Watch the throne: why we love fantasy

Like many writers, I’ve attended my share of panels where publishing insiders share their experience about the industry, what they are looking for, what’s selling, etc. The most honest thing I ever heard came from a young up-and-comer from a mid-level publishing house with a strong focus on quality literature, who, when it came to his turn to speak, said, ‘We don’t know what’s big at the moment. If we did, we’d be doing more of it.’

This comment has stuck with me due to its frankness. It occurred to me again when recently asked what I thought about HBO’s latest blockbuster, Game of Thrones. It’s successful and, no doubt, if television studios could afford to, they’d be doing a lot more of it. Case in point is the historical mini-series, The Vikings, clearly marketed as a smaller-scale version of GoT.

Game of Thrones is interesting on many levels. The very first episode contains incestuous sex, the discovery of which resulted in a ten-year-old boy being casually thrown from a tower and crippled for life. Subsequent episodes contain graphic violence, torture, child marriage, slavery and rape. It has garnered mainstream acclaim (including 19 nominations Emmy nominations in 2014), as well as being watched by people whose taste (if my experience is anything to go by) usually veers to the high culture end of the scale.

So I don’t want to say that someone can’t listen to Radio National or like Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and watch Game of Thrones as well. But there is a dissonance at play that, to me, is about the different way we consume screen culture as opposed to what we read in books. I had a similar reaction to the success of Breaking Bad, the story of a duplicitous, homicidal, hard drug-dealer, and Hannibal, with its graphic depiction of psychological and physical violence.

Does it have something to do with the fact that television viewing is more passive: it’s easier just to sit in front of a screen, whereas reading is more active because we have to make more of an effort to seek texts out? Or does the catch-all slogan ‘guilty pleasure’, the term usually employed to describe our consumption of anything lowbrow or lurid, cover a mass of sins, including enjoying television laden with graphic violence and sex?

Unlike other entrants in the current crop of ‘must-see’ television – Mad Men, The Wire Breaking Bad and True Detective – I have found very little critical analysis of Game of Thrones (the exception is the gender aspects of the show, on which there has been some debate). This partly derives from the fact that fantasy, as Emily Nussbaum put it in The New Yorker, like ‘television itself, really, has long been burdened with audience condescension: the assumption it’s trash or juvenile, something intrinsically icky and low’.

I suspect many reviewers lack the knowledge to be able to discuss fantasy as a body of work. People know it’s out there and that some people, the kind that dress up as knights and hit each other with wooden swords on the weekend, enjoy it. Fantasy languishes in the shade of more ‘worthy’ culture. Most critics don’t have the context to discuss it so the only question they can ask is why people enjoy it. There is a similar dynamic at play with crime fiction and film, although the advent of literary crime writing is changing that perception.

I’ll admit, I haven’t read any of George RR Martin’s books. Indeed, it has been a long time since I picked up an explicit fantasy novel. But as a teen, this was my bread and butter. Robert E Howard’s Conan books were a particular favourite. Most of Howard’s work was first published in the 1920s and 30s and has had a great influence on the development of dark fantasy fiction. I also read JRR Tolkien ‘s Lord of the Rings trilogy, the first book of which was published in 1954, and established the key tropes of the commercial epic fantasy format: phonebook sized, multi-part series with heroic villains, magic, a quest to defeat evil, strong moral overtones.

Of course, this thumbnail sketch misses many other schools of fantasy. For example, Ursula K LeGuin pioneered another more feminist, socially and environmentally conscious form of fantasy writing, which has had a profound influence, particularly evident in a lot of young adult fiction. No doubt there are other examples.

Martin’s genius has been to take the large fantasy format of Tolkien and mix it with darker, more twisted strands of fantasy to create something new. The spine of the television series is the conflict between two of seven kingdoms: the morally upright, austere Starks from the north and the debauched, corrupt Lannisters in the south. Wrapped around this are an enormous ensemble cast and a bewildering array of complex plot lines. Its labyrinthine quality makes co-executive producer David Beinoff’s comment that pitching the show to HBO was a ‘big uphill’ sell an understatement.

I have no idea what Martin’s politics are. The show’s gender politics are mixed, the female characters both clichéd, like Cersei Lannister, who mimics the worst in the very bad men in her life, and innovative, like Daenerys Targaryen, a Maoist-like heroine, with an army of eunuch warriors and dragons, freeing slaves in every city she encounters. The show is surprisingly character-driven and the personalities and motives are detailed and rich. The best example is the horny, smart, brave and surprisingly ethical Tyrion Lannister, surely one of the most sophisticated characters ever offered to an actor of short stature.

The main reason I like Game of Thrones is because, at its core, it’s about power: who has it and what they do with it, who doesn’t and what becomes of them. It is a morality tale like The Sopranos or The Wire, but with swords and battle-axes. And in this respect, while it derives from fantasy, on another level it is remarkably realistic – it’s Tolkien’s world updated for our times. As Adam Serwer wrote in The American Prospect:

In Lord of the Rings, it is easy to root for the good guys. In Martin’s saga, the good guys are sometimes hard to find. While Tolkien’s world brims with magical possibilities, in Martin’s magic has vanished completely.

As the presence of dragons attests, magic is not completely gone from the seven kingdoms, but it is very rare, which makes it surprising and shocking when it does occur. Romance, religion and ceremony are all hypocrisy and pretence, masking the reality that power is the only thing that matters. In this respect, it is particularly interesting that halfway through season four we discover the most powerful kingdom, the Lannisters, is massively in debt to a powerful and secretive financial institution known as the Bank of Iron. Even in a fictitious fantasy world, finance capital holds sway.

Andrew Nette

Andrew Nette is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. You can follow him on Twitter at @Pulpcurry.

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  1. I find it interesting that GoT shares three major traits with those other major television series of the past 15 or so years: West Wing, The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. All of them are about power, as you suggest, backed by great characters and a huge dose of originality. Some of these programs had antecedents of a similar nature but they were all fresh and original.

    This is especially true of Game of Thrones. We’d seen such sf series as Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, and various others, but nothing like this. It is really the first true fantasy series of its kind.

    Now we could have a long, a very long, discussion about the various types of fantasy literature, but suffice it to say that GoT has a very light fantastical touch. It is not what is termed “high fantasy” in the Tolkein vein. Martin originally thought of writing the series with no “fantastical” touches at all and you can see that the fantasy elements here are quite light-on even now.

    I think GoT is all the better for it, and I think it also goes some way to explaining the appeal of the show for people who are new to the genre. But these elements would be nothing without the look and feel of the production, the quality of the writing and the sense that everything matters. Doesn’t hurt either that Martin is willing to kill off any character in the pursuit of the story.

    So while I agree that “power” is an important element in the show’s appeal it isn’t everything.

    On the other hand if you watch the GoT trailer featuring Lorde’s version of “Everyone Wants to Rule the World”, ( [spoiler alert]), you’ll think that power is all. And fair enough too.

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