Game of Thrones is supposed to belong to a post-Tolkienian form of fantasy that dispenses with the pewter trappings of the high-fantastic sword-and-sorcery formula, where, in Miéville’s game, funny description, “morality is absolute, and political complexities conveniently evaporate. Battles are glorious and death is noble. The good look the part, and the evil are ugly. Elves are natural aristos, hobbits are the salt of the earth, and – in a fairyland version of genetic determinism – orcs are shits by birth. This is a conservative hymn to order and reason – to the status quo.” The GoT series’ creator, George R.R. Martin, obviously and self-confessedly mined actual history as inspiration—he notably cites the War of the Roses as a source.
As literature, his writing is no better than Tolkien. If Tolkien is, per Miéville, “like opera without the music,” then Martin is Tom Clancy without the helicopters. Workmanlike would be too much praise by half. But, like Tolkien, Martin manages despite the sentence-by-sentence weakness of his work, to maintain an impressively consistent air. Tolkien’s was dread and doom; Martin’s is fear and gloom. To his credit, his most beautiful and noble (in the genealogical sense) characters are often the ugliest and most irredeemably evil and cruel. He is a misogynist, but his misogyny is at least in service of his deliberate atmosphere of unrelenting brutality, unlike Tolkien, whose Pre-Raphaelite maidens gaze virginally out of their frames while fey, faygeleh menfolk seem ever on the verge of the wrestling scene from Women in Love.
Martin’s fantasy world is distinguished by its impossibly long seasons, each lasting many years, and there’s at least some passing mention of storing up food for the long winter that approaches. HBO’s version effectively forgot about this peculiarity of its fictive setting once it killed off the majority of its Northerners—the nobly flawed Stark family’s motto (its “words”, in the in-universe terminology) were, in fact, “Winter Is Coming.” That’s fine. The show’s first season was pretty good TV, an improvement, if you ask me, over Martin’s turbid and overlong volumes, and it helped that it had a compelling central plot. Good art is frequently made not in spite of formal constraints, but because of them. Martin’s York-and-Lancaster framework keeps the story from wandering too far into the weeds. The bad guys, such as they are, win in the end, which subverts the genre but not the narrative; in fact, when the shock of it passes, it feels inevitable, which is a mark of good storytelling.
Subsequent seasons have dissipated into a series of parodically violent picaresques with occasional jump-cuts to various scenes of sub-Verdian scheming nobility. I’ll leave aside, for the moment, the white girl, her brown army, and her three dragons on the other side of the world. By its end, the third season resembled nothing so much as the Black Knight sequence from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, though carried off with such an air of dourly amoral self-seriousness that I half expected Kevin Spacey to stop into the capital’s whorehouse and mention his Congressional campaign. The level of violence is cartoonishly absurd; I mean, we are in, like, Itchy and Scratchy territory, here. At one point, a warrior woman fights a bear. It isn’t meant as a punch line, yuk-yuk, but it is.
Now, as we enter the fourth season, the overwhelming question is: how do these people eat? Fiction, of course, necessarily dispenses with plenty of fundamentals of actual existence in order to force life into its linear format, and no one, not even Houellebecq, wants to write a novel in which everyone spends all of their time opening doors, sleeping, pooping, and remembering that they need to buy mouthwash and paper towels on the way home. But the world of Game of Thrones is meant, despite its fantasy-genre affect, to feel lived-in and real. No one stops to wonder, amidst the depopulated and desolate marches of Middle Earth, how Rohan gets all that meat and mead, any more than they do in the middle of Beowulf, but it is impossible, as we wander into one more Westerosi tavern, rape all of the women, kill the cook, and burn down the village, just how on earth these people, from peasants to princes, manage to fill their bellies from time to time.
The portrait of feudal society as unremittingly violent and bleak, a never-ending, failed-state, crypto-Hobbesian war of all against all, is the really fantastical element of all this, far more so than a trio of squabbling adolescent dragons. This is not to say that Europe between Rome and the Enlightenment was a Hobbit-y idyll, verdant and free of war, plague, and exploitation. It was not. And yet, this fundamentally agrarian society lasted for a millennium, with the various forms of feudalism as social mechanisms for organizing productive land and the Church, for all its earthly corruptions and abuses, serving a complementary social organizing role. What is the manor, after all, if not a farm? Lords may have exploited their peasantry, overworked them, and taken too large a share of the crop, but they didn’t devote quite so much time and effort to randomly and wantonly terrorizing, raping, and murdering them, because, after all, who else is going to till the fields? Warfare in medieval Europe was limited due to primitive technology and low population, but also by the demands of the fields. It would not do to destroy all of the farms. The fundamental activity of this society was feeding itself, not, I don’t know, not mindlessly murdering everybody all the time in incoherent wars of dynastic succession. Game of Thrones makes the very worst excesses of the Crusades an hourly occurrence, an entire civilization an unrelenting, pre-mechanized Stalingrad.
The criticism of Game of Thrones—that it is a violent, sexist, rape-fantasy farrago whose fantastical-historical setting is little more than moral excuse-making for the fact that it wants naked women to beat each other with spiked clubs—is now wholly correct. The proof of this is in the fact that it has not the slightest interest in engaging with or depicting an actually realized world. How many times must it be said: realism is not the quality of set design. Nothing about this world makes any sense, unless the world is taken only as a convenient exercise in excuse-making for the dullest sort of murder-rape fantasy. Its setting is a moral excuse constructed solely to absolve viewers of their own interest in a pornography of sexualized bloodshed. Even a show as crassly, unnecessarily gory as The Walking Dead, for all its silliness and perversity, challenges its audience with some vague hint of complicity; there, but for the grace of the fact there is no such thing as a zombie apocalypse, go we. Game of Thrones just gives an otherworldly hall pass to our own unseemly tastes.
UPDATE: Commenter Patrick links a great post from cool Tumblr People of Color in European Art History that covers similar territory, and better.