BY CORD J. WHITAKER
Like the plot of Game of Thrones, memory resists standing still. And Game of Thrones is all about memory. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries based major cultural, political, and scientific strides on the memory of an imagined, idyllic Middle Ages. One that moderns at times resisted as primitive and at others vaunted as desirable.
The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century medieval revival remains with us, and it has found a new and extremely popular form in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novel series and its television adaptation, Game of Thrones. Like any popular medievalist narrative, GoT reflects the modern concerns of its writers and readers such as race, which I have written about here, and Helen Young has written about here. But in this post I want to take up another of the show’s major concerns: memory and how the show uses it to explore the idea that we live in an epoch characterized by human impact on the earth and its climate, otherwise known as the Anthropocene.
Game of Thrones’ Westeros and Essos (the West and the East) are populated by characters who are motivated by memories—hazy memories of their families’ former rule and all-too-vivid memories of more recent injury, murder, and exile. Characters seek rule and revenge. They are also locked in a larger battle for control of the world between humans and the non-human White Walkers. The characters strive to perpetuate—or at least continue—the Anthropocene by keeping the White Walkers at bay. Clearer in A Song of Ice and Fire than in Game of Thrones is that remembering a loved one who has been killed by a White Walker is a deadly mistake. Their human victims are reanimated—literally re-membered—as wights, undead who attack and kill the living. Several characters make the mistake of bringing home the bodies of fallen fellow defenders of humanity only to have them rise and kill more fellow defenders. Memory is a dangerous game.
In “Remember,” my chapter in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert’s forthcoming Veer Ecology (Minnesota 2017), I have written about remembering and wanting to return home. It is a common theme in medieval romance, modern novels, and even popular music, and it is usually motivated by love. Love is a dual-edged sword: “cancerous love consumes its subject until nothing remains. But love also gives life.” The vivifying and destructive natures of remembering and loving are inextricable: “love leads to grief and mourning only when it has been lost and is fondly remembered.” Major settings and characters in Chaucer’s works—the classical city of Thebes and Anelida, the jilted lover and queen of Armenia, for instance—live out the internal contradiction of intergenerational memory. They are “always dying but never dead.” Thebes is known in classical and medieval literature as a city founded on a cycle of death and rebirth. Anelida is known for a mourning so profound that she calls it “deadly adversity” and exclaims “I am so distraught that I die.” Each figure, and similarly fraught settings and characters, are deployed over and over again in literature. But what do these actual medieval stories teach us about how to understand the pseudo-medieval story in Game of Thrones?
Let’s take the Soup-Poop montage. It has quickly become one of the most discussed scenes in GoT’s Season 7, episode 1. Samwell “Sam” Tarly, a rather bumbling but sweet character who has a fascination with manuscripts befitting a scholar of medieval literature, has come to the Citadel in order to become the maester (think doctor, philosopher, and head librarian all rolled into one) at Castle Black. As with all scholarly orders, a trainee must start at the bottom. And so Sam does. He pours the soup into dining pots, and he empties the shit from chamberpots. Over and over, and over again. The scene’s tempo is out of step with the show’s usual pace. It speeds up to at least quadruple time as Samwell’s monotonous days of soup and poop are shown in time-lapse fashion. As Aaron Bady points out, if the maesters are going to do the slow scholarly work of inquiry, investigation, and book production then “someone has to live life in the sequence of increasingly short and fast cuts in which soup after soup becomes poop after poop.” Sam has to work in real-time, and against the background of the Citadel’s scholarly pace, real-time is fast-forward.
Sam lives out memory’s veering path: the same hands that bring life (soup) also take away death (poop). Even the soup-pots and the poop-pots look the same. (Let’s hope the Citadel has some system for keeping them separate.) The contrasting-yet-bound pair of Remember’s vivifying and destructive powers are on display in the scene.
The life-and-death pairing are not confined to episode 1. In episode 2, the show offers it the other way around. While soup came before poop in the first installment, now deadly infection comes before soup. George R.R. Martin is obsessed with soup. Jorah Mormont, the Mother-of-Dragons Daenerys Targaryen’s loyal on-again off-again knight, suffers from a deadly disease known as greyscale. Once infected, stony grey scales spread across the sufferer’s skin, slowly turning the victim into stone. Jorah has come to the Citadel on his journey to find a cure. When Samwell confirms that a previous Archmaester had found a potential cure (before dying of the disease himself), he defies the current Archmaester and secretly begins to perform surgery on Jorah—reading the manual as he goes! First things first, he must cut off all the infected skin, which covers at least half of Jorah’s body. If the flaying is hard to watch—and it is—imagine how much harder it must be for Jorah, who has only a bottle of rum for anesthetic. Samwell cuts deep into the stony flesh until he reaches a layer of yellow-green pus that screams deadly infection. He digs his surgical instrument down into the gooey pathogen stew until what comes up is a spoon of creamy soup that goes directly into the mouth of one of the barons of King’s Landing.
We are reminded that one man’s death is another’s life, and that one man’s life is another’s death. It is a lesson the show offers, relentlessly. It is also a lesson that should be central to climate change. Well-to-do dwellers of wealthy nations that consume most of the world’s resources in order to maintain a high standard of living regularly thrust less wealthy humans into the throes of immediate climate disaster. One man’s rich soup, filled with processed dairy products and unsustainably farmed meat and delivered to the door of his highly air-conditioned home by a driver who was called by means of an app, is another man’s loss of home and livelihood by unexpected torrential rains or by war for control of the rare earth minerals that power smartphones. How is one to short-circuit the death-and-life, life-and-death cycle? By consuming less? By developing newer, greener technologies?
Maybe all it takes is a little remembering. Remembering bygone ways of doing things. Remembering how to use resources that have fallen out of fashion but remain plentiful. Remembering that overuse of anything: soup, chivalry, experimental surgeries, power—and even love—can become cancerous and lead to disastrous results.
In fact, remembering seems to be Season 7’s organizing ethos. Daenerys’s dragons have helped her conquer much of the world, as they did for her ancestor Aegon the Conqueror, but by the end of episode 2 it appears that using the dragons to take King’s Landing would be overuse. At the same time, we have also learned that Daenerys’s home-castle Dragonstone sits atop a mountain of Dragonglass, the only known way to kill White Walkers. Remembering this forgotten resource will surely be beneficial in slowing or stopping the advance of the White Walkers and, with them, the wintry death that thinly veils our impending climate disaster.
Cord J. Whitaker teaches and researches on medieval literature and the development of racial ideology at Wellesley College. Whitaker’s work has appeared in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology, the Yearbook of Langland Studies, and postmedieval, where his special issue “Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages” has achieved critical acclaim. He blogs at inthemedievalmiddle.com, whatisracialdifference.com, and The Spoke: the blog of the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute for Global Affairs at Wellesley.
Whitaker is a contributor to Veer Ecology, coming in November 2017.