Over the last few months, many other things went on hold due to work. I’ll be finishing the rest of the “Translating Rape in Flamenca” series through the end of May and June—there’s now a full notebook of scribblings plus electronic jottings—and transcribing some more very (very) short stories from Twitter, that have progressively been collecting themselves up over there. There’ll also be updates on work itself: designing a new course for September (@Rmst221b) and reporting back on teaching innovations from this past academic year.
The following thing wrote itself in between domestic chores, teaching preparation, and marking today. It’s about the current series of the televised version of Game of Thrones.
I had first read the books back when there weren’t many of them, several years ago. I reread them when a new volume came out after a long pause; fortunately they’re a fast read and I still suffer the after-effects of childhood hyperlexia by reading prose fiction fast. (This is why I work on poetry. And I read student prose super-slowly out of anxiety about risking reading it too fast. But that’s another story.) A new whole world, complete and comprehensive; an ambitious encyclopaedic one of high and low, of a whole humanity, with outsiders and marginals; speculum historiale, humanae salvationis, et principum; Divina commedia, Dipsodian Gargantuanism, Comédie humaine, Borgesian fabulation. A marvel and a joy. Then when the moving-pictures adaptation came out, I’d watch it and reread the books. The books appeared more and more slowly. And then a time came when the books stopped, and the TV version went off in its own direction, with or without any guidance from its first writer. And everything—in that world and in this—became less diverse and welcoming, less comfortable for many and indeed, demographically, actually for most people. A tapestry unravelled, richly detailed backgrounds discontinued and left blank in later segments, delicate embroidery worn away, threads cut.
All things went simpler, and darker, and violently whiter.
“CONTAINS NO (KNOWN) SPOILERS”
So. I’ve changed my position on The Thing That’s Now Being Called “D&D.” Here are some modest proposals.
Earlier today: I had persuaded myself that I didn’t care because, as a medievalist, I know that a story isn’t a cyclical episodic narrative until it has rather more to it than this thing does. This thing here just has several volumes within the same linear sequence by the same hand, plus a version / translation in a different medium.
Compare: the work of Chrétien de Troyes, a late-12th-century poet writing romances, longish verse narratives in the vernacular (Old French in his case), each around 7,000 lines long, in octosyllabic rhyming couplets. His Perceval already claims to be a version of something earlier, now lost. This, the last of Chrétien’s romances, is slightly longer than his others—around 9,000 lines—and left unfinished. Then there are four continuations by others, and prologues, and Perlesvaus. And later translations (strict and broad sense). And other intertextual kith and kin fore and aft in other languages. Plus epigonal romances like the Bel Inconnu and Silence, side-quest parodies and suchlike, not just related through kinship but as a literary network. Eric Rohmer’s film. Monty Python.
All of these, and Chrétien’s romances themselves too, are works of fanfiction. (Twelfth-century romance is often also slashfic.) There is nothing ignoble in fanfic. Au contraire.
Prediction for the final episode: the best ending—romance-wise—will be one of unfinishing. It ought, aesthetically, to be unsatisfactory and unsatisfying. Open. Unselfish, sharing, not proprietorial or hubristic, and hospitable; it should be an invitation to continuation. It would be good for (a) game of thrones to end in courteous fair welcome to future adventurers.
Compare: Chrétien again, Le Chevalier de la Charrette (Lancelot). Like Perceval, it’s unfinished; or rather, finished, in what is counted and edited as “this” work, by another hand. Add in the later Prose Lancelot and Queste du Saint Graal, with their major socio-politico-ethical changes; and generations of medievalisings of earlier medievalism, in a long history of medieval literature extending back in time to unwritten and pre-writing tellings and songs; and, if we add speculative fictioneers like the 20th-century Robert Holdstock into the mix, encompassing a longer literary, imaginative, and creative culture including not only those times passed that are called “dark ages” by the ignorant and foolish, but “prehistory.” (Then, as before, add in kith and kin and network.)
So I’d not just persuaded but convinced myself that it didn’t matter within a larger context. “It”: an episode, a series, and the “its” of ever-increasing racism and misogyny, ever-diminishing cast—plot reduced to a knock-out competition, character stripped of personality—and ever-decreasing quality. Literarity, literacy, and humanity flattened into an apocalyptic wasteland.
This isn’t writing by writers. It feels like composition dictated by a marketing and finance committee with input from second-rate computer game designers. Perhaps they thought that fantasy would be easy to do, given its perception as a formulaic genre, so it could be written according to a formula. This series shows what happens when art is twisted into a managed project with templates verified by metrics. When impact means clickbait and innovation means faddishness. When a shiny fashionable technique is mistaken for a world-changing technology, and the seductive magic of a technology beyond comprehension is mistaken for deep knowledge. Explosive special effects, bigger and noisier and more dazzling every time, are seriously seen to be substitutes for words and ideas, for multimedia art and imagination. It’s like what happens when those who are blissfully unaware that “meritocracy” was an ironic satirical coinage turn research into a competition that results in rankings, a short list of winners, and immediate and quantifiable results. That is in turn somewhat like what happens when a university is controlled by accountants, risk assessors, executive managers, bankers, property developers, investors, gamblers, and other vulture capitalists.
It’s a significant development for libraries to disappear from Game of Thrones, for books to play less and less of a role: individual precious weighty tomes, books as part of what makes a home and a person, small personal collections—of people from a range of walks of life—and large, books as part of everyday life and whole bookish worlds enclosed within the world around them. With hindsight, it should have been obvious where things were going when books stopped being valuable and valued sources of knowledge, when reading and research and thinking stopped being acceptable and being accepted as activities, and then when they stopped. It’s a warning when books are absent. It’s a sign of the times. End times. The Inhumanities, and inhumanity, have triumphed.
It’s significant if books are present or absent from somewhere where a romance reader would expect to find them (or analogous knowledge-repositories: tombs, mirrors, weird wise beings, other-worldly creatures, and objects or persons to do with naming—including unnaming and renaming—and truly seeing and finding oneself), in anything resembling the mid-point of a romance, the structural hinge around which it is shaped and which shape its sense and meaning. It’s worth reading the books and watching the TV adaptation again for knowledge-finding scenes, for pivots of ekphrasis, metalepsis, and mise en abyme.
Medieval French romance hunch: remember what happens at the crucial points in Chrétien’s Perceval and Lancelot, remember Yvain and his lion, remember how it is Perceval that is a node in the biggest network of continuations (including Silence and the eponymous principal protagonist’s changing gender), and watch out for Arya. (Updating to add: I’m also intrigued by the Arya / Yara anagram. Naming is important.)
Speculative fiction hunch: remember Arha, “the eaten one,” in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan. (Another intriguing echo: only a letter away from Arya.) Remember that it is the middle volume of her Earthsea trilogy. Remember that Le Guin was not unfamiliar with medieval romance. And then (re)read Tehanu, the fourth volume, and look again at how the Earthsea cycle is shaped as a whole: spiralling around centres, labyrinthine but sailing on currents, going beyond a fixed shape (a trilogy of novels) to include a constellation of surrounding works (continuations, short stories) by which to steer a craft on new seas to new lands.
Thinking: what might someone who knows and does big, episodic and long-arc, multimedia cyclical narrative do? Someone with textual, intertextual, and metatextual nous? Someone literate and who has the freedom to have artistic licence? What would a Neil Gaiman / China Miéville / Neal Stephenson / Jeff VanderMeer / David Lynch version and continuations look like?
Part of the dreadful scripting has been reducing the books’ complexities to simple paired opposites; affecting individual, interpersonal, and cultural sophistication, multiplicity, and richness.
Gone: religions and cultures, sociology and anthropology, a fabric and environment and whole world, full proper world-building.
Erased: animism and pantheism and synchretism, the elemental and elements that are more than two (we’re now too used to seeing them individually—fire/not—or in simplified pairings—fire/ice—minus any “song” aspect), The Seven, cultural layerings, weirwood-networking, belief, thought, motivation, reason, character, character-arc, and any life of the mind.
Disappeared: play and games. Dumbed down into a mean cartoonish stereotype of teenage-boy incel gaming cruelty (I blame marketing departments chasing viewer numbers).
Bring back allegory.
I‘m still holding out for fanfic “Winter Is Coming” continuations in cyclical seasons—including cataclysm & remaking—as a character who is currently or soon to be dead reveals herself to be Persephone, Queen of the Dead, when she rises from the deep on a kraken. Or as The Kraken. I was thinking post-Lovecraft New Weird. Thinking Neil Gaiman / China Miéville / Charlie Stross here. I was also thinking about the missing elements and elementals, of splitting ice and fire back into solid/earth and water and fire and air, of cataclysm by earthquake and flood. A Cthulhucene deus ex machina would be as verisimilitudinously appropriate as everything else we’ve seen so far.
Alternatively, I’d like to see a last episode that ironically plays on this series’ increasing idiocy; framing that as a deliberate stratagem, reminding us about the “play” element in a “game,” bringing satire back. Metatextual critical commentary on contemporary media, entertainment, culture, and political life. Doing something clever about heartlessly manipulating an audience and audience expectations, and what that means. Reminding us of what was, back at the beginning; what has been lost, and forgotten, and how easily we’ve all moved on so as to move with the times. “Game of Thrones” could be an adaptation about adaptation, and deeply ethically so, and that could be what is most disturbing about it. Deliberate, deliberating, and liberating.
What to do next? For example, and as before to fit in with how long cyclical episodic narrative works: the last episode could reveal, as cheesily and TV-intertextually as possible, that it was all just a dream.
Then we could have a Season 9, centred on the Dothraki, Unsullied, and Dornish (and wolves); written and directed by someone competent. An N.K. Jemison / Ava DuVernay pairing would be nice.
A compromise: A final episode that burns everything down completely and ends with wolves stalking a desolation of ice and fire.
But then the camera moves and we see what surrounds us through the eyes of Bran, the last human now become transhuman and posthuman. It’s a world of peace and colour and life. Not a dead world, not a new world, but a renewed one: in process of remaking itself anew. Hope and justice prevail. See, there were layers to this world after all, that successfully resisted anthropocene apocalyptic flattening. This world had many other inhabitants, whole worlds within a world. They had gone underground to survive. Now they resurface; and so we end, open-endedly, in renovation as innovation, in refashionings and renaissances.
And the Children of the Forest are back.
And insofar as there is any winning, literature wins. There will be other games of thrones, other games, other thrones; and other kinds of games and thrones, and other ways of thinking about what these things are and imagining other ways that they could be. Despite the best pseudo-innovation efforts of the forces of the 21st-c. capitalocene on Planet Earth to market and brand this as a single unique proprietary entity—the lack of article in the TV series’ name is significant—this was, after all, just a game of thrones within a larger song of ice and fire. And that is its greatest innovative power: opening up the potential for more.
For more and better hypothesising, see the work of my most excellent colleague here at UBC, Robert Rouse. If you want an expert reading of stories and of the art of storytelling, go to an expert reader; one of the places where they may be found is in university departments of literary studies. In this case, a fellow medievalist who also works on romance and speculative fiction (but in the English department).
UPDATE 2019-05-16: The Public Medievalist offers general readers a series of essays on Game of Thrones, readings from the point of view of medieval studies and medievalism, often angled more towards history. The most recent, by Kavita Mudan Finn, is “Game of Thrones is Based in History—Outdated History.”
It’s worth bearing in mind that medievalists (even principally literary ones) know more medieval history—including histories in the plural and of a larger medieval world, an inclusive and diverse global middle ages—than do either the author of the game of thrones books or the showrunners and others making the TV series. Considering how much money the latter’s media company is making, perhaps some of it might have been invested in consulting with experts.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that (this) game of thrones is not history, though it may be as historically informative and historiographically important as any medieval European chronicle is, as commentary and allegory, as a historical artefact of our present times and world. Read as a larger whole fabric, it is a textual constellation that includes all its associated commentary, criticism, and continuations. “A Game of Thrones” extends beyond one book (which this is, at heart: one very long book), and those extensions are in many forms and genres, the factual and fictional and opinion. It is understandable how that might confuse modern readers. It is perfectly sensible and legible to a medievalist: familiar as we are with the complex relationship—neither identical nor opposites, neither mutually compatible nor mutually exclusive, sometimes confluent, always entangled—between histoire as history and histoire as story. And intimately familiar as we are with interpretation, debate, and criticism being part of a work’s reading and reception history; part of that work, as much as any continuation is, as a larger living thing.
That having been said: do also read another medievalist, Stephennie Mulder, and her useful resources for learning more, in this Twitter thread.
Some further hypothesisings here on metametamedieval:
- some suggestions for further readings in big cyclical narrative (March 2014, end of post)
- on spoilers (May 2016)
- a typical O’Brien plot prediction (November 2017): subtle bordering on incomprehensible, unlikely and unsuccessful, with occasional moments of whimsical amusement
- and, below, some more reasons why I’m not writing any games of thrones and why I shouldn’t be put in charge of anything
UPDATE 2019-05-17: The Beaverton totally gets the medievalism of cyclical narrative with constellations of stellar continuations …
… an idea that includes continuations with recycling: the renovation a.k.a. innovation that keeps a creative work alive: