What is the purpose of literature? It’s hard to narrow it down to one thing. Obviously it’s there for entertainment. To fill boring afternoons with adventures in far off (or nearby!) places. To make us laugh. To help us understand.
It can teach us. Every book, whether it’s high prose or pulp fiction teaches us. The simple act of reading words shapes our brain in some manner. Our grasp of language grows even when the author may not have such an excellent grip of his or her own. I think the most important part of literature is just how much it teaches us even when we’re not aware that we’re learning. And the most important lesson stretches far beyond the little obvious ones that we pick apart in school.
I talk about perspective a lot, mainly because I find it absolutely fascinating. I find it so fascinating because it’s something so obvious, something that authors have clearly been toying with since the beginning and yet it’s not something I recall being a main topic of discussion in school save for one or two texts. And then only in the context of the story and not in the much wider scope of how it affects the world in which we live. The society that we have formed.
Let’s look at George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice. Yes, yes I know, you’re a little sick of reading about me yammering on about how amazing it is. Well I can’t help it if he happens to be the single best writer for explaining what I’m talking about. I mean, you don’t even have to read the books at this point. Watch the show. I’ve seen it. You’ll get the idea.
Anyway I’ve already talked about the shift in character perspective that I think is so brilliant. How, as you view the world and the story through the lenses of so many different people, gradually your own view becomes far less black and white. But it was actually the television adaptation the clued me into a different perspective. The show and a short article wondering if the show was racist.
My first reaction was the obvious. How can a show be racist when the races in question don’t even exist? But then I realized the issue had more to do with the stereotyping that exists in reality.
The race in question is the Drothraki, a equine-warrior people who live on the desert continent on the other side of the sea from Westeros. Physically they are a darker skinned, darker eyed, exotic looking people reminiscent of Mongolians and Asians. And, supposedly, savages. At least, in the eyes of the people of Westeros, the fair-skinned European-esque people. As my girlfriend said, “Why is it that the “savage” race has to be dark-skinned, etc?”
There are a lot of arguments that come to my mind in regards to this idea. The first being that fantasy writing often requires the author to create an entirely new world with new people, new creatures, new lands. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that even still, the authors pull from the world they know. And in our world we once considered Mongolians and darker skinned people to be savages. We once considered them to be exotic and different. And by we I’m obviously talking about people of European descent of which the author, Martin, is clearly. In our world people who come from a climate resembling Westeros have fair skin and those that live in a desert climate are darker. Of course the other argument goes that in a fantasy realm, there is nothing that says that can’t be changed.
But those aren’t arguments that I really think are worth making. My argument is that no, it’s not racist because Martin does such a damn fine job of showing how incredibly awful mankind in its entirety is. Yes, the people of Westeros see the Drothraki as savages. But we the reader and the viewer? We can see how there is so very little difference between the two cultures. In fact I would go so far as to say that it is the Westeros “civilization” that is the savage one. A culture whose king, Robert, completely disregarded the sanctity of his marriage and who fought a war because of an obsession over a woman who may not ever have been “his” and to whom he claims to have loved but to whom he could not remain faithful. A king who has allowed his people to suffer in poverty while he emptied the kingdom’s treasure into food, wine and parties.
Take the Lannister twins and their incestuous relationship and the lengths they go to hide it. Take Viserys II who is willing to marry his sister off to anyone that will give him an army. Who is physically abusive to her constantly. Take the fact that the Westeros “justice” system is based on trial by combat and how “might makes right.”
Take the supposed hero of the first book, the one whose mind we are arguably in the most, Ned Stark. A man who takes his child to watch him behead a man, telling him “The man who gives the sentence of death should wield the blade.” Noble? He kills a man who warns of danger, of horrors that he has seen. But the Stark disregards them and sees only that the man left his post. He is blinded to danger because he holds to a law that states deserters of the wall are punished by death. It is law that supposedly separates civilized humans from savages but the laws of Westeros are savage at best and cruel at their worst. Writing them down on paper in fancy lettering doesn’t make them any more civilized.
What stronger lesson is there than the idea that there is no one size fits all solution, no short cuts in thinking.
The television show has several scenes that seem to mirror one another. We see a grand welcoming feast for the King at Winterfell and we see the wedding of Khal Drogo, leader of the Drothraki and Daenerys of House Targaryen. Both are loud and boisterous with overabundance of food and wine as well as “carnal acts” displayed for all. The only difference is that no one is killed at the Winterfell shin-dig but there is no reason why someone couldn’t have been. There were weapons and alcohol thrown together. And let’s be serious; if Cersei Lannister could have done it without anyone seeing, she totally would have spilled Robert guts. And probably danced on them. How is the fact that she plots his death in secret any different than the Drothraki that spills blood out in the open?
Seeing racist tones here means you fail to judge both cultures as intended. It means you look at the Drothraki and see savages just as the people of Westeros do. It’s not Martin that gives you that view. It is you subconsciously aligning yourself with a perspective that feels most comfortable to you. And here is literature greatest lesson. It teaches us how to look beyond that which feels comfortable. To see and consider things that would have gone unnoticed had when not taken the time to sit down and focus on the words on the page. When we read, our minds slow down and we become more aware of the ideas entering our heads.
At least, we should.
For it is as the Drothraki Queen that Daenerys is given a life she never had with Viserys II. She gains a husband who treats her kindly, gently, who she comes to love, who never strikes or hurts her. Who defends her against her violent, sadistic brother. It is through her experience with this “savage” group that she becomes more than she ever probably could have become on Westeros as she is given freedom that the women of that continent are not allowed. This I think is where the first episode of the series falls short because it doesn’t do a very good job of showing Khal Drogo’s “surprising” kindness. We just get a bent over fade to black that is unsettling at best and horrifying at worst. This is why people so often say, “Well, the books are much better.” Because they aren’t forced to take such visual short cuts that can greatly change the meaning of a scene.