A Black Knight on the Iron Throne

I’m a little late to the party on the discussion of race in Game of Thrones, but it took me a little while to figure out why I found the claims of racism disingenuous.

There seems to be some concern over the problematic depiction of race on the show, which is of course missing the point entirely. That a Euro-Medieval Fantasy would have so few people of color at all seems to be a point of concern. But what really has people’s knickers in a twist is how the few people of color present are depicted, which is not exactly enlightened or positive. Again, the point, you have missed it.

None of the characters in Game of Thrones are depicted as enlightened or wholly positive people. Even the heroes are bastards, sons of bitches, and roaring cunts. That’s because Westeros, unlike Middle Earth, the fantasy world it gets compared to most often, is not a civilized place.

The argument, as near as I can tell, is that because it’s a fantasy world, you can have any and all races and nationalities on your cast. But would it be more or less problematic if some of the great houses of Westeros were racially diverse? If the Lanisters were Asian, and the Baratheons Black, then critics would just say it was racist for suggesting that Asians are scheming, incestuous weirdos and blacks are lecherous and slothful.

So it’s a loose-loose position no matter where you stand defending this show. Which gets us closer to the real point of the criticism.

The critics of Game of Thrones don’t really care about the racial make up of the cast. None of them gave a shit that The West Wing was lily white, but for a few token minority roles, or that it took Mad Men 5 seasons to have an even marginal character of color. What they’re really griping about isn’t that this Euro-Medieval fantasy series is far too Euro, but that it’s far too Medieval. Too morally complex. Also, there are too many boobs on display. They heard “medieval fantasy” and were thinking a nice chaste retelling of Camelot, but instead got a softcore version of The Lion in Winter.

When critics bitch about racism in Game of Thrones, they’re using it as a proxy to complain about a fantasy story that is deconstructing the Golden Age Fallacy.

The Golden Age Fallacy states that the past was a nobler age, when chivalry and manly heroics were the order of the day. Women were chaste and beautiful and noble and all that other Ivanhoe bullshit. Because Game of Thrones is rooted in the Eurocentric High Fantasy tradition, critics naturally want to compare it to The Lord of the Rings. It’s easier to compare Game of Thrones to The Lord of the Rings because it’s familiar and comes prepackaged with Tolkien’s racial issues already set up as easy straw men to knock down.

But Scott’s romantic novels are no longer fashionable, and it would take someone literate, or at least capable of doing a Google search to write about how Martin deconstructs Scott’s well-worn chivalric tropes.

I’m by no means a Scott scholar. I tried to read Ivanhoe but it’s tedious, written in stilted 19th century prose, and full of the sort of overly wrought sentimentalism that would make the Knight of Flowers blush. So here’s Wikipedia’s summary of the plot:

Ivanhoe is the story of one of the remaining Saxon noble families at a time when the English nobility was overwhelmingly Norman. It follows the Saxon protagonist, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, who is out of favour with his father for his allegiance to the Norman king, Richard  I of England. The story is set in 1194, after the failure of the Third Crusade, when many of the Crusaders were still returning to Europe. King Richard, who had been captured by the Duke of Austria on his way back, was believed to still be in the arms of his captors. The legendary Robin Hood, initially under the name of Locksley, is also a character in the story, as are his “merry men.” The character that Scott gave to Robin Hood in Ivanhoe helped shape the modern notion of this figure as a cheery noble outlaw.

Other major characters include Ivanhoe’s intractable father, Cedric, one of the few remaining Saxon lords; various Knights Templar and churchmen; the loyal serfs Gurth the swineherd and the jester Wamba, whose observations punctuate much of the action; and the Jewish moneylender, Isaac of York, who is equally passionate about money and his daughter, Rebecca. The book was written and published during a period of increasing struggle for emancipation of the Jews in England, and there are frequent references to injustice against them.

That sounds a lot closer to one of the volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire than anything out of Tolkien.

Ivanhoe is credited with inspiring an entirely new genre of novel, the Medieval romance. And while a 200 year old novel may not have as much pull today as it once did, it’s clear that Ivanhoe shaped the popular imagination of what a medieval story should be in the 19th and early 20th centuries. We see it’s influence in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and the early depictions of Robin Hood and King Arthur. it lives on in Renaissance Fairs all over the world: the clean Dark Ages, where “modern” ( that is, Georgian and later Victorian) sensibilities were transposed backwards in time and overwrote the barbaric, filthy, lecherous, conniving plots of hard men and women in situations beyond their control.

Martin has stripped away that stifling romanticism. It’s still referred to, when the characters talk about their own pop culture, the ballads and stories that are sung at feasts. Those songs are definitely in the style of Scott, a lingering ironic finger pointing at the larger themes at play in the world of Westeros. And while there are plenty of socially relevant topics at work in Game of Thrones, a modern conception of race and race relations is not necessarily one of them. Complaining about the racial makeup of the cast is like complaining that the throne is too pointy or perhaps Joffrey should have longer hair. It’s an aesthetic complaint, not a critical one.

Game of Thrones doesn’t shy away from the brutality or sexuality of it’s characters. It uses it as a dark mirror to reflect the lingering influences that primitive barbarism still has on our own enlightened era. Women and minorities in Westeros, just as in America and Europe, are still finding themselves in horrible circumstances beyond their control, doing what they can and what they must to carve a place for themselves in a brutal world. And like the best fantasy stories, there is enough room for interpretation of the mysteries and politics at play. But to mistake the depiction of brutality for the promotion of it is a fool’s game.