Part one of this discussion can be found here.
More subtly, Game of Thrones can be used to validate Machiavellian politics and shadowy character traits. Instead of mixed characters simply being portrayed as sympathetic due to the human condition, their warped aspects are made to seem acceptable and even heroic. It becomes more important to be “clever” than to be good, which is seen as nothing short of dull and unrealistic. Indeed, not only unrealistic, but illusory. To quote the character Peter Baelish: “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail, and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, given a chance to climb, they refuse. They cling to the realm, or the gods, or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.”
This monologue summarizes much of the philosophy behind Game of Thrones. Survivors are the ones to root for, even if they get their fingernails dirty in the process. Indeed, true conversion of life and redemption of heart come to be seen as undesirable and simplistic. This is reflected in other popular series such as Wolf Hall, which features Thomas Cromwell as one such sympathetic survivor anti-hero. In contrast, Thomas More, renowned for his moral integrity, is recast as a priggish, masochistic religious fanatic. Moral orthodoxy is swiftly passing out of style, and moral ambiguity (not just within characters, but within themes) is en vogue.
But secondly, perhaps more profoundly, the celebration of anti-heroes simply reflects a growing ambiguity in society’s moral compass in which “gray is okay.” While fallen human nature is a fact of life worthy of sympathy, it is not worthy of applause. Indeed, we have come to the point when we are unable to sympathize with or applaud true acts of virtue and heroism. In the eyes of many, even the historical reality of Thomas More’s courageous refusal to betray his conscience at the cost of his own life simply demonstrated foolishness and a lack of political savvy. Even with all his internal struggles, they find him a bore precisely because he actually did conquer his fears and stand firm in his beliefs. They find more appeal in Cromwell, who might have been willing to sell out his own mother for a farthing, but at least seemed to have “street smarts”…until even he overplayed his hand by hooking up Henry VIII with homely wife number 4, an act of critical misjudgment that cost him his head!
Frankly, this obtuse perspective seriously damages my faith in the present generation, which dreads being challenged to rise to something higher than a lazy embrace of their own vices. Also, it is making the horrendous mistake of giving too much credit to evil as being more “realistic” than good. This reminds me of the concept of evil merely being a shadow of good. Indeed, true Goodness is the only Real thing there is. Evil is actually a perversion of the good, a phantom that preys upon our weaknesses. Yet Goodness, by its very nature, can never be destroyed, for it flows forth from God, the eternal essence of reality, and will always win out in the end. Romans 12:21 instructs us: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
We must be reminded of that always, and that stories glorying in goodness never grow old. To quote C.S. Lewis: “Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.” This has nothing to do with childish naiveté and everything to do with arming oneself for the fight with the theological virtue of hope. In almost the antithesis of Peter Baelish’s ode to nihilism and claim that climbing the ladder is all that counts, Gandalf encapsulates the philosophy of Tolkien’s universe beautifully in his recognition of what is capable of defeating evil: “Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”
It is also worthy of note that the rare individuals who stand out as having strong moral back bones in Game of Thrones are almost always doomed to wind up dead, usually on account of some virtue they were unable to part with or some act of mercy that came back to punish them. Again, we see the stark contrast between Tolkien’s Catholic worldview and Martin’s secularist worldview. Firstly, I would say that this portrayal of virtue as being inherently destructive, and indeed containing within it everyone’s “fatal flaw”, is a serious breach of understanding on the part of the author. However, we must concede that it is often true to life that we suffer for doing the right thing. As Thomas More points out in A Man for All Seasons, if virtue was rewarding in this world, everyone would be virtuous.
But virtue is rarely rewarded in the temporal sense, and we must not expect it to be in this world. It is often a thing that causes us to be scorned, and rejected, and sometimes destroyed. But the point Martin seems to be missing in his stories is that it is worth being destroyed over, a reality More embraced when he lay his head down on the block. In doing so, he was following the example of his savior Jesus Christ, who laid down his life so that all of us could be redeemed from the snares of evil and be given the grace to be transformed through Him. It is all a matter of what is real, and what is not. If this world is all there is, noble sacrifices are matters of stupidity. However, if the three transcendents of goodness, truth, and beauty do exist, such sacrifices exercise the pinnacle of wisdom.
Virtue has value in and of itself, regardless of the consequences on this earth. In the end, life itself holds little recommend it if every good attribute is sacrificed in order to sustain it for a longer span of time. Death comes for the good and bad alike. The main thing is what state we are in when the time comes. For Christians, this world is not the end, and we hold out hope that everything will be set right on a higher plane. And from this same eternal perspective, the great moments in history will not be based on power and political one-upmanship, but rather on the intentions of the heart and each act of love performed, no matter how seemingly insignificant. In this light, perhaps the most courageous, mature, and proactive thing any of the GoT characters could do would be to willingly lose “the game” and save their own souls that they are gambling away far too cheaply.
Since Game of Thrones is as of yet an unfinished symphony, it is currently impossible to give it a full critique. Of course, there have been some moments of humanity, goodness, and worthwhile epiphany to be had, but considering the length and intensity of the series, they are fleeting and almost always reversed or rendered effectively null in later plot twists. Even many long-time readers/viewers are feeling increasingly disenchanted with the proceedings and decried them as “spiritually bankrupt”. After all, people tend to follow a story for characters they can connect with, and when they’re all dead, or otherwise have become despicable, a chasm begins to widen between the story line and the audience. This risks undermining Martin’s whole rationale for introducing key character deaths to begin with, as people are beginning to detach themselves from them, similar to the way they are detached from orc deaths, and simply accept it as a predictable part of the game.
At this point, many have come to see Game of Thrones as something of a joke, trying desperately to out-do itself in grotesque displays and unusual means of inflicting death on characters, and feeding the fires of ever more bizarre fandom theories about far-flung-flings that result in the conception of interconnected characters X, Y, and Z. In the fanfiction community, the reactions range from the ingenious to the absurd to the obsessive as to how to save the storyline from what everyone can predict will be a typically nihilistic finale. It could accurately be called a form of therapy for the fans who find themselves consistently traumatized by developments and yet, much like the characters, cannot seem to extricate themselves from the vicious cycle of emotional abuse! Meanwhile, even the GoT actors seem somewhat desperate to reaffirm their off-screen identities, as they travel the globe proving that they are, in fact, “nice guys” whose hearts bleed for the unprivileged peoples of the planet.
On a comic note, there have been more than a few hilarious side effects of the series, including a flood of “brace yourself” memes, as well as cut-up jokes indicating that Martin’s marked inability to finish writing the series in a timely manner may have to do with the fact that he has, quite simply, hit a brick wall after turning as his characters into vengeful psychos, and that those characters may just decide to rub him out for the slam-bash finale! Failing that, if he carries out his threat to take umbrance with the fanfiction community over the use of his characters (possibly because he’s scared they might come up with a superior storyline than he has), the fan base might just take up the banner themselves! Also, in the interests of saving Peter Dinklage from having to go back to playing roles set in Narnia and the North Pole, and given how his appearance and psychological state as Tyrion Lannister has proceeded to plummet, some sci-fi fans have mercifully offered him the option of metamorphosizing into…a Star Wars Ewok!
Although Martin has hinted that he might try and give the series a “bitter-sweet” ending (after 2 or 3 more volumes…and his retreating from the public light, aside from giving the odd interview in which he slobbered over the sorrow of having to “part ways” with his beloved, albeit demented, characters at the series’ close), the current state of affairs indicates that it has already plunged into the forest of no return. Indeed, after the last plot twist has twisted, and the last shock factor sprung, and the last act of retribution accomplished, what will people be able to look back and remember as a lasting legacy of the program? Catch-phrases? Contortions? OMG moments? Will anyone really care who winds up sitting on the Iron Throne when the curtain closes, if the Iron Throne still exists at all (which, according to some fandom theories, is far from a certainty)? If there is not some deeper message to be taken away, then Westeros may well become the proverbial house built on sand that will be washed away by the sea of time.
Yet Tolkien’s Middle Earth, often disparaged in the face of the latest hype, will endure. The reason is that, as Sir Peter Jackson pointed out, it is a triumph over the grips of cynicism and an ode to the deepest realities of the human experience. Indeed, to come full circle to the comparison with The Lord of the Rings, I think that Samwise Gamgee’s words are the ultimate worthwhile pay-off: “There’s some good in the world…and it’s worth fighting for.” Maybe this is the most profound element of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works of which George R.R. Martin’s saga seems to have lost sight while getting caught up in exploring the depths of depravity…there is always hope. And goodness. And light. And it is more “real”, in the purity of the word, than evil, and people can embrace it fully and passionately, and it is only through this embrace that they will be able to break the back of hate.