The Elder Scrolls lore community is like no other fantasy/sci-fi lore community I have ever seen.
Now partially this is due to the TES community’s tendency to spend less time talking about, say, characters or worldbuilding and a lot more time talking about gods, dreams, arcane metaphors, and giant robots powered by literal dwarven souls (which is where the Dwemer went, by the way).
Mostly, though, it’s about canon.
Canon is that word used in fandom to denote what is “official” lore. In most cases, this includes the original source material– whether it be a book, movie, TV series, comic, video game, or what-have-you– and occasionally peripheral but related spinoff material. In some cases (example: Star Wars), the “extended universe” is so vast that the canon is broken down further into “levels” of canon. And then, of course, there is the fanart and fanfiction, which is often playfully defined as “headcanon”– i.e., not approached as canon by anyone but yourself and maybe a few devotees.
The newcomer to the TES lore community, then, is promptly shocked when they ask for a source for some lore term and are directed to, say, twelve-year-old off-hand forum statements, or the archives of some nebulously-termed “semi-official” roleplay, or the drunken ramblings of a rogue ex-dev.
That’s because Elder Scrolls fans play loosely with canon. Really loosely.
Basically, if it’s good, unique, and fits, it’s essentially canon.
What do I mean by “fits”? Well, it’s got to be creative and fanciful. Most diehard fans will tell you that it all sort of winds back to Michael Kirkbride, who wrote a lot of really weird stuff for Morrowind (see: The 36 Lessons of Vivec) and, who due to his enthuisasm for the series and the fact that he has never quite gone away despite leaving Bethesda long ago, has become the sort of unofficial arbitrator of TES lore. This means that statements he made, even after leaving the company, are usually considered canon. This means that statements by fans that he simply likes are often considered canon. And in a truly respectful nod to its community, Bethesda often listens to this community and “canon” as they work on their games. A term called “monkey truth” arose to describe this unusual relationship: we’re all just monkeys playing around in Tamriel (or Tam! RUGH! as we call it in monkeyspeak), but sometimes we collectively come up with something great (and usually Kirkbridian in style) that we all realize rises above simple fanfiction.
The cult of the monkey truth has crystallized so much that monkey truth is not only considered valid lore, it is sometimes placed above the acutal in-game lore.
As an example, the province of Cyrodiil was long deemed a thick jungle before Bethesda retconned this in the game Oblivion and made it a picturesque English meadowland. Michael Kirkbride (or MK) wrote a bit of fanlore that said Talos transformed it to be this way to show his love for his people. This was then accepted as the new canon by the fans, and, by the way, made it into Skyrim.
All sorts of other monkey truths that did not make it into the games are frequently nonetheless considered to be de facto canon by the community as a whole. How much of this is okay, exactly, continues to be much debated, but the fact that the debate exists to begin with is fascinating.
Recently, MK wrote up and released a script called “C0DA“. C0DA is… difficult to read, to say the least. It’s thick with arcane lore, and anyone whose only experience with TES is through the games is going to have a horrific time trying to make heads or tails of any of it. The long and short of it, though, is that C0DA is the prologue to an open source TES universe, and MK’s way of saying that both everything and nothing is canon. This, of course, also means that C0DA itself also both is and is not canon.
What is the truth, then, and what is canon in TES lore?
Bethesda will tell you the games are the lore. But when they need ideas for their next game, they’re going to look down at all the monkeys scrabbling around with dragonbreaks and dreamsleeves and memospores and they’re going to weave bits and pieces of those into their universe.
And then, much like Vivec and Talos themselves, the fans will be the ones who reshape and take control of Bethesda’s dream world.