which is honestly putting it mildly), Kirkbride truly rides that fine line between brilliant and crazy. Here’s what he had to say about the process of writing The 36 Lessons of Vivec (via a 2021 Reddit AMA):
“I’ve already given an account of how the 36 were written: a week of bourbon, smokes, and solitude. I’ve never dropped acid in my life.”
As you can see, there are some similarities between the personalities and writing styles of Vivec and Kirkbride. It’s very important to keep that in mind as we dive a little deeper into what The 36 Lessons of Vivec are and why they’re so significant from both a lore and meta context.
The 36 Lessons of Vivec Are Filled With Truth, Lies, Exaggerations, Prophecies, and Revelations That are Nearly Impossible to Tell Apart
If you were trying to file The 36 Lessons of Vivec into either a traditional fiction or nonfiction section, you’d quickly find that you’ve undertaken a nearly impossible task. Some Sermons would fit somewhat neatly into one section or the other, while others would defy classification. Some Sermons would even need to be torn into pieces and divided between both sections.
The 36 Lessons of Vivec offer a strange blend of fact and fiction. Some of the things described in the volumes definitively happened, while others most certainly did not. Other events are fictional but presented as if they were fact. Some events are facts but presented as fiction (or in a heavily stylized way). Then you have things that have been exaggerated, potentially misremembered, or constructed solely for the purposes of the writer’s own amusement (or even to throw the reader off from what is real and what is not).
Understanding why The 36 Lessons of Vivec are written in that way requires you to understand its two writers (Vivec and Michael Kirkbride). Vivec’s mind is likely a jumble of events spanning centuries and dimensions all presented in a variety of narrative styles that they have picked up over the years. They may not mean to be intentionally obtuse at all times, but rather that there are parts of the Sermons that were almost certainly written in a way that made sense to them and nobody else.
At the same time, you could argue that Kirkbride may have prided themselves on both their knowledge of Elder Scrolls lore and their ability to relay that lore in so many different ways. When you’re trying to convey so many ideas and so much history during a “week of bourbon, smokes, and solitude,” there’s obviously a degree to which you’re writing it for your own benefit/amusement as well as to convey information to someone else.
It should also be said that both Vivec and Kirkbride are both trolls in their own way. There are certain parts of the Sermons that were clearly designed to throw you off the track or even mess with your mind. Some pieces of information contradict other pieces of information, some lies are presented as truths, and, much like Grampa Simpson, some stories seemingly go nowhere.
However, it’s disingenuous to suggest that The 36 Lessons were written just to mess with everyone. In fact, the reason Morrowind fans are so obsessed with the texts all these years later is the fact that they hold the key to properly understanding the game’s complex universe.
The 36 Lessons of Vivec Offer a Blend of Autobiographical Stories, Historical Recaps, Poems, Hidden Messages, and Erotic Adventures
I’ll gladly sell you a bridge if you think I or anyone else can offer a definitive explanation of the “meaning” of The 36 Lessons of Vivec or even why they were really written (at least from a lore perspective). However, there are a few definitive themes that run throughout most of the Sermons.
First off, The 36 Lessons of Vivec almost certainly tell most of Vivec’s life story. Throughout the sermons are a series of anecdotes, lessons, and fables that can be strung together in a way that allows you to form a rough timeline of many of the major events of Vivec’s life.
What’s very important to remember, though, is that you’re reading a story about Vivec’s life as written by Vivec. While it’s usually a smart bet to consider anyone telling their life’s story to be some kind of unreliable narrator, it’s especially important to keep that advice in mind in this instance. At best, Vivec may be misremembering the events of their own life or failing to present those events in a way that can be easily understood. At worst, they’re lying for their own amusement or simply trying to hide certain pieces of information.
Along those same lines, The 36 Lessons of Vivec actually offer a pretty extensive history of Morrowind and other realms. Little of that information is presented directly, but there is quite a lot of history to be found in the Sermons’ various stories. Again, you can’t take all of that historical information at face value, but that information is still there for those with the patience and interest required to look for it.
It should also be said that there is quite a bit of eroticism in The 36 Lessons. The same can be said of the religious/historical texts The 36 Lessons were clearly inspired by, but Vivec’s sexual adventures are often so much more than a detour or attempt to cash in on The Lusty Argonian Maid’s popularity. They often reveal important pieces of lore and remind us that Vivec injected quite a bit of themselves into these lessons, historical tales, fables, poems, and instructions. Indeed, Vivec often seems to believe that there is more to learn through intimacy than through many other tactics. Such revelations hammer home the idea that there is actually very little wasted text in The 36 Lessons and that most everything has some kind of purpose.
They may also help explain some of The 36 Lessons’ many hidden messages. For instance, the first letters of each paragraph in the 36th Sermon spell out the words “Foul Murder.” When tied to another Sermon that volume connects through via coded numbers (another trick found throughout the Sermons), the implication of that message seems to be that Vivec is essentially confessing to a murder. That idea is fascinating enough on its own, but what’s really interesting is trying to figure out why Vivec would do such a thing and why they would hide certain pieces of information via a hidden message. Were they subconsciously telling on themselves out of guilt, or are those stories meant only for those who dared to look for them in the first place?
Those hidden messages are the clearest indication that you’re not really meant to read The 36 Lessons as if they were traditional literary works. Many stories are told in pieces spread throughout multiple Sermons, and some others can only be interpreted once you’ve used some hidden message found in another Sermon as a kind of codex. So, while you may think it’s more confusing to discover the books out of order as so many Morrowind players did, there’s a degree to which it almost seems like the books were intended to be discovered out of order. It’s certainly difficult to make any sense of the Sermons when you’re reading them one at a time, but it’s not that much easier to understand them if you’re reading every volume straight through. The real key is to find something in them that makes sense and use that as the basis for whatever your future interpretations.
That’s the thing about trying to actually understand The 36 Lessons. The promise that the texts offer some kind of explanation about the more confusing and interesting parts of Morrowind’s (and The Elder Scrolls’) lore is part of the appeal, but those that have lost themselves in those volumes are often more interested in solving a puzzle than finally finding a particular answer. In fact, anyone who dives deep enough into The 36 Lessons may find that most of its answers aren’t limited to the world of Morrowind.
The 36 Lessons of Vivec Often Break the Fourth Wall
There are several passages in The 36 Lessons that don’t make much sense even by the standards of those texts. Consider this passage from Sermon 11, for instance:
“The ruling king is armored head to toe in a brilliant flame. He is redeemed by each act he undertakes. His death is only a diagram back to the waking world.”
Here’s another example of a similar passage from Sermon 23 that feels like it was pulled from an entirely different work:
“The immobile warrior is never fatigued. He cuts sleep holes in the middle of a battle to regain his strength.”
When most players encounter a passage like the one above, they’ll likely either assume that “cutting sleep holes” is some kind of metaphysical concept or it’s just a piece of gibberish meant to throw you off. As it turns out, though, that passage (and more like it) represent a little of both those ideas and neither of them. Actually, as far as anyone can tell, they’re passages written directly to address the player’s character in Morrowind (or even you, the person playing the game).
For instance, that first passage seems to be a reference to Morrowind’s respawn system and how dying in the game brings us back to our reality. The second seems to be referring to the way you heal yourself in the game by pausing the title to drink a health potion.
While there’s little doubt that The 36 Lessons contain prophecies (some of which involve the player’s character), it’s the way that Vivec writes those particular prophecies that is so strange. It’s almost like they’re treating your adventure and their world as a video game. Are they aware that they’re just a video game character? Were The 36 Lessons written solely as a device used to smash the 4th wall (both by Vivec and Kirkbride)?
We’ll circle back to that last question in a second, but there is little doubt that Vivec is aware that they are a character. In fact, Sermon 12 brings up the idea of “CHIM,” which Vivec describes as the “secret syllable of royalty.” As far as most people can tell, it’s essentially a level of ascension in which one has viewed the scope of the universe and truly understands their place in it. Many fans have taken it to mean that Vivec (and a few other figures in The Elder Scrolls universe) do indeed realize that they are essentially video game characters.
Admittedly, that’s a simplified reading of the concept, but the point is that CHIM seems to be an elusive state of existence that is both a burden and a blessing. As Everything, Everywhere, All at Once recently showed, total knowledge and awareness can yield tremendous power and infinite suffering in equal measure. If Vivec is aware of exactly what they are…well, that could help explain not only those 4th wall breaking moments but why the rest of The 36 Lessons are written like they were penned by someone whose mind is both completely broken and totally aware.
So does that also mean that The 36 Lessons really are just the elaborate work of two troll authors? Well…no, but that idea does bring us closer to what seems to be one of the few universal truths about the Sermons.
The 36 Lessons of Vivec Are An Anti-Ending Explainer Meant to Teach You The Joy of The Interpretation Process
I actually don’t mind the age of “ending explained culture” we’re currently living in. More often than not, I see “ending explainer” as a kind of code phrase that we’ve all taken to mean “here’s a place to share and challenge your thoughts, theories, and revelations.”At the same time, there are certain films, books, games, and shows that were so clearly never meant to be properly “explained.” It’s always important to remember that someone else’s interpretation doesn’t need to be your own.
In many ways, The 36 Lessons of Vivec are the ultimate tribute to that concept.
Perhaps Michael Kirkbride or Vivec themselves could offer you a full explanation of the in-game and real-world meaning of The 36 Lessons of Vivec, but I sooner suspect that Vivec and Kirkbride intended for them to be unsolvable puzzles to at least some degree. The biggest truth you’ll find in any of the Sermons is the idea that we’re meant to not only accept the ambiguities and complexities of the world but to find some kind of pleasure in the things we don’t know.
Vivec is a living god who realized the true nature of their reality and was seemingly able to survive that revelation because they embraced the insanity of that concept. It’s a little troubling to think that Kirkbride may have also thought of themselves as a kind of god, but they too seemed to be fascinated with the idea that there are rarely definitive answers and that those who claim to offer them can often be liars. Like many other loremasters, they may have grown tired of people looking for explanations and wished to find a way for fans to simply find pleasure in the process of forming a theory rather than needing to seek out a definitive answer.
To me, The 36 Lessons exists as a piece of lore meant to be eternally analyzed, interpreted, solved, and explained. That idea alone makes it one of the most fascinating pieces of lore in RPG history, but the thing I can’t get over some 20 years after Morrowind’s release is how that same idea so perfectly captures so many of the things that make the rest of the game great. Much like The 36 Lessons, Morrowind was complicated, confusing, frustrating, beautiful, fascinating, unique, and, above all else, well worth losing yourself in all these years later.
If you’d like to learn more about The 36 Lessons of Vivec, I highly recommend checking out some of these resources:
The Imperial Library – A complete online collection of The 36 Lessons of Vivec
New Whirling School – A collection of various interpretations and possible explanations of The 36 Lessons of Vivec
The Metaphysics of Morrowind – A detailed explanation of the metaphysical elements of Morrowind and what they may mean for The 36 Lessons of Vivec