'Game of Thrones': It's like Tolkien, but with naughty bits
It's back on the box from tomorrow and Tim Lott explains why its blend of swords, sorcery and sex is such a winner
In my part of north-west London, the return of Mad Men caused many a French wooden shutter to tremble in anticipation. Me, I've got off-the-peg curtains – my tastes are more basic. Give me a sword, a dragon and a zombie any day – hence my excitement is reserved for the return of George R R Martin's Game of Thrones on Sky Atlantic tomorrow.
I will now put myself further to shame among my sophisticated neighbours by confessing that my all-time most enjoyable novel is not Sartre's Iron in the Soul, or Pynchon's V, but Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Yes, it is badly written. I agree that the characters are paper-thin and the women sexist stereotypes. But what a plot! What a spectacle! What simple, innocent, Boy's Own excitement!
Ever since I read Tolkien's masterpiece – at the age of 14, five times, actually – I have been hoping for a worthy successor. It has never arrived. Harry Potter is not fit to groom Gandalf's beard. But when I tuned into the first series of Game of Thrones last autumn, I knew my search had ended.
For those not aware of the story – well, it's complicated and involves a series of feuding families, notably the Lannisters, the Starks and the Baratheons, in an imagined world called Westeros. They compete for power from a series of seats inprovincial stronghold empires. Meanwhile, across the sea, with the Dothraki, vicious horse-riding ur-Mongols, the usurped Queen Daenyris Targaryen, plots her return to the throne vacated by the usurper, the late King Robert Baratheon (who died, not unexpectedly, in suspicious circumstances). What's more she has dragons –albeit only three very small ones.
The dragons, although not an afterthought, have not yet been central to the plot.Magic and the supernatural are mentioned and occasionally hinted at, but otherwise George R R Martin is naturalistic in his approach. The subject of the series is not magic, but politics, and rarely will you see a more cynical take on the machinations of power outside The Sopranos.
The Lord of the Rings was about good and evil. Game of Thrones is largely about evil. Practically every character is treacherous, vicious or untrustworthy. The only clan member who isn't an anti-hero, the principled Lord Eddard Stark, had his head – shockingly – chopped off by Joffrey, the psychopathic son of the dazzling beautiful but evil Queen Cersei Lannister at the end of the first series. All that are left now are sullied or impotent characters.
Presumably Martin is going to have to find himself at least one hero for us to identify with, but it's quite hard to work out who it's going to be. The bastard son of Eddard may play the part – but he is in exile and cannot participate without breaking his sacred knightly vows.
What else makes Game of Thrones so compulsive? Well, sex, for a start. The scheming Lord Littlefinger runs a tidy franchise of brothels, and the boudoir scenes in which he trains his charges are as good as TV soft porn gets. And the impish dwarf, Tyrion Lannister – who has all the best lines – is a sex addict in a world where helplines have yet to be invented.
The violence is brutally, brilliantly choreographed, and the sense of spectacle overpowering. If you, like me, think a zombie with a big sword beats the slow unfolding of plot and gentle nuance of character every time, then this is the series for you.
Tim Lott's novel, 'Under the Same Stars', is published by Simon & Schuster. 'Games of Thrones' is aired on Sky Atlantic from tomorrow
Battling for the throne...
Verily, you have not experienced convolution until you've taken a televisual wander around Game of Thrones' mythical Westeros, a continent of endless internecine warfare and men in furs. But for those non-fanboys nervous about entering the fantasy fray with series two, we arm you with a rundown of the show's main families:
House of Baratheon
Aka, the ruling ones. The untimely death of Mark Addy's burly King Robert means the all-important Iron Throne is now occupied by his less burly son, tyrannical stripling Joffrey. Who is not in fact his son but the incestuous spawn of Robert's wife, Queen Cersei Lannister, and her brother Jaime. As is the way.
House of Lannister
Aka, the scheming ones. Having seen off her husband via a hunting "accident", the malevolently-eyebrowed Queen Cersei is now free to impose her will via her teenage son – she hopes. Her dwarf half-brother, flagrant scene-stealer Tyrion, looks set to get power, too, after he wangles a role as the King's chief counsel.
House of Targaryen
Aka, the slighted ones. Fledgling warrior Queen Daenerys Targaryen is set to invade Westeros to reclaim the Seven Kingdoms so rudely snatched away from her dad by Robert Baratheon. And you wouldn't bet against her, as she's got three newborn dragons and a platinumblonde coiffure on her side.
House of Stark
Aka, the noble ones. The Starks paid for their aberrant integrity with the beheading of King Robert's right-hand man and protagonist Ned Stark (Sean Bean) in the first series. Son Robb is out for vengeance, as he mobilises a rebellion.
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