A Game of Tropes
A literary trope is a figurative or symbolic metaphor in its most complicated sense. In its more homogenized definition, a trope is a technique or stereotype that uses commonly established archetypes to help convey meaning. In all stories, we know that the Hero is special. He’s the Chosen One, who will affect change in his world; this one of the most common tropes in genre fiction. Another example would be the “evil galactic empire” reminiscent of Nazis, Romans, Fascists. They sport gray uniforms, and appear in Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly, Chronicles of Riddick, and a dozen others. In these pieces the “good guys” are always diverse and colorful—this is a metaphor or trope for an idealized way of life slathered in diversity and personal freedoms. Consider: In Star Wars rebel pilots wear bright orange—their enemy counterparts look like SS soldiers. In Lord of the Rings, the heroes armies gather with brightly colored banners of silver and gold, blue and green. The orcs mass under a variants of a black flag. An interesting use of this trope is Robert Heinlein’s StarShip Troopers. The narrator is, in fact, one of those gray-uniform wearing space-nazis. Though we are sympathetic to this character, there can be no doubt that he is from a less than democratic society—this causes a gut reaction in most Americans.
Everyone around me is gearing up for the next season of Game of Thrones. While watching/reading, I see elements from many other very successful authors in variety of genres. One cannot help but wonder is George R. R. Martin a singular fantasy genius or simply a well read nerd?
Neither is really a bad thing, but I want to point some of the methods he’s using to bring standard fantasy tropes to life in new ways. I may go so far as to say that nothing in the Game of Thrones series is new or the sole creation of George’s imagination. That’s okay. I once had a writing professor offer the quotation, “Young writers invent, published writers steal.” He was not of course encouraging plagiarism, nor am I suggesting George R.R. Martin is guilty of this most heinous of crimes. I am saying the George R.R. Martin has brilliantly woven in commonly loved cultural elements from a myriad of fiction sources, made them his own and taken us on a great ride.
First let’s address some of the standard tropes within the genre of fantasy literature. The one that always gets my goat is the chosen one. How many Chosen One’s can there be? It is important that we understand the necessity of this element, but also that it is as old as the concept of the story itself.
The Chosen One is the central character who finds out he’s special in some way. The uniqueness pushes him away from “hearth and home” and into a world of adventure (usually punctuated by life threatening encounters and periods of deprivation and suffering). Luke Skywalker is the Chosen One. Aragorn of LotR is a chosen one. Harry Potter is the Chosen one. Drizz’t Do Urden is the Chosen One. Elric of Melnibone is the Chosen One. So are the little boy in Eragon, Paul Muad’dib from Dune, and Corwin of Amber and a whole host of others.
In Game of Thrones, the typical chosen one is not the eldest male heir, the boy without a home or the stranger among us. The Chosen One, in fact, isn’t even a boy. It’s Daenerys Targaryan. She is the homeless waif with a cruel family that pushes her to do extraordinary things.
The Targaryan dynasty and their dragons are reminiscent of the writing of Michael Moorcock and his epic about Elric of Melnibone. The near-albino siblings of the Game of Thrones, one especially cruel and greedy the other dispassionate and uninterested in imperial games cannot help but remind one of Elric and his cousin Yyrkoon. In fact, Denerys Targaryan looks exactly as I pictured Elric’s cousin, Cymoril. The Targaryan affinity for dragons is reminiscent of the Dragon Lord Dyvm Slorm and Dyvm Tavar of the Moorcock’s same series. Both sets of characters are the last masters of Dragons, who, interestingly enough are on the decline or all but extinct in each setting.
Martin wisely borrows from established history as well. His character Khal Drogo is nothing more than a stylized synonym for Genghis Khan. The Horse Lords are nomadic raiders with barbarian (pagan) tendencies.
Another character system that comes to mind when reading the Game of Thrones is Dune by Frank Herbert. Eddard Stark is of the same ultra-honorable archetype as Duke Leto Atreides. His personal honor and sense of duty lead him to the downfall of his entire personal empire. His house is shattered, his family scattered and his heirs left to fend for themselves in an exceedingly treacherous and hostile environment. Rob Stark of Game of Thrones is reminiscent of famous Paul Muad’dib Atreides, the scion of a rebel house who, through his own personal attributes raises an army and avenges his family. Yet another parallel is the Lady Catelyn Stark. Her steel-will and refinements make her the spitting image of the Lady Jessica of Dune. The ability to counsel her son, bring to heel wayward lords and maintain her dignity in the most undignified situations makes Lady Stark and Lady Jessica nearly interchangeable. I’d gamble that we see an increased use of mysticism and magics in the world of Game of Thrones.
These are not criticisms. On the contrary, I have to applaud George R.R. Martin’s ability use his craft to manipulate a genre that many consider cliché. As previously stated, the genre’s tropes are almost by-laws that any storyteller must abide by. The king is evil or incompetent and his ministers are corrupt. The underdog is conflicted with duty to realm and personal honor. The Chosen One will change the realm. Leaving home inspires the life-altering quest. What is important to note is that George R. R. Martin’s writing takes these common tropes and themes and makes them slightly unique, he gives them a flavor of his own. He takes stereotypical fantasy elements and violates the audience’s expectations. This simple act is what makes his writing interesting, more real.