Khajiit and other cat people

No Arena play this week. I did think a little about The Elder Scrolls, though. My favorite races in the games are the Khajiit, the Argonians, the Dunmer, and the Orcs. All are somewhat outcasts.

The Khajiit and Argonians are viewed as Others by most of the races of Tamriel, beast folk compared to Men or Mer. They have had histories of oppression, with many of their people enslaved especially by the Dunmer. And the Khajiit and the Argonians have genuinely different, unique cultures. Khajiit birth morphology and Argonian Hist rituals seem (to me at least) like rather bizarre fantasy concepts.

The Dunmer, meanwhile, have clashing cultures, torn between tribalism, a powerful theocratic clan-based society, and influence of the Empire. The religious zealotry of the Tribunal Temple and their fierce defense of slavery as a cultural practice show that they are flawed people, and yet they face their own sort of oppression in the face of the grinding of Imperial homogeneity and suppression by the Imperial military. And their history among the other Elves is that of outsiders. They are, in short, more complex than the typically Evil Dark Elves of D&D and the like.

Then the Orcs, though they are likely Mer, are treated somewhat like beast people. They are viewed as brutal savages, but they have their own rich cultural traditions. And those who have not been scattered throughout the Empire as part of an Orc Diaspora struggle to retain a political identity in the homeland of Orsinium, sandwiched between other, often hostile, lands.

Parallels to real-world cultures are obvious, and I don’t intend to elaborate on them here. But what I’ve been thinking about, just a little bit, is how many of the most fascinating of these fantasy races are “beast” races. When comparisons to real-world ethnic groups can be made, the “bestial” connection can be disturbing, uncomfortable, and maybe just downright racist. At the same time, the physical manifestation of “bestial” traits often appears to figuratively represent how other cultures look down on these minority ethnic groups, viewing them as lesser-than and even subhuman. Meanwhile, these “beast” races often have some of the most elaborate cultures, the most egalitarian ideas, and some of the most human motivations and emotions.

Of course, anthropomorphized animals are not limited to The Elder Scrolls. The bestial orcs (and often-related goblins) are everywhere, from Warcraft and Warhammer to The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons. Cat folk and lizard folk are common fantasy tropes, and part of a much-larger group of anthropomorphized beings. A good portion of Disney films, after all, make use of these human-like animals. More personally, many of my favorite video games involve these sorts of characters: The Elder ScrollsBeyond Good & EvilStar FoxSonic the Hedgehog, and even a sandbox title like Spore.

I suspect there’s a considerable deal of writing on the subject, though I’m not familiar with most of it. Why exactly do we so often return to these tropes? I think part of it is that it is easy to ascribe broad human personality traits to a particular type of animal. Dogs are extroverted, energetic, and a bit ditsy. Cats are introverted, jealous, and moody. And so on. Plus, animals often express emotions in broad ways–bared teeth, flattened ears, raised fur. It is easy to exaggerate and plainly communicate emotion with these types. Regardless, use of these figures certainly has a longstanding history, tracing back to our earliest mythologies.

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