I’ve spent the last few weeks re-watching (and catching up on) Game of Thrones, a show that’s already pretty much a must-watch series of the decade… and I’m not just saying that as a fantasy gamer and fan of the book series. I can see why it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s a lot to draw inspiration from, and the focus on political intrigue is a surprising change of pace (even if Martin is a huge fan of LOTR-style heroic journeys and other traditional fantasy trappings).
You could write a whole dissertation about how GoT depicts medieval gender roles or class structure, but there’s a few other points that fascinated me while watching through the first seasons again. (This is roughly the eigth time I’ve seen/read the Game of Thrones content, and sixth for Clash of Kings.)
The Slow Growth of Fantastic Elements
So many other fantasy novels take the fantastic and run with it: look at Tolkien’s narratives, which immediately start with wizards, hobbits, and dwarves before progressing to stranger things. Other contemporary long-running megaseries, such as Jordan’s Wheel of Time, start out with a prologue chock-full of fantastic elements before turning to “mortals back-on-the-farm,” e.g. everyman protagonists we can relate to, in the days before they find their mysterious powers.
Point being, a lot—not all, but a lot—of fantasy literature takes the old familiar fantasy standbys and just throws them on from chapter one. Others introduce them slowly, but break them out by the middle of the novel.
By comparison, Game of Thrones plays its fantastic/supernatural elements close to its chest for most of the first season. At times, you can almost trick yourself into thinking what you’re really watching is historical fiction, not fantasy, with the focus tight on politicking and intrigue. Sure, there’s those direwolves, but they’re pretty passive, used as much as a way for the audience to measure the passage of time (by the size of dogs used to play the wolves, natch) as they are a passive reminder that this is a fantasy world.
And while there’s talk of dragons and magic, we don’t see any of it until the last episode with Mirri Maz Duur enacting some crazy blood-magic. (Which just sets the stage for later fantastic elements, such as Melisandre, Thoros of Myr, the Faceless Men, the actual dragons, etc.) The exceptions are the undead up north, and even then, that’s overshadowed by the importance (or feeling thereof) of all the shit happening elsewhere. Much less the fact that the undead we see aren’t even as fantastic or powerful as the White Walkers and other supernatural stuff lurking in the far north…
Point being, the fantastic clearly exists in this world, but it’s left to lurk in the shadows until a surprise revelation—oh yeah, this is a fantasy series—which begins to snowball, with more and more fantastic elements replacing the more traditional/historical fiction ones.
The Gritty Face of Fantasy
How do you know a modern fantasy novel compared to an older one? The older one hasn’t got shit all over it. The fantasy genre for most of the twentieth century was content to follow in the footsteps of Tolkien and Lewis—which is fine, because those are decent footsteps, belonging to authors that carved out a very specific niche in literature.
However, their brand of fantasy was very much a reaction against literary modernism, an elegiac return to Victorian romanticism that had died somewhere out in the trenches of the Great War. Tolkien the scholar infused his works with the plots and histories of the old epics, merged with Arthurian chivalry and a battle of good against evil. Lewis the thelogian took those same romantic Arthurian ideals, blending them with Christian morality. These were relatively clean stories about noble heroes fighting for good, just reasons, nobody dies (or goes out in heroic fashion), and everything turns out well in the end.
This isn’t to say that nobody broke the mold and wrote protagonists with less-than-knightly-honor—see Thomas Covenant, several of Moorcock’s heroes, etc. etc. But even in the ’90s, it wasn’t commonplace to have fantasy series deal with the gritty modernist elements that the genre’s originators had avoided, the blood and guts and sex that can crop up in other genres’ novels.
Game of Thrones wallows in the blood and chaos of a world sucked into war, and later seasons/books touch on the death and misery and its impact on the commonfolk. This isn’t a series that shies away from the uncomfortable side of war; battles are not for just knightly honor and virtue, they end up with poor sods having their limbs hacked off before they can turn gangrenous. Good people die horrible deaths for stupid reasons or from bad luck. The world is full of social evils, and destruction, and the landscape is as fragmented as the narrative.
(And this doesn’t even get into the multi-layered narrative with multiple point-of-view characters, a modernist/post-modern technique if there ever was one… and one that has never been replicated even half as well in SFF fiction.)
Good People Die Hard
Martin doesn’t just kill his darlings, he cuts them down like wheat. That’s probably the one thing everybody knows about the series, that characters are butchered like livestock, even if many were still SHOCKED to witness Ned’s death in the first season/book one. (Much less the Red Wedding…)
Part of that was because Ned had become the audience’s stand-in, the character the audience had latched onto; killing him was a masterstroke of pulling the rug out from under us. Suddenly, there’s no more stability or familiarity here, only chaos. (At least until other PoV characters are established…)
It’s not entirely out of thin air, though. Watching through all of this again, I realized just how damn much Martin did a lot to show that he wasn’t fucking around here. There’s a lot of foreshadowing that bad stuff happens to characters in this world, well before Ned (and, well, Drogo) take their dirt naps:
- Jon Arryn dies offstage
- Waymar Royce and others are fucked up by undead
- Bran, a kid, gets pushed out of a window and is crippled for life
- Bran’s mother Cat has her hands sliced up in a follow-up assassination attempt
- One of the direwolves, Lady—oh, and some butcher’s boy—are killed for attacking Joffrey
- Viserys gets his crown of gold
- Robert Baretheon is gutted by a boar
Thing is, it’s easy for the audience to write most of those off since the investment—or interest—isn’t the same as with Ned; many just assume he’s the main character, while who really cares about some random butcher’s kid? Well, yeah, Bran’s crippled for life, but he’s alive right? Most of Ned’s retinue, including Jory and the Septa, are killed, but hey, they didn’t have Protagonist Plot Armor anyways. Viserys is annoying as shit and the audience wanted him dead—Waymor Royce is kind of a jerk, too. Nobody ever sees Jon Arryn, so there’s no investment there. And Robert is clearly the load-bearing NPC holding the plot up; without him dying, there isn’t a war for succession. He had to die for the sake of the story.
Thing is, most of the people killed (or who we see die) in the first season/book are killed well before Ned loses his head. We write most of them off as “minor characters” or go “well, that sucks,” but few assumed that point-of-view protagonists were fair game here. It’s only after Ned dies that you start to realize how deadly and dangerous the game of thrones really is, and that only a handful of characters may ever truly be safe. And that’s how you turn a good series into an addicting one.