One of my favourite moments of Game of Thrones comes towards the end of the first season. It’s not a plot twist. It doesn’t involve any expected or grisly deaths.
It doesn’t even, despite the show’s cringe-y adolescent belief that it requires regular shots of someone’s boobs to hold our attention, have any naked women making out with each other in the background. Nonetheless, I find it haunting enough that my mind keeps flicking back to it, more than five years on.
The scene takes place in the godswood, the tiny sacred forest in the heart of Winterfell castle, where the recently crippled Bran Stark asks the wildling Osha about the old gods that the forest represents. Bran is worried about his family: understandably, really, since his father and sisters are being held prisoner in the capital, and his big brother is about to lead an army to free them. Osha is not entirely reassuring:
“I tried telling your brother he’s marching the wrong way. All these swords, they should be going the north, boy; north, not south. The cold winds are rising.”
Or, roughly translated: your war is irrelevant. However all-consuming it feels right now, it’s a little local conflict, that’s all. The real threat will come from outside – and that won’t just mean a change in ruling dynasty but the end of your world. When the White Walkers arrive, who sits on the Iron Throne won’t matter a damn.
This is probably not a very comforting thing to tell a kid who’s terrified that his entire family is about to get slaughtered.
This sort of dual structure is something I’ve noticed pops up rather a lot in epic sci-fi or fantasy stories. One part of the plot involves a power struggle big enough for it to feel historic to those who are living through it. The other concerns an existential threat, lurking just over the horizon, that will make the first plot seem irrelevant.
So it is that over the first three seasons of J. Michael Straczynski’s 90s TV space opera Babylon 5 – which is an amazing piece of work, even though I know in my heart of hearts I’m never going to persuade anyone who hasn’t see it to watch the bloody thing – the Earth slips slowly, and terrifyingly, into totalitarian dictatorship. This, though, takes a back seat to the arrival of the Shadows, an ancient alien race that wants to trigger a galactic war that will, basically, kill everyone.
More recently, there’s a variant of the structure in The Expanse, the series of a scifi novels by James S. A. Corey that’s spawned a TV adaptation. Earth, Mars and the (asteroid) Belt have already spent generations locked in cold war, when a potentially civilisation-killing alien virus arrives. In one part of the story, the various governments try to get hold of the new technology to shore up their own strategic position for the war to come; in another, our heroes are fighting to stop it from getting out and, yes, killing everyone.
But it’s Thrones where this form is most explicit. In the first scene, both of the show and of the books it’s adapted from, we see a trio of doomed minor characters going beyond the wall, where they promptly get murdered by ice zombies. From the story’s very beginning, we know that something scary and supernatural is massing its forces, just out of sight – and that, one day, it will attack. Through years of this show, while we’ve been caught up in palace intrigue and medieval battle scenes, we’ve known, at the back of our minds, that who wins may yet prove irrelevant. We’re facing the wrong way.
Why do people keep using this structure? I suspect much of the explanation lies in the genre’s debt to Tolkien: Lord of the Rings also mixes a sort of dynastic politics with an external and existential threat. (At least, I think it does; in all honesty, I’ve blocked much of it out. Christ, I hate Tolkien.) He in turn probably got it from the experience of living through the 1930s, a decade when life and politics went on in the full knowledge that much bigger and more frightening forces lay just across the channel.
And, at risk of sounding hysterical, I think it’s a structure that resonates now for much the same reason. We can all obsess about the Westminster horse race, or the internecine rows of the left: stories, after all, are more compelling when they come with personalities, and it’s easier to conceive of an enemy when they have a face.
While we do this, though, I can’t help but worry we’re ignoring bigger but less immediate threats. That might mean the economic devastation wrought by a Hard Brexit; more likely it means the rather more literal version, wrought by climate change. Perhaps it’s something else we can’t even see coming.
In fiction, there’s a dramatic irony in the knowledge your characters are looking the wrong way. The idea everyone is obsessing about the wrong thing is often haunting; but it can also, if the author wishes, be played for laughs.
It’s rather harder to find the comic irony when you look back at the things people obsessed about in, say, 1913. Sometimes, you can’t see history coming – and the things we fight about today will seem quaintly irrelevant tomorrow.
That is why that moment with Bran and Osha in the godswood haunts me so. Because I have a lingering fear that winter is coming – and we’re marching the wrong way.