FORTUNES OF A BLOCKBUSTER
One could say that HBO’s big as Ben Hur Game of Thrones series is like the proverbial curate’s egg “good in parts”. If so, approaching a seventh season touted to be something of a continuous nightmare, viewers may, like Clive James earlier on in the series, ask themselves why they are still watching. The question is pertinent if like James you don’t relish the by now distinctive violence and aren’t especially interested in the (effectively soft porn) sex either.We may have a clue to the fandom and sometimes addiction Thrones engages from the fact devotees include politicos such as Barack Obama, David Cameron and Julia Gillard. I suspect they and audiences generally appreciate depictions of the unvarnished ruthlessness they increasingly sense politics is about. And as people love to hate a bad character, the series offers plenty of opportunities to do just that. The tradition of the Jacobean revenge drama has returned….with a vengeance!
(A picture of Dark Hedges, site of Princess Aryas’ escape. Incredibly I was told this is now N Ireland’s most visited natural site (bar presumably Giant’s Causeway) and certainly the tourist traffic and crowds are all apparent)
What’s good about GOT has always been obvious enough: the sheer spectacle (realized across Ireland and 32 locations from Morocco to Iceland), the twists of plot and the intrigues, the well choreographed battles etc. The production alone is enough to fascinate anyone, especially if like myself you have ever had anything to do with drama or scripts. When in Ireland recently and on a trip that included some of the series’ locations, I was told more people are involved in the production of GOT than the whole civil service of its Northern Ireland home. So I have enjoyed insights into that side of things having moreover watched the series in the best possible way. This is not on TV but via DVDs which include features about precisely the settings, the production, the actors, the script writers, meanings and symbolism viewers might otherwise miss – some expect the series and its books to become the subject of doctorates!
More certain is that there are always going to be less than academic debates about how the epic ought to wind up. The script writers who have already imposed some variations upon the first volumes have now got ahead of the rather displeased author (who supplied only a few clues as to his final intentions) and are preparing for the last and eighth series before the final volume of the epic has been written. One might guess that the stoical, romantic Jon Snow, bastard of House Stark, will discover his true origins and (the author’s original intention of marrying him to Arya being dropped) get to marry the long suffering, reformist Daenerys, mother of dragons and so bring peace to the seven incurably warring kingdoms of Westeros. This would fit with the epic’s at least intermittent sympathy for underdogs and women. The dragons belong, incidentally, to the more magical side of an epic fantasy more realistic than magical or “poetic” in any Arthurian style and located in a para-medieval world that is nonetheless pagan and has existed for millennia.
I don’t know if and how much Irish mythology may have influenced the author, but with or without its influence there are real affinities for a work like Lady Gregory’s Complete Irish Mythology in its sprawling nature and tendency to switch between the big picture and the small item. For that reason I should perhaps not have been so surprised as I was to come across a copy of an Irish translation of GOT in a Dublin bookshop this June. Not that the author’s writing style notably recalls anything Irish, and due to certain bittiness I never found reading GOT that easy by bestseller or any other standards. I will not try to summarize the plot here, there are plenty of sites on the Net where you can find explanations and summaries including précis of each season and episode on Wikipedia, but beginners might use Game of Thrones for Dummies at http://www.thedailybeast.com/game-of-thrones-for-dummies .
AND THE NOT SO GREAT
Ultimately however, and despite some satisfaction at how much GOT has put not just Ireland but even and especially its dourest corner (Northern Ireland) onto the emtertainments map, I am not a devoted fan, more an interested observer. The cultural critic in me is fascinated by the fact the series is quite such an unprecedented hit and there are things I want to understand about this. How much is this blockbuster real art and a mirror of the times with a message, or just overrated sensation and questionable entertainment? I will concentrate on what’s most controversial and sometimes just bad, because this is where the crux of the popularity question resides. It does seem that so often there’s a widespread liking of the series despite this or that, and the doubt list grows.
When two of the lead actors of the series, John Dance and Kit Harington were introduced to the literary source for the series, the former thought the books “frightening” in their thickness (how could one read so much – the first volume alone is over 750 pp?!) and the latter felt the material “the weirdest”. Lengthy Tolstoy himself couldn’t outdo this bestseller – except for literary power. Game of Thrones and its sequels are not classic literature. They can be over-complicated with, in places, a constant addition of characters making up for strength of narrative – quite a lot of readers and viewers do give up on account of the intricacy, something compounded by even the author’s bizarre use of names. These are often either unnatural, forgettable tongue twisters like Viserys Targaryen or they are too similar for comfort. For example, the leading character (as opposed to the hero) who is the dwarf Tyrion of house Lannister, must hold its own against among others, Tommen, Tywin and the whole house of Tyrell and the house of Tully, and Samwell Tarley and Brienne of Tarth and Theon Greyjoy, Tion Frey… and quite simply the author has a running love affair with the letter T.
Ordinary names, words and titles get altered around like Joffrey for Geoffrey, Jon for John, Eddard for Edward, Maester for Master or Meister, Olyvar for Olivia, while numbers of royal or noble characters like Sir Jamie have inexplicably to be written as Ser. There can also be mythically suggestive names like Cersei which is obviously Homer’s Circe though Cersei isn’t really like that anyway. This queen of intrigues is not a solitary witch but a very socialized woman. House Lannister into which Cersei is married is an echo of Lancaster in the Wars of the Roses which is one source of author George R R Martin’s general mythology. Its chief inspiration is admitted to have been The Lord of the Rings, though perhaps even CS Lewis’s Narnia just a little to the extent winter and snow is a theme – the motto of the northerly House Stark is “winter is coming” .
LANGUAGE AND ACTING
The profusion of often weird names is almost minor against the strangeness of whole sections of the drama being interspersed with quite lengthy orations and conversations in an invented foreign tongue associated with especially the Dothraki people. Subtitles offer no translation. I take it the idea is inherited from certain late experiments of Tolkien with Elvish, but it’s hardly either very entertaining or revealing- in fact it’s boring.
Odd too is the crazy patchwork of accents among the actors, posh, cockney, north country, Irish etc which I imagine belongs to an increasing pop culture, post modern will to include and diversify at all costs, even if it doesn’t really fit natural expectation for the characters involved. But it also belongs to increasing emphasis on the visual over the auditory, a preference for strong presence over powerful delivery. (Sometimes there is near incomprehensible gabble or whisper instead of clear diction, though again that’s hardly unique nowadays to GOT). A few of the actors, especially among the younger ones, struck me as pretty weak. They delivered their lines in ways that trivialize or infantalize the sense, but then you later realize they were probably chosen because they are otherwise versatile – good acrobats, dancers, horse riders, swordsmen, good lookers or whatever.
Both book and film script are free in their use of the vernacular. Together they convinced me for once and for all that, paradoxically, vulgar talk and four letter words simply don’t automatically lend realism and power to drama at all, they may even reduce it to the atmosphere of a kid’s playground. ( I have just been re-reading that strangely violent Victorian classic Wuthering Heights, and find it loses no power by simply noting someone began to curse).
It’s true there are nowadays journalists to tell us that when things hotted up between Prince Charles and Princess Diana they might scream at one another fit for the gutter. But that’s still not necessarily representative for them or royal history or anyone. More typical of royals and aristocrats across history has been their inability to unbend and leave the high style or etiquette. Before her execution Marie Antoinette even said “pardon” to her executioner when she tripped on his foot. Occasional verbal outbursts may therefore be the reality for individuals, but fiction and drama offer summary (caricature) only, and thus authority figures can’t afford too much characterization via the merely exceptional or they become less credible…..And the atmosphere for actors and audience itself evidently risks infection. It’s almost but not quite amusing that in one of her DVD interviews Cersei actor, Lena Headey, employs variations of the F word so much, so often she sounds like a case of Tourette’s syndrome!
The fantasy is set in violent “medieval” times, but some of the violence like that periodically directed upon a blind Arya by the Waif in the black and white house of the heads, seems pointless and unexplained. Series Six included skull crushing, eye gouging and burning at the stake (of a child) so one wonders how and why the seventh season is supposed to be more violent. With DVDs it has been easier to avoid some of the gorier and morbid violence by fast forwarding. Extended scenes of torture are quite simply unnecessary, especially in a show which is ultimately entertainment and fantasy of sorts. The torture and castration of Theon, dubious character though he might be, are objectionable and morbid as is also portrayal of his humiliation – he is to be gradually reduced to the animal or to a contemptible non entity called Reek. (Much later in the series he is deprogrammed back to reality and dignity or sorts and even helps save Princess Sansa from her marriage cum imprisonment. It is one of the oddities of the story and its often disjointed script’s lack of exposition and explanation that we see the pair jump off battlement walls in what seems as though in despairing suicide only to find them hail and free later).
I have only read book one, but the TV series seems true enough to Martin’s violent realism which is persistent, ugly and everywhere. If I open Volume One taking just a sentence or two at random I get (and this is mild) “Blood had gushed from the boy’s mouth as he collapsed, and more was seeping from the slit in his belly, pooling beneath his body. His palms were cut where he’d grabbed at the blade. She backed away slowly. Needle red in her hand….”
We learn the production company use a concoction with blueberries for vivid blood, and they make it all sound very funny, but one gets weary of blood streaming from mouths, eyes, stomachs, and sometimes necks. Series three ends with “The Red Wedding”, a spectacular and breathtaking orgy of bloodletting and decapitations at a wedding banquet. This is overkill (no pun) for what is only fantasy; but if you insist it’s life and history, then life has enough of it for us to need to get away from it. However, if we aren’t being offered “realistic” blood for the inspection then we have to suffer such as Tyrion vomiting badly. I am not aware how the Belfast production unit composes the vomit.
I suspect that a recent confession by Dame Maggie Smith that she probably couldn’t become an actress today because she would lack the now requisite courage to keep removing her clothes, is influenced by the nudity of GOT. There’s plenty of bare flesh and sex in Thrones but a major part of it has to do with Lord Baelish’s (Littlefinger’s) King’s Landing brothel. It is used in plots against enemies and to manipulate people. The dwarf Tyrion through perhaps inferiority complex, gets through many women but almost loses his heart to one whore.
I would agree with Clive James that the sex is basically Hollywoodized (one might say Playboyized) as it directs upon women. An emphasis on women might seem only natural and inevitable except for one vital point. If you are not directing porn as such (and in fact adult film actors were brought in for some of GOT’s sex scenes), stage and TV portrayals of nudity have long been justified provided they were essential to the plot and perhaps reflected also something more like honesty, vulnerability, spontaneity rather than glamour. Not only is some of GOT’s exposure of the glamorous whores and the lesbianism of some of them irrelevant to any plot, but a key element in the story, a princely homosexual intrigue with major consequences, a trigger to the religion/inquisition threat to House Lannister, is almost skated over by comparison. Its psychology is unexplored and its expression little shown. In short, if relevance and realism were any criterion, a series as frankly outré as GOT should have shown more male and less female nudity. That it hasn’t raises question of artistic integrity, sexual equality, etc. (Granted there was intended to be a nude scene for Kit Harington’s popular hetero Jon Snow character, but it didn’t proceed because the actor broke his ankle….life on set in GOT is dangerous!….but if it had gone ahead would it have been relevant save as gratification for Harington’s fans?).
The sole light relief from the controversial slave market erotica of the brothel and the suggestions of primitive sex among the Dothraki is in my opinion the hilarious first night of the jubilating, innocent Tommen with his queen. The young and exquisite Dean-Charles Chapman reports it was extremely demanding to perform. This can be believed and he deserves a medal. However you won’t see more of him clothed or unclothed as he has committed suicide out of the palace window rather than been killed off like his mad brother Joffrey and so many others.
AND THE MEANING IS?
Although a story doesn’t have to have a meaning, with the source text stretched over vastly more than War and Peace, and drawing in huge audiences across years, meaning could be expected. We may have to be satisfied with absorbing a general message or even just a feeling about life rather than anything more philosophical or theological though sometimes the story veers in that direction. There is a whole plot line in the conflict of new and old religions, specifically one that holds to seven gods and the other to a new god of fire and light, the latter suggested to the author by Zoroastrianism in its struggle against polytheism. The supporters of the one god are fanatics or hypocrites. Their behaviour appears to look back at the medieval inquisition and thus fictionally seems like a dig by the agnostic author at Christianity especially as it’s followers of the old gods who seem a little more enlightened and generous. It does however get suggested, contemporary style, that perhaps all the religions are the same anyway.
Unless the series’ conclusion will indicate otherwise, I think all that we can derive by way of “message” is that war is always more or less futile, that human existence offers bleak prospects, that just survival is the main game and that amid it any meaning arises from purely random individual acts of wisdom, courage and generosity. The dwarf Tyrion exemplifies the wit to survive but, with a nod towards feminism; it’s if anything the women like Arya and Catelyn Stark and Daenerys who beyond using the mind own some generosity. Jon Snow and his sidekick Samwell Tarley are not a bad second for male consciousness. ….
OR THE MORAL AMID AMBIGUITY IS?
Apart from random acts of sense and kindness there is no real moral principle or centre to this story of “you win or you die” situations. Even the better characters are distinctly flawed. Catelyn Stark has been rotten to bastard Jon Snow though she has the grace eventually to admit it. Her principled husband Eddard, one of the more attractive characters of the saga, launches the drama in a cruel way, insisting on the beheading execution of a soldier who having escaped an attack from the supernatural White Walkers and who thus provides useful news, is seen only as having deserted his post. The better characters don’t necessarily have more fortunate endings than the worst. Call this pagan amorality or postmodern moral ambiguity, but in the final analysis how really true to life is it if realism is any kind of aim?
The ultimately amoral quality of the saga is well represented by its treatment of one of its main characters, Ser Jamie, twin brother of Queen Cersei. From the first the pair are in incestuous relationship which they have justified from long standing Egyptian-style tradition. In a fantasy readers may allow them this alibi, but what they cannot or should not allow is that Jamie in covering for this affair throws Eddard’s son, young Bran, who espies the pair from the castle window, to what is intended to be the child’s death though in fact it will be life as a cripple. Although this is criminal behaviour and pointless too (since would the child understand the situation or be believed if he reported it), Jamie is still allowed to emerge as something of a kindly, admirable hero. This marks an improbable character development which if it avoids ethical questions seems scarcely true to life either..
SOME CELESTIAL MARKERS
It might take astrology to explain the retiring author of GOT, his tastes and aims, and in fact I mention it because it does supply one or two clues to his influence and and the virtual cult he has launched. George RR Martin (born 20th Sept 1948 at 9.25 pm Bayonne, NJ) saw light of day with Sun in Virgo. He also had a Saturn hard on him at 0 degrees of that sign, a feature which belongs with the painstaking slow labour of his novels but also the over-intricate plot and the narrative theme of a celibacy which stands in contrast less to romantic love than to sexual chaos.
The actual concept of a “game of thrones” owes something to natal Venus conjunct Pluto in “royal” Leo, with the Venus then in positive aspect to Neptune (any fantasy and any film). Venus is the lesser benefic i.e. rather fortunate, and GOT was fortunate to get off the ground after its rather shaky pilot experience. The ultimate success and huge outreach of the series is helped by the expansive and fortunate aspect of fortunate Jupiter to Pluto (fame deserved or otherwise often shows this signature) and Pluto itself on a world point besides. Then too Uranus is found on another world point, at 0 Cancer, sign of Martin’s own nation, America. The grit and murk and the whole theme of war is however due to two factors, first a moon in bellicose Aries exaggerated in its effects through its easy trine to Jupiter and then Mars in the sign of Scorpio. The latter also has something to do with the raw sex.
I am struck by what I feel is the significance for the whole GOT phenomenon of the odd, disruptive if sometimes brilliant Uranus positioned extremely on a world point in Cancer. This is the sign of America, home, family and standard domestic values and pragmatism rather than philosophy. Notice GOT is suitably a production of HBO (i.e. Home Box Office)! In certain respects Martin’s fantasy challenges in Uranian style, even smashes up, the happy home with its bleak, undomestic worldview which no philosophy supports unless the anti philosophy of a post Christian postmodernism. North Korea with its mad cult of a ruling family (not to say ruthless conduct) was born a few days away from Martin with Uranus in Cancer.
SYNCHRONICITY OR INFLUENCE?
With Uranus on a world point the author can, and with exceptional ease, do as art and artists often can, namely anticipate, mirror and/or influence the times. It’s well known that beheading and hanging are frequent in GOT. The series was launched in 2011 (under Aries, sign of war and of the head!) prior to the major development of ISIS so notorious for brutality, vengeance and beheadings. Isis was founded in 2004 but only became strongly active when America withdrew from Iraq in 2011. So here life could be said to follow art… if art didn’t influence it a little too. We can’t know if the organization’s younger western recruits and the likes of Britain’s Jihadi John, active in 2014, would have been encouraged in a lust for heads by the images and action of GOT.
Also during the age of GOT, in 1916 Britain’s ever controversial Channel 4 initiated what critics have called the worst show on TV, namely the dating game Naked Attraction. Individuals select a date from among persons behind glass screens whose faces are blocked out but who are otherwise naked. What is obviously controversial about the show is not the nudity per se, such nowadays can crop up at least briefly in other programmes or on the streets as in events like The World Naked Bike Ride. What’s controversial is the spirit of the thing, the show’s affinity, however sanitized and polite, for slave market and brothel style objectification. Boundaries are broken when bodies and body parts can be assessed for attraction like so many items in a shop window. If (cable) TV hadn’t pioneered in erotics via GOT, one wonders if this kind of show would have reached a national broadcaster and the mainstream. The same could be said about rape. If there wasn’t rape in GOT, would it have got itself against protest into the popular Poldark series? (And we know enough about the attitudes of Poldark’s late author to be certain he wouldn’t have wanted it in any adaptation – he objected to the BBC’s earliest version of Poldark, when the hero’s wife was portrayed as sluttish).
If we look back in time rather than forwards it is at least ironic and, as they say, “goes with the territory” that of all places in Ireland it is the region of Ulster should play host to (and by now be half colonized by) GOT. Ulster has been famous for violence and not just in recent centuries but back into the mythic past, which as said may have influenced Martin, where Ulster’s hero, Cuchulainn, plays hurley with severed heads. In some respects GOT carries shades of the Roman games, but it may carry some of Ireland’s wilder, darker side too.
TOWARDS THE END AND BACK TO THE QUESTION
With all this in mind I return to my original question about the popular culture phenomenon that is GOT. How much should we like it? Given all the barriers to appreciation I’ve outlined, one can’t offer more than qualified praise. This raises questions about those whose admiration is uncritical. What is it they truly value and enjoy? Can it be the challenge to accepted standards and censorship and with that the charm of belonging to the avant-garde in-group who approves it that we should suspect? It so, that could be serious. The fact remains that until laws and cultural values imposed greater sensitivity, executions and many forms of punishment were spectator sports. People enjoyed viewing death and torture in the public square or in the Roman amphitheatres. Too many probably still would – even today there apologists for the cruelties of the bullfight as “culture”. Arguments to the effect film and drama somehow sublimate and keep vicious desires within limits are dubious. Rape, torture, and violence generally can always be conveyed by shouts and screams off stage. By contrast images can sow seeds and foster obsessions. And as said, who knows if Jihadi John and his Beatles band or the insufferable Sally Jones weren’t encouraged as children of the West by modern entertainment of the GOT variety?
If you find elements of GOT plain distasteful, why keep watching? There are interest groups and persons from Christians to the Turkish army, from feminists to PETA who have their objections and even acting in the show can leave people with second thoughts (Jack Gleeson who fulfilled a childhood ambition to perform in a blockbuster by playing King Joffrey, is now debating whether he wants to act any more – he’s reverted to philosophy and theology studies at uni!). So the question why watch is meaningful. In my own case the answer (excuse?) is the very human one that I like to finish what I’ve begun and having travelled so far I wish to see what more of Ireland gets onto film, know how the saga ends and have a still clearer picture of what the bizarre phenomenon of the books and its series means, my writer’s purpose in the first place..
If it ends with the dragons as virtual saviours, since symbols and archetypes may be obscure but cannot lie, I might be forced to conclude the whole enterprise was as bordering devilish as some imagine it to be (with Lucifer in direct aspect to the author’s Venus and Mars, his sex and violence themes, that can’t be entirely ruled out!). The dragon is a variant of the serpent and in apocalyptic vision is a form of the devil. It is interesting just how many books and films of recent vintage have promoted images of dragons and serpents as friendly, helpful, harmless or unreal really. (Though I haven’t read it and can’t say it belongs to what I have in mind, top of several fiction lists of 2016 has been a novel, The Essex Serpent ).
I suspect that in years to come GOT could be seen as an aspect of the kind of general collapse of values and self-deception memorably described in a recent non-fiction bestseller, Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe. I wouldn’t be surprised however if once the series comes to an end amid arguments between author and adapters about how it should end, it will die a natural death and be little remembered unless as a staging post in large and super-expensive TV production. (I could imagine a fate la bit like that of the once incredibly hyped and for its time costly and spectacular Taylor Burton Cleopatra film). And we who took GOT seriously might then seem as silly as the curate who managed to find his egg good in parts. But time will tell.