Thursday, June 6, 2013

Heroes, Robb Stark's Fall, and Who Will Win The Game of Thrones

NO SPOILERS: You've either read the books and know what happened, you've seen the episode and know what happened, you've seen the Twitter response and know what happened, etc.

As I've posted on my political blog, there was a bit of a bother among Game of Thrones watchers during the Red Wedding scene, the key turning point in George RR Martin's fantasy epic.

I've seen the Twitter explode over a major television episode before, but not like this where the fandom was seemingly "OMG How could they do this?"  And one of the tweets caught my eye: someone arguing that Robb Stark - one of the key victims of the massacre - was meant to be the hero of the story, the avenger of his fallen father, etc.

But the thing is if you pay attention to any of the High Fantasy tropes, even when Deconstructed, you might notice that Robb Stark was never meant to be the hero of the story.

I found a wonderful blog covering the Song of Ice And Fire series in more detail, and the blogger Shamus concurs about Robb not being the hero:

Robb was one of the best hopes for restoring order to Westeros and saving many of the characters I love. But Martin knew that Robb wasn't the person that needed to do these things. He’s not one of the heroes of this series. He was always a secondary character. His success would have felt like a betrayal to the structure of the story. Instead, Martin used Robb’s character as best he could. He sacrificed Robb in spectacular fashion, and that sacrifice advanced the plot of these books tremendously. Everything changed.
Robb was what's known as the Decoy Protagonist, someone set up early in an epic story to make people think he's the hero who will save the day... only to fall at the machinations of the major villain(s), making it seem as though our likable characters will never see any justice or victory at the end of the struggle.

Robb Stark is being set up as the decoy right off the bat: eldest son of a martyred lord (the fallen Good Father archetype) who rises up against the wrongful king (the bastard Joffrey and his Lannister family) who killed his father.  He wins battles early on through sheer luck, using his youth to attack and escape in ways the more practiced, older opponents can't conceive.  He marries out of love and personal honor than for politics (which is the first big clue readers and viewers should learn is a BAD IDEA in fantasy novels based on pre-Enlightenment values of marriage).  He's got the looks of a king, the ideals of a just ruler, the aspirations of a messiah/savior figure.  Everybody just looooooves Robb Stark.  If this were fanfiction, he'd be a Marty Stu.

Except, as the blogger Shamus noted, Robb Stark was never a Point-of-View character in Martin's narrative.

Martin's writing style for this series has an interesting take: rather than go by a singular character's POV (either First or Third), he's sharing that duties across 31 major characters, any of whom could be the hero (and some already clearly the villains... and some already dead and awaiting zombie status).  We never see the tale told from Robb Stark's perspective: the closest we get is his mother Catelyn, and she's a rather unforgiving sort (half of her actions lead to the disasters befalling her family, and before she too dies at the Red Wedding she'd regretted some of them) even in her POV telling.  We see things happen to Robb, with actions and characters elsewhere affected by and affecting him.

Mixed into all this is The Hero's Journey, the Jungian/Campbellian method of storytelling that lends itself best to High Fantasy (and pulp fantasy) literature.  In most respects, Robb doesn't fit the cycle at all: his call to adventure is more an act of vengeance against the family that betrayed his.  While it falls into the narrative of Seeking Justice (SEE the legend/myth of Horus), Robb is not out for any Enlightenment nor is he setting the natural balance of the world back in place (i.e., the return of the Rightful, Once-Promised King).  In some respects he doesn't fulfill the Prophecy.

That all said, you can see why Robb Stark was doomed, much in the same way Boromir was doomed, much in the same way 80 percent of Sean Bean's characters are doomed (okay, I kid, by the by that clip's NSFW), etc.  It just wasn't going to be Robb to save the world/fulfill the Hero's Quest.

...That said, WHO WILL?

Since I'm not Martin, I can't say for certain where his story is going to finish up (two novels remain), and of the surviving characters with POV power there's a good number who could qualify.  Except for the fact that we've already seen a handful of POV characters die, meaning it's not the body armor expected to protect said character(s) to even make it to the final chapter.

The obvious choice of being the Hero is Daenerys Targaryen.  A bit of a gender flip but she qualifies: the prophecy of the Prince Who Was Promised fits her (birth under the right stars, her childhood, her travels, her proving her mystical dragon power).  As the last known member of her royal family, it's her throne by blood-right.  She's undergone various journeys of self-discovery (the Hero's Journey) that has unlocked more magick to her, has suffered setbacks but survived.

By sheer volume of POV chapters, Tyrion Lannister (also the most popular character yet) could by that designation be the most likely candidate of being the Hero.  The unliked and unloved member of a powerful, corrupt family, the one member with any recognizable decency as a human being, quick with words, adept at politics, victimized not by his actions but by a world that can't handle a dwarf as lord or hero...  It would again be a twist on the concept of Hero (you were perhaps expecting someone 6'4" with broad shoulders, a gleaming sword and amusing comedic sidekick?) to have him end up surviving the whole mess and uniting the kingdoms under a peaceful rule.

Another candidate is Jon Snow, bastard son (as generally believed) of the Fallen Good Father figure of Eddard Stark.  Treated coolly by his adoptive mother Catelyn, Jon is nonetheless on great terms with the Stark family.  Jon accepts a Call to Adventure by volunteering to do his service as Night Watch on the Wall (a key stronghold against wildlings and the zombie-like Others), and undergoes many unnerving quests and tests of character.  It was Jon who insisted on the children adopting a set of orphaned direwolves (mystic animal guardians associated to the Stark crest).  With Robb as the decoy hero now fallen, Jon now fits the bill as the heroic heir of House Stark.  Given no one really knows who his mother is, that Eddard refused to reveal the secret, that Eddard was present at his sister's mysterious death, said sister having been abducted/raped(?) by the Targaryen heir... there's a very reasonable fan theory that Jon may be the Prince Who Was Promised.  (note: there is a slight problem with this as Jon is getting stabbed to death at the end of the latest novel.  He could, of course, survive the ordeal... something a Hero does in the Campbellian cycle).

An interesting possibility is Bran Stark.  He's endured a near-death experience, made a cripple, gained the ability to warg (use his vision to tap into his joined direwolf and even into other people), has prophetic dreams of his father and a mysterious three-eyed crow.  He's enduring a painful journey into exile with most everyone thinking he (and his surviving youngest brother) is dead.  He's demonstrated some decent leadership skill for someone his age.  He's more akin to Luke Skywalker than most of the other characters (save for Dany, whose mystically tied to her dragons), which is why I like him as a candidate.

That's what I've got as the candidates to win the Game of Thrones.  Best of all possible worlds: Jon and Daenerys marry as co-rulers, with Tyrion as the wise Hand with Bran as the court wizard.

I just hope to the Seven-named God it's not Littlefinger... 


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