Warning: Spoilers for Seasons 1-8 of Game of Thrones follow:
Well winter came and went, and after 8 years and 5 books, the saga of Game of Thrones finally bid adieu to the world of television. And though HBO's hit series is now at an end (whose writers must now presumably have more money than the Lannisters themselves) after an admittedly lack-lustre final chapter, the phenomena that is Game of Thrones (or for those 'true' fans, A Song Of Ice And Fire) continues to impact pop culture as we know it in a hitherto unprecedented fashion, never before seen since the likes of Harry Potter or Star Wars. It feels like one can barely go five minutes without being recommended the show, and dipping a tentative toe into the quagmire of internet forums yields pages upon pages of zealous and fervent debate and discussions over George R.R. Martin's fictional world that would put the Small Council to shame. But the question is how? How did this franchise elevate itself to ensnare the popular consciousness and captivate the minds of the masses? Fantasy novels are not exactly exceptional, and since J.R.R Tolkien reinvented fantasy as we know it with Lord Of The Rings the market has been saturated with dull, rote pastiches of the British author's seminal work. Yet from the mind of what once was an insecure, bullied boy from New Jersey, came arguably one of the most influential pieces of fiction of the 21st century.
So what is it that made Game of Thrones go above and beyond, and set it apart from yet another rote sword-and-sorcery adventure?
1- Its Complexity:
Fantasy has never been a genre that has necessitated nuance or subtly. In fact, many fantasies have comfortably run along the lines of: "impossibly handsome young man hits large ugly monster with sword, equally impossibly handsome young maiden is requested. Much carousing and quaffing ensues, fin." With A Song Of Ice And Fire, his saga of Norse-epic proportions, Martin created a universe so staggeringly complex and detailed that it could be easily confused with our own during the medieval era (with the exception, of course, of the presence of slavering dire-wolves and dragons) basing the majority of the ensuing conflict between the inhabitants of the Seven Kingdoms on real-life historical events, the War of the Roses predominant among them. Rather than simply laying out a stereotypical fantasy landscape festooned with locations bearing unpronounceable names, the continents of Essos and Westeros are incredibly rich and vibrant, each privy to its own dialects and languages, with intricate political systems and governments and a gargantuan history meticulously written and fleshed out by Martin over the course of his novels. From the arrival of the first Targaeryen in King's Landing to the apocalyptic destruction of the utopia of Valyria, from the very beginning we are given the impression of a world that feels lived in, where the characters and events have been spurned forward and dictated by the march of history and the individual tragedies and events of each great House or country, rather than simply the arrival of a generic melodramatic Dark Lord in need of defeat.
Moreover, Martin adds layers upon layers to the depth of his universe. The traditions, customs, dresses and habits of each culture and people are, at once, distinctive and memorable, whether it be the barbaric and savage Dothraki, the arrogant and priggish slavers of Mereen and Astapor or the exotic and mysterious sorcerers of Asshai. Songs, folk tales and the legends of this universe are referenced continually, adding to this sense of tangible reality, expounded on by the (relative) lack of high fantasy that makes Game of Thrones easily accessible to those unused to the fantasy genre.
Bar the presence of the nightmarish White Walkers and dragons, the world of Westeros is a marvellously grounded and studied portrait of a European-like medieval society, and historical parallels are abundant, whether it be the echoes of Hadrian's Wall in the towering Wall of ice guarded by the Night's Watch or the distinctive hints of Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun in Khal Drogo, the brutish and merciless yet charismatic leader of the Dothraki hordes, one can always find the tell-tale strokes of deep, devoted historical research in Martin's art. And thus the tragedies and sufferings of the characters the reader (or viewer) is invested in become a hundredfold more powerful, for the abundance of cruelty and inhumanity in the show becomes horrifyingly plausible once we cast our eyes into the past to note that dragons or not, our societies were not so different after all.
2- Its Characters:
I am not the first to write it and neither shall I be the last: Martin's characters are genius due to their moral ambiguity. Grey morality in a fantasy novel is always a refreshing change of pace, for though The Lord of The Rings has some of fiction's most iconic characters, the villains at the end of the day are squat, deformed monsters badly in need of an orthodontist living in black castles under a volcano called Mount Doom.
On the other hand, Game of Throne's heroes often blur the line between being villains themselves, and many of the franchise’s antagonists can even revert to astonishing redemption (it is my opinion that Jaime Lannister's character arc is one of the most brilliantly executed narratives I have had the good fortune to read.)
The world of Westeros is devoid of the false hope that good will inherently triumph over evil- those who stand by selflessness and dignity and what is right end up being punished whilst many who cultivate debased, self-serving schemes triumph and trample over their enemies. And Game of Thrones has the good fortune of boasting one of the most eclectic casts ever assembled; from the stout, heroic Jon Snow to the Machiavellian machinations of Littlefinger, the cold and calculating Cersei Lannister or the insufferably petulant King Joffrey, characters appear in all shapes and sizes.
They range from the heinously depraved to the pitifully naïve, yet Martin always keeps an element of uncertainty in his character's motivations. Tyrion Lannister, my personal favourite, is a tremendous creation, an embittered yet kind-hearted dwarf ostracised and demonised by his family due to his deformity and forced to survive on his (scathingly funny) wit alone. Easily one of the most poignant characters (in no small part thanks to Peter Dinklage's unparalleled performance), Tyrion is elevated to more than just a luckless every-man with the questionable nature of his actions. It is precisely this degree of nuance in weighing how easily good can cross into evil that renders Martin's characters so believable. Daenerys Stormborn wishes to free the world from tyranny but inadvertently becomes part of the same wheel she wishes to break, Jon Snow is forced to question his views on honour after being forced to break his vows as a member of the Night's Watch and everyone's favourite eunuch Varys keeps the people of the realm safe but at the cost of murdering, torturing and assassinating any rivals who threaten the security of the Throne. Even Jaime Lannisters reputation as the slayer of the King he was sworn to protect is turned sharply on its head when it is revealed that this self-same King intended to immolate the population of King's Landing rather than surrender it to the enemy. Add to this some of the strongest female characters in fiction (who in the past of the fantasy genre tended to be portrayed as waiting around in palaces in suspiciously revealing dresses for 15th century Europe) including fearsome warrior Brienne of Tarth and the delightfully merciless and imposing Cersei Lannister as well as some of the most revolting and vile villains to grace the silver screen- including infamous dog enthusiast Ramsay Bolton and the endlessly punchable Joffrey- and Game of Throne's protagonists practically brand themselves into the brain, springing from the page in a flurry of deceit, bloodshed, lust, honour, kindness and cruelty.
3- It is Unexpected:
It has long been a kind of running joke with the fan-base of both books and shows that characters in Game of Thrones last about as long as a 50-per-cent-off plasma screen TV in a Black Friday Sale, and the franchise has not earned its infamy of slaughtering every living thing with the bat of an eyelid. Ever since Walder Frey and Roose Bolton proved themselves to be the worst wedding planners in human history, Martin has revelled in crushing the hopes and dreams of every character we come to love, yet fans of the show and books lap up the heart-breaking deaths of their beloved favourites with borderline masochistic glee. The reason for this is the constant and excellent subversion of expectations that this tale succeeds in sucking in viewers and readers alike, playing a constant game of 'whose next?' as it hangs a Sword of Damocles over the heads of every protagonist and antagonist alike, with no one sure of who shall be the next to fall. Wrapped in an often uneasy, claustrophobic atmosphere of scheming and deceit, artifice and tense alliances, nerves are highly strung as the tale unravels, especially when Martin challenges our perceptions-surely the good will live and the evil be justly punished?
The first season's finale has the honourable and kind-hearted Ned Stark decapitated though an innocent man, whilst the dashing Robb Stark and his beloved wife and mother are massacred in the Red Wedding. And whilst admittedly the villains do ultimately get their comeuppance, they tend to outlive and at times soundly beat and tear down the heroes of the story before their inevitable demise.
The word bittersweet is particularly appropriate- Game of Thrones isn't big on happy endings, especially in its first 7 seasons. From the smirking, unflappable Oberyn Martell's sudden, gruesome death after having believed to have beaten the monstrous Gregor Clegane in battle, to Jon Snow's lover Ygritte dying in his arms, rarely do these characters achieve the catharsis they so deeply crave, and instead are left to stand grim and worn down by the harsh realities of the merciless world they live in, unsure of whether their victories can even be counted as such. From the emergence of the White Walkers in Season 1 all the way to Season 6's Sept of Baelor finale causing peasants as far as ten kilometres away from King's Landing to pick bits of Margaery Tyrell out of their weeds, Game of Thrones has stood proudly among its pretenders and challengers as the most unflinchingly honest, dark yet fascinatingly complex and intriguing works of fantasy to emerge from under the pen. Packed to the brim with jaw-dropping action scenes, razor-sharp wit and a veritable wealth of characters, for many years to come Game of Thrones and A Song Of Ice And Fire shall live on in infamy as the franchise that made the malaise of Ancient Roman politics resemble an early-morning episode of the Teletubbies.
“Valar Morghulis. Valar Dohaeris.”
Pablo L, Year 12