Monday, April 28, 2014

Repost: Does it Matter Who Wins the Game of Thrones?

This blog entry was originally posted in May of 2012.

There was never any doubt about the attack on the Death Star. An armored battle station that solely exists to destroy planets offers little in the way of moral ambiguity to the audience watching its destruction. The only possible reaction is to stand up and cheer. And when Sauron’s ring of power is finally tossed into Mount Doom, ending the dark lord’s threat to enslave all of Middle Earth, no one is inclined to feel ambivalent about that ending. The heroes and villains in these stories are clearly drawn, and the outcomes almost inevitable.

Things are not so obvious in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga, adapted for television as HBO’s Game of Thrones. Sure, most everyone can agree that the cowardly teenaged sociopath Joffrey Baratheon should spend as little time as possible sitting on the Iron Throne, and many can surely agree that his uncle Stannis has the most legitimate claim to that throne of anyone in the Seven Kingdoms, but when the time comes for Stannis’ fleet to besiege King’s Landing and take that throne from Joffrey, both reader and viewer view the Battle of Blackwater Bay with more than a little ambiguity.
The problem is, that no matter how much we may loathe Joffrey, the man at the center of the defense of King’s Landing, his uncle Tyrion Lannister, is one of the more interesting and well-liked characters in the story. A dwarf with an appetite for both women and wine, Tyrion is brilliant, sarcastic and usually underestimated by family, friend and foe. Though not one to deny himself much in the way of pleasure, he’s usually very aware of the consequences of his actions for others. Growing up as the despised son of the privileged Lannister clan has given him both empathy for those usually dismissed by the highborn and an awareness of the treachery that exists within that class. As a result he has compassion for the weak (protecting Sansa Stark from his own nephew) and deals ruthlessly with those he sees as a threat (he sent Ser Janos Slynt to The Wall). So while we would be happy to see Joffrey’s head placed on a pike, we’d be really disappointed if Tyrion were to fail and loose his own head.
So the audience is really unable to take sides in the Battle of Blackwater, and many experience it neutrally, hoping that Tyrrion survives and that Joffrey gets shot in the eye with an arrow. Our investment in Tyrion’s success conflicts with our investment in Joffrey’s removal from the throne. That George R.R. Martin can inspire such a contradiction in his readers demonstrates the sophistication of his work, and gives the fantasy genre a certain depth that it has lacked until now. As in real life, good and evil are a bit more complicated in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.

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