Words: Andrea Zanin
Illustration: Fleur Beech

Murder is nasty. Except when it happens to Joffrey Baratheon. As the boy king clutched desperately at his neck in a futile effort to prevent poison-induced asphyxiation from ripping the life-giving breath from his heaving throat, the anguished cries of his mother pierced the peaceful blue of the Westeros sky whilst everyone else cheered with the exuberance of a collective Woop Woop. Putrid, perverted, petty little Joffrey: deader than dead. The world should have taken on a homier hue – sun brighter, bees louder, flowers sweeter and all the rest of it. But alas, it took only the merest of moments to recognise the inflicted poison as bitterly anticlimactic in the ‘just desserts’ department – surely some medieval-type torture was better suited to the specimen in question? Like impalement. Or maybe a Heretics Fork or a Judas Cradle? There’s also the Tongue Tearer, Saw Torture or the dreaded Rack. Not to mention ‘Hanged, Drawn and Quartered.’ But no, George R.R. Martin, author of A Song of Ice and Fire book series and contributing screen writer to the über popular TV adaptation Game of Thrones, chose poison.

Yet, as unsatisfying as Joffrey’s death was to the spirit of vengeance administered by great writing into the soul of Thrones enthusiasts, there is method to Martin’s madness. Joffrey wouldn’t be Joffrey if he was despicable only in life. His vile villainy transcends his death; it lingers on as both reader and viewer reel at the injustice of death by platitude. And yet a character that has evoked such a visceral response should leave a sour taste in the mouth, otherwise, well, he couldn’t have been all that bad in the first place.

That’s how George R.R. Martin rolls; he is, by nature, an artist who in no way, shape or form panders to audience sensibility. He made us love Ned Stark and then chopped his head off; he also killed off delicious Khal Drogo and his unborn son, pushed Brandon Stark from a ledge disabling his legs in the process, pulverised Oberyn ‘The Viper’s’ head to a pulp in a duel against a child killing rapist called Mountain, and in a move riddled with artistic bravery, he massacred the uterus of Rob Stark’s newly pregnant wife before felling the ‘Northern King’ and his mother in a wedding so red that not even the blood that washed the earth the colour of catastrophe did the horror justice. This from the man who in a recent interview with Empire Online called the Starks his favourite House. Sorry for the rest of the troop (maybe John Snow will get off on a technicality – here’s hoping).

In a world governed by instant gratification, a story that blatantly defies the need to please and appease nonetheless manages to do exactly that

George R.R. Martin invades the world with tragedy after unforgettable tragedy not only because he is loyal to the truth of his characters and the mythology that dictates their existence, but because he is writing about war. And war ain’t pretty. The saga of the Seven Kingdoms might have its roots in the ‘Wars of the Roses’ but be not deceived; the Yorkists and the Lancastrians bore thorns of epic proportion, meting out death and destruction for 30 years until finally Richard III, the last Yorkist king, was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth (1485) by Henry Tudor. The bloodthirsty battles that brought the House of Lancaster to power were devastating but from the emerging Tudor dynasty came Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, often quoted as two of England’s greatest monarchs. The interesting thing about war is that “[It] brings out the best and the worst in people,” as Martin is quoted as saying. Had Henry Tudor and his predecessors not exerted their right to the throne of England with forceful intent, Henry and Elizabeth might never have been… Sure, Anne Boleyn might have kept her head (Katherine Howard, too) but England would arguably be an entirely different place – perhaps better, perhaps worse. Who knows?

And in the same vein, would Daenerys Targaryen have mustered the mettle to fight for her claim to the Iron Throne had she not been through the devastation of an arranged marriage turned passionate love affair, and then the disastrous death of not only her husband but unborn son and heir to the Dothraki people? Motivation doesn’t always come wrapped in pretty paper.

But more poignant than war’s unforgiving ambiguity is why, in a world governed by instant gratification, a story that blatantly defies the need to please and appease nonetheless manages to do exactly that; popular protagonists are slaughtered at every turn in a plot that twists with sadistic glee, and the masses are cultivated rather than culled. It’s an irony. But it’s not implausible. We’re waiting for the pay-off that is going to make the loss of our favourite characters worth it. Good and bad are not mutually exclusive – for one to exist, so must the other. Good is never as good if there is no bad with which to compare it, which is why we yearn for more of Martin’s torturous lore; because with the amount of calamity involved, there must be something mega good coming our way. And word on the street is that season 5 (which aired on 19 April) is due to dish a shock bigger than season 3’s infamous Red Wedding fiasco. So there had damn well better be a super fine monarch set to assume the lordship of Westeros – Daenerys, John Snow, Tyrion, Arya? Anything is possible with George R.R. Martin. And whilst we can’t quite trust that we’ll like what the author is going to do we can be assured that he will up the ante, and the risk (plus a few tears along the way) is totally worth it. Such is the game of thrones.

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