Ordering a Disordered World: It’s getting very hot and humid here in Alabama, thus a perfect time to indulge in the pleasure of a strong fan, vanilla-bean ice cream, and television. One of my obsessions, in line with that of many others, is Game of Thrones, the HBO TV series based on the fantasy series by George R. Martin. So, why might one delightedly plunge into the grit, gore, and gorgeousness of Martin’s fantasy world of Westeros? Many pleasures seem to draw viewers to the series and keep them coming back; these include CGI creatures of fantasy and nightmare, including dragons and murderous shadow men; the creation of a vivid, vaguely medieval, world of heraldry and ceremony, in which diverse families align and clash, echoing the English War of the Roses; the kinesthetic thrill of unexpected violence and the don’t look/look of gruesome acts; and, of course, the sex and nudity, usually involving beautiful young women who are scantily, if at all, clothed (perhaps a bit more parity in this area, oh creative forces behind Thrones?)
One of the pleasures less discussed is the manner in which Thrones creates a world that is, despite its fiction, coherent, even traceable, very much unlike our real world. Yes, the land of Westeros is troubled by conflict, with many characters and the clans to whom they are aligned absorbed into other groups, on the run, or wiped out, yet there remains a relative order amidst the disorder. Of course, one of the reasons for this is that the land of Westeros and the people in it are fictional, controlled by the mind of Martin and, now, the TV producers who have adapted his work. This sense of coherence is one of the advantages of fiction in general, and in watching Thrones a certain pleasure is derived from this sense of order: the knowledge that plots will be resolved, characters will live or die, and be reunited with their families and their homes or forever sundered from them.
We are less certain that such can be said of our world. Not only a town or country, but all memories of a people and their dreams can vanish under the sea or beneath the fire of a volcanic flow. Less dramatically, places and people slowly disappear from view: letters are burnt or lost, treasures are buried, and bones are displaced from grave to grave until all markers of identity, all marks at all, vanish. Our maps keep changing, and our contemporary struggles are often so complex, so incised by ambiguity, that there is no sense of bad guys, good guys, or even maybe-good-but-possibly-not guys. Thrones does create a kind of ambiguity that is familiar: some characters are driven by hurt, by greed, by ambition, to destroy, while others want to act well but cannot, beset by conflicting desires or extenuating circumstances; even the best-intentioned and purest of hearts in Thrones have blood, literal or figurative, on their hands. Such ambiguity is something we recognize from our own world, and it is one of the elements that make Thrones, despite its fantastic settings and creatures, seem so close, so real.
At the same time, the ambiguity of Thrones is nothing in comparison to the ambiguity of our world. What blood we have on our hands we do not know, and from whom it comes, we are unsure. I lie quietly in my bed, wishing my neighbors could be a little quieter, and far away a bomb falls. I go for a walk, enjoying the sunshine and put my hands in the pockets of my shorts, clothing created far away that may have cost people not only labor, but perhaps pain, even death in poorly-ventilated, badly-built factories. I may not have ever killed someone, or deliberately injured anyone, but I am aware, on some level, that I am enmeshed in practices, social, political, economic, that are not daisies, kittens, and sunshine, enmeshed even as I do not know how deep and tight the net might be that connects me to these practices and to other people, other lands.
Given this, there’s something refreshing about watching Game of Thrones; yes, it’s violent, but the violence is relatively contained, and the characters, while often vicious, sometimes feel at least a little bit sorry for their bad behavior. And many of these characters are, at least at first, pure-minded, even as they find themselves wallowing increasingly in the mire: ignoring the tug of conscience or turning on their loved ones in the name of necessity. And within the world of Thrones the characters understand, at least a bit, the moves of the game: a knight here, a rook here, a castle falls. What game I or my clan is playing I do not know. Every night, as I do my dishes in my tiny kitchen, I listen to the BBC World News and to reports of clashes between countries over everything from weapons to water, precious minerals to religion, clashes that draw in other countries, conflicts that create further complications, consequences spreading out like eddies in a pond. There’s no clean response, no clear answer to what to do: act, don’t act, it seems you’re damned either way. At least the characters in Thrones know their allegiances, even if they betray them, and have a sense of family, even if that family is coming apart. No wonder then that so many people, not just fans but the news media, have started to talk about real-world political and economic struggles using the metaphor of Game of Thrones. [to be continued]