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.