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Sunday, June 09, 2013


(A non-political weekend post.)

I've been catching up with the first season of Game of Thrones. (Please: No spoilers!) Although the series is extremely well-done, I've been trying to figure out why "GOT mania" leaves me feeling vaguely irked.

Here's one big reason: You need to be a scholar just to follow the story. And extending that kind of scholarship to a work of fiction feels wasteful.

Many young people know a zillion details about George R. R. Martin's concocted history, even though those same younguns can tell you nothing about history history. College kids can name the animal totems favored by the various clans vying for power and/or survival in Westeros, yet they probably can't tell you the animal totem favored by Napoleon Bonaparte.

(Okay, he had two: The bee and the eagle. But everyone likes eagles, so that one doesn't really count. I always thought that the thing with the bees was kind of weird.)

On the other hand, it is true that Martin's pseudohistory carries echoes of the real stuff, and there's a good chance that some viewers will want to follow those echoes to their source. For example, the tale of the brawny, barbaric Asiatic leader and the Platinum-Haired Queen Whose Name Starts With D (But I Can't Remember the Rest) reminds me of the Nibelungenlied -- the bit Wagner left out, although Fritz Lang put it back in. It's a long story involving a Germanic princess named Kriemhild and her boyfriend, Attila the Hun. (Although Kriemheld is legendary, she was inspired by a real-life 6th century princess.)

Hey. It just hit me: The names "Lannister" and "Stark" are meant to suggest Lancaster and York -- right? Jeez, why didn't I see this earlier? Y'think Martin is going to include that thing with the three rising suns? (That's gotta be the weirdest scene in all of Shakespeare.)

Speaking of historical parallels, Ned Stark's tomboy daughter reminds me the other French girl I love, so I'm guessing she comes to a similarly bad end. You're just dying to tell me right now, aren't you? Don't.    

Bottom line: Although I question whether any work of fiction should require quite so much effort and attention, Martin's epic may inspire a few young people to crack open a book and read about what actually happened in days of yore. If so, then all is well.

Then again, then again....

To be honest, Tolkien-esque epic fantasy has always kind of rankled me. Basically, the entire genre comes down to one question: Wouldn't the Middle Ages have been a lot cooler if that icky old Christianity never existed? 

Yes, yes -- I know that the stories told by Tolkien and his followers take place either before recorded history or in some imaginary world. (And yes, I know that Tolkien was a Christian.) But let's be honest: On a cultural and technological level, the whole genre is an idealized vision of a Medieval period freed from the tyranny of Christ. Such a buzz-kill, that Jesus was. 

Well, I disagree with this premise. I don't think a Jesus-free Middle Ages would have been more interesting. In fact, I would argue that the Church was the most fascinating aspect of that period.

(I didn't say laudable. I said fascinating.)

Quick quiz: Name the most popular stories from that period of European history (i.e., between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance). Which are the tales that nearly everyone knows about?

The first example that popped into your head was probably the story of Joan of Arc, which is about religion as much as it is about politics. One could say the same thing about the epic face-off between King Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. One could mention Heloise and Abelard. Hildegard of Bingen. Most people know about the massacre of the Cathars, the classic tale of the struggle for religious freedom. Although King Arthur is a fictional character (albeit one with a hazy real-life antecedent), the Grail legend takes us to the very heart of religion.

Throughout those centuries, those who loved the Church and those who fought against it were united in this: They had a cause. They had something to fight for -- something beyond mere self-advancement. That factor explains why the stories referenced above continue to haunt our collective imagination. By contrast, most people don't know who (say) Isabelle of France was, which is quite a shame, because she was one amazing lady. But as remarkable as her story may be, it doesn't have a religious vibe, and so it doesn't speak to moderns. (On the other hand, there is the feminist angle...)

That "something to fight for" factor doesn't seem to figure into most modern fantasy epics -- not even in the superbly-crafted Game of Thrones. Pseudo-Medieval fantasy stories always seem bereft of ideas. I don't understand the appeal of this genre for the same reason I've never followed team sports: Since the Baltimore Ravens don't stand for anything outside themselves, why should one root for them?

So far, Martin's tale seems to be pure politics: I challenge you; I knock you down; now I'm King of the Hill. In epic fantasy stories, motives are always a matter of self self self. Motives are never cosmic.

Say what you will about Peter Waldo or Francis of Assisi: Those dudes were as cosmic as they come.
"I've been trying to figure out why "GOT mania" leaves me feeling vaguely irked. Here's one big reason: You need to be a scholar just to follow the story. And extending that kind of scholarship to a work of fiction feels wasteful."

I love the Redwall books; the complete essence and practice of Christianity, with absolutely no mention, or concept, of god.
One of the rarely addressed problems with "historical fantasy like GoT and LoR is a technological one: why does civilization go on for thousands of years but never seems to discover gunpowder? Or if they do, as in The Two Towers, they never figure out firearms? (I have a tale in my head that addresses such but have never read one otherwise.)

Perhaps, this rapt attention will engender some actual historical study.

I agree that it is much too much work to keep up accurately with the characters in GoT. If every a show begs for character labeling or pop-ups to click for more info, it is this one. After watching the Godfather, I was so bewildered by the names, I bought the book so I could keep them straight (still the best thing ever written about management).
There are religious elements in GoT. But going into any detail would spoil later developments. But that's what the "song of ice and fire" is all about: the extra human forces constantly threatening mankind. And the dragons, I suppose, which you'll have seen by now.

It is supposedly based on the events of the hundred years war, yes. That's official.

Eagles are popular, Rome, Nazis, America, but bees aren't unheard of. They're the nearest thing the freemasons have to a totem, for example. I assumed earlier that GoT was based on the Anglo-Saxon period. There are seven houses, as in the heptarchy. The Targaeryans' totem is a dragon, as was that of the house of Wessex. Wessex's was a white dragon, the Targaeryans have white hair. But no.

I also stayed away from GoT until just before the start of the current (third) series. But it's all quite enjoyable so far. I tend to stay away from things that get a lot of praise. I would still claim in person not to have seen, or not to have been impressed by, the Wire. And it took me a very long time to see Firefly.

I'm not normally into epic fantasy. Tolkien's fine, the Silmarillion more than LotR. And that Lovecraft one, I think it's "Dream of Unknown Kadath". But I'm more of a Discworld sort of bloke. I have a soft-spot for the Icelandic sagas. I like the mix of legalism and ass-kicking.

I don't like Joan d'Arc, though. Possibly because she was on the other side in the Hundred Years War. I also think she was definitely a witch. Margeret Murray, very convincing. Not necessarily having supernatual powers, of course, but Murray puts forward a case that she was in contact with higher powers, specifically members of the aristocracy, who she was part of a cult with.

And isn't vengeance the most cosmic motive of all?
Read the episode synopsis at IMBd as you watch. That will help you figure out who's who and what's up.

I don't find GoT any harder to follow than, say, War and Peace. ;-)

There certainly are religious conflicts at play in the story, but you'll need to be further along to note them (and I'm not sure how much exposition there will or can be in the series). There's more room for that sort of thing in the books. Apparently an infinite amount of room, in fact, since the series was originally supposed to be a mere trilogy and appears to be expanding without limit. ;-)

As for gunpowder and firearms, one need only note that the Chinese had gunpowder for three centuries before weaponizing it at all (in the form of grenades), another hundred years elapsed before they thought of using it to propel projectiles. Prior to that, civilization had indeed been "go[ing] on for thousands of years", and (more importantly) been engaging in organized warfare for thousands of years without discovering gunpowder, so I don't think that's exactly a "problem". Perhaps potassium nitrate is unusually scarce in Westeros ;-).

Besides, when you have dragons and wildfire, who needs gunpowder?

In any event, keeping the characters and storyline straight is relatively easy if you've read the books.
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