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The Moral Perils and Opportunities
of George R. R. Martin’s Fiction
Ross Moret

Every movement of the theater, by a skillful poet, is communicated, as it were by magic, to the spectators; who weep, tremble, resent, rejoice, and are inflamed with all the variety of passions, which actuate the several personages of the drama.

David Hume
Enquiry Concerning the Principle of Morals, 5.2.26

The difference between George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels and the many science fiction and fantasy stories that have dominated American pop culture in recent decades is captured by the juxtaposition of two characters from different fictional universes, both small in stature, each of whom completes the unlikely task of passing through the back of a wardrobe. Many readers, I trust, can recall the sense of joy and wonder they felt the first time they read C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, particularly the moment when the delightfully innocent little girl, Lucy Pevensie, unwittingly stumbles into a magical new world through the back of an old wardrobe during a game of hide and seek.

GoT Book CoverContrast this with a scene from Martin’s A Clash of Kings, the second novel in the series. Tyrion Lannister, son of the richest man in the Seven Kingdoms, also approaches a wardrobe, but in a very different form of hide and seek. While not without his virtues, Tyrion is far from innocent. He is hated by his immensely powerful father, both because he is a dwarf and because his mother died in bringing him into the world. As a result, Tyrion has become a worldly fellow, drinking and consorting with prostitutes to escape the many horrors of life. In contrast to the innocence and native goodness not only of Lucy Pevensie but of Tolkien’s hobbits as well, Tyrion compensates for his small stature by using his wits to out­maneuver his many enemies. Indeed, the wardrobe that Tyrion approaches is found in a brothel and its false back leads to a dark tunnel that ends at a smelly stable. There a secretive and well-informed eunuch dresses Tyrion in child’s clothes and mounts him on a small horse, which he rides to a part of town where he keeps his true, although forbidden, love interest, a prostitute of whom he has grown particularly fond. Tyrion thus does not pass innocently to an enchanted world that goodness is bound to conquer, but through cunning and deception, from one sordid scene to the next. The goodness and innocence which protect the Pevensie children and which allow Tolkien’s hobbits to become heroes constitute grave dangers in Martin’s novels. To survive in Tyrion’s world, especially as a dwarf, one must be ruthless.

The gritty nature of Martin’s novels is carried into and sometimes further sensationalized in the related HBO television series Game of Thrones. The nudity in particular, along with depictions of sexual violence, has garnered a good deal of criticism from a diverse set of pundits who urge their readers to avoid the show. Conservative Baptist pastor and theologian John Piper, for example, is concerned that viewing the show will compromise one’s holiness, even going so far as to suggest that doing so is a form of “recrucifying Christ.” Feminists likewise have denounced the show, usually because of its several depictions of sexual violence, some of which diverge from the books in disturbing ways (Pantozzi 2015; Silman 2015). I have no interest in countering the claims of some Christians concerned with how the show or the novels might harm their efforts toward personal holiness, nor do I want to minimize or explain away worries regarding depictions of violence against women. Although I share some of these critics’ concerns, I want to argue that Martin’s fiction, and his critique of much popular fantasy and science fiction, highlights the great moral ambiguity of real-world politics and war and offers a constructive ethical challenge by pressing readers and viewers to reconsider how we effortlessly draw lines between good and evil. This critique is worked out by shifting the point of view through which the stories are told (a technique that is largely carried through to the televised version of Game of Thrones), such that one chapter is experienced from the viewpoint of a young boy, the next from that of the patriarch of a rich and powerful family, and so forth. The narrative is thus slowly teased out in a piecemeal fashion that includes many twists and turns. The upshot of this narrative structure is that readers, and to a large extent viewers, of Game of Thrones, develop notions about who deserves what rewards or punishments, notions that are often complicated or undermined later in the story, either because new information is introduced or because what seemed like sweet justice in theory becomes bitter when it is actualized in all its brutality.

The chief target of Martin’s critique is the moral simplicity that has dominated fantasy and science fiction since at least the time of The Lord of the Rings: the “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes” (Martin 2014) in popular superhero stories or works such as The Chronicles of Narnia, Star Wars, and the Harry Potter books. These stories tend to deal with conflict, and indeed war, as though most conflicts include readily identifiable heroes and villains. In Martin’s view, people are rarely true heroes or true villains, but almost always embody both regrettable and praiseworthy aspects, with the potential to do both good and evil. And often, Martin argues, wars leave us asking whether the fighting was worth the costs.

Martin executes his critique of popular fiction largely by deconstructing the basic medieval archetypes that inform many classic fairytales. For example, he calls into question the assumption that the authority of a good ruler is all that is needed to establish a just and peaceful society. As Martin states in an interview with Rolling Stone, his view is much more complicated:

Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone—they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles? (Martin 2014)

Martin’s stories, then, are filled with intelligent, well-meaning characters who are forced to confront terrific problems when they achieve (or are drafted into) places of power. Indeed, many of Martin’s characters face tremendous difficulties because they attempt to move beyond political expediency to be good rulers (e.g. Eddard Stark, Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, and Jon Snow).

Scene from GoTMartin’s critique of medieval archetypes extends to the idealization of knightly virtue and courtly love. The first viewpoint chapter of the first book, for example, is told from the eyes of Bran Stark, a boy of seven with whom the reader immediately sympathizes. Bran’s dream is to become a great knight. Unfortunately, he soon overhears the treasonous plotting of the king’s wife and her twin brother, Cersei and Jaimie Lannister, who between words are locked in an incestuous embrace. Before he can leave, however, Bran is spotted by the couple and thrown from a tower by Jaimie, one of the premiere knights of the realm. Likewise Sansa Stark, Bran’s sister, dreams of being swept away into the life of courtly love. Such visions are only deepened when she is betrothed to the handsome future king, Joffrey Baratheon (secretly the son of Cersei and Jaimie), and brought to the capital, where she is awarded a red rose by the dashing victor of a great jousting championship. But Sansa’s naïveté plays an important part in the death of her father, who is named a traitor and duplicitously ordered to be beheaded by Joffrey, the first of many tortures she suffers at the hands of her betrothed. Bran’s knightly ideals are shattered along with his body: Sansa’s dream of courtly love becomes a dreadful nightmare.

The critiques discussed thus far are largely structural in nature and bring to mind Reinhold Niebuhr’s devastating indictment of the misplaced optimism of the so-called “children of light” (1944), but Martin’s criticism extends to individual characters as well. Many of the characters that one might describe as heroes have significant moral flaws. Others start out good but, through a series of tragedies, end up becoming nihilistically vengeful. More interesting in my mind, however, are the villains. While Martin certainly includes some thoroughgoing villains in his stories, he also works to complicate the notion of “villain” as a stock category. And it is here that Martin’s use of viewpoint storytelling is the most effective at offering an ethical challenge to the reader/viewer. For it is here that Martin uses our tendency to sympathize with the point of view through which the story is told to move us to strongly dislike, even hate, certain characters and to desire that they be brought to justice. At this point, however, Martin typically introduces two narrative devices, which may exist alone or in concert, with symmetrical or asymmetrical intensity. Sometimes we are presented with new information that makes the villainous character more sympathetic, a move which gains considerable intensity when chapters are later told from the viewpoint of erstwhile villains (e.g. Cersei and Jaimie Lannister). Other times we are “rewarded,” so to speak, by allowing a particular villain to suffer her or his seemingly just comeuppance, but in such a brutal and prolonged manner that what seemed like justice becomes a kind of mirage or, perhaps worse, a kind of bitter water. Jamie Lannister’s sword hand is cut off and tied around his neck, where it is left to decompose. Cersei Lannister is forced by religious fanatics to walk naked through the streets of the capital, where she is pummeled with insults as well as rotten produce. A traitor to the Starks, Theon Greyjoy, is captured, maimed, and subjected to prolonged torture. There are more examples. The point, however, is that in nearly every instance one’s thirst for revenge is not satiated, but turned bitter by the fact that if we are to continue the story we must confront the gruesomeness of the logical conclusion of the indulgence of our own desires.

Some may worry that taking Martin’s critique leads to a kind of moral cynicism or paralysis, such that the moral “grayness” of the stories encourages inaction or perhaps even the rejection of moral distinctions altogether. Others may fear that narrating ethically suspect actions from the perpetrator’s point of view may work to cause the audience to codify such problematic actions as “good.” I find the first concern to be unrealistic; precious few react to Martin’s stories with a Rortian shrug of the shoulders. The second has greater merit and speaks to the fact that some people ought not to be exposed to either the novels or the television show (especially adolescents or others who are particularly impressionable).

Such dangers, however, also produce a constructive opportunity for those of us who are willing to entertain a degree of introspection. One of the most interesting aspects of watching Game of Thrones, or especially of reading A Song of Ice and Fire, is the experience of entering the story from multiple points of view. This is not a merely intellectual exercise. As Hume says, we “weep, tremble, resent, rejoice, and are inflamed with all the variety of passions, which actuate the several personages of the drama.” And when Martin’s execution of the shifting viewpoint is combined with the complicated nature of good and evil that his stories present, a difficult yet realistic view of the world and its politics emerges. Indeed, if it is not asking too much of the genre, Martin may even challenge us to pause to question the universal applicability of our own institutions or experiences when considering issues such as the policies of exporting democracy or the relationship between race and police brutality. For when we recognize the fact that we instinctually sympathize with the characters whose points of view we adopt in stories, we might also recognize our tendency to shape moral facts to our own advantage in our everyday lives. The vicarious nature of drama, particularly this form of drama, helps us not only to conceptualize but causes us to experience the great and problematic incurvatus in se of point of view in a way that would otherwise be very difficult, perhaps impossible.

 

Ross Moret is a PhD candidate at Florida State University, studying ethics.

 

Works Cited

Hume, David. 1998. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Tom L. Beauchamp, ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006.

Martin, George R. R. “George R. R. Martin: The Rolling Stone Interview.” Rolling Stone, April 23, 2014. Interview by Mikal Gilmore. Accessed August 4, 2015. http://www.rollingstone.com/tv/news/george-r-r-martin-the-rolling-stone-interview-20140423.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of its Traditional Defense. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944.

Pantozzi, Jill. “We will no longer be promoting HBO’s Game of Thrones.” The Mary Sue. (May 18, 2015). http://www.themarysue.com/we-will-no-longer-be-promoting-hbos-game-of-thrones.

Piper, John. “12 Questions to Ask Before You Watch Game of Thrones.” Desiring God Ministries. (June 20, 2014). http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/12-questions-to-ask-before-you-watch-game-of-thrones.

Silman, Anna. “Here’s why people are so upset about the latest Game of Thrones rape: so cheap such an obvious choice I felt offended as a fan.” Salon.com. (May 18, 2015). http://www.salon.com/2015/05/18/heres_why_people_are_so_upset_about_the_latest_game_of_thrones_rape_so_cheap_such_an_obvious_choice_i_felt_offended_as_a_fan.

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