TAMING THE DRAGONS
It’s easy to forget the entire first season of Game of Thrones, broadcast in 2011, resembled nothing so much as a medieval whodunit. Consider this: a king entrusts his loyal friend with solving the murder of a courtier. In due course the friend uncovers the terrible secret that got the courtier killed: the king’s children are the product of his wife’s incestuous infidelity. The king dies and pandemonium ensues. Multiple parties lay claim to the throne. Then, in the final moments, a twist: three dragons are born.
Over the past six years, Game of Thrones has become one of the world’s most watched shows. In a Balkanised television landscape where programming is being made for increasingly niche audiences — Netflix refers to them as discrete “taste communities” — Game of Thrones boasts a broad appeal, with an estimated global audience of 25 million. Further, by screening episodically each week, it successfully defies the trend of releasing entire seasons in one go for the binge-watchers, and thus remains one of the very few shows still discussed the following day around the fabled water coolers of the world.
Among those who don’t count themselves part of the club, though, dragons are often mentioned as a reason to stay away. They don’t watch Game of Thrones, the argument goes, because they’re just not that into dragons.
Next week the series returns to our screens, and it’s likely to be packed with the usual thematic concerns ranging from power and politics to war and religion. There are spectacular amounts of violence, too, and plenty of nudity — some might say pornography. Showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss somehow manage to combine all these elements to create a TV event that speaks urgently to our human condition and, despite itself, to our modern world.
But why explore such weighty themes through the genre of fantasy in the first place? Author Pamela Freeman, who teaches a course on fantasy writing at the Australian Writers Centre, has a theory: “It is possible in fantasy to distil great moral questions — of integrity, loyalty, racism, oppression, tyranny, freedom, good and evil — down to a climactic moment, and these moral questions are also, in a sense, pure, because they are not tainted by modern or historical loyalties and attitudes.”
The epic fantasy subgenre — to which HBO’s Game of Thrones belongs — means these ideas can be introduced, expanded and interrogated over a long series. Freeman says the more colourful elements of fantasy, which include those dragons, make it easier to keep a wide audience entertained with ideas about contemporary politics, war and religion.
“I suspect that people who say, ‘ Ugh, dragons!’ are afraid of seeming childish; they make an incorrect association between fantasy and fairytales,” she says. “Most people who say they don’t like fantasy have never actually read a modern fantasy novel, and have no real idea what they’re missing.”
Perhaps comedy writer Dan Harmon put it best: so-called nerd culture has taken over the entertainment industry and it’s important to be magnanimous. In other words, not everyone needs to love dragons.
This is what he told this writer recently: “I remember, in 2011, doing the Dungeons and Dragons- themed episode of Community for NBC, and having the execs say: ‘You’ve used the word goblin too many times’ and ‘I wished you turned this script in on time so we could have thrown it away’ — and yet within years Game of Thrones is mainstream and winning Emmys.”
He goes on: “It feels amazing, but we are way past (saying), ‘ Oh man, the nerds have triumphed’, to asking: ‘ What is our responsibility now the revolution is over? How do we keep from becoming the new bullies?’ ”
Game of Thrones’ seventh season, premiering Monday and loosely based on George RR Martin’s multi-volume series A Song of Ice and Fire, once again features the heroine Daenerys Targaryen (played by Emilia Clarke), the socalled “mother of dragons”. Trailers seem to confirm she makes landfall for the first time in Westeros, an analog of the Britain Isles.
For 60 episodes Targaryen has crisscrossed the wilds of Essos, a fictional amalgam of continental Europe, the Mediterranean and the Eurasian steppe, gathering supporters, warriors and material to join the contest for the Iron Throne, with three fire-breathing dragons at her command.
Beyond the excitement felt by fans awaiting the next instalment, there has been a growing push in recent years to examine the profound issues at play in the show. Game of Thrones has caught the attention of academia, and not just among the media studies or creative writing departments: historians and political scientists are watching closely.
English author and historian Dan Jones wrote in The Sunday Times magazine last weekend that Game of Thrones manages to maintain “a reputation for intellectual respectability, not least among historians”.
Jones sees echoes of the 15th-century Wars of the Roses, structures such Hadrian’s Wall, organisations such as the Knights Templar, and references to events including the Punic Wars and the Spanish Inquisition. Realistic dramatisations can be hard for historians to stomach, he wrote, which is where these new fictionalised accounts come in.
“Historical drama is a hard genre for historians to enjoy,” he writes. “Mistakes and anachronisms jar and it is easier to spot what is wrong than what is right. Game of Thrones makes no claim to accuracy. It is alt-history, not a reconstruction of a known past. It is historically literate without ever claiming to be history.”
Further, as he points out, it has now become a legitimate field of study. Harvard University is about to commence a folklore and mythology subject called The Real Game of Thrones: From Modern Myths to Medieval Models. The course, according to Time magazine, will examine the way the series and books echo, adapt and distort the history and culture of the medieval world. Those teaching it hope the course will encourage students towards medieval studies and humanities courses in general. Racha Kirakosian, an assistant professor of German and the study of religion, told the magazine: “When I read medieval verse epics with my students,
Kit Harington as Jon Snow, above; Emelia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen, ‘mother of dragons’, left