Game of Thrones: An allegory or an escape?

Sansa Stark evolved into a calm and fierce character despite having been subjected to countless acts of brutality.

The word "Dracarys" has the power to burn entire cities to the ground with scathing dragon fire in HBO's epic fantasy saga Game of Thrones. Even off-screen, the Valyrian term has had an impact on millions of fans around the globe. Regardless of their nationalities, cultural upbringing and religious sentiments, countless people have participated in this mega frenzy. The grand spectacle of fire-breathing dragons, prophecies, sly political crafts, incestuous profanity and a supernatural threat that was beyond the realms of men, scampered to a brusque end on May 19. Around 20 million viewers watched the series finale last week. And many heaved a sigh of disillusionment.

George RR Martin's adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire successfully gave rise to a passionate fandom for fantasy but beyond that, it led to a grand scale of viewership and riveted the interest of critics due its medieval elements, which were borrowed from historical events in our own turbulent world. It also drew heavily from concepts and realities of our own societies such as feminism, corruption in politics, religious radicalism, moral ambiguity and the classic dichotomy between love and duty. This is ironic because fans of such escapist fantasy shows—under which Game of Thrones is supposedly categorised by definition—use them as an imaginary gateway to an exotic world. But despite the presence of supernatural elements such as sword-and-sorcery and ice zombies, the show places its political plots —that often mirror the real world—at the forefront. This theory that explains why Game of Thrones has attracted so many viewers posits a broader question for fans of the fantasy genre: Do people really want an escape from reality or do they just desire the flavours of current affairs in exotic settings?

A show that began with what many would call a misogynistic standpoint, coupled with barbarism and gratuitous nudity, saw strong female characters rise to power. This correlates to the rising feminist movements today that seek gender equality. Female characters like Sansa Stark, Arya Stark, Cersei Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, Brienne of Tarth and even Lyanna Mormont challenged patriarchal foundations either through the wielding of swords or manoeuvering political tactics for revenge. From being victims of brutality to becoming the rulers and warriors of Westeros, the female characters in Game of Thrones shone light on the profoundly feminist strands of the show.

Khaleesi, the mother of Dragons, rose to power ambitiously, wanting the Iron Throne all for herself—not to fulfil a male agenda. Even Sansa Stark, who faced challenges from various adversaries owing to her petulant and timid nature, later rose to power with her calm determination and sharp wit. This only made it apparent that feminism does not revolve around a virile idea of masculine strength that manifests itself through wielding weapons or waging violence but rather the development of a strong, level-headed matriarch. The show portrayed a realistic dimension of feminine strength by empowering women who, despite being at the receiving end of misogyny, emerge as strong-willed survivors.

Martin said, "The true horrors of human history derive not from orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves." It is evident that he based the storyline on this belief. The ruling and competing forces in Westeros often misuse power to reach the Iron throne. What the show does differently from other shows of the same theme is concentrate less on supernatural blood magic and more on the unpredictable, vicious ploys of masterminds. It parallels the real world where the political superpowers blatantly engage in corrupt schemes, and where we are witnessing a rise in neo-feudalism. The thematic atmosphere of the show has also been influenced by "realpolitik"—a German term for a set of principles that are pragmatic and pay little or no regard to the welfare of the general masses. When Samwell Tarly suggests the notion of democracy in order to elect a next king, the other lords of Westeros could not help but laugh at his proposition—much like the real world where we have ended up making a mockery of the very concept of democracy and have no regard for the welfare of the people. As rightly said by the character Jorah Mormont, "the common people pray for rain, health, and a summer that never ends. They don't care what games the high lords play."

Even the impending apocalypse caused by the white walkers and the initial disregard for it by the lords and ladies of Westeros can be compared to the emerging threat of global warming. As in the show, powerful leaders in the real world are busy squabbling over their share of domination, with some leaders entirely dismissing the idea of climate change as a myth. Charli Carpenter, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, implied in an article that the concept of the Northern Wall in Game of Thrones is a caricature of our belief that modern civilisation can protect us from the devastating effects of climate change.

But what the plot of the show has depicted immaculately is the coexistence of moral duality and the juxtaposition of good and evil when it comes to power and ambition. The narrative does not try to promote a utopian point of view. Martin triumphed in adapting an Aristotelian view of the leaders of Westeros, successfully highlighting their inner demons. A seismic shift can also be seen in the show with the emergence of the younger characters who want to "break the wheel" or status quo of noble families withholding political power. This shift parallels the real world where new progressive leaders strive to promote equality and challenge the status quo.

With Game of Thrones embodying all these aspects of the real world, should we perceive it as a means to escape from the chaos or as an allegory of the modern civilisation itself? Despite its underwhelming finale, the widespread fascination towards the show will last for quite some time because in it, we witnessed how the coexistence of moral extremities played out in such a way that the fictional world in Game of Thrones ultimately became less chaotic—something that one can only hope will materialise in the real world.

Iqra L Qamari is a student of economics at North South University. Email: [email protected]

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