Game of Thrones:
To Westeros, Skirting Middle-earth
With so many Westeros-lovers looking forward to their third season of Game of Thrones—and you can include me amongst them—I thought that there would be no harm in having a very quick glance back at the first two, just to whet the appetite even farther.
The initiated know of course that this is what is known as High Fantasy and is based on the hugely (and huge) successful series of books by George R. R. Martin, which go under the blanket title of A Song of Ice and Fire. They are set on an alternative earth, the kind of medieval feudalist society favoured by so many writers of this type of fantasy.
Although the similarities aren’t really all that great when you take more than a cursory glance, it does seem to be impossible to talk about Game of Thrones without at least mentioning J. R. R. Tolkien’s massive saga of Middle-earth The Lord of the Rings. In fact the purely fantasy elements (outside of the fact that we are on an alternative Earth) are pretty much kept to a minimum with Thrones, especially in the first season, whereas they are an absolutely integral aspect of Tolkien.
I’ll have to put my hands up here and admit that despite trying twice over the years, I have never been able to get much more than under half-way through The Lord of the Rings. I know, I know; some of you will dismiss me immediately for uttering such a heresy but the fact remains: whilst I could admire Tolkien’s intellectual achievement in creating a world that many return to quite obsessively over and over (and I do like obsessives), the net effect leaves me completely cold.
I likewise admired Peter Jackson’s heroic cinema adaptations whilst wishing that he would return to the wit of earlier features like Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners; or even his spoof documentary Forgotten Silver. And I do hope that Tolkien fans appreciate what Jackson has done for them. As a Robert E. Howard enthusiast I would gladly sacrifice Tony Blair’s life for an equivalent rendering of Conan’s Hyborian Age, instead of the two tepid attempts we’ve had so far. And in fact the Hyborian Age of Howard is much closer in feel to Martin’s Westeros. Sorcery is there but isn’t all-pervasive. What you do get is a feeling of political intrigue and utter ruthlessness in pursuit of kingdoms and power. Remember, when you play the game of thrones, you play to win, as Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) found to his cost.
It’s not for nothing that the blurb on the front of the Ice and Fire novels proclaims these characters to be so venomous that they could eat the Borgias. For once the writer of a cover blurb shouldn’t be arrested for false advertising.
Tolkien’s Hobbits, on the other hand, have always intensely irritated me. There’s just too much of the Home Counties English feel about them and indeed the whole class system of a vanished English era is felt throughout the sequences set in the Shire. Watching the third part– The Return of the King— I couldn’t help wondering why Gandalf, the Elves and the whole bloody lot of them were hailing Frodo as the hero when it seemed to me to be Sam who was doing all the donkey work and getting bugger all credit for it. There he was, stolid and dependable, carrying the other little sod up and down mountains galore with a merry “Buck up now Mr. Frodo; let’s not be hearing you talking loik that. We’ve got to throw that nasty old ring away or Emmerdale will be destroyed.” And then the little shit gets feted and carried away into the sunset whilst Sam is left on his arse? Ach here, now.
Another thing that drives me mad is the way that they burst into a well-rehearsed song at the drop of a hat. The most representative of a song in Thrones is that charming ode to bestiality “The Bear and the Maiden Fair”. (See below.) There are a few others but that’s my favourite.
I’ve also always wondered how the Hobbits procreated. It was awful hard to imagine them getting the leg over or even when they would have time since they always seemed to be eating. It was indeed difficult to picture them engaged in any basic bodily functions in fact.
Bloody Hell, you don’t have that problem with Game of Thrones, do you? If anything, too much of the lousy side of human nature is shoved in your face. There is an extraordinary scene that is representative as well as instructive in how this world works. The King’s Landing treasurer Littlefinger (Aidan Gillan), who also owns several brothels, is giving a monologue, half to himself, in which he reflects on his own life and unrequited love whilst simultaneously instructing two of his whores—who are going at it hot and heavy—on how to keep the clients happy. It’s quite an astonishing sequence, simultaneously showing a considerable amount of nudity whilst deepening character and moving the story along.
Just to reduce this remarkable series to the basics: Westeros is the continent on which most of the action takes place. At its tip is the Wall, a massive ice shield manned by the Night’s Watch and keeping at bay whatever exists north of it. And there are some pretty dodgy creatures coming out of hibernation even though “winter is coming”.
To the south is everything else, known as the Seven Kingdoms; and in the first two seasons much of the scenes will take place between the two great dynasties—the Starks (united with the Tullys) of Winterfell; and the obscenely rich and corrupt Lannisters of King’s Landing.
Across the Narrow Sea is the neighbouring desert continent of Essos, where the beautiful Daenerys, played with great gusto by Emilia Clarke, is preparing to consolidate her rule of the savage Dothraki with whom she intends to take back the Seven Kingdoms that her family were driven from.
Put as baldly as that you might be forgiven for wondering what the fuss is about? But what we have here is a fully-realised world, with its own distinct customs, history and geography. And of course at heart it is totally character-driven. With such a huge cast it is hard to have favourites but every time that Peter Dinklage as the dwarf Tyrion Lannister appears you know that you are about to hear something memorable. He is outstanding. Running a close second is young Maisie Williams, brilliant and utterly believable as Arya, the little royal who doesn’t want to be a lady. And then there is Lena Headey as the incestuous Queen Cersei, just as I imagined her from the books: beautiful, dangerous and vicious. Or Varys the scheming eunuch, played by Conleth Hill. He captures Varys’s simpering unctuousness perfectly; but we never forget that there is a lot more going on here than what we are seeing.
Indeed most of the characters are just as I pictured them, which is unusual. There have been some gripes that certain characters are older than described and there is truth to that; however, if he had grown up in harsh Winterfell I’m willing to bet that the average pampered sixteen-year-old of today would look older than his years as well. If I could be allowed one quibble though, and it’s a small one: Littlefinger doesn’t really work for me. Aidan Quinn is a fine actor but here he just seems a bit too…modern?
The other thing I’ve never quite gotten is that this culture is around eight thousand years old but doesn’t seem to evolve at all. Perhaps I’m missing something.
It doesn’t matter. Those are small details. “Winter is coming”, so is Season Three and that much at least is just fine with the world.
Here is a version of The Bear and the Maiden Fair from Christocakes. You might also like to check out a more ribald and LOUDER version from Irish Moutarde. And remember that this column recommends that you listen to the lyrics and enjoy cunnilingus responsibly!
Lyrics written by George R. R. Martin