The eerily contemporary morality of HBO’s Game of Thrones
it went anti-Tolkien. Indeed, if you dared to call their creation “Tolkienesque,” the esteemed deceased English author might well rise from the grave in protest.
.. In Tolkien’s tales, magic is of paramount importance, the good is very, very good, and the evil is obvious and horrifying. Tolkien was a veteran of World War I, and he’d seen his own Mordor. The descriptions of the Black Land have eerie echoes in the blasted earth and industrial destruction in the trenches of the Western Front. In Tolkien’s time, great good faced great evil (often against seemingly overwhelming odds), and great good triumphed.
.. His work instead calls back to an earlier time, to the struggles for dynastic succession in old England. Loosely based — very loosely — on the Wars of the Roses, his books pit warring families against each other
.. This game has but one rule, “You win or you die.” The politics are gritty, good men are hard to find, and honor and virtue are often rewarded with swift death.
.. Perhaps fearing that the show would flop without a little extra help, HBO used its full premium-cable powers to lard it up with graphic sex and violence.
.. Martin’s books aren’t for the squeamish, but HBO took the lewd elements to the next level. Comedians and critics even coined a term, “sexposition,” to describe the show’s habit of using extended sex scenes as a mechanism for explaining plot points and developing characters. In family-friendly social-conservative circles, the word went out: HBO once again was using sex to sell, and Christians especially shouldn’t be buying.
.. But by the end of season six, the show was an unstoppable ratings juggernaut, watched by upwards of 25 million Americans each week. It’s arguably the most watched show on television today.
.. Season seven (out of eight) starts on July 16, and its ratings will likely surpass everything but the NFL playoffs. A true cultural moment is at hand.
.. the show’s creators have accomplished what few television or film producers have ever achieved — they have improved upon classic books and have, quite simply, mastered the art of storytelling.
.. they cast the multiple important roles perfectly, and they have shown a knack for delivering during the big moments. The plot twists, betrayals, and epic battles aren’t just watchable, they’re rewatchable. In fact, classic clips garner millions of views on YouTube as fans go relive the highlights in much the same way that Patriots fans no doubt relive the last five minutes of Tom Brady’s epic comeback in Super Bowl LI.
.. The story itself matters too, and in many ways it is the right story at the right time, holding up a mirror to modern American sensibilities and showing the consequences of modern American morality.
.. In Tolkien’s world the stakes are immense, the moral battle lines are clear, and victory actually means victory, the end of a distinct evil force. In this respect, as noted above, Tolkien was a man of his age.
.. Martin’s can feel like a treadmill of conflict where squabbling lords and ladies ignore looming threats and greater dangers for the sake of momentary advantage in a seemingly never-ending battle for control. The stakes can seem small — what’s the real difference for humanity between Lannister or Targaryen rule? — but the conflicts are still intense.
.. Whereas the typical high-fantasy novel might end after a hero defeats her enemies and frees entire cities’ worth of slaves, in Game of Thrones, Martin (and the show’s creators) ask, “What comes next?” And the answer, instead of a glorious celebration of freedom and liberty, is a period of chaos and vengeance.
.. Whereas the typical high-fantasy novel centers on the most honorable of heroes and writes him to victory against insurmountable odds, in Game of Thrones, the honorable hero loses his head unless he’s honorable and shrewd or honorable and violent.
.. Think of it as Calvinism without Christ — natural human depravity unleashed. The realities of human nature mean that evil is very, very evil, and good is also touched with the weight of sin.
.. Certain timely themes emerge, perhaps most salient among them the constant, vivid reminders that the ends do not justify the means.
.. Indeed, Martin has revealed a key truth — that pursuing virtuous ends by vicious means can so transform a person that the ends themselves change. Virtue is redefined, and ultimately virtue is lost.
.. The characters are obsessed with settling scores and vindicating their honor.
.. In fact, even the evilest of characters have their own tales of woe. They can always find a murder or a conflict or an act of defiance that justifies the next vengeful act. Just as in real life, evil has a reason for its rage.
.. While watching, one can’t help but be reminded of Christ’s admonition that even his followers should be “wise as serpents.”
.. A conservative can’t watch the show without understanding that it is, at times, almost shamelessly Burkean: Disrupt the established order at your peril.
.. several of the great houses launched a rebellion (“Robert’s Rebellion”) to depose a mad king. By any measure, it was a just war against a homicidal maniac
.. I suspect we won’t see anything like the collapse of Mount Doom in Return of the King. Maybe we’ll get justice, but it will likely be angry justice, and when the series ends, the last person on the Iron Throne will wear the crown uneasily, knowing that she (or he) left a trail of bodies on the path to power and that those souls not only cry out for vengeance but have living descendants who hear their call.
.. At issue was the question of political tactics. Did the “high road” work anymore? Don’t the nice guys always lose, and when they lose don’t the virtues they believe in ultimately lose as well?
.. an increasingly amoral society, unmoored from its traditions and full of entitled and ambitious men and women who compete for power with unrestrained viciousness. Does that sound at least vaguely familiar? Is it any wonder that Game of Thrones resonates in the modern American heart?
.. It will still have too much sex (though HBO has limited the lewdness as the series has grown more popular)
.. it will give us something else as well — a lesson that entitlement and rage have a price, and that justice gets lost when victory is the only goal. Perhaps the true rule of the game of thrones isn’t “Win or die” but rather “Win and die.” The quest for power, unmoored from virtue, is the doom of us all.
Re. your query about Animal Farm. Of course I intended it primarily as a satire on the Russian revolution. But I did mean it to have a wider application in so much that I meant that that kind of revolution (violent conspiratorial revolution, led by unconsciously power-hungry people) can only lead to a change of masters. I meant the moral to be that revolutions only effect a radical improvement when the masses are alert and know how to chuck out their leaders as soon as the latter have done their job. The turning-point of the story was supposed to be when the pigs kept the milk and apples for themselves (Kronstadt).1