On the Relentless Erosion of Hope

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Me on the Iron Throne at ConQuesT in Kansas City, Missouri. My color scheme was inspired by my new favorite book, “The Night Circus.”

A lot of people are talking about Game of Thrones right now, so I guess I’ll add my voice to the clamor.

Heads up: there will be NO spoilers in this blog post. At least, no season five spoilers. Everything season one through four is fair game.

I’ve found myself going through the same transition during season five that I went through when I read book four of A Song of Ice and Fire. The story has ceased to surprise me. For several episodes now, everything that has happened I’ve seen coming. This despite the fact that I never read book five. And by all accounts, the HBO series is beginning to diverge from the book series anyway.

Yet there is one thing the HBO and book series hold in common: the hopelessness of hope. As the story progresses, the formula becomes increasingly clear and rigid. The heroic, noble, innocent, and likable are destined to be corrupted or, failing that, will die terrible and often demeaning deaths. The perverse, self-centered, cruel, and ruthless will survive and triumph. This is why for the past several episodes, pretty much every time something “terrible” has happened, I’ve just rolled my eyes and said, “Yup, I saw that coming too.”

I ran up against the same wall in book four. I realized I knew well ahead of time who was going to die or suffer, because by then I understood the profile of Martin’s victims, and he never altered that profile. If he had let one – just one – of those characters live, then I could have said, “Wow! That was a surprise.”

Now, I don’t want to come down on George R.R. Martin. I have great admiration for his work, and nothing, nothing can take away the amazing experience of reading those first three books in this classic series. He will forever be an icon in my eyes. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from reflecting on Martin’s legacy, it’s the importance of wrapping up a series before the reader figures out the formula. Or, if you’re going to continue a series indefinitely, try to switch out the formula once in a while, just to shake things up a bit.

I’ve also learned about the importance of hope, love, and compassion in story telling. All of these are in scarce supply in Martin’s world, and yet they are essential threads for any epic tale. Hope is what drives us to work toward a better future, to demand more of ourselves and others when confronting difficult times. Love and compassion are tools of transformation, capable of breaking down barriers and bridging any abyss that divides us. Hope, love, and compassion are what fuel our sense of agency in this world, the conviction that through individual actions and a sense of community, we can make a positive difference.

In Westeros, love and compassion have minimal significance. As a result, hope is inexorably eroded as the story progresses. There is a perverse genius behind this vision, a genius that can hold the reader’s attention for a long time. To the point where I suspect that what has kept most of us going into season five is not any hope inherent to the world of Westeros, but our own stubborn belief that somehow this whole mess will be turned on its head and the honorable will, at last, inherit the kingdom.

In all honesty, I don’t see that happening, simply because I don’t see any evidence that Martin is interested in or willing to switch up his formula. So here are my predictions as to where it will all lead. We can come back in a few years to see if I was right:

All of our favorite characters who are still standing are destined for miserable and demeaning deaths. Dany will be eaten by her dragons (it’s been clear for a long time she has no control over them anyway), but not before she’s been brought down from her pedestal as a woman of power and degraded under someone else’s whims. I don’t know what’s in store for Tyrion, but I’m certain he will die and that it will be an awful death. Sansa and Arya will go the same route as their parents and brother(s), and knowing HBO, we will likely be subjected to multiple rape and/or torture scenes before they are at last released from their misery. And so on. Sam, Gilly, Brienne, and everyone else you might label as basically a nice person is headed for the chopping block.

Once everyone we actually care about is dead, the White Walkers will sweep down from the north and kill all the perverts and torturers who remain. Then Dany’s dragons, having no humans left to eat, will roast the White Walkers and their undead army. The final scene will be three dragons, alone and triumphant over the snow-covered ruins of King’s Landing.

GoT will either end this way, or it won’t end at all.

In truth, I expect the latter is more likely. As the series goes on, our heroes become more scattered, more weakened, and depressingly, more dead. Perhaps in his evil genius, Martin has created a world that is simply an endless cycle of hopeless cruelty. Perhaps he has no intention of crafting the classic denouement or bringing any of it to a final resolution. Given the history, the pattern, and the formula, I can totally see this happening.

But, man. Wouldn’t it be nice if Martin could surprise us just one more time?

7 thoughts on “On the Relentless Erosion of Hope

  1. I was just saying to my daughter how I believe the series is diverging so much from the books to give GRRM room to finish his books, his way, in his time, without spoilers. They will end basically in the same place, but will get there by different roots.
    From inception, GRRM has said these books are about the children. HBO keeps killing the children, or leaving them out. (No Mance Rayder’s baby in the series intrigue.) The series is not about the children.
    Personally, I think ONLY Dany and Bran need to make it to the end. The books are called “A Song of Ice and Fire. Ice = White Walkers (and Bran as the tree-guy.) Fire = dragons, (and Dany,) of course. There was some speculation that Ice was Jon Snow, and Fire was Dany, but by now we all know–speculate–that Jon is actually a Targaryen as well as a Stark, so that might not work. But I’m holding out hope.
    I predict that the “end sequence” with Cersei, Jaime and Tyrion will leave only Tyrion alive. Cersei’s fortune-teller told her she’d die by her brother’s hand, and always believed it was to be Tyrion. But Jaime always knew he and Cersei were born together, and would die together. Alors, Jaime, as ever desperately in love with his sister, will also be the brother who kills her before he kills himself. Tyrion will probably be involved in some way, but will be alive in the end.
    I also predict that the constant stone-throwing at characters is supposed to make the ending of the whole thing more poignant when “good enough” finally wins, to great cost. GRRM is going to wipe the slate clean. Completely. I predict few will survive–Bran in his altered capacity, Rickon, Sansa, Arya, Dany–and there are others from book 5 that haven’t made it into the series that I believe will survive. I also think Tyrion, the Spider, and Hodor are going to survive.
    As for the big death this season? I’m not buying it in either book or series. I have only one word in that regard–Melisandra

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    • Well, now we have two predictions to play with! Mine was a little tongue-in-cheek, but I do not share your confidence that Martin will let even Dany and Bran survive to the end. I truly believe he’ll find a way to kill them all, in true Shakespearean fashion. HBO may be a little more merciful (they’ve already announced there are characters who die in the books that will not die in the series), but then again, HBO may choose to discontinue the series before it’s finished. So who knows?

      Personally, I was really turned off by book four of ASoIaF. Whatever Martin’s original intentions for the series, he lost his sense of direction with that installment. I haven’t read book five; I certainly don’t intend to read book six. I’ll probably keep watching the series. It’s easy enough to sit down for an hour a week in front of the TV. And there aren’t any other medieval fantasy TV series that come close to competing with GoT for the quality of acting, costuming, set design, etc. But there are plenty of other equally or more compelling books competing for my attention on my nightstand, and at this point I’d rather spend my reading time in a different sort of fantasy world.

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      • I have to admit, I’m losing stamina for the books. I wasn’t enamored of book 4, and book 5 just went off on so many new tangents. I don’t see the point in introducing even MORE plotlines into a series already too over-burdened. It’s my stubborn need to see what happens that keeps me going, so I probably will, but not with the same enthusiasm I read the first three books.

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  2. Everything you said, Karin, about admiring GRRM’s work, and about running out of gas on reading it. He (and Tad Williams, probably others) really pioneered the use of a character-per-chapter, switching very personal PoV to build the world through the eyes. That was key to the gut-wrench of watching good and innocent folks die off in such numbers.
    But you KNOW you wouldn’t get an argument about the need for hope from the guy who chronicles the Lands of Hope! After four books I made a list of remaining good guys and came up with:
    1) The poor bastard (literally) who is still alive because he’s too far north for bad guys to reach. And will die any minute from cold or enemies anyway
    2) The girl whose learning to be an assassin (because she will probably go after bad people)
    3) The golden boy who is NOT becoming good, but is getting a wee bit tired of being so bad all the time. He recently let ugly-girl-knight take the sword to LOOK for a Stark (by the time she finds one, it will be the four year old who can’t walk), and he actually refused to boink his sister over his father’s corpse. This is what GRRM puts before us as a character arc? OK, so incredible, but I think I’ll pass on book five unless someone makes it a gift.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I see what you mean, Will. Still, I always like to stop myself short of digging too deep into criticisms, because what happened with those first three books was just so utterly amazing. If I could write _one_ book like that, even half a book on his level… Well, maybe in my next life, after I’ve had a few more decades of practice. I do wonder sometimes: If he doesn’t finish the series, will someone else pick it up?

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  3. The following is not a spoiler, its just my belief. I have believed since very early on in the book series that Dany, Jon and Tyrion will battle the army of the Night King from dragonback and win. Maybe Bran instead of one of those three – but unlike them he has no Targaryen blood, so I see him as more of a command and control presence. And along the way, like JJ Abram’s lens flares and Peter Jackson’s crazy camera angles, GRRM will give us great thematic demises where people we like will get tragic deaths and people we dislike will get fitting ones. As for surprises, there is a death at the end of book five that sums it all up – not the most major character but one in an important role, that even at this jaded date I did not see coming. So yes, in my mind he can still do it and he owes us a war we want to see with the three characters that I do not think will die – at least not before they finish important business in the war between summer and winter.

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