In Defence of 'Game of Thrones' and Epic Fantasy
An open letter to GoT-haters.
Some Game of Thrones fans in outfits that are pretty dang cool. Photo via Flickr user John Biehler
Dear Clive Martin,
So I hear that you don’t like a TV show that you haven’t seen. Writing about how you refuse to watch Game of Thrones but hate it anyway was cool and a worthwhile way to spend your time, but after reading about your “innate aversion to anything that can be described as ‘fantasy’,” I thought I should take a moment to address your criticisms of a genre and a subculture about which you are proud to be profoundly ignorant. Consider this a friendly “No, you shut the fuck up!” from your colleague across the Atlantic.
I should open with a disclaimer: I don’t watch Game of Thrones either. I read the first three books of George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series when I was in high school, so I already knew what was going to happen in at least the first couple of seasons of the show, and by now I’m so far behind that I’ve despaired of ever catching up.
I do, however, have some nerd cred. Back in the days when the sci-fi/fantasy sections of various used bookstores were a refuge from whatever angsty teenaged things were happening in my life, I read a lot of epic fantasy. The only example of this genre you seem to be aware of is The Lord of the Rings, but during my prime fantasy-reading years Robert Jordan’s seemingly never-ending, hopelessly complicated Wheel of Time saga was the most popular series out there, and I also read Tad Williams’ excellent Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy, Terry Brooks’s perfectly serviceable Shannara and Magic Kingdom of Landover sagas, Terry Goodkind’s remarkably shitty Sword of Truth books, David Eddings’ terrifically named Belgariad and Malloreon epics, the pun-based misogyny of Piers Anthony’s Xanth world… the list goes on.
What separates Martin’s books from the pack is that his made-up world of Westeros feels more “real” than other made-up worlds like Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Brooks’s Shannara. There’s very little magic in the series, and when something supernatural happens, everyone is freaked out and confused. The characters have sex (mostly sex that would be illegal today), get tortured, betray one another and die incredibly easily and often for very little reason – just like real people involved in a medieval war would have. One of the first plot points is a child getting thrown off a ledge and crippled after he witnesses some nasty-ass incest; one major character gets killed on the toilet and shits all over the place as he dies. So the books are earthy, you might say. More importantly, anyone in Martin’s world who strives for nobility, honour, or any other trait lauded in traditional fantasy novels inevitably ends up impaled on a spike or crippled and humiliated by the amoral crooks who always come out on top. Like I said, this is more realistic than most epic fantasy.
Naturally, a show based on a series of books that’s full of plot twists, reversals of fortune, bloody battles and scheming villains is gonna be a slam dunk. Throw in HBO’s typically high production values and strong performances (and lots of nudity) and you’ve got a recipe for a pretty fucking sweet franchise, son. You mentioned that you don’t appreciate the “scope, escapism, narrative skill and subtle humour that fantasy fans eulogise” but there’s nothing subtle about Game of Thrones’s appeal. It’s all, “OH SHIT HE’S GETTING KILLED WTF” and “AWWWW DAMN THEY’RE CUTTING HIS DICK OFF!!” If you refuse to watch that because – what? It’s set in a vaguely medieval world? There are dragons in some of it? – I don’t know what to say to you.
Some good books that Clive Martin refuses to read. Photo via Flickr user Paulo José Silva Ferraz
But hey, I don’t give a shit what you decide to put in front of your eyeballs. What bugs me is that you’re basing your dislike for fantasy on some outdated stereotypes and The Lord of the Rings, which is like me imagining that the UK is just a bunch of Winston Churchills eating bad sausages and drinking warm beer. To help you understand, here are some responses to what I guess we’ll have to call your “points”:
I've always seen [fantasy] as a culture that tends to be adored by people who can't quite deal with the chaos of the real world: its genocides, its heartbreak, its dogging, its endlessly evolving fashions, its religious zealots.
If you spent less time not reading and watching things, you might have realised that genocides, heartbreak and religious zealots are all themes that fantasy novels frequently address. Maybe you would like there to be more dogging in your literature, in which case I can recommend alternative history/sci-fi author Harry Turtledove, whose characters are constantly getting it on in public.
Then there's the problem of sex. Lord of the Rings – despite featuring Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom and Liv Tyler – managed to totally eschew anything remotely sexual, save for a bit of cleavage and some brief kissing towards the end.
Wow, good job realising that the series lacks any sex – when you actually watch something, it turns out you can correctly describe it. Tolkien’s books also lack female characters and essentially ignore romance; if anything, the movies take pains to emphasise the Aragorn-and-Arwen-are-in-love subplot. But you shouldn’t base your perceptions of a whole genre off of one 60-year-old series. Other fantasy novels have more sex, and a lot of the time they include scenes that are clearly the author fantasising about getting it on with a half-elf or whatever. I mean, have you seen what young ladies wear at fantasy-themed conventions? This is not a culture that needs to be told to sex it up.
I guess my real problem is that most things fantasy-related seem to come from a very conservative, dated worldview. They remind me of car trips, bars where the bartender wears corduroy, school trips to theme parks, and people who wear "SMEG OFF" T-shirts.
Okay, you've got a point with this one – most fantasy is written by white guys who are super into white-guy stuff like European military history and Celtic mythology. Some of them are also pretty culturally conservative, and the genre is not known for being particularly cool about female characters. But what does that have to do with bartenders in corduroy? Is that a thing in jolly old England? Are they the ones serving warm beer?
Also, where are all the ethnic minorities in Lord of the Rings?
Again, yeah, fantasy is a real white-guy-dominated genre, though you can find splashes of diversity here and there. But it’s not like this is a problem specific to fantasy – a couple of the “cool guy” authors you mention reading, Kerouac and Salinger, never delved into race either, and arguably they had less of an excuse.
To me, it seems that these books, films, songs and TV shows about people with weird ears running around mountains smashing each other over the head with swords are created for people who have trouble understanding other human beings.
You’re on to something here, so it’s too bad you’ve got it backwards. Fantasy fans often feel misunderstood – partly because uninformed jackasses feel entitled to write about the genre as if they are experts, but also, more broadly, because they often find themselves on the outside looking in. If many readers of epic fantasy are drawn to escapist tales of mysterious lands and common people becoming heroes because those readers were bullied and ostracised by their peers, well, who can blame them? If you can’t understand the impulse to bury your head in a book that literally contains another world, I guess it makes sense that you would turn your nose up at fantasy novels – but raising the boring old trope of geeks who don’t “understand human beings” is the kind of cheap shot I’d expect from a cartoonish caricature of a villain in an 80s teen movie, not a real person.
I should mention that I don’t really read fantasy novels any more – the books are long, the characters often don’t have a lot of psychological depth, and the writing can be straight-up lousy. (Fantasy fans: I know this isn't true of the entire genre, but I no longer want to take the time to find the gems.) As I got older, I started valuing different things in the fiction I consumed, and as a result I’m not really interested in catching up with The Song of Ice and Fire, or finally finishing The Wheel of Time. But I can at least appreciate that there a lot of people who are loving, and even taking refuge in, those books, and it can be pretty fucking tiring when people dismiss them with a “You’re reading books about orcs or whatever? SMH LOL.”
Anyway, lots of love,
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