“You watch ‘Game of Thrones,’ right?” I often hear this question not only because people assume that medievalists are transfixed by pseudo-medieval fantasy, but also because everyone is weirdly hungry to talk about the show’s intense scenes of violence—a subject that medievalists eventually ought to confront.
Innocents nailed into spiked barrels and chucked off cliffs, prisoners of war with their eyes gouged out, tortured saints described in such awful detail by poets like Prudentius that some of my classmates got queasy—as a grad student, I couldn’t escape stuff like this, but our teachers laughed it off. One Penguin Classics edition of the Song of Roland showed a mounted knight chopping his adversary cleanly in half to expose his insides, a fate one of my professors dubbed “the bagel treatment.” We snickered at lurid maimings in the Historia Francorum and the wry post-dismemberment quips in Icelandic sagas. We were rarely invited to imagine how we’d feel if these horrors had happened to us.
All week, the Internet was abuzz over the blood-drenched “Red Wedding” episode of “Game of Thrones”; one YouTube compilation of audience reactions got more than 7 million hits in less than a week. Watch it and you’ll see ostensible adults sobbing over a TV show, a reaction I find harder to fathom as I get older and crankier and methodically work through my “bummer shelf,” which includes books about Maoist famine, Rwandan genocide, the Balkan wars—and, a few weeks ago, Jan Karski’s Story of a Secret State.
Karski was a relatively well-to-do Polish military officer who seemed destined for a bookish life—until the Germans invaded. After being taken prisoner by the Soviet army, Karski escaped and joined the well organized Polish Underground. He oversaw several key operations, survived capture and torture by the Nazis, and was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto so that he could describe it to the outside world. “These were still living people, if you could call them such,” Karski wrote. “For apart from their skin, eyes, and voice there was nothing human left in these palpitating figures. Everywhere there was hunger, misery, the atrocious stench of decomposing bodies, the pitiful moans of dying children, the desperate cries and gasps of a people struggling for life against impossible odds.”
Karski also recounts his 1942 infiltration of a Nazi transportation hub. Disguised in an Estonian uniform, he was there to bear witness to atrocities before smuggling himself westward to report to the (largely skeptical or dismissive) Allies. The mass execution he saw—a train car lined with quicklime, packed with Jews, and then ignited—is so horrifying that I won’t excerpt his description. After fleeing from guards who cracked jokes and took pleasure in slowly burning people alive, Karski vomited blood and bile all night, but never purged the memory:
The images of what I saw in the death camp are, I am afraid, my permanent possessions. I would like nothing better than to purge my mind of these memories. For one thing, the recollection of those events invariably brings on a recurrence of the nausea. But more than that, I would like simply to be free of them, to obliterate the very thought that such things ever occurred.
For all the horror Karski records, he also shows heroism: not only his own, implicitly, but also that of his countrymen and colleagues who endured torture, braced for arbitrary mass executions, and were ready to commit suicide to help defeat the Nazis. What shines through isn’t some Spielbergian triumph-of-the-human-spirit baloney, but the real, disquieting knowledge that although heroism arises naturally, it’s agonizing, often unremembered, and overshadowed by murder on an unimaginable scale.
When you close a book like Story of a Secret State, if you’ve spent even a little time thinking about the victims as people—not as abstractions or actors or flickering images, but as individuals like you, except that they felt every minute of burning and choking to death over several days—how do you then turn to “Red Wedding” for mere entertainment?
I won’t argue that “Game of Thrones” or shows like it “glorify violence,” an Orwellian cliché, even if I believe they do something strange to our relationship with the real thing. I’m not arguing that anyone ought to shut down violent entertainment, or that the industry should police itself or cater to my sensitivities, or that violence isn’t a vital part of literature, art, entertainment, and games. Often it’s purgative to read or write about violence, and my favorite book of the past year involves two scenes of unnerving brutality. This isn’t a call to action or a political jeremiad. I am not a pacifist.
I marvel, though, that audiences are so bound up in the selective realism of fantasy that they’ll accept the existence of dragons but will obsess, along with a forensic expert from the O.J. Simpson trial, over whether the blood spurting during the throat-slitting scenes was accurate. When an audience cares that much, is it still entertainment, or a stand-in for something else?
Last week, “Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin spoke sensibly about “Red Wedding” to Entertainment Weekly:
People read books for different reasons. I respect that. Some read for comfort. And some of my former readers have said their life is hard, their mother is sick, their dog died, and they read fiction to escape. They don’t want to get hit in the mouth with something horrible. And you read that certain kind of fiction where the guy will always get the girl and the good guys win and it reaffirms to you that life is fair. We all want that at times. There’s a certain vicarious release to that. So I’m not dismissive of people who want that. But that’s not the kind of fiction I write, in most cases. It’s certainly not what Ice and Fire is. It tries to be more realistic about what life is. It has joy, but it also had pain and fear. I think the best fiction captures life in all its light and darkness.
I like Martin’s thinking—but it seems to me that the largely comfortable, middle-class viewers who can’t stop talking about his show’s violence find the darkness more beguiling than the light.
When I chat with friends about “Game of Thrones,” they speculate that the series offers a rare and refreshing sense of what the Middle Ages must have really felt like. Martin is arguably the most popular fantasist of the moment, taking up the banners of earlier authors like Sir Walter Scott and Sidney Lanier, who also served up the precise flavor of medievalism their cultures craved. They and their readers believed they had taken laudable steps toward re-creating the “real” Middle Ages, when in fact they were picking through the medieval past according to their own notions of virtue and vice—as we still do.
“No matter how much I make up,” Martin says, “there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse.” He’s right, but there’s no urgent reason to elevate fantasy by highlighting its historical echoes, and no need to absolve Martin’s work of the most grave accusation leveled at fantasy: escapism. Martin’s readers and viewers are guilty as charged only if they turn away from humanity’s pervasive worst, whether the immediate evils in the daily news or the horrors Jan Karski could never forget. Many obviously do just that, but I’ll give Martin credit for intending his books to accomplish what good fantasy should: not distancing us with flattering amusements from the way life supposedly used to be, but providing a stark, imaginative look at the way it invariably is.