[Editor’s Note: This post was original posted in May 2013 and was updated in May 2016].
All throughout the several seasons of HBO’s Game of Thrones there has been an underlying thread of cultural and political subtext that makes the show so much more than just an average fantasy epic. It’s actually one of the most timely and socially relevant parables of our time and offers a somber, prophetic warning that very much applies to real life.
The Object of the Game
The eponymous “game of thrones” that the series’ title refers to is the ongoing struggle among the five primary claimants to either seize or hold onto the Iron Throne. And, yes, “game” is a very apt metaphor because the maneuvers, turns and machinations in this show can very much resemble a game, just as they often do in real life. Ultimately, the desired objective of the game is, of course, power and more and more of it – of which the Iron Throne itself is but a mere symbol.
In this respect, the constant plotting and betrayals that we see throughout the series very much parallels the power struggles that take place in our real world. And power struggles exist at every strata of human society: governments, corporations, organizations, families, anywhere and everywhere that people gather – even virtually on social networks.
Power is, of course, one of our primary obsessions aside from money, material possessions, fame and sex. But one of the ways in which Game of Thrones is effective as a parable is in exposing the mad chase after power for the hollow occupation that it is. Sabotage, intrigue, betrayals and killing, killing and more killing. Even when power is seized, this cycle does not end. It is merely reset.
Engaged viewers, and even some of the more sensitive, thoughtful characters within the story, may stop and ask themselves: is there even any meaningfulness to the never-ending madness that is the struggle for power?
Regardless of whether you think there is or isn’t any meaning to it, there’s a far, far worse threat that the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros are leaving themselves vulnerable to by fighting among themselves. And this threat is a stark analogy for a grave threat that we real-life human beings also collectively face but are too busy attacking each other to adequately address.
What Lies Beyond the Wall: The White Walkers[Warning: Possible minor spoilers for first 3 seasons]
As we know, the Wall is a man-made fortification that stretches along the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms. It was erected to protect the realm from two threats: one perceived, one indisputably real.
The perceived threat among the general populace of the realm are the Wildings which, in different ways, could be argued to represent various groups of people that are either feared, mistrusted or despised to various degrees in the real-world. Immigrants might be one example.
But the Wildings are not the real threat. The White Walkers are.
The ‘Game of Thrones’ White Walkers are a race of the undead, “zombies” if you will, and although geeks may nitpick over the technical differences, it’s a suitable enough description. But whatever they are, they are the real threat to the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.
What’s really important here is what the two threats symbolize. The Wildings symbolize any number of fears that are either not as truly threatening as we imagine or are relatively minor problems that can be addressed with a bit of wisdom and diplomacy. The White Walkers, on the other hand, symbolize cataclysmic threats to our world and our way of life.
What are those threats? There are any number of them, really. And the level of danger they actually present may be hotly contested depending on your politics. But here are a few that I think are real, genuine threats to not just our long-term safety and our well-being but our very survival.
(1) A gradually worsening environmental crisis
(2) Economic instability at both local and international levels
(3) Increasing social and political instability
I am of course speaking very broadly since within each of these categories are many more specific problems. And although I cannot go into these topics at length in just one essay, any quick Google search will bring up a wealth of material addressing how very real these threats are. Never mind outlandish conspiracy theories that can’t be proven – I am talking about problems and threats for which there is a lot of hard evidence.
Unfortunately, even though there are many passionate individuals who are trying their best to grapple with these problems and make the public more aware of their seriousness, our collective response as a culture to these real-life White Walkers seems to be to pull the wool over our eyes. Our entire lifestyle infrastructure, from the cities we live in, the institutions we partake in, the media we consume, and the goals and obsessions we share all becomes one great Wall constructed to block out the uncomfortable, encroaching truths from our everyday reality and shelter us in a comfortable illusion of artificial safety and stability.
The Real Life Night’s Watch
Some might argue that a show like Game of Thrones is part of the figurative “Wall” that blocks out harsh realities because it is escapist entertainment. In a sense, yes, it is a sort of Wall, or part of it. But it is also the Three-Eyed Raven sent to us by our own collective unconscious – so much wiser than our conscious minds – to warn us symbolically through story. While it might not have been intentional on the part of the show’s creators, the idea that a work of escapist media can actually shake us out of our escapist slumber is truly inspiring. Because for a culture addicted to escapism as we are, the direct, proselytizing approach doesn’t really work. Such approaches will be shunned just as the Rangers of the Night’s Watch are shunned as convicts and outcasts. Socially conscious products of entertainment – if they’re good enough – can therefore provide the proverbial spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine to go down and wake us up gently.
Aside from Game of Thrones as a whole, the real-life Night’s Watch could also be said to be thinkers, scientists, artists and activists who, like the Rangers in GoT, have made great personal sacrifices to stand at the precipice of their fields and see, with their own eyes, the dangers closing in on us. They too are like the three-eyed messenger raven that keeps appearing in Bran Stark’s prophetic dreams. Mythically, a third eye on the forehead is an age-old symbol for visionary insight and the ability to see things that others do not.
But just as in the show, our real-life Rangers are not always taken very seriously by the general public, perhaps because what they have to say threatens the comfortable little bubbles we prefer to live in. And our real-life leaders, just like the leaders of Westeros, pass off the White Walkers as a myth (e.g. climate change denial) and they are too busy fighting each other and consumed by their worldly desires to see that not only is the threat real, it is coming ever closer by the moment. Art imitates life.
Even among those in power, there are always exceptions (Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryan come to mind). But there are also many in power who reassure their people that everything is under control, that there’s nothing to worry about, that our way of life is not threatened, and to by all means continue shopping. Of course they do. Because if we truly believed we were in danger, we’d change our fundamental way of life, and that would mean the subversion of the status quo which, in turn, would mean some loss of power and wealth for many who have it. Telling us to keep calm and carry on is therefore a form of self-preservation (which isn’t to say that they don’t believe in what they tell us – quite likely they do).
But the only way we’re going to survive any number of future crises that may face us in the years and decades to come is if we stop being complacent, stop fighting, blaming and one-upping each other every chance we get and put our minds together to think of solutions. The future will require no less of us. Our survival will require no less of us.
It may be, as I suspect, that we really won’t change or wake up until we are faced with all-out, full-blown crisis that not even the Wall can hide or deny any longer. This is what essentially happens at the end of Season 3 of GoT, when the Rangers of the Night’s Watch send out messenger ravens to every one of the Seven Kingdoms, warning them that the White Walkers are indeed real and that they are coming.
It remains to be seen, however: how seriously will the lords of the different kingdoms take this call to arms? Will they join forces to ward off the mutual danger that threatens to render them extinct? Or will they remain too entrenched in their habitual obsessions and desires to pay notice?
But the real question isn’t what the leaders will do. If we look to our leaders to solve our problems we will continue to suffer as they continue to scramble for their own power. The real question therefore is: what will we do about our real-life White Walkers? For it is only when enough of the people decide that something must be done and come together to join forces does any lasting, sweeping change truly take place.
We have to make up our minds soon. Winter is coming.