Last Sunday marked the return of one of my favorite shows – Game of Thrones! For the uninitiated (living under a rock, perhaps?), Game of Thrones is an HBO series adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s wildly popular fantasy epic, A Song of Ice and Fire.
The yet-to-be-finished series follows a set of dynastic families as they war to unite control over the fictional Seven Kingdoms before an impending cold season which will bring a supernatural army to their front door. (That synopsis is as satisfying as describing Jane Austen’s novels as being about young girls in Regency England falling in love…accurate, yet barely scratching the surface.)
Game of Thrones (GOT) is about as far from Jane Austen (JA) as one can get. For example…when it comes to GOT vs JA we have the following comparisons.
- Fantasy Medieval vs 18th Century England
- Wildly Violent vs Pastorally Gentle
- Overtly Sexual vs Sweetly Chaste
Yet both series rely heavily on the same device to propel action and intensify conflict in relationships: the advantageous marriage. Both authors explore marriage as a tool to create new strategic alliances, ensure future fortunes, and strengthen existing community ties.
It’s easy to see why Jane Austen’s world tends to choose love and sentimentality over practicality. The families, even when destitute, still live in relatively safe and peaceful times with reasonable prosperity. We cheer when our heroines forfeit the easy road or marry for money or convenience because the alternative would be a prison of their own making, however comfortable.
In Game of Thrones, however, the world is a much more dangerous place. The death rate borders on obscene, war is a regular and ongoing occurrence, and a coming winter season promises even more death by natural and supernatural circumstances. Yet even with these stakes, even with the fate of entire Kingdoms in the hands of the few, the arranged marriage is still a dreaded event – by good and evil (and nuanced) characters alike.
It begs the question: when is love not enough? Or when is there a cause greater than love?
Several characters in Game of Thrones do accept their marriages in order to receive larger gains, but rarely in good spirits. They cling to the martyrdom of their circumstances because they also hold to this ideal that love is the greatest principle – even if following their hearts would mean poverty or death or crisis for many others.
Call me practical, but a part of me doesn’t cheer for the character who insists on love over marriage when its dire consequences might be more global than individual. Yet, I cheer when Elizabeth Bennet turns down Mr. Collins even though it might mean making her sisters homeless and destitute. Would I have felt the same if she and Jane failed to capture the hearts of rich men? If the girls had been turned to the streets, to hard labor, or worse?
I struggle with an answer, but there are two famous quotes from the Martin series which serve as anchors to the discussion:
- “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
- “In the game of thrones, even the humblest pieces can have wills of their own. Sometimes they refuse to make the moves you’ve planned for them.”
Both quotes that, if about love instead of thrones, would fit well in Jane Austen’s world.