”Game of Thrones” – Great History in a Fantasy Format or Too Grim For It’s Own Good?

Gradually but as it seems, inevitably, I’m there as well. In Westeros. In the magic landscapes where trolls and goblins roam freely among the ‘normal’ people; where noble kings rule, keeping all evil in check while maintaining their own ethics and integrity intact. If only. This is fantasy for grownups, right? Maybe that’s a self-delusion and it’s all about witnessing a morally degrading drama, speaking to our baser instincts. But I keep believing that you actually get wiser and more enlightened by watching ”Game of Thrones”, as well as other high quality series such as ”The Wire”, ”The Shield” or, yes, ”Lost”.

Basically, most of the dramatic storytelling we see involve three things that we’re all concerned with one way or the other – money, sex and power. And violence frequently becomes part of that mixture as a natural ingredient.

Just recently I finished an almost unhealthy exposure to the world of George R. R. Martin, by watching the entire third season of HBO:s fantasy flagship in roughly a week through the program library incorporated in our digital TV subscription (that’s the way it works in Sweden nowadays). The first season I followed somewhat less focused, under different circumstances and it took a lot longer to finish. Which means I lost track now and then, and didn’t really enter into the Sacred Covenant like the early adoptors. And there were apparently a lot of these people, not least those who previously read all the books. Until this day, I still haven’t. The second season, I watched on a weekly basis on national Swedish, non-commercial television and became more and more involved in the storyline, despite the fact that it wasn’t, strictly speaking, quite as compelling as the first ten hours of the show.

Lately I’ve also been listening to a few of the podcasts dealing with the show, primarily ”A Cast of Kings”, hosted by David Chen and Joanna Robinson who start out every single broadcast with the declarations ”I haven’t read any of the books in George R. R. Martins series” and ”I have read all the books…” respectively.

Since I ‘discovered’ the wonderful world of podcasts, I’ve learned to appreciate the ones who don’t get caught up in the most obvious and common traps, like having discussions via Skype, something usually affecting the sound quality to a troubling degree. Or the ones being too uncritical or who simply know each other too well, which might make them lose focus and get lost in their own internal friendly banter, not always decipherable to outsiders – like their intended audience. Chen & Robinson generally manage to accomplish a working dynamic and stick to the subject without excluding humour and spontaneity. Their differing starting points make for often entertaining confrontations and opposing views, though they more often than not seem to agree on the basic issues. Anyway, the content as a whole is above average interesting in this world of aficionados creating their own shows and brands, sometimes financially supported by enthusiastic listeners or organizations.

Occasionally I’ve been caught up in historical TV dramas like ”The Tudors” and there’s an obvious point of reference to ”Game of Thrones”. History that’s been documented and then fictionalized, probably with a lot of artistic license involved, has quite a few similarities with the world George R. R. Martin has created. As it happens, a while ago historian Tom Holland wrote a piece in The Guardian, comparing some real and invented characters in these two shows and also hailing the virtues of ”Thrones”. Following a dramatized historical happening can be exciting, even though we might already know the outcome, Holland thinks. But not knowing what will happen brings an extra allure. And a character like the shrewd fictitious power player Lord Baelish (Aidan Gillen) is in many ways comparable to Thomas Cromwell, one of the most famous advisors in Henry VIII‘s court, and a key supporting player in ”The Tudors”. At least until… Well you might know what happens. Or not. Generally, Holland finds many similarities between ”Thrones” and medieval England. But that’s not all. As an author, Martin apparently seeks inspiration from all possible historical periods and places; the time of the Vikings, the Roman Empire, the Mongols under the leadership of Genghis Khan…

It could have been a ”hideous mess”, but instead it’s ”a perfect cocktail” according to Tom Holland. And the real strength isn’t the fact that’s a world som fantastic and supernatural, but simultaneously so realistic and relatable. Not least when it concerns the subjects of kingdoms ruled by feuding and antagonistic rivals, eager to claim the throne for themselves no matter what.

One who doesn’t agree completely is the author Jonathan Ryan, commenting the fantasy phenomenon for Christianity Today. In his view Martin has crafted his universe very skilfully, but it’s still too dark and unrelentingly grim in its portrayal of humanity in his series, where heroes along the lines of the ones we come across in ”Lord of the Rings” are basically absent. Martin can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel the same way J. R. R. Tolkien does, which makes him too jaded and narrowminded to be really realistic. ”He is looking at the world with just one jaundiced, damaged eye” in the words of Ryan. Well, that’s an entirely valid point of view, isn’t it? Personally I can’t be sure of the way I will interpret the finished story, if there is one in ”Game of Thrones”. All the books aren’t even written yet, supposedly. So there is still a long road ahead. For the moment at least, I am fascinated. Very much so.