Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Song of Fire and Ice: Beyond the Wall, Across the Sea

George R.R. Martin’s series is set (mostly) on the fictional continent of Westeros—a continent stuck in the medieval period for centuries, modeled most closely on England (The Wall = Hadrian’s Wall, the wildlings = the Scots, Lannisters and Starks = Lancaster and York, etc.).  Nevertheless, the show has a “modern” feel to it — and not just because of all the sex.

In particular, I think it’s laced with a rather modern paranoia — something fueled by the World Wars and especially the Cold War — where enemies become somewhat indeterminate.  Who is your ally?  And who is a mere enemy posing as an ally? 

If a war breaks out, who pays for it and who gets paid?  It’s an idea that’s been around at least as long as Heller’s Catch-22, where a certain commander gets rich selling and reselling supplies to his own forces.  In GoT, it’s characters like Littlefinger and the Boltons who serve as our own  no-bid war contracts and selected presidential cronies.

But more importantly, the greatest fear in the books might simply be that for all the infighting between factions, the real enemies are without.  The Starks and the Lannisters keep at each other’s throats while the Others range to the North and the Targaryens scheme in the East.  One of the characters in Game of Thrones says to Bran that his family’s army is marching the “wrong direction.”

This is a modern fear — a fear that happens only once you start being forced into confederations and alliances and unfortunate compromises and even more unfortunate self-sabotage.  In essence, Westeros is a modern nation-state, or even better, a proxy for a modern democracy.  For all its talk of empires and Seven Kingdoms, Game of Thrones is really an encapsulation of all the ennui and discontent of an American living in a bipartisan world — or pentopartisan world— where all our infighting and filibustering just distracts us from recognizing that our internal wars make us weaker rather than stronger.

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