In The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx wrote that the hegemonic ideology loves to present itself as the natural state of things: ‘In this, they resemble the theologians, who likewise establish two kinds of religion. Every religion which is not theirs is an invention of men, while their own is an emanation from God’. If the current state of things seems natural and inevitable it therefore makes sense that how we perceive ourselves as reflected in our contemporary popular culture should be defined by a certain stagnation. As Fredric Jameson put it in ‘The Antinomies of Postmodernism’, ‘It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations’.
If the imagination of a society is to be measured by its ability to think a way out of the status quo, what are we to make of the universe of a sword and sorcery epic such as Lord of the Rings? Despite its hard-not-to-subscribe-to moral about the corrupting nature of power, there are some features of the novel to be wary of. The first is the conservative anti-technology theme, particularly evident towards the end of Return of the King, when the hobbits return to their pastoral home only to find it transformed into an industrial wasteland by the evil wizard Saruman. This distrust in technological progress is coupled with a concomitant faith in the efficiency of a monarchy: Tolkien makes a big deal of the fact that Aragorn, as the rightful heir to the throne, is fated to become the King of Middle-earth. So lacking in imagination are the people of Middle-earth that they have waited for a rightful king to claim the throne for centuries without it occurring to them to change their system of government. Doesn’t this belief in a benevolent ruler go right to the heart of the novel’s theme of power? If a ring corrupts, so does a crown.
This lack of imagination is not just an artistic choice. It is completely ideological. In his writings, Marx argues that each society contains a material contradiction that drives the transformation of one epoch into another:
Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.
Imagination is the expression of such contradictions: we find a situation to be intolerable and, by necessity, we imagine a way out. Tolkien’s greatest fantasy is the notion that the contradictions don’t exist. If Middle-earth is happy to wait centuries for a king, this can only be due to the preposterous idea that the slave, plebeian, serf and journeyman somehow enjoy being oppressed.
Enter Game of Thrones, the fantasy series adapted from the Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R.R. Martin, which recently finished its second season on HBO. Sharing a medieval setting and fantasy elements, it is basically about the political intrigues of a kingdom in which several parties vie to take the Iron Throne and reign over the continent of Westeros. It is, in some ways, the anti-Lord of the Rings: the hero story is abandoned in favour of a ‘network narrative’ involving several characters with distinct but intersecting story trajectories; instead of Tolkien’s idealised women, we are given a whole range of psychologically complex female characters; but most importantly, the moral clarity of Tolkien’s universe is foregone in favour of a cynical, realist view of political machinations. Completely absent is the idea of a man with a righteous claim to the throne – the underlying theme of the series is that the ‘game of thrones’ is really just a scramble for power among petty men and women: ideals do not count for much at all.
Yet despite these ‘innovations’ to the genre (not being a real fantasy aficionado, I’m reluctant to argue for Lord of the Rings as emblematic of a general conservatism in the sword-and-sorcery genre; a thorough perusal of China Miéville’s list of Fifty Fantasy and Science Fiction Works that Socialists Should Read may even convince me that this notion is plain wrong), there is a sense in which Game of Thrones is not so far removed from Tolkien: the series’ characters, in spite of their diversity of moral character, all seem to work from the same premise – that the only outcome of history is one in which someone sits on the throne; there is no conceivable future in which there is no throne. The series does, at certain points, allow this general ideological assumption to be undermined by elements that hint at real social contradictions within Westeros: we are aware of a rising bourgeois class (in characters such as Petyr Baelish and Xaro Xhoan Daxos) who compete with the noble families for power, and there is an extraordinary scene in the season two episode ‘The Old Gods and the New’, where the hungry masses of the capital angrily riot against the current King Joffrey and his guards. What Game of Thrones could really use is a plot thread in which these masses self-organise to overthrow the king and install a democratic government for the people.
But for the most part, Game of Thrones remains a story of noble familes competing for the crown without any other kind of foreseeable alternative governance. Any kind of judgement, however, is purely speculative at this point: there are five more books in the series waiting to be adapted, two of which haven’t even been written yet. Whether the social contradictions of Westeros, evident at times throughout the series, come to the forefront of George R.R. Martin’s story remains to be seen.