Game of Thrones – Beneath The Map


With its fourth series having finished recently (the memes are coming), I take a look at whether HBO’s epic Game of Thrones goes further than the oft-cited Lord of the Rings in showing that fantasy is, in fact, the best genre for looking at life itself.

Spoilers for all series so far follow.

So you know Game of Thrones? That fantasy behemoth of a TV show (based on George R.R. Martin’s books) with expansive kingdoms, epic storylines, believable, flawed characters and a very, very earworm-y theme tune? In a way, it might just be a bit like life.

Winter is coming. You know nothing, Jon Snow. So the list goes on. Game of Thrones, which chronicles the lives of feuding families, along with several individuals’ attempts to win the Iron Throne of Westeros and thus rule the Seven Kingdoms, has contributed a fair amount to popular culture since the tones of doo-doo-doodoodoo-doo-doodoodoo first burst onto our screens (and onto my screen about two months ago for the first time). However, to me, it’s not so much through all the quotable lines or the oft-mentioned surfeit of sex and violence that the fantasy series has become memorable and important. It’s the characters, and the situations they find themselves in, that matter most here.

Since time immemorial (well, 2011-ish), the show has been compared to Lord of the Rings, but if anything, it’s more grown-up than that, and less rose-tinted. Yes, LOTR’s worldview is admirable (everyone is morally pure, courage and chivalry win the day, etc). But it’s not as realistic. Thrones is very shades-of-grey, and isn’t afraid of showing people in all of their varying moral hues, just as people are never entirely good or entirely bad outside of the screen. LOTR gave us ideals and heroes to believe in – Thrones just shows us what’s in the mirror, and shows that heroism is still possible despite everyone’s flaws. That may just be more hopeful. Yes, the gory deaths have been documented and mentioned many a time, but it’s the ducking-and-weaving storylines that truly elevate the series and make it great. Game of Thrones shows what power does not on a fantastical scale, but a human one, and shows how the right to rule can manipulate and destroy people’s lives and minds.

Here, the power isn’t motivated by addiction, and by the desire to have something which is ultimately useless (e.g. putting a ring on it). The power in itself is the addiction, motivated by the desire to have control over people and assert agendas. The powerful characters aren’t flaming eyes up in towers, they’re human beings, and as such, what they’re capable of is much more frightening.

And these characters could well be any of us. Lord of the Rings gave us paragons (paragorns?) of virtue, figures to look up to and wish to emulate in times of trouble. Here, with the more murky morality we face nowadays, with the ever-present issues of morally questionable wars, the presence of technology in our lives, and so many things to assess as being simply right or wrong, the characters in Thrones reflect our current state of mind more accurately. Times are tumultuous, dark and uncertain in Westeros, leading people to put their faith in Old Gods or New Gods because they have nowhere to turn. Both series reflect their times, and the situations which real, non-fictional people found (or find) themselves in at time of writing. But Thrones perhaps reveals the truth that J.R.R. Tolkien, writing at a time when Britain was at war, undergoing massive upheaval and needing a comforting voice, was afraid to admit. However much Tolkien may have denied it, there are World War II overtones in Lord of the Rings – as in propaganda of the era, everyone was capable of being heroic and finding the courage to do the right thing when needed.

In Game of Thrones not everyone is a hero, and the show acknowledges that not everyone can be. Tolkien perhaps chose to hide the evils of the world in fantastical beings, whereas Game of Thrones prefers to show, in uncompromising detail, that it is only humans who create the ills in this world, and only humans who can undo them. Therefore an evolving kind of fantasy, which is much more human-based, is perhaps the medium to look at the world we live in and see what we’re doing wrong. Through a detached lens, we see our own dark side, and face uncomfortable truths – power can sway anyone in the end, and even the strongest can be affected by its consequences.

And the series’ characters, live in a fictional world though they might, are proof of this, and parallel some of our concerns with striking accuracy. Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), she of way too many names, owner of three dragons and Iron Thone hopeful, is a fair ruler of the desert kingdoms she has gained so far, but is becoming unstable and showing signs of the madness that once undid her ancestor. This could be said to represent the pressure on many public figures nowadays to ‘do the right thing’.

Stern northerner Jon Snow (Kit Harington, still ignorant) is an honourable man, undone by a love that is forbidden by his vows to the Night’s Watch (the Kingdom’s Guards), showing the difficulty of keeping promises given the temptations available in the modern age. On a grander scale, the humans have built the Wall to keep out the Wildings, and quiet tensions have been simmering over the right to lands (to me there is a hint of Israel and Palestine there) since what seems like the dawn of time, and the situation eventually transforms into war. However, Jon and his Wilding lover Ygritte’s romance fails to unite the two sides or cut through the warmongering – they are just two people in a story (and problem) much bigger than them.

The Stark family are seemingly attracted to trouble like moths to a flame, and more often than not are too honourable and trusting for their own good, victims of the game of thrones. Ned (Sean Bean) starts off disdaining the game itself, neglecting to play, and loses, while his wife and eldest son think they are starting to work out the rules, but realise too late that there aren’t any. Arya Stark (Maisie Williams, Queen of Social Media) has survived the Game thus far by avoiding it altogether, sneaking out through the back door and learning that living without honour is the only way to survive in such a world. Even though she’s still alive, in some ways she’s already a casualty of war. She was a bright-eyed, fairly innocent girl, made into a killer by experience. You just hope she could yet save herself.

Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage the Great) has, up until fairly recently, been quite a fan of the Game. However, his own family (surprise surprise) eventually turns on him, and his own past words land him in hot water, making him yet another victim of the never-ending power struggle, until an unexpected figure shows his true colours (perhaps).

The Hound (the Kingdom’s former hired hand, played by Rory McCann), meanwhile, has the eloquent voice of someone who could have been much greater, but was damaged and thrust into killing as a vocation. He could have made a better life for himself, but chose (or had no choice) not to, and is perhaps driven by fear as much as hatred. He has made an art out of murder, and tries to convince himself he’s not honourable, when in the moment he often can be.

Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen – yep, Lily’s brother) is someone all teenagers or University-age people might be able to empathise with (stay with me), in that he doesn’t quite know where he fits in, which drives him to do things he may regret. Admittedly that last bit probably isn’t representative of us all, but that age is the time when you have to decide who you want to be and what you want to do with your life – and that’s something all people share, not just princes.  The character may be the ultimate example of having to live with your mistakes, and so the show might not just be about issues, but about identification with people – just on an epic scale.

And there are two characters who are the (im)moral heart of the show, and the only two who may live to see the end of it (having not read the books, I don’t know). One will do anything in pursuit of power and influence, disdaining the existence of ‘greater’ ideals and serving only his own selfish ones. The other believes in using power and influence for ‘the good of the realm’ and, at the very least, strives towards an ideal – whether or not it may exist. I think Thronites may know who I’m on about here.

However, despite all of these characters’ moral differences, there’s one thing which unites everyone in Westeros. All of them are victims of the world they live in and the way that it works. They’re all pieces on a board (some have known from the beginning, others are only now realising the state of matters). In this way it parallels LOTR as well – the board is set, the pieces are moving. Both series show war, and life, as being a game to some, but with big consequences. Almost all parties disdain war and want it to be over in LOTR, because in the series, war is made to seem like such a destructive thing, and we see matters predominantly from the perspective of  ‘the goodies’.

But in Thrones they revel in war and see it as a way of life. War is a destructive machine, but only part of a cycle, one that must always exist for people to survive – people that are (mostly) neither completely good nor completely bad. The tower doesn’t topple here, the struggle doesn’t let up, because there will always be power, and perhaps most dangerously of all, there will always be ambiguity. The enemy is people, and their motives are ever-shifting – people are always willing to manipulate the situation to get what they want. There is no telling whether there will ever be a winner, or whether ‘good’ will vanquish ‘evil’, because both are so fluid in this world (the real world?). We can’t even tell whether we’ll like the ending when we get to it.

Sometimes the only way for the ‘goodies’ to get out of bad situations is for them to do difficult things, but on occasion they don’t even have to – they choose to. See Tyrion’s actions during his evening jaunt at the end of series 4. This is the difference. LOTR shows us people trying with all their might to avoid the darkness. Those in Thrones embrace it, frequently and willingly, to get what they need and want.

Both approaches have their own merits, but in this new world, having emotions and attitudes laid bare is the way forward. Of course I’m not saying this to dumb down or belittle LOTR – we should not forget its influence, or let it die in its old world. There is a benefit to keeping things locked away, stoically – in a very British way, you could say – and there will always be a place for that. But its time may be over – for the moment. Thrones is more global, with every new place in its fictional universe having its own distinct feel and beliefs. And this is cathartic fantasy, where all the anger and feelings of injustice at war and at life come pouring out. In the past we hid things – now we’re letting them out.

Lord of the Rings allowed people to embrace a seemingly good old-fashioned story of good triumphing over evil, with a heavy undertow of reality, but sufficiently underplayed to not overwhelm it. It was good for people, at the time. With Game of Thrones, we see the changing view of the world around us (which is in a way frightening), but we see that though all people are flawed, they can still be good, and that is perhaps even more heartening. No-one is too much or too little of anything – everyone is balanced, forever teetering on the precipice, so close to either rising or falling. Everything depends on choice, exactly as it does in real life. It always did, even with LOTR, but with that series the choice to be good or bad seemed (for the majority of people) so much easier to make. It would be for the sake of a boy or girl, or for the sake of friendship – traditional ideals. Here the conflict is internal, ever-raging, often coming down to subtle things that people whisper to each other, with some ideals being traded for others on a whim, and it may never end.

But I suppose we can’t completely judge the Thronesverse yet – the story is still being written, and some know the end, but most do not. So Game of Thrones faces a choice – will it allow its heroes a sunny farewell, will it let them escape their own Mount Doom, or will George R.R. Martin stick to his cruel, more realistic perspective, and see some of them topple? Whatever happens, we’ll be along for the ride. Doom, and the possibility of escaping it, has always had a great power of its own.

We are Game of Thrones’ very own Watchers on the Wall, stuck between reality and fantasy, but if I had any advice for the surviving members of the Westeros Collective, it would be this: keep on playing the game – we like to watch the pieces moving. Now we just have to see where they go…

Alex Nicholson


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