I’ve been watching the new season of Game of Thrones, which continues to be better than the books, in my opinion. I’m going to try to avoid significant spoilers, but there may be some back-handed references to things in the fourth and fifth books.
It occurred to me in a general sense that it’s politics is not nearly as impressive as I remembered. Oh, it’s complicated, mind you, but above all the politics are incredibly personal. Private vendettas, family feuds, selfish ambitions, and ruthless power grabs that seem to boil down to “I deserve to rule.” No grand plans. No noble motives. It’s like ten million Chris Christies settling petty political scores with each other for 4,000+ pages.
This is Grimdark in a nutshell, isn’t it? Kind of the antidote to the Wheel of Time, in which everyone’s politics seemed to boil down to “how do I think we should prepare for the end of the world?” George R.R. Martin has created this elaborate web of interrelated families and carefully set them all at each others’ throats against a backdrop of “the world is going to end, and we’re all too busy fighting each other to deal with the real threat.” He throws in a religious conflict (the Red God vs. the Seven) for good measure, and sets nearly everyone’s moral qualms to zero. Stephen King famously described his writing process as creating a bunch of characters and then bringing them together to see what happens, and GRRM kind of takes that advice to an extreme. The Seven Kingdoms are a rich sandbox of misunderstood motives and explosions of ultraviolence.
Who are the exceptions?
Tyrion? Sort of. He’s not as bloodthirsty as many in the series, but his politics are more pragmatic than moralistic. He seems to realize that the greatest threat to his family is…his family. If we squeeze the commoners they might eventually get it in their heads to overthrow us or, at the least, greet any invading army as liberators. That said, his seemingly unique quality is his capacity for empathy. He can usually guess how other people feel and, what’s more, he frequently attempts to avoid hurting them (or letting them hurt himself). What are the spoils of his burgeoning superego? His family ignores his advice and resents his interference. He never gets any credit from anyone for anything other than his stupid mistakes (except when it’s false accusations). He’s the Dilbert of the Seven Kingdoms.
Danerys? Again, sort of. She’s full of sympathy for the hardships of others, but it causes her nothing but trouble whenever she lets it get the best of her. It is an obstacle she must overcome – one that actively stands in the way of her ever rising to real power. Her good deeds rarely go unpunished except when they involve immolating people who aren’t guided by the same moral compass as she is. The world’s a mess, and she just needs to rule it…but those poor (SPOILERS) are being eaten by (SPOILERS)!
Then we have Maergery Tyrell – the queen-to-be who kisses all the babies Joffrey has spent the last few books systematically orphaning. She’s flatter in the books, but in the TV series it’s pretty clear she’s doing this to gain influence in King’s Landing. The fact that it seems benevolent doesn’t change the fact that it is still a play for power. But hey, maybe it goes deeper than that. If that’s the case, she’s probably the only one in the Seven Kingdoms who actually cares what happens to anyone without a noble title.
That brings us to Jon Snow, who is the distillation of what little of Rand al’Thor’s essence was allowed to leak into the series. Even so, his absolute devotion to the defense of the Seven Kingdoms against the coming White Walkers is cut with the sawdust of filial piety. He is sorely tempted on more than one occasion to run to the aid of his family, but he remains a man of the Night Watch. It really takes a Catch-22 to budge him – the only person who acknowledges the danger north of the Wall needs Jon’s help, but if he helps that person it will be a de facto political statement. In essence, he wants to make a pragmatic decision to save the world but fears it will be interpreted as taking a side in the Family Feud for the Most Uncomfortable Chair in the Seven Kingdoms.
Maybe Martin didn’t feel like dreaming up political issues beyond “you killed my father. Prepare to die.” Mixing real world politics with fantasy is a risky exercise even though Martin’s personal politics aren’t exactly a well-kept secret. But what I take away from this apolitical politicking, this Family Feud of the Thrones is that we fantasists spend a lot of time writing about scaly cannibal llamas when we create the politics of our worlds. As readers we expect to see ruthless factions who will resort to blackmail, kidnapping, and murder to achieve their goals. It is the episode of Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner where the coyote finally “catches” the road runner and holds up a sign that asks, “Okay, wise guys, you always wanted me to catch him. Now what do I do?”
Power is the road runner of the epic fantasy politician. It is a goal to be pursued for its own sake, not one that should be “sullied” with an ideological agenda beyond “don’t let anyone take it away from you.” This runs contrary to my experience with actual politically involved people. In real life, people pursue power because they want to use it to a specific end. Sure, that end could be “live a life of luxury in a nation where most of the population teeters at the edge of starvation.” Real life dystopias aside, however, in a civilized society these tend to range from selfishly petty (“I don’t want to pay taxes”) to altruistic (or at least well-meaning). It frequently begins as “I am bothered by X, but X isn’t going to change unless someone changes it. Hey, I’m someone, aren’t I?”
I think that’s the key, really. Epic fantasy is noticeably lacking in civilized societies where people can further their ideological goals without resorting to violence and dirty tricks. The “scaly, cannibalistic llamas” link above served as a reminder that I’m guilty of some of the same lazy tricks that I wish I saw less of in the genre. In my case the bugbear that keeps me up at night is the seemingly unbreakable relationship between epic fantasy and violence, politics and the mindless pursuit of power at all costs. Can we disentangle these things without losing the heart of the genre and the attention of the reader? Am I the someone I want to change the pattern?