Once upon a time a series called Game of Thrones was broadcast on the television machine. It was one of those remote and long-lost events that occurred before The Great Scrambling, during that vast stretch of time reaching back to the first civilizations, which historians know as Antiquity.
“Wait!” a reader may object. “I watched that series and remember it well.” The reader would be technically correct. But that just goes to show that a) history is not an exact science and b) some passed through the Great Scrambling with clearer heads. Others of us were too busy surviving the reign of a deranged child-king and the invasion of zombie hordes from the Global North to recall a televised fiction with similar plot elements.
Some archival work was necessary to piece together this past. Here are a few of the items that I uncovered.
1. On April 25, 2015, at the Washington Correspondents Dinner, an early connection was made between Game of Thrones and contemporary American politics. President Obama was at the mike along with “Luther,” his “Anger Translator,” played by comedian Keegan-Michael Key. The bit allowed the President to lightly mock the press, thanking them for “two weeks of non-stop Ebola coverage,” and for a series of perceived “Obama’s Katrina,” which never came to pass. Comfortable as he neared the end of two terms, Obama/Luther mentioned the 2016 election, still nineteen months away. He named the most likely candidates and paired each with a joke. The Jeb Bush joke was mild, the Cruz joke skewering. It was the Hilary Clinton joke that made reference to the popular HBO series. Luther, strutting, his fingers interlaced across his chest, spoke of Clinton’s fearsome ability to raise funds. “Khaleesi is coming to Westeros!” he said.
To this, I’ll just add a few comments. First, Games of Thrones was by this time past its sixth season, and all the pieces of its endgame were in place. Dany Targaryen—Khaleesi, Queen of the Dothrakis, Mother of Dragons—would travel over The Narrow Sea with her armies to claim the Iron Throne. It was hers rightfully, that is to say, by blood, but she also earned it. She had grown into a strong leader, become a champion of the enslaved. She had passed through the fire, literally. What is more, the show’s audience was behind her. How great that a woman, long-abused and underestimated, would rise in this man’s world and bring to it a higher politics!
Second, and this hardly needs be said, the joke hinged on an association between Dany’s story and Clinton’s in the popular mind. There were those of us who might have aligned more closely with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in terms of policy, but who really wanted to see a woman president. I don’t know what to say about this. The cells in my brain where this thinking existed have since been replaced by scar tissue.
Finally, judging by the available video, the joke received a mixed response from its audience. Why? Was the reference too obscure? Professionals working at the top of their fields have less time for television, supposedly. Did this perceived signal from Obama himself that Clinton was the presumptive nominee make them shift uncomfortably in their chairs? I won’t hazard a guess. This is history, after all. Most of the data is unrecoverable.
2. On April 11, 2016, a Game of Thrones think-piece, authored by Clive James, was published in The New Yorker. Although the primary season was well underway, James drew no connection to the political scene. His goals were loftier: What explained Games of Thrones’ immense popularity? James had been a reluctant viewer whose ability to suspend disbelief was typically restricted by “a total embargo of dragons.” But like so many others, he soon overlooked the trolls, giants, magic, and all the other trappings of fantasy fiction, and got caught up in the moral battle. “The whole thrust of the show,” James wrote, “is to give us a world where the law is not yet formed,” a world governed by nothing but “the lawless interplay of violent power.”
Game of Throne‘s power players were ruthless, as was the narrative itself, which it proved by its willingness to kill off its purported heroes. “Everyone in the show is dispensable,” James wrote, “as in the real world.” The one exception, James explained, was Tyrion Lannister, the character played by Peter Dinklage. He was
the epitome of the story’s moral scope. His big head is the symbol of his comprehension, and his little body the symbol of his incapacity to act upon it. Tyrion Lannister is us, bright enough to see the world’s evil but not strong enough to change it.
James captured much that was true about Game of Thrones, but his conclusion was hasty. A full year had passed since the Washington Correspondents Dinner, and only now were new episodes in release. The series’ endgame was still in play. Evil might not yet triumph. James claimed that the appeal of the show was its “raw realism,” and certainly, the ruthlessness in storytelling raised the stakes. But what kept people watching wasn’t a consensus that this rawness was real, but the requirement that in the end, viewers would be reassured that it wasn’t.
Is this really the way the world is? That was the question the show asked over and over, and that it would keep asking until the end.
Many are tempted to answer yes, that life is nothing but a nasty scramble for domination, with a few big winners on one side and the rest of us on the other. The evidence in support of this answer is overwhelming, and mainstream science provides a basic rationale. In a 2018 essay collection, titled What Are We Doing Here?, novelist Marilynne Robinson summarized this rationale: humans were “locked in a perpetual cost-benefit analysis, unconsciously guided by a calculus of self-interest somehow negotiated at the level of genome.” We were deceived to think otherwise, the science claimed. But the question is contested. Robinson’s essays contest it. Lots of people think otherwise. This is what I mean by the appeal of Game of Thrones. We thought otherwise and had to watch to the end to find out if we were deceived.
3. On June 1, 2017, George R. R. Martin, the author whose series of novels Game of Thrones was based, was quoted in Esquire, saying, “I think Joffrey is now the king in America.” Joffrey was the show’s first and most despised villain, a disturbed boy, installed unexpectedly onto the throne. Vainglorious and cruel, Joffrey loved and even craved power because it shielded him from seeing himself as he really was: a coward, a bully, a bore, and a creep. His was also weirdly blonde.
It doesn’t matter that Joffrey had been killed off in season four, way back in 2014. A direct comparison between this fictional creation and the former US president seems almost too obvious to make. Still, I have no recollection of making it at the time, not even as baby-Trump-in-diaper balloons began to show up at protest gatherings around the world. Trauma does funny things to the brain. It can disturb the most elementary of calculations; it can scramble the very experience of time.
4. Between April and May, 2019, the final season of Game of Thrones was broadcast to widespread disappointment. Part of this can be explained by delays in production and a decline in quality. The producers had been running ahead of Martin’s unfinished novel series for some time, and now there seemed an absence of vision as to how to conclude. All the time the narrative had invested in characters and their relationships was felt to be squandered in a headlong rush to the finish.
Disappointment, too, coalesced around the ending. Khaleesi came to Westeros, but she wouldn’t win the throne, after all. Those who thought Dany’s story was about the feminization of power were let down to find her representative of something else, something more familiar. A Robespierre-type, or perhaps a Stalin, Dany got paranoid, went crazy with her dragons, and started setting the populace on fire. Why end a story with so many interesting, varied, and powerful women on such a note of classic conservatism? Dany was supposed to be the anti-Joffrey, and this turning of the tables left many confused, especially since, in our actual lives, we were suffering under the government of the paranoid fringe.
No, the winner of the Game of Thrones wouldn’t be Dany, or Sansa, or the indispensable Tyrion, or even Jon Snow, but instead—and unexpectedly—the younger Stark brother, Bran. Bran, an adolescent in the show’s first season, was left paralyzed from the waist down from an attempted murder. Physicality was unavailable to him, so he had to train his intellectual gifts. The human reality of Game of Thrones might have been one of naked self-interest, but beneath this thin surface was an animistic world of forest sprites and non-human wisdom. Bran plugged into those enchanted depths. Tutored by some sort of tree man, Bran learned to see the past, the future, and everything in between. Because he could not focus on every instance simultaneously, he had to steer his attention from one data source to another, and then to visualize it, to form an interpretation. His powers—unwieldy, imprecise—were those of curating the endless texts libraried inside his head. Bran was, in short, the Humanities.
Or to state it more broadly, he represented the academy—that complex apparatus by which the record of human experience and understanding is remembered, organized, sheltered, passed down, disseminated, and applied to conditions of ever-present change. In the Borges story, “Funes the Memorious,” the boy Funes is thrown from a horse and paralyzed. He develops “infallible” perceptive abilities and a perfect memory. Borges understood the importance of the academy. He also understood its fragility and the near-impossibility of its task. “My memory, sir, is like a garbage heap,” Borges has his character say. He is cursed to live the abolishment of the general by the specific in all its exponential abundance. “His own face in the mirror, his own hands, surprised him every time he saw them.”
“The Great Scrambling,” like any period marker, is an attempt to chart change amidst the bombardment of events. Are things different now than they used to be? It sure seems that way. As I remember it, the academy, when not being pressed to make a case for its usefulness, was viewed mostly as a harmless indulgence, residue from some obsolete past. The joke about the liberal arts major and the fast food industry was good for a chuckle in almost any American setting. Yet during the Great Scrambling, historians and other humanist scholars stepped forward as witnesses to and interpreters of our collective ordeal. We needed their expertise. Heather Cox Richardson’s “Letters from an American”—just to name one obvious example—served as a lifesaver for people from all walks of life, as something solid to hold onto as the floor beneath us rocked and seized. So I want to say it’s reasonable that the final hero of the most popular television series of its kind would be the personification of this service.
Meanwhile, generations of scholarship, reduced to an umbrella term, Critical Race Theory, are being twisted into a racial dog whistle. A controversy surrounds Professor Hannah-Jones, her tenure, and the 1619 Project. Not long ago in Austin, Texas, the lieutenant governor canceled a talk by authors of a book of history at the Bullock Texas State History Museum, there at the state’s flagship public university. That the governor is touting something he calls “the 1836 Project” testifies to the stature of its model and namesake. The Great Scrambling was a disruptor of paradigms. What once seemed an amorphous, blanket disrespect for the academy has been replaced by a cluster of pointed assaults on it, each traceable to a particular source and tinged with desperation.
A version of this essay was published at the Society for US Intellectual History blog.
President Obama’s remarks at Washington Correspondents Dinner, 2015: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HkAK9QRe4ds
Clive James, “Thrones of Blood,” The New Yorker, April 11, 2016: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/04/18/the-raw-appeal-of-game-of-thrones
Marilynne Robinson, What Are We Doing Here? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), 52.
Logan Hill, “Kill the boy … let the man be born,” Esquire, June 1, 2017: https://classic.esquire.com/article/2017/6/1/kill-the-boy
Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths, (New Directions, 2007), 59-66.
Letters from an American: https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/