During the last eighteen months I’ve got into Game of Thrones, reading George Martin’s five or six novels (depending on your market location) and watching the HBO television series. I’ve had great fun with it, I find myself having lovely conversations about Westeros with people all over the place, especially at work. Watching the season two finale on Sunday I was reminded of Barthes’ remarks in The Pleasure of the Text:
…what I enjoy in a narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose upon the fine surface: I read on, I skip, I look up, I dip in again. Which has nothing to do with the deep laceration the text of bliss inflicts upon language itself…
The length and verbosity of Game of Thrones lends itself to this kind of pleasure with its 31 points of view and huge numbers of characters and locations. The availability of surfaces for abrasion is endless, the capacity for dipping and skipping doubly so. There is quite literally no end to the loss, discomfort, boredom, and shock produced in reading/watching Game of Thrones, as a result of all this abrasion. Game of Thrones does lacerate something but it took me a while to figure out what it was.
The point at the heart of Game of Thrones is that there is no reset; matters will never be returned to the status quo ante. The gist of all those words and images is that things can never go back to how they were. Initially I saw Game of Thrones as a fairy tale, a bit of Proppian folktale narrative pleasure. It’s darker than that because the central faith of Propp and his narrative analyses is that things return, resolution and equalisation smooth out the uneven surfaces until the narrative appears as a seamless set of dance steps climaxing at an off beat syncopation, ready to go around again. But for Game of Thrones there is no smoothing, the uneven surface is made even more uneven by cutting and suture and seams.
The lacerations that occur in reading Game of Thrones, the damage done, make it clear that there’s no security in reading, no certainty that justice will ever be done. For Daenerys, she will never reclaim the Iron Throne. For the Starks, the family will never return. For the Lannisters, orderly control of Westeros will never return. For the Night’s Watch, they will never be uncomplicatedly supported by the South again. For Jon Snow, he will never be part of a family. For Cersei , her Mother will never live again. For Stannis Baratheon and Ser Davos there is no return to a happy balance of power between lords and lorded over. For Tyrion there is no return to Tysha and that happy state he believed himself once to be in. The pieces move around the board but they never find themselves back where they started. There is no cycle, no eternal return, and there is no safety for character or reader.
Thinking all this through, the pleasure of Game of Thrones is in that very lack of safety, the danger of bliss. The abrasions and lacerations within and without make no gesture toward reassurance, or protection. Barthes wrote that language was interesting because it wounds and seduces, and Game of Thrones is especially interesting because it seduces in order to wound. Characters are killed off, grand climaxes fade before anything happens, and hope is produced and then extinguished. The stories get in close and then cut you up, it’s compelling. But once we’re cut we can’t go back to how it was before.