The HBO series Games of Thrones aired the final episode for Season 6 last Sunday to an epic 9 million viewers. The fantasy drama is based on a series of novels by George R. R. Martin, which currently number 5 in a potential series of 7 books, and form the greater compilation entitled, A Song of Ice and Fire.
With nods to J.R.R. Tolkien, the epic fantasy novels are set in a parallel world which shows many cultural, sociological and literary similarities to Medieval and Renaissance Europe and the Near East, with added mythical beasts and magical cults.
Darker and more blood thirsty than Tolkien, the books and now TV series have incited consternation for the frequent demise of major characters.
‘Why the appeal?’ one may well ask!
To early impressions, the stories can seem amoral. Many of the “good” characters get axed [literally] quite quickly, while the wicked prosper. All manner of vices proliferate on page and screen. Terrible inequalities emerge between owner and slave, between men with power and women without, between kings with money and armies and peasants without, and so forth.
While unsavoury in nature, this portrayal of the world bears more likeness to true human history than other romantic epics of literature, Tolkien’s works included.
One cannot read much history without encountering the same gruesomely bloody and immoral acts portrayed within Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin, based much of the political machinations at the heart of the books on the British events of the Wars of the Roses. Some of the alarming and brutal customs including Cersei’s public walk of shame through the streets of the capital, or Tyrion’s ‘trial by combat’ come straight from Medieval history.
Moreover, the island of Westeros bears much historically in common with the British Isles with its long elaborate history of settlements, invasions and skirmishes between the Celts, Britons, Romans and Anglo-Saxons.
History is brimming over with brutality. One reads of the Egyptian dynasties in which incestuous marriages were not uncommon, or Roman dynasties in which inbreeding created maddened rulers, cruel and drunk on power. Of course there were Persian rulers who impaled prisoners or crucified them publicly to deter dissent. One cannot read much of the most revered texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Old Testament, without encountering brutal accounts of parricide, polygamy, human sacrifice, cannibalism, slavery, attempted genocide and more.
And so, the world of Game of Thrones portrays life as cheap, hard and subject to the power plays of ruling elite. Caught in the midst of these power plays are the vulnerable – the women, the disabled, the illegitimate and the lesser born. And why shouldn’t it be so, for this is in fact the pattern of history is it not?
Here lies an interesting differential between history and poetry. While most often written from the vantage point of the victor, history is (at least in name) concerned the “what” and “when” of events past. On the other hand, poetry addresses the “whys” of human affairs. Poetry is unapologetically biased, adding layers of meaning, morality, and destiny to human accounts, straying into the metaphysical.
We look to art and narrative to provide a reprieve from the random patterns of brutality that make up life.
It’s interesting then to revisit the claim Martin’s narratives seem amoral or without redemption. In fact, the stories are framed by an epic quest of cosmic proportions. The stories embody a narrative of redemption, ironically while religions within the stories function like any other element of an intricate socio-political universe.
In Martin’s world pagan Druidic beliefs exist along side the the established religion, the Faith of the Seven. George R.R. Martin, a catholic in upbringing, based the Faith of the Seven on the Medieval Catholic church, replete with inquisitions and political machinatons. Further afield, mostly originating in the east are other faiths including worship of The Faceless God, or god of death, The Horse God of the Dothraki, and of the Red God, or the Lord of Light, a religion based on Zorastrianism.
These religions form part of the fabric of Martin’s world and provide characters with agency. For example, Cersei uses the Faith of the Seven and its adherents for political advantage, but is later caught in her own trap and manipulated in return.
Behind this however, Game of Thrones paints a background of a cosmic battle between the forces of death and of life. Beyond the petty doings of human men and women, with their iron suits, gold coins, wicked hearts and political ambition, lies a massive army of evil undead which threaten to wipe out all humanity and bring an unending winter.
Game of Thrones stretches beyond history and religion, and reaches into poetry; it sings a song of salvation.
This song is familiar to us all, since it follows the pattern of every Hero Journey.
It is Jon Snow who demonstrates he is a true leader, one worthy of this cosmic battle. He sacrifices for his men and gains their loyalty and trust. He is betrayed at the hands of his friends and murdered, but he returns from the clutches of death to prompt the Priestess of Light to declare him Azor Ahai, the one prophesied to bring balance between light and dark, to end the Great Battle with the forces of darkness and death.
Jon Snow is a humble man, over-looked by nobles and princes, one willing to give his life for his friends, one betrayed by his closest brothers, one who returns from the dead, reborn with a unique mandate- to restore peace and harmony to a broken world.
George Martin’s study of history and religion within the greater context of mythology and poetry, informs us how modern and post-modern teachings have impoverished western culture. In an effort to encourage objectivity and tolerance in increasingly diverse political and religious melting pots, western tradition has eliminated any meta-narrative or song of salvation.
Martin, like Tolkien reasserts a grand narrative, an epic hero story, one which echoes with the same themes and motifs of all epic narratives throughout the generations.