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Epic fail?


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May 22, 2019
Categories: Arts, Politics, Religion, Science

Epic fail?

(Warning: contains spoilers for Game of Thrones, Avengers, Star Wars, Dune, Lord of the Rings and His Dark Materials).

Hell hath no fury like an angry nerd. Geeks invest so much time, money and emotion into fantasy worlds, that when those fantasy worlds evolve in a direction they don’t like, it provokes a rage of Lutheran proportions (that’s Martin Luther, not Lex).

The fans were not happy with the conclusion of Game of Thrones. One million of them have signed a petition demanding that HBO remakes the final season. They are furious at what they see as the unseemly haste and sloppiness with which this epic, eight-year saga has been wrapped up.

On the other hand, Avengers fans were left in a warm post-coital glow by the climax of the 11-year saga that began with Iron Man in 2008. But I want to put it to you that Game of Thrones was a far more interesting attempt at that most difficult task – how to end an epic.

It is hard to end an epic. Most modern epics of the last century have followed a clear Christian (or if you prefer, Manichean) script of a cosmic battle between Good and Evil, light and dark.

Think Lord of the Rings or Dune or Star Wars or the Avengers. It is very easy to tell who the bad guys are – they are the immoral, inhumane monsters and demons, usually disfigured in some way, who deserve to be utterly extinguished from the face of the Earth, just as Jesus says sinners will be cast into the outer darkness.

That cosmic battle between Good and Evil provides a clear narrative with clear heroes and villains and an epic final battle. But then what?

Star Wars, the most successful epic of the last 40 years, really hit its stride in the Empire Strikes Back, when it got dark – Luke realising Darth was his father, Han getting frozen. The ending of Empire Strikes Back was truly epic, because it pointed to the darkness within us all.  

But then, in Return of the Jedi, the heroes started winning, and it got a lot more boring, didn’t it? The whole tone of Return of the Jedi is much lighter and fluffier (those goddam ewoks) and less interesting. They don’t even really know how to end it – the climax of Star Wars was the destruction of the Death Star, so the climax of Return of the Jedi will be…the destruction of the Death Star again! And the climax of The Force Awakens? Er…the destruction of the ‘Starkiller Base’!

You see, once you’ve permanently wiped evil off the face of the Earth, it becomes dramatically necessary to resurrect it once again, over and over. God needs the Devil. Batman needs the Joker.

Other Christian epics face a similar problem – it gets boring as soon as Good starts winning. Dante’s Divine Comedy starts off in hell and gets progressively more boring as Dante ascends into the light. The most interesting character in Paradise Lost is Satan, while Jesus is probably the least interesting.

Lord of the Rings just about manages to pull off an epic ending, when Frodo gets to Mount Doom, and then refuses to throw away the ring. A nice twist. But once the ring is destroyed and Evil is utterly wiped out from the face of the earth, there is nothing left of interest in Middle-Earth.

Modern epics have tried to go off the Christian script and mess with the expected ending. Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, for example, tried to reverse Milton’s Paradise Lost, and ended with the death of God and the triumph of…psychic dust…or something.

Which brings us to Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin has said he wanted to do an anti-Tolkien ending.

He has said:

I admire Tolkien greatly. His books had enormous influence on me. And the trope that he sort of established—the idea of the Dark Lord and his Evil Minions—in the hands of lesser writers over the years and decades has not served the genre well. It has been beaten to death. The battle of good and evil is a great subject for any book and certainly for a fantasy book, but I think ultimately the battle between good and evil is weighed within the individual human heart and not necessarily between an army of people dressed in white and an army of people dressed in black. When I look at the world, I see that most real living breathing human beings are grey

He has also taken issue with the ending of Lord of the Rings, in which Good triumphs and rules forever. He has said:

Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?

What we get in Game of Thrones, then, is an attempt to have your cake and eat it. We have the a Manichean cosmic battle between Good and Evil, Light and Dark, Life and Death. But then that cosmic battle is suddenly over….and the flawed humans have to just keep buggering on. Instead of the perfect Aragorn, the post-White-Walker kingdom is ruled by the very flawed Daenyrys. And there’s still all the same problems to be solved: taxes, sewage, brothels…

This is a daring attempt to subvert our emotional expectations of the Christian epic. And I don’t think it quite works. I felt less emotionally involved after the defeat of the Night King. Everything else felt like local politics after that existential threat to humanity. But still, it was a very interesting attempt. A damn sight more interesting than the Avengers.

Let’s just put these two most popular epics of our time in the context of this historical moment. We’re facing a climate crisis which is going to cost, at the least, tens if not hundreds of millions of lives, and at the worst could cost all our lives.

And we don’t know how to cope with it. Most of us aren’t thinking about it at all. It is the ultimate epic fail. The failure of humanity.

We see our failure in the stories we are telling ourselves. Unable to face the complexity of this problem and our own responsibility and guilt, we turn – as a species – to very simple, neat, tidy emotional stories. We turn to superheroes and sports and reality TV.  Neat, tidy, satisfying emotional stories.

It is no coincidence that the most popular genre in this time of epic human failure is the superhero story. The magical solution. The clear, simple, adolescent, cartoonish battle between a pumped-up Good Guy and a dastardly Bad Guy.

The most interesting thing about the Avengers universe was Thanos, and the fact this cosmic tyrant was willing to exterminate 50% of all life to protect the ecosystem. I mean, say what you like about Thanos, at least he had a plan!

But obviously, the bad guy had to die, and the Good Guys had to triumph, which they did, in a ridiculous final battle, with the various heroes lobbing around the Glove of Destiny (or whatever) like it was a football.

The thing that most struck me about the last Avengers film is there are hardly any humans in it. By the final battle, there are no humans around anymore, only superheroes. In psychological terms, it marks a complete psychotic break from ordinary human reality. A complete denial of reality and collapse into magical thinking. That’s where we are as a species.

Game of Thones at least tried to be an epic for the era of climate crisis. It tried to prepare us for the coming hardship – winter is coming. It urged us to put aside our squabbling and nationalist rivalries to focus on the common threat. And it warned us of overly-tidy final solutions which divide humanity into neat boxes of Good and the Evil. I love that speech of Tyrion’s on the danger of Christian-Manichean utopian projects: ‘She believes her destiny is to build a better world for everyone. If you believed that, wouldn’t you kill everyone who stood between you and paradise?’

Sadly, we have no Arya to appear and stick her knife into climate change. In our failure to come together to confront the crisis, we’re left praying for a technological solution, some Iron Man to invent a way out for us.


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