Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Warped Geography of Game of Thrones

I am devoted to Game of Thrones. Somewhere, deep within my imagination, it strokes an enduring fantasy of achieving order through medieval valor and romance. This is an old fascination of mine that was most fully realized during my childhood through the Narnia and Lord of the Rings books. Though the plot and characters in these series held an appeal, it was their nuanced place-making that captured me for good. As the stories unfolded, their landscapes became as fully formed as any character (more so in the case of Lord of the Rings, in which nearly all the members of the Fellowship are one-dimensional). Consider The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis’ conclusion to the seven-part series, when the remaining Pevensie children romp across nearly the entire length of Narnia as they transcend death and ascend to Aslan’s country, an allegory for heaven.

Game of Thrones is heir to this fantasy tradition of geomorphological complexity, though R.R. Martin’s motive is purely to entertain. The HBO series makes an explicitly geographical appeal to its audience through its title sequence, a fevered birds-eye journey across whichever cities figure prominently in a particular episode. The modeling of the landscape is exquisite, with cities that literally unfurl before the viewer’s eyes, while the inverted curvature of the land is shrewdly bizarre. Most intriguingly, viewers are treated to sights of new cities, as the close-up of the map of Westeros and its twin continent across the Narrow Sea, Essos, shifts from one episode to the next. I am usually up and about during title sequences, but I watch closely during Game of Thrones for new landmarks.

Curiously, the basic geography of the worlds in these three enormously popular series is consistent in its elemental form, both physical and cultural. The heroes of each story – Starks, Pevensies, hobbitses – share a deep attachment to some territory in the northwestern reaches of the known continents. In these cool, stimulating latitudes, existence is simple, modest, and just. Food is abundant but wealth not too excessive, while spiritual fulfillment is within reach if characters attend to community and religion. To the south and east, however, lie treacherous lands, where dusky inhabitants are primitive and hedonistic, yet skilled in warfare. Calormen and its perfidious Tisrocs and Tarkaans become the chief villains in the later Narnia books, while Khal Drogo and his savage Dothraki horde menace Westeros in Game of Thrones. Beyond Mordor, itself occupying the southeast corner of Tolkien’s map of Middle-Earth, live the Haradrim, who wear turbans and fight atop Mรปmakil, a larger, more aggressive cousin to the elephant.

Many observers flatly accuse the creators of these stories of racism. I prefer to emphasize the role that environmental determinism, the simplistic but alluring notion that human temperament and behavior is shaped by physical geography, plays in constructing an inherently problematic setting. The concept has an ancient, resilient history. Aristotle theorized about the existence of frigid, temperate, and torrid zones, speculating that humans could only survive in temperate regions. These ideas became particularly prominent among western academics in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, when leading geographers Friedrich Ratzel, Ellen Churchill Semple, and Ellsworth Huntington developed a counterfeit scholarship of determinism to buttress the systemic racism upon which western imperialism rested.

Given the context that Tolkien and Lewis wrote in, it is not surprising that their stories reflect underlying white anxieties about decolonization and the world order. However, in recreating their basic geography, particularly its cultural aspects, Game of Thrones perpetuates these discredited, corrosive theories of racial hierarchy. Their subtlety makes them all the more insidious. No doubt, for a white viewer like myself, the show’s geography appeals to the insecurities fostered by our deeply engrained discourse of race. When the reign of Robert Baratheon, King of Westeros at the beginning of the first season, dissolves in a haze of drink, whores, and boar hunting, the geographic origin of his downfall is implicit. King’s Landing, the capital, is a humid, languid place, home to a scheming elite and its wretched underclass. Living in so permissive a clime, the once lean and fierce king naturally succumbs to his baser instincts.