Not for Children: HBO’s Game of Thrones

To accompany the arrival of the second season of HBO’s series Game of Thrones in recent weeks, we have been treated to the predictable pronouncements that, ‘I usually don’t like fantasy, but I love Game of Thrones.’

‘Which fantasy?’ one is tempted to respond. Homer and other ancient myths? Fairy tales, medieval or (like Angela Carter’s rewrites) modern? The modernism of Kafka? Perhaps they don’t like Latin American magic realism? I suspect they mean, of course, the high fantasies of Tolkein and his descendants, in which case, the claim to not like fantasy is a little like saying that you don’t like historical novels because you once read Colleen McCulloch’s Thorn Birds.

In terms of television, of course, fantasy has been relegated to the light fare of teenage witches and suchlike, which means that someone like Stephanie Bunbury, in her piece in the Age, ‘Fantasy comes of Age’, is in many ways right to call Game of Thrones an ‘extraordinarily ambitious and intelligent fantasy series’. Based on George R R Martin’s series, Game of Thrones gives us a thrilling, dark world of political maneuvering, betrayal, sex, incest and violence. A ‘fantasy Sopranos’, some have called it, and like the Sopranos, despite its mostly dislikable characters, its tale is horribly engrossing. After the murder of the King, the west is divided between House Stark and House Lannister, while in the east, the last of the line of Targaryen plans to claim the throne herself. The series is a fantastical rewriting of the War of the Roses.

Bunbury quotes one of Game of Thrones writers who claims that:

I think what made us want to do it is that confluence of the thing you loved so much, when stories meant more to you than anything else in the world, with the adult complexity and reality we now look for in books, film and television as grown-ups.

Fantasy for adults, then, we’re led to believe. Even more ambitiously, Age critic Michael Idato claims that Game of Thrones is Shakespearean.

I can’t help but feel that these claims are as much self-justification as anything else. It’s okay to like what is essentially fairly unoriginal high fantasy, without having to claim special status for it. Most of the elements that critics claim are ‘adult’ – the violence, sex (and incest), betrayal, loneliness – can be found in most young adult books. Indeed, they are pursued with positively teenage passion in the television series, and as an adolescent might imagine it. One can hardly say much about portrayal of gender relations; as in most feudalism, women are to be married off, raped, or bought. While in terms of race, there’s quite a dose of orientalism in its imaginings of the ‘eastern’ Dothraki, so wild and primitive and free.

As far as its Shakespearean characteristics go, Game of Thrones fares little better. For the politics in Shakespeare is filled with meaning: The Merchant of Venice, for example, is an extended commentary on race and class during the dawn of capitalism. By the end of the play, its characters clearly come to represent social groups and forces, complete with their contradictory world-views. But the various Houses in Game of Thrones don’t seem to stand for anything much at all. Yes, we’re led to believe that the Starks are (mostly) good and noble and the Lannisters (mostly) evil, but what do they believe in? How would the world be different should one of them win and the other lose. What’s at stake? As I’ve argued in a review of Martin’s books, both are, ultimately, aristocratic feudal families vying for power to rule over the lower classes.

Game of Thrones thus has an ultimately Machiavellian political unconscious. Politics is about maneuvering, betrayal, force used at the decisive point. For all its neo-feudal background, in fact it is reminiscent of modern bourgeois politics – of the type portrayed in The Ides of March. In one sense, as Amanda Craig in the Telegraph reminds us, ‘Game of Thrones dramatises a powerful sense of the plebiscite’s anger, disenfranchisement and suspicion on both sides of the Atlantic.’ But one can portray this system – just as one can portray racism or patriarchy – from all kinds of standpoints. Game of Thrones gives us a cold realpolitik that is a characteristic of much conservatism. As German conservative Carl Schmitt explained, politics is about the distinction between friend and foe.

The irony, then, is that for all its excitement, all its gripping narrative (and make no mistake, it is exciting and gripping), Game of Thrones is hardly ‘fantasy for adults.’ ‘Not for children,’ might be a better description. In the field of fantasy literature, Martin is one of the best practitioners of high fantasy, that neo-feudal world of kings, queens, magic and dragons set against epic events and told as a narrative of adventure. Real adult concerns – complex relationships, sexuality and intimacy, the problems of making a living, issues of race and class (with all their attendant difficulties), politics as a site of struggle for ideas and principles – require a different mode of storytelling. For real ‘adult’ fantasy, then, we will have to wait.

Rjurik Davidson

Rjurik Davidson is a writer, editor and speaker. Rjurik’s novel, The Stars Askew was released in 2016. Rjurik is a former associate editor of Overland magazine. He can be found at and tweets as @rjurikdavidson.

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  1. Gah, Davidson, you beat me to my post! I watched the first two episodes of the new season last night and became convinced that the politics are actually quite reactionary. I mean, on the one hand, they show the murder of babies, the barbarism of war and the consequences of feudal machinations, which could make it (arguably) progressive. On the other, nothing is depicted outside the worlds of the ruling class, or if it is, it’s a mere prop to strengthen the appeal/worth/outsider status of a down-on-their-luck royal.

  2. Thanks for this review. I enjoy the show but it doesn’t get me thinking.

    For all its fake blood, chiselled abs, and cartoonish violence, Spartacus is really worth a look if you want some depth in terms of ideas. It has some of the strongest female characters I’ve seen on TV (given the historical constraints) and issues of race and class, and “politics as a site of struggle for ideas and principles” as you say, are always at the fore.

    On that note – I’d love to see someone take on a film or TV adaptation of one of China Mievelle’s novels.

  3. Just watched all of Season 1. Yes it is very watchable — the photography and composition is excellent. And it definitely appealed to my 18-year-old — very him.

    Your point is well made though. The setting is not enough to turn it into quality fantasy fiction. For that you need a stronger and more artful story arc with some challenging and intertwined ethical questions.

  4. I’m a bit interested in the trend to gritty realism in epic fantasy, which the GOT books seem to be part of. I’m thinking of Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains and its sequel, and, to an even greater extent, the Joe Abercrombie books, which are almost unbearably bleak. It’s almost like a proto-political tendency or something.

  5. You missed the most important criticism of all: it’s not finished, and will never be. The author just doesn’t care anymore. Like Don Draper, George RR Martin “only likes the beginning of things…”

  6. I love “Game of Thrones” — it reminds me of the Australian poetry scene … blood, gore, incest, no material difference between the pathetic and the sublime. It all seems terribly familiar … although perhaps poets can be more perfidious.

  7. Another, pretty random, thought about high fantasy: isn’t there always an issue around dialogue?
    I’m thinking of Tolkein making up all those languages, and writing songs in Elvish, and all the rest of it. Since then, hasn’t that been almost constitutive of the genre — having your characters talking in a cod-medieval dialogue, derived, I guess, from Tennyson’s nineteenth century Arthur. Because Tolkein knew his stuff, he could make it work, but for others it too often becomes, ‘Yonder is this castle of my father’.
    Anyway, I was thinking that when reading Richard Morgan, cos his characters swear. It’s quite a striking effect (Joe Abercrombie does it too): on the one hand, it’s a medieval setting with magic and wizards and whatever; on the other hand, the characters talk like Iraqi veterans.
    On the one hand, it’s weirdly anachronistic; on the other, it creates this gritty realism that you don’t get in most fantasy.
    That’s all apropos of nothing, really. Just something that occurred to me.

  8. Interestingly, using too many contemporary terms/language has often been seen a sign of the author’s inability to create an estranging world. I.e. it was characteristic of poorly written fantasy (and there’s plenty of that) unable to imagine the other. On the other hand, what you say may be a sign of something new emerging – i.e. new content.

    1. It’s interesting though how ostentatiously using unrealistic language (ancient barbarians telling each other to fuck off, say) actually produces the sense of ultra realism you get in those gritty fantasy novels.

      1. A North American friend was contracted to invent an entire language for Star Trek — he told me that throughout the script, when “tekky” moments were about to be encountered, the writers simply inserted the word “tek” in parentheses, such as “They’re aiming the (tek, tek, tek) again! Turn on the (tek) and fire (tek) at the (tek, tek)!” They had an entirely different crew of “tek” writers to fill in the gaps.

        1. There are, of course, people who learn those languages. As there are those who, God help us, sing the Elven songs from Tolkein!

      2. I’ll have to put some of these on my reading list – I’ve noted them in bookshops, but never got round to trying them out. Are you suggesting that they’re a reflection in some way of the post-Iraq/Afghanistan wars?

        1. Hmm. I hadn’t thought of that. Maybe. Abercrombie, in particular, is very bitter. The Heroes, for instance, is about a battle, and crosses back and forth between a huge set of characters, basically to show that no-one is fighting for any particularly pure cause, that the war is driven by imperial machinations, and its victims are ordinary people.
          It’s not overtly political, though. As I said, more like proto-politics.

          1. I guess that sounds to me like there is some new “content” so to speak, a political unconscious to what’s happening, if not politics proper.

  9. Thanks Rjurik, an interesting take on some very enjoyable TV. I take exception though to what I see as a fairly elitist introductory paragraph as surely it is common knowledge what the majority people mean when they talk about ‘fantasy’ novels, films etc.

    I’m also puzzled over how a series set in a pre-capitalist, medieval society could be presented to viewers with a progressive message in that the class and material bases for such a message do not, in the reality of the series, exist yet?

    This seems like an inescapable problem for almost all ‘fantasy’ in that it harkens back to a pre-capitalist, petit-bourgeois conception of society that is fundamentally reactionary. This is unlike sci-fi (again, using the common meaning) which does not face these restrictions.

  10. Hi David,

    It’s not so much the suject matter of a story which makes it reactionary or progressive as the attitude the work takes to such subject matter. One can think of relatively progressive films like Spartacus (one of Marx’s heroes), written by Dalton Trumbo (blacklisted by HUAC), set in pre-capitalist antiquity. By the same token, there’s plenty of reactionary SF. So it’s a matter of attitude of the text first. And second, the relationship of that text to the current time. It seems to me that the reactionary/fantasy versus pregressive science fiction position is hence pretty flawed. Mieville’s essay in Historical Materialism’s issue on fantasy is good on this.

    In terms of the introductory paragraph, I think it’s not me who is being elitist, but those who rather rashly make blanket statements about not liking a genre but liking a particular instance of that genre. It would be better if they simply said, “I like one type of fantasy, the HBO Game of Thrones type.”

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