HBO’s Game of Thrones, based on the novels by George R. R. Martin, represents a triumph of storytelling.
"Tell Khal Drogo that he has given me the wind.” With these words, spoken by Princess Daenerys Targaryen in an early chapter of George R. R. Martin’s novel A Game of Thrones, my apprehensions were crystallized. How could I, a finicky and tender-stomached reader, digest without upset Martin’s maximally invented Dark Age world—the maps, the myths, the heraldry? Historical fantasy, as a genre, is not my cup of tea. The books are too long. The names are too silly. And there’s that stony-faced proclamatory style—as if irony were a late-20th-century novelty, like the digital watch. Surely Khal Drogo was about to give me the wind?
But it crept up on me: Enjoyment. Excitement. And then a kind of awe. Tolkienian depth of field is one of the most notable attributes of A Song of Ice and Fire, the five-volume (so far) epic of which A Game of Thrones is the first installment. A sense of the grotesque to rival Mervyn Peake’s is another. And Martin has the better of both these great fabulists when it comes to telling a love story. Princess Daenerys, incidentally, is talking about a horse: a horse “grey as the winter sea, with a mane like silver smoke,” which has just been gifted to her by the barbarian rider-chief Drogo as part of their (arranged) nuptials. What an odd couple they make! She, virginal, timid, a persecuted little sister. He, with his anvil brow and cannonball pecs, biker-bearded, inky-eyed, slouching about half naked in the heat-ripple of his own magnificence. She speaks the Common Tongue; he woofs and clucks in his native Dothraki. But Daenerys mounts the silver-gray filly and rides it spectacularly, with “a daring she had never known,” and there is approval in the molasses gaze of the khal.
“Grey as the winter sea”—Martin’s prose will occasionally break out in such small rashes of floweriness. By and large, though, its immune system is solid, thriving on the concrete, the particular, the psychologically present. This is presumably what turned on the executives at HBO, where Game of Thrones, the televised drama, this month commences its second season. Season One was a triumph: unswerving in its fealty to Martin’s text, its mood set superbly by the rumbling, skirling Elizabethan heavy metal of Ramin Djawadi’s theme music, the show was a wave of rough textures and bitter sounds, of splintering lances, scraping broadswords, opened throats, and eunuchs being taunted for their ball-lessness. In the ninth episode, the character we had presumed to be the hero of the epic—Lord Eddard (or Ned) Stark, strong, upright, and focally placed within the story (also: played by Sean Bean)—got his head chopped off. What the fuck? Tolkien, in his seminal essay, “On Fairy Stories,” wrote of the “good catastrophe,” or “Eucatastrophe”—the happy ending, “the sudden joyous ‘turn’” in a fairy tale that alerts the reader or listener to the presence of “Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” The stroke that decapitates Ned Stark is just the opposite: the breakthrough sign of a crueler order, a more pitiless dispensation, one in which we had preferred not to believe.
And why did Lord Stark get his head chopped off? Ah, well now we’re into it, the game of thrones, the unendingly treacherous contention and succession that is the elemental reality of the realm. As the story begins, the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros are united—just barely—under the wobbly crown of Robert Baratheon. A drunkard, whoremonger, and washed-up winner of old wars, Robert is a broken king right out of Chrétien de Troyes or T. S. Eliot. Wonderfully played by Mark Addy, he booms with empty-hearted heartiness, calls for more wine, and snarls at his queen, Cersei, their long-congealed marriage a keen contrast to the furnace loins of Daenerys and Drogo. And from this rotted-out royal center the symptoms travel, spreading wastage and perturbation across the kingdom. Nine years of summer are coming to an end; the cold encroaches. To the north, in the vertiginous and Gormenghast-like precincts of Winterfell, the House of Stark (motto: “Winter is coming”) is touched by malevolence: someone has pushed young Bran out of a high window, and there are spooky goings-on in the icy, unpoliced wilderness beyond the Wall. To the east, across the narrow sea, the dynastic marriage of Daenerys—from whose father Robert wrested the throne—to the leader of the wild Dothraki horde presents a new threat. If anyone can ever persuade the Dothraki to put their horses onto ships …
Power is Martin’s possessing theme, and one not without echoes in our own world. “We’re an empire now,” a Bush White House aide told Ron Suskind at the dawn of the fantasy-named “war on terror,” “and when we act, we create our own reality.” That’s how you do it—that’s how you play the game of thrones. As Queen Cersei promises her beastly adolescent son, the Mordred-like Joffrey, “You’ll sit on the throne, and the truth will be what you make it.” And so it comes to pass: King Robert, fatally wounded by a disrespectful boar, summons Lord Stark and signs a document appointing him regent. Presented with said document after her husband’s passing, with witnesses all around, Cersei simply rips it up—creates her own reality—obliging all present to make the appropriate perceptual adjustments.
But not all truth is politically (or militarily) determined in Martin’s opus. There is also individual truth—the truth, that is, of who you happen to be. And to engage with this truth, however undelicious, is to prosper. The bad guys know it. “Only by admitting what we are,” says the slippery Lord Baelish, “can we get what we want.” Charles Dance, playing the patriarch Lord Tywin Lannister in a typically fine scene from Season One, skins a deer while lecturing his son Jaime. “You spend too much time worrying what people think of you,” he grunts between knife strokes. “I could care less,” Jaime assures him, “what anyone thinks of me.” Retorts Tywin (brusquely laying bare the sinew): “That’s what you want people to think of you.”
And the sort-of good guys know it too. (Indeed, over the subsequent novels, one villain’s evolution to almost-hero is essentially a journey of self-discovery.) Who, after all, was the true protagonist of Season One, if not dear beheaded Ned? It was Tyrion the Imp, the other son of Tywin: the dwarf, the little man, the misfit in the House of Lannister, pinballing picaresquely from one tight spot to another, sustained, against all probability, by a humming field of sarcasm and self-knowledge. Ned Stark was hampered by honor and blocked by mercifulness; his face, grimy with care and contracted in a permanent squint, was a mask of incomprehension. And so he died. Tyrion, by contrast, acts by the clear light of his own interest: no one is removing his head. In the show he is played by Peter Dinklage, doleful of eye and profound of voice, a figure of worldliness compressed. It’s a performance to which no alternative is imaginable, and for which Dinklage has received the bookend laurels of an Emmy and a Golden Globe.
It occurs to me that I’ve been too knotty, too plotty, in my praise for Game of Thrones. Non-Throniacs may wonder what the fuss is all about. But plottiness and knottiness are indicators of what Tolkien, to cite the old wizard again, called “Secondary Belief.” They bespeak immersion—not the prim suspension of disbelief, but its joyous capsizing. Heavy swats of air as the dragon of the imagination takes flight. This is the paradoxical Martin effect: into the frosty moral void of his world, his bellum omnium contra omnes, comes a whoosh and a rush of readerly desire. It’s what Tolkien called the “enchanted state”—the ultimate victory of the storyteller.