The Pessimism of George RR Martin and the Inadequacy of Game of Thrones

“Pessimism about man serves to maintain the status quo. It is a luxury for the affluent, a sop to the guilt of the politically inactive, a comfort to those who continue to enjoy the amenities of privilege.” — Leon Eisenberg

“All the pessimists in world history together are nothing against reality.” — Elias Canetti

“[A pessimist is] a man who thinks everybody as nasty as himself, and hates them for it.” — George Bernard Shaw

Note: I haven’t read the books. If you feel this disqualifies me from responding to the show, it’s probably best that you stop reading now. You will be missed.

Game of Thrones is the Human Centipede of fantasy epics in the 21st century. Both stories revel in the deplorable wretchedness of humans at their worst, without any viable mention of compassion, empathy, or conscience. Both stories work primarily to shock and revolt audiences, exploiting our emotions rather than digging into the deep soil of humanity.

There’s no question about the skill of Monsieur Martin (and the show’s writers) in creating complex characters, effective dialogue, and epic story arcs. My complaint is not with his skill with the tools of fiction writing; my complaint is with how he uses these tools.

There’s also no question about — and therefore hopefully no reason for me to discuss — the horrible brutality of GoT. We’re introduced to sympathetic characters and hopeful situations, only to watch them mutilated without mercy. Much has been written about the veneer of Schadenfreude that permeates Martin’s work, and many of his fans delight in watching newcomers cringe and squirm as good butchered by evil.

Responding to this phenomenon, Martin is quite clear. When asked by Entertainment Weekly if his books present a cynical view of human nature, he said:

I think the books are realistic. I’ve always liked gray characters. And as for the gods, I’ve never been satisfied by any of the answers that are given. If there really is a benevolent loving god, why is the world full of rape and torture?

A fair question, and I wish neither to argue to problem of evil from scratch, nor demand a theistic narrative paradigm. But Martin’s worldview as depicted in GoT is unrelentingly negative, and it is pessimistic. It pretends that compassion and empathy are statistically insignificant freaks of nature.

But this is not a full and fair accounting of reality, and I am tired of seeing hideous atrocities presented as the only “real” things, with the vast array of other human interaction derided as “unrealistic”.

To wit: Martin was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. He worked with the VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) program, part of Johnson’s War on Poverty. He clearly believed that there was a pathology in carpet-bombing thatched huts in Vietnam, and that he could do some good in refusing to fight.

So where are the conscientious objectors in Westeros? Why are there no scenes of compassion triumphing in small ways against hideous evil? I’m not calling for simplistic Pollyanna happiness, nor an idiotic deus ex machina to stop the wicked machinations of the Lannisters. But blood and suffering are the only “reality” we’re given. (A few tiny moments of romantic or motherly tenderness are inevitably bookmarked by elongated sequences of torture, rape, and murder.)

At the risk of repeating myself: Those horrible atrocities are not the full and fair reality of our world.

You cannot tell the story of the Santa Cruz massacre without mentioning Amy Goodman. You cannot tell the story of Black September without mentioning Marie Colvin. You cannot tell the story of Rwanda without mentioning Paul Rusesabagina. You cannot tell the story of the My Lai massacre without mentioning Hugh Thompson, Jr. And so on.

I’m not done with Game of Thrones, but I’m sick of its facile emotional exploitation. If a storyteller asks me to give up 30 hours of my life, I think I deserve a little more than crude manipulation and superficial reminders of how nasty people can be.

3 comments to The Pessimism of George RR Martin and the Inadequacy of Game of Thrones

  • Hey Mr. P

    To respond, I think it is more your approach to GoT, rather than GoT itself. When you watch GoT, you have a high rate of confirmation bias. You notice all the terrible and horrible things which happen because they are atypical in fantasy literature. What I think you fail to notice is the “scenes of compassion triumphing in small ways against hideous evil” because these are the norms for fantasy literature. Take, for example, Sam taking Gilly and her child to Mole’s town south of the wall. Ygritte finds them cowering in a cupboard during the wildling sack of the city and when she sees this mother cowering with her child, Ygritte takes pity on them and leaves them be. Or again when Jon Snow saves Ygritte’s life North of the Wall by not executing her as commanded. There are so many examples of this in GoT, you just have to look for them.

    These moments are what we have come to expect from fantasy literature, but expecting every character to always find a way out of the most difficult situations, no matter how certain his death is, well that’s wish fulfillment—not reality.

    The reality of our world is that war is a dangerous and horrible thing and the good guys sometimes die, especially when they do exceedingly foolish or stupid things. As the link I posted on your wall previously mentions, the characters who die have usually done something really, really stupid that resulted in their deaths. Because you seem to take the Mountain and the Viper as one of the worst offenses of this, I’ll deal with this one specifically.

    So let’s set the scene of the Mountain and the Viper quick and just for a moment, reverse the roles. Let’s say the Mountain is the “good guy” in this scene and the Viper is the “bad guy.” Now, if we were reading typical fantasy literature, what would we expect when the ‘hero’ is down and out, literally lying on his back defeated and instead of being sensible and finishing his opponent, the ‘villain’ starts to gloat or monologue? Well of course the hero will find some improbable, crazy way of succeeding and punishing the villain for his arrogance foolishness! And that’s what happens. Except, of course, we’ve reversed the roles. The point is that the Viper’s death wouldn’t have been considered crazy had the audience’s “good vs. evil” paradigm not been fixed so soundly before the fight, and THAT is what GRRM likes to do. He likes to upset your paradigms and show you that evil people can do smart and wise and good things and that good people can be arrogant and foolish and do evil things. To me, that’s not pessimistic. To me, that is a much truer reflection of reality than the story in which the hero always ends up winning, no matter how many mistakes he makes.

  • esp

    Dillon — you’re right that Sam taking Gilly to protection is an act of kindness. However, it is driven by romance. Did Martin object to the Vietnam War because his sweetheart was in danger? No — he objected to the nature of that war (and/or war itself), but such a viewpoint is utterly absent from his work.

    Frankly, I’m a bit insulted that you suggest that I’m looking for “every character to always find a way out of the most difficult situations”, or “the story in which the hero always ends up winning”. I wonder if perhaps I haven’t expressed myself well, or perhaps you’ve misread — accidentally or intentionally — my thesis. (In which case maybe I should have a talk with your high school English teacher.)

    Hamlet is a superb exploration of human motivations and integrity, in which everyone dies at the end. And yet Martin’s comparison of himself to Shakespeare is laughable, because the closest we EVER come to The Bard’s deep interrogation of human morality is a half-witted discussion between Tyrion and Jaime about some idiot who used to crush bugs all day. (Dude, WE’RE the bugs, man!) eye roll

    I appreciate your thoughts, but I remain thoroughly unconvinced that Martin DOES seek to affirm the dignity of the human spirit through his infinitesimal moments of humanity, nor that my approach is significantly at fault here. (I won’t deny my agency and position as a reader/viewer, but I take great care not to let those things overwhelm my perspective.

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you point out that Martin “likes to upset your paradigms”. Unfortunately, that’s not a sufficient impetus for a writer of grand epics, nor is it a satisfactory reason to confuse pessimism with realism.

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