Updated below, Saturday, August 10, 2013, with serious criticisms from Oliver Mannion.
A once and future king? Game of Thrones’ hero in the making, Jon Snow, has all the tropes of a King Arthur avatar. The question is can he survive his creator George R.R. Martin’s perverse habit of making all his good characters reflexively self-destructive and forehead-slappingly stupid?
A treatise on why we need lawyers.
That’s how I’d describe A Game of Thrones to anyone who asked. The book, by the way, not the HBO series. One of the few times in my life I was ahead of the curve was when I read the first book in George R.R. Martin’s five books and counting saga A Song of Fire and Ice not just before there was a TV series but before there was a third book. Nowdays it seems everybody I know can tell me everything about Westeros, they’re all walking Game of Thrones Wikis---I think half the fun is being able to keep in your head all the characters and their complicated family connections and blood-soaked histories---but back then few people of my acquaintance had heard of the books. Friends who knew my reading habits were surprised to find out I was enjoying a sword and sorcery novel and they were curious to know what it was about the story that gripped me. And I’d tell them.
It’s a treatise on why we need lawyers.
That theme has continued through the four following books and into the TV series.
Think about it. This is what's going on in the books and on TV: A bunch of not very bright, extremely short-sighted, and pathologically self-interested rich people are trying to negotiate real estate deals and do their own estate planning without any educated and disinterested advice from people in the habit of considering the consequences and taking the long view.
There aren't any lawyers in Westeros. There aren't any characters who think like lawyers. So in chapter after chapter, episode after episode, we watch in gaped-mouthed horror as characters make impulsive and obviously wrong-headed decisions that any halfway competent attorney would have headed off with a word.
This is a recurring trope and a way of putting it is, left to their own devices, people will continually make irrational, heedless, self-destructive, and stupid choices with predictable disastrous results for all sides.
Which I believe.
But which I don't need repeated and demonstrated over and over again.
The reason I lost interest in the books and why I'm finding it hard to care about the TV series is this message is driven home in every other scene.
[Editor’s note: For convenience’s sake, from here on I’ll be using “Game of Thrones” to refer to both the TV series and the books in the Song of Fire and Ice cycle.]
On top of the repetitiveness, though, is the failure of imagination. In order for this to keep happening, Martin stacks his own deck. Bad things keep happening to good people because Martin needs them to, but apparently he can't come up with any way to keep it happening except to make all his good characters stupid.
Seriously. It's not that they routinely make bad decisions. That happens. It's that they can always be counted on to make the worst decision at the worst possible moment.
They don't think anything through. They don't think. Their thoughts are simple expressions of their feelings, which are chaotic. They have no imaginations. They are incapable of foresight. They don't consider alternative outcomes. They don't even try to see things from another's point of view. This was tragic when it was just Ned Stark's major character flaw. But it's turned out to be the Starks' salient family trait. They start and finish thinking everyone is like the Starks, well-intentioned, honest, honorable, and not particularly bright.
And it's not only the Starks. Just about all the characters proceed from the assumption that things will work out exactly as they need them to. The exception is Tyrion, who, sometimes, considers the possibility he might get caught before going on to do what he wants to do anyway, which is why he comes across as marginally more intelligent than everyone else. That and the light of mischief in Peter Dinklage's eyes.
This incredible and hilarious epidemic of stupidity is the stuff of farce not tragedy and I think that the relentless graphic sex and violence in the books and the show (and in the show the mud, dust, and filth) are there to keep us from laughing. Instead of experiencing the shock of recognition, we're just shocked. Game of Thrones cheats its way to a phony realism that in no way reflects reality.
I've heard Martin's epic defended from the charge that it's pure fantasy on the grounds that it's a fabulist retelling of the Wars of the Roses. I don't know why it needs defending that way, nothing wrong with pure fantasy, but the defense is inapt.
The Wars of the Roses took place at the end of the Middle Ages. The Renaissance was underway and capitalism was replacing mercantilism. A true middle class was rising and wealth was transferring itself from the nobility to commoners who were happily using it to make more money instead of more war. The Wars of the Roses were the death throes of feudalism in England. Two not very popular branches of a royal family that had ceased to matter were killing each other off while the nascent English middle class sat back and watched and added up their profits.
Westeros is hopelessly feudal. There's no sign of a Renaissance happening there or anywhere else on whatever planet Westeros resides. There's no middle class sitting things out, the only visible commoners who aren’t peasants hold horses, serve food, and stand around in the open air markets appearing to buy and sell things but really waiting to be pushed aside by some main character in a hurry, and the peasantry are an amorphous mob. If it's the Wars of the Roses, it's the Wars of the Roses as seen from inside the heads of the most dimwitted Lancasters and Yorks.
Speaking of capitalism, beside being an apologia for lawyers, Game of Thrones offers a couple of cheers for capitalism. The liberal, Enlightenment version, where the successful pursuit of happiness in the form of property and holding onto it necessitates a social contract, not the Ayn Rand version, which posits greed and self-interest as a replacement for a social contract. In fact, Westeros, where greed and self-interest are getting everyone killed, is a refutation of Randianism.
People in Westeros have money. They want more money. They talk about it as if they know what it means. But they don't make it. They don't need it. They pretty much don't even use it.
When money’s exchanged, usually in the traditional way of period dramas, with bags of coins being flung down on tables or tossed at scullions, it’s not business, it’s what actors call business, as in busy-ness, something for them to do while they deliver their lines so that it looks like they’re people going about their business and not like actors delivering lines.
And they don’t do anything to acquire it except steal it, and then money itself isn’t the object. It’s gravy to the real rewards, power and land.
A realistic need for money and the existence of a money-making class the land-rich but cash-poor nobles routinely had to approach to negotiate for it would, as it did in real life, act as checks on their ambitions and impulses. Tact, forethought, prudence, and self-restraint wouldn't just be virtues. They'd be indispensible life-management skills.
You'd also have a class of women whose usefulness to the men in their lives lay in their own personal qualities and not in their worth as playing pieces in the game of thrones.
Which brings up a general criticism of Game of Thrones that I think even loyal fans agree with: Martin’s female characters are appalling.
I don’t mean as human beings, because they aren’t human beings, they’re types, at best, stereotypes in the main. And for the most part they are stereotypes of the least attractive sort of women. Melisdandre, who is in practice and personality a witch, isn't an exception. Almost all of them approach the border of gynophobic nightmare and, regularly, cross it. They’re maneaters, pussywhippers, emotional blackmailers, smotherers, and whores, the good as well as the bad. Those who aren’t any of those stereotypes are weak and helpless. (Arya and Brienne are the exceptions, but then they’re essentially boys.) You can argue that this is due to the culture they’re trapped in. But Martin invented that culture and manipulates it to make sure his female characters can’t be anything else or have any qualities other than those that fit with their particular stereotype.
But just as appalling as their stereotypes is their extremely limited autonomy as characters. By making Westeros what it is, Martin has deprived them of room to act and think as themselves.
Shopkeepers' wives and farmers' wives were expected to act as partners in their husbands' businesses. Consequently, intelligence, prudence, thrift, reliability, cool-headedness, and a degree of independence were attractive qualities in a wife or marriageable daughter. And a wife who was smarter and more energetic than her husband would wind up running the business, that is, if he knew what was good for him. She would be left to think for herself and make her own decisions and do a lot of things on her own. In short, a woman mattered in herself and as herself and she had freedom to be herself. I'll leave it to historians to argue the degree to which women of the time had legal and actual autonomy. For the purposes of creating and assessing believable fiction, however, I think it's enough here to point out that if you want to see how the English middle class saw itself and the role of women at a time still relatively close to the Wars of the Roses---the granddaughter of the ultimate victor, mainly by virtue of being the last noble with an army standing, was Queen---re-read The Merry Wives of Windsor. I imagine even Tywin Lannister wouldn't fare much better in dealings with Mistress Ford and Mistress Page than Sir John Falstaff does and I'm getting a kick out of picturing him dumped out of a hamper of dirty laundry into a pond. Which reminds me of something else missing from Game of Thrones.
A comic spirit.
You can't have tragedy without the possibility of comedy.
The women of Westeros who matter---both within the fictional world and as characters---are allowed only four career paths. They are either conniving and bloody-minded mother wolves---that includes Catelyn Stark a well as Cersei Lannister---conniving and bloody-minded mother wolves in the making, damsels in distress, or, Arya and Brienne, who are, like I said, essentially, boys. And, excepting the boys, their only power comes from their ability to manipulate men, which they do by being either emotionally controlling or sexually exploitive.
And the fact that the female characters always have to be plotting to hold their places in the storyline tends to reduce them to creatures of the plot. Their actions and therefore their selves are determined by their function in the narrative, which means they are generally written from without.
Since I'm going to be getting into it, I might as well deal with this point now. The limited female characters in Martin's fictional universe mark a big difference between Game of Thrones and J.K.Rowling's world of magic in the Harry Potter books and movies which are full of strong-minded, intelligent, self-sufficient female characters whose roles and selves and actions aren't defined by their place in the plots or their relationships to the men. And their spiritedness and independence aren't necessarily a result of economics or politics. In regards to their being autonomous characters, their wealth (or lack of it) and social status don't matter to Hermione or Luna or, to the degree a ghost can have autonomy, Lily. Professor McGonagall may appear to derive her independence from her position at Hogwarts and her status as Dumbledore's chief executive officer. But it's actually the case that Rowling has created a character who would rise to such a position and who would be someone Dumbledore would rely on. In other words, she's written from within.
Ok, if whatever realism Game of Thrones might possess isn't in any parallels between it and the Wars of the Roses, how about another tack I've seen taken, that Martin is recreating the Dark Ages?
We can gloss over the dragons and the active existence of magic. People in the Dark Ages believed in dragons and thought their lives were controlled by magic or could be if they came up with the right spells and potions. But the Dark Ages weren't really that dark. If Westeros is Seventh or Eighth Century England with dragons where are the Celtic monks in their towers copying down all the books? Where's Byzantium? Where are the Persians? Where's the evidence the Romans were ever there and left behind more than a few abandoned forts? If Game of Thrones is like the Dark Ages it's in what I suggested at the top of this paragraph---it recreates how the people of the time saw their world.
And it does a pretty good job of that, if you compare it to the main literary evidence we have from then of how they saw things.
The King Arthur stories.
I didn't haul Harry Potter in here just because it's another popular fantasy series. I did it because it's another popular fantasy series that draws heavily from the King Arthur stories. Harry Potter's story is a retelling of Arthur's story. Ok. It's more directly a retelling of Luke Skywalker's story. Same difference. Game of Thrones is an untelling of King Arthur's story.
Let me say it again before going any further with this. I don't think Game of Thrones needs defending as pure fantasy, certainly not on the grounds that it isn't wholly fantastic. It does need defending as a work of fiction, and as you can tell that's not what I'm up to here. There are a lot of flaws in the books that have carried over into the TV series, some of which are due to its not taking enough cues from reality, and I don't only mean historical reality, I mean reality as it is created by actual human beings going about the business of being themselves, and others are the result of bad writing. And I think the latter is often the result of the former.
Martin is writing a pure fantasy, but he's not doing it in the style of allegory, romance, or fairy tales or doing it for an audience that’s used to or expects those genres. He's writing in a realistic vein for an audience that takes a degree of realism for granted even in their fantasies.
By the way, I'm not saying the books and the series are badly written. Just that there are...lapses.
Rowling does a much better job of retelling the story of Arthur than Martin does of un-telling it. But that's not the reason it's a better artistic achievement.
Maybe I should say it's a better retelling for the same reasons it's better art.
To start with, while Game of Thrones adopts the trappings of tragedy, Harry Potter is potentially truly tragic---and in fact it contains at least one actually tragic subplot, that of the Half-Blood Prince. The situations aren't quite parallel. In Rowling's world, everybody isn't morally compromised or effectively neutered. But the darkness is closing in and the good characters' ability to do good grows more and more limited as the story moves along and even their ability to remain good comes into question. Good triumphs, but at terrible cost and there was always a chance that Harry might fail. The key difference is that as things are going, there's about zero chance good will prevail in Westeros and without that prospect there's no tragedy only catastrophe.
Another difference, one that gives us hope but also one that makes us worry about what might go wrong as opposed to simply making us dread more bad news, is that Rowling has put all the intelligent characters on the side of good, Dumbledore first and above all, but then Hermione, McGonagall, Lupin (who is compromised but still smarter than anybody on the side of You Know Who), Luna, all the Weasleys except Percy, even Hagrid, in his way, and, of course, as we learn in the end, the Half-Blood Prince.
Harry himself is no dope, though he has an unfortunate habit of taking his eye off the snitch at key moments.
After Voldemort, whose intelligence is a given but not often demonstrated, there are no truly intelligent villains. Bellatrix seems the smartest of the lot and for all we know she's a genius witch, but she's absolutely insane. The rest are merely cunning.
This is thematically in keeping. Rowling wrote her own treatise with the Potter books, a treatise against authoritarianism, which, as she shows, can only thrive where people can't think or are afraid to think for themselves. Voldemort's best hope lies in the Ministry of Magic's becoming so afraid that it starts discouraging freedom of thought and insisting on unquestioning obedience to its authority.
But it makes for more compelling and realistic drama, too. Voldemort can't sit back and wait for the good guys to do something stupid. He has to out-think and outmaneuver them. When good characters defeat themselves, they do it in complex, realistic, and recognizably human ways other than just being dumb when the plot requires it.
Which gets at another way Rowling is the better writer. She writes her characters, male and female, from within. Her characters aren’t creatures of her plot or at the mercy of it. They have autonomy. They have volition. They aren’t moved by where they need to be in the plot. They think for themselves and as themselves. They have lives, inner and outer, apart from what’s happening to them and around them because of the conflict between Voldemort and Harry. That goes for Harry too.
Just about every character is a real person of a type we recognize from real life, even when they’re not strictly speaking a person, like Dobby.
Much of the humor in the books and movies arises from Rowling’s sense of the way individuals insist on being themselves despite what’s going on around them. This makes for comedy in the midst of tragedy or, I should say, the comic creates the possibility for the tragic.
As I’ve said, Martin cheats to bring about his catastrophic but not tragic outcomes and the main way he does it is by treating his characters as gamepieces instead of as human beings.
All that said, I think Game of Thrones works, as long as you take it as pure fantasy and don’t hold it to serious literary standards, something I’m temperamentally incapable of doing, or if you see it for one of the things it is, an upending of the Camelot myth.
And Westeros is very much like England before the coming of Arthur. Each little kingdom is at war with every other. Every little tyrant aspires to be the true king. There’s no law except for what is made and enforced by the sword. It's not that it's Might Makes Right instead of Might for Right. It's might is right. Magic is real. And giants and wild men roam the land.
The difference is that, so far, we haven’t met Wart.
Not for certain.
Unless it's Jon Snow, but I don't hold out much hope for him. He's equipped with the right tropes. Illegitimate. Raised in obscurity by strangers. Inheritor of a sword of legendary powers. Inherently decent and actually able to make his decency count, at least now and then. But so far he seems as blockheaded and morally befuddled as all the Starks and he's just as at the mercy of Martin's perversity as every other character.
(Oliver Mannion tells me that it’s a joke among fans to warn newbies not to ask the notoriously and maddeningly slow-writing Martin when he’s coming out with the next book because every time he gets asked that he kills a Stark.)
This is the nightmare that keeps Merlin awake at night.
What if there is no Arthur?
And even if Snow is Arthur or a potential Arthur, Arthur didn't bring about Camelot all on his own. There are no signs that in Westeros or wherever Martin's versions of France and Scotland lie there's a Lancelot or a Gawain. There are almost certainly no Percivals or Galahads.
Most importantly, there is no Merlin.
And no Lady of the Lake either.
Which means Jon can't hope for any help from God or nature.
By and large, Nature, represented guardedly and grumpily by the centaurs, is on Harry's side and regularly comes to his aid.
But in Game of Thrones, Nature is the supreme threat.
Winter is coming.
The other three Mannions in the house, particularly Oliver and the blonde, are enthusiastic fans of both Game of Thrones, the TV series, and A Song of Fire and Ice. As I mentioned, I lost interest in the books but, despite my reservations, I’m enjoying the show, mainly because it’s very well done and the acting is terrific and because…Peter Dinklage. But there are still things about it that are appalling---the sadism, the general cruelty, the overall indifference to creating realistically human characters, which can’t be excused because it’s fantasy. Rowling had no problem there. Neither did Tolkien or Mallory or Homer. The sex and nudity are deliberately ugly, pornography for people who get off on being disgusted by pleasure, tenderness, and affection. And the female characters are mostly apologies for misogyny.
Still, I don’t come close to hating it, unlike Maris Krietzman, whose post at Medium, ‘Game of Thrones’ and the Threatening Fantasy, got me thinking and inspired my post.
Careful before you click on the link. I don’t usually do this, partly because I haven’t figured out how to do it tactfully, but mainly because I don’t think to, and I probably should fix that, but this time: Warning. Possible rape triggers.
Updated Saturday, August 10, 2013, because a Mannion Always Corrects His Posts: Oliver Mannion, whose favorite gift this past Christmas was a t-shirt printed with the crests and mottos of all the noble families of Westeros, has let me know I should have done my homework before writing this post. He says there's a lot I got wrong that I wouldn't have if I'd read farther in the books, starting my criticism of the female characters. He's particularly critical of the paragraph that begins "We can gloss over the dragons and the active existence of magic." According to Oliver, the maesters, whom I took to be a generic priesthood, are the Celtic monks of Westeros; a version of Persia is out there to the East and gets visited by a main character in A Storm of Swords; there's a version of Constantinople to the East, too; and money does play an important role in the plots. The Iron Bank of Bravos (Bravos is sort of the Venice of this universe, one of the Free Cities that are roughly akin to the Italian City States) holds a giant note on the Iron Throne and Jon Snow learns the value of high finance and uses his new-found knowledge to his advantage in A Dance with Dragons .
Also, he implies but doesn't out and out say that I'm nuts if I think Harry Potter is a better fantasy series than A Song of Fire and Ice.
All five books so far of A Song of Fire and Ice are available from Amazon. The first two seasons of Game of Thrones are available to watch instantly. And you can find all the Harry Potter books, audio books, and movies at my aStore.