So what is objectionable about Game of Thrones?
In posing the question, please note that I am assuming that something is objectionable. So let me count the ways. If we are talking about the books, the prose is klonkingly pedestrian—although in fairness it must be said that George R.R. Martin, author of the internationally best-selling series A Song of Ice and Fire, is a competent pedestrian, staying largely on the sidewalk. If we are talking about the HBO treatment of Martin’s world of Westeros (Game of Thrones, for which Martin serves as co-executive producer), you could sum it up, as one critic did, by noting the emphasis on a stylized violence there. You might even call it a ritualized or liturgical violence, of the kind that tries to cast out demons cathartically, but which only succeeds in summoning a bunch of them instead. There also seems to be a bent pleasure in portraying violence and/or abuse against children.
There is also plenty of sex and nudity such that the right kind of people can be very intellectual in their denials that this is what it is actually all about. We will come back to this, but something foundational needs to be dealt with first. In due time we will be critical of the slugs in the salad, but let us begin with the observation that the entire salad is made out of maple leaves.
This whole thing is architectonically flat-footed.
Where do civilizations come from? Civilizations—even fictional ones—require a soil to grow in. One of the reasons why Tolkien’s Middle Earth is so durable is that he did not just sit down and “stipulate” a place. Some writers might think it is sufficient to paint a castle on the backdrop, get yourselves some dire wolves, give people odd names like Tyrion or Yoren, and then summon up the requisite rapine and slaughter. But the reason that Middle Earth and Lewis’s Narnia are so satisfying to the imagination is that both of them grow their stories in very deep topsoil. (See Mark 4:5.) When you don’t do that, it just takes one scorcher of a day to turn your garden brown.
The Creator gives us topsoil naturally, but subcreators have to develop their own. Tolkien and Lewis had different styles of composting, but they were both very good at it, as the Silmarillion and Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis plainly show. Their soil is black and rich—and just like most of the soil in any glorious garden, you don’t actually get to look at the majority of it. Most of the soil that makes a garden luxuriant is out of sight because it is underground, down where the roots are. With Westeros, even though some of the vegetables can get very large—let us call them dire cabbages—you can’t help seeing right away that we are dealing with some form of hydroponic produce.
The same kind of depth is necessary for actual civilizations. Particular kinds of civilizations grow in particular soils. Civilizations of a certain sort call for the requisite antecedents. You cannot dispense with those antecedents and still get the same or similar results. The “medieval” world of Westeros is built on nothing. Like Kantian ethics, the whole thing just floats, suspended from an invisible sky hook. In our world, the actual Middle Ages were, well, in the middle. The antique classical world had come apart, partly because of sexual license and economic lunacy, and after the collapse, a vibrant faith—having been toughened in the fires of persecution—filled up that void, renewing everything. In time, that faith itself went to seed, but by then it was too late. We already had our cathedrals, and stained glass, and monks and nuns, and knights and feudal lords. But all of it came from somewhere.
Civilizations arise from stories, and stories arise from civilizations. They also depend upon their ingredients: Civilizations are a story, civilizations contain stories, civilizations tell stories. These stories are their soil. Plants grow up out of the ground. But at the risk of pressing my metaphor, dead bodies go into the ground and there rot, and that kind of corruption is also narrational in nature. So tell me a story of your people, and I will tell you whether it is morning in your world, or the gloaming of a late afternoon in a sad winter. The stories are either part of the new growth, or they are part of something decomposing that ought not to be.
We can get at this from another angle. The problem with Westeros is the pretense that arises at precisely the wrong point. The whole thing pretends to be hard-nosed and realistic. This is a series that essays to know what a battle-ax is for (for whacking), what a wench is for (for wenching), what a throne is for (for sitting on coldly while saying ha ha! to your foes), and so on. Thus far realism. But this is a story, after all, and the difficulty is that it is a story that doesn’t know what a story is for. This is a story about a place that doesn’t know what places are for, and this knowledge of places and stories is missing because the storyteller of Westeros doesn’t know what a story is for.
Stories are the soil that civilizations grow in, and here we are talking about Drought in West Texas, Season Three.
Now let me be clear. I do not argue that the element of story is deficient in Westeros because there are gritty scenes or instances of treachery. The issue is not the presence of outrages. As Chesterton once put it, a book without a wicked character is a wicked book. That is not the issue: Of course a true story can be told in which outrages happen. True stories should contain such things. The issue is whether it is told in such a way as to protect or damage the reader’s or viewer’s ability actually to be outraged. If a story contains outrages that deaden the reader or viewer to all outrages, then the story itself is an outrage.
The problem is that of using outrages to entertain; our outrages now amuse us. The problem is that of outrageless outrages, anemic outrages, outrages that peter out.
The logic is that of the kind of decadence that led to the blood sports of the Coliseum. When the basic law is “thou shalt shock,” the law of diminishing returns sets in. The law governing “spectacle” is enthroned, and that logic will necessarily work its way through the whole. Cruelty will be piled upon cruelty. Incest didn’t shock the rubes enough. Let’s make it incestuous rape. The law of diminishing returns . . . returns. If you are going to go that way, why not have somebody rape ten of his sisters? This is nothing other than a cudgeling of the collective cultural conscience in order to leave it for dead by the side of the road.
There is a difference between confronting the moral sense of the reader in such a way as to cause that moral sense to rise up, on the one hand, and cauterizing the moral sense of the reader, on the other, in such a way as to ensure that the next round of cauterization (Season Seven!) will have to use a bigger and hotter branding iron.
So what are stories for? In The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis leans on Sidney when he says,
Literature exists to teach what is useful, to honour what deserves honour, to appreciate the delightful. The useful, honourable, and delightful are superior to it: it exists for their sake; its own use, honour, or delightfulness is derivative from theirs.
This is not the same thing as getting the audience to empathize with various characters for random reasons just before someone else comes in to smite them. Or getting the audience to empathize with someone who then charges off to do some ungodly smiting of his own.
The human affections are designed by God to impel us to action. When we feel compassion, we should act. When we feel righteous anger, we should act. When we feel outraged, we must condemn. But here? Lewis says that literature exists “to teach.” But by this he does not mean a suffocating and didactic moralism.
The problem with parables that have an exoskeleton of a moral framework making it walk around is not that they teach; the problem is that they don’t. When you read a story that genuinely equips, it does not mean that the “lesson” is drawn out for you in big block letters. What many people mean by “morals” in fiction is nothing other than ham-fisted moralizing. Ovid taught that ars est celare artem—it is art to conceal morality. This is a key that unlocks many doors. It is art to conceal the lesson—to employ rhetoric that conceals. When people object to “rhetoric,” as when a politician’s speech is dismissed as being “just a bunch of rhetoric,” what is being said is that the speaker was surrounded by a rhetorical word cloud—which means that he is a poor representative of a rhetorician, not a good one.
But Martin is not concealing anything of that nature. It is just not there.
Now, because any story has a protagonist and antagonist, that story will necessarily teach. The protagonist either should be or shouldn’t be the protagonist, and depending on which it is that he is, the story is teaching either truth or falsehood. The protagonist is the one that the reader or viewer identifies with, and if he identifies with someone who is a scoundrel, then the book is a moral failure. If the reader is the problem, and he identifies with the antagonist—Grendel’s mother, say—then the reader is the one who is failing morally. If the reader or viewer identifies with a flawed hero in the wrong ways, then that is also a problem.
Some might object and say that today’s consumer of entertainment is a moral sophisticate, and would be bored to tears with stories full of simplistic white hats and black hats. But as one who is living in the culture dominated by the kind of people who thrive on shows like Game of Thrones, I look around at the current landscape and confess that “moral sophistication” is not the phrase that comes to mind.
In an interview on the kind of fiction he writes, Martin said, “The sort of fantasy where all the people get together to fight the dark lord doesn’t interest me.” Exactly so, but because of how God created the world, and because of the structure of the deep story that is embedded in this world, if you are not telling a story about fighting—at some level—against the dark lord, you are telling a story about fighting for him: “He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth” (Luke 11:23).
This is another way of saying that we don’t have as many options in fiction as we think we do. If we can hang two moons in the sky, the thinking might go, why can’t we invent a cosmos with a completely different system of morality? The answer is the same as why Westeros cannot have an additional primary color, and why their castles cannot be built out of rectangular spheroids. If some inspired author claims to have done so, I would simply request that his next print run include color illustrations.
For an author writing under the influence of the postmodernist vibe, which Martin is certainly doing (with postmodernism understood simply as refried existentialism), existence precedes essence. And that means that all possible fantasy worlds are simply waiting out there like placid lumps of Play-Doh, yearning for some demiurge of an author to come place his imprint on that world, however he wants. And that waiting lump of Play-Doh has no embedded nature that the author must take into account. This approach is simply confusion.
You can change the color of the maple leaves, or the shape of the earth, or the amount of gravitational pull, or how long the winters can be, or how big the centipedes are. God allows subcreators a good deal of liberty. But we cannot touch the permanent things. And if you abandon the permanent things, you can’t fix the problem by decorating the palaces in your book with Italian marble contact paper.
So the fight is against the dark lord, or for him, or indiscriminately against one another—in which case, it is nothing but violent confusion on behalf of the dark lord.
Why is decadence always such a surprise to traditionalists? And why is it always perceived as avant garde to stick beans in your ears instead of chewing them carefully the way your mother taught you? Well, beans in the ears are optional. What is necessary for the decadence-mongers is not that this or that particular activity be outré-out-there. What is necessary is that something be outré-out-there, and always readily available to transgress in order to shock the booboisie. That is why, for example, there is all the ephebophilia in Game of Thrones. These words are penned in Idaho, where the sexual portrayal of characters under the age of 18 (even if by older actors playing as though they are under 18) could conceivably get you 30 years in the big house. And why does this not bother the average viewer of Game of Thrones? Because HBO, you puritan.
So we are not dealing with stark, cutting-edge entertainment. We are discussing rootless entertainment for a rootless people, lost entertainment for a lost people, and vile entertainment for a vile people.