Some Thoughts on Game of Thrones (2011-2019)

“Winter is coming…”

In recently watching through the HBO Game of Thrones series, albeit a decade too late, I could not help but marvel at the sheer majesty and depth of this world constructed by George R.R. Martin. Westeros contains echoes of Anglo-Saxon and Norman England, as well as Nordic and Eastern influences, and even glimpses of ancient Athens, Egypt, and Rome. Geographically, Westeros is fascinating borderland, a confluence of cultures. In the icy north lies a vast wall a la Hadrian’s Wall which divides the kingdoms of Westeros from a frigid arctic tundra populated by primitive wildlings (or “free folk”). To the east across the Narrow Sea lies Essos, a continent populated by many different groups, including a nomadic equestrian warrior tribe known as the Dothraki. In the south sits Dorne, a rugged mountainous terrain with a low-lying desert.

Politically, the plot is based loosely on the Wars of the Roses, the ongoing contest for political power between the English Houses of York and Lancaster. It begins during a time of fragile rule over the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. The prized Iron Throne sits in the eastern part of the country in the coastal capital of King’s Landing which is currently occupied by the drunken hedonist Robert Baratheon. He claimed power after an uprising which assassinated the “Mad King.” However, King Robert’s sudden death due to excessive drinking while on a boar hunt leads to a succession crisis –a confrontation between the rival Houses of Stark and Lannister. Before he dies, the king entrusts regency of the crown to his chosen guard, “The King’s Hand,” Ned Stark (Sean Bean), of the House Stark who rules the north from the kingdom of Winterfell, however Robert’s conniving Queen Cersei (Lena Headey), of the House Lannister, has other plans. She mounts a coup d’etat which places her sadistic and insecure son Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) on the throne and Ned Stark is then shockingly betrayed, imprisoned, and beheaded.   

This leads to civil war in Westeros. Secrets are revealed –including Cersei’s incestuous affair with her brother Jaime “Kingslayer” Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) which actually produced Joffrey the King –can the bastard child of incest be the true ruler on the Iron Throne? In rebellion, the House of Stark claims a rival kingdom in the north against the rule of the Iron Throne. Other kingdoms must choose sides, and a twisted network of alliances emerges. The Greyjoys choose their side, but after a provocative invasion of Winterfell, the heir apparent, Theon Greyjoy, is captured by the malicious bastard son of the Boltons (allies of the Starks) and he is then endlessly tortured until assuming a new persona, the enfeebled henchman “Reek.” Meanwhile, the Stark children are all scattered throughout the countryside after Ned’s death. Robb Stark (Richard Madden) leads a partially successful attack on the Lannisters –but he and his pregnant wife, hi.s mother, and guards are all betrayed and slaughtered at a wedding ceremony for breaking his marital promise –the infamous “red wedding.” Sansa Stark bounces between captivity by the petulant King Joffrey and then savagery at the hands of the sadist Lord Bolton, while Arya Stark escapes and proceeds down a path of magic and revenge. The young and paralyzed Bran Stark realizes that he actually possesses the power of a seer and he is carried northward where he learns the ghastly truth of the “White Walkers.” Ned Stark’s bastard son, Jon Snow (Kit Harington), also ventures northward where he rises to become Lord Commander of the brotherhood which pledges itself to guard the north wall. They are known as The Night Watch.       

The world is built upon an ancient civilization with age-old gods and long-dead ancestors. There are rumors of magic and supernatural happenings, but many do not believe the old stories anymore, until something stirs in the east as Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), wife of the Dothraki warlord Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), hatches three dragons. She mounts an extensive military rule conquering cities in Essos en route to the Iron Throne. Dark forms of magic and witchery remain in the shadows, commanded by only the most capable masters. The most sinister of them all concerns a civilizational threat which transcends the petty rivalries in the civil war. A myth stretching back thousands of years tells of a dark menace which once rose up out of the snow and ice in the north –once every few thousand years, an army of the undead known as the “White Walkers” invades and decimates mankind. Will the people of Westeros be able to fend off this threat?   

This is a bleak world, where moral men are hard to find. Suffering and death linger around every corner as characters are introduced and then promptly discarded like old pieces of meat. There is little redemption or hope –save for silver-tongued diplomats like Tyrion Lannister who somehow manage to survive. Yet this is also one of the most compelling attributes of the show, that even heroes can die. It leads to an unsettling sense of pure unpredictability. Important characters are brutally and horrifically executed while swelling crowds demand their Girardian scapegoats. Prostitution and binge-drinking take center stage as betrayals and miscalculations quickly turn a life of opulent luxury into a petty base existence. Fortunes smiles on few, and she rarely smiles for long. Kings and their sons are hacked and maimed, ritual castration is common, traitors are publicly burnt alive, men are eaten alive by dogs, civilians are skinned alive, and in this world, beheadings are a merciful form of death. At one moment, a city is stormed and all of its leaders are strung up and crucified. At another, a newborn infant is stripped from his prostitute mother’s arms and then sliced into bits. Blood spatters all over the walls as eyeballs are ripped out, heads are bashed in with rocks, and entrails are spilled onto the floor. Death comes with little warning or ceremony. All of this points to something primal about the show. Lurid scandals and monstrous cruelty fascinate and disturb viewers enough not to look away. Like a Greek tragedy, Game of Thrones serves as a dark reminder of what lies just at the edge of civilization, a vicious Hobbesian war of all against all.

Despite all the rampant bloodshed and nihilism, we can still find heroes in this show among the likes of Jon Snow or Daenerys Targaryen (prior to Season 8). At the same time, we hunger for the downfall of degenerates like King Joffrey or Lord Bolton, as well as bloodthirsty mobs and fanatical religious cults which appear from time to time. There is still room for good and evil as characters risk their lives for noble causes. And yet neither good nor evil are monolithic in the show –our allegiances tend to change, particularly for characters like Cersei and her brother Jaime who nearly fall prey to another unhinged fanatical religious cult. Watching their massacre as vengeance on behalf of Cersei was one of the most gratifying moments in the show, along with Jon Snow’s defense of Castle Black at the wall in season 4 and his reclaiming of Winterfell in season 6. Other moments of gratification include Arya Stark’s revenge for the “red wedding,” Daenerys Targaryen’s imperial conquests, and Tyrion Lannister’s machinations. Of course, the most shocking moment in the show is the bloody betrayal of the Starks at the “red wedding.” Sadly, the show runs astray shortly after Season 6 as anxious HBO executives simply could no longer wait for George R.R. Martin to publish his next book. New plotlines and character arcs are ultimately trashed and the battle with the White Walkers looks pathetic. In addition, the writing suffers from a degraded and vulgar style of dialogue, and few new ideas. It seems as if the creatives barely managed to squeeze out a handful of episodes for the last season or two.     

I found myself awestruck by this ancient timocratic world where honor and strength rules the day (not unlike the Achaeans in Homer’s Iliad). On the surface it seems that only the most ruthless warriors survive in Game of Thrones, however the true victors come to light as the strategists. Time and again, only those with a plan are able to outmaneuver their enemies and win the day. In a world governed by bloodlust and vengeance, I found myself wondering if an end will ever come –as in the case of Orestes rescued from the Furies by Pallas Athena in Aeschylus’s Oresteia. What would a new peace look like in Westeros? Is it even desirable?

Reflections on Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Book X

With the likes of Don Quixote or Tom Jones or Tristam Shandy, we see literature evolving and developing an awareness of itself. These books are very much cognizant of the fact that they are being read, judged, and criticized –and their narrators respond accordingly. They are playful rather than serious, picaresque rather than epic, and increasingly self-conscious of their own narratives. In Tom Jones, the anonymous narrator pauses and speaks to the reader directly, wondering if we are as learned in human Nature as the likes of Shakespeare. If, however, we are like Shakespeare’s Editors and have misrepresented things, the narrator cautions us against becoming critics who are akin to “little reptiles.” This book is merely a representation of reality (or “mimesis as Aristotle would say) and therefore it contains both good and bad things (here he misquotes Horace) for there can be nothing of greater moral use than examples of imperfections and blemishes.  

At this point, I was reminded of the goal set forth in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales –to find a tale that is both delightful and informative in the classical sense. According to Horace, good literature is both entertaining and illuminating. Perhaps Fielding attempts to achieve the same ends by offering so many narratological digressions, admonitions, ruminations, and ponderings. The narrator serves to inform while the story keeps the reader amused. However, the effect is jarring, albeit hilarious. The form effectively separates, rather than blends, the philosophic and the literary, almost as if they are two separate parts of the same whole. If we are to accept this interpretation of Fielding’s project, then it seems he is challenging classical notions of the mimetic art (not unlike Cervantes or Sterne) and he foreshadows the coming postmodern novel in the 20th and 21st centuries.    

Returning to the tale at hand, in the wee hours of the morning the maidservant (Susan) at the Upton inn ushers a newly arrived gentleman into the room of Mrs. Waters by accident only to find Tom and Mrs. Waters in bed together. It causes a brief scandal and tussle for poor oblivious Tom, and the gentleman is named Mr. Fitzpatrick. Shortly thereafter, a dignified young lady arrives at the inn (later revealed to Sophia!) She is quickly dismayed when she learns about Tom’s infidelities and especially his presumed loose-lipped conversation about her, so she leaves him a note in his empty bedroom before departing. Then, Squire Western arrives in search of Sophia. Other characters are revealed in this chapter, as well, including Abigail Honour and Mr. Fitzpatrick’s wife. This book ends with the narrator taking us backward to track Sophia’s escape from home and her use of Tom’s same guide which led her to the inn in Upton.

For this reading I used the Norton Critical Edition of Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling edited by Sheridan Baker.

Reflections on Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Book IV

Even though our wandering narrator had earlier stated that he is not the best person to distinguish truth from falsity, he nevertheless opens Book IV by claiming: “As Truth distinguishes our Writings from those idle Romances which are filled with Monsters, the Productions, not of Nature, but of distempered Brains…” (99). However, he also claims this “History” will not be a boring dreary venture for the reader, and he intends to introduce the “Heroine of this Heroic, Historical, Prosaic Poem” (100). He says, “Our Intention, in short, is to introduce our Heroine with the utmost Solemnity in our Power, with an Elevation of Stile, and all other Circumstances proper to raise the Veneration of our Reader” (101).

The narrator delivers an impassioned hail to the Muse in order to invite his eminently lovely maiden, Sophia Western, onto the stage –he hushes the “ruder breath” and beckons the heathen ruler of Boreas to tame its winds, so that every sound and color may spring forth, and not even Handel’s music can compare. Classical allusions abound. Educated by her Aunt, Sophia is perfectly proportioned like Venus and her mind is equally comparable. She is eighteen years old, and naturally she falls in love with Tom, though he is somewhat oblivious. In fact, Tom once gave her a pet bird named “Tommy” but when Master Blifil. deliberately releases it one day, Tom climbs a tree to retrieve it for Sophia but the he promptly falls off a branch into a pool of water below, and Bifil escapes punishment.

This leads to a lengthy discussion between Square, Thwackum, Allworthy, and Mr. Western’s lawerly friend about the nature of confining things like birds which leads to a rousing debate about virtue versus faith, and natural law. Square and Thwackum defend Master Blifil while the lawyer claims he did nothing worthy of condemnation and he ultimately concludes that their discussion makes no sense because it is in the category of nullus bonus (“no good”).

At any rate, Sophia’s heart is now lost to Tom as she realizes he is a good man who is simply somewhat accidentally his own worst enemy, whereas someone like Master Blifil is a cold and calculating figure who is easily overcome by self-flattery. One day, Tom asks Sophia for a favor –to help Black George’s family, to which Sophia readily complies after soothing over Mr. Western with ale and his favorite songs on the harpsichord (albeit bawdy tunes). Some people, like Squire Allworthy praise Tom’s virtue, while others like Square and Thwackum critique it.

Next, we learn that Black George’s real name is George Seagrim (Fielding once apparently brought a lawsuit against a man named Randolph Seagrim which he won in 1742) and at the moment Tom is actually infatuated with Molly Seagrim, Black George’s second eldest child. Unlike Sophia, she is not particularly beautiful nor intelligent –“her Beauty was not of the most amiable kind” (114). One day, she. cannot stop herself and recklessly throws herself at Tom and they make love. Shortly thereafter, she becomes pregnant and attends church adorned with a “sack” from Sophia which briefly hides her protruding belly. However, our narrator makes note of the ways in which scheming ambitions and vanities flourish in country churches –they are often places of “Prudes and Coquettes” as well as “Dressing and Ogling, Falshood, Envy, Malice, Scandal…” (116). Naturally, rumors soon spread of Molly’s pregnancy. In fact, a violent brawl unfolds between the church women and Molly. Our beneficent narrator reiterates a hilarious scene in which Molly battles her way through hoards of women while trying to escape the church, brandishing a skull and thigh bone as weaponry from the graveyard –and the whole brawl is told in high-minded “Homeric” epic style.

“Recount, O Muse, the Names of those who fell on this fatal day” (117).

Hair is pulled, blood is spilled, and a woman named Goody Brown (whom the narrator goes to great lengths to describe as having a small bosom) leads the attack on Molly until Tom Jones arrives to end this mob battle. He surveys the field of battle in the churchyard: “Having scoured the whole Coast of the Enemy, as well as any of Homer’s heroes ever did, or as Don Quixote, or any Knight-Errant in the World could have done, he returned to Molly…” (119).

Curiously, Sophia offers Molly a job in the Western household, and after a family fight, Molly’s mother decides she will accept the position instead, however Fortune soon puts a stop to her promotion. At one point here, our illustrious narrator identifies one of his chapters as the shortest in the book (though this is a false statement, there are other shorter chapters). He routinely quotes Juvenal (sometimes quoting Livy) as Molly’s pregnancy becomes known throughout the Western household and Tom tries to excuse himself but the damage has been done, much to the grave sorrow of Sophia. His blushing exposes his shame.

Tom professes that he is, in fact, the father of Molly’s child to Squire Allworthy which earns him a lengthy moral lecture from Squire Allworthy (though the narrator decides not to reiterate it since we have already heard a similar lecture delivered to Jenny Jones earlier in the novel). Square and Thwackum seek to poison Squire Allworthy’s mind with unpleasant thoughts of Tom. Meanwhile, Sophia tries to avoid Tom but she falls from her horse in a hunting accident and Tom rescues her while breaking his arm –an act praised alongside the greatest of all men rescuing their maidens. Despite Tom’s scandal, Sophia continues to secretly fall in love with him (she converses about it with her maidservant, Honour).

For this reading I used the Norton Critical Edition of Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling edited by Sheridan Baker.

Lord of the Rings Series

Book Series

  • The Hobbit
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
  • The Silmarillion
  • Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth
  • The Children of Húrin
  • Beren and Lúthien
  • The Fall of Gondolin
  • The History of Middle-earth
  • The Fall of Númenor: And Other Tales From the Second Age

Film Series

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Release Date: December 10, 2001
Director: Peter Jackson
Studio: New Line Cinema

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
Release Date: December 5, 2002
Director: Peter Jackson
Studio: New Line Cinema

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Release Date: December 1, 2003
Director: Peter Jackson
Studio: New Line Cinema

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
The Hobbit: The Battle. of the Five Armies (2014)
Director: Peter Jackson
Studio: MGM, Warner Bros, New Line Cinema

The Rings of Power (TBD)

A forthcoming Amazon Lord of the Rings Series