[It’s Game of Thrones Week here on Overthinking It, which requires a fiddly spoiler policy. Some of these posts have spoilers through the end of the first season of the HBO show. Some of them are just generalized discussions of the world of the Westeros, safe for any reader. This post in particular has spoilers straight on through to the end of the latest book, which means that Belinkie can’t read it. Nyah, nyah! It also gives away some plot points from the competing epic fantasy franchises The Wheel of Time and The Sword of Truth, so if you’re the kind of person who cares about spoilers, maybe just skip this one. —Ed.]
It is generally thought that National Socialism stands only for brutishness and terror. But this is not true. National Socialism—more broadly, fascism—also stands for an ideal or rather ideals that are persistent today under the other banners: the ideal of life as art, the cult of beauty, the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community; the repudiation of the intellect; the family of man (under the parenthood of leaders). These ideals are vivid and moving to many people, and it is dishonest as well as tautological to say that one is affected by Triumph of the Will and Olympia only because they were made by a filmmaker of genius. Riefenstahl’s films are still effective because, among other reasons, their longings are still felt, because their content is a romantic ideal to which many continue to be attached…
—Susan Sontag, “Fascinating Fascism”
Let’s just get this out of the way. I am not calling George R. R. Martin, or any of the other authors discussed in this post, a Nazi. Nor am I calling them Blackshirts, nor connecting them with any other historical group of totalitarian assholes. The aesthetic principles I’m discussing here are neither the result of fascism nor indicative of fascism, they just take advantage of the same emotional circuitry that fascism takes advantage of. These are not politicized aesthetics, rather, fascism is aestheticized politics. It’s not quite accurate to claim that aesthetic similarities don’t imply any ideological similarities at all, but that’s a lot closer to the truth than the other way around.
That said, it cannot be denied that the fascist aesthetics described by Sontag (and read that whole article here if you haven’t, or if you need a refresher) is a big, big part of the epic strain of sci-fi and fantasy.
And it’s also an important element of the “Blood, Tits, and Scowling” genre codified by Perich yesterday,
at least in some of its more baroque manifestations. And since the HBO Game of Thrones series is both of these things, it’s certainly worth considering the degree to which it partakes in the fascist aesthetic.
So yeah. The fascist aesthetic. What is that, exactly?
Fascist art depicts, in Sontag’s words, “unlimited aspiration toward the high mystic goal, both beautiful and terrifying.” It “celebrate[s] the rebirth of the body and of community, mediated through the worship of an irresistible leader.” It focuses on “the contrast between the clean and the impure, the incorruptible and the defiled, the physical and the mental, the joyful and the critical.” It fetishizes “the holding in or confining of force; military precision.” Its characteristic subject matter is “vivid encounters of beautiful male bodies and death.” In short, fascist art depicts the perfected, disciplined body in service of the perfected, disciplined state. Its aesthetic principles are, in visual terms, clean geometric lines, chiseled physiques, and slow motion; and in musical terms, brass fanfares, pounding drumbeats, and pipe organs. Its moral principles are strength, skill, obedience, order, joyful submission, and apocalyptic dissolution… and it’s this last that really set it apart from other aesthetics that glorify strength (of which, to be sure, there are plenty to go around).
Fascist storytelling always hinges on a moment of transfiguration, a one-way-only gate through which the agonized hero cannot pass without being transformed into a thing unrecognizable. Crucially, what lies beyond is not something that we get to know. It has to be utterly alien and eternally remote. It was not given to Moses to enter the Land of Caanan, but at least he got to look at it. Fascist art contents itself with less. We see the moment of transition, the event horizon as it were, but we get only the barest glimpse of what lies beyond. The proto-fascist mountain-climbing films described by Sontag arguably fail to capture this aspect, because mountain peaks are reachable. (I mean, we’ve done it, you know? The peak of Everest is pretty well covered with litter.) The ultimate fascist mountaineering narrative, then, would be that of Sisyphus — but a joyful Sisyphus who has chosen his own punishment. Or better still, a thousand joyful Sisyphi.
And so stories of agonized struggle tend to end with ceremonies. The hero becomes the king, ushering in a golden age, but we don’t ever get to see the king, like, paying down the national debt, or building a lot of libraries, or doing whatever else a golden age would really entail. Superhero franchise reboots tend to work this way as well, at least when they end with the moment where Peter Parker affirms once and for all that he is Spiderman. We know more about the day to day business of being Spiderman than we do about the day to day business of running a nation-state (which may explain why our society is in decline), but nevertheless, there’s an important vacuum here. You don’t get to see the day to day life of a superhero because that would be boring, and it wouldn’t solve all the problems of the world. To make the audience believe that the heroic agonized body has ushered in a utopian society, you need to focus solely on the moment of transformation. “I am Spiderman!” he declares, and then we see one more glorious swoop of the CGI-perfected disciplined physique in motion over the New York City skyline — and then credits. In 2001, the moment of apotheosis is the stargate sequence, after which the movie rather pointedly just up and ends. But this kind of creativity is pretty rare. Other than coronations (actual or self-imposed, superheroic), there seems to be a certain limited repertoire of events that work well for this kind of apocalyptic closing gesture: graduations, migrations, weddings, childbirth, sex (especially first sex, or first sex for that couple), and — this being the big one — glorified death.
Tolkien only ever dabbled in this kind of stuff, but it’s part and parcel of modern epic fantasy. The main characters in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time are “ta’veren” which basically means they are magically empowered with a cult of personality that inspires — among other things — stalkerish devotion from their supporters. All three of them start as farmers and end up leading nation-states. And it’s stated explicitly (and over and over again, I might add) that the two slightly-less-main of these characters have to dedicate themselves to supporting the mainest character of all in his apocalyptic showdown with the forces of darkness, in which he will (probably) sacrifice his own life. They get to be heroes and kings pretty much as a side effect. It ends up being a story of glorification through sacrifice and submission, which is probably the core of the fascist aesthetic. An even better example is Terry Goodkind’s eminently readable but frankly appalling Sword of Truth series, which is all loyalty oaths and sadomasochism, and dodgy conflation of loyalty oaths and sadomasochism… In the first book, the hero and heroine can never be, uh, intimate, because if they did he would be blasted and brainwashed by the magical puissance of her hoo-hah, becoming so devoted to her that his old personality would — hey, don’t look at me, people, this was an international bestseller. At the end, it’s revealed that because the hero is already so completely in love with the heroine, her magic has no effect on him. Again: through submission, glorification. Love conquers all, I guess, but sometimes love ends up conquering Poland. (And yes, this hero too starts as a hayseed and ends up as literal king of the world.)
And then there’s Martin. Game of Thrones starts out as anti-fascist in aesthetic. There seems to be no such thing as a triumphant apotheosis, at least not in the first couple of books. It’s not that the mountain peak can’t be reached: it’s that the whole mountain was a delusion, and those who try to climb it are in for a nasty surprise when gravity kicks in. Trial by combat fits into the aesthetic of fascism beautifully — justice carried out through perfected, muscular bodies engaged in a glorious mortal struggle — but it only fits if the trial by combat is glorious, and only if justice is actually served. There are two trials by combat in the books. In the first, Martin makes a big point of showing how the fight is not glorious. The second trial is a bit more poetic — but the wrong guy dies, and an innocent man is convicted. Neither of these glorifies the state, or the body, or the attitude of submission. Or take that scene from the season finale, where Robb’s supporters are bellowing “THE KING IN THE NORTH!” That would certainly seem like aestheticized fascism. But it takes the bloom off the rose when you remember that [and I think a secondary spoiler alert is justified here] most of the people in that room, Robb included, are going to get put to the sword by Roose Bolton and Walder Frey. A shorter version of that whole cycle plays out within the first book alone, with Dany’s unborn son. He was to be named “Rhaego, the stallion who mounts the world,” something which I read as “rides the world” when I read it back in 1996, and have now decoded more accurately as “f___s the world.” The scattered Dothraki tribes would finally unite under his overwhelming strength, and then, exalted by their submission, they would cross the narrow sea and stampede throughout Westeros, slaughtering and raping as they went. Under a value system that glorifies strength, this would count as a happy ending. But the apotheosis is not to be: the stallion who mounts the world gets taken out by a vengeful midwife before he’s even born.
Even that, though, is tragic, and tragedy always has the potential to shade into a glorification of sacrifice. The real challenge to fascist aesthetics comes from the series’ unperfected bodies. Some bodily abnormalities can be reconciled with fascist narratives — Jaime pretty clearly loses his hand just so that he can, through agonized struggle, climb the mountain, touch the peak, and reclaim his status as a perfected instrument of death. Brienne’s harped-on ugliness is there so that we can focus on her bodily perfection in terms of skill and strength. Varys’ castration is tied in with his utter dedication to serving the realm — the fascist body needs to be disciplined and perfect, but in all three of these cases bodily imperfections are just opportunities for more and further discipline. But the same can’t be said of Tyrion. He is quite precisely undisciplined. He drinks to excess. He likes his food. He has sex — he doesn’t make love, he has sex, and often, and never in idealized terms. He pisses. I don’t remember whether he shits or not, but others shit in his presence. He cracks jokes. He loses his temper and alienates his friends. All of this brings in the spirit of the carnival and the grotesque, which is the mortal enemy of fascist self-seriousness. Much the same can be said of Samwell Tarly, with his gross fatness, his cowardice, and his incontinent lusts. Robert Baratheon’s drunkenness, Doran Martell’s gout… This was the major initial attraction of the series, I think, to many, or at least to me. It peeled off the gleaming facade of the fantasy novel to reveal a foundation crawling with termites. And, critically, it found something beautiful in it. The story is grim and violent. Often, we are dismayed when we see people who should be good being bad: a knight of the kingsguard punches Sansa in the stomach, Littlefinger turns on the Starks, or Joffrey, like, breathes or walks into a room, that asshole. But with characters like Tyrion and Samwell, the story celebrates human weakness rather than despising it. And that is the one thing that fascist art will never countenance.
However. As the books go on, the fascist aesthetic begins creeping back in. There are three main places where I see this happening.
1) The kingsguard.
The Kingsguard is an elite military unit dedicated to, uh, guarding the king. It’s made up of the seven greatest knights in the realm (so quite literally the seven most perfected and disciplined bodies), and they are fanatically devoted to the head of state. They’re also celibate, adding the little whiff of sexualized restraint that any good fascist art needs. And theoretically, at least, they are also spiritually perfect. Because, you know, skill in combat and spiritual purity go hand in hand. In the early books, much is made of how glorious the kingsguard looks, in their spotless white cloaks, but they are exposed as a bunch of brutish louts, save for Ser Barristan, who is noble but well past his prime. So at the beginning of the story, the Kingsguard is about exposing the fascist glorification of force as hollow. But over the course of the books, this begins to shift. When Jaime Lannister becomes the leader of the kingsguard, it pretty clearly saves his soul. And one of the ways that we know this is that he starts taking the celibacy oath seriously. Ser Barristan, who already had the spiritual purity thing down, gets a physical competence upgrade — turns out that even as old as he is, he’s probably one of the world’s greatest swordsmen. And unlike his lesser brethren, who are still serving the series’ designated bad guys, Barristan jumps ship and goes off to worship the real irresistable leader, Danaerys Targaryen (for which see below).
2) The Wall and the Watch.
Like the Kingsguard, the Watch is a military order. And like the Kingsguard, they are sexless. (Institutional male celibacy seems to be kind of a thing for Martin.) Unlike the Kingsguard, they aren’t elite. In fact we’re told quite explicitly that you go into the wall as the scum of the earth. But the order transforms them. Their submission makes them into a swords, disciplined and perfected. The brothers of the watch still have their failings and foibles, and the worst of them — deserters and murderous traitors — are as bad as anyone, anywhere. But the redemption narrative is played straight often enough. And then there’s the Wall, and the North beyond which it metonymically represents. Sontag again: “As usual, the mountain is represented as both supremely beautiful and dangerous, that majestic force which invites the ultimate affirmation of and escape from the self—into the brotherhood of courage and into death.” And a key element of the continuing plot involves Bran traveling north, beyond the Wall, to achieve some kind of mystical apotheosis in the frozen lands beyond. The threat of the White Walkers is also interesting here. There’s always been a sense that the political and military struggles that make up the bulk of the books are ultimately meaningless, because, well, zombies, right? It doesn’t matter who’s sitting on the Iron Throne when the dead are walking in the night. And that means that everyone is eventually going to need to put aside their struggles, strap their armor on, and march north. Which means that the apocalyptic vision of the Night’s Watch — setting aside all material concerns in favor of a titanic military struggle against a literally inhuman foe, and more importantly, being redeemed and perfected by that struggle — turns out to be the right vision. It’s submission to an ideal rather than submission to a glorious leader, so it’s not quite fascist as Sontag describes it. But it’s in the ballpark. And speaking of glorious leaders…
3) Danearys Targaryen.
Dany’s story in the first book is great. The way she gets gamed by Mirri Maaz Durr is heartbreaking. Mirri’s reasons for doing it are heartbreaking. At the end of that book, Dany seems like the series’ most intensely vulnerable character — we’re not worried that she’ll get killed, necessarily, since she’s obviously so important — but there’s a real concern that she’s going down the wrong road, becoming a monster.
As the series goes on, however, Dany becomes more and more of a Mary Sue, which, considering that she starts out as the violet-eyed last scion of a dying house, is really quite an achievement. She attracts a fanatically devoted army of followers. Every man she meets falls in love with her. She becomes absurdly virtuous. Abolishing slavery is a good thing, don’t get me wrong, but she seems to be literally the only person in the world who objects to it — it seems to be used as a crude way to establish that she’s the Good Ruler. And the way that she gets it done is a little off-putting. She approaches the problem with a burning moral certitude, and backs it up with overwhelming physical force. End of story. There do not seem to be any negative (or even any complicated) consequences. And then there are these ancient prophecies popping up, about how she’s going to unite and save the world… the story begins to hit some very familiar beats. The collapse of the prophecy about Rhaego made it seem like this was a series where all myths are false. There is no preordained savior, no mystical leader: people just muddle through the best they can, and make up stories afterwards. But it’s looking more and more like the endgame of the books is going to be a struggle between Danaerys’ true myth, and everybody else’s false myths. And that arguably makes it worse. The charm of the series was that it deflated the fascist fantasy, demanded that we accept normal, fallible humanity as a story worth telling, even in a fantastical realm. But what if Martin doensn’t think it’s worth telling after all? What if all of the first four books were just an extended tour of the Weimar republic? What if the seven kingdoms, the Starks, the Lannisters, all of it, is just so much rubble to be cleared away by the cleansing fire of Dany’s ascension? What if Game of Thrones was never really a departure from the fascist aesthetic after all: what if Westeros was just waiting for the right führer to come along?