A Liberal's Guide to Middle Earth

Caution: Spoilers

In 2009, National Review ranked Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy No. 11 on a list of the best "conservative movies" of the past 25 years. The magazine's reasoning was simple -- after September 11, the adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy novels were the perfect Manichean fable for conservatives as they cheered on and spurred America's march to war against an amorphous Muslim enemy in Iraq.

"The debates over what to do about Sauron and Saruman echoed our own disputes over the Iraq War," wrote Andrew Leigh, referring to the franchise's two epic villains -- a common reading for conservatives at the time.

This spring, a more morally complex fantasy epic will hit the screen. Just as Jackson's battles between the kingdoms of man and the dark armies of orcs and ringwraiths once spoke to Americans who believed that they were engaged in an epic battle between good and evil, Game of Thrones, HBO's adaptation of George R.R. Martin's fantasy novels, speaks to Americans who understand that the most glorious wars can have squalid aftermaths -- and in time, turn out not to have been so glorious after all. While Martin, like other fantasy authors, borrows from Tolkien, his major innovation has been his flawless integration of realistic elements into a literary genre whose name is synonymous with falsehood. Martin's series, collectively known as A Song of Ice and Fire, takes all the reasons people gravitate to the genre of fantasy and inverts them.

Rather than taking place at the onset of a great war, Martin's series begins 15 years after the good guys have already won. The "Mad King" Aerys Targaryen, whose family ruled the continent of Westeros for centuries with its now extinct army of dragons, has been deposed in a rebellion led by Lord Robert Baratheon and his best friend, Eddard Stark. Once a great warrior, King Baratheon has grown fat and slovenly -- and unable to cope with other noble families trying to usurp the Iron Throne. Seeking aid from his friend and ally, Baratheon calls Stark down from his holdings in the North to act as the king's enforcer -- the Hand of the King. While Baratheon was initially greeted as a liberator, the fragile aftermath of Robert's Rebellion against an obvious tyrant fractures into outright civil war between no fewer than five self-proclaimed kings.

Tolkien's monsters are literally monsters -- his orcs, uruk-hai, and ringwraiths lack genuine free will, let alone the potential for individual moral redemption. Most of Martin's monsters are people -- and just when you've decided to hate them, he writes a chapter from their perspective, forcing you to consider their point of view.

Just as humanity makes Martin's villains both less monstrous and more terrifying, his epic heroes don't live happily ever after -- they become old bullies who father litters of children out of wedlock, or fools crippled by honor and Hamlet-like indecision. In service to political alliances, girls are sold off to warlords at the age of 14. Mighty warriors die from minor wounds that become infected or from the well-placed daggers of cowards, while the cowards themselves prevail by skulking in the shadows as others go to war. Westeros nobles, when not plotting against each other, mire themselves in debt in the pursuit of luxury, while their peasants starve and groan under hard labor. Those who choose the path of honor find themselves losing their holdings, while those who lie and cheat survive and thrive. That's not to say the lives of Westeros' nobles are enviable. Trapped by feudal custom, byzantine social maneuvering, and incessant violence, the best you can say for them is they usually have enough to eat and someplace to live.

While the genre of fantasy often veers between extremes of puritan chastity and clumsily written pseudo-pornography, Martin's novels are blunt and unsentimental about sex and contain harrowing examples of rape and incest, particularly the widespread indifference to the former as a weapon of war.

In The Lord of the Rings, it is easy to root for the good guys. In Martin's saga, the good guys are sometimes hard to find. While Tolkien's world brims with magical possibility, in Martin's, magic has vanished as completely as the Targaryens' army of dragons. In most of the early novels, the only hint of magical presence comes from The Others, a race of monsters from the frigid north, once thought to be extinct. A 300-mile wall of ice, manned by the few remaining men of the Night's Watch, an order that is part monastic, part penal colony, is the only line of defense for a continent embroiled in a brutal civil war. Oh, and eventually, it turns out that Robert's Rebellion against the "Mad King" may have occurred under false pretenses. Sound familiar?

Game of Thrones producer David Benioff has described the series as "The Sopranos in Middle Earth." The saga's bloody family rivalries mirror those of The Sopranos, but while Tony never quite stops being a villain, a primary aspect of Martin's series is that, although it remains largely anchored to the Stark family, it doesn't so much have good guys and bad guys as it does factions, each of which contain people of great decency and terrible malice -- often both at the same time. In the way that Martin's tales feature flawed but essentially good human beings thrown together as enemies because of matters of culture, custom, and circumstance through a narrative that easily shifts perspectives, the series is more like The Wire in Middle Earth than like The Sopranos.

A Song of Ice and Fire is less an indictment of an entire group of people or way of thinking than of the brutal and capricious social system in which the characters find themselves. Both The Wire and Game of Thrones are less about individual good and evil than the way in which the most well-intentioned people can be crushed by conflicting moral obligations and competing social impulses -- while those of questionable moral fiber can find power and legitimacy in cleverly exploiting society's rules. Slowly, one learns to hate the game instead of the players.

In the second book of his series, Martin adopts the perspective of one of his clever inversions of fantasy archetypes -- a handsome warrior of unparalleled skill who resembles the archetypical fantasy hero but who, up until then, has been little more to the reader than a vicious killer. Captured and humbled, the warrior responds to interrogation by delivering what is essentially the moral foundation of the series: "So many vows ... they make you swear and swear. Defend the king. Obey the king. Keep his secrets. Do his bidding. Your life for his. But obey your father. Love your sister. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. Respect the gods. Obey the laws. It's too much. No matter what you do, you're forsaking one vow or the other."

Martin's work -- Martin has written four books so far and expects to produce seven -- is too complex to be boiled down to any kind of partisan platform. When Aragorn delivers his climactic speech before the final battle in Jackson's adaptation of The Return of the King and says, "I bid you stand, men of the West!" his sense of righteousness speaks to those immune to moral complexities -- certainly including those who cheered on George W. Bush's "war on terror." In Game of Thrones, liberals may find a tale of epic fantasy that they can cheer -- or at least, one that reminds people that we're never quite so righteous as we think we are.

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