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.

Frank Frazetta

The Barbarian, by Frank Frazetta

The Barbarian, by Frank Frazetta, from FrankFrazetta.net

He’s elemental. He’s ugly. His body is scarred, nicked, battered, and beaten. His face is a face that’s been punched many times; but it’s the face of a man who comes back every time. His limbs are taut-muscled and gnarly-veined like twisted tree roots; his skin has a green sheen like verdigrised copper. Barbarous, piratical, adventurous, dark-eyed, deadly and dignified, the epitome of contained power in glorious, brooding, post-melee repose, Frank Frazetta’s ‘The Barbarian’ — painted in 1965, and used as the cover for the first of Lancer Books’ Conan paperbacks — is, to me, the essence of the sword and sorcery hero.

He is, of course, surrounded by death — the ghostly skulls hanging like a desert mirage in the flaming sky behind him, and the gloopy mass of blood, bones, and corpse-parts he’s standing on — but he’s triumphant. Unlike the rather stiffly-posed Conans that came before, with their neatly cut hair, their sandals and freshly-pressed tunics, here Frazetta brings mess and dirt to fantasy painting. More than a decade before George Lucas’s idea of a ‘used future’ made Star Wars so convincing, this Conan has been through the wars.

Gustav Adolf Mossa, She (1905)

Gustav-Adolf Mossa, She (1905)

There’s a woman clinging to his leg — the sex to compliment the icky-sticky death, because this is a male fantasy — but I don’t think she’s submissive. She’s holding onto his leg with what seems to me (I may be wrong — there is a chain in the background) to be genuine affection, as if to say, ‘This man’s mine. Clear off.’ And I think she can back that threat up. I’m pretty sure that’s her axe sticking out of the ground behind her.

‘The Barbarian’ is a Symbolist work of art, as the decadent Symbolists (much as I love them) could never have painted it. It’s simply too vital. Just compare it with a similar (though late-Symbolist period) work, Gustav-Adolf Mossa’s ‘She’ (from 1905). Mossa’s ‘She’ is that Symbolist nightmare, the femme fatale, here presiding over a mound of dead bodies; pale and languid-eyed, crows and skulls are in her hair (and a pistol, among other weapons, hangs from her necklace) because she, unlike Frazetta’s barbarous pair, is on the side of death. Frazetta’s barbarian, and his recumbent barbarienne, are on the side of life. But, it should be noted, their life, not yours. This pair is no abstract celebration of vitality. If you get too close, you may end up as one more decoration on their mound of corpses.

Egyptian Queen, by Frank Frazetta

Egyptian Queen, by Frank Frazetta, from FrankFrazetta.net

‘Egyptian Queen’, painted for the cover of Eerie issue 23 in 1968 (though Frazetta modified the face soon afterwards), is perhaps the archetypal Frazettan female. Sultry and kitten-faced, she exudes the same elemental power and dignity as ‘The Barbarian’, only with a shade more (though a very gloomy shade, it has to be said) civility. Her pedestal isn’t a mound of corpses, it’s an actual pedestal (though the chipped stone edge implies battles have been fought in this chamber), and she stands between her snarling pet leopard, and her scimitar-wielding bodyguard, with regal calm. Even that marble pillar presents its flame-like lustre as an aspect of her smouldering vitality. Again, it’s a painting that encapsulates power, perhaps recently-exercised, now in brief repose; and though it may, in this case, be political rather than physical power, it very much resides in the physical figure of the queen herself — not in statutes of law or machineries of state, but in sheer, living vitality. She perhaps owes something to Hollywood — her headgear and leopard could have come from 1934’s Cleopatra — but she has none of that film-star frivolity & foot-stamping pettishness about her. This is a woman who really could rule an empire (albeit a crumbling one — but they’re the best ones to rule).

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra, 1934

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra, 1934

Frazetta_TigerFrazetta’s greatest artistic quality is, I think, the combination of vitality and dignity he gives his figures. (And I don’t just mean his human figures, but his apes and lions and lizards, too.) His battles are always battles between equals. They’re not contests of physical prowess, they’re contests of dynamism and heroism, of sheer vitality. The un-armoured woman with only a dagger in her hand is clearly the equal, in Frazetta’s world, of that flame-eyed tiger, or that pack of wolves, or that flock of pterodactyls, because she has just as fierce a will to live. The conflict isn’t really conflict, it’s a pairing, a flashing moment of dynamic tension between equals.

It’s true, not all his paintings present women as heroically as they do the men, but in the best of them it’s vitality itself that’s the subject, heroically embodied, whether in the human body, male or female, or in troglodytes, gorillas, crocodiles or panthers. It even seethes out of the twisting roots of jungle trees, and the roiling waves of storm-tossed oceans. It’s that sense of elemental vitality I like to find in the best sword and sorcery: the feeling that the life-force (an old-fashioned term, but surely worth a non-scientific resurrection) is at its most potent when faced with death and darkness, surrounded by wildness and fierceness, and couched in the nobility of the individual, however rough and haggard, or svelte and beautiful. Frazetta’s work is, above all, exciting, living, and elemental — the essence of sword and sorcery.

The Adventures of Alyx by Joanna Russ

Russ's The Adventures of Alyx, cover by Judith Clute

Russ’s The Adventures of Alyx, cover by Judith Clute

I bought Joanna Russ’s The Adventures of Alyx a while ago because I read somewhere of it having affiliations with Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & Gray Mouser stories. For a long while it sat on my ever-lengthening to-read shelf, because whenever I picked it up for a shall-I-read-it skim, it seemed more SF than sword & sorcery. So I did some Wikipedia research — it turns out Alyx the Pick-lock is referred to in “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar” and “Under the Thumbs of the Gods” — then started reading.

The first Alyx tale, “Bluestocking”, has several Leiberish resonances: a Lankhmar-like city called Ourdh, whose name recalls Leiber’s Ourph the Mingol (later stories make it clear the setting is Earth at the time of ancient Greece); most of the story has its two main characters adrift on the ocean in a small boat, reminiscent of Leiber’s “Their Mistress, the Sea” (though that story was first published in 1968; “Bluestocking” appeared in 1967); and at one point Alyx mentions having known a “big Northman with… a big red beard — God, what a beard! — Fafnir — no, Fafh — well, something ridiculous.” “Bluestocking” begins with pickpocket Alyx being hired by a slightly spoiled rich girl, Edarra, to help her flee an impending marriage. During their time together, Edarra loses her more refined, delicate edges, and Alyx gets to kill a sea-serpent and a trio of pirates. In the following story, “I Thought She Was Afeared Until She Stroked My Beard”, jumping back in the character’s timeline, Alyx leaves her abusive husband and pairs herself with a far less chauvinistic pirate — though she still has to teach him a lesson or two in true equality, when she matches his body-count in a bloody fight.

Joanna RussAs in so many sword & sorcery tales, what these initial stories are about is defining a hero. And here, unlike the usual S&S strategy of defining a hero by what he or she fights, Alyx is more often portrayed in contrast to a companion — the spoilt Edarra in “Bluestocking”, the well-meaning but still slightly prejudiced Blackbeard in “I Through She Was Afeared…” In these first two stories, I felt that was pretty much all that was happening — they were far more about defining Alyx as a character than telling a story with her, though this defining is nevertheless an important step when a writer is trying to do something new. As Russ says in her biographical note at the start of the Women’s Press collected edition: “I had turned from writing love stories about women in which women were losers, and adventure stories about men in which the men were winners, to writing adventure stories about a woman in which the woman won. It was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life.” (This was the late 1960s. As Aldiss & Wingrove say in Trillion Year Spree: “Russ’s Alyx stories were something quite new to the genre. Alyx is a female rebel. A thief and adventuress. A highly competent and aggressive woman. She was a revolutionary fictional character, challenging the competent male/wilting female syndrome that had dominated the magazine genre for forty years.”)

The first tale that really worked for me is the third, and the most sword and sorcery-like of the lot, “The Barbarian”. Here, Alyx is hired (as so many S&S heroes have been down the ages) by a sorcerer in need of a bit of thievish skill and swordly brawn. This story has some of the best writing in the series, for instance when Alyx leads her sorcerous employer through the benighted rooms of a building they’ve broken into:

“Her fingers brushed lightly alongside her, like a creeping animal: stone, stone, a gap, warm air rising… In the dark she felt wolfish, her lips skinned back over her teeth; like another species she made her way with hands and ears. Through them the villa sighed and rustled in its sleep. She put the tips of the fingers of her free hand on the back of the fat man’s neck, guiding with the faintest of touches through the turns of the corridor…”

The ending shades into science fiction, but in the well-established manner of the Unknown school — with a primitive protagonist encountering advanced technology and defeating it through uneducated but nevertheless scientific thinking. I’m not really sure if that’s cheating or not, but it works, as a story, and the goodie wins, which is the main point…

Picnic on ParadiseThe next tale, “Picnic on Paradise” marks a break in two ways: it’s much longer than the previous stories (it was initially published as a separate novel, in 1968); and in it, Alyx has been whisked into the future by the Trans-Temporal Military Authority to guide some tourists across hazardous alien terrain to the safety of a base where they can be taken off-world. Things go wrong, of course, but not before Alyx’s relationships with the leisure-softened, over-psychoanalysed tourists doped up on “stimulants and euphorics” have been stretched past their plastic limit. This short novel is, really, an expansion of that initial story where Alyx was stuck in a wilderness (the ocean) with a pampered rich girl, whom she brought into more vibrant contact with the feeling of being alive. It’s a sort of science-fictional version of Crocodile Dundee (not at all meant as an insult — Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala would be a similar comparison). Like the best sword & sorcery, the Crocodile Dundee type of story is about getting back in touch with far more real, far more meaningful and basic values through a bit of down-and-dirty, barbaric common sense. But here, the picture isn’t as clear cut as in Crocodile Dundee, as, ultimately, Alyx gets as affected by her contact with these over-civilised future civilians as they do by her. But we do get, at last, her heroic credo:

“…nobody ever let me do anything in my life before and I never let that stop me.”

Alyx doesn’t appear in the final story in the collection, “The Second Inquisition”, which seems to have been included here only because it mentions the Trans-Temporal Military Authority, unless I’m missing something. Set in 1920s Earth, where the narrator’s family are, for some reason, putting up a visitor from the future, it reads very much like Gene Wolfe at his most oblique — peppered with a stream of apparently inconsequential little details which made me feel that, if I only I knew which detail was significant and why, the whole thing would become clear, but as I know neither which nor why, I wasn’t entirely sure it was worth the effort to read it again to find out.

The_Adventures_of_AlyxI found my level, Alyx-wise, with “The Barbarian”. It’s the most sword & sorcery-like tale, though made all the more refreshing by its emancipated protagonist. Alyx constantly gibes and annoys her employer, never taking him as seriously as he thinks he ought to be taken, questioning his orders and being disobedient, then puncturing his technological/magical superiority with a bit of very non-technological/non-magical violence. Like all sword & sorcery heroes should.

Alyx, as a character, was a sort of experiment on Russ’s part, and once she’d proved herself in the old-style arena of sword and sorcery, there was nothing for it but to move onto far more of-the-times science fiction in “Picnic on Paradise” — only for her to be left out of the picture altogether by the time of “The Second Inquisition”. I’d have loved to have read more stories in the style, and the world, of “The Barbarian”, but I think that, in writing it, Russ had made her point and it was time to move on.