A Philosopher's Blog

Game of Thrones: Fantasy & Evil

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 2, 2012
Game of Thrones (soundtrack)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I am a fan of the fantasy genre, I only recently saw the first few episodes of Game of Thrones. One reason for this is purely practical—I am not willing to add to my already ridiculous cable bill by adding a premium channel, so I waited for it to become available via Netflix. A more substantial reason is that when my friends who watched it spoke of the series, they gushed about the grittiness and enthused over the evil of most of the characters. The plot also struck me as a bit like Desperate Housewives, only with swords and dire wolves. However, the appalling lack of fantasy and sci-fi content on television drove me watch the series. It was pretty much as I had expected, given the extensive descriptions provided by my friends.

Naturally, I am well-aware that aesthetic taste is similar in many ways to one’s taste in food: what one finds too bland, another finds too spicy. I am also mature enough to recognize that what I dislike might be liked (even loved) by others and that there might be merit in such things. Of course, I do not subscribe to an aesthetic subjectivism so I do not accept that aesthetic discussions end after one has expressed one’s like or dislike. As such, I will endeavor to present a rough discussion of fantasy and evil.

To set the stage a bit in regards to my own biases, my love of fantasy was shaped primarily by writers like Tolkien and by games like AD&D.  Roughly put, my views have been shaped by heroic fantasy. While such fantasy worlds do contain evil (such as Sauron and Orcus), the evil is of a rather different sort than that of Game of Thrones.  In Game of Thrones, the evil of classic fantasy is wedded to (or raped by) perversion, depravity and other such horrors that are seen as making evil “gritty and real.” This is, of course, not limited to this series. The idea of presenting evil characters in this manner is rather common, and occurs in other HBO series (such as True Blood) and fiction.

One problem, as I see it, is that Game of Thrones breaks the rules of the fantasy genre by presenting and seemingly glorying in this sort of evil. This, as I noted above, was one reason I resisted watching the series (and reading the books).

There are two easy and obvious replies to this alleged problem. First, heroic fantasy is but one of the many legitimate sub-genres within the fantasy genre. While the genre does require fantasy elements to be present (one cannot have a fantasy work without at least some minimal elements of magic), it can be argued that there is no moral requirement in regards to a work being a proper fantasy work. Obviously, this series is not heroic fantasy, but it seems sensible to say that it is still quite legitimately fantasy. After all, it does include the seemingly supernatural others/white walkers (unless they are actually non-magical aliens or something) and the technology is at the sword and bow level.

Second, the evil portrayed in the series is obviously taken from the real world. As such, the work does nicely meet Aristotle’s view that the characters and actions should be such that they conform to what is probable. As Aristotle argued, what has occurred is obviously possible. It could even be argued that this series and others that embrace gritty realism are better than the more classic works because they are more realistic. This could form the basis of a counter attack, namely that heroic fantasy is defective because presents the characters (humans, at least) in a way that is improbable (that is, being mostly heroic and good rather than mostly depraved and evil).

One response to this argument is that fantasy works by their very nature need to break with reality. After all, if they were strictly realistic, they would cease to be fantasy. As such, by presenting humans in what is taken to be “gritty and real”, a work is failing to be a work of fantasy and instead is realism, only with a monster or two thrown in to create the appearance of fantasy.

This raises the obvious concern about what sort of realism a fantasy work should include and what it should reject. While traditional fantasy typically rejects much of the reality of evil, it can be argued that this merely defines that sort of sub-genre rather than defining the entire genre. As such, a work can be very realistic in some ways, provided that it contains at least the necessary conditions for being a work of fantasy. In the case of Game of Thrones, it can wallow in evil while also being legitimate fantasy.

While I obviously prefer my fantasy with less evil (or at least with less of the sorts of evil in the series), I must concede that the inclusion of such evil is obviously compatible with the fantasy genre, though obviously not with the traditional heroic fantasy. Interestingly, I have been told that my own preference for classic heroic fantasy shows that I am lacking in maturity and adult sensibilities. That is, it is a defect on my part to not prefer the gritty realism and evil of Game of Thrones to works like The Lord of the Rings. My own self-righteous reply is that I have a preference for good over evil, which brings me to a second point, namely the matter of corruption.

In Book X of the Republic Plato argues that art presents a terrible danger because it appeals to the emotions and encourages people to give in, in harmful ways, to these emotions.  For example, someone who watches works filled with lust and violence might become more inclined to yield to lust and violence in real life because of the corrupting power of art. This is, of course, the foundation for most censorship arguments. Lest anyone think I favor censorship, I do not.

While I have known about Plato’s arguments for years, I found them unconvincing until I happened to play Grand Theft Auto III.  Unlike the usual violent games I had played, GTA III casts the player as a bad person doing bad things for bad reasons. I am not sure how many police cars I had burning in the street or how many hookers I had killed before I could actually feel the corrupting influence of the game. I dropped the controller, popped out the disk and never played that sort of game again. I did, however, continue to play violent video games.

When thinking about Game of Thrones and similar works in the context of my old GTA III experience, I knew that it was not the violence that bothered me. After all, I enjoy violent video games, I play Pathfinder and I like fantasy novels that are replete with battle. In the case of Game of Thrones (GT), my analysis is roughly the same as that I made of GTA III.

In heroic fantasy, the heroes are trying to save the world by fighting evil. There is, as such, a clear moral purpose, even though violence is the usual means to the moral end. In the case of Game of Thrones, there is considerable focus on characters doing bad things for their own selfish ends, or (in some cases) simply because they are psychotically evil. So, in heroic fantasy, the heroes are acting in the right way towards the right persons for the right reasons. In the “gritty and realistic” works, the characters typically act in the wrong way towards the wrong people for the wrong reasons. As one might gather, I find this overabundance of evil unappealing and I am concerned that exposure to such material can (as Plato argued) have a corrupting influence on people. After all, what people watch and experience shapes their cogitative processes and being exposed to an unrelenting tide of virtual evil would seem to have an impact on people. Interestingly, Katharine Llyod makes a similar argument regarding the corrupting influences of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Gray.

Since I am a proponent of freedom of expression, I always feel rather odd arguing against authors doing as they wish in terms of the ethics they present in their works. However, I have never held that artists are exempt from morality (which, I am sure, would be vigorously argued against by someone like Oscar Wilde). I do, as might be suspected, agree with Aristotle that “things are censured either as impossible, irrational, morally hurtful, contradictory, or contrary to artistic correctness.” But, Game of Thrones is currently the only game in town, so I watch, though I probably should not.

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  1. magus71 said, on July 2, 2012 at 7:04 am

    A couple people at work recommended Game of Thrones to me. But I haven’t seen it yet. I’m on vacation so maybe I’ll give it a look.

    Your points about GTA are well taken. I don’t like the game and never have. It actually made me feel sick to my stomach playing it. The only good part was the sound track.

    That being said, I prefer grittier fantasy than Tolkien’s world. My argument is the same as Michael Moorcock’s. Tolkien’s world is entirely to clean and perfect. To me, part of the problem is a fundamental aspect of story telling. Tolkien’s very clean world leads to huge swaths of his novels containing no tension. Tension is a huge part of plot. In a modern story, every chapter should contain tension. But Tolkien’s work is monumental in its own way. Character development and tension is not his strength. I have a difficult time reading books in which nothing happens for chapters at a time.

    Tension can take many forms. Evil people create tension immediately in stories because people are waiting to see what bad thing they will do next. This is why Moorcock’s Elric and Howard’s Conan work so well. The two characters are not good in the high fantasy sense, and yet they are constantly fighting very evil men. But they have personalities that make them somewhat unpredictable and thus leads to constant tension.

    The Joker character in The Dark Knight is another example of an evil character who steals the show, and Darth Vader, too. The difference is as you say, the glorification of evil. There is a fine line. I see GTA as nothing more than a glorification of evil.

    I do suspect that Game of Thrones uses a host of evil characters to create constant tension. The title of the show implies a Machiavellian world in which people are backstabbing each other to gain power, and thus, the bad characters may work well for this purpose.

    Another show that I thought used this type of thing quite well was the show, 24. All of the characters, while not evil, could be called untilitarian. Jack Bauer sometimes did things that were morally questionable. But that was the point of the show, to use morally questionable situations to create tension and also use the clock (24 hours) to build tension.

    I’m sure Tolkien could have written 24. But it would have been 24 days not hours.

    • Anonymous said, on July 2, 2012 at 8:54 am

      Tension? Homeland.

      • magus71 said, on July 2, 2012 at 11:01 am

        Hmmm. I’d never heard of it until you mentioned it. I’ve been out of the TV loop for a long time. Years. But after reading the reviews, it seems like something I’d like. I’ll tune in this week.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 2, 2012 at 12:00 pm

      Game of Thrones is worth a look-you can get the disks via Netflix or buy them when they are released again (they are being re-edited because of the George Bush thing).

      Tolkien did have evil in his world and the characters were tempted by power (Boromir, for example, tries to take the ring and Saruman ends up corrupted). However, the good characters are quite good and they do lack the grittiness and defects of the characters of Game of Thrones.

      Conan, as you note, was not a purely good character. However, he would probably be considered good in AD&D terms in that he had clear moral compunctions, had a sense of honor, and often did what was right at the expense of personal gain. He did spend a lot of time killing people…but they were all bad. The original Conan stories are very good and it is interesting to see the stuff used in AD&D from the stories.

      The bad characters do enable that sort of tension. Good people would not engage in that sort of behavior, although they could be targets of it. Essentially the world is like an evil D&D campaign with an emphasis on role playing. I’m sure Gopal loves it. 🙂

      • magus71 said, on July 2, 2012 at 3:01 pm

        You should consider writing some fantasy novels. you could base them off stuff that happened in your campaigns. Have you seen the numbers fantasy puts up on Amazon? It blows everything else out of the water.

        Just don’t forget to include the sweet roll wizard and my fighter in the last campaign I played in. Remember, they did it all for a greater good….

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 3, 2012 at 1:59 pm

          Good idea-the genre seems to be doing well. Your fighter is still a local legend, especially how you and Ron put that paladin and his horse through the “wood chipper.” I’ll have to bring back the Sword of the Blood Prince at some point. I think Ron wants to kill some more blink dogs and unicorns.

          • magus71 said, on July 3, 2012 at 2:01 pm

            The paladin failed to see the greater good. Tough times require tough actions.

  2. Dave said, on July 4, 2012 at 10:36 pm

    Mike, you should read the books or at least one of the Dunk and Egg short stories before drawing conclusions based on the HBO special. I’ve never seen the books as glorying in evil – the good guys are still fighting the good fight. But the good fight is very hard and the heroes are not perfect, and the evil is, well, really bad and frequently more powerful and cunning. This, for me, only makes the story more compelling. Dunk’s efforts to live as a true knight is more heroic because it is so difficult in a world where few true knights are left, and fulfilling your oaths to defend the innocent can be very challenging. If I have commented on a particular evil character with what appeared to be admiration, it was to admire a well developed, memorable character – not to applaud the character’s conduct

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 5, 2012 at 12:05 pm

      I think I started reading the first one and made it about halfway through before losing interest-making it one of three books I started but did not end. But, perhaps I did not give the book a fair shake.

      You are right to note the difference between the actual books and the HBO version. Apparently there was a serious push to “sex up” the HBO show in order to make it appeal to a certain target demographic. While there are fantasy fans who are easily won over by a plethora of gratuitous boobag, I think that the minions at HBO do a disservice to fantasy fans by assuming that they need to overload shows with gratuitous sex and violence. Or maybe they think they need to do that to differentiate HBO from TV. However, I’d prefer if they did that with better production values and their big strength, namely presenting a narrative unbroken by ads for cat litter and feminine hygiene products.

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