Game for a Bloody Throne:
Wars of the Roses meet Ragnarok
by Gwydion M. Williams
For the benefit of anyone who’s not already a fan, Game of Thrones is a sword and sorcery television series from US channel Home Box Office, the same people who brought us The Sopranos. It is based on A Song of Ice and Fire, a series of epic fantasy novels written by American novelist and screenwriter George R. R. Martin. Martin published the first volume of the series, A Game of Thrones, in 1996. The TV version began in 2011 and has proceeded on a yearly basis.
I first watched it on a rented DVD and was immediately hooked. A mediaeval fantasy where a large man can push a small boy out of a window, intending to kill him, while saying “the things we do for love” is hardly cliché. He’s not demented: this is a rational description of why he does it. And there were – or seemed to be – some decent characters to balance the interesting villains.
By the way, who here has seen all four seasons? Or the three on DVD? Or read all of the books so far published?
Myself, I’ve seen them all, on DVD or Sky Atlantic. Each time, I read the relevant book only after watching the corresponding season.
Despite having begun nearly twenty years ago, Martin has only published five titles, with at least two more to come. Both A Storm of Swords and A Dance with Dragons appeared as two large fat books in the UK, but each was a single enormously fat book in the USA. The four TV seasons cover the first two titles and the two books of A Storm of Swords, more or less. There are worries that the seasons might overtake the writing. All we know for now is that both seasons five and six have been commissioned.
So what would you call it?
- A rambling tale
- Told by a US television channel
- Signifying nothing?
That might be the author’s core vision: there are suggestions of this in the philosophising about crushed beetles near the end of Season Four. It starts as if it was going to be a ding-dong battle between the Starks and Lanisters, with the Starks grim but virtuous and the Lanisters wicked, though sometimes showing a human side. But you soon find it’s not like that at all. There are many rivals. Almost everyone lies, cheats, murders and breaks their word, though some are clearly worse than others. Is there a virtuous side? Of course the story is still unfolding.
Attitudes to sex are based on contemporary USA rather than Mediaeval Europe or any other pre-industrial society. Men of power were mostly quite open about their concubines, and bastard children had a definite place, though lesser than the legitimate heirs. And real mediaevalists were always surrounded by servants. They occasionally are in Game of Thrones, but not often enough. And some events make little sense if you view the characters as real people able to figure their own best interests. Putting a valuable prisoner in a sloping dungeon over a vast drop is foolish: supposing he had fallen out? I also find it unlikely that a matter of disputed parentage would not have occurred to all sorts of people at a scheming and dishonest court, long before the story let it be raised.
Those are bad points, but there are merits. On thing I liked is that there are no superheroes. Everyone can be defeated and anyone may suffer and die. Unlike some fans of the program, I do not see the death of major characters as a flaw: it increases the drama because we cannot assume that the major heroes or villains will survive each danger . Some get eliminated in very surprising ways and at times you are not expecting it. In the absence of a moral theme, this keeps the plotting interesting because you cannot be sure how anything will come out.
By my reckoning – counting major and middling individual I’d have expected to last – Season One has five unexpected deaths, plus one man missing and presumed dead and another left surrounded by foes. Only two more are slain it in Season Two, but the series is back on form in Season Three with five dead, including a middling character whose equivalent in the book survived. Season Four has seven dead plus one left for dead. (I’ve got a printed list if anyone wants to check). Of course in TV drama, anyone not seen to die or seen dead is very likely to have somehow escaped. That’s without the complication of a familiar dead person, which comes in at the end of Book Three but not so far shown on TV.
Regarding origins, they could have been derived from the Conan tales and similar without any input from Tolkien. I don’t recall anything at all about natural beauty or landscape. The lives of ordinary people other than criminals and prostitutes are ignored except where they are victims of war. From British history, Stark and Lanister obviously owe something (but not much) to York and Lancaster in England’s Wars of the Roses. Martin also says he was influenced by Les Rois Maudits by Maurice Druon, a series of books available in English as The Accursed Kings. I read them as a teenager and they are excellent, but I can’t think of any strong parallels. Iron King, Iron Throne, not much of a link. Incidentally, Druon’ The Accursed Kings was made into a television series in France, but I’ve found no trace of any DVD or English-subtitled version.
As for fictional inputs, House Targaryen with its white-haired eccentrics and flying dragons reminds one of the back-story of Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone, but with a highly attractive young lady becoming the main focus. A lady displaying rather more of herself than is plausible for any princess, let alone one who takes on the male role of military command. But I suppose having her dressed in the style of Queen Elizabeth Tudor might have disappointed an audience of young males.
The most original thing is the improbably large Wall and the Night’s Watch. If they owe a little to the historic Knights Templar, Templars are presented as villains everywhere I’ve seen. These are definitely heroes, though imperfect. Verses one and three of their oath are neatly bureaucratic, rather like the oath than Pippin swears in service to Denethor, though Tolkien’s version is both less demanding and better crafted to cover loopholes, including the end of the world. But verse two is rather good:
- “I am the sword in the darkness.
- “I am the watcher on the walls.
- “I am the fire that burns against the cold,
- “the light that brings the dawn,
- “the horn that wakes the sleepers,
- “the shield that guards the realms of men.”
Interestingly, there is a significant horn in the book of “A Storm of Swords”, which stays on the sidelines and is left out of the dramatisation. I suspect it will be introduced at some more suitable moment.
Beyond the wall we are early on introduced to zombies, and to their masters the White Walkers. You only gradually realise that these are distinct from and a menace to the Wildings, the peoples beyond the wall. Presumably these are the “ice” of “A Song of Ice and Fire”. It’s less clear what the “fire” is: the Red God is active, but seems unconnected with Daenerys and her dragons.
Both ice and fire seem evil anti-human forces. Rather like Norse mythology, where humans belong in Midgard, balanced between the hostile forces of ice and fire.
But even the best of the humans are foolish. Lady Catelyn Stark appears first as an heroic wife and mother, but a lot of what she does is amazingly foolish. She breaks existing rules and starts a conflict that hurts many innocents on the basis of a damn-fool move against a man who she should have known was not her enemy.
The other Starks go off in various directions and none stick to their original good intentions. One of them uses methods of investigation currently forbidden to Britain’s undercover police. Another does a bit of “false witness” to cover up a cold and brutal murder. Jon Snow is often the nearest to a true hero, but his progress involves wholesale treachery. Bran Stark shows courage, but has not been tested by the use or possible abuse of power at the end of A Storm of Swords, so I reserve judgement.
Daenerys Targaryen is sometimes heroic but she also does some repellent things. And though it is a society with several relatively strong religions, there is little mention of rewards or punishments after death. Hardly anyone seems at all bothered by their sins. Again, it is a good match for the mainstream USA.
What Else Might Be Dramatised?
Sadly, it seems that the Tolkien family are not going to allow any of the material they control to be filmed. That appears to be everything apart from the two main books, whose film rights the Professor himself sold. Presumably that extends to high-cost television like Game of Thrones – I’d not trust such people not to turn Luthien into a go-go dancer. So we can only imagine how a televised Silmarillion might have been in good hands. Perhaps starting with Faeanor burning the ships of the sea-elves and have earlier events shown as serious but dream-like cartoon sequences.
It is also conceivable that the Notion Club Papers could be dramatised. Nothing to interest Hollywood, but it could be a decent production in the right hands. Merged with pieces from The Lost Road, possibly.
Looking more widely, the first five books of Roger Zelazny’s Amber series would be suitable. (The five extras I found inferior and did not bother reading in full.) His Lord of Light, Creatures of Light and Darkness and Jack of Shadows would be excellent, and could be extended to extra dramas in the same framework if the heirs were agreeable. Yet script-writers have a way of making utterly stupid changes to good writing in the belief they are being clever. A recent version of Beowulf was one example. Zelazny’s Damnation Alley was a much worse case: they found the most interesting and original element and they threw it away. A criminal biker turning into a hero ought to have suited Hollywood, but evidently someone supposed they knew better. The damn thing deservedly flopped.
Another possibility is Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword. A dramatisation should maybe have “Alfar” rather than elves, because they are not at all like Tolkien’s elves. Very sexy, among other things. He revisited the same hybrid world in The Merman’s Children, which however I found less interesting. There is also Three Hearts and Three Lions, probably separate but definitely compatible. So if it went well it could become an expanded saga, merging the various stories. Very little of his stuff has been filmed. A rather silly story called The High Crusade was made into an even worse film, but there is much more that could be well done, mostly Hard Science Fiction. Tau Zero is a simple strong story and would be relatively cheap to dramatise. He also did a fairly decent retelling of Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, the part-legendary story of early Kings in what is now Denmark.
Then there are the Icelandic Sagas. Njal’s Saga and Laxdaela Saga are complex but interesting. The Saga of Grettir the Strong would be fairly easy with the right main actor. (Definitely not Kevin Sorbo.) Egil’s Saga is perhaps even better. A man whose grandfather was a werewolf and who casts a curse using a severed horses-head should be just right for Hollywood or US television treatment. He is poet, warrior and magician and fights in one battle on the side of King Athelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great.
For that matter, the neglected period between Alfred the Great and Ethelred the Unready is full of drama and sudden deaths, plus many grand battles. It could sensibly start with the stable and successful rule of Edward the Elder of Wessex in cooperation with his sister Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. But when she dies, the Mercians tried to appoint her daughter in her place, and Edward deposed her – her exact fate is not recorded. He also had three wives, though the first may have been just a concubine. At least three of his sons were King of England: another was his designated successor and died 16 days after Edward was killed in battle. The big success was the son of the first wife or concubine, Athelstan, perhaps a usurper but commonly classed as the first King of England. He secured a sort of peace among Saxons by agreeing not to marry, and left no heirs. He was also highly religious, or at least made a big show of it. One half-brother who was the immediate heir mysteriously drowned. Two half-brothers succeed for short reigns, the first killed by a thief he tried to tackle single-handedly. The next generation saw a spat with the church and the brief division of the kingdom. That’s to say, the recorded history of Alfred the Great’s heirs is even wilder than Game of Thrones, and could make a splendid serial. Call it King Alfred’s Heirs.
(As many of you will know, Bernard Cornwell has his own series, his Saxon Stories, beginning in the time of Alfred the Great and centring on the superhero Uhtred. This is on-going and has not yet reached the interesting times after the death of Æthelflæd. At least the first book and perhaps more is going to get a BBC dramatisation this autumn. Plenty of room for more.)
Appendix A – Major and middling deaths in Game of Thrones:
Season One 5 dead, two more maybe
Sansa’s wolf, Lady. Viserys Targaryen. King Robert Baratheon
Eddard Stark Khal Drogo
Syrio Forel, surround by foes Benjen Stark is missing.
Season Two 2 dead
Renly Baratheon Qhorin Halfhand
Season Three 5 dead
Craster Lord Commander Mormont Catelyn Stark
Robb Stark Talisa, Robb’s wife 5 dead
Season Four 7 dead, one left for dead
King Joffrey Lysa Arryn Prince Oberyn (the Red Viper)
Ygritte Jojen Reed Shae
Tywin Lannister The Hound
Appendix B – Two Oaths
Night’s Watch, verses one and three:
- Night gathers, and now my watch begins.
- It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children.
- I shall wear no crowns and win no glory.
- I shall live and die at my post…
- I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch,
- for this night and all the nights to come.
Pippin’s Oath to Denethor, following Denethor’s words:
Here do I swear fealty and service to Gondor, and to the Lord and Steward of the realm, to speak and be silent, to do and to let be, to come and to go, in need or plenty, in peace or war, in living or dying, from this hour henceforth, until my lord release me, or death take me, or the world end. So say I, Peregrine son of Paladin of the Shire of the Halflings.
 You can see the five titles as five books at [https://www.flickr.com/photos/jaquandor/6748297785]. Also the first three in what I take to be a Spanish edition at [https://www.flickr.com/photos/exitdoors/7339587628]
 The Return of the King, Chapter 1, book 5.