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Brutality and Reality – Is the "Game" in Game of Thrones Getting Too Violent?

Brutality and Reality – Is the Game in Game of Thrones Getting Too Violent? by Olga A.

crusaders killing jews

Virtually anyone who has ever studied the Middle Ages as an era, would be more or less comfortable with the fact that whether you like it or not, the medieval epoch was a time when violence was widespread and common. I suggest that those of us getting a tad too nostalgic for the sword-and-cloak age think about this: the hazy uncertainty surrounding the law, especially criminal; the sheer and abrupt savagery with which the supposed justice was carried out, in cases when it was; the concept of human rights being unheard of… Of course, you may say, there is quite enough violence and pain in the world as it is now. I agree with you thoroughly on this one – however, it has to be said that in the thirteenth century, for instance, things would have been a great deal worse (not to mention the other delights such as the plague).

It is nevertheless easy to forget about the huge role that violence played in medieval culture, when we are leafing through the latest and most exciting fantasy novel. In the fantasy realm, death may be abundant and ever-present, but it is either romanticized or impossibly heroic. Or else, it’s the bad Orcs who get killed. Things happen differently in the realm of story-telling, so it seems.

Not so for the Game of Thrones universe! *SPOILERS IN PREVIEW BELOW*

Possibly the main reason to why exactly it is so fascinating to watch (and why some claim it makes for “uncomfortable” viewing), is the fact that the show deals with the events as they would have happened in reality, had Westeros et al been not fictitious, but authentic medieval-style realms. Whilst Tolkien’s Middlearth, strange and beautiful as it is, can strike some as a rather “sanitized” cosmos (which might be explained by the fact that it is being presented largely through a hobbit’s eyes), the Game of Thrones is not afraid to deal with the topics which undoubtedly were only too real in the medieval world, and which would be present in any universe, if it should claim to be more or less real. People get killed – often with extreme brutality; terrible secrets come to life; and yes, sex also plays a part.

The Daily Mail seems to have been quite shocked by the finale of the “Rains of Castamere” episode. I admit that I was, too (the death of Catelyn Stark was especially poignant). The reaction of the viewers was natural, given the horror of the scene. Yet unfortunately, this is the way things actually were in the medieval era (and still are in many places all over the globe). The gracious legend-like charm of Middlearth will endure – yet Westeros reflects what would have really been.

See what the Daily Mail say here.

Do you prefer the realistic, yet gory portrayal of fantasy universes? Or would you rather have Tolkien’s fairy-tale approach? Leave your comments here!

Game of Thrones Episode "Rains of Castemere"
Game of Thrones Episode “Rains of Castemere”

About Reporter: Olga A.
Hailing from the swirling mists of London, I am a freelance journalist in my free time, and a huge fan of J R Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” as well as an admirer of the “Game of Thrones,” a worshipper of H P Lovecraft, a follower of R. Howard, a Star Wars aficionado and an Ursula Le Guin enthusiast. My other favourite things include Middle Eastern dance (sometimes somewhat discourteously referred to as “belly” dancing), Yoga, sunsets over the dreaming spires of Oxford and plush owls. Oh, and green tea too.

About reuben

Steve, also known as “Rifflo”, is a University MBA Administrator in Ontario Canada where he lives with his wife, Lisa and two young daughters, Alexa and Ava. Steve has an extensive background in corporate sales. Steve also worked for ISAF: International Security Assistance Force and the Canadian Military as a recruiter in Human Resources for the operations in Bosnia and Afghanistan. When not immersed in Tolkien works,sci-fi, and film, you can find him training in Muay Thai, and Italian rapier.


  1. In Tolkien’s defense, because so many like to throw barbs at his work when discussing realism in today’s fantasy, (not that the writer of this article has done that) he had no intention of writing realistic fantasy. That was not his purpose at all. His intention was to write something mythical and legendary, a great work of myth and tales for his people and he used tropes and language to convey a certain mythical, high mimetic style. Realism, as it is seen and defined in fiction today has absolutely nothing to do with what he was doing.

    Tolkien’s work is sanitized or unrealistic – I hear this a lot. I think it’s an assumption some make when making the inevitable comparison between the grandfather of modern fantasy and his many predecessors. They misunderstand from the beginning what he was trying to do. I suspect that they do not care about the great differences within the fantasy genre either. It’s easier to simply dismiss Tolkien and the genre he pioneered. High fantasy is not gritty. Myth is not “realistic” in any sense. Realism and grit is not the purpose of legend, myth and high fantasy.

    Not to take away from Martin because I love his A Song of Ice and Fire series and Martin, unlike other fantasy writers, has respect for Tolkien’s work. It’s just that when I see these constant comparisons which really shouldn’t be, I get grumpy.

  2. I’ll be watching this episode tonight, so I’m commenting without the benefit of experiencing this…but I remember the same emotion when Ned Stark was executed so I’m partially reflecting from that memory.

    There has been violence, brutality and gore in GOT since the beginning. I think it is the emotional connection to the characters over the span of years that makes it resonate more deeply and that is what people are reacting/responding to. When it all happens to a bad guy (or gal), it resonates differently. I feel bad for what Theon is going through, but he is a bit of a jerk so it feels different watching him be tortured that it was watching Joffrey be such a jerk to Sansa last season, for example.

    Is anyone gonna shed a tear when Joffrey finally gets what’s coming to him, no matter how gory or brutal?

    I think GOT has maintained a consistent level of violence throughout its seasons – it just really stinks that the violence, as in real life, isn’t partial about who is its recipient. That’s up for us to digest…

  3. Michael Lucero

    I don’t think this article is quite fair. I think its central idea is sheer determinism: the belief that things have to be a certain, and the subsequent behavior as if that were true, makes the things believed to be necessary end up being actual. Obviously this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sure, it’s true to admit that things *have* been this way most of the time in history, but to say that they have been this way *all* of the time in history is absolutely false, not to mention unprovable. It’d be better to say that things have been this way most of the time, but need not be this way all the time now or in the future, and as a corollary to that, need not be the same way in any imaginable alternate past or any imaginable fictional universe. Having people behave in the way Tolkien does is not unrealistic; it’s just idealistic, and that’s what we need more of. Martin’s worldview is the exact opposite, a nihilistic and fatalistic one.

    As Tolkien himself wrote in letter 183: “…but I have not made any of the peoples on the ‘right’ side, Hobbits, Rohirrim, men of Dale or of Gondor, any better than men have been or are, or can be.”

    As for depictions of sex, I don’t believe that any author is obligated to depict every aspect of human life in his work, no matter how expansive that work otherwise is. Tolkien doesn’t, and that’s fine. It’s not like he shies away from it; he simply doesn’t show it or allude to it. Sex isn’t the end-all, be-all of human life, and just because Martin depicts it doesn’t mean his work is more complete or more accurate. It’s certainly not. There are many aspects of human life that he does not allude to even once, let alone explore in depth, but that Tolkien does.

  4. I definitely prefer Tolkien’s world. In GoT there are too much sex and violence for me, it’s too realistic. I use to refuge in fantasy to dream and forget everyday problems, I need a soft version of the world. Besides, I don’t like the fact that there are so many characters that die in GoT.

  5. The assumption that Game of Thrones is more realistic because it is more violent and dark is just plain wrong. That is NOT what things were really like in the medieval era. And Tolkien knew a lot more about war than any fantasy writer today.

  6. I don’t know. But its totally worth this:
    All these poor souls who’ve never experienced the pain of Fandom before. (LOTS of Spoiler, btw)

  7. Here is an idea don’t waste your time comparing Martin To Tolkien. I like both But there is no comparison. As far as violence and darkness in Tolkien’s work ask yourself what happened to the Elves in the depths of Angband.

  8. Regardless if you agree with the article or if you love/hate Martin’s work one thing is for sure…Martin’s work does bring out strong emotions and conversation!

  9. In the beginning I refused to read or watch Game of Thrones, Song of Ice and Fire because of the sex/violence – I am really glad that I decided to forgo that decision and watch/read – because while it is the most violent and sex riddle thing I have ever seen in my life – very few tv shows have ever taken me to such an emotional level. These characters live real lives to me.
    The Red Wedding was violent, due to knowing it was going to happen, I was so mortified about their deaths and in love with the characters, I totally didn’t care about the gore while sitting on my couch alone. I was more like ‘Oh, gosh, no, no, this is actually happening, NO!’
    However, had anyone else been in the room, I would have freaked over it. XD

  10. Why some people tend to view Tolkien as “sanitised” actually is one particular trait about his writing that makes it quite akin to the classical Greek tragedy – the story itself speaks of horrors unimaginable, but in the course of the play, we are never shown how people are being killed – the Greeks thought it was a pretty barbarian thing to show to an audience. So yes, we got Elves tortured in Angband (in Tolkien’s later works), but we are not graphically shown how those Elves are precisely being tortured. Whether we prefer a barbarian or the classical Greek approach, is a different story altogether.

  11. An argument that always seems to creep up when discussing this series as opposed to Tolkien is the notion that it being more “violent and darker” equals it being more realistic. One camp seems to cling to this notion as true toting a rather fatalistic viewpoint of the world, while the other camp calls it false and nihilistic and just an excuse, dark for the sake of dark if you will. Personally, I find these both wrong. Although I’m not the biggest fan of drawing commparisons between the two authors as I adore both for different reasons, as well as both ultimately having very different world views and writing styles, but in the argument of which is more “realistic” I probably will side with Game of Thrones, not because it’s darker, but because it is based on things that actually happened in our history. While Tolkien hated and abhorred allegory in all forms, Martin seems to in many ways revel in it. The Song of Ice and Fire series is inspired and based upon Britain’s own War of the Roses, as the most recent Legendarium article points out, the red wedding is based on an actual event, heck you can even make almost direct comparisons to different groups and people in our history; Lannister= Lancester, Stark= York, Aegon the Conqueror= William the Conqueror, Dothraki= Mongols, Iron Isles= Wales, Robert Baratheon= Henry IV, Balon Greyjoy= Glendower, ect.

    It should also be noted how one perceives the attitudes and culture of times long past. All too often we make the mistake of looking at history through the lens of modern day comparison when quite often ideas and feelings towards this behavior or that item were very very different. Context can be a very difficult thing, it’s often why Hollywood tends to struggle with accurately portraying history. Compare the two film Master and Commander and The Patriot. Both represent periods of history close enough in timeline to serve as good comparisons, the former is based on a novel set during the Romantic Era/Napoleonic War and the later is based on events in the southern battlefield of the Revolutionary War. Of the two it is the one based on the novel that is generally regarded by those who know the history as the more accurate one, why? It gets the mannerism and the dialogue right. Roland Emmerich’s characters in the Patriot spend most of their time toting dialogue one would expect more in an after school special about patriotism, spouting almost direct quotes from the constitution or declaration even though they likely had never read it or even at some points of the film they hadn’t been published yet. Not only does this make the film almost laughably and forcibly campy, but it also neglects the fact that the southern states for the better part of the war were not very strong supporters of the cause. In fact the British changed their strategy to focus more on the south in the second half because they felt that they could maybe garner greater popular support in that area. On the other hand Master and Commander not only correctly works in the naval lingo of the time, but also manages to assess with accuracy what the attitudes of the different positions on the ship towards their circumstances and each other, and do it in a way that is subtle and feels natural; the superstition that would seem nonsense to us, the view of the natural world as the crossroads between science and faith began to come to a head as the years drew near to the voyage of the Beagle, and so forth.

    Similarly looking at the story of Game of Thrones one needs to be aware of the context just as when looking at history films, therein lies the difference between if it ends up like the Patriot, or Master and Commander. It is difficult to keep this brief as their is literally whole essays to be made from this question, but to briefly make the point I’ll focus on three things that seem to be cornerstones to the series’ premise; roles of women, sexuality, and how a regent manages their affairs.

    One of the things generally regarded as a positive in the series is how strong the women characters are, for good or ill. This actually is probably more true to the period the story is meant to represent then we at first might realize, as modern perceptions tend to view any female roles in western society prior to suffrage at the turn of the century as extremely restrictive. While it is true that women were by no means viewed as “equals” in society, there was a distinct pendulum swing in history over how deep this went. Around the time of the War of Roses the swing was very much in their favor, one that really wouldn’t completely shift the other way again until the religious wars of Europe and the march of groups of like the puritans. This was the time when people like Joan of Arc appeared (mind you she was not actually burned as a witch, the catholic church denied the existence of witches at this point), women were running mills and businesses with legitimacy, ladies of the keep often would be right in the thick of a siege defense armed with their own crossbows and armor. The medieval damsel in distress and the gallant knight were in fact myths, largely developed during the Victorian era more then anything. Really Song of Ice and Fire manages to hit the nail pretty nicely on the head in terms of finding the balance with the attitudes that would have existed, where the more ambitious of the female genders would have found room to act on their desires while on the surface traditional limits still existed and some, like Sansa, would try to adhere to them.

    Sexuality is probably the most blurred and confused subject matter that can be discussed with history, partly because it’s so sensitive and partly because moral interpretations and terminology have changed so dramatically. For instance, we often tend to view same sex relationships in historical pieces through the lens of modern notions, both those who view it as wrong and those who view it as right (not making the case for either here, just pointing out how different ideas about it are from then and now). The term “homosexual” didn’t even enter into the English language until around the turn of the century with the trial of Oscar Wilde, who given his level of celebrity garnered such shock at the discovery of his intimate relations with other men that newspapers began to seek out new ways to classify it to satisfy their starved readership. Before the trial such relationships were simply lumped under various other lewd acts as general sodomy, yet even this had a very different tone to it. Female intimacy was almost never regarded with the same negative light, in fact many literary works such as Rosetti’s “The Goblin Market” describe interactions that today would immediately garner the tag of “lesbian” yet at the time were not seen as really sexual at all. In fact the premise of that particular poem was actually meant as a warning against promiscuity and prostitution by means of metaphor.

    But what of the majority of the sexuality in the series, most of which is traditional, if promiscuous, male and female? Surely they weren’t that liberal with their approaches back then? Well this one can be left a bit more open to debate, as it’s hard to get a complete grasp on just how prominent it was then. Historians and scribes don’t tend to write a lot about the dirty things going on at night, and literacy was generally more of a luxury at the time. Most of what we know has to be drawn from trickier resources. For example, we know from correspondences between Plantagenat courtiers and personal journals that Richard the Lionheart was a notorious womanizer who, to the perception of some, had turned the wives of his entire court into his own personal harem of sorts. The parents to Robert the Bruce had come together famously over a love affair that involved the mother initiating it by abducting the father after she saw him through a window riding by. So certainly such behavior existed, the matter of debate is if it was as regular as The Song of Ice and Fire suggests.

    Finally we come to the blood and gore, the intrigue and backstabbing, the level of violence and maliciousness so many argue couldn’t possibly have been reali……….ok have none of you seriously ever read Machiavelli? That work is not fiction, The Prince is based entirely upon the real life bloodbath that was the principalities and city states of Italy, and the machinations and plotting especially by the Lannisters fits the mold he described almost to a tee. Even the brutality beyond the intrigue is spot on; nobility was often spared and ransomed unless some emotional reasoning worked into the equation (Edward the Longshanks very frequently “raised dragon” IE took no prisoners when he wanted to make a point)and almost always the lower classes got the rotten end of the deal being neither worth keeping alive after a battle or ending up the victims of the plundering and pillaging.