Saturday, January 17, 2015

Random Bullets of Game of Thrones

I wasn't really interested in watching Game of Thrones. I should have been, apparently. All my medievalist friends have been watching it from the get-go, loving it, with many lauding its sophisticated use of medieval visual cues and literary history. It just never grabbed me; but now, since season 5 is being filmed at the Alhambra and since I teach a course on representations of medieval Spain in contemporary fiction, I started to feel some sense of professional responsibility to sit down and watch through it. I don't love it and don't feel like I've missed anything by not having watched it: the worst sort of fantasist neo-medieval kitsch with not a lot to redeem it in terms of plot or characters. I might or might not write more about it in the future, but for now, and possibly all ever, some quick thoughts at least as far as I'm up to, a few episodes into season 2.

— If there is a sophisticated use of medieval visual cues and literary history, then I'm missing it. And I'm not sure I am invested enough in it to watch all the episodes again with a more critical eye. (Plus, I don't think I"m missing it.)

— My initial reaction is that there are really too many beheadings and gratuitous, gory deaths to be able to use this in teaching. That said, I have a colleague who uses it for a mini-course, so it is clearly a feasible thing.

— The intention of the author doesn't matter. However, insofar as he has explained it (with all the usual caveats about the great Romantic poets having been too drunk to know what they were doing and so even an author's statement about his own intentions isn't to be trusted) George R.R. Martin's approach to the story is probably contributing to it not turning out very well. His basic approach appears to be ride on the emotional manipulation of the reader/viewer for its own sake: "I killed Ned in the first book and it shocked a lot of people. I killed Ned because everybody thinks he’s the hero and that, sure, he’s going to get into trouble, but then he’ll somehow get out of it. The next predictable thing is to think his eldest son is going to rise up and avenge his father. And everybody is going to expect that. So immediately [killing Robb] became the next thing I had to do."

— The theological system of Westeros is very poorly defined and elaborated. It's a henotheistic system with old gods and new gods, there is a lot of praying to and invoking of those gods, but by the beginning of season 2, that's really all we know. For an aspect of life that is so frequently emphasized, it is curiously underdeveloped. In terms of cable TV blockbusters that are of interest to historians of religion, Battlestar Gallactica is far superior.

— The plot line of Denarys seems like it should be an Orientalist parody — porcelain-white woman with long, flowing hair ravished by the brutish cheiftain rises up to captivate and lead his people after his death — but I don't have the impression that it is anything but an earnest Orientalist abuse.

— The Dothraki word for I is ana. Borrowing from Arabic?

— I finally get this joke. And yes  (especially now as I am going through and fixing the footnotes in my book manuscript) there is tremendous appeal to a Dothraki citation system:


  1. People keep recommending GoT to me, and periodically I have tried . . . and every time, I go back to reading about the Wars of the Roses. Far more satisfying, at least for this medievalist.

  2. I don't object to historical fiction or neo-medieval kitsch as such — and I even think that the fantasy elements in GoT might have been a really interesting way to explore any number of possible issues, both medieval and modern. In other words, I wouldn't always come down on the side of just going and reading some history. But in this case, there's really no payoff. I'm just at the end of season 3 now, and you *just* start to see a modicum of character development and nuance in one or two of the characters. That's not a failure to appeal to an audience used to instant gratification — that's a failure of narrative. Far too long to wait for far too little payoff. And like I said, even the fantasy elements are a series of missed opportunities.