How Game of Thrones Reflects Life (no, don’t groan)

The Arts


My more academic friends are quick to dismiss Game of Thrones as a sex-and-swordplay soap opera with silly names, but it’s been pointed out by many that George R R Martin’s cycle of ‘The Song of Ice and Fire’ books follow a theology and social structure much closer to our own heritage than, say ‘Lord of the Rings’.

In this sense they are far less whimsical than they first appear, even in the TV version (particularly after the franchise-securing first season), with many parallels  to our history: the more sophisticated clans in one half overrule the less developed ones in the other, the societies formed  for the return of deposed kings, the feudalism, the sense of natural selection, cruelty and loss,  the differing religions, mistrust between the social classes, empire building, the indivisibility of church and state, slavery, a permanent underclass, courts of politically unfaithful acolytes and war seen as a way of filling coffers, all guided by a tangible remembrance of history.

Hardly a scene passes without someone recalling relatives in earlier times. The campfire storytelling of old legends feels appropriate, as does the emphasis on base appetites. There’s generally too much open mention of sex (if this was to follow a real pattern the upper classes would never speak of it and the lower orders would simply do it rather than the other way around), but much rings true. Of course there are the supernatural elements to contend with, but even these feel like half-remembered legends rather than real events.

The cycle also works on a dynastic level of ‘us and them’, with fathers and mothers determined to leave inheritances to children and gain traction over other families. In a world where many of us are self-made and watch in appalled fascination as the children of the rich squander the opportunities they’ve been handed, this has great resonance. My only cavil is the jumble of British accents that probably blur together in American ears, but sound alarmingly regional to us.

The series that gave the world ‘sexposition’ – the idea that the boring historical stuff can be absorbed if the speaker delivers the sermon in a brothel – largely loses its sauciness after the early seasons as the writings of Machiavelli and Sun-Tzu are foregrounded, meaning there’s more to chew on here than in the average TV series. That’s down to Martin, a talented fantasy writer with decades of experience – and more proof that stories are best told by a single person, not a committee. It’s also a mark of the kind of commitment HBO seems to bring to everything, making the BBC’s ‘War and Peace’ look coy and corseted by comparison.

For decades ITV was seen as the tarty sister of prim BBC – now British channels have powerful competition in the form of the new US formats. A golden time for television? Perhaps, if only because it shows us the utter poverty of Hollywood films in the 21st century.

5 comments on “How Game of Thrones Reflects Life (no, don’t groan)”

  1. Adam says:

    I’m a huge fan of the books. Chris, I’d be interested in your view from an author’s perspective on whether GRRM has any sort of obligation to his loyal readers to get a wiggle on and finish the next book in the series (5 yrs and counting), or whether it is entirely up to him what and when he writes…I’m in the latter camp, but plenty of my friends feel differently!

  2. Ross welford says:

    Lets all lay off poor GRRM or it’ll never get written! I can’t think of anything more guaranteed to strangle a writer’s muse than the knowledge that a huge and costly industry is shouting, “Hurry up!” The man is some sort of a genius. We should respect that.

  3. admin says:

    I think GRRM owes nothing to his readers other than what he chooses to deliver. It doesn’t stop me from wanting to go around his house (and Hilary Mantel’s) and shouting ‘For God’s sake get a move on!’

  4. Brooke Lynne says:

    And now you know how we feel when another B&M work is not on the near horizon.
    BTW, I finally got a copy of Burning.

    I’m probably missing your point about GoT since I don’t watch TV. If you want exciting narratives of social structure and theology that strongly resonate with our culture and times, any of the great novels would get you there…Middlemarch, any Dickens, the poets, etc. And there’re several great sex/brothel scenes in the Hebrew Bible, aka Old Testament, available to us thanks to Wycliffe and Tyndale.

  5. Bob says:

    Epic fantasy sagas aren’t really my thing, so I’ve avoided both the books, and the TV adaptations-but George RR Martin is a brilliant writer. Post Twilight, some of us might be suffering from a spot of ‘Vampire fatigue’, but Martin’s novel ‘Fevre Dream’ is probably the best, and most entertaining, take on the vampire myth I’ve ever read. His novella ‘Sandkings’ is also an absolute cracker. A much sanitised version of this story was adapted as the pilot for the revived ‘Outer Limits series. He had a knack for effortlessly blending science fiction and horror. I had a collection of his stories called something like ‘Songs the Dead Men Sing’-sadly now lost-which brought together some of his best stories. It’s worth seeking out if you can find a copy. While it’s a pity that all of his writing effort seems to have been taken up with this fantasy work in the last few years, it’s great that he’s getting well deserved recognition as a writer-and has struck on something he can retire comfortably on!

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