Eucatastrophe and Game of Thrones

I read Game of Thrones back before it was cool.  Back then when people saw you reading a 1000 page tome with pictures of dragons and swords on the front, they probably thought you were just a nerd.  Now its hip and mainstream.  I’ve watched the first three seasons of the TV show and am looking forward to the next season.  More than that, I am hoping George Martin manages to finish the series before he dies of old age!

In a previous post I wrote about JRR Tolkien’s concept of eucatastrophe.  If a catastrophe is when everything goes wrong, a eucatastrophe is when everything goes right.  More precisely, a eucatastrophe occurs in a story when the main character is facing death and defeat, when it looks like there is no hope, and then everything turns out okay.  My wife and I watched Shakespeare in Love  recently and Geoffrey Rush’s character says that in a play everything turns out okay in the end.  When asked how he responds, “I don’t know. Its a mystery.”  This line is certain to bring a laugh to the viewer.  Tolkien might smile and respond though that the word for this mystery is eucatastrophe.

We see this concept all over Lord of the Rings.  Just one example.   After writing The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), Tolkien began working on a rewrite of The Hobbit to bring it more in line with the later story.  The Hobbit is a simple story of a hobbit who joins some dwarfs to go fight a dragon.  This story took on a much greater importance in light of  the events that happen in LOTR. Near the end of the entire story, in the appendix actually,  Gandalf speculates how much more awful the battles outside of Minas Tirith would have been had Sauron been able to summon Smaug the dragon.  If Bilbo and the dwarves had not triumphed in the earlier story, the victories told in LOTR would be empty.  And the only way the dwarves triumphed, even set out on their quest, was because of a chance meeting that Gandalf had with Thorin, the rightful dwarf king.  In the book Unfinished Tales we get a quote from Gandalf, imagining what might have been:

“It might all have gone very differently indeed. The main attack was diverted southwards, it is true; and yet even so with his farstretched right hand Sauron could have done terrible harm in the North, while he defended Gondor, if King Brand and Kain Dain had not stood in his path. When you think of the great Battle of the Pelennor, do not forget the Battle of Dale.  Think of what might have been. Dragon-fire and savage swords in Eriador!  There might be no Queen in Gondor. We might now only hope to return from the victory here to ruin and ash.  But that has been averted – because I met Thorin Oakenshield one evening on the edge of spring not far from Bree. A chance-meeting, as we say, in Middle Earth” – Unfinished Tales, p. 340.

Now we come to Game of Thrones.  I won’t try to offer a deep analysis of Game of Thrones, though I have seen both good and bad ones.  Christianity Today wrote an article on Game of Thrones and the author failed in attempting to compare Tyrion (from GOT) to Gollum (from LOTR).  It seemed the author noted Tyrion’s small size and Gollum’s hunched figure…and ended the analysis with that.  Other than their small size in common, they have few similarities.  An argument could be made that Tyrion is the closest thing to a moral character in an often amoral story, especially when compared to the rest of his family.

One thing that hooked me on Game of Thrones as a book, and what I suspect many like about the show, is how any character can die at any time.  I was shocked in book one when the main character died.  Reading it, I expected Ned Stark to be the protagonist for the whole series.  Then his head got cut off.  Since then, anytime a character begins to look like he or she may be stretching above the crowd, his or her head is chopped off too, or death comes in some other gruesome way!

This makes the story more tense as no one is ever safe.  And any analysis of Game of Thrones must be tentative, for the series is not yet over.  There have been moments in the series that could perhaps count as eucatastrophe.  When the wildlings are attacking the wall in book three, all seems lost, then Stannis’ forces arrive just in time to save the day.  Or in book one, when Tyrion is faced with trial by combat and facing certain execution only to have Bronn, perhaps the best fighter in the room, step up and fight for him.

Part of the challenge with interpreting events in GOT is that the story is so morally grey.  Tolkien’s work presents us with a clear picture of good and evil.  There is no question who is on which side.  But characters in Martin’s work are both good and bad.  So in book two we have the huge battle of Blackwater, just outside the capital.  The reader is sympathetic to characters on both sides.  When an army shows up and saves the day, is this good or bad?  If you were cheering for Tyrion, a sympathetic character, it might qualify as eucatastrophe.  But if you look at it from another angle, it is just a catastrophe.

We have to wait and see what the grand arc of the story shows.  Will there be a final eucatastrophe, when some semblance of good and justice and order triumphs, or will everyone end up dead in a hopeless finale?  I hope Martin finishes the series so we can get the whole scope in order to better think through these questions.  For now, it seems that Martin’s is the world we may feel we live in most of the time, though it is Tolkien’s world, and vision for the world, that we hope is true.

2 thoughts on “Eucatastrophe and Game of Thrones

  1. Hey fantastic analysis.

    I remember reading the Tyrion/Gollum article you referenced, and I remember thinking that the author really missed the mark. There are are certainly characters who have a lot of darkness in them like Smeagol, but Tyrion’s no worse than Boromir. He’s just a dude. Sometimes righteous, sometimes less so.

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