Editor’s Note: This essay contains spoilers for HBO's Game of Thrones.
I picked up A Game of Thrones, the first volume of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire in the sweet spot between the fourth book’s release and the announcement of HBO’s now wildly popular TV adaptation. It paralleled my junior high obsession with The Lord of the Rings, but felt distinctly true to what I was experiencing in university. At the time, the unfeeling indifference of university had replaced the wise counselors of my youth; the purposeful quest dissolved into a blur of struggles and skirmishes. I read, hoping for resolution.
The moment I knew Ned wasn’t coming back was formative to my reading life, and it still colours my reading of fiction. His unjust death showed me that A Song of Ice and Fire was different from what I’d read before. I realized Martin would’ve let Gandalf stay dead and that frightened me—but I couldn’t stop reading.
So began my time in Westeros, a world of small victories and devastating losses, and a place I never want to visit but can’t help exploring.
Game of Thrones (GOT) and The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) often get compared for the scope of their world-building, which are fleshed out with enough detail to fill encyclopedias. But that’s where the clear comparisons end. Spend time in both and you’ll soon find that there is no idyllic Shire, no selfless counsellors, and that in Westeros, Aragorn would have taken the Ring from Frodo, because that’s what people do: steal, oppress, and destroy—try as they might do otherwise.
GOT is an intricate world made more complex by its population of cripples, bastards, and other broken things. LOTR is as intricate, but often labeled as simplistic because of its supposedly straightforward narrative of Good versus Evil. Martin himself took a shot at Tolkien’s medieval philosophy in an interview with Rolling Stone, disagreeing with the assumption that “if the king [is] a good man, the land [will] prosper.” Despite his quibbles, Martin doesn’t think Middle-Earth is “a world where the good guys win and the bad guys lose, and at the end they live happily ever after.” Tolkien’s novels are deeply touched with tragedy, as Martin acknowledges in the interview.
However, by the time Eddard Stark had lost his head, I’d seen enough brutality to know what I was reading—tragedy. For me, Ned’s death was a twist, a big one, and I was hooked. I kept reading, desperate to know what would become of the Starks and other characters. Now I’d like to know when killing off (and brutalizing) sympathetic characters stops being a twist.
The narrative role of betrayals and sexual violence is growing stale, in the TV show especially, as HBO’s desire for shock value trumps plot value.
HBO’s misuse of sex and violence (Episode 6: Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken) prompted Vox writer Zack Beauchamp to voice fears that Game of Thrones might become “the simple inverse of a boring morality tale.” Which would be equally as bland because “‘everything is terrible’ is just as boring and predictable as ‘everything is awesome.’” Since conflict is at the center of storytelling, there needs to be a balance of terrible and awesome; a real chance of defeat and meaningful victories. Without this balance, Game of Thrones’ grit is starting to chafe. The show runners new habit of bringing the peripheral terribleness of the novels to bear on the main characters is a big part of this.
Beauchamp goes on to list what the show does well, revealing his hopes for many of the narrative arcs. Of everyone’s favourite half-man he says: “Tyrion was genuinely trying to make things better, and it was damn entertaining to watch him succeed — if only temporarily.” Why not spare Jon and let him succeed where Ned and Robb failed? Why not have Sansa carry the Stark name as a strong, wintry queen? I’ll watch the news if I want to see well-intentioned efforts fumbled and frustrated at every turn.
Jon Snow now lies dead on the last pages and frames of GOT, and—if you believe the message boards—many fans either mourn him or await his resurrection. These Jon Snow evangelists appeal to theories about his true identity. Is Jon the ice to Dany’s dragon fire? For my part, I hold onto the supernatural, the magic that must manifest itself for the series to move towards a conclusion. I ask with Martin, “when can we be redeemed? Is redemption even possible?” But Jon’s death made it clear, Game of Thrones is due for a eucatastrophe—Tolkien’s conception of the happy ending, “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.”
I’m hoping for this turn—longing for a little bit of storybook in a story that cares too much about rough edges.
After her conquest of Meereen, Daenerys is faced with a choice: show mercy to former slave owners or mete out justice. She declares “I will answer injustice with justice,” and we love her for it, because we all hope for justice. We want to see the battered and broken Starks restored, and to rejoice when the noble intentions of Tyrion and Daenerys are successful.
While there’s no doubt that moral ambiguity and intrigue (and gratuitous violence and sex) sell, the recent success of Mad Max has reaffirmed the popularity of simple stories. Furiosa’s War Rig ran on a clear hope as much as guzzoline, but her journey can’t be considered easy or painless. Frodo and Furiosa’s clear paths don’t make their journeys any less daunting.
Yet in Game of Thrones, those who try to do good are confounded at every turn while monsters like The Mountain and Littlefinger cheat the death they sorely deserve, but we hold on. This hope is not unlike the hope of the Ring-bearer’s quest to Mount Doom in The Lord of The Rings; we want to see good people triumph and evil defeated, even when we’re not given much grounds for such a hope.
The triumph of good is only boring when unrealistically easy. Victory in the face of darkness, evil—whatever you want to call it, is exactly what we want. Give me a hero—but give me a hero that bleeds.
Right now, because Game of Thrones is unfinished, it’s like following breaking news. We have our theories and, of course, hopes for how the story will end, but no one knows except the author. It’s easy to be cynical after all the death and injustice, but there is less room for despair in a world where magic exists. So we keep on dreaming satisfying, fanciful dreams, because it’s what we do.
Perhaps, when the final page is written, we’ll find out that Martin isn’t quite so at odds with Tolkien. The Lord of The Rings isn’t all second breakfasts and triumph, darkness descends and there’s real struggle, risk, and loss. The force that impels us to read stories to completion is hope, but we can only identify with hope in the midst of suffering. So yes, Game of Thrones is bleak, horrifying, and often reprehensible, and that’s why so many keep watching and reading.
The horror can’t go on forever, can it?
That’s why I can’t give up now, not yet. The bodies keep piling up, but I want to hold on despite the weight of the darkness. I’m hoping for an end to the vicious game of thrones, for a good king or queen for Westeros. If we, as humans, give up on the Seven Kingdoms, a place designed to display the complexity of the morass that is morality, how can we bear to live in this world, the one we see on the news and in our Twitter feeds?
Hope is categorically and necessarily human; we need it—I need it—to get up in the morning, and to sleep at night too. Will I wake up to another sunrise? Will everything sad come untrue?
I hope so.