Gender Politics in Morrowind

This is mostly a compilation of my thoughts and observations on gender and gender politics of Dunmeri society in Morrowind.

In Morrowind, and Dunmeri society especially, gender politics are very culturally heterogeneous with a strong geographic component (due to House rule having a strong correlation to geography – Houses in Morrowind are like a combination of states and political parties), so how individual Dunmer think of and relate to gender varies depending on their culture and location.

Ashlanders are a very patriarchal and gender-segregated society, and have the sort of philosophy that men and women occupy “different spheres of life”, that should compliment each other like yin and yang. Their gender roles seem to be very rigid, and trades are strongly gendered. They also seem to resent the Ashlander women who reject the patriarchal rules and run off to become witches that worship the great cosmic snake that makes men tremble like maidens.

Redoran are also incredibly patriarchal and perhaps this is due to their intentional imitation of “the traditional ways of the Dunmer” and therefore are trying to model their society on Ashlander tradition. Their emphasis on traditional martial arts and physical combat could maybe be why they downplay the role of women as warriors. They also seem to emphasize family very strongly, and politicians seem to do better if they have wives and children (the only woman councilor is an interim councilor because her husband – the previous councilor – died, so honestly it seems like Redoran generally believe politicians should be men). This emphasis on raising of children seems to make it difficult for women to get ahead in Redoran society. However, Redoran society is not nearly as gender segregated as Ashalnder. At the lowest ranks, the parity is OK, but there’s a very sharp rate of attrition as you go up in the ranks and Redoran women hit that glass ceiling.

I also want to point out, that they reference this directly in the Redoran Stronghold questline. The Captain of your guard tells you that his men are concerned that they will not be able to find wives if they’re stationed at your settlement, because it is all dudes there. You then have the choice of going and convincing unmarried women to move to your settlement, or you can buy a bunch of slaves for your men to marry. Wonderful.

Hlaalu seems to have OK gender parity, but it isn’t perfect. Fairly close. But women at some of the higher ranks seem to enjoy less status and influence than their male peers (the female councilors, Nevena Ules and Velanda Omani are both completely beholden to Duke Vedam Dren and basically vote however he tells them), but there certainly isn’t as hard of a glass ceiling as we see in Redoran society. This makes some sense, given their emphasis on trade deals and wealth accrual, that they would have better parity than Redoran but still have issues with intractable “old boy’s clubs” due to generational wealth making change slow.

Telvanni has the best gender parity by far, from the bottom all the way up through the highest ranks. Even their Great Councillor in Ebonheart is a woman. It seems like the Telvanni actually do have something of a meritocracy just as they claim, and do not care about gender. At least not much. They claim to only care about ambition, magical might, cunning, and prowess. Due to the nature of such things, you would expect an equal playing field between men and women, and indeed this seems broadly to be the case. In stark contrast to the Redoran and their afforementioned dude-centric settlement, most of the retainers and minor nobles which move to your settlement at Uvirith’s Grave are women (and they don’t complain to you about not having enough husband prospects, just gonna say).

Also contrasted with the Redoran, the Telvanni do not put any emphasis on family or children. In fact, having a family seems to be a hindrance to a Telvanni politician’s career. The Masters especially appear to have foregone investment in a family in order to focus on their political careers (the men and the women). Which allows for greater gender parity in their society. In addition to not raising families, the Telvanni Masters even traditionally cut off their family names, which I guess could be to emphasize how unimportant family history/influence is to them.

Why are families a hindrance to Telvanni politicians? Dynastic power structures usually aid in stability, and they explain why we get generational transfers of power in the real world – even for elected officials. But I guess Telvanni Masters plan on living forever (or at least thousands of years) through their strange magics, and that takes a ton of pressure off of them for producing heirs. Additionally, the Telvanni have a very strong culture of mentorship / taking proteges. The tradition of a Mouth that legally speaks with their Master’s voice and is binding as such in all things, I think, gives a pretty clear delineation of wealth inheritance in the case that some sort of accident happens and the Master does not live thousands of years (the Mouth doesn’t inherit the council seat, of course, they would have to earn that like anyone else). The Mouth and the Master would both have an incredible amount of influence on each other, with the Master not only providing mentorship and grooming the Mouth for their career in Telvanni politics, but the Mouth would also act as confidant and advisor for their Master and they would inevitably be very close and politically similar. If the Mouth is the traditional inheritor of the Master’s wealth, then having a family could actually make things less stable, because now you have a family which might contest your Mouth’s right to your estate after you die. This would take even more pressure off of Telvanni politicians for producing heirs, and perhaps even dissuade them from it.

Master Aryon’s Relationships as his Source of Power

As a councilor, Master Aryon seems to value and derive most of his political power from making and maintaining relationships. He values his established relationships very highly, and is comfortable assuming a very strong two-way loyalty wherever they exist. I think this is overall his biggest strength, and what makes him stand out from the other Telvanni. Whether he is seeking out allies on the Telvanni Council, sending medicine to the Zainab Camp, reaching across the aisle to end the Mage’s Guild Monopoly, or simply treating/paying his employees and peasants very well to ensure their loyalty; it seems to consistently be his go-to method. Aryon not only cultivates important and powerful relationships, but he feels comfortable wielding those relationships to exert and extend his power.

Early in his career, Aryon was mentored by Divayth Fyr. It seems to me that he chose Fyr mostly for the prestige the name would bring him (like a modern academic choosing an institution, advisor, or PI mostly for the prestige of the name). Aryon has always been a very ambitious Dunmer. Especially back when Aryon was untested and green, he would need to make this choice very carefully. He later would go on to become the first rogue Telvanni and take Tel Vos in such a dramatic gesture that nobody could deny his admission to the council.

From Latest Rumors with Telvanni members: “We’ve been fortunate. We tested the resolve of the Duke and the other Houses when we grabbed Tel Vos. And we found out they weren’t going to fight to protect the settlement charters, we sent out our deviants and malcontents to stake new claims. Some will survive, some won’t. Hlaalu and Redoran have to respond. But in the end, the ones that survive will extend our power and influence here on Vvardenfell.”

Fyr enjoyed such prestige among the Telvanni that Aryon’s credentials would not be questioned – even if the other Telvanni saw him as a precocious upstart. Even after Aryon was is an established and powerful Telvanni in his own right, he seems to defer to the weight and prestige Fyr’s name brings; he writes to Fyr “Even Gothren and Neloth must admit that you are older and wiser and in every way superior to them in the arcane arts” when pointing out that if Fyr made a bid for the council it would surely go unchallenged.

But Aryon’s old mentor seems, by all accounts, to be completely apathetic and apolitical. Despite this, Aryon seems confident that if he could convince Fyr to join the council, that he would be a strong political ally. Since Fyr seemingly has no political position, I therefore can only assume that Aryon was completely counting on their history together to be enough for Fyr to back up Aryon’s positions whenever needed. Unfortunately for Aryon, Fyr’s history with Aryon was not enough to get him into politics, and he declines.

He also is willing to rely on his friendship with Baladas Demnevanni to ensure him as an ally, which seems reasonable as Baladas had been in Telvanni politics before and is presumably a known political fit for Aryon. But even riskier, he is willing to rely heavily on his mentor-mentee relationship with the Nerevarine to solidify his political influence. The Nerevarine is literally the player, and therefore is untested and we have no guarantee for what their politics are. They could be apolitical (like Fyr), or they might even be more conservative (like Aryon’s enemies). But once again, Aryon is confident that their history and relationship will be enough to earn the Nerevarine’s support.

Aryon is consistently loyal to the Nerevarine, and expects absolute loyalty in return. He talks about plans and allies with the Nerevarine in terms of “us” and “we,” no question in his mind that they are operating as a team. And his consistent kindness and loyalty to you, the player, really do make you want to return in kind. When he talks to you, he makes you feel like you are the most important person in the world and that you have his full attention in all things. No concern of yours is too small for him. This is how it feels talking with real life people with very high interpersonal skills, and often those sorts of people genuinely do feel a deep compassion and concern for the people they talk to. It seems natural, that if he extends that concern to you, he feels he can assume you likewise extend it to him. Since your concerns are his concerns, he assumes his concerns are your concerns. And it is this dynamic that he seems happy to wield as a weapon.

This is also how he approaches more traditionally political situations outside of interpersonal relationships, like negotiations. Before Aryon, the peasants of Vos used to be consistently raided by the Zainab. Where almost all other House Mer (and Imperials) on Vvardenfell respond to Ashlander raids with an even greater show of force, Aryon wants to address the root of the problem. He realizes that, short of wiping out the Ashlanders, responding to them with force won’t ever make the problem go away. He has identified the root of the problem to be resource insecurity among the Zainab tribe, and seems to think that if he addresses that resource insecurity, he can count on the raids to stop.

Is this out of genuine compassion for the Ashlanders, or is this out of an attempt to better control them? And ultimately, does it matter? Certainly, Aryon won’t allow the Zainab to continue raiding his small-folk. That is the minimum obligation of a Lord to his peasants in textbook Feudalism – the lord is expected to defend his peasants from attacks. If not, then the lord is not upholding his side of the contract, and they are free to seek work elsewhere with another lord.

But in addition to stopping the raids, sending the Zainab regular shipments of medicine will certainly make them reliant on Aryon. It might appear to be a relationship built out of the best of intentions, but it also puts Aryon firmly in control.

The Zainab wise woman, Sonummu Zabanat, sees right to the heart of it, saying to the Nerevarine: “So you come to ask me about the trade goods wanted by the Zainab. Perhaps I should ask you why you want to know. But perhaps I already know why. The mage-lord Master Aryon is shrewd. He thinks to bind us to Telvanni ways by binding us to Telvanni things. But I see no harm, and much good, in giving you an answer.”

Ultimately she decides that it is better to allow her tribe to rely on Aryon for medicine than to continue to clash with (and be defeated by) his mercenaries when they try to take such resources by force. And it is this exchange that I think is the best summary and example of Aryon’s politics and methods of negotiating relationships. He is incredibly shrewd and savvy, and is unafraid of using his interpersonal skills to further his own ambition. But at the same time his relationships aren’t meaningless to him, and he is trustworthy to those he counts as his allies.

Three Questions for Baladas

I’ve recently had a realization that I wanted to share, about the chore that Gothren’s Mouth (Mallon Ryon) gives you – to ask Baladas Demnevanni three questions. It always stood out to me as a strange and deceptively simple quest, even the first time I did it, with possibly more going on than meets the eye. You must locate Baladas and ask him three questions, but Gothren is not interested in the responses to said questions, nor is he interested in whether Baladas even answers them at all. On my very first playthrough, I was naive and thought they must just be buds, and Gothren just wanted to make Baladas think. But I think I have figured out what is going on – I think you are a patsy (possibly one of many given deceptively simple chores) manipulated into helping Gothren flush Baladas out of hiding. Possibly so Gothren can send somebody to kill Baladas.

There is precedent in-game to suggest that Telvanni politicians flee from Telvanni territory and go into hiding when “forced to retire from politics,” and there is enough evidence to suggest that Baladas is one such Telvanni politician. Given Telvanni tradition dictates that murder of your rivals is a perfectly acceptable means of removing obstacles, flight is a reasonable response. And it makes sense that said Telvanni politician would be a target, even in retirement, because (as we see with Eddie and Baladas) if/when the tides turn then they have a habit of coming back.

Fast Eddie has fled to Balmora, and he tells you quite explicitly that his political career was ended abruptly when Dratha and Neloth conspired against him and forced him out, and that he is now in hiding until things blow over.

Baladas used to serve on the council, but he says he’s sick of the constant rat race that is Telvanni politics. We know from villagers in Gnisis that Baladas arrived there about twenty years ago, and has holed himself up in an old Velothi tower like a hermit. It seems likely to me that Eddie and Baladas were both forced out around the same-ish time, since they are both considered allies/assets to Aryon and therefore I think aligned politically (Aryon asks you to convince Baladas to re-join the council so you and he can have more support and political allies, and Aryon is the one to suggest Fast Eddie to you as a potential protege – so presumably the three share similar politics). By the transitive property, this implies that Baladas and Gothren are political opponents (we all know how Aryon feels about Gothren).

This suggests that about 20 years ago, the Telvanni council had a much larger progressive coalition that was forced out, with Aryon being the main holdout that they haven’t been able to get rid of (unless his rise to power came after that, but >20 years seems about right for how the people of Vos talk about him; I think he’s just managed to hold on).

If/when you find Baladas Demnevanni, he is all the way over in Gnisis – about as far from Telvanni territory as he can get – and he is holed up in Arvs-Drelen, with skeletons and summoned daedra patrolling the halls which will attack anybody on-sight. On top of that, Baladas is behind a locked, trapped door. This guy is not rolling out the welcome mat. At first I just thought it was because he was a hermit, and literally didn’t want anybody disturbing him, but now that I think he is in hiding, I think he is taking all these precautions to protect his life.

It seems to me now, that Gothren wasn’t even sure whether Baladas was still alive. He wants to confirm whether Baladas is alive, and if so he is starting some of the early moves in flushing him out. That’s what the whole “three questions” thing was about. That’s why Gothren doesn’t care what the answers are, or even whether the questions are answered at all. Just that you can find him and physically speak with him face-to-face.

When you turn in the quest, Mallon Ryon says “So you have spoken with him? And what did he say? Well, no matter. I did not believe you could convince him to answer all the questions. But Archmagister Gothren will be quite interested to know that Baladas is alive and well.” which all of a sudden, on this latest playthrough, sounded so sinister and foreboding! I never noticed that possible tone before.