The Psychological Dimensions of Game of Thrones: The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast Explores the Fantasy Spectacle

The HBO TV show Game of Thrones, like its source books, George R.R. Mar­t­in’s A Song of Ice and Fire, is clas­si­fied as “fan­ta­sy,” but that term as lit­er­ary clas­si­fi­ca­tion has become unmoored from its lit­er­al mean­ing. A per­son­’s fan­ta­sy is most typ­i­cal­ly a mat­ter of wish ful­fill­ment, which should put super-hero media at the cen­ter of the genre: We reg­u­lar mor­tals wish to be pow­er­ful and strong, to save the day and be rec­og­nized as a hero. Cer­tain ele­ments of clas­si­cal fan­ta­sy fall under this descrip­tion: Fro­do in Lord of the Rings gets to save the world while remain­ing more or less ordi­nary (well, yes, he can turn invis­i­ble with the ring, but that becomes prob­lem­at­ic), and Har­ry Pot­ter qual­i­fies as a kid super-hero.

Anoth­er key ele­ment of fan­ta­sy is obvi­ous­ly the imag­i­na­tion, which can be deployed as in dreams and the psy­che­del­ic art that draws on dream expe­ri­ence to come up with ever-more-fan­tas­ti­cal imagery, ever more amaz­ing sit­u­a­tions and pow­ers one could fan­ta­size about pos­sess­ing. How­ev­er, the imag­i­na­tion also seeks to expand the fan­ta­sized cre­ation, to make its world wider and rich­er, to fill in the details, and almost inevitably to try to make the fan­ta­sy more “real­is­tic.” What would it actu­al­ly be like to have super pow­ers? Would you suf­fer emo­tion­al trau­ma from dam­ag­ing all those vil­lains? What about col­lat­er­al dam­age? If you get to ride on a drag­on, how do you take care of it? What (who) does it eat?

George R.R. Mar­tin writes in the tra­di­tion pop­u­lar­ized by J.R.R. Tolkien of “high fan­ta­sy,” which involves not only char­ac­ters of high stature engaged in epic strug­gles, but typ­i­cal­ly involves a very fleshed out alter­na­tive world with its own slight­ly dif­fer­ent laws. The more spelled out these laws are, the more nuts and bolts of the work­ings of the world are spec­i­fied, the more real­ism and hence suf­fer­ing can be depict­ed. A Song of Ice and Fire describes its rotat­ing cast of pro­tag­o­nists with such a degree of detail that read­ers are (as in much lit­er­a­ture) able to iden­ti­fy with them, to see the world through their eyes, but they suf­fer so much that such alter­nate lives as these books offer read­ers would hard­ly be any­one’s fan­ta­sy in the sense of wish ful­fill­ment. A visu­al pre­sen­ta­tion like a TV show by neces­si­ty can’t be as clear about whose eyes the view­er is sup­posed to see events through (we see through the cam­era instead), but nonethe­less Game of Thrones invites us to live through (some of) its char­ac­ters, to iden­ti­fy with them, through their exer­tions of pow­er, through their reac­tions to loss and tri­umph. But such iden­ti­fi­ca­tions will always be imper­fect, giv­en that these char­ac­ters have been drawn as liv­ing in a world that is fun­da­men­tal­ly for­eign to us, not because there are zom­bies and drag­ons, but because HBO view­ers are for the most part liv­ing com­fort­ably in a peace­ful coun­try, not hav­ing been sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly and often per­son­al­ly exposed to hor­ri­ble suf­fer­ings.

Hear Mark Lin­sen­may­er and Wes Alwan, reg­u­lar hosts of The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life Phi­los­o­phy Pod­cast, along with guest Sab­ri­na Weiss, dis­cuss the psy­cho­log­i­cal and social aspects of the show, but in what is depict­ed on screen and how these play out in our soci­ety’s rela­tion­ship to this grand spec­ta­cle.

Read more about it on The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life web­site.

Mark Lin­sen­may­er is the host of The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life and Naked­ly Exam­ined Music pod­casts. 

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Game of Thrones: A Great Behind-the-Scenes Look at The Show’s Visu­al Effects

Ani­mat­ed Video Explores the Invent­ed Lan­guages of Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones & Star Trek

15-Year-Old George R.R. Mar­tin Writes a Fan Let­ter to Stan Lee & Jack Kir­by (1963)

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.