Opinion | Why We Need ‘Game of Thrones’
The epic fantasy series is more than just escape. It is a way of imagining our way to the future.
By Annalee Newitz
Ms. Newitz is a science journalist and novelist.
“Game of Thrones” returns on Sunday, and with it, the inevitable onslaught of “winter is finally here” memes and a sudden obsession with dragons, knights and internecine feudal politics. But the show isn't just warmed-over fantasy tropes. Its conflicts have become part of our public discourse, and Westeros, its fictional kingdom, has become an allegory for America.
This isn’t the first time a medieval fantasy has served this purpose. “Lord of the Rings” grew out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s traumatic experiences as a soldier in World War I. It achieved widespread popularity in the United States during the 1960s and ’70s, when hippies joked about electing the wise wizard Gandalf as president and wore “Frodo Lives!” buttons, an emblem of their solidarity with the idyllic, communal life of the Shire.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the massive multiplayer game “World of Warcraft” dominated the global gaming market. Its story of war between the orc-led Horde and human-led Alliance was set in an immersive, intricately detailed medieval fantasy world. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, in which the young heroes battle an evil wizard who perverts democracy, climbed the best-seller lists during the same period. Magic rules all of these realms, reducing complex social and political conflicts to battles over spells and ensorcellment.
Whenever there’s trouble in the land, it seems, our narrative appetites lead us backward in time, offering escape in tales of a world before modern statehood and techno-capitalism.
But escapism isn’t just a flight from reality. Ursula Le Guin, the celebrated fantasy author, once asked, “If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?” She was writing about Tolkien, arguing that escapism in all its forms is a survival strategy, a way to think ourselves out of traps. In Ms. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, wizards craft magic out of words, trying to prevent a creeping global sickness by, in essence, telling the right story. If we think of fantasy as a way to escape from a dark fate, “Game of Thrones” is a skeleton key.
In that case, what is the prison? And why does the path always seem to lead through the Middle Ages?
One possible answer is that “Game of Thrones” is not actually about the past at all. It fits within a long tradition of books suggesting that our planet’s distant future might look a lot like the distant past. This idea goes back generations. In Edgar Rice Burroughs’s pulpy 1912 novella “A Princess of Mars,” a medieval Martian civilization is all that remains of a previously hyper-advanced, technologically sophisticated world. Jack Vance’s wildly popular 1950s series “Dying Earth” imagined an earth so old that its sun is fading, the moon is gone and magic rules. More recently, David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” and N.K. Jemisin’s “Broken Earth” trilogy hint that the far future might look very much like ancient history. Both authors describe worlds in which people have returned to Neolithic or medieval ways of life, largely because their civilizations have made catastrophic political and environmental mistakes.
It isn’t easy to imagine our distant future without fiction. We have computer models to forecast what centuries of climate change might do to the earth, and some vague notions of how this might transform our social and economic systems. But when the crisis at hand is about elections and economic recessions, it’s hard to make decisions that take that faraway world into account.
Perhaps “Game of Thrones” functions as a cultural reset button, inviting us to imagine how we might redo nationhood and industrialism if we had the chance. What if we could enter the modern era again, and do it right this time? Maybe this time, enlightened despots won’t grind up the peasants in an endless war.
That’s why pseudo-historical stories are, oddly, the keys to thinking about what comes next for planet earth. Will our fortified border walls be all that remains after climate disaster? Or will we finally put aside political rivalries to save ourselves? We can explore our options while acknowledging the likelihood that we’ll make mistakes.
“Game of Thrones” feels relevant now, not simply because it allows us to speculate about which terrible real-life leader most resembles the sadistic King Joffrey, or see how climate change can blight the land with supernatural force. Like other medieval tales, “Game of Thrones” is not a precise allegory. Instead, it slakes our thirst for narratives that remind us that humanity will have a distant future, in whatever form it takes. We are building it right now.
In the near future, as we face the increasing likelihood of catastrophe, we need to unleash our imagination. We will need it to find the escape route.
Annalee Newitz (@Annaleen), a science journalist, is the founder of the science-fiction website io9 and the author of a novel, “Autonomous.”
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