Friday, 15 April 2011

The Game of Thrones Pundits Continue to Confound Me

No doubt Brian will be fuming if he happens by Troro Daily or The Atlantic, as that old bête noir rears its face of nightmare and lunacy once again:

The show is a departure for the network best known for character-rich dramas like "The Sopranos" and "The Wire." It's a fantasy adventure saga — but not your typical fantasy adventure saga. Earthy and explicit, it has been described as fantasy for people who don't like that sort of thing. Executive producer David Benioff has called it "The Sopranos in Middle Earth."

"It's a bit like 'Lord of the Rings' for grown-ups," says Mark Addy, who plays King Robert Baratheon, embattled ruler of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. "This is definitely not one that you can watch with your kids."

Now, let's not be too hasty in our judgements.

Sure, it sounds like Mark Addy is essentially saying "The Lord of the Rings is for children, while A Game of Thrones is for adults."  However, we could always give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he simply means Lord of the Rings can be suitable for children, while A Game of Thrones most certainly is not.  His second sentence certainly lends itself to the latter explanation - perhaps he means The Lord of the Rings is indeed "one that you can watch with your kids."  Given past examples of cast members either saying "this ain't yer typical fantasy," or even that it wasn't fantasy at all, I'd be more inclined to believe the former, but my weariness has me clutching at any preferable alternative.

Fans of the books love them for their complexity, pace and a level of realism unusual in the genre — something the series has tried to retain.

"It's a fantasy world, but I think they've made it look and feel so realistic that you go, 'All right, I buy that this is them and this is where they are,'" Addy said.

There's that "realism" thing again. I don't using the term in regards to fantasy, because what it actually means seems somewhat complex and fully of vagaries. Do we mean realism as in "fantastic elements that aren't too outside the realms of possibility," or as in "a world that is scientifically plausible," or "characters and events that happen in a way that has verisimilitude"? Because those things are just as applicable to hard science-fiction, many an action film, and a great many forms of mainstream fiction as they are to fantasy.

Or is it "realism" as in "there is no good and evil, just shades of dark grey and exaggeratedly flawed and imperfect characters"? Because in that way, it's no more realistic than The Sopranos or any British soap opera.  A Game of Thrones isn't realistic, it's heightened reality. Distilled reality. Instead of taking the typical sanitised fairytale approach to fantasy, it goes the other direction: making every character deeply flawed and full of dark secrets. Anyone remotely heroic or innocent is quickly killed, revealed to be not-so-heroic-or-innocent, or corrupted over the course of the tale. Doing this doesn't make A Game of Thrones more realistic, just another kind of dramatic exaggeration - one that people love and can lend itself to compelling drama, but not more realistic.

He said it's not a stereotypical action saga — "big fight, big fight, little scene where people chitchat, then a bit more fighting."

"This is more about the characters and their story," he said. "There are some battles that take place that will be big set pieces, but in the main it's the political intrigue."

For Bean, an actor best known for action roles, that was a welcome change.

"There are so many battles in films you just become anesthetized to it," said Bean, who has fought in quite a few himself, from the Napoleonic Wars of the "Sharpe" TV series to Middle Earth showdowns in "The Lord of the Rings." ''There's one killing and another killing. ... It just goes on for too long.

It's true that A Game of Thrones, assuming it's sticking as close to the books as Martin and others have said, is not just a typical action saga.  It's more like a typical dynastic intrigue drama than anything else: replace "big fight" with "heated exchange" (which could mean angry argument, shocking revelation, dastardly conspiring or illicit love scene) and you get A Game of Thrones.  "Heated exchange, heated exchange, little scene where people chitchat, then a bit more heated exchange."  Just saying, if we're playing the Argumentum ad reductio, nothing is exempt.

"Game of Thrones" has an element increasingly unusual in television — surprise. For those unfamiliar with the books, the story provides some real shocks.

"George Martin writes such a vast number of fascinating characters that he's not afraid to kill people off," Addy said. "There are people who appear to be kind of hovering on the periphery that later come very clearly into focus and become the main player in the big picture."

I dunno about "surprise." I think about a dozen main characters have died in fiery explosions on Hollyoaks in the past five years alone. The only surprise I can see is that fantasy doesn't "do" that sort of thing - which says more about the viewer or reader's lack of experience with the genre than anything else.

Anyway, another site that popped up was Alyssa Rosenberg, who talks about A Game of Thrones' place in the world of fantasy fiction, and why fantasy seems to be around the fringes of Real Art:

Fantasy fiction lets us dwell, however briefly, in days of miracles and wonder. The wonders can be anything from swords in churchyards that inspire the reunification of fractured countries to a British boarding school with a delightfully unorthodox curriculum. But the miracle is the same: magic amplifies good and evil equally, heightening conflicts, but making sure things turn out all right in the end. It's as much an act of wishful thinking to dream that right will always triumph as it is to want a wand or a magic sword. It's for that reason that fantasy sometimes lingers around the edges of high art, a sense that there's something unserious about a form that offers metaphors for real concerns and an unrealistic guarantee that everything will work out fine.

Pretty obvious Alyssa either hasn't read The Lord of the Rings, or if she has, she hasn't really read it.  Yes, good does triumph in the end of The Lord of the Rings, but to say everything worked out fine is facile and ignores the cost felt by the Fellowship.  You want metaphors for real concerns bereft of such unrealistic guarantees?  Go read Eddison, Dunsany, Hodgeson, Merritt, Anderson, and any number of authors I could mention whose work concludes with bittersweet denouements, tragic endings, or sombre finales that you won't find in your average doorstopper.

Still, if fantasy does sometimes lingers around the edges of high art, it's because we're talking about bad fantasy.  Fantasy, like any other genre, is 90% crud.  There's a 10% there that's unquestionably good enough to be considered alongside the rest of "high art" (whatever that is), and judging a genre on its worst is as intellectually bankrupt as saying contemporary fiction isn't High Art because you're judging it on the likes of Dan Brown and his ilk.

It'll be intriguing to see what skeptics of the genre make of HBO's Game of Thrones. The show, based on George R. R. Martin's epic novels, gets compared repeatedly to The Sopranos—and less frequently though perhaps more accurately to The Wire—for its complicated moral canvas and vast cast of characters. The comparisons are apt: Game of Thrones is deftly and movingly acted, visually lush, and tremendously exciting. But they're also a signal that Game of Thrones means fantasy is not in the land of Harry Potter or Bella Swan anymore. This is an unflinching political and familial drama where the fantastical, which appears only fleetingly in early episodes, may be as much a threat as a promise.

... How much fantasy has this woman read? Harry Potter and Twilight have only been around for decades. The modern fantasy genre has its roots in the 19th Century.  Is she seriously saying fantasy hasn't evolved beyond the comforting fairytale since the reign of Victoria?

The show treats magic as if it's prosaic. Dragons are an extinct species, victims of war and poor breeding practices. Another ancient threat to man may be rising—or may be the product of minds turned sour by service on remote national borders, far from civilization. There are no marvelous revelations to the audience or to any of the main characters, no world that only we—and they—can access.

Instead, there's the grinding brutality of quasi-medieval life. And it is brutal. There are two beheadings in the show's first 15 minutes. Men choke to death on their own blood when they're wounded in tournaments, and kill their horses after unsuccessful jousts. When a young princess has sex with her Ghengis Khan-like husband for the first time, the camera watches her weep as he undresses her, prying her hands away from her body as she tries to hold up her clothes. It may not be the same as watching Dr. Melfi get raped in a parking lot stairwell on The Sopranos, but the emotions are no less complicated, and the physical and emotional discomfort that play across her face are no less real.

It's not that other fantasy series don't create lovable characters or compelling anti-heroes and put them through a lot. But there's an ugly edge to Game of Thrones that's absent in some of the other most popular fantasy series of our times. Harry's encounter with a snake inhabiting the body of a dead woman in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a genuinely creepy passage, but the horror serves a higher purpose: forging Harry into a hero and cementing his emotional bond with his lost parents. Similarly, there's something pristine about Bella Swan's ordeals in the Twilight books: whether she's being physically attacked, risking death by exposure, or sacrificing herself to save her unborn child in a truly stomach-churning caesarean section, her pain is a sign of her fortitude and purity, proof of her special goodness. Frodo Baggins is, for religious skeptic J.R.R. Tolkien, the closest thing that exists to a martyr in the Lord of the Rings. Those stories tell us about ourselves and our world only by inference: They are better than we are, but that doesn't give us much of a benchmark as to whether we are all saved or fallen.

I...  Man.  Man.


  1. Hi Al, I was just working on a similar post lamenting the overall poor coverage sprung up around ASOIAF. Every journalist seems to feel the need to tell us what fantasy "really is," or "what it has been," and then explain how ASOIAF is so different.

    The problem is (and if I come across as a bit snobbish, so be it), they're obviously woefully under-read in the fantasy genre. Calling Tolkien a "religious skeptic" tells me all I need to know about that last reviewer.

    To be fair, no one can be expert on every ything. I just wish they'd stick to traditional reviewing and cease the ill-informed sermonizing.

  2. Frodo Baggins is, for religious skeptic J.R.R. Tolkien

    What the ...?

  3. I'm absolutely flabberghasted by "religious skeptic J.R.R. Tolkien." It seems so patently preposterous that I can't help but think I'm missing something, some other definition of "religious skeptic" I'm unaware of. Someone in the comments attempts to explain where Ms Rosenberg may be coming from:

    It's an interesting note though, because while Tolkien was a devout member of the RCC (there's an amusing anecdote of him defiantly saying his liturgical responses in Latin protesting the change to the vernacular), his theological views were pretty far outside the orthodoxy of what a conservative would believe. For example, his belief that pagan myths like the death and rebirth of Osiris or Dionysius or Mithras were prefigurative of the "true myth" of Jesus Christ, that there was something in humankind able to make an attempt at grasping that story before it came about.

    Of course a non-religious skeptic would say that the Christian myth was merely that culture's co-opting/retelling of older, similar myths which they would've picked up through cross-cultural interaction, while an uncritical religious person would likely just discount those pagan stories as "the devil's work," but a religious skeptic would have to offer a rational explanation of this that still allows for their faith. I think that's what Tolkien as a mythologist tried to do.

    It's, erm, well, it's an attempt at an explanation.

  4. It's, erm, well, it's an attempt at an explanation.

    An explanation perhaps, but not of Tolkien's supposed "religious skepticism." Likewise, Tolkien's acknowledgment of the prefiguration of Christ in pagan mythology, rather than being "far outside ... orthodoxy" is, in fact, a longstanding opinion within the Church, going back at least to the age of the Fathers, if not before. When I read stuff like this, it makes me wonder if these people have ever actually encountered a real live believing Christian, because it simply makes no sense to me.

  5. Hence "attempt" at an explanation. :)

  6. Well once again we're back to the 'gritty, nasty, dirty, grim equals adult and realistic" school of thought. However what I find amusing, if sad, is that what the comments about how game of Thrones is so different from other fantasy novels actually show is that the people who make those statements aren't well read. They are basing their statements on their idea of fantasy and not the reality. Back when I was young and stupid I made similar statements about the romance genre, based on my general, uninformed knowledge of that genre, my idea that the lowest quality Harlequin Romance was standard for the field. Later, when I became friends with a writer of Historical Romances and spent a lot of time talking to her, I got myself properly schooled. I'll paraphrase a quote from Harlan Ellison, which I like. People don't have a right to an opinion. They have a right to an informed opinion.

  7. Charles, that final quote from Ellison is beyond brilliant.

  8. It seems that in Spain Harlan Ellison hasn't the right to be translated and published in a decent way

  9. Any fantasy story based on pittsburgh has to be a good one, right yinz?
    Tolkien tells a different tale -- and his has far too many dragons for my taste. Need to lose a ring? summon a dragon! Dragon'll eat anything.
    But I quibble.

  10. Fantasy? What is this? (Barry Burton voice) It's for children. All grown ups are supposed to watch is Reality shows, soap operas (or soap operas posing as "edgy" series, see: Nip Tuck) and cop shows.


    The first paragraphs where you discuss "realism" is one of my favourite pieces written by you, Taranaich.