13 April 2015

Best Game Of Thrones Analysis So Far

Vox has a new post on Game of Thrones Season 5 which began on Sunday.

It is the best take yet on George R.R. Martin's epic, incomplete hard fantasy series based loosely on England's thirty-two year long War of the Roses fought in the 1400s between competing claimants to the throne that culminated in the rise of the House of Tudor under Queen Elizabeth; and, on the parallel HBO television series.

I've read most of the first of the five books in print, and watched a fairly random half dozen or so episode of the first four seasons of the television show, mostly the earlier seasons.

Blogger Razib Khan blogs about the series in relation to the nature of human prehistory at his blog Gene Expression (which has had been part of two different blog collections during the time I've been reading it) with some regularity.

My wife is a hard core fan.  She was an English major in college, and takes detailed notes as she reads it and has currently made it to the fourth print volume.  The notes aren't absolute necessary if you read the books quickly, but Martin's books have as many characters as the most sprawling creations of literature from Dickens to Cervantes, so her efforts aren't entirely overkill.  She's also seen all, or nearly all of the TV episodes and closely tracks the similarities and differences between the print and TV versions, differences which she respects are necessary given the differences in media.

Some video adaptations of books take a short work, like the Hobbit, or Cinderella, or a few chapters of the Book of Genesis, and embellish them endlessly to make a much longer screen product.

In a testament to just how much material is crammed into the Game of Thrones books, however, the Game of Thrones TV episodes are incredibly dense, to the point where it is difficult for the average view to grasp more than a fraction of what is going on without having read the books or seen an explanatory pod-cast (a cottage industry on the Internet these days) explaining it.

I called the series "hard fantasy" at the beginning of this post, and that deserves a bit of an explanation.  Yes, like any other medieval fantasy novel series, Game of Thrones has magic, supernatural creatures, wonders, and a world that differs in essential respects from medieval Earth.

Martin's world, for example, has very long seasons that span decades, rather than months, but rather irregularly, hence the motto of the Stark Family, "Winter is Coming."  The "seven kingdoms" correspond rather closely in geography to Great Britain, but the land across the channel from it bears more similarity to the Near East and North Africa, than it does to Continental Europe.

What makes it "hard" fantasy, however, is that the magical and supernatural elements of the story are used sparingly.  The novels and early TV episodes have plenty of folk tales and legends and even visible relics of an era when magic and the supernatural were more abundant, but we see only glimpse of these parts of the world face to face at first, and they don't have a lot of impact on the dynamics of the series, at first.

The first Dire Wolves we encounter are mere puppies, and the first Dragons we see are little more than cute pet lizards, until well into the story.  Creatures resembling zombies and giants exist only in the frigid north beyond a wall where Hadrian's Wall should be, but at a scale that would put the Great Wall of China to shame.  People who can use magic are few and far between, and many of them have powers that they can't fully control, or that have limited utility.  You can count the number of truly powerful users of magical powers on your fingers.

Anyway, back to the Vox story.  I like it, because it appreciates Game of Thrones for the deeper cultural conjectures and thought experiments that drive all good speculative fiction, but is often absent from other kinds of literature, and because it aptly recognizes and explores how the TV medium and print medium differ from each other (even gently chiding Martin when his own work is weaker in some respects than the TV show), without firmly taking sides between the two presentations, revealing spoilers, or getting lost in the incredible detail of the series.

The bottom line summary of those themes in this piece bears retelling here, for it really makes sense of why the series is so captivating:
[W]hat shines through most clearly here is something that remains deeply true to Martin's books. This is still a story about how we gain and lose power, about how humans organize themselves into societies, and about how we form governments that we can believe in. It's a story about a decaying social order being replaced by a new one — both through the natural passage of time and through bloody revolution. . . .
The implication is clear. Sometimes the system is no good, and sometimes it needs to be replaced, even if not completely. On a macro level, Martin's series has always been about the problems of feudalism and monarchies and the ways democracy improved upon them, while not solving all of humanity's problems. The TV series has taken this to new places, turning seemingly every character on the show but the king (who is a teenage boy) into someone who would prove a better ruler. 
Whether that ruler is eventually Dany or Tyrion or Cersei or Jon or even wayward teenager Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), one thing will unite them: they're not someone who could have been ruler before. Systems crumble. New worlds are built out of the rubble. And the only thing certain is that decay will set in eventually. Until then, though, better to hold out hope.
This really captures the Zeitgeist of our age at the dawn of the twenty-first century.  People who are reading these books and watching these episodes, like the characters in the story itself, are living in an age when governments and social orders are fluid and in flux.  Problems with existing systems of government are being illuminated and we see a future where different systems are in place through a glass darkly.

We are witnessing the same kinds of ugly, messy, violent and carnal transitions periods in the news every day and in our daily lives, and have to hold out hope for what the future will bring, without any reassurances that it will be good, for us, or in general, since Martin, like the real world, pulls no punches and has no mercy for his darlings.

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