I watched Game of Thrones series one on DVD over the summer, and although I’m not a huge fantasy fan, I got into it and worked my way through the books. If you haven’t seen or read this series, essentially it’s set in an alternate version of Britain, a neverending saga of blood and fire, where the summers and winters last generations, and various families fight through claims to the Iron Throne. Laurie Penny sums up the less than subtle matrix:
Its major plot points, based on George R. R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels, are so simplistic that they may as well have been scrawled in crayon on the intricate wallpaper of literary-televisual tradition: the goodies are the rough, noble Northerners, the Stark family, none of whom have any discernible character defects, and the baddies are the yellow-haired Southern Lannisters, prosperous, duplicitous, incestuous, murderous and lots of other horrible things ending in ‘ous’, and somewhere in there are ice-zombies and prostitutes and blood-feuds and dragons and prostitutes and eunuchs and prostitutes and pirates and prostitutes and witches and prostitutes and one randy dwarf with daddy issues.
Penny also highlights the more problematic aspects of the series:
Take, for example, one single sub-plot: a very young princess, a blonde and beautiful thirteen-year-old virgin whose remarkable fairness of complexion is a motif of the series, is sold off as a child-bride by her unscrupulous brother, a man who likes to have sex whilst talking about dragons in the bath.
The unfortunate girl’s new husband is a dark-skinned, savage warlord from the Mystical East who, being a savage, is unable to conceive of any sex that isn’t exclusively rape-based, and as such violently assaults the little princess every night. But it’s all ok because a prostitute slave teaches the thirteen-year-old princess super sexy sex skills, and she proceeds to blow the warlord’s mind so throughly that they fall in love. Later in the series she uses her magical blondness and a bunch of baby dragons to free all the slaves in the Mystical East. If the enormous teetering pile of ugly stereotypes here is not immediately obvious, see me after class and we’ll go through it step by step.
A lot of this is rooted in the generic conventions of fantasy. Penny can caricature and dismiss the argument that ‘Game of Thrones is based on the Medieval World, and the Medieval World Was Sexist and Racist,’ but it remains true. Martin neglected to include full suffrage and a Court of Human Rights simply because most fantasy worlds don’t have them. Fictional landscapes tend to feature elements of injustice and discontent, because these are things that exist almost everywhere, and propel the story.
So women have a hard time in Game of Thrones. They can be married off at twelve, and used as trade in the wartime alliance barter system. Even being male carries its risks: castrations and beheadings are common. There is great hardship, and oppression. The passages dealing with the training of the Unsullied Astaporian slaves are harrowing to the point of unreadable. Does happiness write white in genre fiction, as in literature? Maybe – although Iain M Banks created a compelling series in his Culture books, about a hedonic civilisation that has evolved beyond war, inequality and disease. The Culture novels are no less brilliant for their generally positive outlook.
Not that Penny does not have a point, when she describes Game of Thrones as ‘racist rape-culture Disneyland with Dragons.’ Look at Queen Cersei: the regent and power behind the Lannister throne, beautiful and unassailable but nevertheless frustrated that she will never be able to rule in her own name. Her ceaseless plotting destroys many good men, and warps her boy-king son Joffrey. At one point she actually curses the gods for not letting her be born a man. Eventually, Cersei overplays her hand, when she strengthens the church in order to frame court rivals as harlots, only to be thrown into the dungeons after them. She is coerced into a walk of shame from the temple to the palace, brute naked along a gauntlet of yelling, laughing crowds. It’s a punishment from the misogynist’s handbook, and a hard scene for the reader, who by now has come to sympathise with Cersei.
There are plenty of female characters who are not teenage dragon princesses, or bitch queens from hell: the many-faced wanderer Arya Stark, the warrior knights Asha Greyjoy and Brienne of Tarth, and Sansa, who buys all the medieval myths but finds out the hard way that, as Petyr Baelish tells her, life is not a song. Yet gender oppression is not the main driver here. Nowhere is there an indication that any of Westeros’s multitude of claimants were born to be king. The story begins some time after the previous Targaryen ruling family have been overthrown and murdered, and their remnants scattered across the Narrow Sea. The rebel, King Robert Baratheon, doesn’t justify this by blood or virtue, instead maintaining that ‘his warhammer was his claim.’ When Viserys Targaryen complains that Robert has usurped his rightful throne, a fellow exile counters that Viserys’ ancestor Aegon didn’t take the throne because he had a right to it: he took the throne because he could. What matters in Westeros is not destiny but brute strength, and sometimes not even that. Robb Stark wins all his battles but is ultimately outwitted by the cunning Tywin Lannister, who forms new alliances to destroy the Stark pretender. Viserys himself is crowned, somewhat unceremoniously, by a Dothraki horselord who upends a cauldron of molten gold over the Targaryen princeling’s head.
This is more The Wire than Lord of the Rings. Eddard Stark is dragged into King’s Landing and destroyed by the institution as surely as D’Angelo Barksdale. The TV show even has Aiden ‘Carcetti’ Gillen playing the trickster Petyr Baelish. It is brute politics, a Westminster village beyond the law. Even the personalities are similar: King Joffrey is basically a younger George Osborne, Cersei (or maybe Danaerys) a passable Louise Mensch, Boris a King Robert Baratheon (Robert dies on a drunken game hunt, impaled by a wild boar, which is a very Boris way to die) while Jeremy Hunt is essentially Lord Varys, a giggling, de-balled master of whisperers.
Only occasionally does Martin leave the struggles of the great houses, and dwell for a moment on the Westeros masses, to whom the game of thrones means nothing apart from occasionally having your holdfast ransacked by some roaming sellswords, or your son conscripted into one war or another. (‘Obviously you don’t want us to burn down your village, this is a result of tough decisions we have had to take due to the mess we inherited from the previous king.’) It can all get very heavy going and self conscious, but as a demonstration of the crime and the joke of political power – as well as a damn good story – Game of Thrones is well worth the several months you’ll spend getting through it.