There are two types of souls, black and white. Black are the ten playable races and white are everyone else.
The reason for this in-lore is commonly accepted to be Arkay’s whim and sentience.
Let’s take a look at this, shall we?
We know that in gameplay, the ten races get black souls and everyone else gets white. But this being /r/TESLore, we don’t really care.
So, onto the lore. Four races of men (Bretons, Cyrodiils, Nords, Redguards) have black. Four races of mer (Altmer, Bosmer, Dunmer, Orsimer). Two beasts (Argonian, Khajiit). Dragons in Skyrim have their own thing. And literally every other actor has white. Animals, Draugr, Dragon Priests (actually, do they have white or black? I don’t remember. Fortunately, it’s irrelevant), goblins, ogres, zombies.
Zombies and draugr used to be of the ten sentient races. They had black souls. Now they don’t. Goblins and ogres are related closely to the Orcs. Orcs were monsters, now they’re not. They get black souls now, goblins and ogres don’t.
Examining both in-game examples of goblin society or even just the relevant UESP page, we find that goblins are quite intelligent, possessed of a social construct, and quite possibly sentient. Yet they have white souls.
Okay I have class in half an hour so I’m going to
wrap this up really get going. I may come back with an edit. Here’s my actual point.
Arkay doesn’t award black souls because of a level of sentience or intelligence. He awards it because of a level of maturity and civilization.
As I wrote earlier, the Orcs changed their nature and appearance during the Warp in the West. Not a physical makeover, but more of a mental one. They changed from being seen as monsters to being seen as, well, men. Of a sort. Different discussion.
Orcs didn’t magically become more intelligent. They didn’t suddenly gain sentience they hadn’t had. They’ve always been sentient. They were Aldmer, then changed, then the rest of Tamriel changed how they saw them. Yet their soul status was changed. Why?
Because Arkay is a
judgmental prick subjective judge of soul status.
And color. White is generally purity, black taint. Ever wonder why the superior creatures get the ugly soul? I have.
Arkay is shadowing the black-souled creatures from something. I don’t know what. You’re welcome to speculate. White souls are linked more closely to the original spirits. Black souls are standing in his shadow. They grow there. Flourish. Like mushrooms or an illness. Having a black soul is the sign of having “grown up.” Having changed from being an “innocent,” (really an awful word choice there, but try and follow what I actually meant, I guess) being, one which interacts simply with the world and does not work beyond the creature’s purpose in the grand scheme.
Men and Mer have black souls because they are independent. They follow their own variable whims. They aren’t cogs in the clockwork mechanism of nature. They are wrenches in all of the works. They are unpredictable, detrimental, manipulative, consumers. They change the world. Rip part of it down and construct their own. They change it to suit their whim.
They are the Lorkhan of this subgradient. Too dramatic? Okay. But you see my point.
Every fantasy world has an anti-industrial motif to it. For Tolkien, it was the Orcs and Goblins. TES avoids assigning them the same role quite magnificently.
Instead, that motif is in the color of our souls. The Ten Black-Soul Races are alien and detrimental to the original state of Nirn, and their “taint” is proof of that.
Oh right, I almost forgot. Draugr and zombies and such have white souls because they have degenerated closer to the animals they once were. They neither create nor destroy. They simply are. They follow their purpose, predictably to a degree, and exist in relative stasis. Goblins and ogres have white souls because they have not matured as much as their cousins the Orcs or the other black-soul races have. They are in the middle area between animal and man, despite their near-equivalent intellegence and complexity.
The Orcs were awarded black souls when they were relegated from status as Monster to Civilization. They stepped into Arkay’s Shadow willfully and their soul was changed by it.
Wow so I wrote more in the ten minutes I had for the middle big section than I did for the intro. I really spit it out in a time crunch. Class in fifteen, now. I guess the first part had a lot of research to it.