‘Game of Thrones’: Struggle for Survival? Or Celebrating Evil?

Jamie Lannister – murder and mayhem – Game of Thrones

Strider – On the side of good – Lord of the Rings

If you’ve never heard of “Game of Thrones” or it’s author, George R. R. Martin, all I can say is, “Where have you been?”

I opened the cover of the book nearly twenty years ago just after it was first published. The first page or two alone was so compelling I wasn’t just drawn into the story. I was body snatched. I was so absorbed into the characters — their lives, thoughts, fates, that I couldn’t put it down. I had to know. I had to know.

And then the problems began.

For though the characters were complex, they never seemed to go anywhere — except to hell literally and figuratively.I don’t think I even finished the fourth book, “Feast of Crows”, I was that disgusted with it.

Only a handful of modern epic fantasy novels have been as compelling as “Game of Thrones”, or nearly so. Therefore, the question I present here is whether the “Game of Thrones” series stands with such literary giants as J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”, or as an extremely riveting, “celebration of evil”, a very well-turned phrase that I quote from a reader of The Village Smith, who wishes to be known simply as “Michael”.

Michael posited his question after watching HBO’s “Game of Thrones”, a television blockbuster based on Martin’s #1 New York Times bestseller, which is the first book in a series entitled “A Song of Ice and Fire”. Michael’s question was about the TV series. But since I have only watched the pilot, my reasoning will be based on the first three, and perhaps four, novels: Game of Thrones, Clash of Kings, Storm of Swords, and Feast of Crows. But to keep things simple, I’m going to refer to both the TV series and the novels as “Game of Thrones”, a title with which most readers and viewers are familiar.

So if the moral dilemmas raised their Medusa heads so early in the series, why did I read nearly four books? Because In spite of the evil so graphically depicted in the novels, I kept reading in order to find some validation for the horrors, savagery, and humiliation each character either experienced or perpetrated upon the others. It was while into the fourth book that I realized there was nothing to justify such actions, and probably never would be.

Wonderful characters that I looked forward to following — including the fate of the dire wolves and, of course, the Stark children to whom they were bonded —  fell indiscriminately by the wayside like so much flotsam. My thoughts were that George R.R. Martin could weave a good tale but didn’t know how to finish it. If he didn’t know where to go with a character — well, geez, just bump him off and forget about him. I just knew I wasn’t investing any more of my time in Martin’s “clouds without rain”.

But my reader, Michael, helped me to think much more deeply about Martin’s motivations and intentions behind this blood-drenched, vice-ridden epic when he wrote:

“I understand that Martin actually wanted to be the anti-Tolkien; he wanted to write a series of fantasy novels where good did not triumph over evil, where, in fact, to be good in an ethical sense was actually a liability in the struggle for survival.”

That one knocked me over because the moment I read it I knew it fit. It pulled all my vague and disorganized thoughts into focus about this murky, borderless, neverending narrative that has taken the world by storm.

Here’s what Michael had to say after asking what I thought of Game of Thrones. He makes some excellent points:

“I had not read George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series on which the “Game of Thrones” T.V. series is based, so I did not know what to expect when the series first aired. Since then I have watched it off and on, impressed by the period detail, multiple storylines and complex characters.

But at the end of the day, I am not just disappointed, I am angry at the sadism that curdles through the series.  I understand that Martin actually wanted to be the anti-Tolkien; he wanted to write a series of fantasy novels where good did not triumph over evil, where, in fact, to be good in an ethical sense was actually a liability in the struggle for survival

“And so, Martin “celebrates” evil to an extent I have not seen in mainstream television or the movies outside of horror films. Whether it is the beheading of Lord Eddard Stark to end season one; or the murder of his widow, son, daughter-in-law and retainers at the “red wedding”; or the evils perpetrated by Joffrey Lannister while he is king before he is poisoned; or the terrible degradation and castration of Theon Grayjoy, or the rape of Sansa Stark in the latest episode, it seems as if Martin piles on the humiliation and the terror for its own sake.

Martin is so intent on showing that virtue is not rewarded — in fact, he mocks virtue — that he wants us to see that evil can be rewarded instead. I get the truth of this, but I think it is a truth not to be celebrated. In Tolkien’s world evil was triumphant for a very long time, but it was always resisted by those with other values. And Tolkien celebrated those values, not evil’s triumphs.

By contrast, it seems to me that in Martin’s world, survival and power are everything, and one must be willing to do anything in order to obtain power and thereby survive. In Martin’s world, there is no “right” and “wrong.” There are only “winners” and “losers” in “Game of Thrones.”

“I disagree with that. I think these two concepts exist side-by-side, sometimes in conflict, and the end does not justify the means. I think there are moral choices we each must make; that there is a difference between right and wrong; and that sometimes, to choose the moral, ethical, right way, means not to survive in the short run. But I guess I do believe that good triumphs in the end.

It bothers me that the show dwells too long, almost lovingly, on the pain and degradation of some characters, as if to celebrate that reality at the expense of many other possible realities.

On a related point, I discussed the series with students at the university where I teach, and some female students objected to my criticism, pointing out that the show had much stronger female characters than were present in Tolkien’s novels. This is a valid criticism of Tolkien’s novels which were written in the 1950s, and I think Peter Jackson made the female characters in Tolkien much stronger and more visible in the movies he made from the novels.

But in “Game of Thrones,” for all their strength, the women are still victims — even the strongest female characters such as Cersie Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen, “mother of dragons,” struggle and do much harm to others without fully achieving their own goals for themselves — and, like Catelyn Stark and Ygritte the Wilding, the women are often killed without accomplishing their goals. So while I appreciate that the female characters in the “Game of Thrones” novels and HBO series are vibrant and richly drawn, this only makes their lack of success more poignant.

“I wonder if this critique of “Game of Thrones” could be broadened to include many other shows on TV today, such as “House of Cards” on Netflix, “Mad Men” on AMC, and “Scandal” on ABC. In each of these shows as well, the lead characters and the storylines celebrate a moral relativism where there is no right and wrong, only success or failure. Does this reflect a broader cultural shift in our society? I shiver to think so. But that is a much larger topic, for another time.

Wow! I was impressed. What a well-thought-out, logical, well-written argument. And, as you know, I don’t say that lightly. My reply to him is simply a pathway that Michael had already pointed out and encouraged me to explore. Don’t you just love it when that happens! So here are my thoughts:

Michael,
I , too, am a fan of historical and epic fantasy as well as great novels of high adventure. But the ones I read must all have some leading characters who exhibit nobility, integrity, courage, loyalty, etc. The best literature displays these traits without hitting the reader over the head with them, whether they are an integral part of a character or whether the character learns them in the school of hard knocks. This may sound simplistic, but, as you no doubt know, in the hands of a great writer they become so much more than the sum of their parts.

“Lord of the Flies” is a great example of good literature on the dark side of human nature. Written by a man who had seen the atrocities of war and what horrors man can inflict upon his fellow man, Golding’s novel is a cry for humanity to wake up, to do an emergency self-examination, and turn the tide of savagery before civilization destroys itself. Once read, Lord of the Flies can never be forgotten or dismissed.

But Martin’s epic series celebrates that very savagery, that dog-eat-dog mentality, and says to mankind it’s okay to return to barbarism, to break down the human and Biblical standards that the pillars of civilization rest upon. And I call his epic a dark blot on society because it is so seductive. The characters and story are terribly hard for a reader to resist.

As for the HBO series “Game of Thrones”, Mike and I watched some of the first episode. We were impressed with the actors and the visual world they created, but then the depravity began. Like the book, it was offensive and disgusting. We turned it off. [It was the same with “House of Cards” — can’t beat the acting — but can’t stand the “celebration” of bloodless savagery, dishonesty, duplicity, deception, vice, and all-around evil.]

I never got to the rape of Sansa in either the novels or the TV series and I’m glad I didn’t. To use that magnificent gift that Martin has just to showcase brutality, or for the sake of shoving horror in the world’s face, is a crime against the high ideals of real literature.

The excuse I’ve heard from people is, “Well, that’s just the way the world works”, is not good enough. Charles Dickens showed us how bad the world could be — how cruel — without turning out the light of hope. He acknowledged there was also goodness and mercy. He showed it through the hearts and actions of his characters.

Does the relatively recent crop of television offerings like  “House of Cards”, “Mad Men”, “Scandal”, etc. “celebrate a moral relativism where there is no right and wrong, only success or failure. [And] Does this reflect a broader cultural shift in our society?”

Splashed across major news networks and newspapers, headlines include cheating by an NFL team, corruption in FIFA, Speaker of the House due for arraignment on sexual abuse. I could go on and on, but I don’t want to. Does this “moral relativism where there is no right and wrong, only success or failure reflect a broader cultural shift in our society?”.  I shudder to think so, too, Michael. But my answer would be yes.

But there are those of us, like Tolkien and his unforgettable characters, who still believe in the moral principles of right and wrong, principles given to us by God, who sets the ultimate standard.

Michael, I loved what you said about Tolkien and I will wrap this up with those wonderful words that celebrate good, and hope, and, yes, heroism.

“In Tolkien’s world evil was triumphant for a very long time, but it was always resisted by those with other values. And Tolkien celebrated those values, not evil’s triumphs.”

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