Storytelling in Game of Thrones

As a dedicated fan of both the books and the show, I have spent the last week reading reviews and reactions to the highly anticipated Game of Thrones season 5 finale, and after all that I wanted to throw my two cents into the pot.

I’ve kept up with what the internet has had to say about this season more than past seasons, and it’s been increasingly negative, which surprises me a little. A lot of it has to do with the violence and seeming amorality of a lot of what goes on, and while I agree that a lot of what happens in the books and on the show is disturbing, this is something we’ve known from day one. I have to be careful in how I make this point because I don’t want it to seem like I condone violence towards women, for example, or that I get pleasure out of such a grim view of life (where the nice guys end up dead), but the thing is that this particular story, despite how offensive and inflammatory it can be, makes use of great storytelling.

The thing about good storytelling is that it’s subtle. And the thing that is amazing about this series, which you won’t fully appreciate if you haven’t dipped your toes into areas like literature or history, is that it is so incredibly rich and grounded in real life. It’s complex and it’s incredibly well thought out. But more than just that it has a message, several actually, and one of them is that actions have consequences. I think that people lost track of that this season. Here are some examples I’ve picked out.

Stannis and Shireen = Agamemnon and Iphigenia

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I read an article recently that mentioned that while there is a precedent in storytelling history for fathers forced to sacrifice their children, few actually go through with it, and that society allows it only in cases where the father has been possessed by an evil spirit or the like. Abraham and Darth Vader are both listed as examples. This actually isn’t true. This scene comes straight out of Greek mythology. It’s part of the Trojan War arc, and Agamemnon is king of Myceanea, which I believe was the most powerful Greek state at the time, and Iphigenia is his daughter. The war was over Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world and wife of Agamemnon’s younger brother, Menelaus. The Greeks claim Paris, a Trojan Prince, abducted Helen, thereby violating guest right and grounds for war. To add fuel to the flame, every powerful man in Greece sought Helen’s hand in marriage and, in order to avoid some serious jealousy and potential bloodshed over who actually ended up marrying her, her father, made all her suitors swear an oath that they would defend her husband’s honour. This resulted in Agamemnon and Menelaus having some powerful allies.

The relevant part of the very long and very complicated story (that I recommend reading) is that on the day they were set to sail, there was a huge wind against the massive fleet. A priest informed Agamemnon that he’d inadvertently offended the goddess Artemis, and so she had sent the wind to thwart the Greeks’ efforts. He also declared that the only way to appease the angry goddess was to sacrifice his own daughter.

See the parallels?

Now why is this important? Because of the kind of narrative arc it triggers. Greek mythology is particularly notable for its sense of retribution. Greek stories very much subscribe to the notion of “you reap what you sow”. They also had a didactic purpose in Ancient Greek society as morality tales. To illustrate this point, when Agamemnon returns from the 10 year war he is murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra.

Shireen’s death, horrific as it was, was actually a brilliant piece of narrative. Here’s why:

1. It subtly showcased several things at once. It showed the audience just how dire the situation was as well as a darker side to Stannis’ character. I think it was Renly who described Stannis as iron which will “break before [it] bends.” While a decent person and a fair ruler, he’s rigid and closed-minded. He’s missing the empathetic, human side that all leaders need. It also showed the dangers of religious fanaticism: they are all in that mess because Stannis listened to Melisandre, who is admittedly formidable, but as we saw in the finale, fallible nonetheless.

2. It triggered a moralistic storyline. There is a lesson to be learned here; actions have consequences. Just like in the Greek myth, Stannis transgressed against what most of us would consider to be sacred. My immediate reaction when I saw that scene was, “he’s going to pay for that, probably very soon.” My prediction after watching episode 9 was that Stannis had declared himself unfit to be king and that we would see him removed from the running sometime soon. And that’s exactly what happened. This is good storytelling people.

John Snow = Julius Caesar

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I know that you are all still traumatized about this particular development. I know you need time to mourn, and that me telling you why he had it coming is the last thing you want to hear. But, he did. I don’t mean that in the “he’s a terrible person, he deserved what he got” way. Not in the slightest – he is a truly admirable character. We all know he was doing the right thing all season. The problem is that the people around him don’t see it that way. This is a pervasive problem that exists in our own world. Jon’s mistake comes mostly from inexperience. Being a leader is complicated, you have to keep in mind the greater good, but you also have to promote and protect the unity within the group of people you lead. He was so preoccupied with the looming threat of the White Walkers that he alienated his most important allies: his sworn brothers. The men of the Night’s Watch did not feel like he had their best interests in mind. Just as Jon knew he was doing the right thing, his attackers were also convinced they were in the right.

Of more interest to me than the cause and effect of the matter is how well the show set up for this. Jon Snow has always been something of an outcast, but the stakes were higher this season, as his controversial views and decisions had more impact, and the show did a great job at portraying how this divided the watch. We’ve been watching the crows turn against Jon all season. Perhaps the most poignant, and best example of just how good the writers of the show are is when Jon executed Janos Slynt. In that whole scene I saw Ned in Jon. I was touched at how much like his father he’d become. And, just like Ned, his honour and conscience are exactly what sealed his fate. It’s tragic, but it’s also poetic, and it’s foreshadowing done right.

Critics Miss the Mark

Lastly, I want to close with a few words about this New York Times article I read last week and with which I disagree pretty strongly.

One claim it makes is that this season substituted sensation in favour of storytelling. I think there is a basis for this, but it don’t find it the concern they do. There is definitely a method behind the madness and this is all building towards something. Just because fans may not like it, because it may be offensive at points, or deal with things we don’t want to think about, just because it doesn’t satisfy our need for a happy ending for the characters we like, does not mean it’s not good storytelling. In fact, the fact that people become so invested in these characters, in my mind, is a testament to how rich and complex they are. Isn’t making that connection the point of telling any story?

It also denounces the violence portrayed towards women. Yes, it’s present. Yes it’s crossed the line into gruesome. But it’s by no means promoting it. In fact, the majority of the time it’s critiquing it and bringing into sharp relief just how despicable it is. What people have to remember is that this is a medieval world, and that time period was brutal on all levels, especially towards all who were not white, aristocratic men. One of Martin’s greatest talent is world building and that’s exactly what he’s done. He’s brought the brutality, the injustice, and the struggle to survive of nobles and commoners, men and women, easterners and westerners alike, to life. Despite all the obstacles the female characters face, there is no denying that they are the furthest thing from helpless, and that is one of the most appealing features of Martin’s writing.

Okay, rant done. Keep tuning in because while I’ve been inactive here, I’ve been busy elsewhere and have many reviews to come!

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2 thoughts on “Storytelling in Game of Thrones

  1. It’s nice to read a positive review of the season. Sometimes the story takes a dark turn, and with A Song of Ice and Fire being 300,000 pages long, I expect a solid season of Oh Noes! sometimes.

    I’m very much looking forward to season six.

    Like

  2. Thanks for your comment. I completely agree, the story does have a lot of dark stuff and this season was especially gloomy, but I think sometimes people forget that despite all that, it’s still very good writing.

    I’m hoping that season 5 was the “has to get worse before it gets better” part of the series. I’m also really looking forward to season 6, especially since season 5 finally caught the show up to the books.

    Should be a very exciting premiere next year!

    Like

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