TAM­ING THE DRAGONS

Justin Burke

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

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