I might as well bear my throat for the pygmies early on: I haven’t watched the HBO TV series of Game of Thrones. Nor did I finish the books. So, those who disagree with my oncoming critiques but can’t be bothered coming up with a counter argument can rest safely in the belief that they know the world of George R.R. Martin better than I.
But then, I’m not writing a review. My intention here is to dig for myself a well on which to draw when I’m asked once again why I’m not currently pursuing the books or the television series any further, despite being a reader of fantasy and an admirer of the programmes in whose company Game of Thrones is often named. This is, apparently, a contradiction–how can you like, say, Mervyn Peake but not Martin? How can you obsessively talk about The Wire when engaged on the subject, but neglect to even give the same studio’s newer flagship series a chance? Indeed, why dismiss something without even giving it a proper try?
One friend, after pressing the issue, was more surprised to learn that I hold Michael Moorcock’s essay Epic Pooh in high regard. In said piece of writing, Moorcock savages the work of the emperor of high fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien, categorising it as elitist, classist, even borderline racist. From a more aesthetic point of view, however, it’s the tone of The Lord of the Rings that Moorcock and others find objectionable, a nannyish, nursery room prose that the essay’s title directly equates with that of A.A. Milne. Apparently my friend is not alone in considering the bleak, grimy attitude of Martin something of a tonic to this.
Another advantage that Martin’s book certainly has over Tolkien’s is the former’s lack of what the latter called eucatastrophe, the victory from the jaws of despair trope that categorises many of the major battle scenes in Middle Earth. A gripe I have with Tolkien that I rarely if ever see brought up is that in order to realise this eucatastrophe he has sanitised his sources, namely Pan-European epic cycles. Whereas Wagner, who used many of the same pagan stories for his Ring Cycle, allowed the Norse Ragnarok to unfold, Tolkien turns it into an opportunity for redemption. This very Christian tendency of the Inkling writers leaves a sour taste in the mouth of anyone who values a dramatic debt’s being paid – if Sauron has all but won, then I’d rather he won than have something like Gollum losing his balance be the thing that decides thousands of pages of perilous journeys and over-long battles.
Martin, of course, sentimentalises nothing. Right from the off, we’re never in any doubt that anyone in Game of Thrones can die, supposedly lifting it beyond convention to the lofty heights of a faux-Medieval Spooks. Not only can they die, but these can also be messy, rather un-grand demises. Martin never shies away from blood; in fact, his description bathes in it every chance it gets (though didn’t Karl Edward Wagner do this rather more convincingly?). If there was a deep fat fryer on Westeros, we are left in little doubt that Martin would make unconventional use of it.
There’s also a lot of sex. Whereas in Tolkien the chasteness of courtly romance is made to look like hardcore fucking, the hardcore fucking of Martin (I apologise for the ghastly mental image I’ve just imparted upon the literal-minded) extends again beyond everyday (well, maybe if you weren’t a fantasy reader) heterosexual union into casual sex, rape, necrophilia – even homosexuality!
Yes, the books loudly proclaim, no subject is too taboo for Mr. Martin. (Although I didn’t actually come across any characters we’re meant to care about who were gay; perhaps Martin has graciously decided to leave this last shred of conservative Western civilisation intact after apparently carving through everything else like a 21st century Marquis de Sade.) The distance between the infantile Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones could scarcely be made more apparent, at least on the surface.
However, loudly declaring yourself above childish things doesn’t make you an adult: it makes you an adolescent. This, I suspect, is the reason behind people describing Game of Thrones as “original.” No matter how old we are, we come to new things as a child, and for the vast majority of people, there have only been two mainstream fantasy series up to now: Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. One of the two (people nowadays can hardly be expected to have read both!) will have served as the cot, and now here at last come the acne and mood swings in the shape of Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones is mainstream fantasy giving its parents the finger and storming upstairs to listen to toneless music. Of course, there’s a reason to think this is even more of a false dawn than it seems: Martin has spoken of his admiration for the depth and resonance of the ending of Lord of the Rings. (‘Which one?’ might well ask anyone who sat through the last twenty minutes or so of Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King, where we were treated to a series of half-hearted resolutions each more offensively saccharine than the last.)
Because there is no originality that I can see from Game of Thrones. In fairness to Martin, this is a problem with a lot of fantasy. In theory, it is the most liberated of genres; in practice, it’s extremely conservative. Despite frequently having the advantage of magic, for example, the denizens of high fantasy worlds are rarely allowed to advance beyond the European Middle Ages in terms of technology, language, custom. Which has always struck me as strange, as I was under the impression that the atavism of our Dark Ages and the political and societal make-up that followed was the result of the fall of the Roman Empire, and yet high fantasy writers fail to mention any equivalent event. Martin, likewise, has not fleshed out his world beyond the usual sword and sorcery tropes. Here is a violent ravishing of someone else’s lands, there a royal succession crisis.
Worst of all, Game of Thrones imports an even more regressive social framework than that of Lord of the Rings. For instance, for all the lamentable backwards-looking exaltation of the white aristocratic male in the latter, there are at least women, like Eowen, who are courageous and admirable–that is, when she isn’t spending her time fawning over Aragorn or marrying the first single male who comes along in Faramir. The equivalent strong-woman archetype in Game of Thrones is Daenerys Targaryen, who is varyingly a knowing seductress, an overly protective mother, a matriarchal battle-axe, and an embodiment of chaotic feminine wrath. Despite being cursed to run from one stereotype to the next like a one-woman puppet show of sexism, Daenerys actually has it better than most women in Game of Thrones. These are usually whores, rape victims or simply sniveling wretches, deriving their power from either their husbands or their high-born male children (actually, this is likewise the case with Daenerys), with no head for violence or politics. This is despite the politics of Game of Thrones being almost painfully straight forward, a simple choice of who would make the slightly better king. And you were complaining about only having Labour and Conservative!
Yet to call Game of Thrones misogynist would be doing great injustice to the effort it puts into its more general misanthropy. The men in Game of Thrones are, at best, noble murderers. More worrying is that, like in the Lord of the Rings, social organisation is by blood, and not just in terms of hierarchy. The Lannisters and the Starks are respectively wealthy and self-obsessed and wintry and tough, defined by some of the most unimaginative and unconvincing heraldry in all of fantasy – a lion and a wolf. They, though, are the ‘civilised societies’, for all their barbarism. The Dothraki are tattooed, Orientalist savages who haven’t even advanced to a Medieval level, unable as they are to get their heads around the concept of boats. The Targaryens are a higher people (urgh) but no less homogenised – and if their fair skin, light hair, violet eyes, island-dwelling and obsession with dragons sound familiar, it means you too have read Moorcock’s Elric series and can recognise the Melniboneans Martin has plagiarised.
If it was just that Martin was unoriginal, I wouldn’t have such a gripe with these books. That the lack of invention is characteristic of so much fantasy is more depressing. But to then hear that this economy of imagination with sex and blood thrown in is a game-changer, a red letter day for the genre, as every review of the book or show seems to do, is every bit as annoying as the marketing tagline for superhero funnybooks in the 90s was: “comics ain’t just for kids any more!” The supposed progression here has followed much the same pattern: instead of growing up, the genre has just elbowed its way onto the grown up’s table and demanded it be given a shandy. Somebody, please, ask to see its ID.
The one thing it does try to do different, the narrative structure in which the third person perspective changes with the chapter, also has its limitations. It necessitates each chapter being a somewhat self-contained dramatic event, in the manner of… why, a TV programme! I have no idea whether Martin wrote Game of Thrones as a closet television pitch or not, but maybe that’s why it reputably translates so well to the small screen. This is how Martin can sell paperbacks the size of bedsits and rightly call them pageturners, because each episode in the book is halfway between a short story and a cliffhanger. Well, whatever works, and there’s no doubt it’s made him a lot of money, but as a piece of literary experimentation within genre fiction it’s hardly up there with Ursula K. le Guin’s incorporation of Taoist and anarchist themes, Samuel R. Delany’s endless getaway drive from whatever confine in society or format he perceives, Poul Anderson’s more convincing and authentic excavation of epic myth cycles, China Mieville’s urban psychogeographies, Brian Aldiss’ Joycean language deconstruction or Moorcock’s Eternal Champion multiverse project. What he’s done is transmigrate TV into fiction and then back again, even to the extent of mentioning he’ll try not to ‘do a Lost‘ when he does come up with an ending.
Wait… he doesn’t know how it will end? That must be why Game of Thrones feels less like a Wagnerian opera than it does a soap opera. Which goes a long way to explaining its popularity: doubtless, it being HBO, the series is well produced and competently directed, but it would take more than that for a sword and sorcery cycle to be so talked about. Even when it was just a book, it was inordinately popular–A Feast For Crows was a New York Times Best Seller despite being no more than an enormous set-up for A Dance With Dragons. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying it on the level of soap opera–HBO’s True Blood was entertaining for the same reason. But also because it didn’t take itself entirely seriously, whereas, if the books are anything to go by, Game of Thrones will take itself very seriously indeed (and someone who has seen the series please correct me if I am wrong). Watching or reading Game of Thrones because it’s exciting and fast paced (it is) or because there is a visceral enjoyment to be had (there is) or because the character arcs are unpredictable (they are) is perfectly acceptable. Just please don’t tell me it’s the revolution when it’s the emperor in a funny hat.