FANTASY, VIOLENCE AND GAME OF THRONES
It is a truth universally acknowledged that episode nine of any series of Game of Thrones is always the most shocking, violent and traumatising episode of the series. Ned Stark? The Battle of Blackwater? Red Wedding? Need we say more. Last night’s episode “The Watchers on the Wall” was no exception, as you’d expect from Neil Marshall, the director of Dog Soldiers and The Descent. We won’t giveaway any spoilers (that is what twitter and Facebook are for after all) but let’s just say even we were shocked by the body count. We asked fantasy author Rjurik Davidson his thoughts about fantasy and violence. Is violence more acceptable in fantasy? Why is the violence so prolific? Should we be worried about it? Rjurik shares his view.
On Fantasy and Violence by Rjurik Davidson
"In a recent episode of Game of Thrones, another much-loved character met a bone-crunching fate, shown in horrific detail. His eyes are gouged out; his head explodes like over-ripe fruit. By now, we shouldn’t be surprised. George R.R. Martin signaled his intentions as far back as his first book, when Bran Stark is pushed from a window and crippled. Martin doesn’t just like to kill his darlings, he likes to do terrible things to them. The television adaption likes to make us witness them. It’s one of the elements that keeps us all waiting anxiously for the next episode (and the next book). Dramatic, perfectly paced, wonderfully plotted – Martin’s books were made for television (and indeed reflect his own background in it).
Still, killing a character is one thing, but the kind of relentless, unremitting violence we’re subjected to by the adaption of Game of Thrones is another. Week by week, season by season the bodies pile up. How do they die? Let me count the ways: beheaded, having molten metal poured onto their head, chocked to death by a poison called ‘the strangler’, massacred en-masse at a wedding. Throats are slit, hearts are punctured, men are disembowled, their entrails falling onto the dust before them. Even the ‘nicest’ characters are now getting in on the act.
The television show (and we should remember to make a distinction between the original books and the adaption) has carried on HBO’s tradition of sex (especially ‘sexposition’ in which information is passed from character to character while naked women writhe in the background, in a brothel or strip club) and violence, showcased in the Deadwood, Sopranos, Rome, and The Wire.
What are we to make of all this violence?
From a narrative standpoint, violence is the most graphic, obvious, and extreme example of conflict. And conflict is an essential element of drama. Practically every crime story begins with a body, and the crime – in the best crime fiction – tells us something about the nature of the world, about that which cannot be spoken. There’s a tendency – one which I find in my own work – to end a story with a violent climax. In fantasy, this is often a battle.
That the world itself is a violent place is, as I’ve argued in a different context, a radical position, though it may be either Left or Right wing.
For the Left, the world is an unjust place, and relations of domination keep that injustice in place. Protest is repressed (think of the reactions to the recent Occupy movement), countries are invaded, drones carry out assassinations from afar.
For the Right wing, the world threatens to fall at any moment into a war of all against all, as Hobbes once put it. Life is nasty, brutish and short, and a strong hand is needed to repress the mob’s dark and hidden desires. In this conservative view, we need a strong state – headed by a powerful man – capable of decisive action.
The greatest science-fictional examples of these are Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters and Starship Troopers. In these books, it is the man of action – contrasted to those liberal softies and time wasters, the chattering classes who sit around limp-wristed while Rome burns – who will save the day, intervene in the crisis.
Fantasy has traditionally been dominated by the conservative view: all those neo-feudal world desperate for a farm-boy to rise to his rightful place as benevolent dictator – uh, I mean King. Order will be restored, everyone will find their rightful place in some parody of the divine right of kings. Don’t get me wrong, I love Tolkien, but we should be clear about his lineages.
An even more extreme, neo-fascist, version of Heinlein’s position can be found in Robert E. Howard’s Conan series, which exhibit a positively homoerotic aesthetic of the male form, engaged in violence. In the fascist myth, violence is the path to truth, real men (it is always men) are forged in fire and blood: this is where meaning is to be found.
Interesting things have been happening in fantasy more recently. First came the New Weird, which recast fantasy into the modern world, from the rural wilderness to the city, from disputes among the elite to more modern political conflicts.
Then came Grimdark, a kind of fantasy in the era of the Iraq war and Afghanistan, who pictured violence in gritty, realistic terms and hence gutted it of its heroic, glorious qualities.
George R. R. Martin can best be thought of as a precursor to the Grimdark writers. It’s not surprise that his books were first written in the 1990s, right after the fall of the Eastern Bloc, a time when neoliberal capitalism was triumphant. This was the time when Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed the ‘end of history’, but which he meant not the end of political struggles or wars, but that liberal capitalism would form the horizon of these struggles. Society had reached its apex: there is no alternative, as Margaret Thatcher once claimed.
Neo-liberal capitalism is characterized by restless competition, the struggle of the economically fittest, in which the weak are weeded out. It is a Social-Darwinist system in which power is decided by Machiavellian wheeling and dealing – something which most of us find distasteful and alienating.
Martin’s books retain the feudal imagery, but reflect much of this neoliberal world. The narrative’s primary driving force is the maneuvering of various houses and their leaders, but in which morality is mostly ambiguous. The victors are the strong, rather than the good. I know we’re meant to think that things would be better if Danyrys Targarean were to claim the Iron throne, but in truth it’s hard to imagine it would last long, or would make much difference to your average resident of Fleabottom. Like everyone, she does violent things. Indeed, the entire thrust of the novels is towards the view that violence is the ultimate arbiter.
What are these violent things in aid of? What do these different houses stand for? What is the television series’ attitude towards its own violence?
If we accept the perspective that violence is present in the fabric of our society, then the writer must deal with it. We must approach it, so that we might discuss it (for that is what a novel is, ultimately: the beginning of a discussion). We must approach its most virulent forms: racist and sexist violence.
The question is, how?
That is the question we might ask of any work: what is the attitude of the work itself towards the violence? This question has several component parts: what is the context of the violence, both socially and narratively? Through whose eyes is it shown (and from what camera perspective?)? Is it viewed from the perspective of the victim, or is it shown, ultimately from what feminists would call ‘the male gaze’? Who are we asked to sympathize with? Are we asked to vicariously participate in the violence, or to protest against it? What are the points where the narrative contradicts itself? None of these questions in isolation will give us a complete answer – they must be taken together.
My own concern about HBO’s adaption of Martin’s books is that it is ambivalent about these questions. Quite often, I’m left wondering, ‘Are we meant to be horrified by this scene, or secretly thrilled by this scene?’ ‘Are we meant to vicariously participate in it?’
I think too often we’re invited to be titillated by them.
This is particularly problematic in the case of violence against women. Here I think of the scenes involving Joffrey and his sexualized violence.
‘Is there one female character in this show who isn’t threatened with rape?’ someone once asked me. (For a spirited critique of Game of Thrones’s racial politics see Aamer Rahman’s widely discussed piece, Game of Tropes: Racefail
Like many, I’m addicted to Game of Thrones. There is a reason for the success of the novels and the TV adaption. Martin knows how to tell a story. He knows how to plot. He knows how to pace. In fact, he’s a genius at it. I’ll keep watching (and reading the books) to the bitter end. But I’m not sure I’ll ever be comfortable with its depictions of violence. They’re depictions that arise from the deep structures of the narrative: the neo-feudal, Machiavellian set-up that allows a deep ambiguity to those acts.
Who will claim the Iron Throne? The person who wins the war may be the most benevolent of the characters. But it will also be the one who has the biggest, most efficient army – and probably a few dragons as well. The victor will be the strongest.
Meanwhile, we can hope that fantasy itself continues to stretch itself beyond its traditional, neo-feudal trappings, to find new ways to talk to us about violence, ways which not only represent, but also critique, stereotypes or race and class, and perhaps even have us ask questions about the systems of power that underpin those very stereotypes.
Rjurik Davidson's first fantasy novel Unwrapped Sky is out now. Warning, contains violence.