Game of Thrones

No spoilers here, except to say I found the final series a bit of a let-down.

But it’s hard to see how it could have been otherwise, as what drove Game of Thrones through the previous seven series was its constant air of “one step forward, two steps back”: characters only got closer to what they wanted (usually power or revenge) through a sacrifice of equal or greater proportions, whether it was betrayal of someone close to them, the relinquishing of power for revenge (or revenge for power), or through some ordeal of pain or humiliation. And every gain had consequences. The series began some time after a king had been deposed and another put on his throne — a deceptively quiet point before a whole series of new consequences began. So any ending that didn’t feel it was just a pause before more complicated consequences began could only feel false. The whole point about Game of Thrones is that nothing is ever resolved.

Power is pretty much an inbuilt theme in fantasy. It’s there in every fairy tale that ends with its hero or heroine becoming a prince, princess, king or queen. Many of the best works of fantasy (The Lord of the Rings, A Wizard of Earthsea) are about the renunciation of power. Game of Thrones was, in a way, about the fact that renouncing power isn’t an option if you’re born into it — if you have it, you have to use it or be destroyed by those who want it.

I never binge-watched Game of Thrones (though I was often tempted to), but when each season ended, I always felt a certain relief. I loved some things about the show — the moreish storytelling, and the way it conjured that fatalistic, down-to-earth sword & sorcery feel, where notions of honour, loyalty, and a practical, grim humour were set against genuine villainy — but couldn’t help feeling a sort of moral grubbiness at the same time. This, I think, was because the show forced you to side with characters whose morals you didn’t agree with, but you’d end up siding with them just to find some refuge in the relative security of their power. At times — the Red Wedding, the Walk of Shame — the show actually seemed to be doing its best to traumatise its audience. I tended to watch it with a constant anxiety that they were going to kill off the few characters I’d been unable to prevent myself from caring about. Which, I suppose, meant it was doing something right, because I was caring about some of the characters.

This is what eight seasons of Game of Thrones does to you

Fantasy has always had a strong moral dimension. Conan could be brutal and disdainful, but he wasn’t, I don’t think, cynical. Instead, he was surrounded by people who were cynical (and civilised — cynicism going hand-in-hand with civilisation for Robert E Howard), who were there to highlight the brutal honesty of Conan’s own barbaric outlook. Michael Moorcock’s Elric is the first sword & sorcery hero I can think of who was cast as an antihero — he betrayed his own people, letting them be slaughtered because they’d ousted him as Emperor, in a very Game of Thrones-style move — but for most of the stories, though he was tragic and fatalistic, he’d generally act morally. (Though I haven’t read any Elric for a while, so I may be wrong.)

Magic, and the hands-on influence of the gods, was minimal in Game of Thrones, and when it did appear it was either one more aspect of the human desire for power (as with the Red Priestess), or it represented the only thing that trumped the human desire for power, the ever-encroaching onslaught of doom (as embodied by climate change — I mean the White Walkers). Game of Thrones owes a lot more to Renaissance tragedy and Shakespearean history plays than, say, Lord of the Rings. The show was about the Machiavellian messiness of how humans wield power — i.e., badly — without any help, one way or the other, from gods or magic. (And speaking of Shakespearean history, much as I enjoyed Game of Thrones, I thought Wolf Hall outdid it on virtually every count, and it, being based on history, didn’t need gods or magic. Religion, yes; but actual gods, no.)

It’s tempting to draw some sort of lesson from the fact that the previous sword & sorcery TV show that was a worldwide success was Xena: Warrior Princess, which was everything Game of Thrones wasn’t: hardly anyone ever got killed (it was the sort of show where baddies, once they’d been thoroughly trounced, scrambled to their feet and ran off), the main characters were all clearly good people (though Xena herself was a redeemed baddie), and the themes were friendship and understanding. Its best episodes, in my opinion, were the straight-out comedies, where humour (usually slapstick and farce) saved it from being schmaltzy. It could, at times, be genuinely heartwarming. Game of Thrones could never be described, I don’t think, as heartwarming, and its comedy was more along the lines of a grim and fatalistic joke punctuated by someone’s violent death, or just lots of swearing.

But I don’t think you can draw that lesson, if only because to do so you’d have to prove the last five years of the 20th century were presided over by a Xena-esque heartwarming sense of humanity. It was probably as Machiavellian, and as heartwarmingly human, as nowadays — as humanity has always been. Xena escaped the tangles of Game of Thrones because Xena was a superhero — both morally good and more powerful than almost anyone else — which is the only way to escape any genuine complications related to power. And it’s good to have the Xena-like examples to strive for, but you also need, alas, those Game of Thrones-style reminders of what people are really like, too.

Tolkien

I was almost put off going to see this biopic because of Mark Kermode’s review, which made it sound like nothing more than a series of crudely-drawn parallels between Tolkien’s life and his work. But I found the film far more subtle than that, perhaps because I already knew those parallels — the way the Fellowship of the Ring could be seen as owing something to Tolkien’s close friendships with his fellows in the “Tea Club and Barrovian Society”, for instance, which only ended with their deaths in the First World War, or the obvious influence of the war itself. The way that dark figures like dragons and Black Riders form from the smoke, fire and devastation of a First World War battlefield — as seen through a trench-fevered Tolkien’s eyes — wasn’t just a nice touch, I thought it was the whole point of the film.

(It even managed to convince me of one more parallel, though I don’t know how factually accurate it might be: as the fevered Tolkien searches the trenches for his friend, Geoffrey Smith, he’s made to seem like a ring-weary Frodo being supported by his Sam Gamgee-like batman, Private Sam Hodges, struggling through Mordor.)

I think part of the trouble any Tolkien biopic will have is that the image we (I, anyway) have of him is as an old, betweeded, pipe-smoking don, mumbling to himself in Elvish and very much not writing about women. It’s a point emphasised by Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, where, once Tolkien is ensconced as a professor at Oxford about a third of the way into that book, Carpenter says: “And after this, you might say, nothing else really happened.” And it’s the “nothing else really happened” Tolkien I tend to think of. The fact that Tolkien was, at one time, passionate about changing the world, and deeply in love with the woman he married — the fact that he was, at one time, a young man — seems difficult to grasp, so any film of his life can’t help but feel an exaggeration or romanticisation. (This film surely owes a lot to John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War, much more so, I’d think, than the Carpenter biography.)

But biopics have to work as stories at the same time as they’re serving as biographies, and Tolkien is an origin story, not a full biography. It’s about the experiences that led up to the writing of The Lord of the Rings — or, rather, The Hobbit, because it ends with him writing the famous opening sentence to that book. I think, overall, the film makes a good artistic point about the formation of Tolkien as a writer, and though by no means a definitive biopic — I really wanted to see Tolkien at the end of his life, bothered by hippies turning up on his lawn, brandishing copies of the Ballantine paperback whose cover he hated — it was certainly more than the TV movie style box-ticking exercise Mark Kermode implied.

Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair

This 2006 book from Wordsworth Editions reprints May Sinclair’s 1923 collection of the same name, plus one other long story, “The Intercessor” (from The English Review, July 1911), the first ghost story Sinclair wrote, and certainly the best included here.

Sinclair (1863–1946) was already an established novelist when she brought out Uncanny Stories, having been writing since 1891. She combined an interest in psychology (being a founding supporter of the first medical institute in Britain to offer psychoanalysis as a treatment) with parapsychology (joining the Society for Psychical Research in 1914), as well as being a suffragist and an early proponent of Modernism (she was the first to use the phrase “stream of consciousness” to describe the literary technique). Her grisly murder story “The Victim” (included in Uncanny Stories) was published by T S Eliot in the first edition of his magazine, The Criterion (in October 1922), alongside “The Waste Land”.

“The Intercessor” is a powerful story of a household in rural Yorkshire haunted by the death of a child. The narrator, Garvin, is in the area writing a county history, and his one stipulation is lodgings without children. Directed to the Falshaw farmhouse, he’s annoyed on the first night to hear a child’s sobs:

“…it was hardly a crying, a sobbing, a whimpering rather, muffled by closed doors. The wonder was how it could have waked him; the sound was so distant, so smothered, so inarticulate.”

The Falshaws — a stoic farmer, his pregnant wife, and their grown-up niece — are a grim, closemouthed bunch, with Mrs Falshaw in particular treating their paying guest as though it’s predetermined he’ll soon want to leave. Garvin at first assumes the cries are from a child who has been locked into the small room opposite his own in an effort to comply with his not wanting any children about. It cries every night at the same time:

“There was no petulance in it and no anger; it had all the qualities of a young child’s cry, except the carnal dissonances and violences. The grief it uttered was too profound and too persistent, and, as it were, too pure; it knew none of the hot-blooded throes, the strangulated pauses, the lacerating resurgences of passion. At times it was shrill, unbroken, irremediable; at times it was no more than a sad sobbing and whimpering, stifled…”

In contrast to the Falshaws’ dour uncommunicativeness, this crying feels like a desperate expression of all the sad coldness at the heart of this tragic but inarticulate household. Soon, Garvin sees the “child”, and even feels it climbing into his bed to sleep at night.

In contrast to, say, M R James’s ghost stories, which are all about the horror of the spook, and revel in its weird and demonic nature, Sinclair’s ghosts are human things, giving voice as much to the anguish of the living as the tragedy of their own demise. They return not for revenge, or to punish the living, but often simply to be acknowledged, even listened to (at least one of Sinclair’s ghosts delivers a lecture on how the afterlife works, but the more powerful, like the Falshaw child, are pure emotion). Sinclair takes her ghost stories beyond the point where James would end them (the moment the thing is revealed), into having her characters understand and resolve the ghost’s torment (and, usually, their own).

In a very un-Jamesian way, that torment is mostly about love. Sinclair’s fiction, though, isn’t generally sentimental. Love, in these tales, is tangled with guilt (over the transference of love from a dead wife to her successor, for instance, in “The Nature of the Evidence”), or control (a mother’s smothering influence in “If the Dead Knew”), or is stifled, unrequited or poorly expressed (as in “The Token”, where a young wife lingers after death for a sign that her stoic husband truly loved her). And sex, in Sinclair’s stories, just complicates things (as in “Where their Fire is not Quenched”, a bleak vision of an afterlife in which a woman whose one consummated affair was with a man she soon found boring, but she has to live and relive that affair forever after death).

The longest tale here, “The Flaw in the Crystal” (originally published as a separate novella in 1912), is not a ghost story, but a tale of psychic powers. Agatha Verrall has moved to a house in the remote countryside so she can receive weekend visits from her lover, the married Rodney Lanyon. She has an inner link to a “Power”, a gift that allows her, somehow, to extend a circle of psychic protection around people, and to heal them, or at least keep them free of illness (mental illness, anyway) while she holds them in this way. She knows, though, that this gift works best with a very light touch, and an assumed indifference, even though it’s the people she loves that she uses it on — at first, anyway. But when the Powells, a couple she’s acquainted with, move near because of the husband Harding Powell’s bouts of paranoia, Agatha extends her gift to include him. At first it works, and she makes the mistake of telling the wife, Milly, what she’s done. Milly tells Harding, and he, though a staunch non-believer, comes to expect Agatha’s protection. When Agatha realises that the protection she’s so far been giving her lover, Rodney, is waning because of this, she finds herself having to fight for control of her gift from the strong-willed Harding.

Sinclair herself was an atheist, but there’s an evident belief in some sort of afterlife in these stories, as well as, in “The Flaw in the Crystal”, a “Power” behind it all. In this novella, Harding Powell’s utterly unbelieving worldview starts to seep into Agatha’s own:

“Harding’s abominable vision of the world, that vision from which the resplendent divinity had perished…”

It’s quite a heavy going story at times, being tangled so much in the abstractions of Agatha’s inner world, and the mental battles she has with Harding for control of her “gift”. Sinclair’s writing is at its best, perhaps, in “The Victim”, whose protagonist (a thick-accented chauffeur with an uncontrollable temper) is mostly seen from the outside rather than (as with Agatha Verrell) so intensely from within. Some of her stories rely on someone coming forward to explain the reason for the haunting and so resolve it (“The Token”, “If the Dead Knew”, “The Victim”), but the more powerful ones dramatise the emotion behind it rather than the reason (“Where their Fire is not Quenched”, for instance), while “The Intercessor” attains the best balance between these approaches, to deliver an emotional wallop of an ending, which feels, oddly, at once redemptive and bleak.

For someone writing supernatural fiction at a time when Freud’s ideas were beginning to be known (which, as Julia Briggs suggested in Night Visitors, marked the beginning of the end for the popularity the ghost story had been enjoying since Dickens’s day), there’s a real feeling of psychological depth to Sinclair’s tales, and although they may have been influenced to some degree by Freud (the title of Uncanny Stories, for instance), I feel, reading them, that her understanding is definitely her own, and far more nuanced than a merely derivative take on Freud’s ideas could have served up. The most successful tales, dealing with the inequality of love in relationships, or of the very human horrors of emotional neglect, certainly transcend any merely psychological reading to become powerful dramas.

“The Intercessor” is the must-read story here. It was adapted (very faithfully) by Alan Plater (who I mostly know for his quirky comedy The Beiderbecke Affair from 1985) for the ITV Shades of Darkness anthology series (in 1983). (Which is how I first heard about May Sinclair, via a post on the Wyrd Britain blog, which has a link to the Shades of Darkness episode on YouTube.)

You can read “The Flaw in the Crystal” at Gutenberg, and I have “The Intercessor” as an ebook on my free ebooks page. You can learn more about May Sinclair herself at the May Sinclair Society’s site.