Why “Game of Thrones” Cannot Have a Bittersweet Ending

In a recent interview with The Observer, George R.R. Martin, author of Game of Thrones, said,

… the tone of the ending that I’m going for is bittersweet. I mean, it’s no secret that Tolkien has been a huge influence on me, and I love the way he ended Lord of the Rings. It ends with victory, but it’s a bittersweet victory. Frodo is never whole again, and he goes away to the Undying Lands, and the other people live their lives. And the scouring of the Shire—brilliant piece of work, which I didn’t understand when I was 13 years old: “Why is this here? The story’s over?” But every time I read it I understand the brilliance of that segment more and more. All I can say is that’s the kind of tone I will be aiming for. Whether I achieve it or not, that will be up to people like you and my readers to judge.

I shook my head when I read this. For as much as he claims Tolkien as an influence, Martin has been writing in a very different style all along.

Aristotle defined a tragedy as one in which the characters are heroic and most of them die, and a comedy as one in which the characters are ordinary people whose lives get better. By that simple definition alone one would say that Martin has been writing a tragedy, while Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is a comedy.

But it’s more complex than that. Louise Cowan, one-time professor of literature at the University of Dallas and author of The Terrain of Comedy, says that there are three types of “comedy.” Basing her ideas on Dante’s famous Commedia[1], Cowan delineates the differences between infernal, purgatorial, and paradisiacal comedies. Paradisiacal comedies occur in some magical place, the feminine is always present, and the tone is light-hearted throughout; Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one example. Neither Tolkien nor Martin writes in this genre.

Purgatorial comedies involve a long struggle by the main character(s) to prove or redeem themselves or atone for some error. The feminine is glorified and longed for but usually can only be found/merged with at the end. Like a paradisiacal comedy, this type usually ends with a wedding or many weddings. Although the way is hard, there are moments of delight and rest that revive the hero and give him the will to go on. This is the kind of comedy Tolkien wrote. Frodo and his companions struggle through great difficulties and terrors to accomplish the quest, but they also experience moments of peace and beauty along the way — in Rivendell, in Lothlorien, in Ithilien — and find “help unlooked for” as well.

Martin writes in the genre of infernal comedy. These are “comedies” only because the main protagonist survives to the end. To survive he (usually a he) must traverse a hellish landscape where he can trust no one and where he must kill others in self-defense or in pursuit of his goals. The feminine, if present at all, is debased and victimized. When the hero stands alone at the end, we usually feel drained and glad it’s over.

The ending of The Lord of the Rings is bittersweet because Frodo has accomplished what the hero must do, yet there is no reward for him. He does not find his heart’s companion in the end, as do the rest of his mortal Fellowship. This is bitter to us because we had hope all along that he would not just win through but find happiness, and he does not. But we have no such hope for any of Martin’s characters. We don’t even know who the hero of the story is, yet. We only know that he will have gone through hell and survived it.

[1] Dante never called it “Divine” – that word was added to the title by a later publisher.

2 thoughts on “Why “Game of Thrones” Cannot Have a Bittersweet Ending

  1. Er, I have hope for many of the characters, to win through and do more than survive, including finding happiness, or redemption, or some other analogous fulfillment beyond “at least I didn’t get flayed.”

    So I think a bittersweet ending is still possible.

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