Game of Thrones and (our need for) happy endings

I’ve been reading Game of Thrones and thinking about happy endings.

If you’re not familiar with it, A Game of Thrones is the first book in a humongous, sprawling fantasy series that gained a lot of fans when it was recently made into an HBO series. With five volumes totaling some 5,000 pages, its size makes Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings look like a 98-pound weakling on the beach. And five volumes isn’t the end of it. I just finished number five and everything remains cliffhangers; author George R.R. Martin says there is at least one more volume to come, maybe two.

Like Tolkien, Martin has created an entire cosmology with thousands of years of back history, religions and civilizations, largely derived from feudal Europe (knights, kings, castles, the only light is fire). But as my friend Nick Herold pointed out in recommending the series to me, Martin differs from Tolkien in the depth of his characters.

Game of Thrones is made up of chapters with alternating protagonists — dozens of them. Each chapter, you’re inside someone else’s head, seeing their rivalries and desires and feeling their pain as they get imprisoned, seasick, maimed or betrayed. And there is a LOT of maiming and betraying. I like that Martin doesn’t sugarcoat his feudal kingdoms a la Disney. Villages are muddy and starving, wounds fester with yellow pus in a world without antibiotics, rats and dogs are a dinner staple for common people while the royalty eat elaborate, gout-inducing banquets.

That grittiness applies to the plot(s) as well as the details of daily life. No one seems to catch a break in Game of Thrones. Good, honorable characters are killed. Evil characters are killed. People who should be allies become antagonists. Well-intentioned plans go awry. Children are orphaned; innocents are betrayed; heroic gestures lead to disastrous outcomes.

Sometimes I wish I could take all the “good” characters and bring them together, in one place and on the same side, but they are scattered across two continents and don’t even know that their family members or friends are alive. They experience one setback after another. Really, it would feel like The Perils of Pauline — damsel now tied to the railroad track, now dangling from a bridge, now up against a firing squad — if the flow weren’t broken up by moving between the ups and downs of those dozen-plus different characters.

About halfway through the five books, I realized these aren’t really novels. None of the volumes end with closure. There is no visible narrative arc — no rise toward a climax, followed by resolution. The story just goes on and on. Ups, downs, ups, downs, more complications, more characters, more ups and downs. It could go on like this for a dozen volumes. A hundred.

Which makes me wonder how Martin is going to end the series. At any point, he could wrap things up and bring all the dozen plot lines to tidy conclusions. That’s what I yearn for as I read it — the good characters all uniting, the lingering mysteries revealed, the triumph of a Good King (or Queen) who brings permanent peace and justice to the beleaguered lands of Westeros. But to some extent, that would feel like a betrayal of the rest of the series.

The series is like life — nothing ever seems to really end, and one “resolution” just leads to a new set of conflicts. Compare it to world politics. Our involvement in Iraq is “ending.” Obama is bringing our troops home. But the internecine conflict and sectarian tensions there continue, and at any point there could be a new eruption of violence that spills over and affects the Middle East and us in unforeseen ways. In Game of Thrones, none of people’s efforts to establish a just and peaceful kingship have succeeded so far. Why should we believe they will succeed at the end of the series?

So I started thinking about happy endings. We crave them. We want good to triumph over evil, but perhaps even more, we want things to be resolved. Static. In tragedies like Romeo and Juliet, the heroes die but as readers we are still satisfied because things are wrapped up, static, concluded. Everything is known. The story stops.

And this is of course pretense, artifice – no less on the individual than on the political level. Pride and Prejudice ends neatly with the marriages of Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley. But marriages begin, not end, on the wedding day. There are a zillion conflicts that happen afterwards – illnesses, jealousies, power struggles, intergenerational conflicts, who knows what. But we don’t want to see any of that. We want things to be wrapped up, resolved, static.

My favorite Darcy and Elizabeth – Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle – at their static, happy ending

Would anyone buy a novel where everything — everything — was left unresolved at the end? Could you even call that a novel?

And why is narrative resolution so important to us, when the only thing in life that is truly static and permanent is death?

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11 Responses to “Game of Thrones and (our need for) happy endings”

  1. Tom Moore Says:

    It’s a wonderful piece of writing – “true to life” in a way we don’t usually admit is true about our daily lives.
    My take on GOT: http://strategicdocumentaries.com/blog/game-of-thrones-optimis/

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Great essay, Tom. I may have to riff on it. We all want to think that life will be better for our kids… which is counterbalanced by the equally seductive feeling that civilization is going to hell in a handbasket.

      I also thought of the dragons as the equivalent of nuclear weapons.

  2. Phil Price Says:

    Did you ever read “A Soldier of the Great War”? It’s the first book that really made me reconsider what the ending of a book means. I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t read it, which means I can’t really explain the parallel…let’s just say that it’s a frame story, and the inner story has a well-defined ending, but the frame reminds us that life went on after that inner story was over.

  3. Barbara Kluger Says:

    I’ve read the entire series up to the last one and I’m actually pretty tired of all the chaotic, relatively unconnected story lines. In real life, we already see plenty of bloody, horrifying, unsatisfying stories. In a novel, I want a bit of escapism. It can be less than rosy, but Martin’s ongoing snapshots are just kind of gross. As if realistic sickness, death and wars weren’t horrifying enough, he actually brought Catelyn back as a creepy not-really-dead creature without a soul. He seems to delight in killing off or isolating main characters. I keep wanting to know that the remaining characters actually accomplish something of meaning to them. In real life, although there are plenty of setbacks and detours, people usually find satisfaction in some parts of their lives — in their work or families. Martin’s characters never find any. I’m hoping that HBO tells the stories a little differently, giving the viewers a sense of closure once in a while.

  4. Tom Moore Says:

    Those who have been enjoying GOT may also enjoy reading the book of essays on the series that just came out – Beyond the Wall: Exploring George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. It was published in June in paperback and e-book, and is probably already at your local public library.

  5. Lucy Hornstein Says:

    Robert Jordan’s WHEEL OF TIME series is sort of similar. I stopped after the 10th doorstop…er, volume. At least each of them comes to a nice defined end.

    I started to dip into GOT (via a “sample” on my Nook) but hearing this from you (and others), my reaction is, “What’s the point?” Disconnected, chaotic storylines with numerous unrelated characters is called “life”. Novels are stories. They’re little (well, varying sized) pieces of life, because that’s what they’re supposed to be.

    Orson Scott Card wrote a short story called “Mortal Gods”, where an immortal race worships us humans because we have endings, unlike them. It takes place in a museum, where one of the aliens points out that our pictures have frames on them.

  6. Kaveh Says:

    For me happy endings are nice as long as the happiness does not seem “false”–shallow or forced. If the ending is not happy or fully resolved, I think readers crave for at least some deeper understanding, some type of revelation, even if the revelation is a yet-unresolved complexity.

    I found Tom’s essay (which he linked above) fascinating, but I think that the hope for things to get “better” overall is deeply ingrained in us, not just a cultural phenomena, even if we ENDURE periods (such as now) where we expect certain crises to get worse (global warming, scarcity of certain resources, our national debt, etc.)

  7. Tom Moore Says:

    Thanks, Kaveh. I would certainly agree that such hope is deeply ingrained, perhaps even for reasons of evolutionary biology (we are the descendants of the survivors, after all). On the other hand, in the short term, or even over several lifetimes, things can certainly get worse and worse. Two good examples: the destruction of the first and second Temples.
    Which leads to another thought: religion and religions are amply present in GOT. The “old religion” of the Starks, the North, and north of the wall seems to resemble the druidical religion of the Celts, perhaps; the institutional nature of the Seven seems like the multi-deity religion of Rome/Greece or even Norse cultures as it might have developed in a Europe without the importation of Christianity, and taken across the Channel/Narrow Sea; Rhllor/Lord of Light, a sort of Christianity/charismatic religion as it might have been if modern Christianity had come from Zoroastrianism/Mithraism instead of Judaism. The Drowned God – very original on GRRM’s part. What seems to be entirely missing is anything harking towards Judaism (in the way that the Seven/Septs resemble medieval Christianity).
    For some reason, Judaism simply doesn’t seem to lend itself to High Fantasy (I recall an essay on the subject in the Jewish Review of Books, I think). An exception: The Ring of Solomon (J. Stroud), which is set in Solomon’s Jerusalem.

  8. Tom Moore Says:

    PPS. The classic book w/o happy ending: the Bible (whichever version).

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