Arts & Culture | A Mirror into our World: The radical politics of ‘Game of Thrones’

In the lead-up to the premiere tonight of the fourth season of 'Game of Thrones', Tony McKenna argues for a radical political interpretation of the international hit series.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Monday, April 7, 2014 0:00 - 5 Comments

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Game of Thrones - Ceasefie Magazine

In the very first episode of Game of Thrones we meet the steadfast and duty-bound Starks; a noble house who rule over Winterfell – the capital of the North. The castle keep is grey and flinty but protective; the peasants and merchants who bustle about within its walls regard the rule of their aristocratic patrons as firm but fair, and the little prince and princesses of the Stark clan are able to ramble in the grounds mingling with the common folk without fear or concern.

But there is a chill in the air. ‘Winter is coming’ – the ominous whisper, carried in the taverns and the trees – hints at more than a mere drop in the temperature. The writers quietly graduate the sense of unease; the viewer is made to understand that the people here are living at the end of an epoch, and the shadows of a new reality are beginning to draw close.

Such a prelude is typical of the fantasy genre more generally: A transition – a shift in focus – from a stable, insular enclave to a broader and darker panorama. Consider, for example, the Hobbit’s shire in The Lord of the Rings – the series of quaint cottages nestled in the earth, punctuated only by the hazy green grass and the pastel blues of the sky. J.R.R. Tolkien encourages an atmosphere of lazy, languorous contentment among the little folk who live there only to violently undermine it; his two hirsute protagonists are wrenched from the womb-like idyll of their existence by the malignant encroachment of sinister external forces. The earliest section of The Lord of the Rings reads very much as a parable to a loss of innocence, with explicit religious undertones redolent of The Fall.

In Game of Thrones something similar occurs and it, too, is seen primarily through the eyes of children. In particular, the Stark siblings – Arya and her brother Bran – look on, as the King of their continent, Westeros, arrives at their home. He brings with him the intrigues of his scheming, incestuous wife and her brother which eventually results in the crippling and attempted murder of Bran. On climbing a tower, Bran peers through a balcony window and surprises the King’s wife and her brother during sex; he is promptly pushed from the edge and nearly killed. The state of grace, the untrammelled condition of innocence is thus doubly fractured; in terms of the child’s broken body, but also at the level of the psyche in as much as he has seen something he was never meant to see.

This is symptomatic of a much broader historical shift: As the Starks are drawn away from the security of their home, and outward into the heartland of the Seven Kingdoms and a fermenting political conflict, the notion that a familiar and certain world is about to enter its end of days is outlined in the sharpest, quasi-apocalyptic terms. For at the very edge of the Seven Kingdoms is the Wall, a colossal fortification separating the known world from the beyond, from where something is beginning to stir. The ancient myths of what lives in the waste lands past the wall, tales of the dreaded White Walkers begin to gain currency in the hinterlands once more.

The careful cultivation of such ominous and sinister foreboding perhaps has a particular resonance for the modern viewer. For though Game of Thrones is ostensibly about a fantasy feudal realm governed by ancient blood lineages and autocratic decadence, the sense of foreboding – the awareness that a tangible and stable reality is ever more in danger of melting away – is something that a viewership living in the shadow of a vast global-economic crisis can increasingly identify with. This, too, is a crisis against which any fortification is prone to fissure, a crises cloaked in a certain intangibility, partly because of the vast layers and dimensions of its complexity, partly because its consequences will continue to crystallise in the indeterminate forms of the future. It therefore appears to us in spectral terms, as something possessed of an artificial existence capable of impinging on our own; as an alien and external power with an independent momentum, imbued with its own ghostly life.

And this is true of what lives beyond the wall of the Seven Kingdoms. The threat is simultaneously palpable and unreal, both existential and imaginary. What is remarkable about Game of Thrones is how it manages to sustain this sense of claustrophobia; what lies beyond the wall remains, for the majority of the first two series, an immanent possibility which is not translated into a visible, supernatural manifestation. This differentiates Game of Thrones from much fantasy fare more broadly. The emphasis on the internal social struggles between castes and clans far outweighs an outward and external concern for magic and magical creatures (of which there is remarkably little in the first two seasons). Instead, the focus of Game of Thrones falls disproportionately on the political manoeuvres of aristocratic factions and the subtle and corroding influence of power.

Once again, this provides us with a mirror into our own world. The incestuous marriage of the personal and the political at the very highest echelons has always characterised medieval power-relations, and is something whose dramatic possibilities Game of Thrones exploits by laying bare the intrigues, seductions, and machinations affected by the decadent and slippery elites. What is particularly fascinating is how close the politicking of our own reality sometimes seems to this – the fusion of the personal and political which occurs at the very heart of empire building. Despite the complex democratic mechanisms of modernity, there is, woven into the fabric of power, a series of names – consider the Kennedys or the Clintons or the Bushes – which appear over and over; an elite set of patrician families whose claim to sovereignty seems almost as much about predestination as polling. 

Of course, such parallels are not lost on the Game of Thrones fanbase. In a (surely accidental) incident, a replica-head of ex-president George W. Bush appeared in one of the episodes – mired on a spike. But what was interesting, in the furore that ensued, was how many of the commentators were prepared to articulate questions of contemporary American political power in terms of the ruthless medieval elites that are so vividly referenced in Game of Thrones. One commentator, using the moniker Woof 73, said of Bush, “That f**ker’s a Lannister, through and through. And not one of the cool evil ones, either. He’s one of the few that will be left after the story is over, too cowardly to fight, too lucky to be hunted down.”

There are other ways in which Game of Thrones draws its themes from the modern political landscape. Critics have targeted the way the show enforces a number of stereotypes that are fairly modern and pernicious in flavour. The depiction of almost every vaguely Middle-Eastern-looking character as a nomadic savage intent on rape, murder and the destruction of civilisation, has fuelled accusations of extreme ‘political incorrectness’. But what is also telling is that the scenes which embody crude racial stereotypes (albeit in a mystical, mythical shell) are those which are the most banal and uninteresting of all – despite the copious amounts of violence and sex injected into them. Consider the Dothraki, the band of marauding nomads led by Khal Drago, wandering interminably through the desert, providing surely the most empty and aimless of interludes in a show replete with continuous, frenetic adventurous narrative.

By contrast, it is the characters with a somewhat more ‘politically correct’ flavour that provide the beating heart and living soul of the series. In the second and third seasons, the role of the Daenerys Targaryen is transformed, no longer a passive consort but emerging as a powerful leader in her own right. The same can be said of the Dothraki, who become an army intent on the liberation of slaves as well as conquest. At once, the Khalesi and her rebel army are transfigured from vulgar stereotypes to a far more interesting and nuanced prospect.

Perhaps the two most interesting and genuinely heroic figures in the series are Tyrion Lanister and Arya Stark. Again, this evinces the superiority of Game of Thrones over something like The Lord of the Rings; in the latter there is a very crude dichotomy between good and evil – the beautiful blonde elves are essentially noble and worthy, while the grotesque, misshapen orcs are evil incarnate. The magical species acts as a template for a specific ethical type. But, by and large, Game of Thrones eschews such magical archetypes in favour of characters that are shaped by the living contradictions of their social existence.

Arya, for instance, is a bold, adventurous child with the heart of a warrior, but is frustrated by the fact that she happens to be a girl living in an extremely patriarchal world. Her very best qualities are suppressed by the same social group she belongs to and in the struggle to overcome this, her character begins to attain heroic dimensions. Similarly, the character of Tyrion develops a piercing intellect and a shrewd sense of humour as mechanisms of survival precisely because he has been ostracised by his noble family for the fact of being a dwarf. Both Arya and Tyrion are ostensibly aristocrats; but the defining aspect of their condition is one of disempowerment, of un-freedom, and the consequent desire to transcend it.

The radical way in which George RR Martin (the author of the Game of Thrones book series) constructed a fantasy world where social contradictions and not magical qualities are the central driving force of character development easily meshes with a plotline where the most memorable characters seek to transform their situation, challenging the hierarchical forms they are subjected to in their realities. And perhaps this also can act as a mirror to the real world.

The fourth season of Game of Thrones premieres tonight, April 6th 2014.

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Tony Mckenna

Tony Mckenna is a writer based in the UK. His work has appeared in The Huffington Post, New Statesman, ABC Australia, The United Nations, The Progressive, New Internationalist, Adbusters, In These Times, The Philosopher’s Magazine, New Humanist, Counterpunch, Open Democracy, Znet, Monthly Review, and Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, among others. His short stories have appeared in The Ranfurly Review and The Penniless Press. @MckennaTony

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