I admit it: Game of Thrones’ massive popularity took me by surprise. When I first read George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, I frankly could not understand how it managed to capture its legions of fans. Like many “dark fantasy” writers of the 1980s and ’90s, Martin sought to inject genre fiction with additional “realism”—mainly by shoving in more gore, sex, and antiheroes. And as a writer, Martin is no great shakes: his blood-and-thunder phrasing and stilted quasi-medievalism are usually more laughable than chilling.
This isn’t just genre snobbery talking. If you want to read a massive fantasy epic with weird sex and gruesome torture involved, writers like Clive Barker and China Miéville have provided examples with more style and imagination. Still, especially since the event of the blockbuster Game of Thrones TV series, which returned to HBO this week, it’s Martin’s work that has captured the zeitgeist. And after watching the season five opener, I think I finally see why.
“I believe men of talent have a part to play,” explains the kindly-slash-murderous eunuch Lord Varys in Sunday night’s premiere. “Any fool with a bit of luck can find himself born into power. But earning it for yourself? That takes work.”
The language here is more or less indistinguishable from a Tony Robbins seminar. And that’s not an accident. Every character in Game of Thrones lives in an environment of brutal, amoral, unceasing competition, where anyone can and will betray anyone else, where values and ideals are worthless because they prevent one from cultivating a properly sociopathic ambition, and where the audience’s focus and sympathy is encouraged to stay with the most effective sociopaths, who stand around in nice outfits plotting to attain more power and/or complaining that they don’t have enough of it, all while the vast, anonymous masses suffer and starve in filthy, background-filling anonymity.
Fantasy? Hell: this is corporate America in a codpiece.
It’s not surprising that Westeros has more in common with present-day capitalist reality than with the medieval or Renaissance kingdoms Martin claims to be referencing: fantasy ultimately grabs the reader because of its similarities to our world, not its differences. Global capitalism is the defining problem of Martin’s time, just as World War I was the defining crisis for J.R.R. Tolkien.
(For that matter, Martin’s own status as a bona-fide sell-out probably helps him get into cutthroat character. If the guy were out to tell a story rather than make bank, the series would have ended at least four books ago.)
What’s more surprising is how easily audiences accept Martin’s thesis (or excuse) that all the cruelty and selfishness in Westeros is merely a reflection of humanity’s “true” nature, and how uncritically we project our own ambitions onto its characters.
Take the most recent bit of merchandise from the Westeros fandom. This week, self-help publisher Infinite Ideas will bring out Game of Thrones on Business: Strategy, Morality and Leadership Lessons from the World’s Most Talked About TV Show. Stocked with timeless lessons like “Network, Network, Network: Tips on working your connections from Petyr Baelish and Lord Varys” and “Lead to Win: Tywin Lannister shows that nastiness pays,” this handy little book contains all you need to know to run your business like a murderous sociopath. Hey, “if mercy and peace don’t work for you, why not try your hand at the other extreme?”
And then there’s the steady stream of business-mag articles poised to help you mine the Seven Kingdoms for tips on staying sharp on the job. With titles like “8 Business Lessons from Game of Thrones” and “Each ‘Game of Thrones’ House Imagined as a Global Corporation,” these articles are clickbait, all right, but they’re also a reminder that relentless competition, brutal manipulation of other people’s vulnerabilities, and the belief that there’s only one place to be—the top—are the values of both capitalist reality and Martin’s fantasy.
Martin has maintained that his fantasy world is only a reflection of historical realities, and as such, he can’t be accused of sensationalism. When the Times’ Dave Itzkoff asked Martin why he presents sexual violence with such mind-numbing frequency, Martin answered, “Rape and sexual violence have been a part of every war ever fought, from the ancient Sumerians to our present day. . . . To omit them from a narrative centered on war and power would have been fundamentally false and dishonest.” (Given Martin’s loathing of “false” plot elements, I imagine deathly ice zombies and sexy witches have been part of every war ever fought, too. And you wondered why we took so long to get out of Vietnam!)
But what Martin has created is a world in which brutality is not only pervasive but also justifiable. And David Benioff, cocreator and showrunner of the TV series, has more than followed suit.
According to the logic of Westeros, everyone is a monster, and probably a worse monster than you can imagine; therefore, committing a few monstrous acts here and there is just something you “have” to do, in order to keep up and survive. What are a few lies, a few betrayals, a few cruelties, when there’s a guy out there who’s keeping a sex farm stocked with his own daughters?
Game of Thrones, it would seem, has masterfully replicated capitalism’s central nifty trick—which is to convince us that there’s no better alternative. You have to claw to the top, by any means necessary, because the next guy is doing the same. If you don’t wind up above him, you necessarily wind up below him, and God knows what he’ll do to you once he wins.
I’ve come to respect the power of Martin’s series, even as my opinions of its artistic value have stayed low (Sample sentence: “The cravenly ones will sit behind their walls waiting to see how the wind rises and who is likely to triumph”—and this is dialogue), simply because I know so many people who connect with it. In particular, I know lots of smart women who identify with the show’s female characters, who see the dragon-equipped revolutionary Daenerys Targaryen or the androgynous, vengeful Arya Stark as their avatars for attempts to attain success in a realm of Zuckerbergs and Spiegels.
But the terms of such success, it turns out, are hardly ideal: brutality must be internalized, and the game must be played as it is.
At its core, Game of Thrones is less an explication of the capitalist mentality than an excuse for it. George R.R. Martin’s affront isn’t to taste, or even to grammar. (“The cravenly ones?” Did he mean “cowardly?” I mean, the adjectival form of “craven” is craven. Is he trying to sound more Medieval?) No, the real affront is to the imagination—a strange shortfall, come to think of it, for a writer of fantasy.