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Game of Thrones, Season One

[1]3,500 words

Spanish translation here [2]

Anthony Swofford wrote in Jarhead that it is impossible to make an antiwar movie. Even a film like Full Metal Jacket, which mocks the United States Marine Corps and its values, has been championed by the very same people it scorns, with R. Lee Emery given a post-retirement promotion by the Commandant [3] and references to the film cited by the very same drill instructors the movie’s backers despise. While your typical Vietnam movie about the “brutality of war” may tell civilians what they want to hear, the “terrible and despicable beauty” will always excite those who actually want to go out and fight.

So it is with fantasy and medieval adventure. A Game of Thrones is in many ways a deconstruction of the entire genre. The good guys do not always win. In fact, they never win. Going further, it’s hard to tell who the good guys even are. Chivalry is a bad joke, and a code of honor is only a cover for the kinds of intrigues and betrayals that our modern democrats have come to master. The people, or “the small folk,” exist only to be trampled underfoot. More than that, they should be, as they are ignorant, venal, grasping, and easily manipulated, insofar as they matter at all. If he could somehow be transported to another world, Aragorn, son of Arathorn, would have fallen to poison or a dagger in the night well before he could make his claim to the Iron Throne.

Nonetheless, the small folk of what was once America have rallied to the latest HBO production, gathering around weekly to watch dragons and jousts against the background of a hierarchical system that our entire society is dedicated to opposing. A Game of Thrones brings realism to the fantasy genre, but it can not escape the genre itself. To even show knights in armor, heraldic appeals to honor, quests for glory, and tales of heroism and family pride sung throughout the centuries is itself a critique of the democratic age. The best social criticism the great and good of our time can muster is that we are not equal enough – there might still be some racist somewhere that we all required to worry about, and there are still some reactionary holdouts that don’t look enough like Detroit. If hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, Game of Thrones and it’s popularity is an admission that the democratic age is forced to look back in order to look up, even if we have to tear it all down in the doing.

Following the accelerated completion and cancellation of the well-received series Rome due to budgetary constraints, it was nothing short of shocking that book one of A Song of Ice and Fire was chosen for a miniseries. One would be hard-pressed to think of another fictional world more elaborate or complex, or less suited to a quick recounting, than that created by George R. R. Martin. Nonetheless, capitalism gets it right occasionally, and the series is the rare combination of critical and popular acclaim that also sneaks in some unwelcome truths against the Zeitgeist. Part of this is the implied assault on democratic man and modernity, a theme welcome to men against time.

That said, where A Game of Thrones truly succeeds is that while not giving in to modern assumptions, it attacks the pretentions and assumptions of Radical Traditionalism itself by ripping bare the realities of power and the meaning of the political life. Rather than taking comfort in familiar critiques, A Game of Thrones has much to teach any contemporary would-be European warriors who want to fight their own sacred cause and stake their own claim as conquerors.

Spoilers Follow

The “hero” and widely promoted main character of the first season is Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell. The fact that he is portrayed by Sean Bean should give you some indication as to what is ultimately in store for him [4], but by the normal standards of fantasy, Stark is exactly what we should expect. He is a man of integrity, deeply respected as a warrior, honored as a dutiful leader, and loved as both a family man and protector of his people. Westeros is a realm forged from seven separate kingdoms, and Stark rules the North, vast but thinly populated.

Martin exploits a motif that goes back at least as far as Tacitus’s Germania, with Stark’s Northmen portrayed as a uniquely hardy, virtuous, and unpretentious folk, somehow more in touch with the harsh realities of life than the cultured, spoiled, and effeminate Southerners wallowing in decadent luxury. At the extreme northern boundary stands The Wall, a seven hundred foot barrier of ice that stretches across the continent, designed to protect the realm from the barbarian “wildlings” that live to the north, as well as more sinister creatures such as giants, mammoths, and “White Walkers,” undead monsters ready to wage war on the kingdoms of men. Summer and Winter last for years in Martin’s world, and the Stark motto — rather than a boastful claim of victory or power — is a sobering reminder that whatever our joys or successes, “Winter is Coming.”

Stark is a childhood friend and wartime comrade of the current king, Robert Baratheon, who took the Iron Throne by force of arms in a rebellion against the “Mad King” Aerys Targaryen. His victory was hollow, as the woman he loved, Ned’s sister Lyanna, died in the rebellion, and King Robert is forced to marry Cercei of the rich and powerful Lannister family in order to bind the realm together. The marriage is, to put it delicately, not a happy one. Once a powerful warrior, King Robert has succumbed to the pleasures of monarchy, drinking and feasting rather than attending to his duties.

Surrounded by courtiers he doesn’t trust, Robert asks Ned Stark to serve as “Hand of the King” (second in command) after the mysterious death of Jon Arryn, the prior Hand. Having received warnings that there is a plot against the king’s life by the Lannisters, Ned reluctantly agrees.

Interestingly, the character of Catelyn Stark has been changed, with the more modern woman on the television series urging Ned Stark to refuse the king’s offer to become Hand and stay home with her. In the book, she is the more ambitious of the two, actually pushing the idea on a more reluctant Ned in order to safeguard the family. On HBO, she gives a passionate speech more pleasing to modern sensibilities about typical men going on about “honor” and putting their pride about their families. Nonetheless, the audience sympathizes with Ned Stark, and so we follow him to King’s Landing.

The golden haired Lannisters are the richest house in the Seven Kingdoms, led by the fearsome Tywin Lannister, who has three children, the twins Queen Cercei and Jamie Lannister, and the dwarf, Tyrion, known as “the imp.” Jamie is known as the “Kingslayer” because he stabbed the mad King Aerys in the back, violating his oaths as a member of the Kingsguard. Meanwhile, the diminutive Tyrion survives by his wits and the low expectations others have of him. With his vulgar (and of course, hysterical [5]) jokes, constant whoring, and (justifiable) cynicism about the world he lives in, Tyrion is the most modern of all the characters in Game of Thrones. The conflict between the Starks and Lannisters drives the action in Westeros during the first season.

Finally, an important sideplot follows Viserys and Daenerys, the last two members of the exiled Targaryens, the “blood of the dragon” who forged the Seven Kingdoms through “Fire and Blood” when Aegon the Conqueror led an army from the back of a dragon and forced his opponents to bend their knees. Now, we meet them in the trading city of Pentos across the Narrow Sea, where Viserys, the legitimate claimant to the Iron Throne, is marrying his sister Daenerys to the leader of a powerful barbarian horse clan, Khal Drogo of the Dothraki.

Martin exploits several familiar Western motifs here as well. Pentos and the “free cities” are portrayed along classic Orientalist lines, a realm of unscrupulous traders, fabulous luxury, loose morals, and eastern mysticism. While the series does not linger on this setting this season, a fuller portrait of societies seemingly designed to enrage Edward Said [6] will be more fully explored in the years to come, if the books are any indication. More importantly, the Targaryens are portrayed as positively Hyperborean, with silver hair and purple eyes in the books, light golden hair and light (though not purple) eyes on television. There is the usual (and historically accurate, in the Indo-European context) connection between Aryan appearance and the “right” of lordship

In contrast, the Dothraki are the only non-whites portrayed in Season One, a horse people based upon a combination of the American Indians and the Mongols. Khal Drogo is portrayed by Jason Momoa, whose last major appearance was as Conan the Barbarian in the required multicultural box office bomb remake. The series actually expands on the books by inventing an entire Dothraki language that greatly expands our understanding of their culture and way of life, and, like Klingon, no doubt creates the opportunity for some nerds to translate classic works of literature into a fictional tongue.

The Dothraki serve as the “noble savages” of the show, despising money, championing leadership by the strong rather than the noble born, and cutting through the pretense and showmanship of Westeros with a more “authentic” celebration of sex, violence, and conquest.

Viserys, who does not understand the people he thinks he is buying, is portrayed as a sniveling, inbred, arrogant weakling, with the Dothraki repeatedly humiliating him. Drogo eventually dispatches him by giving him a “golden crown” of molten metal, gloatingly leering [7] into his face as he dies helplessly in a gesture familar to anyone familiar with the kind of non-European conflict etiquette widely available on YouTube or WorldStarHipHop.

While the series (mercifully) inflates her age to avoid uncomfortable questions of child pornography and turns the consensual wedding consummation into essentially a rape, Daenerys eventually becomes one of the Dothraki. More than that, she enthusiastically adopts her new identity, referring to them as “my people,” learning the language, and falling deeply in love with her “sun and stars” Khal Drogo. Her initial resistance makes her eventual enthusiastic miscegenation and grrl power attitude all the more modern.

Of course, the repeated canoodling of the (over) idealized Aryan princess and the dusky barbarian has of course not stopped the mandated charges of racism from those who earn a living from such things [8]. The show has to walk a delicate balance here, as Daenerys cannot be seen as glorying in the slave taking and conquest of the Dothraki, but she cannot be seen as weak either. Thus, Daenyrs uses her autocratic position as Khalessi for essentially humanitarian ends, breaking precedent and practice to haughtily order a stop to various rapes and murders. Her overlooking or even approval of various savageries is an outgrowth of her admirable love for the heroic Über-untermensch Khal Drogo.

Whatever her brave transformation into warrior woman may represent to budding feminists, Daenerys only unleashes further suffering, inadvertently costs Khal Drogo his life, and is eventually abandoned as Drogo’s khalasar dissolves. However, the series ends on a rare note of pure fantasy, as she steps into the Khal’s funeral pyre with her dragon eggs, thought to have been turned to stone by the centuries. The flames and a mysterious magic awaken the beasts within, and Season One ends with Daenerys Stormborn, Unburnt, rising with three newborn dragons clinging to her flesh.

Such magical intervention is rare, as the bulk of the materials deals with the realities of politics in King’s Landing, the capitol of Westeros. The noble Ned Stark is ill at ease among the conspiracy and intrigues of a southern court. While he tries to find out the secret Jon Arryn died for, he is also burdened by the mystery of who pushed his son Brandon out a window, crippling him. The audience knows it was Jamie Lannister, after he and his sister were caught in flagrante delicto by Bran, revealing the truth that King Robert Bartheon’s supposed children and heirs are actually bastards born of incest and treason. As Stark blunders his way through various clues towards the painfully obvious truth, the audience can be forgiven for wondering why no one else seems to have noticed that the King’s blonde-haired children look nothing like him.

King’s Landing has no shortage of skillful conspirators, including the eunuch Lord Varys, the “Spider” who has a network of informants around the kingdom and beyond, and “Littlefinger” Lord Petyr Baelish, who through financial wizardry and a talent for intrigue has risen from a minor lord to Master of Coin and a power in the realm in his own right. In the book, it’s hinted that others already knew the truth, or at least suspected, but remained silent for their own purposes. In both the series and the book, Stark learns the Cercei’s secret – and takes it straight to the queen, in order that she might be warned of what he will tell the king and so save her children. Predictably, the queen is able to use the time to ensure the king’s death, place her bastard on the throne, and destroy Ned Stark.

None of this was inevitable. When Stark reveals to Petyr Baelish the truth of Cercei’s children, Baelish coolly advises putting the bastard on the throne anyway, securing Stark’s own position as Protector of the Realm, and fortifying their own positions. Renly, King Robert’s youngest brother, advises the same [9]. Instead, Stark honorably and stupidly holds to the position that Stannis, Robert’s despised other brother, has the throne by right. Baelish betrays him, delivering the Gold Cloaks, the largest armed force in King’s Landing, into the hands of the Lannisters.

Stark’s actions lead to his own death, a war that rips the realm apart, and the triumph of his fiercest enemies. As Ned is imprisoned, the eunuch Varys approaches him and tells him, “It was your mercy that killed the king.” It could more truly be said that it was Stark’s honor that killed the king. Nobility, courage, and most of all, pride, lead to the deaths of thousands of people and actively sabotage Stark’s own efforts.

Nor is this kind of behavior unique to Ned Stark. When Tyrion stops by Winterfell on his return trip home, Ned’s son Robb, sitting in his father’s place, greets him coldly with naked steel displayed. He arrogantly reminds Tyrion that is not a boy, but “Lord of Winterfell.” While he is correct, Tyrion reminds him that “he might learn a lord’s courtesy” instead of fueling unnecessary hostility by ignoring customs designed to smooth over difficulties.

In one of the most stirring scenes [10] of the series, Catelyn Stark appeals to her father’s bannermen to help her seize Tyrion, whom she believes tried to murder her son. Catelyn Stark, born Catelyn Tully before she married Ned, knows her House’s words of “Family, Honor, Duty.” Of course, her honorable behavior and leap to judgment inadvertently throws the whole realm into chaos and her family to destruction. Doing her duty for her honor and family eventually destroys everything Catelyn cares about.

Viscerys Targaryen is the legitimate claimant to the Iron Throne, the last Dragon, and he was, cultural differences notwithstanding, promised an army to reclaim his throne. Nonetheless, his constant assertion of status, refusal to respect the customs of others, and open assertions of will lead directly to his horrific demise.

While their characters are more fully developed in the future books (and presumably future episodes), the more successful characters all lack something that a classic hero possesses. Tyrion Lannister, who will skillfully consolidate power and defend the throne in A Clash of Kings in Season 2, is a dwarf. Petyr Baelish, who gradually builds ever more power and influence, is the lord only of a nothing spot of land and the most minor of noble houses. Lord Varys lacks perhaps the most important thing of all, as he is not even a man: a despised eunuch in a patriarchal, masculine culture. Nonetheless, all of these characters are able to achieve their ends more successfully than characters that have every advantage in this world.

The reminder that political skill ultimately overcomes Aryan courage is worth restating to white advocates who believe that openly confronting our enemies somehow guarantees victory. We don’t need noble Starks committed to honor and pride. We don’t need Viscerys Targaryens who value their birth and take lordship as a right. We need more white advocates along the lines of Petyr Baelish, Lord Varys, and Tyrion Lannister. Power is not about nobility or right or wrong. Game of Thrones shows us that power is about the manipulation of people, the managing of expectations and perception, and the subtleties of rhetoric. The warhammer of Robert Baratheon has its place as does the sacrifice of any heroic soldier, but it can no more guarantee victory any more than virtuous behavior can alone suffice to win the heart of a beautiful woman.

This is not to say there is not a place for courage, and honor, and existential struggle. The final and arguably most important subplot of Game of Thrones revolves around the Wall. It is patrolled by the Night’s Watch, an Order of misfits, criminals, nobleborn, and adventurers who have sworn oaths for life to father no sons, inherit no lands, and live and die at their post. Uniquely in Westeros, the Watch serves the realm, the realm as a whole, rather than a particularly lord or great House. Despite the long relationship between the Watch and the Starks (Ned’s brother Benjen is first ranger when the series begins), the Watch takes no part in the battles between Stark and Lannister. Ned Stark’s bastard son Jon Snow joins the Night’s Watch and is forced to choose between his duty to his biological family and his new brothers of the Watch. With some help from his friends, he ultimately remains at the Wall. As the Lord Commander of the unit proclaims [11], “When dead men and worse come hunting for us in the night, do you think it matters who sits the Iron Throne?”

All the subtleties and maneuvering of the crafty characters in King’s Landing fail to anticipate the existential threat that lies north of the wall. It’s the bastards and thieves and exiled nobility of the Black Brothers who alone guard the realm while the aristocrats play their game of thrones. Worse, the smarter characters, the Tyrions and Littlefingers, either mock [12] or ignore the supposed threat altogether.

The audience knows the threat is real, as the series opens with White Walkers [13] slaughtering wildlings and rangers, and creating “wights,” monstrous undead ghouls, from the corpses of those they have slain. There exists the very real possibility that whatever the outcome of the war for the Iron Throne, the White Walkers will sweep in and destroy the kingdoms altogether during the long winter. Only steel in the hands of brave men — men despised and forgotten by the society they defend — can forestall this doom. If they are victorious, the realm is saved, by their names will never be remembered. If they fail, even the possibility of human existence in Westeros is wiped away. As in our struggle, in the most important battles of all, the heroes may go unremembered, with the people who owe them their survival forgetting even their names.

In politics, in life, and in the struggle to secure the survival of our own people, there are no easy answers. It is appropriate to the legends and past heroes of our folk to steel ourselves for the battles to come. That said, the militaristic rhetoric of the movement belies what is desperately needed is the more mundane work of fundraising, organization, administration, and effective public relations and political action before one can even contemplate some kind of heroic armed resistance. What few political operatives working for white survival exist need more of Lord Varys and less of Ned Stark.

Insofar as there are armed conflicts today, be it a street fight at a demonstration or an armed citizen defending his family, there will be no songs sung and no banners flown, as the seat of power is controlled by those who are at best uncaring, or more likely, implacably hostile. Our foot soldiers are less the scions of noble houses and more the refuse of the Night’s Watch, fighting the critical battles that the larger society has ignored.

Watching George R. R. Martin’s achievement of fantasy should force us to become more realistic about the nature of what we face and what it will take to make progress. Dreams of glory and victory are fine in the bright days of summer, but it is time to grow up. Our people’s survival is at stake . . . and winter is coming.