ancient scrolls earns its accolades not necessarily through the creation of groundbreaking fantasy concepts, but through haunting interpretations of enduringly popular staples. One such staple, the charming medieval notion of a “noble gang of thieves,” comes to the fore in almost every game in the series, the Thieves Guild.
While much of the guild’s history is, perhaps unsurprisingly, shrouded in history, we can piece together the bits and pieces officially revealed by Bethesda, along with an analysis of the overall workings of its most infamous offshoots. In other words, this article is an overview of what we think is the most important part of what makes the Thieves Guild what it is, and why Elder Scrolls fans have been looking forward to getting to know these masterful crackers for decades.
The Elder Scrolls Online add-on, appropriately titled Thieves Guild, informs us that the organization likely owes its roots to a port city south of Hammerfell called Aba’s landing. Whether these roots go further than the chaotic Interregnum of the Second Era, the lawless span of centuries between the fall of the Second Empire and the rise of the Third, we cannot say for sure. Regardless, it is at this point in history that the earliest accounts can be found, including a written “report” from a former ESO lead author.
In the years that followed, the Thieves Guild spread wealth and fame to almost every province on the continent of Tamriel. We turn our attention to the huge leap forward from the Interregnum to the fifth century of the Third Era, the time setting of the first four major Elder Scrolls games.
Four guilds, four faces
It should be emphasized that the branches of the Thieves Guild throughout Tamriel are indeed provincial. If any of them have an advanced degree of contact with each other, we certainly haven’t seen that in any of the canon material. Instead, they are owned and managed in markedly different ways, and their perception in each province is just as varied.
In the Iliac Bay, where The Elder Scrolls takes place: Daggerfall, The Thieves Guild has a reputation for being a powerful and efficient organization. Unrivaled in status and almost a monopolist in the lucrative theft industry, this is the Thieves Guild at its most professional.
At the far end of Tamriel, in the country Morrowind and its volcanic island of Vvardenfell, the wary Dunmer distrust foreign groups and prefer their homegrown Camonna Tong gang to any form of outside interference. So a foreigner named Gentleman Jim Stacey came up with a cunning ploy to reanimate a fallen gang of legendary honor thieves, Bal Molagmer. It was a cover, simple and straightforward, but depending on the player’s actions, it could go on indefinitely.
Cyrodiil may be the beating heart of the Empire, but it’s just another region for the Thieves Guild. The events of the fourth game, oblivion, take place here, culminating in the so-called Oblivion Crisis, which fatally changes the political landscape for centuries to come. The Cyrodiil Thieves Guild is run by an enigmatic gray fox, whom the public regards as the personal savior of the oppressed and despised by the nobility. In fact, the Gray Fox is a nickname given to anyone who puts on a hood, an artifact Daedric Prince Nocturnal.
Like the events of Skyrim taking place two centuries after the Oblivion Crisis, little is known about how each branch of the Thieves Guild lives in between. Only Skyrim’s own group is singled out, and its status has dropped significantly. On the other hand, many, if not most, prominent organizations lose significant power at the end of the Third Era, so it’s possible that Skyrim’s Thieves Guild is just another symptom of the weakening of the Empire and the rise of the Aldmeri Dominion.
Despite their diversity, the four Thieves Guild groups we can communicate with in Daggerfall, Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim share a remarkable similarity. They all have a core that undoubtedly goes back to its source in Abah’s Landing. It warns against excessive violence and is in fact a moral code that instructs the guild above all else: Three rules.
We know for a fact that the Cyrodiil branch at the end of the Third Era adheres strictly to these rules, as they are rules that should forever be remembered by the followers of the Gray Fox. They may or may not be similarly replicated elsewhere, but with the glaring exception of the Skyrim branch – and even so, the game is hard at work to show us that this is not the norm, but the result of a reduction in capability – a broad “rule set” is being introduced across the board. .
- First, never steal from another guild member.
- Second, never kill anyone at work. Is not The Dark Brotherhood. If necessary, animals and monsters can be killed.
- Third, do not steal from the poor. Peasants and beggars are under the personal protection of the Gray Fox, especially on the waterfront of the Imperial City.
Naturally, the exact wording of the final rule cannot apply outside of Cyrodiil. But its essence remains, and the previous entries could well be pronounced exactly in a different place at the same time.
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