The tendency to set up—and then dash—the expectations of fantasy has always been crucial to HBO’s Game of Thrones and its source novels by George R. R. Martin. (I refer to them collectively below as GoT.) From the beheading of Ned Stark to the slaughter at the Red Wedding, much of the story’s claim to fame comes from the way that it “realistically” kills off high-minded main characters. The shock and emotional anguish that fans express at these moments reveals just how widely held and deeply cherished the norms of medievalist fantasy are; in particular, the expectation that the “good guys” will win, or at least survive. But Martin has always been unapologetic about his mission to explode people’s expectations of fantasy, and has referred derisively to the pseudo-medieval worlds in works by “Tolkien imitators and other fantasists” as “a sort of Disneyland middle ages”: childish, inauthentic, idealized, sanitized.
This statement reminds us of something that viewers may have forgotten: GoT has always been about the gap between childhood expectations and adult experience—seen especially clearly in the concluding montage of the show, which focuses on the destinies of the surviving Winterfell kids. The stories of Stark children Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran, Rickon, and the fostered boys Jon Snow and Theon Greyjoy overturn an array of popular children’s fantasy plotlines from the twentieth century, with GoT offering its own brutal alternatives as part of a “grown-up” retelling for adult audiences today. This is not to say that there are no moments of triumph, heroism, and luck in the series; instead, it maintains a constant pleasurable (or anxious, depending on your view) uncertainty about whether its plots will tip towards catastrophe or towards what J. R. R. Tolkien called “eucatastrophe”: the “sudden joyous ‘turn,’” the characteristic happy endings of fairy tales.
But how did we come to expect safety and triumph for our favorite characters in the first place, when they exist in worlds defined by violence and supernatural dangers? Why are we rooting for feudal lords, monarchs, and colonizers anyway? The answer lies tied up in the history of the fantasy genre, which emerged as the form we now know during a period when English literature and culture was being transformed by modernism, cosmopolitanism, the decline of Empire, and a pervasive belief that science and rationalism had disenchanted the world. As I argue in my forthcoming book, Tolkien and his Oxford colleague C. S. Lewis launched a counterattack against these cultural directions, using a surprising, and wildly effective, weapon: children’s literature. Their fantasies The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia drew on the heroic traditions of medieval literature and recast such tales in line with more recent ideas about children as inherently magical, innocent, and inclined towards goodness. Ignored by the academy and literary establishment, their writing sparked a wildfire of new medievalist fantasy in the second half of the twentieth century, the “imitators” that Martin mentions above. And these stories, which so many people encounter in childhood, set the norms that GoT repeatedly upends with its darker twists and turns.
Of the Stark children, Robb, the oldest son, suffers the sharpest and most complete lesson in the unreliability of fantasy conventions. Robb takes on the role of the chosen boy hero, right-born and well-meaning like Peter Pevensie in the Narnian tradition, Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, or Will Stanton in Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising sequence. Too trusting, he dies in a trap alongside his followers. Sansa is the fair damsel, a princess figure who dreams of courtly love and advantageous marriage. She becomes a victim of sexual and other forms of violence, a political pawn repeatedly married off for others’ gain. Only after Sansa experiences what Shiloh Carroll calls “violent reeducation” does she end GoT as queen of her own people, a position achieved through her own shrewd and powerful actions. Arya takes up the tradition of female knights like Tamora Pierce’s Alanna, Tolkien’s Éowyn, and women warriors of medieval literature who hide their gender for the chance to fight. But in GoT, Arya’s survival through disguise comes dangerously close to turning her into a cold, unmoored assassin (“a girl is no one,” she learns to say of herself) before she returns to her family, destroys an undead king, and turns to other quests. Her younger brother Bran, body broken but endowed with supernatural abilities, journeys into the wilderness seeking wisdom like Lewis’s spiritual searchers in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Bran gains greensight as the Three-Eyed Raven and returns to his family as an eerie and emotionally distant presence. His crowning as king of Westeros at the end of the series is hardly joyful; barely human, Bran finds little pleasure or triumph in the role. The Stark family’s youngest, Rickon, is hidden from his family’s enemies early in the series much like the young Arthur of medieval legend. While his fate in the books remain unknown, in the TV show he is betrayed and executed by his father’s former bannermen for their political gain.
The trajectories of the Starks’ two foster-children also allow GoT to explore the common theme of outsiders in children’s fantasy. Jon Snow is the unlikely hero, a Frodo-figure dedicated to the higher good and—like the young Arthur of T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone and, later, Harry Potter—an orphan who longs for acceptance and roots while secrets swirl around his identity. In spite of Jon's successes and (in the TV show, if not the books) the revelation of his noble birth, he ends GoT where he started, a literal outsider banished to the far northern reaches of Westeros after murdering his own lover and queen. Meanwhile Theon, Ned Stark’s ward, plays the part of the arrogant incompetent who needs to be reformed, a descendent of Lewis’s Edmund Pevensie and Eustace Scrubb in the Narnia books and Ursula Le Guin’s Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea. Theon tries to play the role of usurper in Winterfell, but is captured by a sadist whose torture reduces Theon to a trembling servant. His happy ending is the chance to die with honor, defending the family he betrayed and demonstrating the capacity for redemption.
These characters’ suffering in GoT raises questions about how well “Disneyland” upbringings in safe, morally “stark” spaces of childhood--such as the plots of most medievalist fantasy--serve young people as they enter into adult life. Moral clarity; the certainty of right overcoming wrong; eucatastrophe and the promise of happy endings; heartwarming family reunions and the finding of true love: these are not only the norms of children’s fantasy since Tolkien and Lewis but also the dominant myths of modern Anglo-American childhood, cycled and recycled through children’s media from picture books to video games to holiday specials. At the same time, the fates of the Winterfell kids don’t suggest a simple rejection of fantasy norms so much as a shift towards what Lee Konstantinou calls “postirony”: a twenty-first-century mode that acknowledges the miseries of life but which “moves past irony” to find meaning and, I suggest, alternate forms of enchantment.
The dragon queen Daenarys Targaryen repeatedly claims that her goal in seeking the Iron Throne of Westeros is to “break the wheel” of power that crushes so many people in the GoT’s world. Jon kills her as she reiterates this dream in sight of the throne, in spite of his love for her, because he has come to recognize that self-righteous idealism can lead to despotism just as well as greed and malice can. The series ending suggests that audiences, too, have to “grow up.” We must kill our dreams of fantasy conventions and follow the postironic paths of Jon and the other remaining Winterfell children by first recognizing the hidden tyrannies of simplistic hierarchies and inflexible moral ideals, and then finding re-enchantment in more complex, unexpected arrangements of people and power.
But even as it aims to overcome tired fantasy tropes, GoT remains caught in and reaffirms one of the genre’s most exhausted norms of all. From the Winterfell brood to the dragon-strafed youth of King’s Landing, the young people we are asked to identify with in this narrative all look suspiciously similar; only white children’s stories seem to really count. As Ebony Elizabeth Thomas argues, the one black girl in Martin’s books, Missandei of Naath, appears in the TV show as a sexualized adult; and her story is cut short to further the stories of white characters in the most brutal and degrading of ways. Even the series’ more hopeful conclusions betray its Orientalist mindset: as one Atlantic historian friend pointed out, Arya’s sailing west under the Stark crest at the show’s end unproblematically celebrates her turning into a settler colonist. Martin’s dated understanding of history shows, as Kavita Mudan Finn has suggested, and the misogynist and colonialist biases of his sources carry into the series’ ambitious attempt to rethink the underlying premises of the genre. When will medievalist fantasy break that wheel?