While I am a fan of the fantasy genre, I only recently saw the first few episodes of Game of Thrones. One reason for this is purely practical—I am not willing to add to my already ridiculous cable bill by adding a premium channel, so I waited for it to become available via Netflix. A more substantial reason is that when my friends who watched it spoke of the series, they gushed about the grittiness and enthused over the evil of most of the characters. The plot also struck me as a bit like Desperate Housewives, only with swords and dire wolves. However, the appalling lack of fantasy and sci-fi content on television drove me watch the series. It was pretty much as I had expected, given the extensive descriptions provided by my friends.
Naturally, I am well-aware that aesthetic taste is similar in many ways to one’s taste in food: what one finds too bland, another finds too spicy. I am also mature enough to recognize that what I dislike might be liked (even loved) by others and that there might be merit in such things. Of course, I do not subscribe to an aesthetic subjectivism so I do not accept that aesthetic discussions end after one has expressed one’s like or dislike. As such, I will endeavor to present a rough discussion of fantasy and evil.
To set the stage a bit in regards to my own biases, my love of fantasy was shaped primarily by writers like Tolkien and by games like AD&D. Roughly put, my views have been shaped by heroic fantasy. While such fantasy worlds do contain evil (such as Sauron and Orcus), the evil is of a rather different sort than that of Game of Thrones. In Game of Thrones, the evil of classic fantasy is wedded to (or raped by) perversion, depravity and other such horrors that are seen as making evil “gritty and real.” This is, of course, not limited to this series. The idea of presenting evil characters in this manner is rather common, and occurs in other HBO series (such as True Blood) and fiction.
One problem, as I see it, is that Game of Thrones breaks the rules of the fantasy genre by presenting and seemingly glorying in this sort of evil. This, as I noted above, was one reason I resisted watching the series (and reading the books).
There are two easy and obvious replies to this alleged problem. First, heroic fantasy is but one of the many legitimate sub-genres within the fantasy genre. While the genre does require fantasy elements to be present (one cannot have a fantasy work without at least some minimal elements of magic), it can be argued that there is no moral requirement in regards to a work being a proper fantasy work. Obviously, this series is not heroic fantasy, but it seems sensible to say that it is still quite legitimately fantasy. After all, it does include the seemingly supernatural others/white walkers (unless they are actually non-magical aliens or something) and the technology is at the sword and bow level.
Second, the evil portrayed in the series is obviously taken from the real world. As such, the work does nicely meet Aristotle’s view that the characters and actions should be such that they conform to what is probable. As Aristotle argued, what has occurred is obviously possible. It could even be argued that this series and others that embrace gritty realism are better than the more classic works because they are more realistic. This could form the basis of a counter attack, namely that heroic fantasy is defective because presents the characters (humans, at least) in a way that is improbable (that is, being mostly heroic and good rather than mostly depraved and evil).
One response to this argument is that fantasy works by their very nature need to break with reality. After all, if they were strictly realistic, they would cease to be fantasy. As such, by presenting humans in what is taken to be “gritty and real”, a work is failing to be a work of fantasy and instead is realism, only with a monster or two thrown in to create the appearance of fantasy.
This raises the obvious concern about what sort of realism a fantasy work should include and what it should reject. While traditional fantasy typically rejects much of the reality of evil, it can be argued that this merely defines that sort of sub-genre rather than defining the entire genre. As such, a work can be very realistic in some ways, provided that it contains at least the necessary conditions for being a work of fantasy. In the case of Game of Thrones, it can wallow in evil while also being legitimate fantasy.
While I obviously prefer my fantasy with less evil (or at least with less of the sorts of evil in the series), I must concede that the inclusion of such evil is obviously compatible with the fantasy genre, though obviously not with the traditional heroic fantasy. Interestingly, I have been told that my own preference for classic heroic fantasy shows that I am lacking in maturity and adult sensibilities. That is, it is a defect on my part to not prefer the gritty realism and evil of Game of Thrones to works like The Lord of the Rings. My own self-righteous reply is that I have a preference for good over evil, which brings me to a second point, namely the matter of corruption.
In Book X of the Republic Plato argues that art presents a terrible danger because it appeals to the emotions and encourages people to give in, in harmful ways, to these emotions. For example, someone who watches works filled with lust and violence might become more inclined to yield to lust and violence in real life because of the corrupting power of art. This is, of course, the foundation for most censorship arguments. Lest anyone think I favor censorship, I do not.
While I have known about Plato’s arguments for years, I found them unconvincing until I happened to play Grand Theft Auto III. Unlike the usual violent games I had played, GTA III casts the player as a bad person doing bad things for bad reasons. I am not sure how many police cars I had burning in the street or how many hookers I had killed before I could actually feel the corrupting influence of the game. I dropped the controller, popped out the disk and never played that sort of game again. I did, however, continue to play violent video games.
When thinking about Game of Thrones and similar works in the context of my old GTA III experience, I knew that it was not the violence that bothered me. After all, I enjoy violent video games, I play Pathfinder and I like fantasy novels that are replete with battle. In the case of Game of Thrones (GT), my analysis is roughly the same as that I made of GTA III.
In heroic fantasy, the heroes are trying to save the world by fighting evil. There is, as such, a clear moral purpose, even though violence is the usual means to the moral end. In the case of Game of Thrones, there is considerable focus on characters doing bad things for their own selfish ends, or (in some cases) simply because they are psychotically evil. So, in heroic fantasy, the heroes are acting in the right way towards the right persons for the right reasons. In the “gritty and realistic” works, the characters typically act in the wrong way towards the wrong people for the wrong reasons. As one might gather, I find this overabundance of evil unappealing and I am concerned that exposure to such material can (as Plato argued) have a corrupting influence on people. After all, what people watch and experience shapes their cogitative processes and being exposed to an unrelenting tide of virtual evil would seem to have an impact on people. Interestingly, Katharine Llyod makes a similar argument regarding the corrupting influences of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Gray.
Since I am a proponent of freedom of expression, I always feel rather odd arguing against authors doing as they wish in terms of the ethics they present in their works. However, I have never held that artists are exempt from morality (which, I am sure, would be vigorously argued against by someone like Oscar Wilde). I do, as might be suspected, agree with Aristotle that “things are censured either as impossible, irrational, morally hurtful, contradictory, or contrary to artistic correctness.” But, Game of Thrones is currently the only game in town, so I watch, though I probably should not.