Saturday, February 28, 2015

All is Not Well in Westeros...

   It never is, it seems.

   In the seemingly amoral chaos of Game of Thrones, the forces of Good (do they even exist?) never experience a clear-cut victory over evil.

 When I was first introduced to the Game of Thrones series, I was not particularly taken with it. This was supposed to be a fantasy series, or so I'd thought. It turned out that the central, even defining ingrediant for fantasy appeared missing: the timeless conflict between the forces of good and evil. Evil in fantasy tends to be personified in a 'Dark Lord' of some sort, whether he be Sauron, Darth Vader, Voldemort or Darken Rahl. He's always clearly evil, and while most fantasy series feature heroes who struggle with real internal flaw, we never doubt their essential moral character.

     George R. R. Martin's series is another story.

    The entire format of the show through me at first. Where was the Dark Lord? Where was the epic quest? Where was the valiant band of heroes faces incredible odds? The show seemed more like a drawn-out medevial soap-opera, and largely, that description is apt. It just happens to take place in a reality where drgaons and wizards just happen to exist. It was just that thing, I gradually realized that sets the series apart, that forms part of its mass appeal. Set in a realm where internal and external conflicts strongly mirror those in the real world, Game of Thrones works, more than other fantasy series, as a splendid "what -if" scenario: in this case, what if fantasy elements actually existed in a real historical setting?

    In an interview with the author in Rolling Stone magazine,

George Martin explained that he originally considered setting his series in our own world. The problem with that was that since we know our own history, viewers wouldn't be kept in suspense; we'd know ahead of time how it would all unfold, who would kill whom, etc.

    Conservative fantasy author Vox Day, (yes, him again), has opined that Martin, though sometimes hailed as "The American Tolkien" (actuallly the same or similar titles have been attached to other fantacists), he is better described as an 'anti-Tolkien', much the way Phillip Pullman has been labeled the 'anti-Lewis':

"I leave it to the readers to decide whether my books are Christian fiction or not.  I don't care.  I consider them to be epic fantasy, written in the tradition begun by George MacDonald and exemplified by J.R.R. Tolkien.  And to those who will roll their eyes at the idea of "a Christian answer to George Martin" and imagine it is meant in the Stryper sense, let me hasten to disabuse you of that notion.  A THRONE OF BONES is neither an homage nor an imitation, it is a challenge.  It is intended as a literary rebuke.
I believe Martin and some of the other authors of epic fantasy have not extended the sub-genre so much as they have betrayed it.  And in doing so, even as they have attempted to make their works more "realistic" than those of their epic predecessors, they have actually made them much smaller in terms of the human experience.  In their colorblind rejection of what they suppose to be "black and white" morality in favor of their beloved "balance" and "shades of gray", they have inadvertently turned their backs on the full rainbow spectrum of colors.  They paint ugliness, but no beauty.  They sketch images of hate, but none of love.  Their sex isn't erotic, it merely the slaking of appetites.  Their work, for the most part, is quite literally and intentionally soulless.

I'm not at all interested in attempting to become their polar opposite, as some erroneously see it.  Still less am I trying to write some saccharine, watered-down version of their works.  Instead, I'm attempting to embrace the whole.  Good and evil.  Love and hate.  Joy and sorrow.  Beauty and ugliness.  Art and philosophy.  I am not saying that I have been, or will be, successful in this, I am merely pointing out that to claim that A THRONE OF BONES is an imitation of Martin, or any other author, is not only to miss the point, it is missing the entire conversation."

    Day has also stated that he does consider the Game of Thrones series are good novels for what they are. But he certainly has a point. There is indeed precious little beauty to be found in the Game of Thrones series. The focus does indeed tend to be on on human cruelty instead of selfless acts of heroism. Noble acts do occur, but they are few and far between. Part of the reason for this, I'm assuming is that Martin, a political and cultural liberal, is about challenging standards in regard what can be shown and read, at least as much as he is in painting his world in shades of pessimistic realism. Part of this counter-cultural attitude showed itself, when, in the aforementioned interview with rolling stone, he observed that viewers were lilely to see young Bran Stark as a King Arthur figure..until he gets thrown out a window and winds up crippled for life. Now, I might add here that a good wizard might be able cure Bran, but that's something Martin is not going to allow. In other words, he's deliberately waring against convention here.

    Another concept that is prominant in Game of Thrones is that any character, sympathetic, or not, may be killed off. That's a deliberate difience of convention again, stretching the limits of what can or can't be shown on television, the most infamous example of this being season 3's Red Wedding. Good is not necessarily rewarded nor is evil punished. I had a student last semester who praised Game of Thrones for this reason, opining that if a character survives death on the show, his or her survival feels "earned." Indeed, it seems that not knowing which characters well get out it alive is a selling point for a great many GOT viewers and readers. I was, in fact, a bit surprised when, in Season 4, the thoroughly repellent character of Joffrey finally does bite the dust--though the same can hardly be said of the even more repellent character Ramsay Snow. There is at least one seemingly good character, Daenerys Targaryen, who not only survives and triumphs, but seems unbeatable. However, in the most recent episodes, viewers learned that her campaign of end slavery in her world's equivelant of our Near East has resulted in some unforseen moral consequences--just as they likely would in our own flawed world.

    But is Game of Thrones intentionally nihilistic and postmodernist? Is Martin denying the existence of objective good and evil here? According to the Rolling Stone interview, it would seem otherwise; Martin gives an example of Woodrow Wilson, a man with racist beleifs who praised D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (for its actual message, not just its ciniematic value), but strove to end world peace. Was Wilson a hero or a villan, Martin asks. In fact, he tells us, he was both.

    And so it is with Martin's characters. 

    Martin does beleive that some actions of his characters are evil, while others are good.  Most committed liberals do. But sometimes I have difficulty registering that, when sadists like Ransy Snow triumph and persist again and again.


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