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No Myth: Why Game Of Thrones Is An Allegory For Our Times
David Stubbs , June 4th, 2013 10:00

David Stubbs was a Game Of Thrones cynic, but here he explains how he was converted by a sense that the programme was no mere fantastical myth, but entirely relevant to the present day (guaranteed spoiler free)

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For the last day or so, Twitter and social media have been reverberating with the aftershock suffered and enjoyed by fans of Game Of Thrones. I shan't go into the events that caused grown people to writhe in their sofas, gasp huge draughts of air and unleash a collective, "What the - what the FUCK??" that resounded on both sides of the Atlantic as the penultimate episode of the third series wound up to its astonishing conclusion. Aficionados will be well aware of what happened at the Red Wedding, others hissing about "spoilers", still others have no idea what all this means, and why it should have elicited responses of this variety, as if it what was happening was important, like the football, or something.

Game Of Thrones could be said to be a sequence of such jaw-dropping, breath-suspending, hands-to-mouth moments. Its creator George R R Martin, author of the novels on which the series is based and heavily involved in its small screen adaptation, is a master of setting up and unleashing such set piece events, whose impact on the viewer is as sensational as the sudden collapse of a civilisation. More of that later, however. The lavishly budgeted show, set across the globe of an imaginary, medieval-style world and filmed in similarly planet-straddling locations, has dedicated message boards and fan sites, with most journals offering a recap service on which fans can ruminate and reflect on the latest series. They are well catered for.

However, there is also a significantly large body of individuals who are conscious of all of the fuss, wondering what it's all about, but more wondering how on earth friends they supposed to be members of the intelligentsia could be caught up in what appears to them to be a Tolkienesque fantasia, a spurious never-neverland of swords, sorcery and dragons, in which the House of Targ slugs it out against the Kingdom of Yanchester while over the sea the Carthaminions lay siege to the golden city of Darma Sutra, or somesuch. Surely this is the stuff of adolescent escapism, they suspect, a televisual, head-in-the-sands opiate for the masses in troubled times. For various reasons, they will not test their suspicions by actually watching the programme. Too much to catch up on. Better things to do. Broadcast on a Murdoch channel.

I say all this because I was one such sceptic. Never bothered with Lord Of The Rings, gave Star Wars a wide berth, disdained Dungeons & Dragons, and on hearing the word "epic" was liable to reach for my Mike Leigh box set. It took some persuading to get me to watch the first series. Having done so, however, like millions of others, I was almost immediately transfixed and immersed.

There's barely space to go into the vast and complex web of dramatic doings and personae that comprise Game Of Thrones, so vast that even those obsessed with the show sometimes struggle to grasp who's who and what's going on. Suffice to say that it tells the story of an ongoing power struggle, a civil war to lay claim to the contested iron throne of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, set in the sumptuous, Southern location of Kings Landing. It's currently held by the Lannisters, with the odious young Joffrey in the chair, bastard son of his mother Cersei following an incestuous liaison with her brother Jaime. However, following Jaime's summary defenestration of a young member of their family from a tower window, who catches him at it with Cersei, a chain of events is set in place that pits the Northern Starks, headed by Sean Bean as patriarch Ned, against the Lannisters, who are directed with cool martial expertise by Joffrey's grandfather Tywin (Charles Dance). Meanwhile, Stannis, brother of the late King Robert Baratheon, insists he is rightful heir to the throne, his efforts assisted by a seductive sorceress and culminating in a spectacular siege at King's Landing, one of the show's greatest set pieces. And then, in hotter climes across the Narrow Sea is Daenerys, exiled daughter of the King defeated by Baratheon, who, with the assistance of young dragons supposed to be long extinct, is slowly trekking her way across land, sacking city by city, to lay her own claim to supremacy.

With transportation limited to horseback and trundling wagons, and movement across country slow, the plot is allowed to move at a luxuriantly glacial pace, series after series. Many of the show's key characters, such as the Stark daughter Arya, her brother Bran and Jaime are involved in long treks back to some uncertain destination, having been forced to flee and scatter by seismic events. This allows for lengthy sub-plots, individual odysseys which are engrossing stories in their own right, involving flashpoints, clashes and revelations which make Game Of Thrones fascinating at myriad micro-levels.

All of this might make the programme seem onerously baroque and too much of a claim on your attention. However, although aspects of the series are appropriately, if spectacularly far-fetched, it works because it is grounded in the brutal reality of the human condition, its history, and, at the tectonic level of geopolitics, its current state. Author Martin based many of the plotlines of Game Of Thrones on actual historical events, with the War Of The Roses a frequent reference point. The brutal politicking, the lust for power, the manoeuvres required to survive, the ultimate difficulty human beings have in sharing land and resources in a spirit of mutual trust - all of these things echo throughout Game Of Thrones. Such were the mudheaps and rivers of blood that were slithered over and waded through in order to reach our precarious level of "civilisation", which today, and in times to come, may only be maintained by dirt, blood and metal. "The climb is everything", says the scheming Lord Littlefinger – be it his own climb to high office or the more desperate, literal climb to scale the great 700 foot wall that separates the northern wildlings from the rest of Westeros. Adding further to the sense of reality is the long winter currently being endured in Westeros, one which could possibly last many years, a resoundingly apt metaphor for our own, present condition of chronic recession, following the sunshine years of the 90s.

Then there are the characters themselves. Game Of Thrones is no morality tale. With the telling exception of the cowardly, psychopathic, unmitigatedly appalling young Joffrey, whose occupation of the throne is an indictment of the absurdity of monarchical rule, Game Of Thrones's characters are not so much heroes and villains, black and white, but painted in various shades of colour and grey, reflected in the overall look of the series. The Starks are worthy and honourable but also ploddingly dull and naïve. The Lannisters are devious, powerful but contain some of the series most charismatic and strangely likeable characters. Even Charles Dance's formidable Tywin commands a due respect, despite being the underwriter of so much of the show's misery. Daenerys, on a mission to liberate slaves as she sacks cities, represents an emancipated future but is herself chillingly imperious. Seemingly loathsome characters redeem themselves, or show themselves to be worthy of pity, while 'heroes' are often shown to be losers. "The good ended happily and the bad unhappily", Oscar Wilde once wrote. "That is fiction." That is not, however, the world of Game Of Thrones, to the frequent horror and exasperation of its fans, who curse Martin, but carry on watching.

Moreover, despite some invented argot in keeping with an invented world, the dialogue of Game Of Thrones is very much in a 21st century idiom. This isn't some daft sop to a mass audience, like Kevin Costner's transatlantic Nottingham accent in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Rather, it reinforces the association of Game Of Thrones with the here and now. Best example of it is the series greatest character, Tyrion Lannister, played with immense stature by Peter Dinklage, an actor born with dwarfism. Memo to Ricky Gervais: This is how to present a short person on screen. Naturally, to reflect the ignorance of his times, there are frequent references to Tyrion's height, not least by his father, who considers him a "debauched stump". Dinklage is debauched, and a monied Lannister to boot, but he is also a pinnacle of decency in Game Of Thrones. One is barely conscious of his height as an issue. Rather, he strikes as a sort of Christopher Hitchens type cast at the centre of a medieval world, with a taste for the fleshpots but also informed by an urbane, solemnly knowing eloquence, regarding events with our own, liberal and informed sensibility.

There is magic in Game Of Thrones – white walkers, characters with the psychic ability to possess animals, sorcery, dragons and even, fleetingly and brilliantly CGI'd, a passing giant. The series is said ultimately to be about the return of magic in the world. As a rationalist who believes that the scientifically established physical and chemical order of things hasn't been tampered with since the beginning of time, this is a potential toughie. However, the magic elements are used only sparingly – the limitations of humanity remain very much the show's central attraction. This is a world in which there's no parallel equivalent of the arts, literature, scientific development or mass, bottom-of movements of humanity. It's possible to regard the magical elements as an equivalent of the forces undreamt of which will soon be at humanity's disposal, or have the potential to overwhelm them. Daenerys's dragons are young as yet, but as they grow, they will have a power in military conflict that's the equivalent of nuclear capability. She and they represent a future that is liberating but potentially devastating.

The word "game" in the show's title is as ironically, grimly apt as it is as in The Wire, with which GoT bears striking comparisons – not least in its refusal to conform to the convention of TV drama that all lead, heroic characters must be invulnerable to death. As in The Wire, no one is safe in Game Of Thrones and no one shall know (except those who have read the books) when and where the blade will fall. David Simon, creator of The Wire, always spoke of restoring to television the sprawlingly maximal and populous worlds presented in the 19th century novels of Dickens, Balzac et al. Game Of Thrones is very much in that new, sweeping tradition, one which is sweeping away the old fashioned modes of TV consumption, making the old fashioned model of celebrity-led Hollywood movies seem ridiculously constricted in their arc and scope by comparison with the great, ongoing longform TV dramas of our time. Game Of Thrones is set in a mythical past but in all kinds of ways it is representative of the very real present and future.

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Sean K
Jun 4, 2013 2:22pm

The problem I have with this show is its terrible sense of pacing. Nothing happens for ages and then they seem to try and cram it all into the final episode. I gave up after the second series...

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dull
Jun 4, 2013 4:00pm

zzzzzzzzzzzz...

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jilk
Jun 4, 2013 11:05pm

Great article about a great show. My girlfriend is a huge fan and I've been suggesting she takes on The Wire for a while...I will show her the last paragraph of this.

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Pitchforkdisney
Jun 5, 2013 11:33am

In reply to Sean K:

'Terrible sense of pacing'? Did you read David's words? The problem the show has with YOU is your expectation of 'pacing'. Did you watch '24' and never once question why Jack didn't brace himself for something bad to happen every time the clock ticked toward the hour mark because you were enjoying the 'pacing'? Each to their own of course but your comment seems a little ignorant of the points made above. It's refreshing (and somewhat inevitable) to see GoT taken seriously like this - it's always been a humanity analogy for me!

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Aaron C
Jun 6, 2013 4:53am

Great article, nice one Mr Stubbs, you've accurately described why GoT transcends more run if the mill fantasy tosh.

However commenter Sean K does have a point...GoT on TV is definitely more formulaic than the books or other great TV story arcs like The Wire. Each season the same structure is followed...lengthy set-ups with lots of character interactions culminates in a "shocking" event in the penultimate episode, whether the deaths of main character/s or a spectacular set piece, like the attack by sea on Kings Landing. Sometimes both. It's always in Episode 9 that this happens! With episode 10 left to provide a few cliffhangers to hook the viewer into the next season.

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Sean K
Jun 7, 2013 1:47pm

In reply to Pitchforkdisney:

In response to Pitchforkdisney... I never watched 24 - I do have some standards. when it comes to run of the mill US tv series, I try and stay as 'ignorant' as possible... btw, I bet you have hairy hobbit feet.

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rfa
Jun 8, 2013 9:07pm

In reply to Aaron C:

Well, the 9th episode upheaval theory does ring true, but please consider what alternative dramatic patterns are available . Not easy... Unless you consider the Wire, which avoided the problem cunningly by changing focus on a seasonal basis, Baltimore being a raw source of material which would allow that flexibility. I just stand in awe before these wizards of our time...

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TheDisexists
Jun 10, 2013 1:24am

Hmm. "however, following Jaime's summary defenestration of a young member of their family from a tower window."

Nice chance to use 'defenestration' though inappropriate here and not quite accurate, as is the inaccuracy of the statement itself. Bran was not a 'member of their family'. He was a Stark. Trainspotterish of me true, but such a basic detail so near the beginning of the article makes one question whether to read on...

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John Doran
Jun 10, 2013 8:18am

In reply to TheDisexists:

The use of 'defenestration' is entirely correct. The word suggests the breaking of glass but no more than suggests and if you want to quibble over the difference between throwing someone out of a window and pushing them out of a window you've got more time on your hands than me. At the end of the day most people aren't that strong and people tend to get pushed out of windows not thrown. And if you're claiming that because he was on the window ledge and not in the room it wasn't truly a defenestration then, by Christ, your family and friends have my deepest sympathy Comic Book Guy.

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Karen
Jun 10, 2013 8:46pm

Unfortunately, this isn't exactly "spoiler free."

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sg
Jun 17, 2013 4:05pm

it's cool the author has come to like GOT, but this article feels a little bit like cramming in justifications after the fact so as to defend some sort of 'intelligentsia' credibility that they have, for the indiscretion of liking something seen as broad or low-brow. You like it and there doesn't have to be some deeper thing of real world allegories and reminders of Hitchens and all that junk. It's a well-written drama that's a little soapy at times, that is set in a made up world that has magic in it. If that doesn't sell it to a prospective watcher then there's a case of head-up-arse syndrome.

Or I'm being a bit harsh/misreading the article and going off on a strawman rant, but then hey - this is the internet, but then 'this is the internet' is used far too often as justification for talking at cross-purposes to make people feel better about themselves, and this article is already a couple weeks old so this comment is already redundant, but then i'm bored and hey - this is the internet, and oh god i'm repeating myself and being all meta isn't that cute. I'm so lonely.

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Ryan R
Jun 17, 2013 7:09pm

Someone forgot to say why is Game of Thrones an allegory for our times.

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KatranJamz
Jun 19, 2013 1:54pm

While it's production values were always impressive, the show (the story, that is) always came as a little contrived to me. But as it is never boring, I have watched all the three seasons with my wife (who's a big fan). It was not until this season that I realised that, maybe, I was missing the point when I complained that the series was too "sprawling" with no clear goals for anyone. This surely has elements which transcend your usual fantasy.

Though, I still feel that it is far from perfect I find myself looking forward to the next season.

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Jun 20, 2013 9:11pm

In reply to sg:

Hilarious self-analystic stream of consciousness mini-rant there mate

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Mark
Jun 28, 2013 7:23pm

Maurice Cowling with dragons. Which is why it is no allegory of our times, but rather a presentist fantasy about the past.

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mom
Jul 27, 2014 5:01pm

I watched series one and realized how brilliantly it was done, how visually appealing, what great pacing there was, what potential the storylines had. I was riveted but the superfluous amount of violence and sex put me off, so I switched to the books. They. Are. Brilliant. Witty, funny, full of suspense, incredibly interesting characters, Martin's great at dialogue but also interior monologue from the perspective of his viewpoint characters. This is not just some remote mediaeval "nasty, brutish and short" kind of world, this is about US. If there is one book you read this year, make it "A Game of Thrones".

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Feb 27, 2015 6:54am

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