The Elder Scrolls Are Still the RPG Franchise’s Best Mystery

What actually are the Elder Scrolls? We have some answers, but also lots of questions...

Skyrim: Elder Scroll in Alftand
Photo: Bethesda Softworks

Longtime fans of The Elder Scrolls series know that titular ancient artifacts didn’t actually appear until 2006’s The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, 12 years after the franchise’s debut on PC in 1994. Even though these items are crucial to the lore and history of the magical land of Tamriel, most players know next to nothing about them. Unless you do a ton of digging. If you need help unraveling the mystery, we have some answers, although their true origin (who created them and to what end) remains a question yet to be addressed by the series.

The Elder Scrolls are a series of scrolls (obviously) that are described by Bethesda as “fragments of creation from outside of time and space.” Nobody knows how many exist, mostly because they defy the laws of physics, making them incredibly difficult to count or archive. You might see 14 on a shelf and decide to pick one up, but five seconds later, the number may jump to 18 (19 if you count the Elder Scroll still in your hand). To make matters worse, the scrolls can’t be cataloged since their contents are as fluid as probability itself.

Generally speaking, Elder Scrolls come in two varieties: those that record history and those that predict the future. Although, technically speaking, the only difference between the two is a matter of time. Before an Elder Scroll’s “prophecy” occurs, the scroll provides an account of what may come to pass, but every time someone reads it, the details change. The contents of an Elder Scroll only solidify when the “prophecy” happens, at which point the object only displays the events as they occurred. Not even magic can change what is written on one of these scrolls.

Reading an Elder Scroll is a very difficult task, and not just because they are written in a language that, when translated, displays utter gibberish and the occasional constellation. Only people with proper training can actually read an Elder Scroll. As a general rule, only the Elder Scrolls’ caretakers, the Cult of the Ancestor Moth, have ever successfully translated their contents. But even if this cult’s monks don’t lose their minds during the translation process, they still eventually lose their sight, which they accept as a suitable cost for the knowledge.

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While the cult’s monks can read Elder Scrolls without going insane, the technologically-advanced “Lost Race” known as the Dwemer one-upped the monks and invented a device to read the scrolls for them. This device, the Lexicon, essentially photographs an Elder Scroll’s eldritch knowledge and transcribes it into a harmless form that retains all of its crucial details. Typical Dwemer ingenuity.

While the Elder Scrolls are primarily used by citizens of Tamriel (and the Elder Scrolls games) for knowledge, they have other uses. Through unknown means, the scrolls can displace beings in time, or at the very least displace dragons due to their unique connection to time. The only friendly dragon in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Paarthurnax, believes that the mere act of casting the game’s main antagonist, Alduin the World Eater, forward through time erased all knowledge of how the feat was achieved from history (including the Elder Scrolls themselves). The only thing anyone knows for certain is that this act basically nuked the fabric of time itself and created the “Time Wound:” the result of using the power of an Elder Scroll to banish Alduin which removed the peak of the tallest mountain in Skyrim, the Throat of the World, from reality.

For all of the power of the Elder Scrolls, they have one Achilles heel: Dragon Breaks. For those who never heard of these events, they are periods of non-linear time where every possible event (and occasionally impossible events) occurs, resulting in branching parallel realities that are as real and unreal as every other. Usually, people forget these Dragon Breaks ever occurred once time fixes itself, and surviving historical records often contradict one another.

Some Dragon Breaks are worse than others and cause the very laws of reality to break down. During the infamous Middle Dawn, the longest of these Dragon Breaks in the history of Tamriel, some people claimed the Imperial province of Cyrodiil became an egg, while others said they gave birth to their own parents. Since these Dragon Breaks go against every known law of space and time, it is no surprise that Elder Scrolls contain no records or predictions of events within them. This is one of the many reasons why Dragon Breaks are also referred to as “un-time” within The Elder Scrolls’ lore.

Despite all we know about the Elder Scrolls, so much about them remains an enigma. Ideally, they should stay that way. Sure, an Elder Scroll can predict the future, but do we really want to know how or why? Such knowledge would suck all the mystery out of these objects. Still, it’s good to know that if anyone ever needs to read an Elder Scroll but doesn’t have the time to fortify their mind, they can always rely on a Lexicon.

Perhaps we’ll learn more about them when The Elder Scrolls VI finally arrives in the next few years?

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