In Appendix F to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien noted, “[The orcs and troll’s] language was actually more degraded and filthy than I have shown it. I do not suspect that any would wish for a closer rendering, though models are easy enough to find.” Despite being the classic fantasy story to which all others aspire in depicting the forces of Good versus Evil, Tolkien’s epic quite consciously shied away from overly accurate depictions of evil. The Oxford don did not find it fitting to employ a particularly vulgar vernacular, let along scenes of rape, torture, mutilation, and gore in all their graphic details. While some wrongdoing was depicted, much of what the reader knows of the Enemy’s evil is by implication or declaration.
Contra Tolkien, neither George R.R. Martin in A Song of Ice and Fire nor HBO in its adaptation Game of Thrones has shied away from vulgarity, violence, or viscera, even to the utmost extreme. In this season alone a mother and her newborn infant are fed to dogs, with their butcher Bolton suffering the same by Sansa several episodes subsequent, the camera indulging on the image of hungry hounds ripping the flesh from his face. In the finale, Arya pulls a reverse-Scott Tenorman, deceiving a nonagenarian into eating his own sons. And Sansa and Arya are ostensibly among the series’ heroes, here capable of cruelty Tolkien would not afford the adversaries in his novels.
Of course, such bleakness is nothing new for Game of Thrones. It was from the first imbued with uttered nihilism; protagonists, no matter how prominent, were regularly killed off, their deaths seemingly meaningless and ignoble. There was none of the karmic justice or fortuitousness one associates with structured storytelling, only the consequences of realpolitik and randomness of real life.
Season six finally shatters that mold. Nearly every episode evidences some providential, purposeful plan favoring the forces of good. Some viewers may see such as a betrayal of the shows essential nature. It’s a particularly easy charge to make, considering this is the first season in which the source material is not yet fully authored, save for a general outline and other notes from Martin to the showrunners. But I do not agree that in the absence of a new novel the writers slipped into fan service or that Martin’s Winds of Winter will prove more pessimistic than the practically sunny sixth season (Snow and Sansa are actually smiling as they say “Winter is here” finally).
Rather, for as much verisimilitude this fantasy world has to our own reality, particularly with regards to the moral failings of even the noblest men and the apparent absurdity of life, Game of Thrones has been, from the beginning, a fairy tale. A f----d-up fairy tale, every bit as dark and disturbing as some side quests from The Witcher games, but a fairy tale nonetheless. Whereas Tolkien sanitized his saga, making even evil more palatable, Martin grittied even goodness. Yet of the two approaches, the latter feels more successful in achieving the moment of eucatastrophe which Tolkien claimed was the central component in any fairy story:
“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist,’ nor ‘fugitive.’ In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
By better depicting dyscatastrophe, not merely the possibility of it but in actuality as well – from Ned Stark’s execution to the Red Wedding to Hodor’s tragic sacrifice this season – Game of Thrones creates a clearer contrast when the light of “Joy from beyond the walls of the world” is finally allowed to shine through, as it does nearly every episode this season. It does so in the form of Providence, indistinguishable from coincidence or the causal chain which would in a world entirely naturalistic play out exactly the same, but which nevertheless forms a pattern suggesting some divine purpose towards a greater good. As in the first two Dragon Age games, George R.R. Martin is wonderfully ambiguous about which religion, if any, accurately describes the metaphysical reality of his fantasy world; but whether the Old Gods or the New, the Lord of Light, the Many Faced god, the Drowned god, the Great Stallion, or something unnamed and unknown, the history of Westeros has the mark of authorship behind it beyond merely Martin himself.
The greatest evidence of such is in the character of Jon Snow. The finale confirmed what some fans had suspected, that he is none other than the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark – that is to say, the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. And not only are the Seven Kingdoms his by birthright, but six seasons of the show have unflinchingly demonstrated him to be the most deserving to rule as well. Every bit as noble-minded as his adopted father, his mind was always on service to the realm, forsaking all “titles and crowns” to do so as a member of the Night’s Watch till death. Moreover, service to such infused in him a broader scope of the true war which Westeros was facing than his late uncle ever suspected. And as he could not forsake his honor by breaking his oath, lest he be found unworthy of the throne, so fate fulfilled his vows by delivering him to death. And of all the characters on the show to die, it was John Snow alone – the very one who was right to rule and had the right to rule – that was brought back to life – whether by the Lord of Light or Melisandre’s magic or something else entirely, none know. And when, by rights, he should have died again at the Battle of the Bastards, in a situation in which the show would have offed any other character, at just the right moment – what the Greeks called the καιρός – the Lords of the Vale arrived to turn the tide.
Any one of these situations is in itself unlikely. But taken together, one is led to surmise that they were supposed to happen – every bit the same as Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and Frodo was meant to inherit it. Moreover, there exists concrete evidence that life in Westeros is not so absurd as would appear. The future there is already written, and discernible to certain soothsayers. Melisandre, though mistaken in scrying Stannis as sitting upon the Iron Throne, nevertheless seems to have real prophetic powers. As did Maggy the Frog, who told young Cersei that her children would all die, finally fulfilled in Tommen’s suicide.
But even if these were mere wyrd women as in Macbeth, with poisonous words which cause characters to cause such “prophecies” themselves, Hodor is incontrovertible proof that the past and future are equally real in Game of Thrones; that however season seven ends, whether with Daenerys breaking the wheel or Jon slaying the Night King, such was always inevitable, from the arrival of the First Men and before even. Consider: the event which resulted in Wylis to become Hodor – Bran warging across time – took place decades after its effect. That is to say, the future caused the past.
That the past and the future had to happen exactly as they did again suggest that they were meant to happen that way. Just as in our real world, in which so many, for lack of a better theodicy, explain the existence of evil as God moving “in mysterious ways,” Game of Thrones – in refusing to do as Tolkien did in setting up a straw man of Evil – dared to depict the entire gamut of cruelty and degeneracy (including infanticide, patricide, regicide, castration, cannibalism, flaying, rape, and much more), wallowing in the worst of human nature, and nevertheless dares to suggest some strange but ultimately good purpose behind it all.
It is an audaciously hopeful message, one which will not sit well with many viewers, especially those who associate realism for hopelessness and first fell in love with Thrones thinking it was a reprieve from Tolkienesque fantasy. But far from repudiating Tolkien, Thrones eclipses him: its darkness is so much darker, and yet, because of such, its light is likewise brighter. If I may be so bold as to paraphrase On Fairy Stories one last time:
“[Game of Thrones] contains a fairy story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. It contains many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: ‘mythical’ in its perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is [one of] the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophes… This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality’ …For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation.”
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