I have written an e-book, Does the Bible Really Say That?, which is free to anyone. To download that book, in several formats, go here.
Creative Commons License
The posts in this blog are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. In other words, you can copy and use this material, as long as you aren't making money from it, and as long as you give me credit.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

The moral universe of Game of Thrones, as seen by Elizabeth Moon and Christianity Today.

George R. R. Martin is perhaps the best-selling author of fantastic literature of the last 25 years. His most popular work is a series, still incomplete, entitled “A Song of Ice and Fire.” That series is the basis for the popular HBO TV series, “Game of Thrones.” Martin has won several awards for his writing.

I try to deal with important works of fantastic literature in this blog, although I haven’t tried to touch on  vampire literature. Some years ago, I decided not to cover Martins work. My reason was that it didn’t affirm anything. Although there were sympathetic characters, their fate was often terrible, and there were some extremely evil characters, who seemed to be unpunished. (I’m sure that the series hasn’t suffered because I’m not following it!)

Two recent articles, not by me, bear on this matter.

The first is an excellent blog post by Elizabeth Moon, who has won awards in fantastic literature herself. Although it doesn’t directly consider Martin's creation, what triggered Moon’s post was a review of Martin’s work. Moon points out that there is a difference between moral complexity and moral ambiguity, and that although, say, Tolkien’s characters experienced moral complexity, what should have been done was clear. (See here for a discussion of Galadriel, for example.) But, says Moon, we are coming to the point where there's a lot of moral ambiguity:

“Moral ambiguity requires that there be no general good and bad–a chaotic, or amoral, universe–a universe in which the concepts of good and evil are absent, immaterial, and have no effect on characters’ motivation.

As indicated above, I haven’t read all of Martin’s series, but Moon has succinctly put my unease about the series into words.

A recent article in Christianity Today points out the same thing I saw in my earlier post -- nothing is affirmed. (I claim no great wisdom here. It’s easy to get Martin’s world view, or at least that part of it.)

As the article puts it: “For Martin, realistic means his characters are complex, ‘gray,’ and morally ambiguous. There are no heroes in Martins books like there are in The Lord of the Rings. There is no echo of Calvin's description of human beings as ‘glorious ruins — broken, but still able to bear the Image of God. Martin's image focuses on the ruin, not the glory.

Thanks for reading. Dont read George R. R. Martin, or watch the series. Or, if you do, do so carefully.


atlibertytosay said...

I agree that MOST storylines today seem to focus more on the plot twist (often absurd, or just there as a forced story mechanism) rather than the struggles that I believe every human faces - good vs evil.

The battles nowadays seem to be over ones desires of homosexuality and losing material things.

There seems to be little concern for loss of the soul or loss of innocence.

I watched a movie called The Descendants last night.

There was no real character change. As you suggested there was a lot of moral ambiguity. I realize that religion will often fail to play a part of a character's life if the actor portraying that character is atheist or agnostic - such as Clooney - the star of the movie is.

What concerned me was the "R" rating. This movie was rated "R" for language. The interesting thing was that it was mostly children who were cursing. The children weren't thugs either.

Why couldn't there have been isolated incidents rather than common place foul language throughout this film so that the movie could have had a broader audience?

There seemed to be no real character dynamic in the plot.

I honestly blame the stories like Harry Potter and Twilight for blurring the lines of who bad guys are.

With darkness, morals aren't present, a desire to obtain salvation isn't present, a desire to change isn't present - rather - you have a destiny now.

You have less dynamic plots now because you know that, morals tossed to the wind, the character(s) revealed that has a "destiny" revealed, is going to get there.

Gone is the transformation that goodness by change of heart and more importantly, change of spirit, brings.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for your comment, atlibertytosay.

I must have read a different series of Harry Potter books. I thought they made it pretty clear who the bad guys (and good guys) were.

I've never read the Twilight series, or seen the movies.

atlibertytosay said...

Harry Potter uses dark magic and the characters commune with witches and warlocks … they are the mselves "not good" at least according to how they measure up in the Bible.

I don't see any part of Harry Potter as being "good" … interesting, and a good twist on stories, yes.

The characters to not pray. The characters celebrate pagan ceremonies and rituals. If God is good and the role model for goodness - I saw nothing Godly about the storylines of the Potter books.

Martin LaBar said...

You aren't the only one who felt that way, of course.

Others, including writers for Christianity Today, have disagreed with that assessment.

Here's post by me, attempting to cover opinion on the books at the time the post was written, including articles pro and con:

Thanks for your comment.

Richard Kulisz said...

Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire were blatant works of narcissism and the moral void is trivially understood from this fact. Morality is beyond narcissists. Nonetheless it is possible to see which characters are SUPPOSED to be moral or objectively Good. The ones who have the most scruples in a blatantly corrupt evil world. It's just that since this is a work of pure evil, those are the characters that lose. For Evil, it is glorious when Evil wins and Goodness perishes. This is "realism" especially to American audiences who live in a demonocracy. Dictionary word people! Demon-ocracy.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for your succinct summary, Richard Kulisz. Narcissism? OK, maybe so. I hadn't thought of that, and it could explain a lot, but I'm not going to read (or watch) the series to check that out.

As to the moral universe in which many people in our culture live, I'm afraid you are right.

Richard Kulisz said...

You don't need to stoop to reading or watching the work in order to pass judgment on it. I didn't, and my judgment was confirmed by my best friend who did. Having a broad idea of the plotline or some of the characters (especially the ones who win or lose big) or elements of the story is more than enough. But to be really sure, you do the following:

1. pick a critical high level or overarching element of the story. We'll pick the feudal monarchic political system.
2. expand that element with all possible permutations of the element within the setting - roman imperialism, lawlessness, theocracy, aristocracy, athenian democracy, philosopher-king, so on.
3. fit all of the possibilities in the dataset within a frame like so,

lawful good, neutral good, chaotic good
right-wing authoritarian, narcissist, psychopath


socialist, communist, anarcho-communist / maoist
progressive conservative / marxist, liberal / corrupt liberal, anarchist / capitalist
fascist, monarchist, right-libertarian

Oh hey, it's the political compass! Apparently, some of the storytellers making the AD&D game system independently created the same structure as academic political scientists. It's almost as if this structure exists in objective reality or something and people just come up with it again and again and again.

So you fit the datapoints within the frame by asking yourself which are bar none the most evil systems possible. Well, the third that are most evil. Then the third that are least evil or only evil because they're perverted into something else in practice. The third that are most ordered, the third that are least ordered, and so on.

You can also be really familiar with personality types and know that chaotic neutral most appeals to water worshipers who also worship minoritarianism, anarchism, capitalism, anarcho-capitalism, and mob-ocracy. Or that lawful neutrals worship majoritarianism, groups (teams, groups), acceptance and inclusiveness. Or that neutral goods worship meritocracy.

So, lawlessness is clearly completely disordered and most evil, therefore it's chaotic evil or psychopath. Dictatorship includes benevolent dictatorship whereas despotism and tyranny exclude it, so dictatorship can't be evil and tyranny can't be good. Dictatorship is unpredictable so can't be ordered whereas tyranny falls on everyone equally so is ordered. Athenian democracy was a democracy ... very concerned with inclusiveness. So we'll set it aside until the rest of the frame is filled.

It doesn't take long to decide that feudal monarchism fits in the 'most evil' category. If anything, it's bumped down to most evil by burgher aristocracy which vaguely sounds like feudal monarchism but isn't. And burgher aristocracy is plainly and obviously unGood. Like corrupt liberalism, burgher aristocrats worship wealth and materialism and "gentleness". So true neutral, which means that feudal monarchism must be pure evil. It fits right in between lawlessness and tyranny, doesn't it? Game of Thrones has plenty of both.

Richard Kulisz said...

Need confirmation of your judgment? Alright, pick ANOTHER key element. Say, biographies of juvenile fantasy authors. Or overall plotlines of fantasy books in the top 50 of Then do the same procedure for it. You'll find your confirmation right there.

Doing just this dumb procedure, you'll have an accuracy of maybe 85%. With some experience and cross-checking you can push your accuracy above 95%. With a better framework than just 3*3 and several years' experience you can push it up above 99.9999%.

How is it possible? Because you'll learn many many patterns and key elements. Like that if there's exhibitionism without humiliation then that's a giveaway of one personality type. Or that elements can be subordinate to greater elements. So a story might have rape and then the rapist executed, which subordinates the rape to justice or perhaps vengeance.

Someone's story has 10 times more battleships than sniper rifles? They're right-wing authoritarian. All of the characters are blatantly character raped and none of them are distinguishable from each other? They're either true neutral or chaotic neutral. Horror? Automatically chaotic neutral. The novel has more than 100 named characters? Automatically lawful neutral.

I've got tables of political systems by personality type, but also military hardware, relationships, sexual relationships, child rearing, use of violence, primitive religions, advanced religions, types of art even. Psychopaths are colorists for instance. They also obsess about skin color ... as if by coincidence. Chaotic neutrals worship the stars, lawful neutrals worship the Sun, so yes I made tables of astronomical objects too. Turns out, the moon is a more hardcore version of the Sun. I haven't been able to pin down which personality type does acrostic writing though. A big mystery that will eventually be solved. It did take me 3 years to learn who obsesses about flowers, but I ran into overwhelming proof eventually.

So yeah, there's one and only one personality type that treats all reality minus warfare as a game. And there's only one completely different personality type that treats warfare and ONLY warfare as a game. The latter is narcissist. Psychopaths don't do that, fascists don't do that, nobody else does that, ever, because nobody else thinks that war is FUN. So just from the title "game of thrones" (aka The Great Game + monarchism) I knew it was narcissist. It couldn't have been clearer or more certain even if I saw George Martin hamming it up like an idiot in front of a camera.

Richard Kulisz said...

Let's put it this way.

* the hobbit: there and back again -> the little people, like a circle, true neutral
* the one ring -> true neutral
* lord of the rings -> true neutral
* spider-man -> chaotic neutral
* iron man stalin -> narcissist
* empire of the sun -> lawful neutral
* sex and the city -> should be chaotic good, is halfway down to chaotic neutral
* deadpool -> chaotic neutral
* discworld -> lawful neutral 10% OR chaotic good 90%, is chaotic good
* the deed of paksenarrion -> should be weakly narcissist or weakly lawful good but from cover is lawful good
* harry potter -> potter is a common lowly profession, so lawful neutral but it's not truly humble so true neutral, harry is such an average name so true neutral
* babylon five -> multiculturalism, failed 4 times, true neutral
* x-files -> incomprehensible title, chaotic neutral
* buffy the vampire slayer -> psychopath
* star trek: the next generation -> lawful neutral
* star trek: voyager probe -> traditionalist so right-wing authoritarian
* worm serial novel -> lawful neutral
* infernal devices -> narcissist
* spawn -> like a frog, chaotic neutral
* hellboy -> chaotic neutral
* monsters inc -> chaotic neutral
* mass effect -> true neutral
* spore -> chaotic good

Maybe a third to a half of all media can be judged by title alone, and in the rest there are mostly just question marks. Authors will not willingly pick titles that rub them the wrong way. And marketing will not try to alienate the audience that will most love the book. Game of Thrones was marketed to narcissists.

Martin LaBar said...

I follow some of this, but not all, and I doubt that I'm going to be able to, no matter how it's explained, possibly because of my own limitations.

If you cover this sort of thing on your own blog, or elsewhere on the internet, perhaps you could leave a link to a relevant post, for anyone who reads your comments and wants to know more.