(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
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.