In 1461, near the beginning of the War of the Roses, Lancastrian and Yorkist armies fought the second Battle of St Albans. The Yorkists held the captive king, Henry VI. The Lancastrians won the fight. Let Sir Winston Churchill take up the story. “Two knights of high renown in the French war, one the redoubtable Sir Thomas Kyriel, had been appointed as his warders and guardians. Above all they were to make sure no harm came to him.” The knights remained with the King when he was reunited with the victors – including his wife, Queen Margaret.
The Queen “produced her son Edward, now seven years old, to whose disinheritance the King had perforce consented, and asked his child, already precociously fierce, to pronounce. ‘Fair son, with what death shall these two knights die whom you see here?’ ‘Their heads should be cut off’ was the ready answer. As Kyriel was being led away to his fate he exclaimed, ‘May the wrath of God fall on those who have taught a child to speak such words.’ Thus was pity banished from all hearts, and death or vengeance was the cry.”
Welcome to the world of Game of Thrones, shortly to begin its fourth season on HBO – in which the struggle for the crown of England is translated into the contest for the Iron Throne of Westeros, the imaginary continent in George R.R.Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire fantasy novels. Or, rather, welcome to the comparison that has frequently been drawn, and Game of Thrones, with its knights, ladies, castles, tournaments, outlaws, plate armour, braided dresses, siege ladders and wimples certainly looks medieval, and feels it too – at least in the Tarantino sense of getting medieval on your ass.
This is maybe the best way of thinking of the series: as though the director of Pulp Fiction had somehow won the copyright to Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur. Game of Thrones has the lot: a child King; scheming barons; brawls, boozing and battles; a dwarf Lord; dragons; a girl killer; direwolves; Greek fire; ravens; pickled embryos; animalistic sex (with a touch of incest thrown in); bad language (every second vowel needs a *); black magic; – and whores everywhere. Daggers are plunged through eyes, minstrels’ tongues torn out, heads and hands lopped off, men torched to death or tortured on crosses.
How very different from the home life of ConservativeHome’s own dear readers! I was reluctant to watch Game at Thrones – only doing so because three friends whose judgement I trust talked me into it. (I have not read the books.) There is much to dislike. The names and settings can be derivative or contrived – sometimes both. Martin is no Tolkien, with his comprehensive grasp and rigorous imagining of language. Why “Ser” Hugh of the Vale, for example? Why not call him Sir Hugh, and be done with it? The sordidness of spirit seems unrelieved.
However, it is possible for something to be repugnant and compulsive at the same time – and, Game of Thrones is both, at least for me. The first rule of a successful story is: you want to know what happens next. And one really, really does want to know what will happen next. Can Bran remember who pushed him from the tower? Will Jamie Lannister get it on with Brienne of Tarth? Can King Joffrey really be as unrelievedly vile as he seems? (Yes.) How will Jon Snow (no relation) survive? What’s Cersei Lannister like in bed? (Sorry: had to ask.)
The series has what I think are known as “high production values”, and the acting is very fine. There are so many gripping portrayals that it is unfair to single out one – but I will plump for that of a fairly minor character: the exiled knight Ser Jorah Mormont, whose thwarted, scarred idealism is balefully captured by Iain Glen. Very slowly, as the series progresses, shafts of light penetrate the darkness. Bad characters are briefly visited by the better angels of their nature – who can suddenly take flight from good ones. Like the rest of us, people in Game of Thrones are complicated, only more so.
Martin and his co-writers are less willing to kill them off than the series’ brutal reputation suggests – the main ones, anyway. There are at least three to cheer for, and it is perhaps significant that only one of them is a man. There is Arya Stark, the girl who has seen her father bloodily murdered; Tyrion Lannister, a mordantly cynical dwarf; and Daenerys Targaryen, “the mother of dragons”, daughter of the murdered, legitimate king. But though he was legitimate, he was also mad – dangerously so. Did he thus lose his legitimacy? Game of Thrones is a study in the dilemmas of power.
Tyrion, played by Peter Dinklage, is the show’s most recognisably modern character: modern, that is, in his use of wit rather than muscle to get his way, the latter being unavailable to him. He has compassion, too. After having the Grand Measter arrested while the latter is caught in flagrante, he leaves a gold coin for the terrified girl who has also been disturbed. Then Tyrion goes to the door, pauses, strolls back to her…and leaves another gold coin. Later, he tells another: “These bad people, what I’m good out, out talking them, out thinking them, it’s what I am and I like it.“
Martin’s critics would say that his “strong women” (Arya and Daenerys and Catelyn Stark and more) are a cover for misogyny. One takes the point. One of the show’s few songs to date, “The Bear and the Maiden,” is about a rape. And when the subject isn’t rape it’s quite likely to be murder – as when Tyrion and Bronn, his swaggering sidekick, corner a doolally Pyromancer bent on incinerating an invading army with Wildfire (think Greek Fire on plutonium). “This is a s**t idea,” Bronn says pithily, though not entirely correctly, because – but no, I mustn’t give away the plot.
Did I say Game of Thrones is about the Will to Power? Certainly, it’s a study in who can seize it, who can hold it, who can wield it. But there is something deeper going on. “There is only one thing we say to death,” Arya is told by her fencing tutor, Syrio Forel. “Not today.” The heart of the series has the same compulsive pull as Jung’s famous dream, in which he descended through various levels of a house – from his room to a floor with 14th and 15th century decorations to a cellar. There he found scattered bones, broken pottery, and two human skulls.
Jung’s interpretation was that he was journeying to the core of human consciousness – to “the world of the primitive man within myself”: to primeval urges for food, sex, and survival. Game of Thrones casts off of our everyday norms and, in doing so, reaches back much further than the War of the Roses. The fighting, the f**king, the family battles: this is life in the raw. Not the whole of it, not by a long shot. But certainly a part – the bit we’d rather avoid. To save Arya, Forel takes on a band of sword-wielding thugs with a wooden stick. Arya escapes. We don’t know what happens to him.