Depending on who you ask, the fantasy genre is relatively new despite taking its cues from some of the most ancient and primal forms of storytelling. Fantasy is not so whimsical as fairy tales, not always so large-scale as mythology. While fantasy as a genre existed prior to Lord of the Rings, it found a concrete form in Tolkien’s world.
In the decades since, fantasy hardened into a deeply specific genre. Pop open any fantasy novel from the last twenty or thirty years, and you’ll likely find a prophesied-about hero, an evil magic-using villain versus plucky heroes, and a decisive victory against evil in a battle for realm-shaking stakes. The settings are fairly standard too: quasi-medieval with a European focus.
(This isn’t a criticism, by the way—you could say the same things about superhero stories).
Fantasy fans could probably name numerous exceptions to the description above, but that’s exactly what those are: exceptions. Ask any casual reader on the street, and the fantasy genre brings to mind Middle Earth, dragons, hobbits, dwarves, or Dungeons & Dragons. At least, that used to be the case.
Ask anyone now, and they’ll probably be thinking of Westeros.
How Game of Thrones Changed the Game
I reread the first book in A Song of Ice & Fire recently (i.e. Game of Thrones), and it struck me how exactly George R.R. Martin subverted the moral framework most fantasy novels operate in. Newcomers to Westeros will at first notice the gore, sex, nudity, and cruelty exhibited by its heroes and ‘villains’ alike. Compared to the chaste fun of The Hobbit or its followup trilogy, that’s certainly a large difference, but far from the most important one. After all, you could have gore, sex, and nudty in a Middle Earth clone and still have unambiguously good characters defeat unambiguously bad characters.
What also makes Game of Thrones (the book and the show) unique is its willingness to examine the contradictions in its own characters. The most popular example here is Jaime Lannister, an arrogant, selfish, murderous, and shallow man-child who attempts to murder a child in the first scenes of the story. The Hound, another seeming antagonist, does murder a kid. While the story redeems them both (sort of) a little later, both media examine what drives Jaime and the Hound and strip away their layers until the audience is uncomfortably rooting for the men later in the story. His inverse is Ned Stark, an honorable man whose mistakes and lies come to light long after the character is killed off.
But still, villains of depth and substance are not what makes Westeros unique.
No, what makes Westeros unique among the most well-known fantasy fiction is moral consequence, the idea that the characters’ decisions are able to make the world worse. “Uh, yeah dude—that’s not unique,” you might stay. “Literally every fantasy story has big stakes.” But how often do protagonists actually make decisions that make the world worse? Irreparably, irreversibly worse? That’s what I’m talking about here—the ability for characters to make the decision they think is best in the moment, and have it end badly all the same.
This is especially interesting when GRRM deploys a trope I call “the B Team” trope. The B Team trope is when a character openly recognizes that their position in the story is all wrong—that someone else should be driving the story.
It happens when Ned Stark considers his older brother Brandon, who was taller, stronger, better at fighting, and a more natural leader. Brandon was killed decades earlier by a tyrant. Keep in mind that Ned is speaking to his wife, who was originally meant to marry Brandon, the one she actually loved.
“‘It was all meant for Brandon. You, Winterfell, everything. He was born to be a King’s Hand and a father to queens. I never asked for this cup to pass to me.’ ‘Perhaps not,’ Catelyn said, ‘but Brandon is dead, and the cup has passed, and you must drink from it, like it or not.’”
Ned, in contrast to his brother, is described as short, quiet, and thoughtful. There’s a bit of a comedic image implied when the writer describes Ice, the Stark ancestral sword. Ice is enormous while Ned is short—meaning Ned can’t actually carry the sword like a regular sword. It’s ceremonial, like how much of his life feels.
That same sentiment passes onto Ned’s descendants. Jon comments that Robb (who, again, is taller, better looking, and better equipped for leadership) was born to be Lord of Winterfell. Anyone who’s watching the show knows that’s not how the story ends for either of them.
The Consequences of Victory
Let’s talk about a darker consequence. In the world of the story, Robert’s Rebellion was a ‘heroic’ fight against a homicidal ruler that brought peace to the land. Except, of course, that’s not the end of the story. Robert becomes a violent drunk and absentee ruler, the kingdom falls deeply into debt, and in fighting against the Mad King, Robert ends up killing the Mad King’s son—a man who might have actually been a much better ruler. Ned (who rebelled alongside Robert and is Robert’s best friend, mind you) reflects on this when he finds out that Robert fathered a number of illegitimate children.
“For the first time in years, [Ned] found himself remembering Rhaegar Targaryen. He wondered if Rhaegar had frequented brothels; somehow he thought not.”
Ned comes just short of admitting that they made a mistake, that the wrong ruler is on the throne. As the story continues, the reader learns that Rhaegar was wise, just, studious, poetic, compassionate, and empathetic regarding the needs of the people he ruled. He was in every way the ideal Arthurian ruler—and he’s killed by the violent alcoholic abuser because he’s on the wrong side of a conflict history got wrong.
While Ned doesn’t say they made a mistake, Robert isn’t shy about it. Three men led Robert’s Rebellion: Robert, Ned, and their mentor Jon. Ned and Jon were both responsible and dutiful rulers, but Robert was a distant relative of the royal family, which is the only reason he becomes king. Robert even says so:
“‘Damn you, Ned Stark. You and Jon Arryn, I loved you both. What have you done to me? You were the one should have been king, you or Jon.”
Robert isn’t wrong. As king, he’s done a poor job of providing for anyone but himself. He’s arguably a worse king than his predecessor, escaping the titlw only because he’s not wantonly murdering his subjects.
Not the World We’re Supposed to Live In
As the story progresses, the reader becomes increasingly aware that this is not the world we’re supposed to live in. Rhaegar should have been king. Ned should have been king. Robb should have been King in the North. Bran should have been a knight. Jon should have been a prince. Arya should have been a boy. Dany should have been happy. None of this was supposed to happen this way, and now the world is worse off for it.
What do we do with that?
Early in the story, Catelyn implores Ned to accept his fate precisely because it’s his. It doesn’s matter who was supposed to be here; Ned is the one here now, and he must make the best of it.
That’s perhaps the best lesson we can take from Game of Thrones. Maybe there is someone more qualified than us that should be in our shoes. Maybe we’re not the best choice for fulfilling the responsibility on our plates. Maybe our times call for better heroees, stronger people, firmer characters. None of that matters; you’re here, you’re the one who has to rise to the challenge, and you have to deal with it, come what may.
Ned doesn’t accept his role, and he pays for it with his life. Other characters recognize what the circumstances demand of them, and they move foward.
Maybe that’s how you win.