My Game of Thrones Problem

I’m normally not victimized, particularly not by pop culture. But I’m feeling more than a bit victimized by Game of Thrones (the books) and was separately asked this week by a buddy for an explanation as to why the series has become a mass phenomenon. That question is more important than my frustration, but I’ll address both and hope that readers will also give their perspective on what the series says about the zeitgeist.

But some general comments (and I’m writing this post so as to avoid providing plot spoilers). First, if you’ve only seen the HBO series, there appear to be some important differences (based on my having looked at clips of some key scenes), such as:

1. Way too many good looking people and much more emphasis on sex, nudity, and tight bodices in the TV version (even the characters depicted as uber ugly in the books, such as Tyrion and Brienne, are handsome)

2. The epic scenes can’t be replicated in the same scale in the TV version and lose some of their oomph (such as the book 1 finale). Haven’t seen enough to be sure but my sense is the violent scenes are more horrifying in the books (such as the golden crown scene, or as the carnage drags on, the frequent descriptions of rotting corpses). But the violence may come more frequently in the HBO version, so the net impact could be similar.

Second, George R.R. Martin is a skilled craftsman. It is well nigh impossible to predict where the plot is going, with the first three books routinely (one might say verging on gimmickry) having characters act in unanticipated ways that on reflection is still true to their personality. And the writing is vivid without being showy.

Third, despite the feudal setting, the motivations are completely modern. Even though there are codes of conduct imposed by honor and religion, hardly any of the characters give them much heed. The better ones are torn and often make bad decisions based on their conception of duty, or difficulties in reconciling what to do when their various duties conflict with each other (this particularly plagues the male Starks) or feel guilty about their failing to live up to their vows. But most of the characters are scheming for advancement and influence.

But….the series is amply, one might say overstocked, with sadists: Joffrey. Cersei. The Cleganes. The Red Viper. Euron Greyjoy. You have other characters who are so lacking in empathy that they aren’t quite as horrible as the first batch (as in they don’t appear to be gratuitously destructive), but they are ruthless to anyone who crosses them: Walder Frey. Tywin Lannister. Lysa Arryn. Petyr Baelish. Viserys. And because Martin gave Westeros pretty decent medical technology (women know how to abort pregnancies and everyone seems to know to sterilize wounds, pouring wine on injuries is a routine event) you have a large number of people who have been horrifically injured and mutilated living on to try to exact their revenge. But you also have characters you thought would anchor the series for its entirety and therefore to whom you were willing to become attached being killed off to solve plot problems.

If you aren’t familiar with the series, these two clips illustrate how the combo plate of plot surprises, brutality and offing of key personages hit unsuspecting audience members. HBO viewer reactions to the Red Wedding, which is when several important figures come to what one can politely call an untimely end, became a You Tube phenomenon. This is a comparatively short example:

And as much as the Jimmy Fallon “Game of Desks” parody is good fun, this one highlights how readers feel when characters drop like flies:

Now I am left wondering what I am getting out of these books. I’m almost done with the fourth. It and the fifth get much lower reader ratings than the first three, which the typical beefs being that they are much slower moving than the first ones. That doesn’t bother me (reading a lot of detailed social histories like those of Theodore Zeldin might have something to do with that). But I am disturbed by how the series, which was already pretty dark, seems to be getting even more lurid. Martin depicts how violence becomes routine as parts of the population sink into near starvation, brigands prowl the countryside, and dispossessed townspeople (“sparrows”) flock to churches, the bigger cities, and castles seeking what little security and food they might offer.


But uglier is the in-depth portrait of Cersei, who takes up more pages than any other character in book four, has managed to become the de facto ruler of the Iron Throne. It’s now not hard to understand how Joffrey turned out to be such a monster. She’s casually vicious and through her, Martin manages to work in some bits of savagery that outdo the Red Wedding. Is this something he thinks necessary, to keep surprising the reader with new forms of depravity?

Normally, the motivation for reading a novel is that the author presents at least some likable characters and you root for them and they eventually come out OK or if sadder and beaten up, still wiser. Or you run the tragedy arc: you create a compelling but fatally flawed character, or a decent character out of his depth, and you watch in distress as he gets run into the ground. But at least on the latter path you get catharsis. Medea, with all of its horror, still affirms that there is an underlying order, even though the wronged barbarian has completely torched her corner of it. By contrast, Game of Thrones increasingly becomes a war zone, and I’m beginning to wonder how a reader escapes getting a low-grade case of PTSD.

Maybe I’m still plodding on despite Martin’s cruelty to his characters because he still is a really good storyteller. I bailed out of the last big mass culture book series, Harry Potter, halfway through the second book, mystified as to what the appeal was.

But Game of Thrones also resonates a bit too closely for comfort to what I see in my day job: how people who are simply power-hungry can prevail over those who constrain themselves by trying to do the right thing (however difficult that might be to define), how lousy leaders can do a remarkable amount of damage in a short time, how the noble classes can insulate themselves from economic and physical wreckage and let ordinary people endure hunger, destruction of dwellings and towns, and pillage by wandering bandits. We don’t get much of a picture of Westeros before the wars among the king wannabes broke out, but we get lots of vignettes of the havoc of war: burning of the countryside, stolen livestock, townspeople tortured in case they know where gold is hidden, churches torn down, and plenty of rapes, murders, and mutilations. It was a once well-ordered, fairly well functioning society, and now that it’s been broken, it looks like it would take a long time to restore anything like the former order.

And winter is coming.

If you’ve stuck with Game of Thrones despite the pain factor, to what do you attribute the personal and cultural appeal? And if you’ve written it off, when and why did you do so?

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  1. Sam Foster

    The series is as you describe yet incredibly well written which keeps me hooked. I think I’m suffering a bit of a “sunk cost” fallacy as I’m already in so deep so I keep going.

    I generally feel the criticsm levelled at GoT is warranted it. it is how one responds to the things be criticized that determines whether one keeps going.

    I will warn you: The fifth book has unresolved cliffhangers that I found infuriating.

    1. Anon

      I started reading it well before it became fashionable and got televised.

      What kept me reading on one hand it is a silly trick by R.R. Martin: weaving chapters just so that each chapter ends in the middle of an unfinished crescendo.

      The other appeal was the constant friction between words said and thought – this is especially visible with Tyrion and Arya.

      Thirdly, there is the appeal of a universe darker than ours: waking from which is a relief.

      Fourth, there’s constant character inversion: characters with deplorable external appearance and seemingly deplorable deeds we can look into and see their much more humane, even compassionate motivations.

      All in one, not your usual series of books. I with R.R. Martin the best of health to finish what he began! ;-)

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          Yes, agreed, I neglected to mention that. And I don’t like horror as a genre. Enough gore and bad stuff in real life. I’m probably getting a worse dose of it by not being able to read the books in large chunks. I’ve chipped away at them over months when on the treadmill.

      1. b2020

        “What kept me reading on one hand it is a silly trick by R.R. Martin: weaving chapters just so that each chapter ends in the middle of an unfinished crescendo.”

        A very smart writer coined the term “zipper narrative” for this approach. He considered it a refuge of the scoundrel.

    2. TmOfTheNorth

      Ditto on your ‘unresolved cliffhangers’ from book 5. I found it rather frustrating that, after wading into the series much further than I intended, having made it thru the ordeal I was ultimately strung-along once again.

      1. Glenn Condell

        The fear is that Martin will cark it before he gets around to tying up the loose ends. Who would they get to complete the unfinished last instalment?

        1. Linden

          The go-to guy for projects like that seems to be Brian Sanderson. I kind of wish he’d take this one over right now; I think Martin’s been hacking around in the weeds with the last two books.

  2. LizinOregon

    I haven’t read or watched Game of Thrones out of an aversion to spending time in fantasy violence when real life seems to serve up enough of the real thing. That said, I am intrigued by your description of the ruthlessly amoral winning out over those trying to do the right thing. It does sound very close to our current situation.

    In my fantasy world, tilting at windmills wins in the end. I’m not sure how I would go on if I lost the belief that good wiill out.

    Call me naive, but….

    1. TK421

      “It does sound very close to our current situation.”

      Indeed. If someone wants to read about horrible people getting away with doing horrible things, there’s always newspapers.

  3. Greenguy

    I think GoT is decidedly interesting because Martin creates a Machiavellian world (or perhaps just a realistic world) where being good doesn’t guarantee safety, unlike the majority of fantasy stories. There’s no hero safe for very long (nor can we really call anyone a hero per se, just perhaps less odious than the next perons). After being saturated with Lord of the Rings fantasies perhaps an adult audience appreciates the difficulty and nuance of GoT?

    1. Glenn Condell

      ‘I am intrigued by your description of the ruthlessly amoral winning out over those trying to do the right thing.’

      It’s Gresham’s Law writ larger than just finance. There will always be intimidation and skulduggery where advantage can be gained. A civilised society has managed to control these animal spirits, to regulate on behalf of the rest with the force of the state behind it. Over time cracks appear and ruthless amorality racks up more wins until eventually the dynamic has flipped and only those who transgress the rules can get ahead, or even survive. Chaos ensues until people en masse get angry enough to re-impose order.

      ‘I think GoT is decidedly interesting because Martin creates a Machiavellian world (or perhaps just a realistic world) where being good doesn’t guarantee safety, unlike the majority of fantasy stories.’

      Spot on. It dramatises our situation – the pirates keep winning, and strut the world stage without a glove being laid upon them.

      1. Nathanael

        But he’s missing the ruthlessly moral.

        The element which gave us Emperor Augustus. And Lenin. And Mao.

        Some better writers than Martin have remembered to introduce the ruthlessly moral (who, by the way, do tend to eventually rise to the top in a Machiavellian society like this). Sounds like Martin is missing them.

                  1. Glenn Condell

                    What about Gandhi? Ruthlessly moral non-violence?

                    How would Mahatma have coped in Westeros?

                    1. vlade

                      You mean that Gandhi who said “If we had the atom bomb, we would have used it against the British”, or “Violence is any day preferable to impotence”?

        1. evodevo

          What about the Red Witch, Melisandre – seems to me she represents Puritanical/fanatical religious fervor allied with magic. Don’t know about the moral aspect, though. Give me a secular moral person any day over a Puritan.

          1. Jerry

            Just wait until we see the real power of The High Sparrow.

            So far, it doesn’t seem he and his followers have any magical skills.

            But, the Sparrow has a growing army. And absolute faith in his mission. And no fear of Westeros’ established powers.

  4. Emma

    “If you’ve stuck with Game of Thrones despite the pain factor, to what do you attribute the personal and cultural appeal? And if you’ve written it off, when and why did you do so?”
    Thanks for putting this out Yves. I’m perplexed by the massive popularity and following of the show and I’ve tried watching the it once or twice but found no seraphic pleasure in it at all.
    I think Game of Thrones is less worthwhile than a blunt knife curled in on itself.
    With regards to the personal and cultural appeal, it would appear that as long as a TV show entails sex and violence, such a combination will always attract a large number of viewers seeking amusement. This leads to advertising and a sustainable business model in the world of TV blossoms.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      But the books were best sellers before the TV series, and the sex is no where near as prominent as in the HBO rendition.

      1. Emma

        HBO has recognized that the readers of GoT will not be precisely the same as the viewing audience for GoT. It’s as if the readers sought Casanova-like creativity whilst the viewers sought Sade-like repetition. HBO is giving the punters what they want so the abyss between HBO shows and other channels reality shows is not the wide gaping hole we’d like to pretend it is.

      2. F. Beard

        Yep, count on HBO to sex it up. Did the same thing to “Deadwood.”

        I get HBO for free somehow though I’ve informed the cable company.

        GOT is apparently set on an alien world. I was hoping there’d be a clue how humans got there.

  5. Howard Beale IV

    Why read/watch a fantasy when reality makes GoT incredibly tame and lame by comparison?

  6. TR

    I know that concerns over fiction,religion,sports,having babies & the latest tech gadgits are prime concerns. I wonder if priorties will change when,while we are splashing our feet, the Black Swan of Global Financial Cataclysm suddenly appeares directly in front of us or we realize that we’ve entered the black hole of Near Term Extinction?

    How foolish am I? Everyone knows that nothing will ever affect Exceptional,Entitled America.

    1. LizinOregon

      Its hard to dispute your point after reading the NYT article on aluminum shuffled from one warehouse to another by Goldman Sachs to drive up world price. If anyone still needed proof modern finance is the vampire sucking the blood from the real economy, this article is it.

  7. Too Many Pseudonyms

    “I’m beginning to wonder how a reader escapes getting a low-grade case of PTSD.”

    You know that far worse takes place in our own world on a daily basis, and to real people, right? Martin’s broad fantasy fluff is no more shocking than your average Jacobean revenge drama, with all of the attendant rapes, murders, mutilations and madness. And unlike ourselves, audiences of four centuries ago weren’t living in a post-Christian West, and presumably had some sense of a ultimately benevolent moral order to be shaken.

    Why is GoT (the show) popular? It’s a soap opera for people who would never deign to watch soap operas unless it was legitimized by HBO with the requisite middlebrow flourishes. Oh, and tits.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I’m well aware that bad stuff happens a lot. You can see that from the daily links section. The stuff in business, which is the tame end of the spectrum, is pretty vile these days, and that’s before you get to war zones and human rights abuses.

      In case you missed it, most Americans are either stressed or depressed. Why would entertainment like this be appealing?

      As a student of history and literature in the modern era, popular novels haven’t often made depravity one of their most prominent features. By contrast, and I’d have to check my timelines, the Jacobean era still had public executions, cock fighting and bear baiting as forms of entertainment. Even though we have a lot of gore in action movies, those follow a prototypical “good guy beats the bad guys into a pulp” so most of the time you’ve still got a clear moral frame beneath the gore. I don’t see this as hewing well to established patterns for a mass scale popular phenomenon in recent times (the nearest parallel I can think of is of course the Sopranos, but this has a much bigger reach, and before that, the aiming to be more highbrow I Claudius). For instance, is Les liasons dangereuses, the main characters are unabashedly cruel and manipulative, but they wind up victims of their scheme. That’s the far more typical arc when you have amoral characters depicted in such great detail.

      Even though I’m soldiering on, I’m not sure I understand the point of reading about mainly horrid characters in novelistic form. You can get plenty of that by reading history and actually LEARN something too. The last time I recall reading about this much ugly behavior was Jonathan Glover’s book Humanity in which he tried to understand why so much truly terrible stuff happened in the 20th century (his argument was that the level of large scale depravity was a marked increase from the 19th century, and put the idea of progress into question). He took a whole bunch of Bad Shit, including Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin, Hiroshima (this is an incomplete list) and managed to find some incidents that had not been widely recounted in other histories to make the various horrors fresh. He also had a very few (depressingly few) case studies of disasters averted. At least in reading that I knew I was going to deal with some ugly material for the purpose of edification. I don’t see this as educational, and I’m finding it less and less entertaining. I have the feeling that like protracted period of war, this series will end not because there is a good resolution but because so much in resources and life has been lost that the opponents run out of steam and call it quits.

      1. Charles LeSeau

        “have the feeling that like protracted period of war, this series will end not because there is a good resolution but because so much in resources and life has been lost that the opponents run out of steam and call it quits.

        My prediction is that it will just be a long and painful slog to a traditional good guy wins ending of the bittersweet LoTR variety, with some probable twists like CAREFUL, READERS: HERE BE SPOILERS —> Arya being hired to kill someone she would rather not in her previous existence, etc. Some things seem to me destined to coalesce. The white walkers are killed with fire or obsidian; dragons just happen to breathe fire. Hmm…
        At any rate, it would be a strange thing to subject people to 7000 pages of material only to have evil completely triumph or every single decent character die. That’s just not how it’s done.

      2. Susan the other

        “… run out of steam and call it quits.” +100. Like some farty old Hells Angels. I’m not familiar with GoT but I did do my share of hitchiking in my early 20s when everyone’s brains had turned to worms. I got a ride with two out-of-their-mind-lice-infested dudes in an old car with California license plates. They stopped to stretch their legs and wander along a creek and one of them started doing a desperate chant and moving his arms in weird ways and he pulled out of his pocket a human finger. At which point I slipped off into the trees and waited till they drove away. And then I flagged down another ride. The insanity is always there. But the next driver comes along. And so often is a really nice guy.

      3. GreenEngineer

        I’ve been a fan of the books since long before HBO got a hold of them. I think the thing I find most compelling is the variety and complexity of the characters. You’ve got sadistic evil, and you’ve got the principled-but-fatally-flawed. But you also have quite a few morally ambiguous characters, and you see characters who were monsters transform into reasonably decent people – believably!

        I’m also very much a fan of the TV show, and I think that overall they’ve done a fantastic job with it. The changes you note are of course there, and pretty much to be expected. (Of course they’re going to pretty-up Tyrion, etc.)

        I think they’ve also done a good job keeping the primary characters true to the original – many scenes are taken directly from the books. For those scenes which are invented by the show, they mostly feel true to form – like this was something that happened in the books, but Martin just didn’t write it up because the books are already too damn long.

        But I feel like they’ve simplified many of the other characters. My biggest complaint with the TV show is that they have made many of the supporting characters much less morally ambiguous. For example, Littlefinger is painted as entirely despicable and ruthless, while Varys is presented as ruthless but clearly motivated by higher purpose. While both of these alignments are in keeping with these characters in the books, they are much more clear-cut and less ambiguous in the TV show. Which I suppose is unsurprising.

      4. KnotRP

        Reminds me of the Bourne series of books….the writing is engaging, so you wade in, and then the sunk costs keep you going through the violence and the action scenes are well depicted, so you figure the trip must be heading some where fantastic. And then you finally get strung along long enough
        that the con becomes apparent: the author has nothing more up his sleeve than eatyourbloodsoakedovaltine. You’ve just been taken for a amusement ride to nowhere, and have lost a little
        time and money for your trouble.

        Reminds me of “24”…I heard so much about it, I netflixed it….but netflix permits back-to-back episode watching (to catch up, of course), only you quickly realize, by watching 4 episodes all at once, that the dose of violence was measured at the maximum tolerance a normal person could take in a single week…yet, netflix injects a 4 week does in 4+ hours. And you get predictably ill. Viscerally ill.
        You can tell this show is not good for your mental health,
        because the over-dosage makes it all too clear…

        Mostly, this is business people leveraging your limbic system to hook you…

        Try watching a half day marathon of GoT…you might just puke.

      5. psmith

        Though a lot of fiction can be seen as escapist entertainment or morally uplifting, or at least morally neutral, you don’t have to look far for examples of bleak, disturbing fiction that paints the world with a dark brush. (I think of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories as painting a very grim, though amusing, portrait of American life.) I guess your question is why are these novels (which I have not read) so very popular, flying off the shelves and being turned into a TV series? As Sarah Caudwell says, “it seems to us that the readers who want fiction to be like life are considerably outnumbered by those would would like life to be like fiction.”

        I’m not sure that there are *no* precedents for a popular novel that is as violent as Jacobean drama. I have not read Richardson’s Clarissa, seen as a prototype of the modern novel, but I believe it works with some of the same material. Some of Defoe is very disturbing. Looking at the nineteenth-century novel, there is nothing about the recent financial crisis you can’t find in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend or Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. Victorian genre fiction gave us Sweeney Todd, a grim little capitalist fable which still enjoys currency today. Ford Maddox Ford presented the middle ages as cruel and violent in Ladies Whose Bright Eyes (where a businessman from the twentieth-century is transported back in time and copes surprisingly well in that cut-throat milieu). Some of Mary Renault’s historical fiction is quite dark (though also praised by classicists for its accuracy). American detective fiction of the hard-boiled school presented life as brutal and short and we still see echos of this genre on TV today (along with its English counterpart, where brutal murders are routinely committed by the respectable and the well-to-do.)

        In any case, I’m sorry to hear you’ve been so upset by a work of fiction, but it does happen! Sometimes you don’t figure out why a novel got under your skin until some time has passed. Even if there seems nothing edifying about the created world, the fact that it made such a vivid impression is at least a tribute to the author’s imagination.

    2. Patricia

      Too Many: I couldn’t finish the books because I _have_ PTSD. The series isn’t only an exploration of societies run by sociopaths/narcissists but tells readers over and over that those types will always win. And it drags readers through the details of their triumph. Repeatedly in full spectrum.

      Tales like these are useful to give form to the dark undercurrents of experience (they’re tragedies) but when the tale pronounces doom over and over, it becomes just another way to increase the passivity of despair. And when done well, as is GOT, the impact is stronger.

      Tits just makes the scenarios more intimate.

      1. TK421

        “but tells readers over and over that those types will always win”

        Many boosters of this series claim that it is superior because it shows “how the world really is.” But we wouldn’t be able to spend hours sitting in a comfortable chair in a safe neighborhood with plenty of electric light if the bad guys always win. Even the depths of the Dark Ages had the Magna Carta. Human history tends toward progress, fitfully and with setbacks, sure, but that kind of despair is unsupportable.

        1. diptherio

          “…we wouldn’t be able to spend hours sitting in a comfortable chair in a safe neighborhood with plenty of electric light if the bad guys always win” ~TK421

          Maybe it is we who are the bad guys…or if not quite that, then maybe our comfort is derived from the winnings of bad guys.

          They may not always win, but the unscrupulous do generally enjoy a competitive advantage when contending with the scrupulous.

          1. Patricia

            Yes, but I’m talking about good in the fundamental sense, not “Well, I’ve been a protected USian and that’s why life looks good to me.”

            I was raised by an abusing Calvinist pastor and it was hell. In that situation, “good” is understood to be whatever is whole and nurturing. One day it might be the kindness of one’s sibling, on another day merely the quiet persistence of the immense oak tree one sees from one’s window. When things are just terrible, one may find simple delight only in the persistence of gravity. Underlying it, not even hope perhaps, but a sense that what is good and nurturing is what is worth living for, worth fighting for.

            This general sense is missing in GOT, in my opinion. That’s why, it seems to me, it promotes a passive despair. It’s good to face shit, to face it clearly, but it’s a step further to then promote it as what drives society and life.

            1. Nathanael

              Hmm. If Martin has some sense, the bad guys will *all* die in the winter because they didn’t prepare for it, and an entirely different crop of people will take over, people who are more capable of long-term thinking.

              There are actually subtle hints of this, but I don’t know if he’s clever enough to do it.

            2. F. Beard

              I was raised by an abusing Calvinist pastor and it was hell. Patricia

              Very sorry to hear that.

              I don’t find the Calvinist position to be Scriptural, btw. Uncertainty about my own salvation has kept me in check better than a false assurance used to. Of course, if one perseveres …

          2. Evan

            Big stretch to say the series shows evil wins. Long way to go. Dramatic structure encourages darkness before light. Consider fate of slavers. Some of the wheels will turn. Soon. Martin has said ending will be bittersweet. Be patient.

        2. b2020

          “how the world really is”

          NSA spying, torture, corruption – yeah, we know it all. We might get a raw deal and do nothing about it, but we are not naive, we are *aware*. This is the meta-version of learned helplessness.

          Based on book one of GoT, I can believe that habituation to the “sound of inevitability” and affirmation of jaded “whatcanyadoo” cynicism are part of the dynamics, even if Martin might not see them as part of the recipe.

    3. Nathanael

      “Martin’s broad fantasy fluff is no more shocking than your average Jacobean revenge drama, ”

      There’s something missing though. Jacobean sensibilities were informed by the memory of Cromwell, and a few decades later the Glorious Revolution came. The sensibility is fine as far as it goes, but it always feels like there is something unspoken in the background, looming.

      What is that for Game of Thrones?

  8. fatmoron

    Personally, I love the HBO show of GoT. I think the sets and costumes are fantastic, and I think the acting is top notch. I don’t mind that Tyrion is less hideous than in the book — when I’m watching, I’m completely immersed. I cannot give enough props to the actors and actresses on that show.

    For me, the thing that keeps me interested is that the world seems realistic enough. Sure, there be dragons and such, but they’re comparatively rare enough that most of the world still has to get by with swords and wits and deal with things as best they can. I’m always interested in that interplay of how people would act if things were different (it’s probably the same reason I’m a sci-fi junkie).

  9. Tim Mason

    Sounds exactly like the early Angevins. Fulke Nerra or Fulke the Ill-Tempered would feel themselves at home.

  10. J Sterling

    I guess it’s the same appeal as those fictionalized versions of real history that grab the audiences, which seem to home in on the sordid periods of history: I, Claudius (book and BBC series), HBO Rome, HBO Tudors, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall etc. etc.

    The ultimate show would be “Roman Tudor Dragon Borgias”, but Martin seems to have most of that covered already.

  11. Pogonip

    I lost interest somewhere in book five, in which it became clear that Martin had also lost interest and was propelled onward only by obligation. The book should have been called “A Fulfilling of Contractual Obligations.”

    Hard as it may to believe, Cersei has at least one fan. Shortly after book 5 came out, I ran onto a web site that sternly advised commenters that anyone saying she deserved the Walk of Shame would be immediately banned.

  12. PaperMoon

    Game of thrones is also like modern society in another way. Their leading ideologies: chivalry and the religion of the seven gods or whatever it’s called, feel antiquated and unjustified. As if hundreds of years ago people had real reasons to live their lives in this way, but now all of those reasons have been forgotten. People aren’t really bound by those rules any more and they’re just living by them through habit.

    The sadists and the amoral all have an advantage because they realise, unwittingly or not, that the rules do not apply any more, and they can do anything they want.

    D’you ever get the feeling that politicians don’t really believe in democracy, that they’re just going through the motions? Hell even socialists and capitalists seem like a faint joke of what they used to be. No one has any idea what they want society to look like.

    I think as the books continue, the sparrows and Daenerys are going to represent an ideology that people will enforce even if only as an alternative to chaos. And that’s where the books differ to reality. In reality no one has stood up and said, “i know how to make the world a better place, and i’ll fight for it”.

    1. diptherio

      In reality no one has stood up and said, “i know how to make the world a better place, and i’ll fight for it”.

      In reality, it seems like everyone from the Pentagon to the jihadis and born-again Xians does this. I think the problem is that so many are willing to fight for their ideas, but very few are willing to be peaceful for them.

      1. Susan the other

        Agree. It’s instructive to observe Occupy. They are willing to be peaceful for their ideas. They have been remarkable successful making the rest of us think. Yet for all their effectiveness, people are disappointed that there was no big showdown.

  13. JaaaaayCeeeee

    Haven’t read nor seen GoT, so I can idiotically speculate. Are most people depressed or stressed if, since 2010 or so, most who would town hall their Congressman have jobs they don’t fear losing along with everything else, at any moment (which had been pervasive)? People don’t seem to worry so much about the risks piling up in our economy, and the news just keeps on claiming that meritocracy works, those people (Detroit?) cause their own problems, you just have to reinvent yourself constantly, college always pays off, while ignoring or explaining away the percent employed and underemployed, the continual lowering of median wage, and McDonalds tells workers to get a second job and learn how make budgets that don’t add up work, while ignoring budgets stuck in DC, where 2 out of 3 don’t add up either.

    Since the very real risks are still out there, ignored, maybe the diversion of soapy boobs or how people act if things are different, or feeling more exceptional, entitled, or moral than vipers, is enough?

    Railing against cannibalism and seed corn eating (with shrinking seed diversity) requires a pretty earnest hope that we should do better, despite a politics built to ignore consequences, accountability, and the future. Better chance of shoring up a sense of relative moral superiority by watching GoT on TV? Or is it just soapy boobs? Or how people act if things are different?

  14. craazyman

    sounds like this guy Martin is a total sicko. Is he still on the loose or have they tracked him down yet and put him behind bars (Or in a padded room)? He named a character Euron Baljoy? I mean really. That alone should make a moral person wince and a true lady blush red as a rose. Probably best not to wade any farther into this morbid cesspool of madness and voluptuous depravity. But if its too late, read some Shakespeare or the Bible. Nothing like this would ever happen there!! :)

    1. Erik

      That’s actually a mashup of two brothers, Euron Greyjoy and Balon Greyjoy. There is no Balljoy.

      1. craazyman

        that’s too bad for the ladies.


        OK, I guess we don’t have to arrest him after all. Just censor and ban his books and give him a ticket for for “praxeological prevarication”. If it happens again it’s the padded cell. No fooling around.

      2. Yves Smith Post author

        Aargh, I knew that was probably wrong, but I didn’t take the time to check (he’s only been in about 2 chapters so far). Will fix.

  15. YankeeFrank

    I do enjoy the series (I’ve only watched it — tried to listen to the audio books and couldn’t get past the changing perspectives and frankly, lame writing), but I’m an inveterate fantasy/sci-fi junky from my earliest days. Grew up on Lord of the Rings, etc. Game of Thrones is a long-running serial fantasy that is done with amazing detail, acting chops, and general quality. There has been nothing of the sort ever attempted before.

    Add to that the fact that it stands most of the standard fantasy tropes on their heads, and its frank resemblance to the real world, especially of the middle/dark ages, plus beautiful actors, costumes and sets — all of which draws in an additional audience that normally doesn’t give fantasy the time of day. The LoTR movies were huge successes too, but they are THE classic fantasy series.

    There is a seriousness to GoT that you just don’t see in most “realistic” dramas, and especially in fantasy. It addresses the very real fact that the good guys usually lose. Is it any wonder that in an era when a large portion of Americans see that the game is fixed, that we are routinely tricked and controlled by the powerful, that those same powers get away with horrendous wrongdoing, and in fact get rewarded for it, that we would like a show that doesn’t insult our intelligence with regard to these things?

    Our “democracy”, such as it was, has been hollowed out to the point of meaninglessness. There is immense hopelessness and despair that there is anything we can do to change the path we have been forced upon, and we have to just watch it play out and hope that some of the good prevails. Just like Game of Thrones.

    So there is a contradiction too, which is that we are escaping into a world that actually resembles our own to a great extent. And perhaps, even with all the doom and hopelessness in GoT, its better than our world because we actually get a seat at the table, and can actually hope for something better to come, because we can see where it might come from (Daenerys for example) and watch it happen.

    In a related way, the sophistication of GoT is enticing. We, as Americans, are growing up as a society. Our optimism, while ever-present, has taken a beating. We are becoming wiser and losing some of our innocence. Watching the catastrophe at the end of this last season would, in the past, have ruined the show — most fans would’ve bailed. But not today. GoT is part of this zeitgeist.

    1. TK421

      ” its frank resemblance to the real world, especially of the middle/dark ages”

      The middle ages were bad, but they weren’t THAT bad.

      1. YankeeFrank

        Actually, much of Martin’s work is derived from actual historical events. Much of the Stark v. Lannister “feud” is derived from the War of the Roses. And “The Red Wedding” was inspired by the “The Black Dinner” that occurred in 1440’s Scotland. And the king who presided over the Black Dinner was King James of Scotland, who was 10 years old at the time, so its actually kind of worse than the Red Wedding. Those were bloody times and medieval politics were that treacherous… and we haven’t even mentioned the Vikings and the Plague.

        1. Linden

          All those things happened over centuries, however. Martin has collapsed them all into a matter of months.

          1. Brick

            One should not forget the 30 years of purest, darkest winter in Europe. A lieftime of hell for large parts of the continent.

            Here is Pappenheim describing the complete destruction of Magdeburg:

            “I believe that over twenty thousand souls were lost. It is certain that no more terrible work and divine punishment has been seen since the Destruction of Jerusalem. All of our soldiers became rich. God with us.”


            There is basically no humanity in those words. He actually seemed quite proud of his terrible work.

            Of course, the Thirty Years’ War did happen after the middle ages but it was very condensed and complete suffering. Those that were not directly affected by the war still faced famines due to the cold weather during the little ice age. Witch hunting was widespread. The black death was brought to northern Italy by the troops, killing 280.000.

    2. jrs

      Going from naive optimism to learned helplessness somehow doesn’t seem to entail any kind of positive real growth.

  16. Moneta

    I often wondered why lullabies were so violent. Was it a reflection of how hard their lives were or to prepare the kids for the hardships that were sure to come?

    Maybe there is a parallel…

  17. Paul Tioxon

    I was told that there was a really good series in the SciFi-Fantasy world that would appeal to me because of the complex social/political plot lines. I never did read the books, but when the show came on, I bought the DVD set for the first season, and then the 2nd and now I have hbo still running because of the series. I read non-fiction and watch movies for fiction. This works for me.





    Artists know more than we can think about the mystery of our human existence and getting to point, the alpha and the omega of things will hook our hearts and minds. I really love the show and as a fully acculturated American male, really dig all of the naked chicks. And the random acts of violence and death are more realistic. But, yes, this seems to be a society, that after many years of sunlit skies and bountiful harvests, is headed down some dark “b” phase of Kondritiev waves.

    The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse are all present:

    Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death.

    But this is the story of the elites, and their lives play out the game of thrones. And for good reason, the king has absolute power. That everyone agrees. Except, when they don’t and a king slayer sets the chaos in motion all over again, but only because he was a mad king. This is a study of power, a description of what absolute power looks like in the hands of one role, the king, an office that any man can fill. And by uniform consent, do as he pleases, no matter the consequence. Or the horror, or the immorality or depravity. It is a study in power for those far from the center of power, how power can be taken and held. And it is a study in power for those in the immediate court, surrounding the king and the iron throne, and how personal power can be mined from that relationship without resort to slaying the king in order to acquire it.

    Machiavellism in GoT is present in how to rule but he is also present in how to wage war. “THE ART OF WAR” BY NICOLO MACHIAVELLI is among his writings, and the specifics of military organization are now archaic, but the discussion of soldiers and citizens and society discussed in that book make it a companion to “THE PRINCE”. Most well read people assume there is only one art of war, by the Chinese author, but war is universal and The West has it’s own contribution to make on this point.

    We can see naked power practiced without having to hear an earful from the other side. And this GoT is more realistic in its lack of guile in disguising what goes on from the commanding heights of power in that fictional kingdom, than the petty back and forth we have to endure when discussing politics in our republic. At least we get to see life as it is, rather than the TV version of the world with happy endings, filled with basically decent people who never really find themselves in terrible situations where they have to choose between personal betrayal and the destruction of those close to them and their own survival. Most of us just had to grow up, go to school, go to work and do our jobs. Paying the bills on time, keeping our kids out of trouble and standing with friends and family in good times and bad. But how bad were the bad times compared to Westeros? Until now. We are typically given not very upbeat novels to read in high school and college so we are at least psychologically prepared, if not emotionally, to confront life when we finally exit childhood. We need to get some life lessons without the burns and scars of living before we have to go out on our own. But now, how do you prepare for the Great Depression and WWII? How do you prepare for 21st Century global pandemics, economic collapse and state sponsored political oppression directed against its own citizens? TV and movies are a good place to start.

    1. Moneta

      The question though is why now and not in the mid-90s?

      Are the artists feeling that now is the right time to start preparing for endings that are not happy?

      IMO, quite telling in US of A.

      1. diptherio

        Perhaps it’s because the mid-90s were an economic boom time (relatively speaking), so the old saccharine storylines still felt like they might have some validity. Nowadays, that illusion is a rather difficult one to maintain, for both authors and audiences. (although Christopher Booker traces these disturbing trends in modern storytelling back quite a ways in his book The Seven Basic Plots).

      2. Dr. Hackenbush


        It’s not up to the artists. HBO is not an “artist,” nor are the financial interests it serves.

        The artists depend on the money-men for funding, and the money-men don’t fund something unless it suits their cultural agenda somehow, or at least doesn’t offend it. has some good articles up right now about the relation between “cultural production” and capitalism…

        1. Paul Tioxon

          Dr H,
          HBO controls the gateway to widespread consumption via its distribution agreements with the cable industry and its sterling production values. That much is true. But if you think HBO controls artists, that is not what the cultural apparatus of capitalism refers to. The Monthly Review has always provided excellent work about economics and the political economy of America. Art as commodity, with gate keepers in the large media conglomerates has kept network TV at such mind numbing level, that you could have completely avoided it for decades and not missed anything at all. HBO and other cable channels are making a reputation for producing watchable and now, even artfully crafted works of beauty, that could never have existed on network TV, due primarily to the sponsors who pay for the programming.

          Now, we the consumer pay for the programming and more so on the premium channels which have little to no ads. Sponsors which call the tune on free TV are not in control. The series about prison, “OZ”, could not be anything but an indictment of the penal system with the inhuman cruelty and unspeakable violence and corruption on full display. Another channel has run the history of the slave rebellion of the Roman Empire in “SPARTACUS”. That historically based drama is the bloodiest and most sexual portrayal of human struggle you are ever likely to see. TV critics deride it as a “slut and sandals” epic, but the picture of a slave based economy is unblinking. It is almost unwatchable due to the animal portrayal of humans in their inhumanity to slaves. A grisly slave revolt with bloody revenge built into every episode is not what people in power would like to promote on any level.

          Newspapers and magazines in this country based upon ad revenue are being decimated. In Europe, where the news publishing contains little ad revenue but higher prices show that people will pay for information, that they value it. Art is also supported in this country directly by people who pay to hear music, see plays, dance and other performance art, without commercial support or the interference it brings.

          Bertold Brecht figured out a way to produce subversive art that was performed in full view of the public, working around the cultural gatekeepers. Many cable shows are doing the same thing. “BOSS”, about the mayor of Chicago, the fictional Tom Kane, could not be a more damning picture of total corruption beyond redemption. Something not normally on display for fear of offending the public and the “word from our sponsor”, who pays the bills.

          The above clip, “YOU DON’T MATTER” sums up dependency theory as delivered to the subaltern who tried to play a role in power move against the “BOSS”.

          1. Dr. Hackenbush

            Good point about HBO funded by viewers. Can it really be as pure and good as you describe though? Are there really no gate-keepers, the viewers get exactly what they demand? If so, part of this could be that it’s a minority (better off) audience, who require more sophisticated bread & circuses (granted that may be too simplistic/bluntly put.)

            Maybe it is a more direct conduit between artists and audience, I ‘ll give you that (I don’t have HBO, and not inclined that much to seek out the DVDs.)

            Are there other levels of meaning here the shows convey though? “Gee, at least our miserable lives are better than those of the Sopranos/Roman slaves/GoT etc. We’ve got it pretty good actually…”

            1. Paul Tioxon

              I am not in possession of a purity meter, so HBO, as opposed to being a crypto fascist mind control box for the pathetic masses who are hopelessly ensnared by inauthentic consciousness, are simply producing artistic quality for people whose lives are enriched by the arts. A one dimensional political analysis that denounces everything that is NOT a critical deconstruction of the superstructure of oppression leading to immediate revolutionary change is counter-productive. My life is not culturally deprived and I can budget some time to relax, if that is all right with commie pinko HQ?

              And so do other people. The fact that there is so much crap and so little Soprano’s or Spartacus is the problem, not people using it as crutch to fabricate a comparative advantage with self satisfaction as a coping mechanism. I find too much personal hostility among my political compadres masking as substance. I am a man, not a political enzyme, and a product of my times. I am aware that I am a product of my times, and this gives me critical distance to absorb art on my own terms, and not just assume that is the way the world is and can not ever change into something different and with the right amount of struggle, into something better. If you have a political analysis that basically rejects nearly all art as bourgeosie false consciousness, just say so. I find art in general can be useful in understanding politics is ways that scholars have used to great effect. David Harvey’s “PARIS: THE CAPITAL OF MODERNITY”, is an example of Marxist economic analysis with literature from Hugo, illustrations and photos of Paris, that serve to bring a stunning analysis of urban renewal to life in a way that pie charts just can’t.

  18. LAS

    First rate marketers know how to get people to consume practically anything that has been professionally packaged. Quite often they have psychology PhDs and neuro-science helping in the design.

    Why do so many people buy into lotteries when the odds are stacked hugely against them? Rational thinking says don’t buy, but then rational thinking is disregarded. I think people get great entertainment value from imagining what it would be like to win the lottery, however remote the possibility. People seem to enjoy this imaginative exercise so much that it is the real factor in lottery ticket purchase.

    Why is entertainment with perpetual violence consumed? It seems to indulge a death wish in young adults, permitting them to vicariously submit to de-humanizing destructive force. There may be a death wish in their own breast they’re not ready to deal with and that is better managed by watching/reading a projected, commercial personification.

    1. TK421

      At the risk of sounding unduly cynical, I often can’t help but think that if people here lots of other people say something is good, they will not only consume it themselves but actually make themselves believe that it is, in fact, good. Marketing is definitely a part of that.

    2. rps

      “Why is entertainment with perpetual violence consumed?”

      Good question. The USA entertainment industry and current literature (a term used loosely here) has force-fed the population horrific male physical and pornographic/sexualized fantasy violence. Especially, the popular tv dramas that begin with raping and murdering of women(ex: The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo); while re-enforcing and iconizing aggressive male predatory behaviors with sensory audio and visual as the how-to manuals. Since Columbine, we know the suggestibility of ‘cool’ fantasy violence triggers the highly immature, impressionable and maleable adolescent male brains. Particularly, the prefrontal cortex of teenage boys whose brains are in the process of radical maturation development learning executive functions/”good judgement” up until the age of 25. The matured prefrontal cortex oversees and regulates the behavioral responses initiated by the more primitive limbic brain structures.

      Simply, the next question; what is the purpose of the psychological Programmed hard-wiring of the male brain circuitry with aggressive violent behaviors? Also,the hardwiring of women’s brains to response with: fear, submission and subjugation towards men? What we do know -the primitive limbic brain circuitry system becomes hardwired like Pavlov’s dogs to respond towards ‘fantasy’ violence with the reward of physical gratification/pleasure of neuro-chemical brain induced highs: endorphins, serotonin and dopamine that we know of so far. The violence response/gratification Program wiring of the brains neurons/synapses/receptors are for the most part, the same as doing dope; both alter the brains neuro-chemical activity looking for the next high.

  19. diptherio

    GoT is only one iteration of these themes in contemporary drama. The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, the Tudors, The Borgias etc…

    I think the reason for these dark stories’ popularity is that people sense that we are living in dark times, few believe in heroes anymore or the ideologies that have supposedly guided us in the past. Our cultural mythology is showing signs of wear and the prevalence of these tales of unscrupulous protagonists and sympathetic ‘bad guys’ is one of the results.

    There is a widespread understanding, though it still lies beneath the level of consciousness in many, that though we (the US) claim to be the good guys, we are not always good. Because of this (perhaps) we have created not only flawed heroes, but also sympathetic villains. We can no longer identify with anodyne, angelic protagonists, since we are beginning to recognize ourselves as far from angelic–there is no place for a Michael Landon among our contemporary archetypes.

    On the other hand, while we no longer identify with lily-white heroes we do identify with contemporary anti-heroes. We are keen to unearth the humanity of our villains, to find the justification for their actions, to declare that “they’re not all bad.” And why is this? I think it is because many now understand (though, again, largely on a subconscious level) that the US is now much closer to being a villain on the world-stage than a hero. We have become suddenly interested in the love lives of vampires and the personal dilemmas of mob-bosses because we see ourselves as being closer to these monsters than to our consummately ethical heroes of days past.

    We want to know that even ‘bad guys’ have some humanity because we are trying to convince ourselves of our own humanity, despite the monstrous things we do.

    1. Dan Kervick

      I think you are probably right about the zeitgeist, but on the other hand there is something to be said for the idea that people mainly “sense” what the entertainment industries guide us into sensing.

      Game of Thrones, which I have never seen or read, sounds perfectly calibrated to convince everyone that aspiration is doomed and always leads only to failure and death. The perfect formula for immobilizing people.

      1. YankeeFrank

        I could easily argue that GoT shows exactly what happens when power is unaccountable, and acts as a warning and ethical story line for what we need to avoid in our society.

        I would be surprised if anyone but a very select few watch GoT thinking its the way things should be.

      2. Dan Kervick

        Not the way things are supposed to be. But based on the discussions, many seem to take it as the way things are. And the way things are in the Game of Thrones universe, I gather, is futile.

        So just one more nihilistic nightmare contributing to to moral paralysis of our times.

    2. jrs

      If the mainstream understands how bad things are I wish they’d just “out themselves” and join us. Even when it’s just ranting on the NSA spyed on web because we don’t know what else to do. Jump on in the water’s fine (well no actually it’s not fine, not with ever increasing ocean acidity …).

      But an awareness of how dark times are informs everything I think about politics, though I am still OFTEN shocked to discover a new wrinkle, yea my worldview is dark AND I can still be shocked.

      Unless most people want to *be* the bad guy … hard to identify with that, and I don’t strongly identify with my government which is in many ways a bad guy.

  20. aletheia33

    a bit OT, just want to note that TV shows are one of the main conversational topics in the american workplace, where finding things to talk about in groups of disparate people is always a challenge. when a series takes off into such widespread viewership as this one, it provides great lubrication for the connection so many people rather desperately need and are sadly clueless about how to make, not just with immediate family but with some kind of social group.

    and as a TV drama sometimes work equally well for both genders, it works better than sports or gossip in a mixed group. (i’m assuming GoT viewerships isn’t weighted more one way or the other as to viewership.)

    so i also suspect there’s a snowball point where just the level of popularity creates more popularity and people getting hooked not just on the episodic drama but on the feeling of belonging they get, and depend on for their often fragile sense of being sane and normal, from participating in the discussions about each episode the next day at work.

    i think we humans have a profound, intense need to feel this sense of belonging and will go to great, mind-boggling lengths to get and hold onto it.

    the above is not meant to apply to yves as motivation of course–she obviously has raised here a different issue about her own investment in the experience. just wanted to note the social reward aspect.

  21. Erik

    I think you already nailed it: it resonates with the current times.

    I’m no fan of Ayn Rand (Objectivism is adolescent BS), but there are some pertinent concepts that she shares with GoT and that she got right about today: a behavioral form of Gresham’s law where bad behavior drives out good behavior. A world where almost all major corporations have all but given up trying to invent and innovate and instead rely on political influence and rent-seeking behaviors. In the end it’s all very feudal.

    Where Rand gets it horribly wrong (and even more so, fans or Rand), is in her protagonists. These perfect sociopaths do not exist. If you give sociopaths the keys to society, you wind up with what we have today, not some John Galt paradise. I think Game of Thrones reflect powerfully upon that contrast. His illustrates many of the same issues, but his protagonists are imperfect and just trying to get by. And of course the most famous point, they don’t always (never?) win.

    Game of Thrones poses a world where ALL power is political. The competent but less shrewd are driven out of power (Tyrion, Ned Stark). Danaerys is an important relief valve because she illustrates a positive influence that is learn ing and trying to build something on her own. She is the closest thing to one of Rand’s unrealistic protagonists: a natural leadership that is almost unerringly correct all the time and who other important people are naturally drawn to and who take the knee to her. I think that’s why her chapters, although a relief from the grinding theme of despair, have never sit well with me.

    Finally, while the show grabs the zeitgeist of corporate-government rent-seeking sociopath culture run amok, it also frames it in a larger context: Winter is Coming. It doesn’t even MATTER who is king because the whole system will soon come crashing down. I think most people feel, somehow, in their bones, that we are in 1933. We didn’t fix any of the problems that caused the “Great Recession” and the underlying causes have only gotten worse. Something (Cyprus? Greece? Portugal? Detroit?) will at first appear like a distant and isolated problem that will knock over the first domino, but when that happens, the US and the world may not have the unlimited ammo to throw at the Depression like we did in 2008. ZIRP is already in place. The store is already given away. Then what?

    I think it helps Martin that he has written a gripping, compelling analog of our modern world that more people are willing to get into because it’s wrapped in a fantasy / pseudo-medieval history setting (I think one reason why it’s so good is how he draws heavily from, for example, the War of the Roses for ideas). He has established the existence of the coming Winter, of the Others and the Whitewalkers, but he hasn’t shown us much. Just peeks and vague impressions of the horrible future that awaits and the horrible battles that will have to be fought. Yet it’s still all before the precipice and therefore grounded in the present era of uncertainty.

    And you, Yves, are the Watcher on the Wall.

      1. diptherio

        Yeah, I saw that coming. I was going to be quite upset if the great-white-savior queen ended up fixing everything with a few immolations-by-dragon.

        My desired “happy ending” would have Bran Stark and Tyrion Lannister ending up in power after everyone else has killed each other off. They would then agree that this whole kingship business is for the birds and agree to convert the kingdoms to democratic self-governance. I am not too optimistic about this actually happening, but a boy can dream, damn it!

        1. dan h

          Indeed. Bran, Tyrion, Jon, and Arya…the characters with moral souls. The 5ths red wedding equivalent really crushed me. And I wonder how far down the revenge mindset Martin is going to take Arya. The nexus between Viserys and Ilyrio is also an interesting one. I have them currently placed in a very much “moral” standing but I may be conflating the series and the books depictions of the two.

  22. JGordon

    “But I am disturbed by how the series, which was already pretty dark, seems to be getting even more lurid. Martin depicts how violence becomes routine as parts of the population sink into near starvation, brigands prowl the countryside, and dispossessed townspeople (“sparrows”) flock to churches, the bigger cities, and castles seeking what little security and food they might offer.”

    Now that you put it in that light maybe Martin is really prescient rather than just a good write since that is what the future will look like.

  23. Jora

    I was so excited by this series when it came out, and have read all the books, but the last one disheartened me, as it seemed to only broaden the plot. I sincerely wondered if the writer had some difficulty with endings. I agree with you on Harry Potter. It was tedious and I simply could not force myself to finish.

  24. Aussie F

    The horror of Game of Thrones doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone living in Britain or Ireland. We’ve had it for centuries, and it’s still going on: Rapacious feudal landowners, predatory armies run by a handfull of families, and constant tension between Saxon and Celt, loyalist and Republican.

    The Anglo-Saxon South East is still attempting to dominate the hinterland. The world depicted by Game of Thrones seems a pleasant idyll compared to life in Belfast or the slums of Easterhouse during the last three decades.

  25. financial matters

    I think there has always been some fascination with villains such as the bank robbers of the 30s or during prohibition or Butch Cassidy etc. Or early mob types when they fought against corrupt police and even guerilla types that fight against western forces. (Ecuadorean oil drilling as an example.)

    I think it’s harder to be sympathetic with banks that systematically and fraudulently take money from regular people or political leaders across the world that put billions into private off shore accounts while their people suffer hunger and unemployment. But it takes tough scrappy people, such as Yves ;), to fight back.

    A sense of fairness such as a functioning legal system would help.

    I also liked the comment on social acceptance at the water cooler. Hard to get a good discussion on MMT going ;)

    Although I did find some hope in this recent comment by Stephanie Kelton..

    Tens of thousands of professionals in finance, business, government, etc., many of them formerly self-proclaimed deficit hawks, now champion Warren’s insight that our fears about debt and deficits are based on a failure to understand how modern money works–and that it’s holding all of us back.

  26. lambert strether

    I like GoT for its sunny optimism:

    1. The “morally pathological” elites (Jeffrey Sachs) are feudal nobles (family values) and not banksters;

    2. Hence the civilians are slaughtered at the retail level as by products of conflicts driven by honor and/or power seeking, not at the wholesale level as a matter of social policy by elites who hate them and want them to die, as with the shortening of life expectancy under austerity;

    3. The evils of climate change are personified by the walkers, who can be killed (again) by setting them on fire. Dealing with real world climate change in our world is not so straightforward.

    1. F. Beard

      by elites who hate them LS

      You remind me of a scene where a black kid asks his father why whites hate them.

      His father replies, “Because of what they done to us.”

      1. Lambert Strether

        More optimism:

        4. No Big Media, hence

        5. No strategic hate management. Protagonist A hates protagonist B because the B family betrayed and raped an A daughter or tortured and killed an A son — not because “The Jews stabbed Germany in the back!” or “You Liberals!” or “Conservatives are stupid!”

  27. rbnigh

    Yes, it resonates with our time when ethics and values seem to be lost in the lust for power. I quit after the second volume (never saw the TV), tired of having the characters killed off instead of going on to face the consequences of their acts. But that is really my objection, Martin paints a universe in which our acts seem to have no consequences, good or ill, its all selfishness and power, and then you die. Even if you don’t believe in a ‘moral universe’, causes do lead to effects, which could be a message to take home from all this random brutality and self-aggrandizement.

    1. Banger

      This philosophy that we do not live in a moral universe has become increasingly popular as society continues to devolve and dissolve. This is, in my view, a natural reaction to the post-modern dilemma–if there is no way to find the truth or no way to judge right from wrong since there are so many competing truth-claims why not “do what thou wilt.”

      Without a metaphysical foundation morality dissolves when left in the open air. It is our collective failure to address metaphysical issues that lead to our inability to order society in any compassionate way. It is this failure that also leads us to ignore the fact that the morality of cruelty espoused by the author of the Game of Thrones and his evil twin Ayn Rand runs directly counter to what we know scientifically about human beings–we are, in fact, hardwired towards compassion, cooperation and greed under ideal conditions is just not a factor in our lives. It is the fact we punish, we stunt and we hate nature, including human nature that makes us agressive, nasty, ambitious, selfish and cruel. Like cornered cats we live–we value the state of stress, of flight-fight, of the edge as a good in itself. This is silly and stupid to a degree few people realize. And by putting energy into the pornography of violence we become little monsters who see nothing but ugliness and who gradually lose contact with beauty itself which Plato described as that which reminds us of God.

      1. Dan Kervick

        I don’t think we need metaphysics. Nobody needs an authorized command from the transcendent beyond to care about their loved ones. It’s not like I’m going to stop loving my son unless the Forms or the Categorical Imperative of something similarly grandiose comes along and commands me to do it. If we don’t do something about the shit we are in, then the world our children inherit is going to suck balls.

        1. Banger

          You personally may not need metaphysics because you have been conditioned by your culture and upbringing to react to a metaphysic or combination of several of ages past that was digested within culture for you. But what of people who are not brought up that way? What if the socialization process weakens and such ideas as doing unto others and all that fade from memory–what then? And how will you argue with followers of Ayn Rand? On what basis do you counsel compassion? How do you argue against greed? They’ll laugh at you and tear out your heart one day when cops aren’t looking.

          1. Dan Kervick

            They won’t listen to metaphysical arguments, either.

            Most people have compassion and fellow-feeling. If they don’t they are psychopaths. You can’t argue many a psychopath out of his craziness with a metaphysics of moral.

            If you actually care about people, and I’ll bet you do, it’s not because you swallowed some argument that told you that you must or have to care about people. It’s because you’re a human being, a very social kind of animal outfitted with the innate human capacities for sympathy, compassion, pity, etc.

            I guess there are a certain number of sick fucks like Abraham who will slaughter their own children unless a voice from God (or Plato, Kant, etc.) tells them not to. But fortunately must people aren’t like that.

            The pursuit of human decency and progress seems simpler than that. You see some stuff that doesn’t work the way you want things to work. You find a couple of other people who dislike the same things you dislike and want the same things you want. Congratulations. You’re now a coalition. No need to wait for Godot. Juts get going.

          2. JTFaraday

            I believe Nietzsche offers an opinion on this matter in Twilight of the Idols:

            “In England one must rehabilitate oneself after every little emancipation from theology by showing in a veritably awe-inspiring manner what a moral fanatic one is. That is the penance they pay there.

            We others hold otherwise. When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads.** Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know, what is good for him, what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows it. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God is the truth — it stands and falls with faith in God.

            When the English actually believe that they know “intuitively” what is good and evil, when they therefore suppose that they no longer require Christianity as the guarantee of morality, we merely witness the effects of the dominion of the Christian value judgment and an expression of the strength and depth of this dominion: such that the origin of English morality has been forgotten, such that the very conditional character of its right to existence is no longer felt. For the English, morality is not yet a problem.”

            From there, one might inquire into the related matter of Nietzsche’s opinion of Christian morality.

  28. F. Beard

    Well, I quit watching the series a while back but your review reminds me of “Lonesome Dove” wrt killing off likeable characters.

    The worst I’ve seen was “No Country for Old Men” but at least one sees a preview of the misery in store for the bad guy.

    And then there was “Eon Flux” …

  29. Charles LeSeau

    I finally got round to reading all the books about 2 months ago.

    I would describe the story type and character machinations as pretty typically Roman (minus any senate), although similar events and characters can be found in Tuchman’s medieval history A Distant Mirror and elsewhere.

    Anyone who has read I, Claudius and its sequel or even seen the excellent BBC series will note that while that is about half fiction too, it’s based upon the real depravity of these ancient power seekers and is no less horrible than anything in these books or real period histories. Some human beings are truly horrible, at all times in history.

    At westeros (dot) org, the forum for all things Game of Thrones, the complaints seem to be mostly about characterization – namely that Tyrion on the show is rendered as too goody goody and that Stannis is too baddy baddy, among other such stuff. (Oh, how they hate Tyrion’s whore/significant other on the TV show, Shae, and the actress who plays her!) The readers pretty uniformly love the idea of “gray” characterization that GRRM uses, instead of stock good and bad. Generally speaking the show gets massive plus points for casting over there though, and I would agree with this with a few exceptions. At least they didn’t stuff the show with American actors, who just never come off right in any sword and sorcery or old European history stuff.

    As for why should we read it? Personally speaking I enjoy GRRM’s writing style and world crafting, and how it’s less about the magic stuff. He does a minimum of beating around the bush with descriptive prose, with the possible exception of banquet menu descriptions (which I always skip through), and while some of the characters are either pure or banal evil they do have individual personalities (e.g. the two Cleganes are very different killers). But again, GRRM generally gets to the point. Tolkien, by contrast, would spend sometimes a whole page or two on florid description of some idyllic glade or give 4 pages to a song lyric, and seems to have fallen in love with the word ‘fortnight’ – on the other hand, he did get his epic tale done in 4 books! I don’t know how or why, but the 5000 pages of GRRM’s books still seem a quicker read – probably because of the modern style. And GRRM is excellent in both dialogue-driven storytelling and delivery of 3rd person limited point of view.

    GRRM does start to resemble soap opera formula though, and I do hope he wraps it up in at most 2 more books. His formula is similar to the classic 3-part story architecture (introduce character, send them up a tree and throw rocks at them, bring them down), but changed by GRRM to be more like “introduce character, send them up a tree, then kill them. Introduce new character and get them very involved in the important bits, send them up a tree, then kill them. Introduce new…etc.”

  30. Iain Falk

    Schadenfreude – the strangeness in finding joy in other’s failure. We know that our society has, and our personal lives have gone to hell, but by watching some worse failure we are numbed into thinking our failures are not so bad. So Game of Thrones gets more sensationalized for HBO, and Hunger Games makes us pick up our lives in America and feel as if it is not so bad. We are not yet at the bottom. If it ever gets that bad, as in these movies and shows tell us it could, we will do something.

    J.G. Ballard, and many soldiers turn to Science Fiction. while in the service. Yes, our situation seems hopeless, but it is not as bad as it could be. The stories tell us it could be worse.

    But, as Rebecca Solnit so wonderfully portrays in her books, human change comes out of facing the hell we are in. Until then we will watch Game of Thrones and get up in the morning and press on with false hope thinking it could be worse. We will then wonder why no one takes to the streets or pulls together to do something. In our own minds we are comforted with believing it could be worse. Our lives are really pretty good. Why do something, because the power of the story has comforted us with Schaenenfreude – we should still be happy because it could be worse.

  31. steviefinn

    I would suggest that it reflects how people have lived on this planet for most of human history. Empathy has never been the strong point of Princes & their dogs.

    During the hundred years war the majority lived in utter misery in serfdom which was only relieved by decimation due to bubonic plague. The English elite built up huge wealth by launching scorched earth raids into France.

    Take away the suits & the likes of Goldman’s financial raiding & substitute these for the above & the only real difference is a keyboard as opposed to a mace. The serfs are now once again too numerous & much less use economically.

    Although it probably will not be seen as such, it’s a good illustration of the behaviour of people when the thin veneer of civilisation breaks down. Unfortunately the climb to the top of the dung heap is littered with the corpses of the mainly forgotten well meaning, as well as the failed power junkies.

    1. JEHR

      I have not read the books nor seen the TV movie. I am busy catching up on other reading such as Jorges Borges, George Orwell, Flannery O’Connor, to be followed by Mavis Gallant and a long list of Canadian authors. I like to learn about my culture.

        1. jfleni

          Like JEHR, I know nothing of these “epics”, neither in print nor on TV; in fact, since I gave up watching TV roughly 30 years ago, I am continually surprised and appalled at the moronic garbage that passes for “entertainment”.

          As a young man, it was my job to go to the mental hospitals where my two sisters were doing their nursing training and pick them up on weekends; it was really depressing and sad to see how badly off some of the inmates were (and I only had glimpses, not a full view — now of course they dope them up and nobody sees anything). I only feel that way now when I catch a close view of TV and curent “literature”. It really is deranged and sad.

  32. El Snarko

    An important post Yves. First it was micro cruelty, domination and sleaze in the ‘Sopranos”. I about lost it when Chris Matthews went over the top with praise for the series (of which I watched every episode)after the passing of Mr. Gandolfini. I thought, from the first episode on, that this was really a commentary on things people do at lower levels on their jobs. On a day in which my local paper has a longish article about the Goldman aluminum scam, it reminded me of how Tony Soprano, at the end of season three?, four?, took down his friend who had pestered him into getting into a high stakes poker game. I thought that was the absolute zero of the series. I had no idea this was business s.o.p.

    For the last few months I have been explaining much of the behavior of congress to people in terms of the railroad baron on “Hell On Wheels” and have realized the enormous extent to which television provides a commentary of metaphors that resonate below awareness.

    Then, after the last season, the full impact of “Thrones” hit me. It came as I was contrasting it with “The Vikings” and the main characters of the two shows when the historical inevitability of it all struck. Although we are now living in an updated version of the 1880’s, that was actually an extension of pre and early industrial aristocratic self interest. In my view we are headed to a high tech middle ages that I do not remember voting for or even being advised about. “Thrones” uniquely demonstrates that society is entirely malleable to be formed by those who can determine and control incentives, which are then administered in their own interests. Part of the pathological appeal of this series is that it gives psychological permission for behaviors that were unacceptable twenty years ago. I have spoken to a few sad cases who wish they were in the story and actually feel they would do well!

    Finally, this critique now extends to detective shows, often among my favorite things to watch. They are getting awful. The fascist tactics and attitudes of the “good guys”, their lack of discipline, their seeming complete independence of their organizations, and their errrr…self indulgent personalities are too much. I believe the narrowing of the images used, and the commoditizing and forced commonality of them, is an awful spectacle. Honestly, I do not want to play this game.

  33. Banger

    This is what we have become, frankly, and it isn’t pretty. This stuff, like pornography activates the lower brain and we like the sensation connecting with that part of us gives us–like a roller-coaster ride. Real violence has been largely eliminated from our lives unless we live in very violent areas of the world. Activating these feelings appears to be no problem. I find all porno and I regard Game of Thrones to be porn is distasteful to me. I know what violence looks like and see nothing good or entertaining about it.

    When I was an adolescent, of course, I loved the stuff–I read a book called something like The History of Torture and it was really intense–what ingenuity people have demonstrated in causing pain to other human beings. It is no surprise that torture is now accepted as an interrogation technique whereas when I was growing up it was frowned upon–though practiced–just ask some Vietnam vets.

  34. TK421

    I’m with you, Yves. I simply don’t get it. When I finished the third book I tossed it across the room and gave up. Thanks to the little map of Westeros I could see that the “story” was, literally and figuratively, going around and around in circles. There is no one to root for, just various factions trying to crush the others because…well, because there would be no conflict if they didn’t. And just as one faction seems to gain an upper hand, they get annihilated. There’s no point.

    1. aletheia33

      actually, tuchman’s distant mirror is kinda like that. the intrigues, power shifts, battles, etc. just kept repeating themselves across france, england, and italy until i lost track. the raw ego and lust for power and adoration of a certain few men destroyed entire societies.

      she says the aristocracy (france, england, etc. and they were all related/intermarried) were addicted to the pomp and ritual of the tournament, in love with these celebrations of their own “nobility,” and that was their primary interest in life. they never perceived their own vulnerability as their way of life atrophied and they ripened like fruit on the tree for their fall.

      roving mercenary armies stripped the peasants of their produce and assets repeatedly as their commanders hired themselves out to first one prince and then another. especially when they did not get paid.

      our not yet complete faded ideals/expectations of virtuous behavior on the part of elites derive from these european princes’ self-aggrandizing ethos of centuries ago. these ideals and self-delusions have persisted with remarkable staying power.

    1. Massinissa

      Kill ALL the nobles, including even the so-called ‘good’ ones?

      I’m game. Throw me a pitch fork. Killing the nobility before they can kill us all off is the only way to survive both them and the Winter.

      Sort of reminds me of real life…

  35. Elliot

    Never read the books nor watched the series, having no interested in violent fantasies dressed up in literary drag. Yup people are wicked, but people are also good, and I’d as soon not revel in the worst. I wonder about the mental health, the darkness in the head of the writers of such things.

    But mostly I feel sad at the idea that only depressing, violent thiings are True Literature and The Way Things Are. Hogwash.

    FWIW, lullabies (and folktales) are not always violent; depends on the culture producing them.

  36. b2020

    FWIW: Bailed after finishing the first book. Enjoyable, but Starks’s demise was too predictable after the unrealistic goody-two-shoes routine throughout the book, and the author’s motive for offing him too transparent. Never watched TV. This was two months before the “Red Wedding” brouhaha, which seems to confirm my then-suspicion that this is just “kill favorites” taken to a decently-crafted extreme. I don’t mind tragic heroes, I do mind incompetents. I severely object to stacked decks (King’s Pet Cemetery is a pointless screed). The warning delivered to Stark regarding the “Game of Thrones” and its assorted risks – in so many woards – made my teeth hurt: One Contrived Mistake Too Far. I can buy insane and imbecile inbred power, but not a Number Two naif veteran of a king slaying campaign.

    I much enjoyed the early (SF) works of his.

  37. SZ

    Contrary to what some are saying here, it is not just pointless slaughter. Books 1-3 depict the destruction of the old political order and the individuals who led it. With books 4-5 we see both traditionalist attempts at reconstruction (Jaime Lannister’s humane Machiavellian restoration of peace in the Riverlands in books 4-5 and the efforts of Varys in Book 5) and innovation (Cersei’s attempt at alliance with religion in Kings Landing and the attempts at revolutionary change by Jon Snow at the Wall and Daenerys in Mereen in book 5). This is obscured by the aesthetic failings of books 4 and 5, which I attribute to Martin’s slackening of his ex-screenwriters discipline and indulgence in excessive world building and endless digressions. I don’t know how he ends it, but I think Book 5 shows that the “political science” aspect of the story is deeply important to Martin. My own guess is that the magical forces of ice and fire end in mutual destruction and a disenchanted world is left with the proto-capitalism of Littlefinger and the Iron Bank, and the proto-science of the maesters, to begin a painful slog to modernity.

    1. mookie

      Insightful! I hadn’t thought of books 4 and 5 in those terms, having rushed through the series in a matter of weeks. I remember feeling that books 4 and 5 just meandered, with the author stretching his writing skills too far and getting lost in the details. From what I read later this is put down to his need to stretch the plot to allow time for Dany’s dragons to grow. I agree with your ending prediction, that the series will have a very real politik ending, and that all this “right to the throne” plotting will end with various Targaryens, Starks/Snows, and Baratheons destroying each other and the various magical elements of Westeros (dragons, white walkers, weirwoods) while Littlefinger emerges triumphant.

  38. john

    I think it’s a status thing.

    HBO costs more. Therefore (to a consumer) it must be better.

    Also, dead on with the sexy-ness.

  39. mookie

    Let’s gather some specific social history book recommendations. Yves mentioned Theodore Zeldin, any books in particular?

    It has been a long time since I’ve read them but I remember enjoying George Huppert’s After the Black Death and Simon Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I haven’t had time for a long time to read historical work BUT I did like Schama’s Citizens. Also biographies are one of my preferred ways for consuming history without having to work too hard at it. I like Duff Cooper’s biography of Talleyrand.

      I should re-read Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, that would be particularly germane now.

      1. Emma

        Yves – also try to get your hands on a copy of “The man who read the east wind: a biography of Richard Hughes” by Norman Macswan.

  40. b2020

    I wonder after reading more of the other comments – is GoT a bit like a 21st century US version of the French Revolution – all of the Terror, none of the calls for Egalite, none of the aspirations for justice? “Bad people setting out to do Bad Deeds” resonates quite a bit less – in a classic Greek tragedy way – than flawed people setting out to do good deeds loosing their bearings. A soap opera of the early Russian revolution would have more uplifting remedial moments of failed ambition morally adrift or maliciously re-purposed than what is described here.

    There is a long history of bestselling psychopath porn and its reception. Harris’ transition from “Silence of the Lambs” to “Hannibal” is a textbook case – comparing the books side-by-side – including the author’s comments in the latter – is nauseating.

  41. indio007

    “But Game of Thrones also resonates a bit too closely for comfort to what I see in my day job: how people who are simply power-hungry can prevail over those who constrain themselves by trying to do the right thing (however difficult that might be to define), how lousy leaders can do a remarkable amount of damage in a short time, how the noble classes can insulate themselves from economic and physical wreckage and let ordinary people endure hunger, destruction of dwellings and towns, and pillage by wandering bandits.”
    In a series of startling studies, psychologists at the University of California at Berkeley have found that “upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals.”

  42. Furzy Mouse

    Susan, I consider GoT a literary masterpiece(except it is not concluded yet). It has sadly been dismissed as a medieval fantasy, thereby ignoring the riveting plot and character development. Hey, Shakespeare is medieval too!! .. GRRM’s craft is compelling and creative,and I found his chapters-by-character engaging, original and vital…we see and feel what each character is going thru…but I concur that he seems to be getting lost in his latter volumes..I have the feeling that he just does not know how to end it (yet?)…I’ve been pleasantly surprised how good the TV series has been…the producers have telescoped a lot of the action, and had to dismiss many of the ancillary characters, and as for good looking actors….well, that’s just the way Hollywood works.. people only want to gaze at handsome ones, and the sets have been amazing eye candy …as for GoT’s dystopia,that seems to be coming our way as well…perhaps that is what GRRM is wrestling with…how to quell the dissolution of our own very fragile civilization. Will the dragons breath their fire upon the righteous or the damned? Can order ever be restored?

  43. Dennis Redmond

    As a professional culture-vulture, my own take: 99% of the utopian cultural energy in First World zones is concentrated in videogames. The short list: Max Payne (2001), Final Fantasy 12 (2006), God of War 2 (2007), Metal Gear Solid 4 (2008), God of War 3 (2010) (all from studios in Europe, Japan or US).

    As far as fantasy series goes, the best are Russian or Eastern European, e.g. Andrej Sapkowski’s Witcher series, or Sergei Lukyanenko’s Nightwatch novels.

  44. anon y'mouse

    like Harry Potter, it’s cultural candy.

    why keep eating it once you’re satisfied?

  45. wesh

    ” Human history tends toward progress, fitfully and with setbacks, sure, but that kind of despair is unsupportable.”
    I MUST disagree. If you think the right,& the left, & the banks with what they’ve done, & the gov’t not prosecuting fraud is progress, you have totally missed it & are in extreme denial. This is not tending towards progress. It is simple opression & extreme regression.

  46. Lexington

    I haven’t read GoT or seen the series but back in the day I did spend a fair amount of time on discussion forums of game developer Bioware, back during the (very drawn out) development of Dragon Age. There was a lot of discussion about what people wanted to see in Dragon Age as compared to previous Bioware releases, most notably Baldur’s Gate 2.

    What a vocal section of the commentariat kept demanding were “darker” story lines which rejected conventional morality in favor of moral ambiguity and the disassociation of actions and consequences. Many argued that in the game story players should actually be punished for making “good” choices, because “even good intentions can have bad consequences” and “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. What they wanted, in short, was a game with a that would validate their ethical nihilism.

    And they loved George R.R. Martin, holding up Game of Thrones as the kind of story of which they could thorougly approve (and this was before it was popularized by HBO).

    My take away from this experience is that GoT, regardless of its literary or philosophical merits, is a story that captures the Zeitgeist of our times, most especially perhaps for young males.

  47. Timothy Gawne

    I loved the first book in the Game of Thrones series, but at the end was so burned out that I could not bear to go through another one. For me it is the authros’ gratuitous cruelty to his sympathetic characters that rubbed me raw: to build up someone and then just have them cut down to show ‘the randomness of fate’ is to me self-indulgent and manipulative and not respectful of the readership.

    The appeal of the series is, of course, the skillful writing and wonderful characters. There is also, I think, the novelty of a ‘fantasy’ series where the magic is deliberately low-key and it’s mostly medieval politics – and realizing that characterization and plot trump having the biggest dragons.

    But your last paragraph surely also makes the case: like Orwell’s Animal Farm, it resonates with the modern world all too well…

  48. allcoppedout

    I can be very superior here and declare I have not read the books or watched the series. Poll after poll shows we are hopelessly misinformed and have little ability to discern much beyond what ‘squeezes our private parts’. This stuff is pornography for wimps and derivative of the BBCs ‘The Tudors’. Years ago we were banning ‘Jake the Snake’ as far too libidinous for the ‘Sooty Show’. Perhaps we should give up and use the methods of the enemy? Economics with tits, bums, will they won’t they and the bondage dungeon of neo-classical star-crossed lovers stuck in the selfish misery of teenage smarts and selfishness … read Lyotard’s ‘The Libidinal Economy’ and watch ‘La Grande Bouffe’ …

  49. LifelongLib

    Showing my age, but I still think the BBC did royalty/aristocracy (Six Wives of Henry VIII, Elizabeth R, I Claudius as mentioned above) better than HBO or any American outfit ever could.

  50. nihil obstet

    I watched season one of GoT, staying with it because it was recommended by someone whose taste I generally trust. I alternated between laughing and being disgusted by the adolescent male fantasy, which is really too much. The major word for women was “whores”. Relaxing for males was to get lots of drink and three whores — you know, for adolescents, if one whore is good, two are better, and three are the best! Drink and multiple sex partners — in the fantasy there are no impotence problems from that combination.

    All of this is in the service of a ridiculously strong Madonna/whore complex. At least three of the relatively major male characters attributed tbeir lack of morals to failure of the Madonna — two were in love with Lady Stark, who chose Ned over them and thereby justified their turning to bad things, and Tyrion’s first love turned out to be a whore hired to trick him, so he lost his ideals and became a rousterer.

    And then there was the dragon woman’s (I don’t remember the names) marriage — hey, just rape your wife until she falls in love with you!!!

    Anyone who claims that the series just depicts more brutal times (and I’ve heard that defense a lot) has never read any actual medieval literature, which has a much wider range of human experience. This is just high school boys’ fantasies about sex and fighting and competition, and I really don’t have spare intellectual or emotional space to accommodate time spent in that world.

  51. Charles LeSeau

    I’m not sure I buy all the zeitgeist stuff about the things that go on in GoT – at least not about the books. Is it used to pacify the masses to embrace their helplessness as just that? I don’t know, but there’s truly nothing new under the sun and this stuff has all been done before, including killing off main characters in brutal ways and letting the bad guys win for most (sometimes all) of the tale.

    This goes especially in fiction, with 3 of the biggest giants of the fantasy genre embracing the idea of killing off good guy characters and even making story resolutions and endings that are harshly bittersweet – namely Arthurian legend, Tolkien’s 4 books, and Richard Adams’ Watership Down. (And probably many many others; I’m no big fantasy buff.) While modern general audiences have been brought up on a lifetime of “good guy wins and saves the girl” stories, other types – stories of misery and all manner of torture, debasement, and human cruelty – predate all of us and span all known human history. Cruel King Joffrey in GoT is seriously tame compared to Caligula, for instance.

    If GoT is a sign of our times, I’d say all sorts of things that were not written in the last few decades hit the same notes and worse. GRRM’s books are hardly the most disturbing things I’ve read. I think Jerzy Kosinski has to take the cake for pure creep factor.

    Even humor can do this stuff. What is Voltaire’s Candide but an endless series of miserable story after miserable story? On the other hand Nineteen Eighty-Four is much more terrifying to me than anything in GoT because it’s so real. What do we make of All Quiet on the Western Front, Crime & Punishment, Gogol’s Dead Souls or the artwork of Hieronymus Bosch or Goya, the (more or less true) writings of Suetonius? Nearly all religious tales, etc? Nothing new at all to see here.

    Game of Thrones is an old story, really.


    Fun with zeitgeist: Generation after generation will say the same stuff over and over again in new and different ways. A few funny quotes about “kids today” over the millenia, for instance:

    “We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect
    their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently
    inhabit taverns and have no self control.”

    –Inscription, 6000 year-old Egyptian tomb (source: Bucky Fuller’s I Used to be a Verb)

    “When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint”.
    –Hesiod, 8th century BC

    “What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?”
    –Plato, 4th Century BC

    “The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint… As for the girls, they are forward, immodest and unladylike in speech, behavior and dress.”
    –Attributed to Peter the Hermit, AD 1274

    1. craazyman

      things have been going downhill for a while now.

      if anybody wants to see all the tits and ass without sitting through the rest of the scenes, HuffPo somehow has stitched them all together as a public service.

      Evidently there’s only about 15 minutes total of tits and ass in something like 20 hours of action. That’s like 80 to 1 if my math is right. I bailed out after about 90 seconds cause the guys looked like hairy animals killing people and it was gross. It’s gross to see guys in the first place. It should be something Leonardo himself could have conceived and then it might be OK.

      Faaak, what a riot this stuff is. Checked out the first pages of Book I on Amazon’s “peek inside”. Not too bad. He moves it down the page with tight dialogue and action and isn’t too cliché about the frozen trees and frosty moon and dreaded shadows in the night. Faaak. It’s not that easy. Give him credit. he wrote it and we’re talking about it. To you, Mr. Martin, a tip of the hat.

      1. Charles LeSeau

        Ya, I agree about the downhill slide, but I pay little attention to the show (I haven’t had TV for 13 years now), and was pretty unaffected by the nudity thing when I did get to watch some of it. I find the graphic violence much more disconcerting.

        The books are very character and dialog driven, with each chapter from a different (but often recurring) point of view, so Martin does a good job of establishing character intent and motivation as well as inter-character socialization and the differences between what is said and what is thought. He has a good touch for it, and it makes 900 pages go by pretty quickly.

    2. Nathanael

      FWIW, 1984 is grossly unrealistic. Any government which tried to implement the system of 1984 would instead end up with North Korea. Quite quickly.

      Not that North Korea is a nice place — it’s a dystopia! But it isn’t the *1984* dystopia.

      1. Charles LeSeau

        Fortunately for me, my finding something realistic doesn’t depend on your definition of what is realistic or not.

        1. Charles LeSeau

          Oh, and sorry, I just realized on re-reading that sounds snarkish. More to the point: We are talking two different things here. For something to feel “real” to the reader, it doesn’t need an absolute real world analog or hypothetical plausibility. The suspension of disbelief in Orwell’s story is opposed to something like GoT or fantasy novels among other reasons because there are no dragons or sorcery in it and little to do with the purposely absurd – that is, it’s “the real world” he’s working with as source material and environment. And that’s all I meant.

          And I’m not sure totalitarian regimes and their social means of development or evolution have been limited completely in their methods yet in any case the way you say, but also I’m not sure I can dispute it or want to. I think parent culture matters here a lot for what a society will and will not put up with or how such-and-so totalitarian regime gets implemented.

  52. Miguel Jones

    I stayed with the series through the 4th book. I thought the earlier books ended on a cusp of action, but by this installment I came to the conclusion that Martin was incapable of wrapping the epic up, or was just milking his franchise for what he could.

    1. skippy

      SEE: In describing the series (GoT) to newcomers, Benioff jokingly called it “The Sopranos meets Middle-earth”. The producers and Martin have a tentative plan for eight seasons, with Book 3 (itself the length of the entire LotR trilogy) being split into two. This is also partially a delaying action, as Book 6 is only partially written and Book 7 but a gleam in Martin’s eye; fortunately, contingency plans for a Gecko Ending have been set in case Martin isn’t able to write fast enough.

      Gecko Ending

      When an adaptation must have an ending, but is based on a work that has not finished yet, there are two possible solutions. One is to give the show some emotional closure without actually ending the plot in any significant way. Many fans will just complain this is a “non-ending” of sorts. When this involves a romance arc, the result can be either No Romantic Resolution or Maybe Ever After, which may or may not be satisfying.

      However, some productions opt instead for a Gecko Ending — creating a conclusion/Grand Finale for the show out of whole cloth which resolves (or hastily buries) all the show’s hanging threads and unresolved plot elements. Naturally, this requires that the viewers ignore many later revelations in the original work or it will make no sense, even if the series’ plotline so far has been pretty similar.

      There’s also a third option — wait for the writer to get farther ahead — but that would involve waiting, and that’s just unacceptable. Of course, you could always use Filler until they catch up.

      Naturally, restarting the story at this point would have to involve either: a) an extreme tangent to the original material, or b) abandoning the plot so far and starting up an Alternate Continuity. Not that either option hasn’t been implemented, either.

      The trope name comes from the behavior of the gecko, which will, if its tail is cut off, grow a new one.note

      In anime, this often implies that the series Overtook the Manga, but only in the broader sense that there’s no manga ending available, not in the sense that there isn’t enough manga to fit into the anime. In fact, a movie, OVA, or short series may have a Gecko Ending even after compressing and omitting large parts of the manga. Anime works are also sometimes prone towards restarting, exactly towards either the extreme tangents or Alternate Continuities mentioned above (Naruto, Dragon Ball Z and Fullmetal Alchemist all took some variation of this).

      Recently, some studios have averted this trope by timing the anime to end around the same time as the manga. By working closely with the creator, they can produce a faithful adaption of the ending before it’s published, and in some cases before it’s even been drawn. This is obviously rather tricky, so most studios still prefer one of the above options.

      Not related to Gordon Gekko, Switching To GEICO, Straight From The Gecko, or The Gekkostate.

      Skippy… the hole point of this show is to make a profit… a lot of profit. You would have better chance of success of making religious tombs coherent as – it is – all – make believe… cough… a belief.

      PS. at least TV tropes is coherent.

    2. ChrisPacific

      As someone who had much the same reaction to the fourth book, I would suggest you try the fifth and see what you think. For me it was much tighter and had more of a flow to it.

      The fourth book is actually part one in a new narrative approach that he eventually decided wasn’t working well – he apparently threw out the fifth book half-written as a result and started over. (This was one reason why there was such a long gap between books). The change was very much for the better as far as I was concerned, although I’m not sure everybody agrees.

  53. skippy

    Kavar: I think the situation has gotten even worse.

    Queen Talia: Worse? How is that even possible?

    Kavar: It can always get worse. — Knights of the Old Republic II


    Things are bad. In fact, it’s all going to hell. Your family’s been murdered. Your Humongous Mecha ran out of juice at the worst possible moment. An army of flesh-eating orcs is about to storm your castle. People are Dying Like Animals left and right. We’re talking May Sweeps stuff, series finale situations. It’s as bad as you’ve ever seen and just when you’d thought the shit had gone down, just when you thought it couldn’t possibly get any worse…

    It gets worse. Much worse.

    To qualify for this trope, a terrible situation must have some final perfect push over the edge. Sometimes characters within a story, usually when recounting dramatic events to others will, when asked “And then?” say, “It got worse,” right before the narrative cuts to the events in question.

    Very often the result of a Nice Job Breaking It, Hero. Usually gives that final push that crosses the Godzilla Threshold.

    From Bad to Worse usually results in Downer Ending. If the characters somehow prevail, the result is Earn Your Happy Ending.

    Cue The Rain is a subtrope for when this comes in the form of a sudden downpour. See also Rock Bottom, where it’s the characters who are Tempting Fate by thinking things can’t get worse just before they do. Darkest Hour is the logical conclusion of such a chain of events. Hope Spot is a common double subversion; after things get really bad, they seem to get better before suddenly getting even worse. No relation with It Gets Better, which is not about events in the story, so much as the quality thereof.

    Compare Out Of The Frying Pan: that trope involves the solution of one problem causing a worse one, while From Bad To Worse doesn’t even require any causal link between the initial problem and the getting worse. If you’re in a pool of water with a bunch of jellyfish, and then someone releases sharks into the water, that’s From Bad To Worse. If you’re in a pool of water with a bunch of jellyfish, and in the act of climbing out you fall into a different pool with a bunch of sharks, that’s Out Of The Frying Pan.

    1. reslez

      Aaannd TV Tropes claims another victim. When you emerge bleary-eyed and shivering 12 hours from now, remember that it all started with just one little click.

      Other readers: Don’t let this happen to you! Always think twice before clicking a TV Tropes link. *This has been a PSA.*

      1. skippy

        @reslez… Its a *book* a *script* filled with narrative[s, not ” Reality “.

        Reality is subject to time and space filled with mostly facts (hard science) and a few unknowns (will humans blow themselves up out of belief born ignorance – fog faith).

        skippy… Was Luke Skywalker a Jedi? No. He was an air force brat that used to piss off AP’s, then hide in the below ground level rubbish containers stationed by the curb, whilst the AP’s blindly chased, until the star wars thingy…

        PS. Art is full of trope, politics, religion, MSM, music etc, get used to it.

  54. RustyinWI

    I’ve been closely following the series since shortly after the 2nd book was published and have been an active part of its fandom most of that time. When AGoT was released back in 96 the landscape of the epic fantasy genre was very different. Almost all books that would qualify for this title were firmly rooted in Tolkien, with good and evil clearly defined. Sure, there would be some anti-heroes, some gray characters, moral complexity was lacking. In the late 80’s/early 90’s several authors had pushed this envelope (see Tad Williams and Robert Jordan amongst others). Game of Thrones was a watershed moment though. It shattered the old mold. If you cared about the genre, you read that book and knew nothing would could ever be the same in it again. It was absolutely stunning. No author had ever taken a hard look at the consequences of the violence that would have been an integral part of the medieval societies that most fantasy takes place in before. Life in such as setting would have been brutal and ugly for most, even if it could have its beauty, and Martin pulled no punches in showing this. In the hands of a lessor writer it could have just been violence porn, but with somepone as skilled as Martin it became both a deconstruction of the whole genre and a reflection of our modern world. Now, of course the genre has embraced its darker elements, realism and complexity. The books stand out less than they did because they have moved the whole field towards them. What still makes them unique is their singularly skilled writer. I do suspect, though, that he has on occasion pushed the envelope a bit farther to be able to shock an audience that is much more jaded than what he would have had back in 96.

    1. Charles LeSeau

      Ya, exactly how I feel about it, though I’ve only read a smattering of ‘fantasy’ genre, so I have little to compare it to other than Tolkien, TH White, Richard Adams, and various old gothic tales. I was attracted to Game of Thrones from a post here about it a few months back, with people bringing up GRRM’s real world source material and mentioning the more sociopolitical and classical elements of the way his stories work, and as you say, the ‘grayness’ of the characters.

    2. reslez

      I guess I don’t see what moral complexity Tad Williams or R Jordan brought to the genre then. Both were submitting (highly skilled) Tolkien riffs throughout the 90s. You’d need to provide some examples.

      For complexity I’d look more to Zelazny or Brust, and they actually had output in the early 80s with those themes.

    3. Peripheral Visionary

      Tolkien’s version of fantasy may have been dominant in the latter half of the 20th century, but it was preceded by a much darker form of fantasy in the earlier 20th century from the “weird fiction” writers, most notably Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan.

      The earliest “sword and sorcery” stories form a better backdrop for understanding Martin than anything by Tolkien. Howard’s fiction was full of ruthless, morally ambiguous protagonists who were brutally violent and spared no thought for doing anything other than using everyone and everything for their own purposes. The main difference between Howard’s protagonists and Martin’s was that Howard’s were mostly wandering loners, who cared less for ruling kingdoms than they did for decapitating kings; likewise, Howard’s sagas were largely the stories of a single protagonist rather than a larger scope covering multiple storylines.

      Tolkien eventually prevailed over the pulp fiction fantasy, at least in part because his worldview was more appealing, and his characters more endearing. I find it interesting that fantasy is seeing something of a quiet reaction to Tolkien – just as filmmakers have seen high form filmmaking take a back seat to lurid grindhouse fare (paging Quentin Tarantino), fantasy fans are taking an interest in what a previous era would have written off as juvenile trash.

      1. RanDomino

        I don’t think Conan is so much morally ambiguous as simply following a different ethics set. There’s nothing ambiguous about “If you meet a bad guy, kill him” (with evilness being defined more-or-less as interfering with someone else unconsensually). Also the Barbarian concept of property being based on use and need rather than on title, which probably sounds horrible to capitalists used to using rent and coercion to rob the serfs ‘legally’. To Conan, wage-labor would obviously be an unacceptable humiliation (temporary slavery is still slavery); a system which tolerates it, much less enforces enforces it, is patently evil; and anyone who refuses to fight against that system is a pathetic and cowardly worm because they place their own immediate safety (which is worthless since death comes for us all some day) above both their own and their community’s long-term prosperity and honor. Can’t say I disagree.
        I’ve read every Conan story by Robert E Howard and many (maybe 30?) of the Robert Jordan ones (unlike Wheel of Time, which is formulaic but crap, his Conan books are formulaic but excellent because Conan is such a great formula).

  55. Andrew Watts

    I haven’t read/seen Game of Thrones, but the personal experience that people have felt is similar to the feelings I had playing through the video game Chrono Trigger and it’s sequel Chrono Cross for the first time.

    Chrono Trigger is a game whose plot revolves around a group of friends defying fate and adverting the apocalypse. In the face of absolute hopelessness they fight on for a better world. One of the major features of the game was the ability to travel through time and see how your actions in the game impacted the world. There was also positive messages associated with the plot, like….

    (Spoiler Alert!)

    An act of self-sacrifice resulting in the death of the main protagonist Crono. Who dies to save his friends and foes alike. (“Great deeds can sometimes only be accomplished with great sacrifice. Even for those individuals who may not deserve it.”) The player is able to resurrect him later on but….

    Prometheus / Robo turning a continental sized desert into a blooming green forest over the course of centuries (“Slowly repairing the ecological damage humanity has inflicted on the planet ~ worth it.”)

    Kaeru (Frog) / Glenn watching his best friend die alongside him in battle and being turned into a frog. Later on it’s the player’s choice if and more importantly how Glenn is able to avenge his friend. (“You cannot change what’s been done in your past, but you can make peace with it.”)

    At the very end of the game the apocalypse is averted, Crono gets the girl (Marle/Nadia ~ princess) and marries her. “Yay! Peace and prosperity now right?.” Hell no!

    -Chrono Trigger is considered one of the greatest video games of a generation for a good reason, so I’m really not doing the game plot any real justice.-


    1. Andrew Watts

      The sequel Chrono Cross begins by alerting fans of the original game that the Kingdom that your characters resided in has been conquered. The main protagonist Crono and his wife princess Nadia are presumed dead. All this made possible by a former antagonist the band of friends encountered and defeated previously. Even more disheartening is that the natural resources that Prometheus / Robo helped seed has been used in an attempt to conquer the world by a fascist dictatorship. Practically all the trees were chopped down to make way for the fascist country’s industrialization. This is vaguely hinted at by conversations between soldiers, but it’s mostly my subtle understanding of the plot.

      Over the course of Cross, Prometheus is killed. Another major character from the original is kidnapped and then later killed when the antagonists cannot get what they want from her. In the process of this they torch down her home / orphanage. It’s also vaguely implied by the CGI scene with the antagonists that some of the children who are yelling and crying (off screen) may not have made it out of the burning orphanage. Even though you can save some of them.

      The game rescues itself in the end by delivering a promise as well a warning (to the player) that the world is full of possibilities. Both good as well as bad. The first time through the message was completely lost on me. I was mostly pissed off about how many minor/major characters were killed off. It took a lot of growing up and maturity on my part to appreciate this message. This is the reason why most people who play Chrono Cross years later on in their lives seem to like it better then when it originally came out.

      I don’t know whether Game of Thrones is going to have a similar emotional payoff in the end. It clearly sounds like a plot going a little overboard in proving the futility of power politics though.

  56. seabos84

    I’m a high school math teacher for the last 8 years, career 3, over 50, and the wife got me hooked on that fictional history stuff a few years ago. While the 26 year old math teachers are home trying to rewrite the text books, I’m home, fried, escaping… sci fi, richard sharpe, cop books, real reading …

    Politics has been my family NASCAR, NFL, Knitting … since before I was 8 in ’68 and my old man hated nixon & my aunts were bailing on roman baby factory theology.

    I read the books during the spring of 2012 – spring is when I am MOST burnt out. Then I read the “Guns of August”. Said to the wife – GOT is … thieving, murderous elites, just life the f’kers who started World War 1 – only with some magic. Wife says (she graduated Boston Girl’s Latin) – hey, you haven’t read Julius Caesar or Tacitus or Plutarch ?! Summer of 2012 reading was translated murderous thieving elites, and then we watched I,Claudius again, and I read the books.

    I think 2 of the earlier posters had interesting perspectives.

    We had Bladerunner and Robo Cop during the Raygun era. GoT is like a lot of other series where what we see everyday is on the idiot box – EXCEPT – maybe an a-hole will get some kind of ‘justice’ on the idiot box – they sure as shit ain’t getting it in reality.

    Oh yeah – and, it gives us a tribal conversation. Lots of the crowd who like Battlestar Galactica like GoT.


  57. pretzelattack

    i started reading this series when it first came out, as a long time martin fan. the first book blew me away, and i settled in for what i anticipated would be an epic series. the next two books didn’t quite reach my expectations, but such is life, and the vagaries of writng a log series, or so i thought. but the last 2 books have been serious disappointments; too many interesting characters killed off, too much focus on less interesting characters, a meandering plot line, and an increasing sense that, after 18 years or so, it’s about goddamn time that winter finally arrived.

  58. vlade

    Did you consider the possibilities that:

    a) people are fascinated by the horrid, even thought it disgusts, horrifies etc. them? And the more believable it is, the more attractive it is (which is why the-monster-is-hidden horrors tend to be classes as better than the gore-in-your-face ones). GoT is very believable.

    b) people just want to find out whether it really ends as badly as it seems to go?

    b) would seem to be your motivation, if I read you right.

    I quit after about book three, IIRC (years ago). One reason was the horridness, but the more important reason was that book four was too long in coming and I couldn’t be bothered to re-read it all again to get the nuances etc. The evilness just made my motivation a bit less (despite excellent writing).

  59. Peripheral Visionary

    I see A Game of Thrones as being another entry in the “bad people doing bad things to each other” genre. HBO did not pioneer it – bad people doing bad things to each other was a staple of pulp fiction through the 20th century (and of popular stage plays prior to then) – but they did quite a bit to popularize it. It is, as others have noted, a medieval version of The Sopranos, which broke the market open for this kind of fare.

    In my view, the appeal is simply that people like watching other people do bad things to each other. It is the same as the appeal of the gladiator games. People did not, as a general rule, go to watch gladiators for the plot, or for insights into broader social realities.

    The Romans were able to justify the gladiator games to themselves because the people involved were “others” who were not a part of Roman society, or a threat to it – rebels, runaway slaves, wild animals, barbarian captives, heretics. We justify our watching of violence based on the justification that the people involved are bad people – members of the mob or ambitious medieval royalty are bad people, they have it coming to them, so what’s the harm in sitting down and enjoying watching them kill each other?

    Comparisons with Tolkien are not apt, in my view. Tolkien had a larger worldview he was attempting to portray, which really reached its full expression in The Silmarillion, not in the more limited Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s worldview was of a world built up by a people of enormous intelligence and capability, but then torn apart by their terrible pride – and then rebuilt by a people who were, if less capable, certainly more humble. It is also a world in which purity and perserverance – not intelligence or force of arms – prevails over evil. That may be an overly pat worldview for some, but it is interesting and compelling – and bears little resemblance to the moral wasteland of Martin’s world (unless Martin has a very big surprise in store with a Third Age-like ending, but I would find that to be a big surprise indeed).

  60. bk

    “It was a once well-ordered, fairly well functioning society, and now that it’s been broken, it looks like it would take a long time to restore anything like the former order.”

    This reminds me of the period after the Roman Empire collapsed and the Feudal System began. Without a strong, central authority people would prey on each other and the weak would seek shelter with the local strongman and his castle of thugs.

    1. Lambert Strether

      Somewhere Graeber makes the point (I’m probably simplifying but it’s an interesting thought even so) that for the average schlub, serfdom was probably a step up from slavery.

  61. jb

    Um, the basic theme of Game of Thrones (the books, and the show) is: “Look at what happens when politicians focus on short-term problems instead of existential ones, such as Global Warming.”

    The basic political theme of the books/show is: “Look at how horrible it is to be ruled by the 1%”

    And the basic character arc is an object lesson in “If you don’t stand up and support the decent leaders, they get replaced with evil men (and women) who gleefully commit great harm.”

    In short, ASOIAF is a morality tale about the horribleness of modern Republicanism (and insufficiently-pious Democratism).

    Just as the Narnia books were a sideways introduction to Christianity, Martin’s stories are an ongoing attempt to nudge readers towards a liberal/socialist agenda, by demonstrating, over and over again, how horrible the other options are.

  62. ZackAttack

    I think you read Martin for his clarity of characterization. He makes you care enough about his characters to get you to love and/or despise them.

  63. BB

    Some high-spirited characters in Texas are coming out with a silver medallion they call “Game of Drones,” which features Obama on a Iron Throne made of missile parts. [Wish I could paste the image]. From their blurb: “The Kings Perish Series is a reminder to us that Kings and rulers are nothing more than mortal men – that their reigns always come to an end. The phrase “Kings Perish” represents the end of monarchy and oligarchy as we enter a new era of history where governments are by the people or aren’t at all. Each unique medallion in this series takes a look at a ruler or group of rulers who have abused their power, exposes them for what they are, and celebrates the end of their reign.”

  64. ChrisPacific

    If you’ve stuck with Game of Thrones despite the pain factor, to what do you attribute the personal and cultural appeal? And if you’ve written it off, when and why did you do so?

    Count me as one who stuck with it. Why is a good question.

    I think for me it was a few things: the writing is extremely skilled, he tells a good story (in the sense of keeping you dramatically engaged and wanting to know what happens next) and the story is really quite original – I genuinely don’t know how it’s going to turn out. In the earlier books especially he has fun setting up reader expectations based on common fantasy plot themes and then knocking them down. That can be a powerful draw for readers that are able to overcome their frustration. You realize you have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen now, and you want to find out.

    I’ve actually found I enjoyed the books more on rereading them. Now that I know what kind of story he is writing, I find I need to keep a certain emotional detachment on first reading so as not to risk being traumatized, which limits my engagement. When I know what’s going to happen in advance then I’m able to empathize with the characters more fully and enjoy it more.

    He has definitely made some creative choices that I probably wouldn’t have myself, and don’t necessarily agree with – for example the excessive sex and violence, amoral behavior, and ‘no good deed goes unpunished’ themes. I think the high level of T&A in the TV series (much of which wasn’t even in the books) also falls into this category. I will say that while virtue is definitely not rewarded in his world, villainy often isn’t either, and many of his tyrants and amoral characters end up sowing the seeds of their own destruction just as the ‘good’ characters do.

    (mild plot spoilers for later books/un-aired scenes follow)

    I do think he sometimes spends too much time with people whose heads I’d rather not peek inside, and his POV characters (especially the ones he adds later) don’t always make sense to me. I wasn’t a huge fan of how Jaime played out as I think he started writing him differently after he made him a POV character (I felt like I was being asked to empathize with him, which I didn’t like). Cersei on the other hand was every bit as nasty as you’d expect. I think he’s using her as a camera in the later books as he doesn’t have any other eyes in King’s Landing from among the established POV characters. He didn’t have to pick her though – for example, he could have chosen Margaery (which would have made for an interesting change). Varys would have been another possibility but I suspect that the plot requires Varys to maintain some secrets from readers at this point. The most interesting characters for me are the ones I can bring myself to care about.

  65. Jim S

    I am late enough to this conversation that probably no-one will ever read this, but your question has drawn me out of my torpor, Yves. Perhaps it’s stewed long enough that I may manage something half-way intelligible.

    Firstly, I can’t recall if I’ve actually read the first book or not. I think I did, but as with a dozen other fantasy series of the 90’s I believe I never bothered to follow up, because by then I’d begun to view the fantasy series as an unnecessary format (thanks in no small part to The Wheel of Time). These days I’ll pick up a single-volume book of 600 pages or so and wonder if there’s actually more than 180 pages of story contained within.

    Of course the method to stretch a 180-page book into a 600-page book is repetition, of going into endless trivial detail that adds very little to the story. Jordan accomplished this by describing gowns and dresses, and I suspect that Martin accomplishes it by descriptions of backstabbery. That’s not to say that the passages themselves are not literary masterpieces, but from the perspective of plot they are repetition. So all of your characters are bastards, even the good guys. Very well, but if you are not trying to fill a fantasy series you can establish this with a couple of choice scenes.

    Now this method is not new. It’s pretty much the method used to write many of the pulp serials during the Golden Age of science fiction and of comic books. What’s new is the specific nature of what’s being repeated, namely the backstabbery and general bastardly behaviour. And this repetition, this steady but irregular drip of water, this ticking clock that sometimes and unpredictably slips a beat, this is what amplifies the nature of what is decribed. It’s bloody-minded writing.

    What the recent popularity of A Game of Thrones may indicate of its viewers is not so much an acceptance of sadism among as an increasing acceptance of bloody-mindedness. That’s what disturbs me.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Hah, I did read it, thanks!

      FWIW, there is both (at least in book 4), both bloody-mindedness (which is an important distinction) but also what looks to me to be sadism (as in scenes with protracted discussion of torture when 1. I’m not convinced you needed torture to get to the plot outcome that Martin sought and 2. Even if you believed 1, the torture did not need to be described in such literally gory detail.

      1. ChrisPacific

        The Theon scenes in the TV series are another good example. While they happened in the books as well, they were ‘off camera’ so to speak. We were allowed to think that Theon was dead for a long time, and the torture scenes were mentioned only as back story and without anything like the level of detail they’ve been given on TV.

        I wish he hadn’t done it – I don’t enjoy watching it and I don’t see what it adds to the story (in fact gets a little plot twist out of it in the books, which he won’t be able to do in the TV series).

  66. Heron

    I’d say what appeals to me about the series is the writing(which is very punchy), the characters(which are well realized), and the historicity. A Song of Ice and Fire comes much closer to an accurate portrayal of late Medieval Europe than most fantasy renditions of that period do. The books are also a series of deconstructions of classical fantasy character tropes, just as the larger narrative tears the gilded veil away from modern fantasies about historical politics. Each character represents one of these tropes, and each character’s story critiques the conventional portrayal of those archetypes.

    I also like that Martin’s characters and writings are incredibly “honest”. Nobody does anything without a believable, personal motivation, and nothing happens in the story just to push the plot in a certain way. I got into A Song of Ice and Fire after giving up on The Wheel of Time and certain other series in, frankly, disgust over how plodding and deus ex machina-reliant they were, so in that regard Martin’s series was a breath of fresh air.

  67. Cocomaan

    Yves, George RR Martin began as a sci fi horror writer. The series, to me, is about the horrors created by power. The fantasy setting means it gets pigeonholed into the “fantasy genre”, but it’s really about the terror and chaos of the moment.

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