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“Game of Thrones”: Taking a closer look

München, 10/18/2017

LMU philologist Markus May devotes much of his research to dissecting the connotations and implications of the contemporary boom in fantasy literature. His new book “The World of ‘Game of Thrones’” has now won Germany’s Phantastik-Preis.

Foto: picture-alliance / PictureLux

Professor Markus May of the Institute of German Philology at LMU has been studying the genre of modern fantasy literature for nearly 20 years, but he first came across “Game of Thrones” at second hand. “My daughter’s boyfriend gave me the DVD of the first season of the series – and I was immediately hooked.” The TV production took its title from the first novel in the first cycle of what has become an epic series of fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin. “A Song of Ice and Fire” already reveals the scope of its author’s ambition – to invent and depict a whole world with its own customs, cultures and languages and recount its history. The scale and the realization of the concept have captivated millions of fans all over the world, and May is no exception. Its most interesting feature is how it exploits, distorts and often subverts the conventions of the fantasy genre in such a way as to enable the reader/viewer to discern unexpected parallels with issues and problems that are relevant to the world we live in. “Game of Thrones is an intensively imagined fantasy. The reader is pitched headlong into an unfamiliar realm. This strategy is a striking feature of much contemporary fiction, and the resulting sense of disorientation has obvious links with our own experience of today’s world.

An advanced seminar
It was the cycle’s contemporary relevance that prompted May, together with his doctoral students, to organize a conference on “The World of Game of Thrones: George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” from a Cultural Studies Perspective” (Die Welt von Game of Thrones. Kulturwissenschaftliche Perspektiven auf George R.R. Martin‘s A Song of Ice and Fire), and Martin’s work subsequently became the subject of an advanced seminar at LMU. “It has rarely been so easy to instill students with so much enthusiasm for a seminar,” May recalls. It also isn’t difficult to understand the reasons for this enthusiasm, for “Game of Thrones” delights in confounding the reader’s/viewer’s expectations. For example, one of the tales leading figures dies relatively early on, thus flouting one of the major narrative conventions of the genre. Many of the surviving characters also undergo astounding personal transformations. Take Jaime Lannister. At the beginning of the first episode, he cold-bloodedly shoves a boy out of the window of a tower, establishing himself as a thoroughly nasty piece of work. But in the course of the story, his personality changes radically, and the reader gradually develops more and more sympathy with the character. This is only one instance of how “Game of Thrones” or “A Song of Ice and Fire” dramatizes how traditional moral values can come under strain in a world that is growing ever more complex and confusing. It also illustrates how Martin challenges the basic ‘good guys against the bad guys’ framework that has dominated the fantasy genre since Tolkien. And, as May emphasizes, this narrative strategy also points to the fact that cultural differences are themselves subject to change – an insight that is of crucial significance to many of our current dilemmas.

A cultural guide
Virtually everyone has at least heard of Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, with their strangely distorted locales and bizarre landscapes, their doughty dwarves, dastardly demons, wily wizards and ethereal elves. The fact that serious literary scholars have made a study of these texts is less well known, however. But, in addition to winning a Phantastik-Preis for the study mentioned above, Professor May has edited a Handbook that serves as a guide to the whole genre. Why? “Literary scholars should explore and dissect paradigms that underlie contemporary cultural phenomena,” he says, “and fantasy literature is one such phenomenon that plays an important role in contemporary culture.” Advertising agencies have also taken advantage of the boom. Commercial firms in the food industry make use of dwarfs, vampires and goblins in various guises to make their products attractive to children, for instance. “This is another case of the resurrection and reinterpretation of figures from the canon of fantasy literature.”