The cosmic horror of Game of Thrones

Above: an eldritch spiral of body parts left behind by the Night King. The sheer cosmic horror of this scene reminded me at the start of season 8 of everything I love about the show.

While I have yet to read A Song of Ice and Fire, HBO's Game of Thrones is one of my favourite television programmes. Ever since I first started watching in 2017 I've been completely enamoured. In this article I would like to discuss an element of George R.R. Martin's fictional universe which always struck me as particularly refreshing (for the fantasy genre), and that element is bleakness.

Most if not all modern fantasy stories are derivative in some way of the two fantasy greats of the 20th century - The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. Strangely for a century that will be remembered for rising atheism, these two works were written by Christian authors and therefore are both seeped in Christian philosophy. They both have very clear Abrahamic dichotomies of Good versus Evil, and this dichotomy has been included in the works of most fantasy authors ever since, whether it's Harry Potter versus Voldemort or Eragon versus Galbatorix.

There's nothing wrong with this, of course. The Lord of the Rings is inherently mythological, The Chronicles of Narnia is Christian allegory, and Lord Voldemort is a satire of Neo-Nazism. But by now the genre has been utterly inundated with multifarious Dark Lords and flawless heroes; personally I'm a little sick of it. This is why I've always been so fascinated by Game of Thrones, which finally sheds the Christian influence of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and depicts a fantasy universe that is bleak and pagan. Westeros is a mediaeval world of brutality and treachery, in which honour so often leads to failure and wickedness to victory.

But if that was all that was morbid about Game of Thrones it would not be a fantasy, but some kind of alternate history fiction. No, what really makes Game of Thrones horrific is that it turns magic, the hallmark of fantasy, on its head. While in The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia magic still produces dark wizards or goblins; by and large it has a tendency to Good. The magic lion will inevitably triumph over the White Witch, and Gandalf will defeat Saruman. But in Game of Thrones, there is no such guarantee. Magic is depicted just as bleakly as anything else. It is amoral, and governed by mysterious laws no mortal man could possibly understand. Most of the time it is the source of evil rather than the solution. At least the mediaeval peasant of our universe could have hope in Christian spirituality or village magic, even if his world was incorrigibly evil. But in Westeros the spiritual realm is just as chaotic as the material!

Imagine if, when Harry Potter had left his abusive mundane Muggle family behind him to discover magic, he had found not a fantastical world of adventure, heroism and bravery, but instead a terrifying corruptive force beyond human capability to control or comprehend. Imagine if to Harry's horror he discovered that it was not the wizard who owned the wand, but the wand who owned the wizard, and that by stepping into the shady streets of Diagon Alley for the first time he had unintentionally laid himself bare to unstoppable cosmic powers that would shred his soul apart and render him eternally insane. It's that kind of bleak depiction of magic that really fascinated me about Game of Thrones. It seemed to me to be an entirely different sort of magical fantasy than anything I'd ever seen before.

There are the White Walkers and their inevitable, unstoppable, incomprehensible Army of the Dead. Why they seek to destroy the world, no man can ever know; and in any case they seem to be more of a mindless force of nature than anything vaguely human or purposeful. Then there is Him of Many Faces, a god worshipped by the assassins of Braavos - the only salvation he brings is death, meaningless and random. Lest we forget the Drowned God of the Iron Islands, an undersea deity with suspicious mythological links to the legendary Deep Ones - fishmen that arise from the cold depths to mate with human women. A character left out of the TV show but included in the books was Patchface, Stannis Baratheon's court fool. A mysterious figure with a face tattooed like patchwork, as a young man he was caught in a shipwreck of which he was the sole survivor. He washed up on the shore three days later, cold and pale as a corpse, and broken in mind and body. Never the same again, a childlike creature, he spends his time with Stannis' daughter Shireen, occasionally singing her strange songs about banquets at the bottom of the ocean and events that have yet to pass... No one knows how he survived or what he did for three days in the sea, except perhaps the Drowned God.

Even magical beings ostensibly benevolent to humanity, such as the Lord of Light, who in the TV show aids in the war against the Night King, are shrouded in mystery. The Lord of Light is one of my favourite creations of Game of Thrones. Light is traditionally associated with goodness, but for all his help in the war on the White Walkers the Lord often appears as nigh on demonic. He is served by an order of mysterious red priests, the most prominent among them being Melisandre, an old crone in young woman's form who once gave birth to a murderous shadow-demon. Mass human sacrifice is demanded by the Lord, whose victims perish in holy fire - often accompanied to the Lord's excellent, sinister leitmotif (Ramin Djawadi uses synthesisers to achieve an ominous, otherworldly effect). Occasionally the Lord will raise someone from the dead for his own purposes - such as Beric Dondarrion, who was resurrected so many times, each time irretrievably losing a part of himself. It always seemed to me that the Lord had his own self-serving, hidden motivations for seeking to defeat the White Walkers; that he was on the whole a distant, amoral force of great and eldritch power.

The reason this bleakness feels so refreshing for traditionally Christian-influenced fantasy, is because George R.R. Martin did not derive it from fantasy, but from a different literary tradition of the 20th century - that of weird fiction. Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock defines weird fiction as utilising "elements of horror, science fiction and fantasy to showcase the impotence and insignificance of human beings within a much larger universe populated by often malign powers and forces that greatly exceed the human capacities to understand or control them". It is this sort of supernatural, existential, cosmic horror which was pioneered by the weird fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft in the early 20th century, and which flourishes in George R.R. Martin's work. Martin is indeed a fan of Lovecraft, and his "Deep Ones" originate in Lovecraft's 1936 story The Shadow over Innsmouth. Unlike Tolkien or Lewis, Lovecraft was a despairing atheist; he had no hope there was any inherent human meaning in the universe, and in fact he greatly feared the unknown, inhuman forces that could be at play.

Whether you're Christian or atheist, whether you believe the universe is meaningful or chaotic - either way you cannot deny there is something thrilling about cosmic horror fiction. Numinousness, in the Christian tradition a positive emotion reserved to the worship of a good God, is brilliantly reversed in cosmic horror and made terrifying - instead of feeling a kind of respectful awe at a benevolent Deity, the cosmic horror reader feels an obscene, fearful awe at malevolent gods and demons. And George R.R. Martin and the showrunners of Game of Thrones employ it to great effect. I love traditional good versus evil stories, but fantasy was becoming stale and repetitive, and its fusion with cosmic horror appears to be the refreshing kick up the backside it really needed.

The last episode of Game of Thrones airs tonight, and I'm excited to see what it has in store. I describe my mixed feelings for season 8 in a previous article which can be accessed here, but no matter how it turns out, this show has brought me a great amount of pleasure and excitement over the years. There's truly no other TV programme in history quite like it, and in a world full of televisual garbage it will always be one of the greatest arguments for buying a DVD boxset.