Homer Simpson once lamented a lack of time to enjoy literature or culture because television stations were producing too much high quality entertainment product. – ‘If they [the TV Networks] only stumbled once, just gave us thirty minutes to ourselves! But they won’t! They won’t let me live!’. This certainly seems to be the case at the moment; people constantly recommend new TV-shows that we know we’ll never get around to watching because, let’s face it, life is too short. And besides, after you’ve seen The Wire, why would you bother watching anything else?
Just over twelve months ago, though, I caught an episode from HBO’s Game of Thrones. Friends had raved about this show to me before, but I’m sure I had nodded sagely and promised that I’d give it a look whilst secretly sending the suggestion to the recycling bin of my psyche. I’d read a few medieval fantasies as a younger teenager, and they were fine. I admit to re-reading the Lord of the Rings before the Peter Jackson trilogy was released, but was reluctant to be associated with adult Tolkien fans who spoke fluent Elvish and expected all readers to retain detailed encyclopaedic knowledge of the family trees of Houses of Rohan or whatever. The Game of Thrones episode I saw drew me in though, and I immediately ordered all 5 books from a friend of mine who runs one of the most interesting independent bookshops in Ireland.
Beside the wonderful characterisation and consistently high quality plotting and writing, Game of Thrones succeeds because it is a medieval fantasy that isn’t really a medieval fantasy. The dragons and magic that are at the core of usual fantasy are moved to its fringes, and power struggles and organisational politics are made central. Henry James Varieties of Religious Experience demonstrated that most people experience religion or spirituality in ways that change throughout their lives (becoming variously more intense and weaker, depending on a number of factors). In Game of Thrones there not only a number of different religions (including a brilliant rendering of what would happen if Paganism was an organised religion – the oli-theistic state religion known as The Faith) , but characters experience their faith in different ways. Some appeal to their gods for personal guidance on ethical issues, whereas some seek to spread belief in new deities. Some become atheists, and some convert. An interesting development in later volumes has been the militarisation of the Faith in the form of the official state military order, ‘the Faith Militant’, and the emergence of grass-roots fundamentalists known as ‘Sparrows’.
War and power struggles impact on, and are the key concerns of, most of the characters, but the interweaving plots are all set against the background of a major climate event. The coming of an enduring, possibly years-long, climate crisis in the form of a Winter which will plunge the Seven Kingdoms in which Game of Thrones is set into a mini-Ice Age that, for added measure, also facilitates the rise of a demonic group known as the Others who have a penchant for creating zombified armies of those whom they conquer. I realise that we seem to going into Comic-Book Store Guy territory here, but the point is that every character is aware of the impending Winter, but none do anything about it (with the exception of the Night’s Watch on the Wall, who have to pay attention to that which is directly shaping their miserable, daily experiences). Resources which should be used to prepare for the inevitable are instead diverted into the war effort; crops are burned in fields and people who previously would have been concerned with bringing in harvests are conscripted into armies or slavery. The great crisis of the age is ignored because people must deal with constructed human crises.
The resonance of this for our lives is huge. Political struggles and the global financial crisis have drawn huge numbers of people into a desperate fight for survival in the immediate term. Meanwhile we are living in increasingly chaotic weather systems. I wrote in an earlier blog post about snow at the end of June near where I live. One month later; one of the most intense heatwaves since records began. There is now a lake at the North Pole!
‘Cli-fi ‘ or climate fiction is an increasingly popular form of fiction that uses the approaching climate crisis in the same way that classic sci-fi used say, the threat of alien invasion, as a context. Game of Thrones may not be ‘about ‘ climate change, but it is very much concerned with human behaviour and our ability to ignore that which might possibly lead to our rapid, painful extinction. Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin reportedly has another two books to go before the series is complete, but it’s likely that the force of nature will grow in these until it is impossible for all to ignore. At the end of the last instalment (A Dance With Dragons) the North was gradually become submerged under a blanket of ice and snow and warriors were becoming less concerned with winning battles with deciding which horse they should slaughter next to eat.
As readers, we can only look on in fascinated horror and wonder about the fate of those for whom ‘Winter is Coming’. But are we really reading about ourselves?