One of the important elements in Elder Scrolls exploration is the sort of exploration you can do of the world, its people, their issues, their histories and their enigmas. Even those we know were most likely intended by the developers as mysteries, the true nature of which will likely never be revealed, there are still locations to discover, opinions to explore, and a story to be read by merely engaging with the world. This is the quintessence of exploration in a world intended to be immersive.
During 2020's Summerset Celebration, ZOS introduced pages of a style called Snowhawk Mage. With its sense of texture, volume and weight, and without the contrived panels and arbitrary lines for the sake of the "busy" hallmark of some zos designs, it is arguably amongst the most authentic-feeling styles introduced to date. More compelling still, the style is evocative of a very particular type of character- layers of heavy cloth trimmed with furs covering all but the face, to which it bestows a very owl- or hawk-like affect. It is not flashy or refined, but practical and earthy. The design gives off Greybeard robe vibes, from the cloistered order of wise men we encounter at High Hrothgar in TES5, and lends the impression of a kind of secretive, hermitic sect minding forgotten lore in some hoary archive lost in some snowbound corner of Tamriel.
Interestingly, the name of that lost, snowbound corner has, it turns out, existed in the older TES games. You could visit the city of Snowhawk in Arena during the Imperial Simulacrum, when it was ruled by a certain King Torbens
and boasted the Ice Demons
gladiatorial team. A source refers to it in TES4 during the Oblivion Crisis, but by Skyrim's time, only a ruined tower remains to hint at its fate.
Its location between games in which it does appear varies, with Arena showing it south of Solitude somewhere near what will become the border of The Reach in later games.
In TES5, the ruined fortress which bears the name lies just west of Morthal. Given the rough nature of Arena's Tamriel, and the striking similarity between TES5's and ESO's Western Skyrim, TES5's location would seem to be the more canon. Indeed, these two more recent versions of Skyrim are so similar that every road traces exactly the same route, every contour remains true, the shape of the marshes around Morthal is exactly the same.
But despite the suggested existence of the Snowhawk Mages during ESO's timeframe, there is nothing of Snowhawk in the location corresponding to TES5's Fort Snowhawk, even though you can see the exact location it should stand in ESO because the rest of the landforms around it are identical.
To add to the mystery, in an interview discussing the art and world design of Western Skyrim shortly before its release, ( https://en.uesp.net/wiki/General:ESO_Live_Art_and_Lore_of_Greymoor
) Art Director CJ Grebb explains that they wanted to recognise the future importance of Snowhawk by putting something interesting where one day the fort will stand. Confusingly, he explains this spot is marked by Karthald in ESO's version of the map.
By paying attention to the striking similarity between the 2 versions of Western Skyrim (ESO's and TES5's), it is easy to see that Karthald marks the spot that in TES5 will become Broken Tower Redoubt. This makes sense in light of the events that unfold during its story, and in light of CJ's remarks about the location demanding development attention due to its interesting strategic location.
Alternatively, CJ said what he meant: Arena's map shows Snowhawk in roughly this area. This has, in the past, fuelled speculation that Snowhawk was an old capital of The Reach. Perhaps fallen Karthold is replaced by Snowhawk on the borders of The Reach in the future?
However keeping in mind the degree of fidelity to Skyrim's map, this would mean that Snowhawk must exist in this spot, become inexpliccably replaced by Broken Tower Redoubt in the 4th era, and have a fort named after it many miles away near Morthal. The more parsimonious solution is that CJ meant Broken Tower Redoubt, but that Snowhawk's existence was, at least, in their minds.
There does stand, in place of Skyrim's Fort Snowhawk location in ESO, an ancient nordic-style structural foundation, including one of the stone hawk totems. If this is what CJ actually meant when he referenced Snowhawk, then what will become one of Skyrim's 8 major cities during the events of Arena, and nothing but a crumbling fort by Skyrim's, started out as some sort of ancient nordic structure.
Beyond the arch, there's a raised platform, upon which stands a stone dais flanked by two open, empty stone sarcophagi. A grey hawk roosts on the corner of the dais. Around the site are a small number of neutral wisps.
Sadly, there's nothing more we can know based on the information zos have given us, and nothing more to explore. If it *is* meant to be a precursor to the city- and later fort- there is no way to know it without knowing Snowhawk is a thing. Nothing references it in ESO. The world is meant to tell a story, but there's nothing here. Is this place named for the Mages, or are the Mages named for the place? Who created the place, and what purpose does it serve? Does it predate the Mages, or are the Snowhawk Mages as old as the ancient Nords who constructed in this fashion? I think its a shame to go to all the effort to recognise the existence of this place, acknowledge old lore and design an evocative style around this mysterious concept of some sort of cloistered, snowy mage and have nothing that we can learn about it. Snowhawk must be important- as mentioned above, by the Third Era, it is one of the 8 major cities of Skyrim. That implies significant story. An air of mystery can be good on occasion, but when its over-used, it can come off as hand-wavy, which defeats immersion because you get the sense that the developers really aren't invested, so why should you? A lorebook, a mystery to uncover, something to learn about the history of Tamriel- could be a really cool idea if there was commitment or conviction behind it. Instead, no one knows what Snowhawk is, or what its Mages are, because its a prop to imply someone thought about it. No one cares, because there is no reason to. Exploration is rewarded only with the discovery of frustration, and its hard not to come to the conclusion that time would have been better spent being productive and efficiently grinding stuff.
I would love it if the developers did something with the concept one day. A single lorebook, npcs with opinions or insight, or just anything to explore could add a lot. There's always the need for dynamic locations- side quests in otherwise unrelated chapters or prologue quests sometimes send us to far-flung locations, so there's scope for something, even low-key. Perhaps we could meet one of their members one day and talk with him or her? More broadly, I hope that this sort of thing could be inspiration for the little vignettes and striking locales in the future. I think that these could potentially be great opportunities for touching on important aspects of the lore that story plots don't have the time or space to touch on.