DON’T WORRY: NO SPOILERS.
It’s interesting to see GAME OF THRONES become not just a ratings hit, but be regarded with a kind of prestige when the fantasy genre is generally considered geeky and a little embarrassing by the mainstream.
I’ve never been a big fan of the Fantasy genre, particular the stories set in made-up medieval settings with magic and magical creatures attached to them. I’ve always been more of a Science Fiction fan. To me, Science Fiction was about the possibility of things happening, whereas Fantasy was about things that never happened. To me, High Fantasy always felt like looking to the past while I preferred to look to the future, hence my preference for Science Fiction. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate Fantasy. I have more than enough friends who love it and recommend the books for me to keep up with the trends and cultural shifts. I always felt there was an inherent conservatism in the nostalgia for medieval times in Fantasy fiction, a yearning for more simple times when those times were far from progressive: they were essential feudal monarchies rather than democracies, and I always thought that civilization was better off with democracy rather than ruled by kings who inherited kingdoms by birthright. Yes, there can be a right-wing and conservative tendency in Science Fiction as well, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Which brings us to George R.R. Martin’s A GAME OF THRONES series, which has become part of the cultural mainstream due to its popularity on TV, in a culture where something only ever becomes truly well-known when it is seen rather than just read as books, considering the latter had already sold millions before the HBO show rocketed it to the big time.
A GAME OF THRONES effectively does for the fantasy genre on TV what I. CLAUDIUS did for Roman historical drama, adding tits and gory violence to sophisticated scripts to rebrand something considered niche into a more upmarket arena. To fans of the genre as well as newcomers, it feels fresh, a reinvention of the High Fantasy genre by puncturing the sense of moral certainty where the good always win and the bad always lose. George R.R. Martin takes his cues from European history and Machiavelli’s THE PRINCE to reconfigure the genre in darker, grubbier, more dangerous waters than the idealised nobility of the genre as defined by Tolkein’s LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. In Martin’s Westeros, people are messy, selfish, violent, make bad, foolish decisions and can get killed at the drop of a hat.
Yet the heart of GAME OF THRONES is still deeply conservative. In its thousands of pages of prose and tens of hours of TV, its main thrust is driven by the fight for the throne and the search or eventual emergence of a rightful king. Things have gone to shit. Wannabes and pretenders fuck with people, wage wars, send hundreds of peasants with rural accents to their deaths, and we watch waiting for a rightful king to finally take over and set everything right.
The three seasons of TV to date have all been about ruling and power: Robert Baratheon, who took the throne from the Targaryans, didn’t really know what to do with it other than get drunk and get laid, all the while hating being king. Of course he was going to die and set off the race. Eddard Start reluctantly tried to seize the throne for moral reasons and while he was a good guy, made stupid calls in the name of honesty that got him killed. Khal Dago, the leader of a nomadic tribe who might have become a conqueror to take back the kingdom for his wife Danerys Targaryen, dies cruelly and randomly from an infected wound he got in a duel. From that point, there’s a sense that all bets are off. There’s Robert’s son Joffrey, who’s really the product of incest between his mother and uncle and therefore an invalid claimant to the throne, and obviously a bad choice for king because he’s evil, sadistic and stupid. Robert’s brothers Renly and Stannis are clearly presented as unsuitable, despite their legitimate claims by blood: Renly never displayed any real sense he was fit to rule. Stannis is a stern military leader but too much of a stiff, mean bastard people don’t like, not to mention he’s in thrall to a magic-wielding priestess from a fringe cult religion. There’s Cersei Lannister, Joffrey’s mother, who wants to rule using her son Joffrey as her proxy, but she’s vindictive, spiteful and vicious, not to mention she’s nowhere as smart as she thinks she is. Lord Petyr Baelish, or ‘Littlefinger’, controlled the finances of the court and has used money to cultivate a spy network and influence to plot and plan his eventual control of the kingdom, whether as king or as the power behind the throne. The plot takes pains to show that these characters don’t deserve to be king because they’re terrible people and they crave power, even if some of them have a legitimate claim by blood.
And the narrative is slowly pointing towards four characters who might be deemed worth of rule: Robb Stark, son of Eddard, who leads an army in the north towards the capital to wage war against Joffrey, Jon Snow, illegitmate son (allegedly) of Ned Stark, who might end up coming back fighting zombies in the snow, and Danerys Targaryan, the last surviving heir who might have a blood claim after the Barantheons deposed her father, and the dwarf Tyrion Lannister, who has the cynical intelligence and cunning and survival instincts to hold onto power. They’re flawed, and Tyrion is the only one who’s not naïve or overly-earnest, but we’re led to think sympathetically of them as potential winners in the race because they’re the ones who aren’t arseholes. Robb Stark and Jon Snow are driven by a stoic nobility that Ned Stark passed down to them. For about three seasons, Danerys has been portrayed as a sympathetic claimant to the throne though there really isn’t any indication she might be a good monarch other than that she feels entitled by blood and she makes it a point to be nice to people, and there’s a whiff of colonialism in the way she’s currently ruling over a bunch of dark-skinned primitive tribespeople and basically getting her crash-course in How to Rule by making her mistakes with them before she goes back to Westeros with an army large enough to wage war.
And the end of the line is the belief that once the right king takes over, everything will be right with the world. That is what we have been taught to expect in stories. And it kind of bothers me, that we still follow stories where we wait for the right king to lead everyone and make everything okay. It bothers me that there are very few stories these days in Fantasy or Science Fiction about people take responsibility, use their smarts and sort things out for themselves rather than wait for some Big Daddy or Mummy authority figure to make things okay for everyone. It reduces us to children abdicating responsibility, but that’s probably the beauty of escapism, the safe space for indulging in that fantasy. The last instance of a story that subverted expectations of a royal family fighting an evil usurper so the right person can become king was Iain M. Banks’ Culture novel SURFACE DETAIL.
You could ignore the political reading of GAME OF THRONES and read the story of “who becomes rightful king” as an allegory for coming of age, a lesson in how to be a Man or a Woman of Responsibility. It’s one of the main themes that has always been a key part of the Fantasy genre, established by Tolkein, whose final part of THE LORD OF THE RINGS couldn’t make it anymore overt than its title, “THE RETURN OF THE KING”. It’s still a backwards look rather than a progressive one, frankly. I had a discussion about the show with a friend who hopes that GAME OF THRONES will end on an unexpected, subversive twist that doesn’t depend on the right king taking power, but I’m less optimistic about that happening.
That said, I have lots of fun watching GAME OF THRONES. I’ve read the books so I know what’s going to happen in season 3 of the show and beyond. The reason people like me haven’t spoiled it for people who only watch the show is because we want to see you freak out when the shit hits the fan. We will laugh our arses off when that happens, just like we thought it was funny when you all freaked out that Ned Stark was killed at the end of season one.
As for what I think of kings, this bit in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL still says it best:
No kings at firstname.lastname@example.org
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