And it’s not only politics that [George R. R.] Martin treats with bracing realism. His books are shorn of much of our present-day, feel-good notions about the goodness of human nature, the malleability of gender, and other contemporary dogmas. The idealizations he avoids are less chivalric than progressive ones.
At their most compelling, the books and the television series offer characters who see the world and themselves through commitments to family, clan, and nation, rather than our narrow, present-day lens of atomized individuals and their arbitrary desires. “Everything I did, I did for my house and my family,” says Jamie Lannister, an admission echoed at one time or another by most of the show’s characters.
The evident fascination of so many readers and viewers with such thick social connections is worth noting. I happen to live in Portland, surrounded by people indifferent if not hostile to tradition, people who want to live their lives independently of family, religion, canons of art and literature, nationhood, biology, market behavior, and probably the laws of physics. Yet many of them are deeply invested in the continuity of House Stark and House Targaryen.
Unfortunately, the writers of the HBO series seem in the end to have been unable to sympathize with the possibility of a positive identity not reducible to a 21st-century self. This imaginative failure sounded ever louder in the characters’ speech, as when Arya Stark, rejecting her courtly role, explains “It’s not me,” or when Danaerys’s advisors repeatedly proclaim their desire to “make the world a better place” and to “leave the world a little better than we found it.” (Given that the show runners are both Jewish, I was relieved that none of the characters mentioned “tikkun olam,” but it was surely a close thing.) The Starbucks cup inadvertently left on a feasting table in one scene was widely reported as a gaffe, but it wasn’t out of place with the show’s contemporary ethos at that point. ...
Michael Totten: Three cheers for 'Game of Thrones'.
In a world without peaceful transfers of power, the only checks and balances available against tyrants are assassination and war. The Mad King Aerys Targaryen ruled from the Iron Throne in the years before those covered in Game of Thrones Season One. He, too, was a murderous psychopath, burning alive lords who displeased him and advisors who disobeyed him. Half the realm rose up in arms—including Ned Stark and later-king Robert Baratheon. When Tywin Lannister’s army approached the capital, the Mad King ordered his pyromancers to lace enough explosives throughout the city to destroy King’s Landing as thoroughly as a nuclear weapon. “Burn them all!” he screamed. “Burn them all!”
Jaime Lannister, head of his very own King’s Guard, ran a sword through his back in the throne room.
Almost everywhere in Westeros is governed badly, not just by modern standards but by its own. “All I ever wanted was to fight for a lord I believe in,” says the imposing female warrior Brienne of Tarth. “The good ones are dead and the rest are monsters.”
Unlike the Westerosi, modern audiences know the way out: liberal democracy, republicanism, the rule of law, and the separation of powers. Lest we assume these are part of the natural order of things, Game of Thrones—with its echoes of our own distant past—reminds us that they are not, and that maintaining them is as difficult as it is essential.
No Jeffersonian figures inhabit the Game of Thrones universe. Such a modern intrusion would break the spell of epic high fantasy and violate the compact between author and audience. A Jeffersonian wouldn’t make historical sense, anyway. The American Revolution grew out of the European Enlightenment, and no such philosophical movement ever existed in Westeros. Even so, consumers of fiction, whether it’s written or filmed, need someone to identify with, someone who shares at least some of their values. Martin gives us the dangerous yet inspiring Daenerys Targaryen. ...
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