Right idea, bad example

An article on the Atlantic about the Game of Thrones TV series and why it shouldn’t have been possible to make.

An interesting article, but it stumbles into the usual trap of “right idea, bad example”. Witness (numbers in brackets added):

Martin’s first two warnings were even more daunting: Game of Thrones was just too big and too complicated to work. [1] Every one of its numerous noble families has a unique totemic symbol and slogan. [2] It contains at least four functional religions, each of which has been explained in a considerable amount of detail. [3] It features a fictional language, created for the series, which has 14 different words for “horse.”

The first claim, “unique totemic symbol and slogan”, is true in the world of Westeros; but the books (so far) don’t actually give the symbols and the slogans for all of the noble families. The symbols and slogans that are relevant to any sane interpretation of the plot are still fewer — maybe Tully, Lannister, Stark, Targaryen. That’s four symbols, four slogans; five if you count “A Lannister always pays his debts”. (The actual Lannister slogan is “Love your family.”) The symbols and slogans of the other families aren’t particularly important. Still, we know dozens; a fair example, or as fair as any of these three will be.

The second claim, “at least four functional religions […] explained in a considerable amount of detail”, seems funky to me; but perhaps my personal definition of “considerable amount of detail” is wrong; I tend to think “enough detail” means the Dune Encyclopedia or the Rivan Codex. The one religion that readers have seen most of is the Faith of the Seven, the southern default of Westeros. The Wiki of Ice and Fire collects what we know about it: five pages, tops. (That is, five pages of A4 with very lax printer settings.) That’s the most fleshed out religion: the Red God R’hllor has half that, the Old Gods are a few lines on weirwood trees and godswoods; the rest you could fit on one sheet of paper.

I would argue that all of that detail of the Seven can be semi-trivially shown as background detail on TV. The High Septon is a kind of a Pope? The local speech has “septon” and “septa” for “priest” and “priestess”? There are seven faces of God? There are kind of monks, kind of paladins, kind of churches? All are familiar pieces, put together in ways which make them easy to show on the TV background. The viewer is not terribly misled (but not strictly speaking correct either) if she assumes this is all Christianity with surface differences. (If you dropped “septon” and “septa”, you could keep the whole religion in the background, and every viewer would understand it. As it is, I’m sure there are legions out there who think Septa Mordane’s first name is “Septa”. And more legions who’d say “Septa who what now?”)

Maybe there would be difficulties if the religious practices were alien and complex — ritual limb-removal, arcane conflicts of authority, hallucinatory prayer comas, Lemuralias with beans for the dead; but the Faith of the Seven is a background element, a kind of septenary Catholicism.

I’m not saying this as a negative thing, mind you. I’m not saying it would have been the right creative decision if George R. R. Martin had included multi-dozen-page appendices on the theology of the Crone and the Maidenian Heresy and the resulting Deballing of the Septons, or if he had introduced something so alien it took hundreds of pages to explain; I’m saying that the world of Ice and Fire has detail everywhere you look, but taking one (arguably not terribly plot-important) area of it and making a bold claim doesn’t do Martin’s work justice.

And I like the Drowned God and the Red God on the level of aesthetics; but it’s not true that they’re areas of difficult amounts or kinds of detail.

The third claim is that the Dothraki language has “14 different words for ‘horse'”. Which is not true of the books; the books have a few scattered phrases of Dothraki. The language sketched for the TV series (as the quote says) by David Peterson of the Language Creation Society, based on the scattered words and phrases in Martin’s work, has 14 words for ‘horse’ I suppose (and no words for snow?). This is true but irrelevant. Those fourteen words are not an example of a huge vocabulary of plot-relevant Dothraki (and thus a good example of the dangerous amount of detail), but a deliberately chosen and thus developed example of the equinocentrism of the horse-lord culture.

(The dictionary linked to above has (for a rough estimate) 1500 words in it; it’s impressive and because of a chronic case of Tolkienitis I’m a big fan of projects like this; but it’s not an example of impractical amounts of detail.)

And languages anyway are not that difficult for TV, from the strict production viewpoint: you can always use subtitles. (That can be a problem for the audience, but not for the production.) You can switch which language is represented by English, too; languages are not a good example of a problem in making TV because, again, the language is an ornament. It’s not plot-critical.

What would have been better examples — from my viewpoint as a loud-mouthed wonk fan-boy — would have been the number of characters and their complex relations; and the way the books withhold certain information, reveal it very subtly, let you believe lies for hundreds of pages, answer great mysteries a very long time after they’re raised, and throw gallons of hints and half-prophecies at you. (Then again, it’s not very interesting to say “And [NAME EXCISED], who’s killed at the start of the first book, we discover who killed him towards the end of the third book, maybe 2600 pages later, when much greater problems and mysteries have risen and made the answer to that simple mystery a truth without any profit”!)

Which, again, is not knocking the Song of Ice and Fire, but saying that examples like those in the Atlantic may astonish the ignorant, but they’re not true, or then irrelevant.

Likewise, I do occasionally drag out the desiccated corpse of Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica, and the note on page 362 that from this leaden symbol manipulation 1+1=2, a result of some utility, eventually follows — but I usually end up implying the wrong thing, that being that this is how mathematics is universally done; this is a good example of the kind of detail that all mathematics is done in. Of course not; the Principia was a very special kind of a project, a specific kind of madness even, and isn’t representative of mathematics as it is usually done. The usual kind of mathematics is less… and more. Less of such an exemplary spike of rare height, and more a great big field, hip-high in fertile soil as far as the eye can see.

So too with the Song of Ice and Fire.

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