A Game of Thrones and the ambiguity of history

Over at The American Prospect a number of smart bloggers have joined in a roundtable headed-off by former Gentlemen, Jamelle Bouie. The subject is A Game of Thrones in both its TV and book iterations.

The subjects range from the role of women in the series to the lack of clear moral divisions and hero archetypes. Adam Serwer has an interesting bit riffing off of this interview with Martin, who discusses the scouring of the Shire in Tolkien’s:

I was very satisfied with the end of the Lord of the Rings, let us say. Talking about predictability here–I had a sense, even as a kid, that the ring was going to go in the volcano. They weren’t going to let Sauron take over the world. But he surprised me in that Frodo couldn’t do it. Bringing in Gollum the way he did was an amazing part of the ending, and then came the scouring of the Shire. And when I was 13 years old, reading this, I didn’t understand the scouring of the Shire. They won–why are there all these other pages? But I reread these books every few years, and every time my appreciation for what Tolkien did there grows. It was this kind of sad elegy on the price of victory. I think the scouring of the Shire is one of the essential parts of Tolkien’s narrative now, and gives it depth and resonance, and I hope that I will be able to provide an ending that’s similar to all of that.

I will never forgive Peter Jackson for cutting this from the films. Ever.

But that’s beside the point. Serwer writes:

Martin is talking about the conclusion to the series here, but the series itself dwells on the concept of what happens after the war in which “the good guys win.” Game of Thrones is like if Tolkein had gotten involved in the messy politics of post-conflict stability: Imagine Middle Earth being flooded with Hobbit refugees whose home no longer produces enough food to sustain them, or King Aragorn facing a crisis of legitimacy as the aftermath of the war causes an economic downturn he’s powerless to ameliorate.

Indeed, the story in A Game of Thrones is set years after Robert’s rebellion in which the “good guys” won. But of course, it’s much more complicated than that. As we know from the current line-up of characters, there is a good deal of gray area between “good” and “evil” and such was the case when Eddard and Robert rode to war against the Mad King. We know that Aerys was insane and cruel – as evil as they come – but what of his son, Rhaegar?

The ambiguity of history is present in Martin’s books as well. We don’t know what happened, not really, not everything. Certainly not enough to make strong moral judgments about what’s happening now, about whether justice has been done. Unlike many fantasies, there is no glorious war between good and evil sitting as the backdrop for current conflicts. The rebellion was a bloody affair, but the victors were not just the Starks and the Baratheons, but the Lannisters, too. The truth of it all, I suspect, will be very ugly, but it won’t shine any brighter a light on questions of justice or honor.

The return of magic

weirwood One thing I’ve noticed both in Dance with Dragons and in earlier books as the series has progressed is the emergence of magic in Martin’s world. At first, there is very little magic at all. It is all but absent from the world and the dragons are all long-dead.

Then Melisandre comes with her fire. And the healings begin with Beric Dondarrion’s outlaws. The dragons are born. White walkers and direwolves roam the forests. Magic seeps up out of the dirt and into the places and people of Westeros and the Free Cities.

This, in itself, is an interesting twist on an old theme. In Lord of the Rings and many other fantasies, magic is seeping from the world not the other way around. In many fantasies we are the tail end of a golden age of magic, when it has all but faded from the world and the old glories of distant eras are little more than memories and myths. This is true, also, in Game of Thrones. The difference is, in Martin’s stories the magic is returning, the old gods are waking from their long slumber – for good or ill.