Canon as it relates to The Elder Scrolls is the concept that a fundamental set of games, texts, or other publications collectively constitutes a body of knowledge about the series that is inherently worth a greater level of consideration than works published by other parties and/or containing different types of content. Canonicity does not correlate 1:1 with the idea of objective truth—two works may both be canonical under a particular definition of canon while also contradicting each other—but "non-canonical" ideas, sometimes referred to as "fanon," are often considered false by default within a specific canon, unless proven otherwise by a canonical work.
Although the "canonical authors" of the series are generally accepted to be any ZeniMax Media company, including Bethesda Softworks, the term is intentionally ambiguously defined by the game developers and has been a source of contention among the wider community for this reason. In February 2014, Michael Kirkbride released C0DA, an influential but controversial text rejecting the concept as a whole. The Elder Scrolls Wiki does not endorse the use of the term "canon" in an unqualified form, instead opting to classify documents based on their licensing status.
- Main article: Wikipedia:Unreliable narrator
To understand canon and continuity, the overall Elder Scrolls series should be looked at as a set of stories written by many different people which "document" historical "events." Although some stories are more reliable than others, they all are looked upon as part of the overall "history." It should also be remembered that all of these stories are simply that—stories. There are numerous errors that inevitably arise between the stories simply because different authors have their own ways of telling the story and may not have the time and resources to perfectly align the details.
The situation can be compared to Greek and Roman mythology, or the stories of King Arthur. The various Elder Scrolls tales are a group of separate but linked stories, and are told by many different authors over a period of time.
Because the term "canon" is not clearly defined in The Elder Scrolls, confusion may arise from conflicting uses of the term. Some common definitions used to group documents within the series are as follows, broadly listed in order from more narrow to more open.
- Works that appear within Elder Scrolls games published by a ZeniMax Media company, including Bethesda Softworks and ZeniMax Online Studios, excluding specific aspects (or the entireties) of early titles that may be subject to retroactive continuity (retcon), such as The Elder Scrolls: Arena and The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall
- The contents of all Elder Scrolls games published by a ZeniMax Media Company, regardless of retcon status
- All Elder Scrolls works published under the copyright of a ZeniMax Media company, but also including other licensed works, such as The Elder Scrolls: The Official Cookbook
- All Elder Scrolls works licensed by a ZeniMax Media company, and also works privately issued by employees of a ZeniMax Media company during (but not after) their tenures at their respective company
- All licensed Elder Scrolls works, and also works privately issued by employees of a ZeniMax Media company during or after their tenures at their respective company[note 1]
- All licensed Elder Scrolls works and all works published by current or former employees, as well as fan-made works published in relation to non-fan-made works such that the latter works were influenced by the former, such as fan-written comments within roleplaying threads between developers and fans
- All licensed and unlicensed Elder Scrolls works, i.e. including all fan-made works
- Various groupings of Elder Scrolls works based on the relevance, quality, or originality of their contents, and not licensing status (authorship) at all
The above list is not complete; the number of canons that can be constructed from a body of works is mathematically finite, but too large to document.
Developer comments on canon
The following archive attempts to document various developer quotes on the subject of canonicity and, by extension, the nature of the lore as a whole. While discussing the topic, developers have in different moments completely contradicted each other and even themselves. Bethesda's ultimate position on canonicity in The Elder Scrolls is subsequently dubious. Comments not directly commenting on canonicity but which bear relevance to discussions of it are also included here, such as fan input on game development.
Was there any player input from the last games that you directly used for Oblivion?
Is the Creation Club canon? (10/03/17) (UESP Discord server, #skyrim)
What's Bethesda's relationship to lore and canon? (10/26/17) (UESP Discord server, #lore)
What about items from other games? Are those canon, too? (10/26/17) (UESP Discord server, #lore)
Do you think MKB's lore should be considered canon?
Talking about the Lessons of Vivec, why did you write Sermon Zero? Should it be interpreted as being official lore?
One of the most common questions I get about The Elder Scrolls Online is whether its lore is considered canon in [the] broader Elder Scrolls [universe]. [Is it?]
How will the books and texts released after Morrowind (e.g. Vehk's Teachings) and the teasers and reports before Oblivion (e.g. Nu-Mantia Intercept, Love Letter from the Fifth Era, etc.) be folded into the official lore and will this lore appear in-game? Was the 'Trial of Vivec' RP (which culminated in the banishing of Azura from Mundus) a semi-official conclusion of the Morrowind storyline, or can we expect to learn more of its connection to recent events, along with the true fate of Vivec/Vehk?
Does Bethesda consider Obscure Texts and developer comments as "actual lore" or "canon"?(24/11/11)
Which is the canon ending to the Civil War in Skyrim? The Imperials or the Stormcloaks?
And lastly, considering that every piece of new information is being scrutinized heavily by the TES fan base, how much weight does the online community have with the decision making process?
"The people who've bought and played our past games have a huge amount of weight, because ultimately, that's who we're making the game for. But keep in mind, we've sold millions of Elder Scrolls games, and 99% of the people who've bought our games are not online talking about them. We get phone calls, we get letters, we do our own surveys to see what they like and don't like. So we're at no loss for fan feedback. And believe it or not, we read it all. We read the forums all the time, we read all the letters, all the reviews and all the surveys. We also spend a great deal of time looking at other games, and other fan communities to see how those games are received.
"I can honestly say our fans are the best I've seen. I've come to realize that our games have become as much a part of our fan's lives, as it is of our lives, and that does create a bond and a responsibility to do something we are all excited about. There are obviously some issues that fans discuss where they simply don't have all the necessary info for us to really do exactly what they want. This goes for many things regarding Oblivion, because it's still in development, and people are forced to discuss things they haven't seen.
"But with regard to our past games, where the experience is there for you to play and see and comment on, feedback on that really drives us to create the next game and make it even better more than anything else."
I think we had an email conversation a couple months back; you were talking about how you relate lore to real-world history. Can you talk about how you look at the lore with The Elder Scrolls?
"Yeah, I think it's important that when you look at any—I think people want the answers, always, like, 'What is Truth?'—but what is Truth in the history of Earth? Truth is often written by the winners, and that there are always different perspectives on what happened in history, and so we do take that approach with the lore in Elder Scrolls, where all perspectives can be correct. But which one is more correct? That's why we get in these debates over, 'Hey, what is Truth?' And so, for us, it's sort of a priority. The truth in Elder Scrolls, primarily, is what you saw on the screen."Like, you can read a thousand books and say, 'There are no dragons,' and if a dragon comes up on the screen, well, you saw it happen in a game. But it's not just the current games; we've got to go back to Arena, and then what was on the screen in Arena? What was on the screen in Daggerfall? What was in the manual? You know, there's things where, in the manual of Arena—I think that's where they mentioned Sithis and the Dark Brotherhood—so that, for us, kind of trumps, well, these other references to what the Dark Brotherhood worships. And it is hard to keep track of all of that, but that's what gives it that kind of realistic for what it is flavor."
What are some of your opinions on fan theories out there?
So does that mean the flavor text in the new cookbook is canon? The author said she wasn't sure.
[In reference to an interview with Kirkbride that he wished to see removed from The Imperial Library.]
[In reference to fan contributions to the series.]
What is it that makes The Elder Scrolls so unique and appealing to you? I.E. lore wise, gameplay wise, open-ended nature, etc.
"We read the forums. Sometimes there are good ideas; sometimes there are god-awful ideas. (Hmmm...kind of like our design meetings.) Some of the good ideas are already planned for inclusion, and have been for a long time. Some of the bad ideas have already been sufficiently mocked, and there's no reason to comment on them here.
"It is, of course, impossible to implement every suggestion we see on these forums. However, if we see something that makes sense, and wouldn't screw up our schedule/budget/sanity, we might include it. And there's always the possibility of things being included in the future."Short version: suggest away."
"If there are so many radically different accounts of certain historical events, how can any researcher possibly tell which accounts are true and which are not? Furthermore, does this not mean that there is no unanimously accepted history of Tamriel?"
[In reference to the Daggerfall Unity project, a fan-made recreation of Daggerfall in the Unity engine.]
[In reference to a supposed database used by Mark Nelson and others to keep track of the "canonical" lore internally.]
[During an episode of ESO Live.]
"Elder Scrolls is different from most fantasy campaign worlds, right? I mean, the typical paradigm, you know - George RR Martin with Westeros, Tolkien with Middle Earth, the familiar D&D worlds of The Forgotten Realms or the world of Greyhawk - those all have histories and backgrounds that are all laid out and they've all got some lore-daddy who decided everything and everything is 'this is how it is', so everything works within the envelope of things that are already decided.
"Elder Scrolls - Tamriel - does not follow that paradigm. In Elder Scrolls, all lore is delivered not from on high by revelation, but from people who live their lives in the game, in the world of the game, and based on their beliefs. So that does two things for us: It means the lore always carries not just information about what the person is talking about, but also information about the person and their culture. Because the way the lore is delivered tells you how they believe things actually work in the world."What this means, of course, is that people have different viewpoints - these viewpoints sometimes contradict each other, and so sometimes we have players saying "alright, this person believes that, and that person believes this other thing, but which one's the real thing?" Well… it's not a world like ours. In a world like ours, where you can sort of trust in science and say "well yes, people have different beliefs but I know there is an objective reality." This is a world of myth. This is a world where reality is actually changeable, where the Divines can change not only what happens going forward, but what has happened in the past. So, you know, the idea there is an objective reality behind all these different people's opinions is not necessarily the case in the world of Tamriel. So listen to what all these different people have to say, make up your own mind, make up your own beliefs about what happened and you're as liable - since you're playing in their world and you're playing a character in their world - what you think happened is as legitimate as what that NPC thinks."
[How should marketing materials be treated in the lore?]
[In a message to the community as he stepped down from his position as ESO's loremaster.]
"Tamriel is a world where all history, past and future, is described in the ever-shifting texts of the mysterious Elder Scrolls, which tell always of what might be rather than of what is. And this is a uniquely suitable setting for a multiplayer online game that hosts players of many cultures and backgrounds. What could be better for characters in a role-playing game than an expansive world of many different cultures, each with its own history and myths, so you can be whoever you want to be? That sounds great—but what should your character believe is really true? Since all the stories of this world come from characters in the setting itself, and you can listen to them and read their books, you can decide that for yourself. And whatever that is, it's as right as any other character's beliefs, player or non-player, because your character lives in the same world they do.
"And what your character does, and says, and believes, becomes part of that world. For you, and whoever else shares the experience, what happened is now part of the lore. The non-player characters are all there, ready to share their stories with you, but it's you who makes those stories live, because your character has agency and meaningful choices where the NPCs do not. Moreover, what your character does persists for you, and the stories you’ve told and the experiences you've shared with your friends live on in your own memories. You just added to the history of Tamriel."And not just in your memories, because Tamriel is a world that continues in constant development, and where that world goes next depends upon what you did and how you reacted to it! The game devs pay close attention to what you liked and what you didn't. Recurring characters like Razum-dar and Naryu Virian don’t come back because the game devs think they should, they recur because YOU told the game devs that your experiences with those characters were significant and memorable. What you do in Tamriel, and how you feel about what you did, steers the direction of future development."
[In an interview given to the Illustrated Compendium of Aldmeri Mythogony Team, a fan project to explore the nature of Aldmeris, after he stepped down from his position as ESO loremaster]
Kind of an interesting question, that also got posted on the forums… I guess from a lore perspective, would we ever consider community written, or community inspired, lore. Like having them be part of the process in a way, or do we strictly keep it pretty in house.
"We keep it in house, for the most part, because we don't want to, you know, step on anybody's toes. We don't want to steal things from people. And I think we've got a lot of really great ideas now. That said, one of the cool things is that when we create something, there's a response to that. And that response is almost never what we expect. Which is really neat. When I did Truth in Sequence, which is the Sotha Sil sermons or whatever, I had a very clear idea of what I was getting across. "This is obvious," whatever. And then it made it out into the world, and all the folks out there in the lore community were picking it to pieces and saying "it could mean this, or it could mean this," and I was just blown away. I was like, "oh my god, it totally could mean that!" [...]
"It's amazing. It's this weird, kind of miraculous thing that happens, where you create something, and you send it off into the world, and it lives its own life, and people look at it and they interpret it one way or they interpret it another. [...] As writers, it's our job to create things that people can debate. If we create something, and we say, you know, "this is absolutely how it is," and we write this solid, irrefutable thing, then we failed. Because then people say, "that's clearly the truth," and the debate is over. [...]"It's a fine line. You want to provide lore that's interesting and that people can really think about, but you also want to use a light touch and let people come to their own conclusions. When somebody sees something in a way that's fundamentally different from a way that I see it, but I wrote it, that's really encouraging. That means that we've done something right."
What advice did outgoing Loremaster Lawrence Schick give you before he left? Did he pass on his hat, literally?
You've mentioned that you read fan theories and works frequently - has one ever inspired you to add something based on it, or made you change something you were working on?
"Not consciously, no. I've had my head in TES lore for a long time, and my theories are pretty much locked down at this point. But this kind of leads into the points Lawrence made in his farewell address. Even as the Loremaster, my personal theories and perspectives on the lore are not authoritative. Good lore should allow ample room for interpretation and debate. If I write something that brooks no opposition and comes off as totally irrefutable, I think I've failed as a writer."What I find really miraculous is how people can take a piece of text that I've written and find something in it that I never even considered. I'm a firm believer in the idea that art exists on its own, separate from the artist. The intentions of the writer — while potentially interesting — are ultimately kind of irrelevant. What matters is the text itself. So, when I see a fan lay out a compelling argument that is A) totally consistent with existing lore and the text itself, and B) completely at odds with my own thoughts of the subject, it's an amazing feeling. Every answer we provide should prompt more questions. Questions lead to contemplation and debate. Keeping that excitement and exploration going is basically the whole reason we do this stuff!"
How much is your work influenced by the community?
In his farewell letter, Lawrence Schick mentioned how "the lore is yours." Do you have anything you'd like to add or amend to that sentiment?
"I think it's spot-on. Even as the Loremaster, my personal interpretations of the lore are not authoritative. It's our job to provide multiple, conflicting perspectives and encourage people in the community to draw their own conclusions. How you choose to connect those dots (or not connect them) is entirely up to you."All creative enterprises—books, movies, games, etc—should ideally serve as jumping off points for the next great idea. When you lock an idea in amber and insist that it remain exactly the same, and that it conform to your personal preferences, you're basically strangling it to death. The Elder Scrolls belong to everyone, and as long as we provide inspiration for your creative expression and fan-debates, I'd say we're doing the job well."
[Posted from his personal Twitter account.]
Would there be any way to reach you outside of social media to ask you a question regarding ESO lore more privately?
[In reference to questions about intentionally ambiguous aspects of the lore]
What are your thoughts on the more obscure aspects of lore, like Michael Kirkbride's writings and forum roleplays?
What is lore to you in the games? You are now the master of the lore, so what is your kingdom?
It sounds like you're saying it's the way the characters experience the things in the game world, right?
The following quotations, while from official sources, have unknown authorship.
- @TESOnline – The Elder Scrolls Online
- The Elder Scrolls Wiki generally records works within this canon, but not ones that would only be included in a more open definition. Works within this canon are further divided into "licensed" and "unlicensed" texts when being referenced on articles.
- Interview with Gavin Carter, page 2 (direct)
- Cartogriffi's Posts
- Tori Dougherty on Twitter
- UESP's PAX Interview with Matt Firor
- Elder Scrolls Online IS CANON LORE & So Is TES Legends
- Oblivion:Fan Interview III
- Pete Hines on Twitter (3 January 2011)
- Others: Matt Grandstaff, Pete Hines, Christiane Meister, Shane Liesegang, and unknown
- Pete Hines on Twitter (9 February 2018)
- Oblivion fan interview December 2004
- Day 1 @ #BethesdaGameDays
- Todd Howard PAX East 2019 Interview
- Reddit: Welcome to the Elsweyr & Update 22 AUA
- Mark Nelson (BlueDev) commenting on fan input (source)
- ESO Live - Episode 15
- "Sacred Dwemer Texts"
- A Letter to the Community from ESO's Loremaster
- ESO Live - Introducing Loremaster Leamon Tuttle
- Leamon Tuttle Loremaster Interview
- The Tel Mora Independent Press: Interview with Loremaster Leamon Tuttle
- Leamon Tuttle on Twitter (29 April 2019)
- Leamon Tuttle on Twitter (11 August 2020)
- Interview with ESO Loremaster Leamon Tuttle
- The Elder Scrolls Online on Twitter (17 September 2012)
- The Elder Scrolls Online on Twitter (27 September 2012)
- The Elder Scrolls Online on Twitter (7 November 2012)
- The Elder Scrolls Online on Twitter (26 August 2013)
- General:Douglas Goodall Interview
- Interview critical of Bethesda RUBBED OUT
- Reddit: I am Michael Kirkbride. Ask Me Anything.
- Reddit: How to tell between the fanfic and actual lore posted here?
- The Imperial Library Forums: Amulet of Kings
- Ted Peterson's Posts
- Interview With Three Writers
- The Imperial Library – New Book For Daggerfall Unity
- Les 20 Ans Des Tes En Interview
- Lawrence Schick and Phrastus on Altmer Culture