I have a sort of theory about why Game of Thrones is so massively popular. Obviously there are lots of reasons: complex fantasy world, gratuitous sex and violence (the TV series especially), etc. But what sets Game of Thrones well apart from your run-of-the-mill reading or viewing experience is its author’s much-discussed habit of killing off main characters, at shockingly regular intervals. “Every time someone asks me how long until the next book”, goes one George R. R. Martin meme, “I KILL A STARK”.
As readers (or watchers) we’ve been trained by long experience to know more or less what to expect when we encounter stories. There’s a kind of contract between writer and audience, an unwritten code that differs from genre to genre but that allows us to navigate our way pretty comfortably through the narrative. Art offers us a little thing called narrative shape – something we seek and usually fail to find in our own lives.
But Martin refuses to play by the rules. He doesn’t just offer up more startling twists than the next guy – deviations from the expected path – he leaves us feeling like maybe we’re not even on the path we thought we were. What is Game of Thrones about? Is it the story of how Robb Stark rallies the North and grows up to lead a more just and prosperous Westeros? Um, apparently not. Is it the dark and infuriating tale of Joffrey and The Worst Reign Ever? Nope, guess again. Is the bigger story Jon Snow v. the White Walkers, or Daenerys and her dragons? Who’s to say? No one, it seems, is safe in this world – just like in the real one.
Often the way we study and consume history implies that there’s a definite shape and logic to human life; in retrospect, we lose the sense of randomness that comes from being within history and imagine that things were always going to turn out the way they did. But as politicians and generals and disaster victims or just the everyday bereaved can no doubt tell you, it doesn’t feel like that at the time.
Do our lives have narrative shape? Do the pieces fit somehow? The Christian faith affirms that, contrary to what our egos (and advertisers) tell us, we are not the main character of our own lives – the story is, in fact, not about us, and both our knowledge of what’s going to happen and our power to bend events to our will are limited. But on the other hand, the Bible charts a cosmic narrative arc and then situates us and our individual stories within it. It tells us what kind of story we’re in, and where it’s headed.
This, I think, helps explain what makes Game of Thrones so disorienting, and so compelling – it strips us of our usual narrative assumptions and certainties and forces us to ask questions like, where is it all going? who is it about? and who can I trust?