I love “Game of Thrones.” I also hate it. There’s nothing more Jewish than hating what you love and loving what you hate, and there’s nothing more goyish in the entire world than “Game of Thrones.” The show is a world of myth, and few myths make Jews the good guys. “Game of Thrones” is so profoundly un-Jewish that it doesn’t even speak to the Christian in us all but directly to the pagan; whose pulse quickens at the sight of one fighter beheading another and brandishing the head to the audience like a trophy. Something in us all loves to watch that, and we should hate ourselves for it.
People exist in “Game of Thrones” just to be killed. It builds a world of myths, swords, royal intrigue, magic and decadence. Be it role playing games or video games or fantasy literature, world-building is the most goyish of all nerdy activities. Judaism has 3,000 years of critical tradition that lovingly details the course of action we’re supposed to take for every conceivable situation we find ourselves. A rabbi faced with a ruling for people in a different world from this one would tear out his beard.
And yet there’s something about the pure pedantry of the “Ice and Fire” books that’s truly Jewish. Nobody should care about the details of a world that doesn’t exist, yet George R. R. Martin treats the inclusion of every detail of his world as a matter of life and death. Martin is a goy, but he’s a righteous gentile — a blue collar Irish-Italian from North Jersey who grew up at comic book and sci-fi conventions. Who knows? Maybe he passed by my Bradbury- and LeGui-loving Zaydie at some event.
If there’s anything Jewish about the show, it’s a completely different kind of Judaism. It’s run by two glamorous Jews who are everything George R. R. Martin is not. Martin grew up working class and looks like a lump on a stick, but David Benioff is married to Amanda Peet and his father was the chairman of Goldman Sachs. In college, Martin had to pursue (then) practical degrees in journalism, D.B. Weiss wrote a master’s thesis on Finnegan’s Wake. Martin accomplished most of his reading at his local public library, Benioff and Weiss met because they’d came to Trinity College, Dublin to study Irish literature.
The show is a streamlined, glamorized version of the books. Every character, even Tyrion and The Hound, is a handsomer version of what Martin describes on the page. It takes this incredibly intricate world where every minor character requires a 10-page backstory and turns it into a latter-day cinematic epic of the type once produced by Sam Goldwyn or Alexander Korda and taken to their logical conclusion. The more distant from our lives the setting, the more revealing the costumes could be, the more graphic the violence, the more grandiose the production design.
The old historical epics were, at least ostensibly, grounded in history rather than myth. “Game of Thrones” works not because it is fantasy, but because it seems so much like history. “Game of Thrones” is the Middle Ages as it must have seemed to people who lived through it — when the difference between people and animals is barely distinguishable, dark and full of terrors, populated with fanatics pagan and monotheist who will kill you for the wrong belief, filled with soldiers who will kill you just because they’re ordered or want to, suffused with events which can only be explained in their era through magic.
George R. R. Martin clearly knows all those historical details about which his fans couldn’t care less. In fact, he called a series of historical novels by a Shoah-surviving French Jew, “The Accursed King”, “the original Game of Thrones.” But there’s one obvious problem with the GoT universe: where are the Jews?
Everybody else seems to be there: the Starks are clearly Northern English and the Lannisters Southern, the Martells are Spanish, the Tyrells French, the Greyjoys Vikings, the Wildlings Scots and Celts. This is a Middle Ages wiped clean of the one concept upon which all medieval civilization agreed — that a people dwelt among them who are synonymous with everything they all hate.
I know I know, nobody needs Jews in a fantasy world. And yet, constructing a world so close to our own once with such a key difference speaks to “Game of Thrones'” ultimate frivolity. We already see the most degrading, depraved realities to which everyone else was subjected, even slaves. But if you included the reality of the Medieval Jewish experience in “Game of Thrones,” there would be no entertainment value, just pure horror. “Game of Thrones” is not a fantasy, it’s a lie we should hate ourselves for believing.
Evan Tucker is North Baltimore-based writer and composer. He is the violinist and lead singer of the Yiddish rock band Schmear Campaign and has a monthly podcast, “Tales from the Old New Land,” which is a Jewish version of A Prairie Home Companion. Listen at podomatic.com/podcasts/oldnewland.