Thursday, April 4, 2013

Fantasy of the Real

Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings and William Morris

If you’ve been watching the top fantasy series, “Game of Thrones” you’ve been treated to an escapist, yet convincing and human, feast of blood, beheadings, sex, breasts, honest men, strong women, tame wolves, various forms of magic and slimebags everywhere.  The series is based on the books by G.R.R. Martin, which track the fight for the “Iron Throne” by at least 5 contenders.  As historian Tom Holland pointed out in the Guardian, this is a convincing medieval historical mash-up of the War of the Roses, Hadrian’s Wall, Cromwell, the siege of Constantinople, the Vikings, the Mongols, Rome and … the 100 Years War, Icelandic epics and the Italian Renaissance. Not to mention heavy resonance of Shakespeare. 

The obvious comparison is ‘Lord of the Rings’ by J.R.R. Tolkein.  LotR was voted the most popular book in the English language for the 20th Century by the Guardian – though I don’t know how the voting was done.  Tolkein was a scholar who created a world that had eerie parallels to our own.  Tolkein suffered through World War I, and most definitely, LotR is diffused through the lens of that war.  To me, the book is a war novel more than anything else. 

How do these two compare?  Well, GoT is actually longer by several books, though I am told the books after the third go downhill fast.  It is really a mostly amoral clash of wills, backed by archaic oaths of allegiance, of various houses – the Starks, the Targaryens, the Lannisters and the Baratheons in the land of Westeros.  All of them, however, are haunted by the possible advent of an environmental disaster referred to as the ‘long winter’ and presumably also Scotch or Pict barbarians who take the shape of zombie phantoms, or work with them.  I know, I know, cliché #8.  For the most part the series plays the unreal elements down, and that is its strength.  The dragons are still tiny and the phantoms are mostly hidden. 

In watching, you actually begin to pull for some of these characters to succeed.  It is the ones that are the least crooked that most people favor.  Jon Snow, the bastard son of the head of the Starks; Daenerys Targaryen, the beauty queen with 3 little dragons; pre-teen  Arya Stark, who shows more courage than most adults and lastly, Tyrion Lannister, the wise and cracking midget.  Individual characters like the hulking lesbian warrior Brienne of Tarth and the versatile “The Hound” startle.  The Starks are the house of the most character, and the least crooked.  Robb Stark, who inherited its throne, even says, ‘I do not want to be king.”

And here is the link with LofR, which GoT is obviously modeled after.  LotR’s whole point was a moral one – a ring of power has to be destroyed by someone who is so pure of heart that they would not use it for so-called ‘good’ or evil.  It has made Gollum crazy, and Sauron too.  Even Gandalf refuses to touch the ring – as do Aragon and the Elves.  Only a man of Gondor, Boromir, attempts to take it, and quickly dies.  The whole story is about the corruption of uber-kingly power – a somewhat hackneyed idea – but one that still holds true.  Which is why LotR is still a riveting story.  Can they destroy this menacing source of world-wide, totalitarian control?  And they do.

In the second book of the LotR trilogy, the Two Towers, the attack of the Ents (tree-herders) plays a role in defeating Saruman, the ally to the evil Sauron, by flooding his underground workshop with water.  Saruman had cut down and destroyed many trees, and the Ents knew that the whole forest would be cut down eventually.  Merry, a hobbit, finally understands that the Shire is not safe unless Sauron is robbed of the ring - they just cannot go back to the Shire and hide from reality.  As anyone who has read the books knows, Hobbit Town in the Shire represented small town England, which was being destroyed at that time by, well, quite clearly industrialism.  And here we have the link to William Morris.  (“News From Nowhere An Epoch of Rest - Being some chapters from a Utopian Romance," by William Morris (1890), reviewed below.)   Morris was a Marxist in the late 1800s who developed a somewhat unique perspective, combining scientific Marxism with his own utopian and environmentalist version of socialism, based on artisanal production and village life.  Tolkein liked his view, and probably read “News From Nowhere” while in school.  The Shire is full of Morris’ socialist village communities.  The Ents were defending England's vanishing trees.

Tolkein was formed in the crucible of World War I.  Morris created his vision out of the English class struggle in the latter part of the century.  Martin seems to have been formed in a bordello fantasy next door to a library.   Perhaps because of the author's background, at least at this point, Game of Thrones, unlike Lord of the Rings, has no moral center.   It may develop one, but odds are it will continue to reflect the brutality and ‘honor’ of medieval Europe and also perhaps the modern imperial world, where the ‘game of thrones’ is still being played.  And this puts it at odds with LofR.  Where one tried to make a general point, applicable to a whole society, right now GoT at best encourages individual people to develop some character in a world flooded by the sewage of war, wealth and power.  And that is it.  Will it too, destroy the ring?  I am doubtful.

Red Frog
April 4, 2013


AA said...

It doesn't go downhill after Vol.3. I'm finishing Vol.4 at the moment and it has been just as riveting as the first three. Martin is adding context and detail to his world, fleshing it out.

I think you have to read the book rather than watch the series to get a proper idea of Martin's conception. Your take on GoT is off the mark. The power struggle in Westeros is a side show and the heart of the story lies elsewhere, which only gradually comes to light over the volumes.

Red Frog said...

Well said. If I ever have enough time to read them, I will. Volume 1 sits on my bedside table.