Essays · TV

A Song Without Beginning or End: Why We All Keep Playing the Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones is back, winter is coming, and Joyeux Noel. It isn’t always easy being a fan of the show—season 5, in particular, featured some awful adaptation choices—but its gravitational pull is undeniable.
By  · Published on April 26th, 2016

Game of Thrones is back, winter is coming, and Joyeux Noel. It isn’t always easy being a fan of the show—season 5, in particular, featured some awful adaptation choices—but its gravitational pull is undeniable. The reason why is not the filmmaking, which is of variable quality even if it features some lovely locations. It is not even the infamous, and frankly over-discussed, nudity. It’s the story: George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, which may or may not be the high point of the fantasy genre—that question will be addressed later—but certainly a noteworthy literary achievement.

Martin’s novels not only contain meticulous world-building, but the story that world hosts is as eternal, and interconnected, as the world itself. Not to get too far out and poetic with this idea, but: a world is round, with neither beginning nor end. And so A Song of Ice And Fire may have a beginning in the sense that there is a page one, and an end in the sense that A Dream of Spring (the hint of optimism in that title fuels my faith in its eventual existence) will have a final page after which there are no more words. But the story it tells extends back past the “first” page and, one can only assume from the tenor of the five extant books, forward beyond the “last.” Even by the events as they happen chronologically in the present tense in the books, it’s hard to fix on an exact event that set each storyline in motion.

The War of the Five Kings, the primary concern of the first three books and whose endgame and aftermath are depicted in the next two, is set in motion when Bran Stark discovers Cersei and Jaime Lannister’s incestuous relationship and is unceremoniously thrown out a window by Jaime. Except the Lannisters wouldn’t have been there at all if not for the war fifteen years prior in which Bran’s father Ned and Cersei’s husband, Robert Baratheon hadn’t successfully led a rebellion that deposed the “Mad King” Aerys Targaryen (whose actual death came at Jaime’s hand). The Targaryen dynasty wouldn’t have ruled Westeros in the first place if they hadn’t needed to flee the Doom of Valyria (and wouldn’t have conquered Westeros without dragons). And so on. This is the way history works. Each supposed beginning has a backstory.

History also foretells the future, although Martin takes Santayana’s famous warning that those who do not study it are doomed to repeat it and adds the sardonic twist that those who study history in the form of prophecy find that prophecies in Westeros, Essos, and lands beyond often come true in unexpected, or unuseful, ways. Melisandre, the priestess of the red god R’hllor, is capable of performing all manner of incredibly powerful magic, up to and including the ability to raise the dead, but her visions of the future tend to be frustratingly vague; she’ll see something happen but misinterpret who the thing happens to, for instance.

What this means for the series, and its fans, in literary terms is that there is a relatively clear road ahead in terms of what is going to happen—Daenerys Targaryen is eventually going to get an army together and figure out how to schlep them all, plus her three dragons, to Westeros, at which point a lot of people are going to get their asses kicked; the ice zombies are going to advance upon the Realm proper and likely be repelled by some Westerosi quarter or other—but how all that is going to happen is not. There are clues to future events, most prominently the fan theory that purportedly led to the very existence of the TV series, known as “R+L=J,” which in full sentence form means that Jon Snow is, rather than Ned Stark’s bastard son, the progeny of Rhaegar Targaryen (the son of the Mad King) and Lyanna Stark, Ned’s sister and Robert Baratheon’s betrothed. Thus, Jon Snow’s death on the show (as of the end of book 5, his fate is precarious but not yet definitive) is widely assumed to be temporary; there is, after all, a supernaturally old and powerful sorceress very close at hand.

I could go on all day, which is ultimately the point. The world George R.R. Martin built is one that can sustain the occasional artistic lull in being ported to television (and, honestly, the occasional artistic lull in his books; the fourth and fifth book have an extremely heavy world-building to narrative momentum ratio). It’s fun to talk about because there’s so much to talk about. As for its status as the definitive American fantasy epic, it has all the appearances of definitiveness and eternity, from the richness and wideness of its world to the sharpness and narrowness of catchphrases like “Winter is coming” and “Valar Morghulis [All Men Must Die].” If American literature rests on one principle (c.f. The Great Gatsby) it’s that appearance constitutes reality past a certain point, and if A Song of Ice and Fire looks like the definitive American fantasy epic, it might just be.

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