Themes in Game of Thrones
Note: This will be assuming that the reader has read the books and is caught up with the show. Beware of spoilers!
Game of Thrones remains extraordinarily popular, prompting discussion about why exactly it is so 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?
A lot of it has to do with the fact that it covers themes that help it resonate emotionally with the audience. A literary theme is just a subject a work of fiction comments on or deals with, such as genocide in Ender's Game or humanity in Blade Runner. In Game of Thrones, themes are major, recurring ideas that help connect the audience's own personal experiences to what's going on in the series. The main ones are tragedy, political chaos, and grief.
For one thing, it's rare for something popular to have this dark of a tone. 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. Most popular stories have a happy ending, but tragedy has a lasting emotional impact on the viewer.
In ancient Greece, the art form was designed to provoke moral 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. A tragic flaw could be a character defect, like Robert Baratheon's hedonism, or it could be a weakness or something the tragic character overlooked. Game of Thrones does this when its main characters die. It causes us to think about what those characters did wrong, or what their major flaw was that led to their death.
Interregnum and Political Chaos
Game of Thrones takes place in a decided power vacuum.This began with Robert's Rebellion. Robert Baratheon took down the Mad King, deposed the Targaryens, putting himself on the throne. He was a mighty warrior who ruled through fear and intimidation. But, plots against him seemed to constantly hang in the air.
Over time, Robert's distaste for politics and hedonistic ways become his downfall.
He is murdered by his wife Cersei, who is jealous of him sleeping with so many women, and who hates being trapped in a loveless arranged marriage with Robert. Their son Joffrey inherits the throne, and everything goes to pieces. Almost every one of the Seven Kingdoms goes into political panic mode. 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. Then, his even younger brother, Tommen, takes the throne. Tommen is 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. 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 closly resembling a reading of history. In more traditional fantasy epics, 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, still takes place in a world similar to our own.
The political strife in Game of Thrones also is a welcome theme for audiences, because the real world often faces serious political issues of its own. The story resonates with us because, if we can reason out what Jon Snow or Daenerys 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.
Chaos is a ladder.— Petyr Baelish
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:
- The Starks losing Ned,
- Catelyn and Cersei losing children,
- Arya losing her identity and her sight,
- Jaime losing his hand,
- Tyrion losing his position at court and Shae, etc.
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. Everyone will likely 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 we're forced to take some time out to grieve, eventually returning to our ordinary life. But when we return, 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. Nor can you fight to go back to the way things were before the loss happened. The show teaches us about accepting the bitter changes in life that we can't do anything about.
I see Game of Thrones as having 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.
Game of Thrones entails a lot more to talk about, especially in terms of philosophy and religion, but I believe those ideas deserve their own 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.