SPOILER ALERT: I’ve read all the Song of Ice and Fire books, but only seen the first season of the Game of Thrones TV series based on them. I know roughly where in the plot of the books the TV show is, and I’ll try not to spoil anything past that point, but I haven’t actually seen the last two seasons of the show so I might screw that up slightly.
From what I can tell, most people who’ve been exposed to George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire book series, or the HBO show based on it, have loved it. A few hate it. And funnily, it seems to me that most of the criticism and a lot of the love comes from rather missing the point of the series. In particular, a lot of people seem to be under the misapprehension that Daenerys Targaryen and the Stark family are heroes.
One particularly confused critique of the show (which I wish I could find now, but can’t) actually claimed that, to make them more sympathetic, the creators of the show gave both Daenerys and the Starks modern values. How anyone could get this idea, I’ll never know.
It’s true that Daenerys and the Starks are relatively sympathetic, compared to many of the other characters in the series, because they’re more or less true to their professed values, as opposed to being backstabbing hypocrites like the other characters in the series. The problem is that their values are profoundly messed up, and Martin goes to some lengths to show us that.
For starters, when we first meet Ned Stark (both in the books and the show), he’s literally playing judge, jury, and executioner in the trial of an accused deserter of the Night Watch, the military force that guards the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms (the fictional country that’s the focus of the series, which takes up most of the continent of Westros).
Said accused deserter tries to give everybody a perfectly accurate report of the big supernatural threat that looms over the entire series, but Ned dismisses him as a madman and cuts his head off. It’s a nice little advertisement for the benefits of the jury system, needing proof beyond a reasonable doubt and all that.
Then there’s Daenerys. She’s the exiled daughter of the previous king, Mad Aerys, who was overthrown for being murderously insane. She thinks this means she has a right to be queen, and spends the entire series (so far) plotting an invasion of the Westros to get “her” throne back.
Having grown up in exile, she knows very little about the land she’s planning to conquer, but she’s under the impression that the common folk of Westros are praying for her return. Early in the first book/season, her companion Ser Jorah corrects her: “The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace. They never are.” Daenerys doesn’t listen and continues planning her conquest.
After killing the guy who was trying to warn him about the big supernatural threat, Ned goes to the capital, King’s Landing, to serve as the Hand (chief adviser) to the current king, Robert Baratheon. It’s important that Ned take this position, because Robert doesn’t actually want to do the hard work of ruling, Robert just wants to eat, drink, hold tournaments, and fuck prostitutes (seriously).
Once in King’s Landing, Ned investigates the possibility that the previous Hand, Jon Arryn, was murdered, and eventually comes to the conclusion that he was–to conceal the fact that all of the children Robert supposedly had with his wife Cersei Lannister were actually fathered by her brother Jaime (ick).
Ned confronts Cersei, hoping she’ll take the hint to flee with her children. Instead, she responds by arranging a hunting “accident” for Robert. As Robert lays dying, Ned can’t bring himself to tell Robert the truth, but Robert’s brother Renly (who also knows the truth about Cersei’s children) comes to Ned with a proposal to hold Cersei and her children hostage and then put himself (Renly) on the throne.
Ned refuses because he thinks this would be dishonorable. Partly because Renly is the youngest of the three Baratheon brothers, so Cersei’s children being illegitimate would, by Westrosi law, mean middle brother Stannis should get the throne. Ned doesn’t care that Stannis is a colossal dick, whereas people actually like Renly. Renly leaves, everything goes to hell, and Ned ends up getting executed on the orders of Cersei’s psychopathic even year old son Joffrey, who’s now king.
And yeah, Ned’s son ends up crowning himself king. Unlike everybody else in the story, Robb isn’t trying to rule over all of Westros, he just crowns himself “King in the North,” the North being the region the Starks had already ruled as vassals to Robert (and Aerys before him). Why does Robb do that?
Well, if you pay close attention the key scene, it turns out to be not Robb’s idea at all. Robb was reluctant to even fight against Joffrey. It was Robb’s bannermen (i.e. his dad’s friends) who most wanted to fight, and they who came up with the idea of declaring Robb king.
So to recap: Daenerys thinks she has the right to try to conquer a continent because her dad was a murderously insane king. Ned plays a major role in throwing the same continent into civil war. A civil war that could not have happened without the system of hereditary monarchy which Ned felt honor-bound to follow. And Robb gets involved in the fighting because it’s what his dad’s friends wanted.
Lest you think I’m reading too much into this, and Martin clearly intended Daenerys and Ned and Robb to be the heroes, Martin goes to great lengths in following books to show how incredibly destructive the war ends up being, with both both sides committing plenty of atrocities.
Robb’s military campaign includes burning and pillaging. I’m not sure if we’re ever explicitly told that there’s raping going on alongside the pillaging, but in the setting there seems to be a general attitude that rape is normal part of war and the leaders make little effort to prevent it, so raping being included with the pillaging seems like a foreseeable consequence of Robb’s actions. At one point, Robb’s men kill some women just because they believe the women had slept with Lannister soldiers.
In the third book/season, Tywin (Cersei’s father) arranges to have Robb murdered in the infamous Red Wedding. If you’d been paying attention up to that point (at least reading the books), it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Tywin had a point when he defended his actions by arguing the alternative would have meant another year of war: “Explain to me why it is more noble to kill ten thousand men in battle than a dozen at dinner.”
So yes, Ned and Daenerys gain a lot of sympathy for being true to their professed values, and not engaging in any conniving like the Lannisters do. But their values are still pretty much to blame for everything that goes wrong in the series. A Song of Ice and Fire is practically a treatise on why hereditary monarchy is a bad idea: it gets you kings who are incompetent (Robert), murderously insane (Aerys, Joffrey), eleven years old (Joffrey again), or just dicks (Stannis).
And it turns what would’ve been just a squicky sex scandal into a horribly destructive civil war.
I said at the beginning of this post that much of the criticism I’ve read of the series seems to miss the point. But I can certainly understand some people not liking it just because it’s so goddamn dark. As Martin himself once said:
People read books for different reasons. I respect that. Some read for comfort. And some of my former readers have said their life is hard, their mother is sick, their dog died, and they read fiction to escape. They don’t want to get hit in the mouth with something horrible. And you read that certain kind of fiction where the guy will always get the girl and the good guys win and it reaffirms to you that life is fair. We all want that at times.
Most times, though, I’ll take Martin’s version. It sure as hell beats Tolkien telling me how the King Aragorn is the greatest guy ever and all the battles he leads are noble and glorious. Yuck.