Damien Walter writes on scifi & fantasy for The Guardian, BBC, Wired, Oxford University Press, IO9, Tor.com and elsewhere. He’s a graduate of the Clarion scifi writers workshop, and teaches the Rhetoric of Story.
There’s a kind of fantasy novel that fantasy fans tend to like. It features either a young orphan / bastard boy destined to be a king, or an orphaned / abused young woman destined to be a queen.
If these sound familiar, it’s likely because you’ve been following their adventures in the most successful tv show of all time – Game of Thrones – that came to the end of eight seasons and innumerable murders, beheadings, betrayals and incinerations just a few days ago.
The final twists in the narratives of orphan / bastard Jon Snow and orphan / abuse victim Daenerys Targaryen weren’t universally acclaimed. A core of haters have been building towards the boil as seasons 7 & 8 failed to fill their expectations. Who are these haters? What did they want from Game of Thrones?
They are are fantasy fandom. And they wanted Game of Thrones to culminate in high fantasy fashion.
Because of my occasional column on sci-fi & fantasy books for The Guardian, I follow many fantasy authors and fans on Twitter. As the final episodes of GoT aired this year, the fantasy writing community seemed to descend into what I can only call a psychotic rage. GoT’s show-runners were failing to meet their expectations, and fantasy fandom was not happy!
But the things that displeased fantasy fans about Game of Thrones, may well be exactly the qualities that made the show and its finale the highest rated in HBO’s illustrious history. Billions of people of all kinds around the world have been drawn into the epic battle for Westeros, not because it had knights, dragons, wizards and magic in, but because it was a great human drama that ALSO happened to feature the tropes of fantasy fiction.
Game of Thrones show-runners David Benioff & D.B.Weiss, much maligned for failing fantasy fans, did an outstanding job keeping the GoTs wider audience guessing about how the show would conclude. They pulled off this trick by playing these two sets of expectations against each other.
On the one hand we’ve all seen Lord of the Rings and we all know how a standard fantasy story ends. The bastard orphan becomes king! I think we can all be grateful that GoT didn’t repeat the sentimental end of Return of the King. On the other hand, we all know that drama tends to tragedy. But none of us could guess ahead of time which direction GoT would take.
This dichotomy – between the hackneyed traditions of generic fantasy, and the wider possibilities of tragic drama – was embodied in the characters of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, the two *most* archetypal characters in a show heavy with archetypal characters, and the only two characters who seemed to have a free pass from the brutal logic of GoT.
In a show famous for almost randomly killing off any character the nefarious imagination of George R R Martin saw fit, Jon and Dany had what we might call “plot armour”. For the Song of Ice and Fire to ever end, icy Jon and fiery Dany would have to meet. And until they did, it seemed that nothing in Westeros or Esteros could kill either…at least not for long.
So the real question, as GoT accelerated towards its finale, was this. Would Dany and Jon’s plot armour see them through to the end, and the fulfilment of their Kingly / Queenly destinies? Or would they finally yield to the brutal realities of their world, and arrive at a more tragic ending?
It was the latter.
On its own, the “failure” of GoT to fulfil the cliche genre expectations of fantasy fans might not have lead to such a borderline pathological response from some people. But the delivery of Dany and Jon’s tragic endings was made all the more brutal by an extra factor. Dany and Jon didn’t just reach bad ends, on the way, they revealed themselves to be far from the heroic characters many of us were invested in.
George R R Martin in interview has repeatedly asserted that he wanted to write a fantasy that, unlike Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, where good and evil are literally manifested as different races, would show how good and evil run through the heart of every character. And in the wonderfully complex characters of Cersei, Arya, The Hound and even Joffrey, we saw just that.
Game of Thrones took arch-villains like Jaime Lannister and made them heroes, and moral men like Stannis Baratheon and twisted until they committed the worst of all crimes. But again, Dany and Jon stood outside the moral complexity that made GoT so remarkable. They were both simply…good – until, finally, they weren’t.
The orphan / bastard hero Jon Snow, for all his prowess as a fighter, simply lacked the strength to be a good king. Had he been stronger he could have taken the throne and ruled wisely. Instead he gave it up to a Queen he believed in…bad call Jon Snow! Leaders can’t always make the moral choice, sometimes they must make the strong choice.
Dany certainly had the strength to lead, as we learned when she nuked Kings Landing, a decision I dissected over on my YouTube channel. But it was the revelation of the evil that ran through her heart which, I have the feeling, really infuriated those who were most invested in her heroic journey.
Daenerys represented a worldview that’s become very common in our real world today. It’s the worldview of the activist, the campaigner, the fighter for social justice. Dany doesn’t just want to win the Game of Thrones, she wants to “break the wheel” that keeps the game turning, century after century. And with that high moral goal, any action, however evil, can be justified.
“Game of Thrones did not fulfil the expectations of generic fantasy – thank ye Gods!”
I’ve spent a lot of my life in activist and social justice circles. I know the mindset, from long years of holding it. And so, like millions of people, I loved seeing Dany destroying one city full of slave owning “Masters” after another. And like millions of others, I didn’t think too hard about the dark side of those actions. So when Tyrion, in the GoT finale, lists the crimes of The Breaker of Chains, it was a brilliant moment of dramatic revelation. Later in the episode, when Arya claims to “know a killer” when she sees one, the message is driven home. The evil in Dany’s heart is as powerful as the very worst in Westeros.
It’s all too tempting to believe that our high motives justify our means – any means – to reach the utopia of a better world. Dany certainly believes it, and that leads her to expose the worst of herself. It’s possible that some of us today, caught up in real world political causes for which we sometimes overstep the line, aren’t ready to see our heroes, like Queen Daenerys Targaryen, dethroned.
Game of Thrones did not fulfil the expectations of generic fantasy – thank ye Gods! Instead it played for a much, much more morally complex ending, which the audience who were ready for it were truly satisfied by. As bloated productions of other fantasy bestsellers stagger towards our screens, it’s worth wondering if their producers realise that Game of Throne’s success had little to do with fantasy, and everything to do with the truth and reality of great dramatic storytelling.