Myth and Legend: My continued preference for High Fantasy over the dark grit of Game of Thrones
Warning: Heavy Spoilers Ahead
A lot of things began in my life after that young fifth grader that was me in 2003 saw the conclusion to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. My interest in history, in ancient myths, in great epic landscapes, my aspirations to become a writer, all could be attributed to those three years 2001–2003, when I sat in the theater and was transported to another world. The books only capitalized on that sense of wonder, each of its pages filling me with the same sense of adventure and emotion, but also instilling in me an insatiable desire to scan down each detail and find in them the sources, writings, and scholarship that allowed JRR Tolkien to essentially lay the groundwork for the genre I adore.
It is a work of fiction that has had the greatest impact on my life and since then, the closest I have come to experiencing that wonder again was playing the Witcher 3, its DLC’s, and reading the equally mesmerizing novels by Andrzej Sapkowski (count me as a sworn members of the lynch mob that will amass outside Netflix’s headquarters in the event they bungle the adaptation). An added bonus is that they rinsed the bad taste I got watching The Hobbit Trilogy, *burr*.
But some may ask, wait, what about Game of Thrones? Well Game of Thrones is a great show, but it hasn’t clicked with me like it has for so many in the world. Seven seasons in while I have been a faithful watcher of the show and frequently share theories as well as favorite scenes among friends, I can’t really say it is a series I will be revisiting once it reaches its conclusion for currently an unknown date, but certainly before the end of the decade. So what is it about Game of Thrones that keeps me glued to the screen, yet still leaves me relatively cold compared to the worlds of The Lord of the Rings and The Witcher?
Well what kind of Fantasy is Game of Thrones? It is most famous perhaps for winning over more cynical audiences who normally were not fans of the genre. It is realistic, heavily based on medieval European history, and Westeros is a brutal world where if a character is happy, moral, and decent, don’t expect that character to last more than a season or two (and be prepared to to take the day of work or school due to PTSD). It is like that on purpose, for George RR Martin wished to overturn the cliches of the Fantasy genre and in doing so has won over fans and non fans of the genre alike.
But Game of Thrones is still nonetheless a Fantasy show with Dragons, Red Priestesses, and Ice Zombies. And this where I feel it falters for me. Lord of the Rings and The Witcher 3 drew their worlds extensively from existing legends and myths. Lord of the Rings from Norse mythology and Wagner, and Witcher 3 from Slavic mythology. These were crafted respectively, by a linguistic professor who extensively read old Norse legends and epics, and a Polish Native. Incorporating eons old traditions and stories with compelling narratives and memorable characters, Tolkien and Sapkowski created worlds that felt real, having the power of myth and legend.
Game of Thrones in contrast set out to be a repudiation of the genre’s cliches despite Martin’s respect for Tolkien. And that is true to an extent in a world that has given us Bran being pushed out a window, Ned Stark being beheaded, Rob and his pregnant wife being stabbed to death, Shireen Baratheon being burned at the stake, and Oberyn Martell’s head being crushed like a watermelon. When we watch those scenes, fans know that they are not watching an ordinary Fantasy world.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, when we watch Daenerys on top of Drogon, screaming in Dothraki about covering Westeros in Fire and Blood for the umpteenth time and especially the Ice Battle of the last season, where it does start to feel like a typical fantasy. That I feel is the main weakness of Game of Thrones……
Lord of the Rings and The Witcher gave me a feeling that I was watching history and myth. With Game of Thrones I’m certainly watching history, but not myth.
This is even reflected in the background lore for these stories. As stated earlier, Lord of the Rings paints a history of Middle Earth that draws heavily on creation stories of various mythologies, be it Celtic, Norse, and even Christianity. The creatures of The Witcher reflect the fairy tails they are based on, largely that of Polish and Slavic folklore. The monsters not only feel authentic in their design and the role they play in the story, but are more or less a reflection of human failings rather than just scary obstacles for our hero to do away with. In both these cases Tolkien and Sapkowski understand the essence of the old tales that inspired their creations, not only in entertaining with the endless creativity of the environments but also in embodying human values, whether it be in magnanimity or depravity, that the folktales of past were written to explore and a tradition that they reinterpret for a new generation.
Game of Throne’s lore and history makes heavy use of medieval conflicts, namely the War of the Roses and power struggles of Medieval Scotland, as well as customs when detailing the shaping of the Seven Houses, the formation of knightly orders, guilds, and religious sects. It is so incredibly detailed in making a fantasy world based on history that as a result, I have found the fantasy elements almost come off like an afterthought. Martin seems to have been so singularly focused on creating a grounded fantasy in response to authors who wrote poor dungeons and dragons like imitations of Tolkien, that when it came to the fantasy elements of his own realistic medieval take on the genre, for me at least, he gives the impression that his imagination could come up with no better than the poor Tolkien imitators he was railing against.
This unfortunately ties into the show’s own narrative flaws, particularly the stakes. In the beginning the fantasy elements of Game of Thrones were at a minimum. Magic initially had a very minimal presence in the universe, with Tyrion Lannister cynically remarking that the proud men of the Night’s Watch were selflessly giving their lives to man the ancient wall against, “Grumpkins and Snarks.” The central conflict was the War of the Five Kings, and the stakes were who sat on the Iron Throne. It didn’t turn out the way audiences hoped it would turn out, but it had a focus and a defined conflict we could follow. Now, in its seventh season, the stakes have shifted. The White Walkers have begun their invasion and intrigues of the Red Keep means nothing now that the world is at stake, a point the show decisively made with the death of Petyr Baelish in the season finale. This already ties into a problem that begin with the 4th and 5th books in the Ice and Fire series, in the over-extension of the narrative. Right of the bat when I witnessed the Wall come down at the end of the 7th Season, I thought about re-watching the previous seasons of blood running through the continent and the streets of King’s Landing and how meaningless all those events must feel because the end result of the show was not which house sat on the throne, but the invasion in the north. Now thematically that is indeed the point of the White Walker invasion, but the problem is with almost 60 hours before that invasion begins. With its highs such as Tyrion in the Red Keep and lows namely the whole dilemma with the High Sparrow, an already stretched thin narrative is devoid of all tension with the knowledge that despite the author’s original intention of painting scheming kings, queens and advisors as the most dangerous beings on the show. That monsters are still ultimately what our heroes will test themselves against.
With the White Walkers, only vaguely being seen and mentioned in the early seasons of the show, now taking up the mantle as the great villain with the deaths of Joffrey, the Boltons, and the Freys, the already existing narrative weaknesses coincides with the weakest part of the show’s world building, the fantasy, becoming more prominent. Our characters, that had the made the show HBO’s biggest show ever by stabbing each other in the back, will now be taking part in an epic war with dragons, the most cliched of all fantasy creatures, and the White Walkers, who were the result of alchemy gone wrong, are the epitome of genre cliches. In addition, as the jaded cynics who were won over by the show’s brutality have now pointed out, the show especially in its last season has been letting its slow embrace of genre cliches permeate into not only the manner in which its conflicts play out, but also in what made the show the unpredictable nightly event that it is, the arcs of its characters. Take the Battle on Ice in Season 7 Episode 6, a thrillingly shot action scene with amazing production design, but when you see ice zombies whom previously have a reputation for gruesomely gnawing their victims, instead grapple fan favorite Tormund Giantsbane and creating a moment of faux-tension as he is dragged into the water only to be predictably saved by Sandor. For a series whose separate identity was not the mythology its world was based on, but rather the ruthless history of Feudal England, to now fully embrace the fantastical. While it may be still entertaining and well made, for a show with this kind of budget and resources to deliver anything less would be disappointing, it simply in my opinion at least does not have a leg to stand on compared to the aforementioned Medieval Fantasy series that I hold dear.
To summarize my opinions, Game of Thrones is a show in which its already overextended narrative is currently compounded by the fact that its more half-baked genre elements are taking precedence over its more well crafted realistic elements.
It is not that I do not like depressing stories, the medieval times portrayed in Game of Thrones were not a pretty time in Europe’s history, much like how one of my favorite movies, Ran, would hardly have a happy ending considering both that it’s an adaptation of King Lear and is set during Japan’s tumultuous Sengoku period. But the stated narrative and world building flaws of the series makes it so, even if I have never been bored with an episode of Game of Thrones, it does for me severely dampen its replay value and lasting impact. So overall, even if The Lord of the Rings is this simple good vs. evil action adventure that many of its critics deride it as, I still believe it is overall the better story and not just the better fantasy than Game of Thrones. Likewise with the Witcher 3, which manages to combine the best of the both worlds in both its spellbinding world building and morally grey characters. Of course those who didn’t like Lord of the Rings or the genre to begin with won’t be swayed in their opinions even if Game of Thrones pulls a Mass Effect 3 ending. But for me I will continue to hold up both the worlds of The Lord of the Rings and The Witcher as the best the genre has to offer.