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.

Stranger Things

Stranger Things season 1 poster by Kyle Lambert

Although the most obvious (and avowed) influences on Stranger Things are the early works of Steven & Stephen (Spielberg and King), I think the real core of the show’s success comes from a less obvious direction, and one not rooted in the show’s celebrated evocation of the 1980s. Because, for me, the impact of Stranger Things comes not from nostalgia but from its depiction of childhood, both as a time of extreme vulnerability to the darker forces of the world (as experienced to the greatest degree by the characters of Will and Eleven), and of imaginative engagement in the world’s wonder & strangeness (the D&D boys, whose Dungeons-and-Dragoning has perfectly prepared them to deal with a world of monsters, parallel dimensions, and mind-powered super-kids). Innocence, in our post-Game of Thrones era of TV where cynical, self-interested characters are the norm, and are often the shows’ heroes, is a very rare quality, perhaps because it’s so difficult to do convincingly (without lapsing into sentiment or mere victimhood, for instance). But when it is done convincingly — and when it’s brought face-to-face with real darkness — it has genuine power. The most obvious recent example I can think of, and the thing that feels, to me, closest in many ways to Stranger Things’ success (including its reliance on a very talented young cast), is the Harry Potter films.

This is perfectly brought out by another Netflix series, the German-made Dark (from 2017), which at times seems like it was created as a result of someone describing Stranger Things (perhaps down a crackly phone line) to Werner Herzog in one of his more sombre moods. It contains many of the same elements of Stranger Things: missing children, a small-town setting, a sinister government scientific establishment where science-fictional experiments seem to be going on, a link to the 1980s (Dark opens in the present, but some episodes are set in the 80s, and there’s a strong generational link to that decade), supernatural travel between two realms, flickering electric lights, abandoned railway tracks through woodland, and your by-now-standard emotionally damaged police detectives. But whatever the similarities, the differences in tone are polar. Dark, for instance, has plenty of montage sequences in which we see various characters isolated in states of lonely misery, with the occasional couple hugging in a desperate need for solace, all backed by the more dour kind of pop song. (Stranger Things does do this, when a body is removed from the quarry lake and Peter Gabriel’s version of “Heroes” plays in the background. But Dark seems to do it at least once an episode, and not as a moment of dramatic climax, more as a feeling that this, in the world of Dark, is what daily life feels like.)

Dark (which, at the moment, I still haven’t finished watching, so it may change) is all about how people are fundamentally isolated from one another, and how everyone picks up dark secrets and emotional wounds as they enter adult life, which further isolate them and undermine their attempts at relationships. Stranger Things (which I’ve now watched twice through in the time it’s taken me to get halfway through Dark) is about the complete opposite: how facing darkness can bring people together, and how the way to overcome the darkness is, ultimately, to break through the barriers of isolation and make human connections (most obviously, for instance, in Eleven’s learning to trust other people after her horrendous upbringing at the Hawkins National Laboratory, but also in the way memories of kindness are used to break through the Shadow Monster’s control of Will in season 2). Stranger Things’ catchphrase is, after all, “Friends don’t lie.” I’m not sure if Dark has a catchphrase. It’s a show that’s more about silence; perhaps its image of dead birds falling from the sky would serve.

Having said that, I do think Stranger Things’ darkness is properly convincing. On first watching it, my initial impression was that someone had made a list of all their favourite scenes from 70s and 80s horror and kids’ adventure movies, particularly of the Spielbergian variety, and arranged them into a workable story. But then I realised the show’s creators were using those scenes’ existing associations to give them an interesting twist, usually taking them in a more disturbing direction. Even when the reference seems just a subtle joke — as when Mike, Lucas and Dustin dress Eleven in a blonde wig, echoing the way, in ET, Eliot’s sister dresses ET in a blonde wig — it can’t help adding an emotional resonance. ET in a wig is funny because it’s a ridiculous image; Eleven in a wig underlines the fact that she’s been treated throughout her young life as somewhat less than a human being (her shaved head and number tattoo have obvious associations with Nazi concentration camps), which has left her as much an alien in our world as ET was. There’s a palpable sense that, in looking through Mike’s sister’s bedroom, or being dressed in a play-box blonde wig, she’s been given a tiny glimpse of the upbringing she was denied.

The sort of darker twist I mean can be seen in another ET parallel. In Spielberg’s film, when Eliot’s mother comes home while Eliot is showing the alien his Star Wars toys, Eliot has ET hide in the closet, which becomes a joke when his mother looks in the closet, sees ET, and assumes he’s just another toy. In Stranger Things, when Mike and El are at Mike’s house (he’s showing her his Star Wars toys) and his mother comes home, Mike has El hide in the closet but she’s terrified, as it reminds her of the isolation cell her “Poppa” Dr. Brenner would lock her in if she didn’t do what he wanted. The scene feels that much darker for being an echo of ET’s light comedy.

The best parallel, for me, was another ET swipe, when the kids, reunited after the first season’s quarrels, are escaping from the “bad men” of Hawkins National Laboratory on their bikes. In the equivalent scene in ET, when it looks like the kids are finally cornered, ET uses his powers to lift them into the air so they can fly away, still pedalling. It’s the film’s signature wonder-moment. In Stranger Things, a much more down-to-earth and practical El lifts an oncoming government van and throws it at their pursuers. ET is an alien temporarily stranded on our world; El is a young girl forced to become a weapon by government “bad men”.

The theme of innocence brought up against darkness is at the heart of many of my favourite films, and certainly the ones that affect me the most, including Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and the more recent book & film of A Monster Calls. (Another favourite, Amelie, contains no supernatural darkness, but is still about an innocent, in this case a young woman facing the much more mundane darkness of loneliness. In fact, Alien is about the only one of my top favourite films I can’t fit into the innocence-versus-darkness theme, but perhaps that’s because it’s even more primal, being about sheer survival.) Anyway, Stranger Things (seasons 1 & 2) certainly grabbed me in the same way, and I hope it manages to keep some of that innocence going in future seasons.

The Belgariad by David Eddings

Asked what he and his co-author wife Leigh had brought to the fantasy genre (in an interview by David J Howe for Dreamwatch magazine in March 1999), Eddings’ reply now seems about 180 degrees off target:

“Quite probably, our major contribution has been gritty reality. Our people get hungry; after a week of strenuous activity, they stink; they do argue with each other; the boy-people do notice the girl-people (and the girl-people notice them right back.) We tried our best to ignore Alfred Lord Tennyson and Tolkien and to return to Malory—which is where the good stuff is.”

Compared to the likes of Game of Thrones, “gritty reality” The Belgariad most certainly ain’t. Its characters may sweat and bicker, but none of the main ones die, and nor are they ever in any serious danger of doing so. All the good characters, though lightly flawed, are clearly good, and basically get on with each other. Only the clearly-telegraphed villain-types ever stab anyone in the back, and they get their comeuppance right away. Even the comparison to Malory is stretching it, as The Belgariad has nothing like the moment in Le Morte Darthur when King Arthur dies and suddenly all that’s good and noble goes out of the world, leaving it nothing but a bloody battlefield strewn with dead or dying knights being looted by opportunistic peasants. In The Belgariad, things go wrong only to be, at the end, set right back to how they were at the start — if not better.

Pawn of Prophecy, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

Eddings admired Tolkien (fondly calling him “Poppa Tolkien” in interviews, and including The Lord of the Rings on the syllabus of a lecture course on “The Modern Novel” he gave while teaching in the 1960s — see this article for some interesting insights into Eddings’ teaching days), but — particularly now we have the Peter Jackson films, whose success and style paved the way for Game of Thrones — it’s hard to judge The Belgariad as “gritty reality” compared to Tolkien’s harrowing epic of endurance in the face of overwhelming despair, or his insistence that power can corrupt even the noblest of souls. There are no serious betrayals in The Belgariad, and the series’ five book quest is hardly harrowing, its central character, the boy Garion, being pretty much constantly in the company of his super-sorcerer guardians, along with a solid cadre of highly capable helpers, to protect and guide him every step of the way.

What Eddings probably meant by “gritty reality” is that his characters, far more than Tolkien’s and Malory’s, come across as very ordinary. They bicker, they complain, they have a sense of humour, they make friends with one another, and they remain friends. The thing that really powers the books is the gentle everydayness of their emotional lives — in particular the boy Garion’s relationships with his Aunt Polgara and Grandfather Belgarath (both, in fact, age-old sorcerers whose relationship to him, though genuine, is far more distant), and his mostly comic romance with the Tolnedran Imperial Princess Ce’Nedra. Garion is, perhaps unlike any prior teenager at the centre of a world-saving fantasy epic, a real-seeming adolescent, given to moodiness, sulks, and stubbornness, as well as occasional bursts of good sense.

Queen of Sorcery, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

(The same goes for Ce’Nedra, and if The Belgariad does have a claim to have made an advance in the fantasy genre, it may be that it contains more interesting, active, and real-seeming female characters than the commercial fantasy epics that came before it. It’s no feminist landmark, but it certainly outdoes Tolkien and Malory, as well as Donaldson and Brooks, in this respect.)

Even Eddings’ millennia-old sorcerers — on the good side, at least — make sure we know that, deep down, they’re basically ordinary folks. After every grand gesture or (brief) moment of high poetry, someone says something to deflate the situation, to bring it back to normal, to let us know the characters know they’re putting it on:

“Dost thou question my word, Sir Knight?” Mandorallen returned in an ominously quiet voice. “And wilt thou then come down and put thy doubt to the test? Or is it perhaps that thou wouldst prefer to cringe doglike behind thy parapet and yap at thy betters?”

“Oh, that was very good,” Barak said admiringly.

Magician’s Gambit, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

If it’s comparable to anything, I’d say The Belgariad is most similar to Star Wars. Begun in about 1979, and published between 1982 and 1984, its five books came out mostly in the years between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and Garion’s learning to harness his burgeoning sorcerous abilities is strongly reminiscent of Luke Skywalker’s coming into his powers as a Jedi. The Belgariad’s “Will and the Word” is pretty much identical to the Force: only a few (Jedi/Sorcerers) can do it, and it’s all about imposing one’s will via mind-force on the world. Even the way Belgarath teaches Garion to do it — by having him move a big rock — is similar to Yoda’s getting Luke to try levitating his beswamped X-Wing.

But the main thing that makes the two so similar — apart from their huge success, of course — is the way both made no bones about their blatant reliance on basic templates from myth and fairy tale. Both Luke and Garion start out as orphaned farm-boys who come to learn that they have royal/Imperial connections and sorcerous power, and that their family history is deeply tied up in long-term world/galactic conflicts between good and evil. As Eddings says in his introduction to The Rivan Codex:

“I planted more mythic fishhooks in the first couple of books of the Belgariad than you’ll find in any sporting goods store.”

Castle of Wizardry, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

Inevitably, The Belgariad has come under a lot of criticism. One man’s archetype is another’s cliché, and anyone who didn’t fall under the series’ spell tended to be affronted by its commercial success and accused it of being nothing but a cynical rehash of genre clichés. (As also happened with Star Wars.) And it’s hard to argue against this, The Belgariad is so nakedly archetypal. Its fantasy world is nothing but a grab-bag of characteristic historical eras (in an interview with Stan Nicholls, Eddings called it “dropping three or four aeons of western European culture into a blender”), with its equivalent of Imperial Romans (Tolnedra) peacefully coexisting with Norman-era French (Arendia), Vikings (Cherek), Cossacks (Algaria), and a sort of overheated Weird Tales version of Ancient Egypt (Nyissa). (The ghost-haunted land of the Marags, presided over by an eternally-mourning god, is perhaps its most original and quietly powerful touch, in this respect.)

In addition, so that none of Eddings’ world-building goes to waste, the quest for the vaguely super-powerful Orb takes our heroes on a convenient tour through every land on the map. But to say this is contrived is to miss the point. The quest, in The Belgariad, is like a Hitchcock Macguffin — an excuse to get the story started, and to keep it going, while the real stuff happens. The search for the Orb isn’t really the point about The Belgariad, and all the time it’s going on you, as reader, if you’re captured by the series at all, don’t actually want them to find the Orb — not in the same way as, when you’re reading The Lord of the Rings, you really, really want the One Ring destroyed.

Enchanter’s End Game, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

What I think The Belgariad is doing while you’re following its characters on their vaguely world-shaking quest, is casting a readerly spell of gentle enchantment for the duration of its five books. It’s not a particularly forceful or wildly magical spell. Perhaps the best word for what it does is the simplest and least magical of all magical terms: it charms. Its charm is in the easy humour of its characters (sometimes belaboured — Eddings has a tendency to underline his punchlines not once but twice), their low-scale emotional ups and downs, and in the quiet but lasting development of their friendships, loves, and companionship. All this is leavened with a generous smattering of lightly thrilling adventure, and an evenly-paced uncovering of the series’ mysteries — about Garion’s identity, and the true nature of the quest they’re on — drip-fed at just the right speed.

The Belgariad perhaps only works if you come to it at the right age — Garion’s age, early adolescence. Fortunately, I did, and I have to say the books certainly worked their charm-spell on me, as well as convincing me of the undeniable power of a simple, fairy-tale coming-of-age narrative — and, perhaps only because I came to it when I did, it continues to work the same spell whenever I re-read it.

The Belgariad may not have the grit of Game of Thrones, it may not confront the darker forces that The Lord of the Rings does, but I’d certainly miss its charm, its air of comradely companionship, and its gentle fairy-tale power, if the genre were ever wholly given over to nothing but “gritty reality”.