Why Game of Thrones is more than fantasy
Game of Thrones is not just great television. It speaks to the social and political struggles of our times.
This article is a preview from the Summer 2015 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.
The Voyager I and II space probes were packed with music by Bach and pictures of the pyramids intended to establish contact with distant civilisations. But, as the cultural historian Joe Moran writes in Armchair Nation: An Intimate History of Britain in Front of the Television, the television signals we’ve been indiscriminately pumping into space since 1930 are the most likely things to be picked up by intelligent aliens. Moran imagines the inhabitants of the recently discovered planet Kepler 22b, 600 light years away, decoding messages from the earth. “In about 600 years’ time,” he muses, “some civilised aliens … could be watching the current offerings on ITV2 or Sky Living and wondering if they really represent the summit of human creativity or achievement.”
Game of Thrones, though, is staggeringly good TV. It has achieved extraordinary commercial success, and some academics are starting to take it almost as seriously as Bach or the pyramids. My day-to-day academic life, as a lecturer in English Literature at the University of East Anglia, mainly involves teaching and writing about modernist literature, but Game of Thrones is more than some sort of guilty pleasure for me. I am increasingly impatient with the failure of certain literary academics to engage with television. This is not only because, as Moran argues, even bad TV, watched well, can tell us an awful lot about who we are and where we’re going. It’s also because so-called Long Form TV – including The Wire, True Detective, Breaking Bad, The Killing and yes, Game of Thrones, among many others – is simply the most vibrant and exciting cultural form of our contemporary moment.
All of which is why I responded enthusiastically when fellow Thrones enthusiast Colin MacCabe – editor of the journal Critical Quarterly where I am deputy editor – mentioned a proposed special issue on Game of Thrones, to be edited by Professor John Wilkinson of the University of Chicago. Reading the finished issue, which has now been published, it seems that one strand drawing all the articles together is the twisted way in which Thrones seems to channel contemporary political, social and sexual concerns. Above all, as the legal scholar William P. MacNeil argues in his contribution, Thrones encourages us to think through the nature and legitimacy of the legal regimes under which we live.
It is emphatically not “escapism” – a charge frequently levelled at the fantasy genre – for two reasons. Firstly, because as John Lanchester put it in an enthusiastic review several seasons ago, “It’s not a world any sane person would want to live in, not for a moment.” And secondly because, in certain senses, we are already living in it.
There are all sort of ways in which Game of Thrones could be thought to channel the 21st-century geopolitical situation. During the Turkish anti-government protests in Taksim Square in 2013, the familiar Thrones slogan “Winter is Coming” could be seen daubed on the walls; jokingly, for sure, but also pointing to an uncertain political future which finds its most resonant echo in Westeros. That same slogan is often understood as an inverted way of imagining our own coming environmental catastrophe. And the religious tensions in Westeros – between militant puritanical monotheisms and a decadent polytheism – stage a kind of ironic commentary on rhetoric about a clash of civilisations.
The cosmic perspective of Moran’s vision of Kepler 22b highlights something essential about television. For Moran, even Sky Living could be viewed sympathetically by a hypothetical alien civilisation because the essence of television is “an imperfect attempt to make a human connection across empty space”. Moran wants to recover the agricultural origins of the word “broadcasting”: scattering seeds widely and not knowing (or caring too much) which ones will germinate and take root. Game of Thrones seems a fertile strain.
Indeed, as with all great drama, the symbols and stories of Thrones are remarkably portable, taking up new resonances in different contexts and refusing to be tied down to a single reading. For me, this distinguishes it from stalwarts of the fantasy genre like the work of JRR Tolkien (not to mention Peter Jackson’s mind-numbing film adaptations) or CS Lewis. Where these writers present the moral certainty of a honeyed version of “Merrie England” that had to be defended from the barbarian hordes, it is more difficult to see why the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros deserve any protection from the White Walkers, giants and wildlings that live north of the Wall – a sheer cliff of ice, 700 foot high, and a central symbol in the programme’s obsession with law and justice.
We are invited to read the Wall as the edge of a legal jurisdiction, a line that separates the rule of law from anarchy, civilisation from barbarism. At various times we are reminded of real historical walls – Berlin, Jerusalem, Hadrian’s Wall – though the associations are a provocation to further thought and not neat allegories that provide a key to meaning. When the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas went to document “The Berlin Wall as Architecture” in the 1970s, he felt that he had “come eye to eye with architecture’s true nature”: “the wall is not stable … it is more a situation, a permanent, slow-motion evolution.” The social and political division that is literalised by the Wall – in Westeros as in Berlin – is not an exception, it’s the rule.
Which is not simply to recommend tearing it down. There is no doubt that, as MacNeil puts it, the barbarians in Thrones “look like something out of Freud’s Totem and Taboo”, a cheerful book in which Freud argued that the origin of civilisation was in the sense of guilt that arose from primitive men banding together to kill and eat their father. The lawlessness north of the Wall is epitomised by the figure of Craster, the old man who rapes his daughters, sacrifices the infant grandson-sons born from his incest and keeps the granddaughter-daughters so that the cycle can continue. Some drives deserve to be repressed. Some walls are worth having.
Yet such behaviour is hardly limited to the wildlings. The guilt, shame and repression that check primitive urges and make civilisation function (in Freud’s pessimistic account) are almost absent from Westeros. The twins Cersei and Jaime Lannister are members of the most powerful family in the Seven Kingdoms – Cersei is, for a time, Queen. Yet in the very first episode of Thrones we learn of their longstanding incestuous relationship in one of those scenes – common in the series – that is so shocking that it first makes you laugh then leaves you queasy. The couple’s bastard, Joffrey, is passed off as the rightful heir to the throne. After Cersei has arranged for the murder of her husband King Robert, Joffrey becomes one of fiction’s most unhinged and impulsively homicidal kings.
Westerosi law, then, is as brutal as the anarchy it seeks to hold at bay – sometimes more so. Law is all-pervasive and applied with unstinting brutality. Nevertheless, “If you want justice, you’ve come to the wrong place”, as Tyrion Lanister – the urbane, oversexed, alcoholic dwarf who steals the show – comments. Tyrion’s melancholy remark is addressed to Prince Oberyn, who has travelled to the capital to seek revenge for the rape and murder of his sister. In another of the show’s gruesome scenes, Oberyn has his head squashed by his sister’s murderer, while he is representing Tyrion in a trial by combat. The injustice is doubled: by his death Oberyn’s quest for vengeance is thwarted, and Tyrion is found guilty of a crime he did not commit. The greatest source of injustice in Westeros is the law.
The Game of Thrones vision of a rule-bound society also enables an examination of the way in which gender roles are inhabited and enforced. Sansa Stark, a young noblewoman, begins the series under the spell of a fantastical and idealised version of courtly love, based on rigid chivalric gender norms. But her romantic expectations are frustrated as she is betrothed for political reasons to a series of sociopaths. Viewers of the recent episodes are starting to see signs of Sansa’s rising self-consciousness in terms of her gender and its socially enforced limitations.
And Thrones abounds in characters who in various ways do not meet the normative descriptions of their respective genders. The cross-dressing Brienne of Tarth, as Jaime Hovey argues, is a kind of “genderqueer Knight”, whose identification as male both upholds classic courtly gender roles – it is as if she has simply switched sides – and demonstrates the difficulty of refusing one’s allocated sex in such a rule-bound society. Not that being born male guarantees you an easy ride in Westeros. Thrones abounds in castrated men, but other forms of emasculation are also available: Tyrion’s dwarfism, for example, excludes him from knightly conventions of manhood as they are usually conceived in the fantasy genre. There is a different form of gallantry at work in him.
It is too soon to say whether Game of Thrones will appear on university syllabuses for decades to come, or whether it will speak to the social and political mores of 2040 the way it does now. Still, it doesn’t seem entirely improbable to me that when the inhabitants of Kepler 22b tune in 600 years from now they will recognise themselves, and perhaps their Wall too.
The current issue of Critical Quarterly can be accessed at onlinelibrary.wiley.com