Fantasy and Cruelty I: A Preamble

One of the things I want to do on this blog is air snippets of the research and writing I’m doing, stuff that’s still only partially thought out and in process. Hopefully it won’t be as garbled as all that—the idea here is more thinking out loud, as it were, working through some of my key ideas and (hopefully) getting some feedback and (even more hopefully) starting a conversation. This post is my first attempt.

I’ve been thinking for some time now about fantasy’s odd appeal—odd, because when you think about it, only those among us with absolutely no sense of history would willingly be zapped back in time to the middle ages. And yet that is what fantasy (imaginatively) does, and arguably is part of its great appeal to many readers. One of the larger questions I’m trying to address is the nature of this appeal, and the ways in which fantasy operates in dialogue with our contemporary historical moment (or the historical moments in which different narratives were composed). And one of the questions within that is the persistence of cruelty as a theme and motif.

This post is the first of a series looking at the knotty (and naughty) presence of cruelty, torture, sexual violence, and misogyny in fantasy fiction. Given that this preamble enters the subject by way of a discussion of misogyny in Game of Thrones, I found myself stuck for a banner image. On one hand, a picture of Ros’ cleavage or Daenerys naked and soot-covered would be appropriate to the topic and wholly inappropriate to the tone I hope this post conveys; then I thought of trying to balance the preponderance of female flesh in the series a bit by posting something like a shirtless Robb Stark, but that might go too far in the other direction. So in the interests of splitting the difference, here’s a picture of Jon Snow holding a direwolf puppy. Everyone wins.


When I was visiting London, Ontario in May, I had drinks with one of my favourite people in the world, a professor at my doctoral alma mater who was the second reader on my dissertation; but more importantly, she is simply one of the smartest, coolest, and most level-headed academics I’ve ever known. So imagine my delight when I discovered that she had become a huge Game of Thrones fan.

This delight exists on several levels. First is the lovely experience of having someone you love and respect share an enthusiasm—always gratifying, like when a good friend finally reads that novel you’ve been recommending and is an instant convert. But with something like Game of Thrones, there’s a satisfying feeling of vindication, because both the novels and the series come in at times for the sneering or dismissive criticism that genre fiction often receives. So when someone whose critical acumen you respect and admire effectively endorses something you love that others dismiss, there’s no small feeling of triumph.

With Game of Thrones there is a further dimension, however. While I disagree with a certain amount of the criticism the series receives, there’s not much I can say when it is attacked for overdoing the gratuitous nudity, for throwing in unnecessary amounts of naked female flesh for what are often purely salacious reasons. It is bothersome to me for a host of reasons, not least of which is the straightforward misogyny of it. But it is also bothersome because, to my mind, the show is (or should be) better than that. The story is compelling, the characters vivid, and the sword-and-sorcery elements subordinated to a more specifically historical sensibility. Unlike the Starz series Spartacus, which combines softcore porn and the worst excesses of 300’s sepia-tinged violence, Game of Thrones actually has a story worth watching. And what’s more, sometimes nudity, violence, and cruelty are thematically crucial … a fact that gets obscured when yet again we are treated to wholly unnecessary sexposition.

In all my blog posts on Game of Thrones with Nikki, I skirted these discomforting elements, aside from snarking at a few of the more ridiculous instances—in part because it’s easy enough to focus on the good stuff, but also because I’d never framed a decent answer to the implied question, “Sure, it’s a good series, but how do you deal with the misogyny?”

So when I discovered that my friend, whom we’ll call Alison (because, well, that’s her name), was a fan, I was doubly delighted because she’s someone with pretty solid feminist street cred. Understand, I did not think to myself “Excellent! If a feminist likes GoT, I’m off the hook!” … or, well, I didn’t think so in so many words. But Alison doesn’t give out hall passes, and somewhere in the middle of geeking out about the show, she asked “But how do you deal with the misogyny?” Because of course, it bothered her too—and neither of us being baby-with-bathwater types, the solution of dismissing the series of out hand wasn’t an option.

As an aside: what follows is the first post of several teasing out some of the broader implications of this straightforward question, which ultimately does not give a straightforward answer. The straightforward answer goes something like this: the gratuitous nudity on display in Game of Thrones makes me cringe, and at times makes me angry, and I wish they’d ratchet it back—not least because, as I just said above, it cheapens those instances when it is thematically significant. I would argue, for example, that Daenerys’ nude scenes fall into this category, wherein her nakedness has moved progressively from symbolizing her vulnerability and exploitation at others’ hands to her growing strength and confidence. By contrast, pretty much every scene in Littlefinger’s bordello has been excessive and unnecessary.


More puppies.

So, that’s the straightforward answer, for what it’s worth. It’s not perfect, but hopefully the more extended meditations that follow will fill in the gaps. There are of course several other simple answers to the question, none of which are satisfying. “At least it has strong and nuanced female characters”; “Well, brothels are a recurrent setting in the novels, and you can’t really expect an HBO series to be prudish”; “But sometimes the nudity and sexual violence is thematically significant!”; or, worst of all, a shrug and “I try not to think about it.” There’s something to all of these answers (except the last, which is a cowardly cop-out), but none really address the question properly, any more than a wholesale condemnation of the series is fair.

Part of the problem—and what makes the question interesting—is that it gets at a larger question inherent to fantasy as a genre. For about ten minutes or so after Alison asked the question, I essayed a half-assed attempt to frame it within what I see as the bigger picture of cruelty as a structural motif in fantasy. My convoluted response (a little bit straightened out here) went something like this: fantasy tends to walk a line between gothic and romantic irrationalism on one hand, and historical realism on the other. Which is to say: it is a genre rooted in medieval romance and the capital-R Romantics’ rejection of modernity, and a certain nostalgic fascination with medieval Europe. Hence the mixing of magic and the supernatural with displaced historical realities. These tendencies were generally inchoate until the mid-twentieth century, when they were conflated (or, if you’re uncharitable, calcified) into the works that, for all intents and purposes, created fantasy as a genre: C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

(Please note: this is an extremely reductive account of fantasy’s history. I’ll be more expansive in future posts).

The result is a speculative genre—much, of not all, of fantasy can be read as asking “what if?”—grafted onto a fascination with medievalism, a fascination that is in no small measure nostalgic for a premodern, pre-industrial world. Tolkien epitomizes this pastoral sensibility, with all of his virtuous characters being identified in some capacity with nature (whether agrarian hobbits or forest-dwelling elves), and the villains identified with industrialism and its depredations.


The Alberta Tar Sands, replete with the Eye of Harper.

There is thus a tension built into fantasy, between its supernatural and romantic elements on one hand and its need to make its settings recognizably medieval (however vaguely). Always at question is its degree of historical fidelity, or, to put it another way: just how medieval does the story want to be? How much squalor, filth, disease, and appalling hygiene does it want to depict? (I find it somewhat ironic that the most honest depiction of medieval squalor is Monty Python and the Holy Grail, wherein the king is recognizably a king because “He hasn’t got shit all over him”).

By the same token, how much of medieval political and social mores does the story want to include? Perhaps unsurprisingly, these tend to get more play than the gritty, grimy textures of medieval life—if for no other reason than that an unrelentingly accurate depiction of the age’s hygiene (or lack thereof) would sooner or later prove repellent. But divine right and absolute monarchy? Rigid caste systems? The disenfranchisement of women? Valorization of warrior culture? Rapine as a weapon of war? Roving bands of ruthless bandits? Torture as an accepted fact of life? Yup. That’ll do for much fantasy. At its best, the genre uses these historical realities in intelligent and thought-provoking ways, at times discomfiting audiences, at times reflexively making us question why precisely we are drawn to these scenarios. At its best, fantasy proceeds speculatively, suturing the imaginative freedom of an invented world onto historical actualities in such a way that reflects back on our own contemporary moment.

And at its worst? Well, while I am an avid reader of fantasy, and have been since first reading Lewis and Tolkien, I am not undiscriminating. There is much that has been written in the genre that I find simply unpalatable, which embraces the social mores as enumerated above uncritically and unironically, expressing nostalgia for regressive social and political structures. (As with any genre or art form, often the unpalatable elements are present in its greatest works: while Tolkien will always be one of my favourite authors, I would never attempt to defend his treatments of race and gender.)

Which is one of the reasons why the sexposition in Game of Thrones irks me: the series, and the novels on which it is based, is otherwise a remarkable example of how fantasy employs its neo-medieval setting to great thematic and critical effect.

I’ll bring this to a close here; I’ll be continuing this line of discussion with a few more posts. My next installment will deal a little more specifically with fantasy’s tendency toward lurid and exploitative representations of women, apropos of the fact that I am currently reading the Conan stories (the barbarian, not the late-night host) for the first time (yup, I’ve somehow avoided that all these years—part of that selective fantasy reading I mentioned above). I will then have posts on rapine and warfare, and torture and the dungeon as imaginative space. So, y’know … stay tuned.

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