Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK TV Series Review:
Game of Thrones (2011- ) | Created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)
The Politics of Myth in Martin’s Modern Classic
If we were to unearth the politics buried inside every tale ever told, we could divide all stories into two grand schools of partisan thought: Tradition-bound, old rules, right-wing beliefs versus reform-minded, new rules, left-wing principles. In other words, myth versus fiction. GAME OF THRONES merges these political extremes into one ingeniously massive yarn. But first, before we look at how they do it, let’s separate these two modes of storytelling to see what they are and why.
Ancient cultures invented myths to explain the birth of the cosmos and the origin of human beings. These parables were chanted by shamans in religious rituals, then passed from mouth to ear for thousands of years. Paraphrased and translated from language to language, myths travel through time without loss of meaning because they’re not in fact literature. In myths, deeds and characters count, not words.
Fiction evolved when language began to matter. In the works of Homer, for example, his vivid verse is as critical to his epics as who does what to whom. The Roman origin tale of Romulus and Remus, for example, is a myth; Virgil’s Aeneid is literature.
The underlying politics of myth—every king in his palace, every peasant in his hovel—reinforce authoritarian institutions and advocate conformity. Myths not only fortify primitive traditions but the beliefs (often superstitions) that prop them up.
Fiction does the opposite. Writers of literature, both dramatic and comedic, tend to take a critical, often cynical, view of rulers and their hierarchies. From the very beginning, the epic poets and playwrights of Greece leaned toward the anti-conformist values of personal freedom (Aristophanes’ The Wasps), rebellion (Sophocles’ The Tragedy of Antigone), and even chaos as the cure for tyranny (Euripides’ The Bacchae).
In classical literature, dramatic characters suffer tragic events, while comic characters bounce off the walls of absurdity. In fictional works, the world is not as it should be.
In mythical works, the world is exactly as it should be—monsters and all. The belief systems that underpin mythologies put their trust in a universe of sacred god-given order that gives power to despots but denies it to servants. The rigid social structures of myth never change—the hero must. He must come of age, prove himself, and then conform to tradition, so he can take his proper place in the hierarchy. Women are there to assist.
In the 20th century three men recycled these archaic tellings to serve rather personal purposes. Carl Jung used myths to underpin his psychological theories; Mircea Eliade used them to argue for his religious theories; Joseph Campbell encapsulated them inside a monomyth to cure the sickness in the modern soul; Hollywood actioneers hammered his all-purpose myth into a cookie cutter for the mass-production of megahits. (If you’re interested in this subject, read Robert Ellwood’s The Politics of Myth.)
To generalize, myths personify polar forces of good and evil and seek the return of a long lost paradise; fiction wrestles with the complexities of reality and seeks a way to live in the here, now, and what’s to come.
(This is why, by the way, when you comb through the myriad myths our ancestors left behind, you find no comedies. Not one. You find mean-spirited trickster characters who play cheap pranks and mock people, but their one-off gags don’t add up to comedy. A true, knife-wheedling comedy spins a story’s worth of roiling jokes that laugh at an institution: government, business, royalty, religion, courtship, marriage, the military, the rich, the law, the arts, the buddy system—any tradition encrusted with greed, pretension, and genetic stupidity.)
Who benefits from fiction? Readers and audiences. How? By gaining insights into the follies and fates of human beings.
Who benefits from myths? The rich old men who commission them. How? By convincing people to believe in these yarns the powerful keep their grip on society.
GAME OF THRONES:
The brilliance of David Benioff and D. B. Weiss’s GAME OF THRONES, as adapted from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, is that the storytelling mixes the subject matter of myth with the ironies of fiction. Out of this merger the telling builds a mammoth clash of politics:
On the extreme Right, the autocratic, narcissistic Cersei of House Lannister, the First of Her Name, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Protector of the Seven Kingdoms. On the humanistic Left, the graceful, compassionate Daenerys of House Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, who also calls herself Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Lady Regnant of the Seven Kingdoms, as well as Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, the Breaker of Chains, the Unburnt.
Cersei embodies retrogressive, patriarchal tyranny. Temperamentally, she’s pro-feudalism and anti-change. A narcissist at heart, she feels contempt for her subjects and forces them to obey her whims without choice.
Like the royal families of ancient Egypt, she enjoys incest with her brother and gives birth to their three children. She indulges superstitions, first forcing a witch to prophesize her dark future, then doing every ruthless thing she can to hide her secrets and escape her fate.
Daenerys embodies the future-leaning, open-minded spirit of progress. Temperamentally, she’s anti-feudalism and pro-change. She feels a passionate empathy for those, like her, who are socially and politically oppressed, and offers them the free choice to follow her or not.
As she says to Jon Snow, “So many men have tried to kill me, I don’t remember all their names. I have been sold like a broodmare. I’ve been chained and betrayed, raped and defiled. Do you know what kept me standing through all those years in exile? Faith. In myself. In Daenerys Targaryen. Not in any gods, not in any myths…” Daenerys denies myth; Cersei lives myth; in Westeros, both become legends for opposite reasons: The people trust Daenerys, fear Cersei.
But then, into this bipolar world the storytellers ingeniously triangulate the third thing: The Night King and his obedient masses of White Walkers. Next season, the tension between myth and fiction, with its clash of despotism versus freedom, will fade into the background while the writers answer questions of who lives, who dies. Death has no politics.