Friday, 22 June 2012

Laurie Penny wrong about Game of Thrones and Kingship

It is true that Laurie Penny annoys me and I thought I had done well not to read anything she had written since her awful article about Remembrance day glorifying war which I wrote about in November. Yet as I read Richard Morris' article on Jimmy Carr's tax avoidance I found myself opening up this article on Game of Thrones and Good Kingship (for want of a better word.)
It has already raised my wrath for two reasons.

1./ I burnt the bacon for my breakfast which I had so been looking forward to.

2./ She is writing a populist pseudo Marxist piece about Medieval Kingship and fantasy fiction and applying modern liberal/socialist beliefs on a period where they aren't applicable.

Day two of my under graduate History we were told:

Do not judge historical events or people by your modern standards

Remember this as it is a reoccurring theme throughout this essay.

Firstly, let’s look at Game of Thrones.

Now the hole in my argument is that I've not seen the series as I am not able to afford sky and I fear if I bought the DVD I'd be watching it after my daughter went to bed and my wife out which doesn't happen often. However a few of my friends who have read the books and watched the Series have told me that there is a lot more graphic sex in the series and even a reoccurring Prostitute character has been developed just for the show. Now I'm not going to comment on the greater rise of graphic sex and violence in TV as I only watch documentaries, Comedies and Kids TV with Sophie.

I will however dispute the accusation of Literary simplicity that has been levelled. Pasternak and Goethe it is not but neither is the "Song of Ice and fire" a trashy popularist paperback with no depth or discernible plot laden with gratuitous sex and violence. If it was they wouldn't be on book Six (book 3 and 5 coming in two parts) each of around 800 pages!

The setting of Westeros does absorb locations and characteristics of real historical groups and peoples. The example she uses of the selling of a thirteen year old Daenerys to the Dothkari horse lord (clearly based on marauding Mongolian or Hun tribes) for the support of his army and the subsequent rape basis of their marriage's early days. This is not a racial stereotype, merely a look at what nomadic eastern tribes at the time of Attila were like.
Well I hate to break it to you but the Middle ages were full of this sort of thing however abhorrent we find this now it is a fact that women were objects to be traded as property for strategic marriages and hostages (in the case of Daenerys) and trained to be courtly good wives for marriages to strengthen alliances (in the case of Sansa). Now I don't like it anymore than you do but that's our modern morals, Edward I would have no qualms with it.
Though to be fair to the series there are some strong female characters. *Spoiler Alert* Danerys becomes queen of the Dothkari and leads her Khal across a continent and conquers the Slave cities, Catelyn struggles with looking after her family through the ravages of the war, Arya fights to survive, Brienne fighting to be seen as an equal in a Man's world as a chivalric Knight. These women are not token characters nor marginalised and despite the Medieval style Social rules these characters rise above.
Ms Penny's article is somewhat generalises the characters and their characteristics. Yes it is true that the Stark's are heavily steeped in the Chivalric ideals and that they don't seem to have any discernible flaws but for that you need to look at the patriarch of the house and the isolation of Winterfell in the North from the Capitol at King's Landing. It is also true that the Lannister's are unscrupulous cunning game players however as you read the books you come across villains and heroes on both sides - *Spoiler Alert!!!* The Bolton's of the Dreadfort have a symbol of the Flayed man as their sigil for a reason. Where as in the South you have Brienne of Tarth, Lord Beric Dondarrion, Renly Baratheon...

The fact is that the Medieval world was full of this sort of brutal politics and vying for power. Look at the War of the Roses with family's like the Percy's backing each side and being courted by different contenders for the throne with land and marriages and people like Earl Warwick the Kingmaker. it was a period of horrific regicide and murder of the populous.
We like that Knights were all chivalric in the same way as the Starks of Winterfell but in reality they were more often the ones you took to war were like Gregor Clegane or Amory Lorch. Brutal murderers who held no respect for another's rank or whether there were civilians or not. There is a scene in "Clash of Kings" where Ser Gregor's men torture and murder an entire village looking for riches and information on the rebel Lord Dondarrion. This is not uncommon - the Black Prince had to intervene whilst on campaign in Spain when the King at the time, Pedro the Cruel, was going to butcher an entire village for having fed and watered the enemy forces as well as all his prisoners. Indeed in the book there is also the observation that when the Lords play their Game of thrones it is the small folk that suffer and this is shown in great detail within the series. For many in the books, as well as in the Medieval period, it didn't matter who was on the throne as the daily life of the "agrarian workers" as she puts it didn't change and was aimed at merely surviving. There is no point in putting on the Marxist structure of the Oppressed and the Oppressor this era. I know that Marx has his theory of the five states of society but it is not much more than a theory. Also the people did not necessarily think of themselves as oppressed, except those from Kent who followed Watt Tyler or Jack Cade and basically tried to survive and the Liege Lords and Monarchs cared naught for them as long as they paid their taxes and tithes as well as answering the call to arms when they were summoned and why should they?
The Warfare is brutal and described as such with loss of limbs, eye gouging, lance shattering, murder of prisoners... All far too common. At the battle of Towton more of the Lancastrian army were slain in the rout and cut down where they fled than during the actual battle! Being Chivalric wasn't always the best way to be.

To quote the Song of Ice and Fire on the highly chivalric Prince Rhaegar;

Rhaegar fought valiantly, Rhaegar fought nobly, Rhaegar fought honourably and Rhaegar died

If anything the series is a grittier (and I want to say more realistic) look at the Medieval world and fantasy rather than the more sterile but equally entertaining "Lord of the Rings" and the old style of Fantasy that romanticised. The "Racist-Rape culture" that she talks about is unfortunately where we, the human race (especially in Europe) have come from and people find that interesting. You cannot judge the past on today's morals, for them that was the norm and behaviour we think is awful was ok.

Medieval Kingship could be a swift and brutal period of one's life. To be a King you had to navigate the tides and eddies and keep your lords under close supervision knowing who was on your side and who was plotting against you. Good kings like Edward I and III had mastered it and were good to the common man through their Lords and knights. Other kings like Richard II, Edward II and Henry VI never coped or ruled with an autocratic belief that "I am King, you will obey my will." All these kings didn't last long and they ended up dead and in the case of Edward (hot poker up him) and Henry (beaten and stabbed before taking a dive down the stairs in the Tower of London) in a very nasty way. To be a successful Monarch was indeed an art form and Machiavelli was very accurate in his writings on the subject.

I'm also a Republican and don't see the need for a constitutional Monarch as ultimately they don't serve a purpose and yes they are descended from those brutal enough or clever enough to navigate the tempest that was Monarchy over the last two millennia but times have changed and now the Monarch is almost like tradition rather than a ruler. Lets not generalise though, had a Monarch survived sixty years on the throne in the Middle Ages and not been killed by disease or more pointedly by his Lords and knights then there really is cause to celebrate.

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