July 14, 2017


Fiery Heaven, Bastard Earth: The Cosmology of "Game of Thrones" (Jedediah Purdy, JULY 13, 2017, LA Review of Books)

Up to the beginning of this season, viewers have met three elemental forces, two of them named in the Song of Ice and Fire. The forces of Ice, the armies of the blue-eyed ice-demon known only as the Night King, stand for an end to human (and perhaps all warm-blooded) life. Although commentators have hoped that these chittering escapees from a gross anatomy lecture were an inessential narrative folly, Martin's own series title and his placement of a White Walker (the ravening zombie slaves of the Night King) in the first scene of Book I suggest they play a central role. His challenge is to make them count as more than undifferentiated super-villains.

Fire comes in the form of the dragons that are bound to Daenerys Targaryen ("Mother of Dragons" to her followers), who were once the source of political authority in Westeros, after enabling earlier Targaryens to conquer the island and unite its kingdoms. There are clues that dragons' flame will destroy White Walkers, and that it is the only thing likely to do so on a scale that will save humans from the army of the dead approaching from the North. This power is linked to a more general metaphysical fire principle. "Dragon glass," something like volcanic obsidian, destroys Walkers when it is formed into a weapon. So do swords of Valyrian steel, which have become precious tokens of ancient and high-status houses, but also hint at the forces that destroyed the high civilization of Valyria that forged them, now collapsed and remembered mainly in legend. There are hints in the books that Valyria fell to, or into, something resembling nuclear apocalypse. Ice kills, yes; but fire, while it sustains and renews life, also consumes it in flame, and tends to rage out of control.

If there is promise of a balance or integration of elemental forces, it is in the earth-based powers that the aboriginal Westerosi, the Children of the Forest, knew intimately. These powers are concentrated in the red-and-white Weir Trees, which the First Men, the early colonist ancestors of some modern Westerosi, adopted into their remnant regional religion, focused on the Old Gods. (Roughly speaking, it may help to imagine most Westerosi as Anglo-Saxons, the First Men as the already-present Celts, and the Children of the Forest as the Fairy Folk of Celtic story, here presented as having preceded the First Men.)

These earth-energies have moved from the margins of the story to loom increasingly large. Brandon Stark, who seems to have the strongest link to such forces in his generation of siblings, concluded the final episode of the sixth season by entering a mystical chthonic reverie beneath a vast weir tree in the far north, attended by the last of the Children of the Forest. Whatever he is gathering there is the last living link between the ancient world of the Children and the all-but-disenchanted world where the story began, and has been foreshadowed as an important resource in the impending war between life and death, the Night King's armies and humanity. If fire is the life-force so proudly strong it can consume life itself, then earth seems to be its counterpoint, humble and rooted in a more than metaphorical sense, alive with consciousness that links humans, their animal alter egos, and the trees that serve as spiritual cellular towers for devotees of the Old Gods. (The logic of the scheme suggests a place for water, but so far the sea is just the home of the Ironborn, temperate-zone Vikings with a reincarnation sideline of their own.)

What it means to bring these forces together will say a lot about how Game of Thrones imagines order in general. The implication so far is that death lies in division, hope in ever higher-order commonality. The contest for the throne of Westeros remains the engine of many of the most engaging plots, but in the larger scheme of the story it is a mistake, a bloody, sapping distraction from "the real war" to preserve life against the Night King. The deeply felt animus between the Southrons of the civilized kingdoms and the tribal, semi-anarchic Wildlings is a kind of confused substitute for the misremembered struggle against White Walkers: the degenerated, depopulated Night's Watch, guardians of the Wall separating North from South, imagine that the Wall was built to keep out Wildlings, and no longer quite believe in Walkers -- until they meet them.

Don't mistake your element for the world: frequently, the tragedy in Game of Thrones pivots on characters who wholeheartedly believe in principles that are noble but parochial and incomplete, and fail when they enter wider fields. Ned Stark, father of the siblings at the story's center, is loyal and lawful. By unflinchingly and punctiliously executing a Night's Watch deserter at the beginning of the first book -- an act intended, incidentally, as a lesson to his children on the burdens of upholding the law -- he fails to learn that the Walkers are on the move. He dies, honorably but futilely, in a palace struggle, high-mindedly oblivious to the larger landscape on which the story's stakes are emerging. Alliser Thorne, a knighted [***]hole but a loyal soldier in the Night's Watch, assassinates Jon Snow because Jon has allied himself with the Wildlings. Jon's pan-human diplomacy is the right move in the expansive moral vision of Game of Thrones, but a betrayal of the keystone principle of the Night's Watch, to protect the South against the North. But parochialism is beginning to yield. When the young Starks retake Winterfell in the penultimate HBO episode to date, they do so not just to assert their family claim -- a "game of thrones" move par -- but also to fortify the North against the White Walkers, a move in the war of Ice and Fire. The defense of a dynasty has become something else, the vanguard of the human -- even the terrestrial -- struggle for life.

Posted by at July 14, 2017 7:42 AM