This Sunday sees the season finale of the show du jour: Game of Thrones. But what is it about this “sword ‘n’ sorcery” political potboiler that so fascinates readers and viewers around the world, and how might the uninitiated* approach the opus in the first place?
To help, let’s take a quick tour of the world of Game of Thrones (known as “A Song of Ice & Fire” to the cognoscenti), looking at why it appeals to geeky politicos be they this site’s editor Paul Goodman, Michael Gove or myself.
HBO’s multi-million dollar masterpiece is neatly summarised by my mother who feigns disinterest whilst my father and I nit-pick every detail: “as far as I can see, Marcus, you all hum the theme tune, there’s a lot of biffing, a lady takes her top off, a man makes a portentous speech, another lady takes her top off, there’s some more biffing, yet another lady takes her top off, and then you all hum the theme tune again.” It’s actually a fair summary, covering as it does the show’s recurring themes of sex and violence interspersed only by monologues on the nature of power. It’s this last factor that grips the politico’s interest: what is power and where does it lie? Game of Thrones offers competing theories: is power the shadow on the wall or the shape that makes the shadow? Is it a man with a sword facing the unarmed? A king with a crown? A spy shaping the king’s agenda? The question is a classic Rorschach test, with your answer revealing much of your own approach to politics. The show does an admirable job of exploring these issues and so seduces viewers into thinking that that’s the main plot, and not, well, the ice zombie horde that made itself known in the very first scene of the whole show. Hardcore fantasy dressed up as political intrigue – kudos.
First, allow me to get something off my chest: THEY ARE EVEN BETTER THEN THE SHOW. Ahem. Thank you. Let me explain. George RR Martin describes himself as “a gardener not an architect” when it comes to planning his five-volume-and-counting magnum opus. He says he plants seeds (characters, plots, historical references), tends them and watches them grow. Nearly two decades on from his first planting, this has had the effect of giving us villains who turn into heroes (and vice versa), heroes who lose their heads whilst villains win crowns, and small children who become skilled, psychotic assassins – all to the cheers of readers. The questions of power (and the threat of ice zombies) that the show presents are explored in rich and luscious detail. And the use of “point of view” chapters whereby differing, individual characters guide you through the plot creates wonderful opportunities for unreliable narration, incomplete information and any manner of other suspense-building techniques. As a result, these big books still have strong tension.
The canon and the community
A Song of Ice & Fire is a kind of historical fiction for a fantasy world. The historical element comes from having a fully fleshed-out world complete with family trees detailing lineages that last generations and references to events of millennia past. These are explored through a prequel series (The Tales of Dunk & Egg books), through accompanying works such as The Lands of Ice & Fire (the maps) or The World of Ice & Fire (a collection of backstory), and an internet overflowing with a mix of canon extras and fan theories. For me, this is the place I go to hide when the opinion polls get me down. Sites like All Leather Must be Boiled and The Nerdstream Era and podcasts like The History of Westeros (2 hours of historical backstory every week!) and A Podcast of Ice & Fire keep the truest of fans engaged through the long winter between books.
Finally, there’s the games. Steer clear of the official computer games, though, as they tend to be dire quick-buck money-making attempts that add no value. The mods available for Crusader Kings II and the like are a different matter and, as I’ve said before, capture the complexity of playing politics perfectly. The board games are well worth your time too. From the detailed recreations of tactical combat via Battles of Westeros to the rapid-fire living card game, there’s plenty of diversity for gamers of varying levels of geeky obsessiveness. But the best game of all is the main board game. A recent game of A Game of Thrones (think of a cross between Diplomacy and Risk) saw me square off against two Labour parliamentary candidates, a couple of fellow think-tankers and a weapons systems specialist. Needless to say, the level of backstabbing was epic.
So, decide how deep you wish to delve, and enter the world of Ice & Fire. In no time you’ll be signing your emails “Valar Morghulis” and chuckling because you know what “R + L = J” means. Come on in, the nerdery’s fine!
* Unsullied, in fan-speak.