I always hated He-Man. An action figure that time has largely forgotten, he – sorry – ‘He’ was the lord of Castle Grayskull, and spent the 1980s battling Skeletor, whom he always defeated, and irrelevancy, which ultimately vanquished him.
The other boys in my primary school collected He-Man much as they collected head-lice, but I always despised his page-boy blonde haircut and bulging muscles. His appearance would have reminded me of Clive James’ famous description of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a ‘condom full of walnuts’ if I’d known what a condom was at the age of eight.
I mention He-Man not just to pat myself on the back for rejecting plasticised machismo early in life, but because that’s where my lifelong antipathy towards fantasy literature began. While many of my sweaty teenage boy classmates spent their lunch hours swapping Magic: The Gathering cards and rolling AD&D dice with an unfeasibly large number of sides, I was never interested.
I dutifully ploughed through Lord of the Rings, but couldn’t stand the parts where Tolkien goes on about obscure Elvish genealogy and Tom Bombadil – in other words, 85% of it. My anti-fantasy bias was so great that it even deprived me of Terry Pratchett for many years, which I acknowledge this was a mistake, not least because he spends a lot of his time mocking the genre.
I’ve always suspected that the thicker the book, the less point there is in reading it. I reckon The Great Gatsby says far more in 47,000 words than most fantasy authors’ lifetime output of books thicker than phone directories. Which is why I can’t understand my all-consuming love for Game of Thrones, and the series it’s based on, George RR Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire.
I mean, come on – the very title reeks of black Doctor Who t-shirts drenched in adolescent boy-sweat, doesn’t it? And yet, it’s excellent.
It took me a while to get on board. A friend who shares my bias had to tell me over and over again that no, I really would enjoy it; yes, even though there’s magic, swordfighting and dragons. And it took an episode or two before I realised that there was more going on than yet another tedious battle between the goodies and the baddies that’s inevitably won by the Chosen One.
At first it seems to be the story of a good family, the Starks, that takes on a bad family, the Lannisters. But then we discover that some members of the supposedly bad family are both noble and witty, and that the other family has Issues, and then more families are added into the mix until it’s no longer clear which side you want to win, and the reader begins wondering whether power itself is worth the effort and risk.
By the second-last episode of the first season, I was hooked. That episode ends with one of the unexpected deaths that has become the series’ trademark. I won’t say who dies to avoid spoiling the surprise, and besides, anyone who’s seen it will be unable to forget. But after the series was over, I was so desperate to find out what happened next in Westeros that – gasp – I started reading the books.
Which proved extremely entertaining, to my relief. Martin ends each chapter with a cliffhanger, which keeps you reading just one more chapter until it’s 3am and – come on, seriously, why is Dany dealing with yet another dull slave city instead of heading over to Westeros and fulfilling her destiny?
Yes, I said ‘destiny’, like a proper fantasy fan, and I’m fine with that, because Martin’s series is ultimately about reality. Even though the very first scene involves terrifying blue-eyed ice zombies, and one of the characters’ hobbies is raising dragons, Martin’s novels are all about examining human nature in a feudal, magic-infused society.
There are competing conceptions of duty – to one’s country, or one’s family, or the abstract idea of what’s right. There’s betrayal, duplicity and religious faith – and at least two of the religions really seem to work, curiously. Whereas in Tolkien the noble side inevitably triumphs, yawn, in the world of Game of Thrones, principles can be a fatal inconvenience. Despite being an unreal world, Westeros is full of realpolitik.
Our society contains very few pure-evil Sauron and Voldemort types, as much as Vladimir Putin seems to be trying. And Martin’s books feature a series of uncanny comparisons with contemporary politics, as advisors attempt to manipulate the situation to their own advantage and multiple leadership challengers emerge. The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros gets caught in a ‘debt and deficit disaster’, and Tyrion Lannister finds an innovative means of stopping the boats that might well give our own government ideas. It’s like an episode of Insiders where Piers Akerman and David Marr fight to the death.
Most fantasy stories focus on a few big players, following the ‘great man’ theory of international relations where you can just look at the Gandalfs and Aragorns. But Martin insists on showing us what he calls the ‘smallfolk’, the ordinary peasants who keep getting pressed into fighting wars with which they have no connection, or being randomly slaughtered by invading armies.
This sensitivity to the fate of ordinary people gives the reader a sense of the constant nightmare that protracted conflicts like the Hundred Years’ War and Iran-Iraq War, must have been for ordinary people who don’t care who’s in power, and just want the fighting to stop so they can tend their meagre crops.
Of course, Game of Thrones is also famous for its sex scenes – and while the constant nudefest is perhaps a factor in its record ratings, the plot elements, at least, are an essential part of the series’ examination of power. In the powerful families, marriage is about diplomacy rather than romance. Desire is a powerful motivating factor, and the society’s rigid moral rules are regularly broken by powerful warlords, exactly as they are in our own society by NRL players.
The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros are a world whose moral complexity and ambiguity approaches our own. The story George RR Martin has constructed is so intricate and nuanced that I’ve no idea how he’s going to tie all the threads together. (He may not either, which might explain the delays to the next volume, The Winds of Winter.) Martin says that the ending will ultimately be bittersweet, and in that sense, it will no doubt resemble real life yet again, like the bittersweetness of wanting to watch Game of Thrones legally, but it’s only available on Foxtel.
Martin has given us our world as it must have been lived in the feudal era, with the addition of dragons and ice zombies. Which is why while I’m still not a fan of fantasy, I’m definitely a fan of Game of Thrones.