As HBO announces Game of Thrones is its most most-watched programme in the channel’s history, surpassing Sex And The City and The Sopranos to name only two, Nicola Shulman’s article from the February 2013 issue explains just why everyone is hooked.
IF you were ever in doubt that men and women are largely incomprehensible to one another, try this game. Get some TV-watching friends together. Get the men to ask the women who they think is the most attractive male character in the HBO series Game of Thrones.
Every woman, from 19 to 90, will then say, “Tyrion Lannister.” And all the men will think this is a joke. You mean the dwarf? Ha, ha.
“But he’s a dwarf.”
“I can see that.”
“But you know. He’s really small. Look at his arms!”
Nothing that you can say will convince the menfolk that this is anything other than a kind of weird mind-game devised to upset them. This is why men are so often surprised by women.
To any rational person, there is nothing peculiar about the attractions of Tyrion Lannister as played by the beautiful, sad-eyed Peter Dinklage. Dinklage’s Tyrion is a witty and melancholy rake, a type well known to appeal to women. What is much more surprising is that Game of Thrones has any female audience at all. It’s an unremittingly brutal fantasy series about strategy, magic and civil war; it’s set in an imaginary kingdom called Westeros, sometime in the “Heavy Metieval” period; and its natural constituency is among those people whose hands are slowly turning into games consoles. I’ve seldom seen – and never read – anything as violent. To raise an eyebrow in Westeros, you must flay a woman before you rape, and rape before you disembowel. On screen, limbs and heads go rolling about in such profusion that the casting agent has permanent vacancies for actors with missing legs (so they can come off in the fight scenes), and must often regret that there are so few actors with no heads. Yet now, like some rough beast from its own pages, it has shattered the confines of genre and is roaming about unresisted in the wider culture.
I am a case in point. I don’t like violence, or magic books for grown-ups. The Thrones box set came as a present, and I probably wouldn’t have watched it if it hadn’t rained. When I think of that now, I feel that faint and trembling sense of reprieve that you get when you spot the speeding bus just before you step in front of it. Thrones had me from the first episode, where Brandon Stark, bravest and loveliest of seven-year-old boys, was pushed out of a tower window. Next, please. When the TV ran out, I resorted to the books. They’re even better.
Fashion has already taken note. On the catwalks in autumn 2012, we saw Guinevere girdles, chain-mail tunics, portcullis skirts, wicked-queen capes, princess sleeves latticed and looped with criss-cross silver thread, and other similar confections apparently destined for a cellophane pack with mouse ears. But everyone got the reference at once: “Game of Thrones!” chorused the papers.
GoT‘s appeal has very little to do with frocks. Its American author, George RR Martin, began his career in comics, and what he likes to describe is weapons: helms, muzzled like snarling lions or branched with 3ft golden antlers, blades where inner fires ripple and dazzle the skies with arcs of light. His comic-makers’ talent for visual effects is part of the surprising thrill of reading A Song of Ice and Fire – the epic on which GoT is based – but it’s underpinned by something rarer: an eternal spring of wonderful stories and a genius for the creation of other worlds.
Westeros is an island rather like a larger version of Britain, with extremes of climate at its further reaches. A wall, Hadrian-like but 700ft high, made of ice and defended by a sacred order of brothers, cuts off the top third from the rest. North of the Wall there is frozen chaos, an ice wilderness populated by tribes of neolithic brigands, mammoths, wolves, bears and a bellicose species of zombie called “White Walkers” who recruit to their ranks by killing anyone they find. South of the Wall are baronial families spoiling for a fight, which they get when the rightful Targaryen king is usurped, and the Lannister clan begins to get a purchase on the throne. Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, 13-year-old Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), the silver-haired and violet-eyed last of the Targaryens, has got dragons’ eggs. She got them at her wedding to the vast Dothraki warlord, Khal Drogo (played by Jason Momoa, who appears to be storing them in his chest). One day, they’ll hatch.
Dragon fire and the holy fires of a sinister red priestess called Melisandre give us the fire of the title. The ice refers to the special meteorology of the place. Martin makes his world believable by making it touch our own at flashpoints. Climate change in Westeros takes the form of summers and winters that last for years; and the consequent anxiety, a mirror of ours, comes from the fact that nobody knows when the season will change. Summer has smiled on Westeros for half a lifetime. Now winter is coming, prophesied to last 100 years; and as the books go on, the cold creeps in. Martin is a poet of cold: not just the thrilling kind of crisp snowfields and tinkling icicle palaces, but the starved and wretched cold of a week in a wet bog.
George R(aymond) R(ichard) Martin has got more than just Rs in common with his acknowledged literary hero, JRR Tolkien. Most obviously, they share a phenomenal capacity to process myth and remake old stories as their own. Both use borrowed gods to bring antiquity and a sense of layered custom to their fictional worlds. The difference is in Martin’s promiscuity. Where Tolkien keeps chaste faith with his Norse legends, Martin has raided every story from Homer to Narnia, every folk tale and ritual from Iceland to Djibouti, every mystical sect from the wilder latitudes of the web: druids, Freemasons, Templar knights, Jungian archetypes, on it goes. In it goes. Indiscriminate appropriation on this scale ought to result in a fancy-dress shambles or, perhaps, a comedy like Shrek. But it works. Why? Because Martin doesn’t serve this up in bleeding slabs, he releases it in tints and fumes, like the whiff of a familiar spice that you can’t quite identify. He’s a genius with names: “Eddard Stark”, “Balon Greyjoy”, “Cersei Lannister” whisper to you of high moorland, Northern seas, beautiful schemer. Somehow “Daenarys Targaryen” puts one in mind of ancient Wales, Cornwall, Tintagel… dragons. There’s something of the subconscious mind here, and the HBO production catches it perfectly at points: for instance, in the counterintuitive casting of dark-haired, olive-complexioned actresses (Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke) for gold and silver blondes. The series has faithfully rendered into flesh Martin’s ideas of feminine beauty, which, I am afraid to say, are those of a discriminating harem curator. Still, unlike The Tudors, say, where all the ladies of Henry VIII’s court look like the wives of tennis seeds, the women of GoT provide some welcome physical diversity. We have scrawny, root-white, freckle-splashed redheads and long-fingered, long-faced girls with hair like ink dropped into water; women who are skinny, pillowy, stately, buttocky, gigantic. Some even have their own breasts and pubic hair – if anyone can remember what that is.
None of this is very like Tolkein, nor is it the only difference.The Lord of the Rings was written in the Second World War as a morality tale where the forces of virtue repel an evil invader. The good win, the bad die, the magic works. George Martin’s book isn’t like that and nor is his magic, which no one believes in, makes nothing better and asks a vile price for its dubious ministry. Likewise, his book reflects the moral uncertainties of our own complicated times. There’s no moral centre here. Everyone in it is self-seeking, corrupt, amoral at best. The only honourable character (spoiler alert), Ned Stark (Sean Bean), loses his head for political naivety.
That brings us to Martin’s most striking feature as a writer: his readiness to defeat and kill any character, however central to the plot and no matter how much we are rooting for them. Such things just don’t happen in Lord of the Rings, nor in anything written for screen, with its inevitable star-vehicle and audience feel-good stipulations. An hour of GoT, on the other hand, delivers real suspense. Not Tyrion, we pray at the start of each episode. Let him not kill Tyrion. But Martin doesn’t think like that at all. He used to work forThe Twilight Zone, and has taken its strapline, “Always expect the unexpected”, as the motto for his muse.
Luckily, he can afford to be profligate with his characters. For every one he dispatches, he brings in five more as good, lurid enough to fill the boots of fantasy but nonetheless convincing, with plausible human motives and response. Take the Lannisters, for example, for a delicious elision of Mount Olympus and Park Avenue. On one level they are like Greek gods, all appetite and short-term intrigue. On another, they are a wholly convincing family, fielding a pair of narcissistic, overprivileged siblings.
A Song of Ice and Fire has two books still to run. It was started to please its author, and now, as Game of Thrones, it has to please the TV ratings, the Emmy panel and the HBO executive. The last book took Martin six years to produce: already on the internet an army of trolls are drumming their heels for the sequel, terrified he’ll die with the work unfinished. I’d like to say reassuring words. Ignore them, George. Take your time. Don’t worry about us. But I’d be lying.