Game of Thrones’ Rise and Fall in the 2010s
Game of Thrones’ Rise and Fall in the 2010s
Misguided GoT identified the cyclical “wheel” of history, in need of breaking, as hereditary monarchy and religious institutions. But, Fantasy should lift our heads and our spirits out of the curse of the modern cycle.
Last week, an article featured in the left-wing Guardian, claiming that Game of Thrones had dominated the last decade, in terms of pop-culture. But how and why did it lose its way? Why does no one talk about that show any more?
From The Sopranos to Game of Thrones (GoT), the so-called golden era of television is in twilight. At least, that is what FX C.E.O., John Landgraf, predicted for 2019. We are supposed to have reached a point of “peak TV” and shall now witness the original programming bubble burst. Arguably, GoT was the forecasted cloud on the horizon. Certainly, Landgraf’s 2015 prediction has been spot on so far, with a 71% increase in original, scripted shows in just a few recent years. But, fatigue is setting in, deep in our bones, deep in the soul of Western man. And, no, we are not just bored of J.J. Abrams’ famous “mystery box” method of show production – straggling viewers along with almost endless mysteries, lining producers’ pockets all the way. We aren’t just sick of the bait, we are starving for something genuinely meaty and meaningful; and the unprecedented spectacle of GoT was the wake-up call we needed.
What was once the universal talk of the town is now so shameful one cannot speak the name of GoT without inviting grumbling and a long silence. What surprises me most is that folks, including most Christians, didn’t see that George R. R. Martin’s epic was doomed to failure from the start. Instead, they are, quite literally, dumbfounded by the fact that ithas probably slain the dragon of mystery box, “bingeable” TV.
Knowing what true Fantasy is (the capitalisation is fully intended), we needn’t have been the Three-Eyed Raven to see that GoT is a total departure from the genre and cannot truly be considered party to it, except perhaps as an embarrassingly bad example. If we consider the late Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots to great stories – overcoming the monster; rags to riches; the quest; voyage and return; comedy; tragedy; rebirth – we see why the story of Christ and His Church, and the larger context of the West, is not just a great history, but has produced and inspired most of the greatest stories in the world. Still in the throes of Christmastide, we are remembering God coming into the world to save mankind, as foretold. Fantasy is at the heart of Western civilisation’s storytelling, being built on the most fantastic story ever told.
Consider this: Why is The Lord of the Rings the best-selling single-volume of all time, voted the best book of the 20thcentury and, indeed, of all time? Tolkien wanted to reflect his Catholic faith and what we have lost in the modern world – that for which we are still so hungry. So, why did GoT fail? Was it, as The Guardian suggested, because there were too many special effects and not enough scenes with dialogue. Not at all. The problem is that GoT isn’t a proper Fantasy.
Martin’s is a modernist, progressive anti-fantasy.
Fantasy presents us with worlds on the cusp of losing their magical or supernatural aspects, in whole or in part. For example, consider Tolkien’s Elves, compelled to leave Middle-earth by a spiritual summons. The world of Fantasy is increasingly left to a naturalistic, materialistic race of men, who are not magically adept and are flawed in any case. Fantasy is automatically valedictory toward the pre-modern, sacramental world of throne and altar; whereas GoT has magical special-effects, it has none of the spirit of Fantasy precisely because it attacks these two things – God and those institutions which would encourage spiritual wisdom.
The first and only clue one needed was that the world of GoT was conspicuously bereft of any significant impact from the religions which somehow animated the Seven Kingdoms. However, during the medieval period, supposedly inspiring GoT, the entire world was seen as a very sacramental thing – everything had both spiritual and material aspects or connotations to it. The seven gods of Westeros barely seem to influence everyday conversation in the series. Even after the religious centre of the kingdoms, the Septum of Baelor, is blown to pieces, it doesn’t seem to alter daily life at all. This is a far, far cry from traditional Fantasy.
The symbolic altar of pre-modernity is swept aside; what of the throne?
Jon Snow’s character embodies Martin’s anti-monarchist message. He is presented as a good warrior with the noble heart and morals of his uncle and guardian, Ned Stark. Furthermore, we discover the cause of his natural leadership skills – he is the true heir to the Iron Throne of Westeros. It’s in the blood! The dragons are submissive before his scent to highlight the point. However, as a leader and a hero, he is ultimately a failure. Compare his story-arc to Aragorn of The Lord of the Rings – Aragorn is introduced as running away from his duties as rightful king, out of fear of the corrupting effects of power. As a ranger, he lives away from civilisation, in the wilderness, but rises to the occasion, putting aside his old ways to become ‘who he was born to be.’ Jon Snow, however, repeatedly relinquishes kingship to Daenerys, his aunt and lover, despite her being an unfit queen, in deed and in truth.
Jon Snow ultimately commits tyrannicide, tearfully driving a dagger into the heart of his wayward lover. But, in his traumatised state, he is left a morally confused wreck; he confesses to not knowing right from wrong anymore. Rather than stepping up to the throne self-sacrificially, for the common good of the kingdoms, he retreats to the life of a ranger with his dog, North of the Wall. Truly, he is the anti-Aragorn, anti-hero and anti-ideal. In fact, he doesn’t seem to perform any truly heroic acts in the final season, but is left emasculated and ostracised. With this example, Martin would have us nihilistically abandon all sense of honour and virtue, rather than armour ourselves and fight for the good, though we be hobbits or women.
The last of the dragons melts the Iron Throne, enraged at the death of the Queen, his mother. So, Martin’s disdain for the throne and divine kingship is manifested in this penultimate act of the story’s political message. What, then, is left of the throne?
In its place, the utterly sterile Stark boy, Bran the Broken, sits on a wheelchair – a symbol of a weakened Ancien Régime, which we are to assume will pass away with a laughably hinted to Early Modern period: Samwell, supposedly the most learned of the characters, suggests they implement a large-scale liberal democracy across all of Westeros, in lieu of the Dragon Queen’s demise – as though such a project is working out tremendously well in our highly polarised reality. To complete the act of shoving the message of inevitable modern progress right into the audience’s face, the new king’s sister, Arya, pretentiously sets sail to apparently start a cartographic revolution and discover new lands, birthing worldview-shattering revolutions etc. A “more enlightened” era, ahoy!
Are we, the audience, filled with hope by all of this? How can we be? Look where progress has brought us – liberal nation-states which no longer have any reason to care about the rising suicide rates, lack of identity and meaning, and common good of native populations of Europe and the West. Remember what Fantasy is all about: it is valedictory for the enchanted and, yes, romantic world of pre-modern Christendom. And, at a time when any number of modern constructs are being questioned – gender, the nation-state, global capitalism etc. – GoT flies in the face of the West’s spiritual struggles, with all the heartlessness of a fire-breathing dragon. We want noble heroes with very human flaws, ordained to fight the dragons of chaos, learning from our timeless spiritual traditions and leading us to do the same. Anti-heroes and villains, who do the opposite, also serve as entirely acceptable bad examples, as The Sopranos and Breaking Bad prove full well.
The Endless Cycle of Desire
Misguided GoT identified the cyclical “wheel” of history, in need of breaking, as hereditary monarchy and religious institutions. But, Fantasy should lift our heads and our spirits out of the curse of the modern cycle. As consumerist economic units, we are churned up into the corporate machine of the Leviathan state, only to be replaced by the next, interchangeable generation, ad infinitum. So, what hope can Martin’s progressivism give us, when our own modern world has left us with full bellies, yet full of doubt? We restlessly pursue objects of desire, as disposable as ourselves, perpetually dissatisfied and lusting, hoping our resultant “culture of desire” will somehow render us more desirable. GoTwas itself just another example of this endless idolatry – what the French philosopher, Jean-Luc Marion, called ‘an enchanted circle that is hard to break open’. This cycle is the real wheel which must be broken, and it is this unspoken truth which true Fantasy whispers to our souls.
Martin’s epic can never accomplish this task; his is a darkened, animalistic concept of man, which foolishly seeks meaning, some rest from the cycle of desire in some material, even sexual, thing. ‘Mirror, Mirror, on the wall...’ modern man asks his material idols, day after day. But, not once do we actually want as true a reflection of our degenerated, modern selves as GoT confronts us with. The virtue in The Sopranos and Breaking Bad was in showing us the folly of the Nietzschean quest, in a world which has “killed God”; we could see something of ourselves reflected in the tragic, godless characters and were spurred to expect better of ourselves.
GoT cut far too close to the bone by presenting an active and immanent deity who is, nevertheless, rejected by most of the characters who encounter his miracles and providence; immediately, we see all too well that we are the villains of this piece! The one true God of GoT, the ‘Lord of Light’, is a mysterious, untouchable, and distant source of baffling and cruel events, who seems to come and go without explanation. ‘Who knows what he wants?’ Lord Davos complains. Here, Martin seems to resentfully echo Marion’s explanation for idolatry: ‘unbearable to live’ is the quest for ‘the invisible’ God. Thus, we find ourselves shamelessly similar to the bloodthirsty, sex-mad psychopaths on-screen – our existence just as carnal and banal, if less brutish.
What have we learned from GoT except that the mystery box of TV is empty?
Perhaps this emptiness too is a reflection of modern man’s soul – our soul! The shows we eagerly await, from week-to-week, fail to provide us meaning to the extent that they fail to convey God – the good, the beautiful and the true. The same is true of our own lives, of course. We need stories to encourage us to live the lives we should lead – stories which are ‘more true than [we] are’, to quote Chesterton.
In short, true and good Fantasy, good storytelling moreover, gives us cause to look past ourselves, past the material; by vividly reflecting the light of God, we are drawn away from the idolatrous mirror images of ourselves we create, to something greater, to someone greater. It is in Christ that we finally find rest and satisfaction from the cycle of desire; it is in the light that we find true meaning, by disciplining ourselves to become the mirror, reflecting better things to the world.
‘There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.’
– J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
About the author
Richard Storey has a Masters in Law from the University of Law in Guildford and is the author of The Uniqueness of Western Law: A Reactionary Manifesto. Having a particular interest in the medieval period, his writing spans law, history, and cultural criticism, and he has conducted numerous interviews with prominent academics for his Youtube channel, That Libertarian Chap. He lives in the South of England with his wife and three children, and is a member of the Ordinariate.