Full of terrors ...

Full of terrors …

This is a level 7 cleric spell that does 10d10 damage per round (no save) to a single target. It also instantly grants the caster a profound insight into the psychology of everyone who witnessed the death of the target. After receiving this insight, the caster must make a save vs. death to avoid losing all respect for those whose mind she now knows.

[Warning: this post contains spoilers for both the TV show Game of Thrones and its associated books. Don’t read on if you haven’t yet got to season 5 episode 9]

So last night Stannis Baratheon did what any sane viewer of this show should expect him to do, both on character grounds (he’s a murderous arsehole) and metaplot grounds (George RR Martin is a murderous arsehole). But reading around the traps this morning it appears that a lot of people are shocked that Stannis – the man who killed his little brother with an abomination born through adultery to a psychopathic witch, and cut off his advisor’s fingers, and burnt Mance Rayder alive for shits and giggles – is willing to sacrifice his own daughter to the lord of light’s [insatiable] blood lust just when his entire life’s goal is going pear-shaped. Others are shocked that a show that threw a kid from a window in episode 1 – and allowed the incestuous arsehole who did it to redeem himself later! – and burnt two farmboys to death because of reasons, should somehow murder a noble child that everyone loves.

The Guardian has an excellent episode-by-episode blog of the show, with generally excellent above-the-line posts and great below-the-line banter, including by some dude who writes only in the voice of Stannis Baratheon. The blog writer, Sarah Hughes, declares that burning a child to death may be a step too far for her, in the same episode that we are shown another character paying to fuck a child and making it pretty clear that the child is going to be severely damaged by the affair (“you’ll have another one for me tomorrow,” he warns the brothel madam). This is not the first child we’ve seen burnt to death, or thrown from a window; it’s not the first barely-adult teenage girl we’ve seen murdered (though usually they’re raped first) and her fate is hardly special against the general backdrop of violence and murder in this show. What about that horrible little tete-a-tete north of the wall, where a bunch of men in black find a community in which a single man rapes all his daughters, murders their male children and raises the girls as sex slaves; and what do the crows do? They rebel against their leader so they can take the guy’s place. But burning some girl you were starting to like is a step too far? Lots of people in comments are complaining that this is outrage for the sake of it, suggesting that it’s just done to lure public attention or something (because the most pirated TV show in history really needs more press!) Have these people been watching the same show as me or is there some kind of politically correct, heavily pixelated version that Guardian readers can download? Because I can’t comprehend how anyone would be surprised that a man as cold, driven and vicious as Stannis Baratheon would burn his own daughter at the stake, or that burning a child at the stake is somehow a step further in any direction for this show. In response I can only think of that great Raul Julia line from Streetfighter: “For you it was the most important day of your life, but for me it was just … Tuesday.” This is not a show where a single extra dead child is going to tilt the scales.  Especially when you consider that the week before everyone was singing the praises of a 20 minute long battle scene in which multitudes of children died and were reanimated, and one excellent character was attacked and murdered by undead children.

There’s an obvious class analysis to be had here: how is it that some rich, educated girl in a dress dies and we are all up in arms about it; but no one notices the way that Sansa was completely relieved and happy to learn that two boys burnt alive were not her brothers. They’re just two farmkids, irrelevant in the scheme of things, their deaths a hapless accident that brings her joy because it confirms her brothers (real people!) are still alive. And of course wildling children aren’t even human, right? By now we’ve all become so complicit in the vicious intrigues of the elite that we’re now thoroughly indoctrinated into their code of combat: only rich people matter, and though their lives are expendable they should only be expended for a purpose. To channel Drew’s dialectical ephemeralist for a moment, quoting the Falcon:

Little people they liquidate. And time and again they cream your liquidation, your displacement, your torture and brutal execution with the ultimate insult that it’s just business, it’s politics, it’s the way of the world, it’s a tough life, and that it’s nothing personal.

In my opinion one of the great joys of this show is that it gets us complicit in the brutality and bloody-mindedness of the ruling elite that we should be despising, so that we even feel horror and indifference when they do. Sure, you burnt a few farmboys but I’m much more well-disposed towards you now I know they weren’t important; and sure, you raped and murdered a girl but rich boys will be boys, eh?

Which brings us to the obverse of this, which is the shock that many people on the ASOIAF reddit are apparently feeling that the show would lead Stannis to this bitter and barren path. I can’t read the reddit, because it contains spoilers (I tried and I think I just found out Jon Snow’s fate which is really annoying) but the word on the Guardian blog (and expressed by a few people directly there too) is that the reddit is up in arms about how the show “broke” Stannis’s character and goes against his character in the books. The latter argument is easily dismissed since apparently the show’s makers have revealed they got this little bbq party straight from George RR Martin; but the former is interesting. There are actually people out there who believe that it’s out of character for this murderous, devious, sinful man to kill his own daughter if it suits him – and worse still they don’t like him anymore. They’ve been led so deep into the psychology of the books that, I guess, they actually think his previous horror shows – the mass burnings, the satanic rituals, the fratricide, the prisoner-killing and the ruthlessness of his war tactics – are all signs of a good man. Presumably if he had just ordered all the guards on the picket tortured and hanged (which he did) and then held off burning his daughter everything would be a-okay … The truth, of course, is that there is nothing about Stannis’s conduct that is morally acceptable, and he is a deeply evil man. His daughter even said this, that picking sides was the reason for all the trouble in the first place and if everyone just stayed home none of this shit would hit the fan in the first place. I guess we’ll never find out where this logic would take her, since her dad decided to burn her alive in order to ensure the side he picked won.

It’s interesting that the readers of these books seem to be prone to picking up the psychology of the psychopathic ruling class to the extent that they can accept Stannis despite his many evil deeds; but they haven’t picked up the cosmology of the show that they can accept that the sacrifice of Shireen is obviously essential to the success of his mission (because of magic reasons). Because once you accept his religious fanaticism and the undoubted efficacy of his red witch’s powers, it’s obvious that when you’re in a bind you should burn whoever proves handy to her. It’s only morally beyond the pale for a man of Stannis’s sterling qualities if it’s useless, and it’s clearly not useless. But many people on the Guardian blog were protesting that it was senseless savagery, and many on the ASOIAF reddit appear to have the same view, and they can get behind a man who commits deeds too foul for words if they’re useful but they can’t accept a man who murders his own daughter because they think it’s useless. Is this ability to engage readers in the psychology of the books, but fail to bring them into the cosmology, a failure of George RR Martin’s? Or is it a failure of his readers’? Having not read the book I don’t know but I’m inclined to the latter because the people protesting this “senseless” savagery on the Guardian blog hadn’t all read the books, and so presumably had also managed to accommodate the ruthless logic of the TV show but not its magical cosmology. Is it a problem of the low-fantasy genre that we don’t believe the power of magic? Or is it just a problem when lots of people not steeped in the fantasy genre watch a fantasy show?

I think it takes special skill to get people to accept a deeply flawed and immoral world view so completely that it takes the burning alive of a schoolgirl to get us to snap back to our normal frame of reference. This is great work by the TV show’s creators, and really shows how far they’ve sucked their viewers into the horrible world they’ve created. Let’s hope next week they reward us for our complicity with a river of noble blood.

I’ll finish by quoting someone from the Guardian blog:

Guess i’m rooting for the Night’s King now then….

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