Game of Thrones: No fantasy this real
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Season 5 of HBO’s cult fantasy epic, Game Of Thrones (GOT), premiered in the wee hours of 13 April in India with the usual fan hysteria, hype, leaked episodes and instantaneous articles analysing the first episode. It’s been a great beginning to the fifth season, and it was again apparent just how much the show resembles historical drama rather than fantasy.
The show’s realism has been a topic of intense debate since it was first aired four years ago. And as the elements of fantasy get slowly ratcheted up with every passing season, so does the grim reality of life in the continents of Westeros and Essos. And this realism is centred around war, which is every bit as nasty and remorseless in the fantasy world of GOT as it is in real life.
In season after season, as the noble families of Westeros fight among each other with knights and ships and poison, one thing remains constant—the depiction of the troubles of common folk, the farmer and the ironmonger, the innkeeper and the crofter. They are robbed, raped, their crops burnt or stolen, and their houses ruined, by every successive chainmailed army that rolls by, whether they march under the Direwolf banner of the “heroic” Starks or the Lion banner of the “villainous” Lannisters.
There’s no guarantee that an act of kindness will not be repaid with a knife in the dark, because, as one of the characters, Cersei Lannister, says in the first season, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” Since only a few can win it, and that too for short periods of time, most die. In Cold War parlance, playing the game of thrones leads to mutually assured destruction.
As opposed to standard epic fantasies—the obvious point of reference would be the world of Lord Of The Rings—there are no orcs and elves facing off across a recognizable moral line. Instead, there is the Iron Throne and those who want to sit on it. Which is pretty much everyone in the show. The few exceptions, notably the nobler-than-thou Lord Eddard Stark and his equally idealistic son Robb, have died gruesome deaths in previous seasons, shocking viewers everywhere, precisely when people were beginning to cheer for them. In fact, it’s their nobility that leads them to destruction, and the show is quite clear that more often than not, noble choices are quite often stupid choices.
While this very real medieval mess is going on, the elements of pure fantasy, the uncanny Others and their armies of the undead (the one common enemy to all factions) and the three dragons of Queen Daenerys Targaryen hover on the margins, a source of menace rather than wonder. She and the other remaining “hero” of the saga, the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch Jon Snow, who holds the precarious line against the Others, are so idealistic that one constantly fears for their safety.
Behind the show (and the books) lurk the very real murderous histories of medieval power struggles, like the 15th century Wars of the Roses between the houses of Plantagenets, York and Lancaster, or the blood-spattered career of the 14th century Capetian monarchs of France. These episodes from European history featured all the things you might see in GOT and more—sexual intrigue, beheadings, poisoning, necromancy, castration, what-have-you.
Tolkien had built his world up from the level of languages. GOT takes its point of departure from actual history. The infamous Red Wedding where Robb Stark, his mother Catelyn, his wife Talisa and his soldiers are murdered at a dinner feast is entirely similar to the “Black Dinner” in 15th century Scotland, where a young earl was murdered by his guests to end a power struggle.
The show’s medieval setting also ensures that you won’t find any black people on Westeros (modelled on the British Isles and Western Europe), though you might see brown people down in Dorne, somewhat like Moorish Spain. And though you don’t quite see kilts up in the North, the highlands around Winterfell have a distinctly Scottish flavour, and the giant Wall that fences out the “uncivilized” wildlings and giants is modelled distinctly on Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Romans in north England, which had served pretty much the same function.
Ironically enough, there’s been an explosion in TV shows based on historical novels, like Wolf Hall, hard on the heels of GOT’s success. Producers everywhere believe there’s a distinct market for gritty historical shows with palace intrigues, morally dubious characters, and a beheading or two.
The difference between Wolf Hall and GOT , though, is that in the former you just know that Thomas Cromwell will get beheaded, albeit posthumously. But in GOT, the beheading of Eddard Stark comes as a rude shock because, you know, it hadn’t already happened. The empire of ancient Volantis closely shadows the Roman empire (only with dragons), and the volcanic eruptions which put paid to them have a distinct whiff of Vesuvius. Even the vague ideas that the people of Westeros have of the fantastical eastern lands (like Qarth) mirror similar medieval ignorance of the wide world in, say, Saxon England.
Ultimately, the show’s characters and the things they do seem so real because everything about them is thoroughly believable and follows historical templates we are familiar with. So, while the smooth and deadly Lord Petyr Baelish seems to have stepped off a Shakespearean depiction of Machiavelli’s Prince, the many-faced assassin Jaqen H’ghar is a very close cousin of the Hashshashins of 12th century Alamut, and the Dothraki could be any Central Asian horde. Nor is the religious fanaticism around the Manichaean Lord of Light very far removed from many of our own patriarchal male divinities. The Lannisters seem to be much like the Medicis, and the plotting spymaster Varys would’ve been at home in the T’ang empire with its powerful eunuchs.
In time, winter will come, and when it does, the fantasy element will be cranked up to 11. So will the dread, the wonder and the horror. And it’s only then that the world of the show will seem truly alien, truly fantastic. Already, as of episode 2 of the new season, the fantasy ante is being upped as we get a good, close look at the gnarled face of Drogon, biggest of Daenerys’ three dragons.
However, till the full force of the fantastical hits us, GOT’s world carries on with its grimly realist internal monologue. In a scene from the first episode of Season 5, we find ourselves in the vaguely Mediterranean town of Pentos, with Tyrion Lannister, the wry antihero who has just fled Westeros after killing his father, the archvillain Tywin, talking to Varys, who has helped smuggle him to safety.
Varys seeks Tyrion’s help in ending the war and placing Daenerys on the Iron Throne. What does this man want? “Peace, prosperity, a land where the powerful do not prey on the powerless,” says Varys. “And castles are made of gingerbread and the moats are filled with blackberry wine. The powerful have always preyed on the powerless. That’s how they became powerful in the first place,” comes Tyrion’s retort. Not quite the stuff of fantasy.
Bibek Bhattacharya is a senior editor with Outlook Traveller.