A Discussion of Themes: Game of Thrones

Introduction

Note: This will be assuming that the reader has read the books and is caught up with the show. Beware of spoilers!

So, Game of Thrones remains extraordinarily popular, prompting discussion about what it features that makes it so damn popular. I mean, of course it's well-written, but there are tons of well-written fantasy epics that are just collecting dust in the library. Why did this one become such a popular TV series? What makes this story and these characters so intriguing and memorable to audiences?

Game of Thrones and Tragedy

For one thing, it's rare for something popular to have this dark of a tone. When people think of "popular TV" or "popular music", they're picturing something inoffensive and saccharine. But Game of Thrones manages to be really dark and really popular at the same time. Why?

Well, many characters' lives in the story are examples of tragedy, and that is not a new idea (it's just new to have tragedy become revived in mainstream popularity). Although most popular stories are rarely tragic, tragedy has a lasting emotional impact on the viewer. In ancient Greece, the art form was designed to provoke philosophical discussion. A tragic play, like Oedipus the King, would not only make the audience feel gloomy, but also cause them to wonder what Oedipus and other characters did wrong that caused their unhappy ends. In other words, what was their tragic flaw. Similarly, Game of Thrones does this when its main characters die, it causes us to think about what those characters did wrong or what their character flaw was that led to their death.

Interregnum and Political Turmoil

Game of Thrones takes place in a decided power vacuum. It was sort of begun by Robert's Rebellion, which took down the Mad King, deposing the Targaryens and putting Robert Baratheon on the throne, who was king at the start of the series. But when he is murdered by his jealous wife Cersei, and her son Joffrey inherits the throne, everything goes to shit. Almost every one of the Seven Kingdoms goes into political panic mode, and rebellions and false claimants to the throne pop up like dandelions. Joffrey's own reign doesn't even last long, as there is a conspiracy to poison him at his own wedding, after which his even younger brother takes the throne, a boy who is too sweet and naive to be effective against dissident religious fanatics. He can't keep order in King's Landing, let alone stop rebellion in the North, the Iron Islands, Dorne, etc.

This all happened because the peace that Robert Baratheon had built was tenuous at best, and rebellions were only kept back because Robert was a strong king, a feared warrior. "It's fear that keeps the realm together. Fear and blood." he said, and he was probably right. When he dies, the lack of this fear means the seven kingdoms are no longer bound together under a single, effective ruler.

This is called an "interregnum" in history, or a period in which a kingdom or empire lacks strong central leadership. These periods are marked by civil war between multiple competing political factions. In ancient Japan, this was what took place in the "Warring States" period that preceded the unification of the country under Ieyasu Tokugawa. Like the Warring States period, Game of Thrones takes place at a time when there is a political leader on paper, but with their power being limited in practice.

Game of Thrones has been noted by critics as more resembling a reading of history than a fantasy epic. In fantasy epics, traditionally, people go on their quest, slay the dragon, save the princess, and come home to live happily ever after, peace restored to their kingdom. But in Game of Thrones, it's a little more complicated. It is a lot closer to what happened with real-world medieval history. Game of Thrones challenges Tolkien, because it takes place in a world that does not predestine that good will always triumph over evil. It doesn't give the main characters plot armor just because they have a "special destiny". But, this realism helps people feel like Game of Thrones, even with its fantasy trappings, does not take place in a world that is all that different from our own.

The political strife in Game of Thrones also is a welcome theme for audiences, because we're now dealing with a world that has serious political issues of its own. The story resonates with us because, if we can reason out what Jon Snow or Danearys Targaryen or Arya Stark or Tyrion Lannister should do in their difficult situations, we have a good chance of being able to tackle our own difficult personal and political problems.

The Psychology of Grief and Loss

In Game of Thrones, death is omnipresent. There is nothing assuring that a character will make it out of every perilous situation alive. Also, many characters go through extreme losses, like Catelyn and Cersei losing children, Arya losing her identity and her sight, and Jaime losing his hand. Accompanying each physical loss is a loss of honor, self-worth, and hope. For example, when Jaime loses his sword hand, he ceases to be as capable as a fighter, making him feel like he's lost his identity as a knight and his own self-esteem.

So, fundamentally, Game of Thrones is about how to handle losses. Some of them are ordinary and expected, like the loss of a very old relative. But many are sudden, traumatizing, and unexpected. Game of Thrones explores:

  • How loss affects our faith, not only in God but in ourselves and our beliefs.
  • What loss teaches us.
  • How to overcome the sadness of loss.
  • How to discover a new purpose when we lose an old identity.

It's a painful journey, but I think that it's a universal one. Everyone will deal with pain and loss at some point in life. Even if it's not as bad as losing an arm or being exiled to a foreign land, everyone will face some kind of dramatic, life-changing event at some point that will shake them a bit. It takes us out of our routine, uproots us, and forces us to create a new way of life for ourselves, or to take a bit of time out to grieve and then return to our ordinary life. Either way, it won't all be the same. And in Game of Thrones, many characters have to go through this realization that changes happen, good and bad, and that you can't wish them away or fight to go back to the way things were before they happened. The show teaches us about accepting the bitter changes in life that we can't do anything about.

Conclusion

So, I take away from Game of Thrones the following as significant themes:

  • Tragedy, and an exploration of various characters as tragic heroes (especially the Stark characters).
  • Political strife, instability, and giving us a very human picture of what it means to live in a time with many civil wars and massive power struggles.
  • Grief, loss, and how to overcome it.

I intend to also write articles discussing the religions in Game of Thrones and connecting it to literature, but I think this is enough for this article. Even if Game of Thrones does not have one predominating heroic figure who triumphs, these themes are what really make it a good show to watch.

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