By Christopher Schmaltz
I’m a devoted fan of the world that George RR Martin has created. As you may know about me, I grew up reading Tolkien, playing Dungeons and Dragons, embracing and absorbing the science fiction and fantasy genres in art, literature, gaming, movies, all of it.
A Song of Ice and Fire is a universe that does what all great art does – examines the human condition through the lens of a fictional and in this case, fantastical world. The literature of Game of Thrones turns many a fantasy trope on their head by relegating those fantastical elements to history. The current time period of the world to which we are introduced is seemingly bereft of magic and monsters. The game of GOT is human conflict, power, and survival. People are preoccupied with the accumulation of wealth, power and prestige (as humans do), to the detriment of a shared knowledge of history, and appreciation for the fragility of human existence, except when that existence is threatened by the tip or edge of a sword. The Wall and the Night’s Watch are punch lines.
These themes dominate the early parts of the story in both the books and the HBO show. Martin does an amazing job of teasing the forgotten history, sprinkling his world with memory, myth, and subtle, unexplained but acknowledged family lore. It is a wonderful approach to a genre tale, because the people like me who love genre worlds are curious and pay close attention to all these elements. We search for connections, fact behind the fantastical, and love knowing more than the characters in the world know. The anticipation, the setup, the reveal of knowledge and amazing experience is why we love this type of world, and why the world of GOT captivates – because it teases the bigger explanation for the unexplained, the lurking threat or moment of epiphany when the currents of the fantastic are revealed to our heroes.
Martin’s books are weighty tomes, filled with details that close readings reward. And they are frustratingly slow to reveal that knowledge, but so well plotted to include sprinklings of fantasy elements that keep that longing fed with a trickle of fantasy spirit. The HBO show in its early seasons did a great job of replicating that tantalizing flow of knowledge and wonder. As the show grew in popularity, with characters captivating and repulsive in equal measure (all built
upon the rich base Martin created in his books), the show allowed us fans to finally see the GOT world in all its grimy, bloody and human glory. We are enthralled by it.
Martin has been…glacial….in his publication output of the main story. And as a result, given the demands of money, time and artistic desire (which cannot be discounted), the show has moved beyond the books. And it has lost something in that process. Decoupled from the admittedly dense books, the show writers and producers have been able to graft their vision into Martin’s world. Sometimes to great affect, and sometimes to less than ideal results, rooted in a…simplification of approach.
For non-readers of the books, purely watchers of the show, you may not understand that the Night King is only hinted at at this point in the tale written in the books. I have zero doubt that Martin has heavily influenced and guided the introduction of and early interactions with the Night King in the show. And the limitations of the medium of TV, regardless of how creative the team at HBO really is, make it very difficult (but not impossible) to effectively reveal knowledge and wisdom about the Night King in a subtle way. We’ve received teases of lore, smidges of knowledge, hints of speculation – all definitively coupled with a looming existential threat, but often with less than the deft touch of the creator of this world.
That being said, the teases have been relatively effective, peaking our interest in what the Night King is all about, what is his plan, what does he want, what is the source of his enmity to humanity and life, and what could be his undoing. Close readers and watchers THINK they have an idea, but the internet is, at its most effective, a speculation delivery system.
And as Jon Snow has repeatedly emphasized lately in every conversation he has in the show, the Night King and the dead approach to wipe out life in this wonderful universe we love. Nothing is more important than this threat to humanity in this world of Ice and Fire. And it is a credit to the writing and Harrington’s performance that the Queen of Dragons, and others in the North
and elsewhere in Westeros, and we as fans, are all persuaded by him.
Yet, the show has unfortunately devolved to the simplest, surface level explanations or resolutions. Contrary to this, episode after episode has teased the Night King’s power, and his connection to the ancient lore and conflict between the Children of the Forest and humans. And, the books and show have hinted at the connection between the Three-Eyed Raven and the Night King, suggesting a powerful bond, or at the very least, a role the Three-Eyed Raven plays in resisting the oncoming winter personified in the Night King and the dead.
The books and the show have teased deep magic. The return of the dragons, and Daenerys as the Mother of Dragons is the most visible example, but there are regular references to at the very least magical elements to the lore. And as genre fans, it is these elements that need more development. We don’t need a complete explanation, because we never get that, but we love the best fantasy worlds because we get introduced to fantastical systems that have a internal logic, an consistent rationale, and at the same time a fulfillment of our interest in things beyond our senses. We crave deeper knowledge, because from that flows the wisdom at the heart of the tale.
And what we got was the enemy defeated by a knife. Don’t get me wrong – that moment in Episode 3 of Season 8 was a badass confluence of all the Arya training, skill, and magic she possesses, Red Priestess Melisandra’s lore-ifying and the shared knowledge of the capabilities of dragonglass. Oh, and the characters’ speculation that if the Night King is killed, all the walkers cease to exist as well. For me, I loved that Arya struck the blow, if a blow was to be struck.
But we also got the Three-Eyed Raven, with all his powers of sight, warging and who knows what else, as passive bait. We get nothing more of the interesting and unknown connections between the Night King and the Three-Eyed Raven. We get nothing on the Night King’s motivations and history – maybe other than he was created to kill humans?
Bran’s discussion of the role of the Three-Eyed Raven plays in this world in Episode 2 helps to explain my disappointment. The Three-Eyed Raven is human memory, and the Night King wants to wipe out humanity, including its shared history, which we only know through memory. And then Bran suggests that he be bait to draw the Night King to him. This discussion is at the core of why we love this genre – it involves more than simply the clash of swords, the solving problems with violence, the basic human approach to challenges by brute forcing the solution. It teased the “more” that we love in these tales.
And what we got was the existential threat defeated by a knife.
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