Trigger warnings: discussion of rape and rape culture.
Spoilers: GOT/ASOIAF spoilers!
There is a great deal of intelligent, elegant writing both by and on the genre of fantasy. Sadly, there seems to be something about GRR Martin’s epic A Game of Thrones series that brings out the worst in all of us.
Let me clarify: I very much enjoy both A Game of Thrones on television and the series of books, A Song of Ice and Fire. I also hold the apparently radical opinion that one can enjoy something and still find it problematic.
Laurie Penny’s review of A Game of Thrones has caused somewhat of a storm across the SFF blogosphere, with the descriptive phrase “racist rape culture Disneyland with dragons” and the contention that GOT has “goodies and baddies” proving catalytic to critical responses.
Clearly, there is more to GOT than a simple dichotomy. I personally get the greatest amount of pleasure from reading it as a parable, watching the personal and political constraints of feudalism shaping characters’ actions and beings in ways which can hardly be written off as “good” or “evil”. I really enjoyed Charli Carpenter’s post on Game of Thrones as theory, and if you’ve read this far, you likely would too.
However, there is much in what Laurie says about the inherent “goodness” of the Starks that really can’t be written off as simplistic analysis, as not present in the text. The Starks make terrible kings, it is clear, with one Hand being executed and the King in the North finding his own doom when both find themselves constitutionally unable to play the games of politics.
Still, the surviving Starks are, although young, simply devoid of flaws as she said, and, together with their uncanny communication with wolves and inherent link to nature, clearly axiomatically “good” in some sense. The fact that the messy human world will not allow them to rule is a rather different story, and the sundering of Sansa from her wolf by her father’s hand rather symbolises her being cast out of the “natural” order by political marriage. Whether Anya Stark will ever be reunited with her own abandoned wolf remains to be seen.
While the best of the Starks end up dead as a result of their own actions, the best of the Lannisters, Tyrion, was indeed a rapist from the start, though against his own will. Forced by his father to rape a prostitute with whom he fell in love, as part of a grotesque punishment, Tyrion starts off an offence against nature: his dwarfism is felt as an insult and marring by the entire Lannister family, and he killed his mother in childbirth. From these beginnings he goes on to become the most responsible of the Lannisters, for which he is effectively cast out of the social order, ending up by killing his own father and fleeing.
The “good-evil” dichotomy is definitely present in AGOT, although, like some elements of rape culture and like some basic tropes of orientalist racism (in Dany’s freeing of the slaves), it is deconstructed over the series. This doesn’t mean it is not present, and while “racist rape culture Disneyland with dragons” doesn’t encompass the entirety of the series, it remains a valid description of many generic fantasy tropes – most of which are not deconstructed at all. We write about these things because we still do live in a culture with stark problems: if we were free of rape culture, I could walk down the street free of harassment and my flatmate could go to the beach on her own, many disparate writers have found the treatment of race in AGOT problematic, and so on.
I am, however, very surprised at the level of resistance to Laurie’s statement that “the quest for the good ruler” is the (other) main theme of the series. This seems rather obviously true, as the main premise of the plot is internal division while an existential threat, the coming Winter and the Others gathering in the North, is ignored; Winter, indeed, is coming, and the people of Westerros will need to stand united against it if they wish to survive.
By the end of the fifth book the main candidates for the mythical role of Returned King seem to be the hardened, canny Stannis, Jon Snow, whose precise parentage and possible claim to the throne is obscured and who may not survive, and the uncannily beautiful Danerys, linked with nature through her dragons and the resurgence of magic in the world which they either channel or portend. The dragons seem key, with their dragonfire a historically potent weapon against Others; still, it is also likely that GRR Martin will play things out more complicatedly than this. There still remains a bevy of compromised, interesting Southerners in play, after all.
Sadly, I have not yet seen any refutation of Laurie’s points which doesn’t itself indulge in the fundamental attribution error of considering her understanding “superficial”, rather than the brevity of her piece to require superficiality, or which doesn’t simply set up straw women to tilt at, claiming that Laurie wanted to watch “Sweden with wizards“, rather than maybe considering whether it might be possible to address those themes with just a little less triggering rape culture and normative violence. Pointing out that these things are still damaging of themselves is not the same as calling for censorship. As for me, I can’t help but find feudal rape culture just as viscerally upsetting as the real thing, but I’d rather remain watching and enjoying – while also pointing out problems – than lock myself in a metaphorical room just because it’s safer.
A Game of Thrones very clearly really is about society’s leaders, rather than ordinary people who are swept along or aside; just because the consequences of this are repeatedly shown does not mean that it is not the case. Yet, there is a huge underground tension in the novels between whether the plot being driven by the feudal “1%” really is “natural” or not. The surviving Starks are forced into an education among the common people that will leave them far less naive than their dead patriarchs. Varys may be one of the few to rise into the ruling class, but he is also one of the few of the ruling class to truly care about the people of the kingdoms. Jon finds himself undone by the requirements of his position; in making tough decisions he undermines the institution that has him as Night’s Watch Commander, and faces an attack from his own men.
Even Danerys, with her Valyrian purple eyes and white hair and inborn right to rule by commanding dragons, finds her despotic orientalist ruling style little use in actually helping the people whom she wishes to help. One can’t help wondering if the magic-enhancing dragons really will save Westerros from the Others in a storm of fire, or end up eventually causing whichever mysterious problems led to the “doom of Valyria”. Perhaps the common man or woman of Westeros does think that the problem of who can rule them can “go to the Others”, yet if they are not free to store corn against Winter that is exactly what will happen to all of them.
I don’t believe that we can read a text in only one way, but it’s disingenuous to argue that Laurie’s view on this type of story isn’t very valid indeed. With no discussion of any alternative to austerity present at the recent Tony Blair-headlined Astana Summit, I’m pretty worried about my own society’s reaction to existential Winter myself. Maybe we’d be better off without a ruling class at all, but if we’re stuck with one for the moment I’d bet my dragons on Tyrion Lannister over Blair any day. Isn’t that in itself pretty telling on behalf of reality?