Why the cultural enchantment with Game of Thrones? The answer to this question reveals the dominant frame through which one assesses reality. The anticipation for the arrival of Season 7 of GOT begs the question: “Why this broad appeal?”
Ivan Dikov in the IntelligencerPost suggests that it is our enchantment with Feudalism. He assumes a political frame. In a world where chaos reigns and the horizon of transcendent meaning has been wiped away, he argues that we have “an insurmountable craving for being dominated by some sort of a ‘lord.’” Psychologically, chaos and anarchy breeds a desire for an authoritarian order. The logic behind Napoleon was Robespierre. Some have made a similar argument about Trump, i.e., rapid change breeds the need for populist authority.
But is it Feudalism that is the appeal behind the show or something perhaps even more sinister? The ersatz feudalism of GOT does not have the unified transcendent moral order of the late Middle Ages. The strong cohesive force of Christianity and the Church then held society together. This is not found in the GOT or in the A Song of Ice and Fire story line.
Ivan Dikov notes the difference in another post, “Middle Ages vs. Antiquity: What’s ‘Wrong’ with the ‘Game of Thrones’ / Song of Ice and Fire Universe?” He writes, “Martin has implied that Westeros is based on medieval Western Europe and its specific type of feudalism…. That type of feudalism, however, sprouted out of monotheistic Christianity, with the mighty Catholic Church as the intermediary between the humans dominated by their lords, and the single God.” Westeros, on the other hand, has the polytheistic religion of the Seven. But in spite of periodic tips of the hat to paganism, religion is not the animating force in the series. It is raw power. What is depicted here is a Nietzschean world of “will to power”—where violence, sexuality, and religion are merely pragmatic tools in its service.
The late University of Pennsylvania sociologist Philip Rieff argues that our social order is a reflection of our presumed sacred order. In this, the fantasy world of Westeros is less a reflection of the Middle Ages as of contemporary American society. Rieff argues that there are historically three kinds of culture: summarized by the words fate, faith, and fiction.
The first is pagan culture that includes ancient Athens to the enchanted mysticism of aboriginal Australia. Here the dominant cultural motif is fate. In GOT this is reflected in Essos and the Dothraki. Here the elites are conjurers whose magical powers seek to manipulate the gods to change fate.
The second is monotheistic culture derived from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but not exclusive to them. In this kind of culture the heart of the sacred is the character of the creator of the universe, from whom every living thing derives its being and significance. The dominant cultural motif is faith. This is the kind of world depicted in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, with its portrayal of Sir Thomas More. It should be abundantly clear that such a world is largely absent from GOT. Even John Snow, who is one of Martin’s finest creations, does not frame his leadership or moral choices on the basis of faith. He lives in a different world than Thomas More.
The third culture makes no claims of a world beyond or sources of authority beyond the self. Here is a world in which there is no truth and no sacred order, only fictions and the various rhetorics of power and self-interest. Here you do what you have to do in order to rule and you do so with few to no moral qualms. This represents a very different thought world from the first two kinds of culture. Its sacred order is a fiction. It is however familiar, as it is both Westeros and contemporary American society. And this makes Westeros particularly interesting, because such a world is in the words of Rieff “unprecedented in human history and consciousness.” We’ve never seen this before and we don’t know how it will turn out.
With the abandonment of the Enlightenment among the cultural elite is a parallel abandonment of classical liberalism. To be in a post-Enlightenment world is to be in a post-liberal world. We may have Democrats and Republicans, who like the warring factions of Westeros, compete to govern society. But in spite of lip service to God and country, its not lost on cynical millennial observers that all decisions and negotiations in modern politics are reduced to power. In principle, there is very little difference between the moral compasses of the two main parties.
The portrayal of Daenerys Targaryen as an abolitionist in the vein of Harriet Beecher Stowe is fanciful. With her aspirations of absolute monarchy and access to weapons of mass destruction (the three dragons), her crusade to free the slaves is merely a tactical manipulation to raise an army not based on some idealistic aspirations of human rights. Likewise, one suspects that there was more involved in the Clinton Foundation that good will and idealism. Likewise, Trump’s commissioning of the world’s largest aircraft carrier last weekend, the USS Gerald R. Ford, was not unlike the unveiling of the dragons.
What makes Game of Thrones interesting is not its fantasy portrayal of medieval Feudalism or ancient antiquity, but it’s fictionalized portrayal of the nightly news. We have a hunch that it does not end well. Since we’re collectively on uncharted terrain, it keeps us glued to the next episode.