Of Slavoj Žižek, Game of Thrones, Women, and Revolution

Every man and his dragon clearly wants to have their twenty-cents’ worth on Game of Thrones at the moment. Celebrated Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has written a piece in the Independent, which criticises the implicit conservatism of the ending. It’s this piece that I thought I would comment on today.

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I have a soft spot for Žižek generally. He marches to the beat of his own drum – ideological non-conformists are all-too rare these days. He may go off on his own little weird tangents, and pinning down his exact position is often like fighting a cloud, but he’s never a dull commentator, even when you disagree with him. And, well, I disagree with him today, because I think he simultaneously gives Game of Thrones too much and too little credit – at least in this particular article. You never entirely know with Žižek, who, as ever, delights in provocation.


The last season of the Game of Thrones has prompted public outcry and culminated in a petition (signed by almost 1 million outraged viewers) to disqualify the entire season and re-shoot a new one. The ferocity of the debate is in itself a proof that the ideological stakes must be high.

There is an almost naive assumption here that ferocious debate must imply high stakes. It’s a profoundly mistaken assumption, of course – the debate over Game of Thrones is ferocious, not because the stakes are high, but because lots of people have become emotionally invested in the outcome. If anything, this episode is a sign of a curious disconnect in modern society between emotional attachment and what has actual meaning – many of us care far more about the fate of these fictional people than real people. There is even a meme going around at the moment, comparing Daenerys on Drogon to US foreign policy, which makes light of this.

(On the other hand, the fact that so many people care so deeply about the story is arguably a success of the story, not a failure on the part of the audience).

The dissatisfaction turned on a couple of points: bad scenario (under the pressure to quickly end the series, the complexity of the narrative was simplified), bad psychology (Daenerys’ turn to “Mad Queen” was not justified by her character development), etc. 

Except that the showrunners were not under pressure to quickly end the series. HBO offered them a full ten episodes, but they decided to wrap it up in six. It was a problem of their own making. And Daenerys’ mad turn most certainly was badly handled character development.

One of the few intelligent voices in the debate was that of the author Stephen King who noted that dissatisfaction was not generated by the bad ending but the fact of the ending itself. In our epoch of series which in principle could go on indefinitely, the idea of narrative closure becomes intolerable.

If I were being facetious, I would suggest that Stephen King is an interesting authority to cite on the subject of endings. I also thoroughly disagree that the objections are rooted in hostility to narrative closure – if this is the case, why have there been so many calls for The Simpsons to be put out of its misery?

Season eight stages three consecutive struggles. The first one is between humanity and its inhuman “Others” (the Night Army from the North led by the Night King); between the two main groups of humans (the evil Lannisters and the coalition against them led by Daenerys and Starks); and the inner conflict between Daenerys and the Starks.

Problem is, the ordering of these struggles undermines the core theme of both book and series: human politics is not important.

This is why the battles in season eight follow a logical path from an external opposition to the inner split: the defeat of the inhuman Night Army, the defeat of Lannisters and the destruction of King’s Landing; the last struggle between the Starks and Daenerys – ultimately between traditional “good” nobility (Starks) faithfully protecting their subjects from bad tyrants, and Daenerys as a new type of a strong leader, a kind of progressive bonapartist acting on behalf of the underprivileged.

Daenerys believes she acts on behalf of the underprivileged, yes. It’s why her destruction of King’s Landing made so little sense. But there is a distinction between belief and reality, and really what Daenerys (post-madness) offers is a return to the absolutist tyranny of the early Targaryen years, dressed up as a plea for freedom. Why should we be forced to take propaganda – even sincerely believed propaganda – at its word?

It is also mistaken to see the Starks as necessarily representatives of traditional good nobility. After all, Jon explicitly rejects the throne, then rejects a hierarchical structure altogether (our last sight of Jon is him running off with the Wildings). Arya has never fitted within the traditional framework, and she too runs away for a different life. Bran is a weird inhuman being divorced from mortal realms, full stop. Even Sansa, the most conventional of the four, has more regionalist ambitions – to pull the North out from beneath the heel of the wider realm in the name of self-determination.

What we therefore see is not so much a dispute between Tradition and Bonapartism, but rather a dispute between a Dark Messiah (complete with that image of Luciferian wings) and her sceptics. Rather than representing a coherent view of what the social order should be, the Starks are more certain of what they are against than what they are for.

The stakes in the final conflict are thus: should the revolt against tyranny be just a fight for the return of the old kinder version of the same hierarchical order, or should it develop into the search for a new order that is needed?  

This reminds me of the old arguments that posit Tolkien’s Sauron as progressive. He isn’t – and neither is the Mad Queen of Game of Thrones. Certainly, Sauron believed that he was necessary to bring order to Middle-earth, just as Daenerys believes that she is necessary to bring liberation to Westeros and beyond. It’s just that, again, belief is rather different from reality.

This is not a binary choice: to be a sceptic of a “new order” (especially one involving thousands of people being burned to a crisp) is not to be an advocate for the old. Hell, Samwell Tarly proposes actual democracy, and no-one would accuse him of being a Daenerys fan.

The finale combines the rejection of a radical change with an old anti-feminist motif at work in Wagner. For Wagner, there is nothing more disgusting than a woman who intervenes in political life, driven by the desire for power. In contrast to male ambition, a woman wants power in order to promote her own narrow family interests or, even worse, her personal caprice, incapable as she is of perceiving the universal dimension of state politics.

Now Žižek is giving the writers too much credit. Game of Thrones engaging with Wagnerian criticisms of women? No. It is not that sophisticated. Not least because the truly monstrous representative of overweening ambition in the work is not Daenerys (who, after all, inherits familial entitlement from her brother) but rather Petyr Baelish, the decidedly male Littlefinger.

The same femininity which, within the close circle of family life, is the power of protective love, turns into obscene frenzy when displayed at the level of public and state affairs. Recall the lowest point in the dialogue of Game of Thrones when Daenerys tells Jon that if he cannot love her as a queen then fear should reign – the embarrassing, vulgar motif of a sexually unsatisfied woman who explodes into destructive fury.

I agree that the scene in question is weak, but one can rationalise it as being less about the sexual satisfaction, and more about the idea that Daenerys wants (and is denied) acceptance – the People love Jon, but not her. I would also point out that the root cause of the War of the Five Kings is a battle over whose squirt of semen created Joffrey – one can reduce a fair bit in this story to the embarrassing and the vulgar.

But – let’s bite our sour apple now – what about Daenerys’ murderous outbursts? Can the ruthless killing of the thousands of ordinary people in King’s Landing really be justified as a necessary step to universal freedom? At this point, we should remember that the scenario was written by two men.

Gender is less relevant here than the fact that (in-story) thousands of ordinary people were cooked alive. The most relevant analogies to Daenerys’ action are not female ones, but the rampages of the (male) Genghis Khan and Timur the Lame.

Daenerys as the Mad Queen is strictly a male fantasy, so the critics were right when they pointed out that her descent into madness was psychologically not justified. The view of Daenerys with mad-furious expression flying on a dragon and burning houses and people expresses patriarchal ideology with its fear of a strong political woman. 

The objections to the scene would be just as fierce if Daenerys were male. If it were a matter of fearing a strong political woman, why has Sansa Stark not been set up as a similar monster? Ditto Yara/Asha Greyjoy? Brienne and Arya are ultimate subversions of Westerosi gender roles, yet both get what passes for a happy ending.

The final destiny of the leading women in Game of Thrones fits these coordinates. Even if the good Daenerys wins and destroys the bad Cersei, power corrupts her. Arya (who saved them all by single-handedly killing the Night King) also disappears, sailing to the West of the West (as if to colonise America). 

Again – too much credit and too little credit. On one hand, Daenerys was corrupted because the writers wanted a cool scene (or because it was part of the intended ending and they couldn’t be bothered laying the groundwork), not because they were displaying the biases of the patriarchy. On the other hand, more charitably, Daenerys’ corruption was because she was complete master of a Weapon of Mass Destruction. She did, after all, have absolute power at that moment. The fact that Daenerys is a woman is irrelevant – Lord Acton’s famous dictum is not gender specific!

I am not sure of the point Žižek makes about Arya. She is never in power, but rather a stone-cold killer, who nevertheless avoids the fate of Sandor Clegane.

The one who remains (as the queen of the autonomous kingdom of the North) is Sansa, a type of women beloved by today’s capitalism: she combines feminine softness and understanding with a good dose of intrigue, and thus fully fits the new power relations.  

Well, no. Sansa as ruler of Winterfell is explicitly treated as a competent, pragmatic figure – far more so than any of her other siblings. She operates as a lord among lords, yes, but that is a comment on class, not gender-relations. Honestly, if Daenerys were successful, I wonder if Žižek would be lamenting Daenerys as “the type of woman beloved by today’s capitalism.”

 This marginalisation of women is a key moment of the general liberal-conservative lesson of the finale: revolutions have to go wrong, they bring new tyranny, or, as Jon put it to Daenerys:

Again, Žižek is treating scepticism of Daenerys’ Revolution as an endorsement of the old system. It isn’t – Jon himself rejects the system altogether, and runs off to live with anarchists. It’s an understanding that Revolutions are complicated beasts that very rarely go as intended.

Consequently, Jon kills out of love (saving the cursed woman from herself, as the old male-chauvinist formula says) the only social agent in the series who really fought for something new, for a new world that would put an end to old injustices.

The implication being that she would put an end to old injustices and create entirely new ones.

So justice prevailed – but what kind of justice? The new king is Bran: crippled, all-knowing, who wants nothing – with the evocation of the insipid wisdom that the best rulers are those who do not want power. A dismissive laughter that ensues when one of the new elite proposes a more democratic selection of the king tells it all.

Does Žižek imagine that a place with Westeros’ level of development, with feudalist economic relations, and limited literacy, would support a modern, democratic, political system? Surely not. The best shot Westeros ever had at delivering Power to the People was the High Sparrow and his merry bunch of religious fanatics… which would have created its own problems.

I would also point out that, between the beginning and end of the series, there has been a shift in power. Recall that the series began with political power in the hands of highly patriarchal Houses – Baratheon, Arryn, Stark, and Lannister. Warlords all. By the end… we have a cripple on the throne (who may well have engineered events to get power, but I digress). We have a dwarf as his chief minister. We have a woman running his Kingsguard. We have an overweight nerd with democratic sympathies as Grand Maester. And we have two working class plebs (Bronn and Davos) operating as the rest of the Small Council. All told, we’ve come a fair way from a world run by Robert Baratheon, Jon Arryn, Ned Stark, and Tywin Lannister.

And one cannot help but note that those faithful to Daenerys to the end are more diverse – her military commander is black – while the new rulers are clearly white Nordic.

Daenerys was the most Nordic in appearance of the lot – to the point where the image of setting her up as the great liberator of the brown-skinned masses had more than a whiff of White (Wo-)Man’s Burden. Do other peoples really need a Great White Conqueror atop a Weapon of Mass Destruction to free them? Some of us can remember back fifteen years or so, to when certain (white) people were enthusiastically talking about bringing freedom to the Middle-East. I, for one, can also remember the consequences thereof.

The radical queen who wanted more freedom for everyone irrespective of their social standing and race is eliminated, things are brought back to normal.

It is not back to normal. It’s not utopia either… but it is certainly not normal.
Honestly. I wonder how serious Žižek is being here.

And Now My Watch Has Ended: Reflections on Game of Thrones

I first read George R.R. Martin in 2003. Back then, there were three books – A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords, though the old UK paperback edition I was reading split A Storm of Swords into two. The covers, incidentally, were unapologetic fantasy cheese:


You wouldn’t see anything like that today, of course. Modern Martin covers, especially those from the last decade, opt for a more respectable look. This is Serious Grown-up Fantasy, don’t you know, not some low-brow wish-fulfilment exercise.

From 2005 onwards, I tended to spend a decent amount of my online time on ASOIAF forums. Not simply because I liked the books – though I did – but also because it had become, in a sense, one of the defining lights of the genre. Peter Jackson’s original Rings trilogy had finished, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was drawing to its conclusion, and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books had run into problems with pacing and subplots. George R.R. Martin was now the Next Big Thing in fantasy, along with Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, and so it became difficult for genre geeks not to engage with his work. A Feast for Crows appeared in 2005, then A Dance with Dragons in 2011. I read them both when they came out, though I never joined in the mutterings about delays – there are more books out in the world than one can possibly read in a lifetime, so it was not as if I was short of material. The ending to ASOIAF would happen when it happened, and while I think there are pronounced structural problems with the work (Martin is a better short-story writer than he is a novelist), it is not something I angst about. Again: there are plenty of other books, including some by Martin himself, so what does it matter if we never see the ending of this particular series? I actually consider Fevre Dream his best single novel anyway. But I digress.

What turned this important genre work into a popular culture sensation was, of course, the television adaptation of ASOIAF, Game of Thrones. Born at a time when epic fantasy on-screen was primarily associated with movies, it has re-made expectations and conventions. Fantasy television existed before Game of Thrones (Buffy springs to mind), but epic fantasy – high-stakes, secondary world storytelling – was a newcomer to the format. Now television, rather than the full-length movie, has become the go-to form of visual fantasy adaptation, and whatever else one may say about Game of Thrones, it takes a landmark piece of work to overhaul an entire medium.

Because the television adaptation started in 2011, fifteen years after A Game of Thrones first appeared, the early seasons (the ones directly adapting the source material) had the massive advantage of being able to trim the dead-ends that sprinkle the books. The Warden of the East/West stuff is largely dispensed with, since it doesn’t go anywhere. Some of the characters are also significantly improved via adaptation – Samwell Tarly becomes less defined by his cowardice, Robert Baratheon becomes less a lovable oaf, and more self-aware of his failures, and Harry Lloyd’s Viserys Targaryen is infinitely more interesting than the one-note book version. Sure, the television version of Theon Greyjoy does not look like the book Theon, and his failures are played up more, but that’s just nitpicking – as a Theon sympathiser, it’s something I notice, and, by contrast, as a hater of book Jon Snow, I have always preferred the television Jon. If there’s a meaningful character error in those early seasons, I think it’s the portrayal of Littlefinger, who is altogether too overt about his moustache-twirling ways.

Early Game of Thrones, as well-regarded as it was (and is), did, however, develop the now-famous sexposition trope. Plot and world exposition was juxtaposed with sex scenes, presumably as a means of getting the audience to pay attention – we have Viserys detailing some historical dragon information to Doreah in the bath, while Littlefinger infamously describes his personal motivations in the company of a pair of prostitutes. It’s not for nothing that the series became associated with copious boobage (as the Honest Trailer commented, “it’s like a history test with dragons and boooooobs”). This was fine – I am hardly a prude – so long as there was an actual meaningful story to accompany the sex. You can’t hang a story on sex alone, since at that point you no longer have a story, but rather an exercise in pornography (if sincere) or trolling (if insincere).

Game of Thrones never quite sunk to that level, though in some cases it was not for lack of trying. Once the series overtook Martin’s books, the writers clearly began to think that chucking in ever-more overt violence and torture could somehow keep the ever-more jaded audience engaged. They kept the sex too, of course, which meant that torture porn warred with pornographic torture for a fair bit of the later seasons, a situation in no small part due to the writers’ love affair with Ramsay Bolton. Martin leaves Ramsay’s activities much more to the imagination, rather than showing it blow-by-blow for shock value, and I think the books are much the better for it.

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Back in 2011, the notion that the television series would overtake the books was seen as unlikely. Sure, Martin had taken over a decade to produce two “linking” novels, which would connect the two halves of his overall series, but now he had those out the way, normal service could be resumed… right? Well, no. It did not work out like that, and the television series famously did overtake the books. This put book-readers like myself in the same position as those who only watched the television version (a strange experience in itself). More importantly, however, it forced the television writers to concoct their own path to the ending.

On one hand, this should not have been as difficult as it was. George R.R. Martin wrote for television in the 1980s, and ASOIAF is structured in a television-friendly manner, what with the chapter twists and episodic nature. One can write for the screen, and still keep to the stylistic spirit of Martin’s text. On the other hand, there were some inevitable obstacles in ‘going solo’ – without the source material, keeping Tyrion’s witticisms consistently entertaining became much harder, while with Tywin Lannister gone, there was no convenient Big Bad to structure the King’s Landing story around. I do wonder if Martin himself has problems with this, seeing as the story without Tywin just isn’t the same.

But, the big problem is this: the television writers did not share Martin’s ability to formulate character-driven narrative. In fact, they clearly did not concern themselves with consistent characterisation at all, preferring instead to focus on set-piece events, and then to work backwards to get the characters behaving in such a way so as to generate aforementioned set-piece event. This in turn begs the question – how are we, the audience, supposed to relate to characters we don’t know any more? When the writers are tap-dancing all over our Willing Suspension of Disbelief? From the viewer perspective, nostalgia for the ‘early days’ and a desire to see how the thing ended became all that mattered. I imagine the re-watch value of the later seasons will be minimal – the shelf-life of shock value is very fleeting indeed.

Which brings me to Season Eight, the recently-completed final season of Game of Thrones. I thought I’d post a little rant for posterity:


When I finished watching Season 8 Episode 6 last night, my immediate feeling was relief. The story was complete – it might be the only complete version of the story we will ever get – and it was time to move on with my life as a fantasy geek. In truth, I think I had already, but the end of the last season has given me closure, so to speak. I did not even particularly mind the flaws of Episode 6 – after Episode 3 and 5, I had calibrated my expectations sufficiently lowly that I actually enjoyed parts of the finale. Yes, really. I actually liked Brienne’s little note in the White Book.

Taking a step back, I think there are two major issues with Season Eight (there are a host of minor ones too, but we shall get to them). The first is a quite unforgivable misinterpretation of what both book and television series are actually about. The ‘core’ theme of ASOIAF, with all its musings on the nature of power, is that political squabbling is fundamentally unimportant when you have an existential threat on your doorstep. Some things are bigger than politics, and it does not matter who sits the Iron Throne when those things come knocking. Hell, the very first scene in both book and show deals with the Others/White Walkers, and the threat of their impending return. But what do the television writers do in Season Eight? They dispose of the White Walkers… in a single episode, while they move onto the struggle for the throne. Seven seasons of build-up, for a single episode, in the middle of the season. Oh, and the climactic battle is at Winterfell. Not King’s Landing or the South. Winterfell. Which those in the South neither know nor care about. Ugh. Talk about an anti-climax – and, no, what follows is not Martin’s Scouring of the Shire. The Scouring was a “bringing home” of the story, not an alternative climax that undermines the Sauron narrative.

This, of course, begs the question of whether Martin himself will pull a similar trick in the books. We won’t know for certain until he actually finishes, but while I think Mad Queen Daenerys is very likely on the cards, I think Martin will treat the War for the Dawn with the respect it deserves – as the climax, and not a red-herring to be trumped by events in the South. At least I hope he will. We shall see.

The second major issue with Season Eight? That characterisation problem I mentioned earlier comes to full flower with Daenerys Targaryen. I actually have no problem with Daenerys turning into a self-righteous maniac. That’s fair. My problem instead is that her actions in Episode 5 are not a product of organic characterisation. They’re a product of the writers wanting Daenerys to burn King’s Landing in the name of visual spectacle, even if it makes no logical sense.

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People have defended the decision, of course, citing Daenerys’ cruel actions throughout the series. The problem with this is twofold. Firstly, other characters perform extremely cruel deeds throughout the story on a regular basis – and yet everyone who isn’t an Unsullied or a Dothraki is (justifiably) appalled by the massacre. It is almost as though there is something that sets the destruction of King’s Landing apart from every other atrocity… that something, of course, being that the massacre was as pointless as it was cruel (Tywin Lannister, a monster in his own right, would come back from the grave to slap Daenerys if he could). The second, and more important, point is that Daenerys’ previous cruelty was always operating in tandem with her self-identity as a liberator of the downtrodden. She kills slavers. She kills Dothraki khals. She kills the Tarlys. In all cases, there is a sense of “avenging justice.” What justice is there here? King’s Landing had surrendered. She was all set to liberate the people from Cersei’s rule… and then, for reasons only known to the writers, massacres the people and leaves Cersei for last.

The crying shame is that the episode could have been written to make sense in character. Have Daenerys destroy the Red Keep, then come out to greet her new subjects, expecting (as always) to be worshipped as a goddess. Have one of the remaining scorpions go off by accident, hurting Drogon. Under those circumstances – with clear “evidence” of betrayal, one can imagine Daenerys seeing red, and deciding punishment is in order. But that would preserve Daenerys as a vaguely sympathetic character, and the writers do not want that. We will see if Martin does better – chances are he will, seeing as he actually understands consistent characterisation.

Daenerys is not the only victim of characters being jerked around to serve the needs of the plot (or, since the plot makes little sense either at this point, visual spectacle). Varys’ actions were out of character – the master-schemer literally becoming an idiot, just so he could be killed off. Jaime’s redemption arc had him getting away from Cersei – to the point where he develops feelings for Brienne – but all that means nought. Grey Worm somehow refrained from killing Jon on sight. Exactly what was going through Drogon’s head when he melted the Iron Throne is anyone’s guess, but my reading of the situation was that he knew that Jon had killed his ‘mother’ and yet refrained from killing him. And so on, and so forth. These have ceased to be characters in any meaningful sense, but are instead slaves to the writers’ will, with the strings so blatantly attached that the audience can only snigger at how forced everything is. And when a character does show consistency – Edmure Tully – he is there simply as a punching bag, to be mocked and humiliated.

There are a host of more specific complaints that can be made about Season Eight. Some of which I’d mention in passing:

  • The insanity of Episode 3’s Dothraki charge, when they couldn’t even see the Army of the Dead.
  • Bran being a nonentity throughout, and having no qualifications for Kingship whatsoever, but being handed the crown via the ramblings of a prisoner in chains.
  • The North seceding when there is a Northern King… yet Dorne and the Iron Islands staying put.
  • The inherent problems with an Elective Monarchy go completely overlooked (real-life Elective Monarchies tended to result in puppet Kings or become de facto hereditary).
  • Samwell being Grand Maester, so not marrying Gilly after all?
  • “The Red Keep has never fallen” – Cersei, with Gregor Clegane behind her.
  • “I’ve never known bells to mean surrender” – Davos, in an earlier season.
  • Davos telling eunuchs to start their own Houses.
  • The gloriously funny loose-end of Sweetrobin Arryn (‘make him fly’) still ruling the Vale, and presumably now being the most eligible bachelor in Westeros.

Be that as it may, there is one final problem I would cite. This is arguably the equal and opposite problem to Daenerys’ actions not being properly set up – namely, the treatment of Jon Snow. Now, as I have said before, I am not a fan of book Jon, though I am fine with the television version. I am also fine with him ending up with the Wildings – it’s a better ending than having him become the predestined King. My problem is that if you are going to have prophecies, and a Rhaegar/Lyanna backstory, it actually needs to have a point. Daenerys is action without build-up, but Jon is build-up without pay-off. Rhaegar’s actions – which caused a war, and destroyed a dynasty, were, in the end, for nothing. Jon was for nothing, an unfired Chekhov’s Gun. And that’s poor writing in anyone’s book.


And now my watch has ended.

Impressions of Dante’s Purgatorio and Paradiso (1320)

Yes, I have been a bit naughty. Years ago, I read J.D. Sinclair’s 1939 prose translation of Dante’s Inferno.. and then left it at that. Dante and Virgil clambering down Satan’s backside, and then up and out into Purgatory. The End. I was fully aware that this was only the first third of the Divine Comedy, but the impression I had always been given was that the next two books were much drier, and dare I say, boring. Besides, popular imagination has focused almost entirely on Dante’s Hell – culturally it is the most important part of the journey, even if in some respects its vision has become weirdly merged with Milton’s (hint: the deepest part of Dante’s Hell is a frozen lake, not fire and brimstone). I have previously had the fun of allocating George R.R. Martin characters there.


Anyway, I have now rectified this situation over the last month, working my way through Dante’s Purgatory and Paradise. Since these are the less well-trodden books, today I thought I would offer some thoughts on them. I would not presume to call this a review in the proper sense of the word – it’d be presumptuous in the extreme to “review” a seven hundred year-old cornerstone of Western literature (what next? giving Shakespeare marks out of ten?), but I can certainly offer some impressions as a first time reader. Overall, I would consider it a satisfying experience, and a decent insight into a medieval mindset quite different from our own.

(In both cases, the translation was Mark Musa’s).

(i) Purgatorio

Purgatorio starts with Dante and Virgil arriving at the island/mountain of Purgatory – located, curiously enough, in what we would today call the South Pacific (does this mean New Zealand gets a territorial claim…?). Whereas Inferno is a descent, Purgatorio is an ascent, as souls are gradually purged of the sins of Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust, in that order, before passing into the Earthly Paradise and thence to Heaven. As is normal for the Divine Comedy, Dante chats with the souls on each level, as they are getting purified – but unlike Inferno, there is no schadenfreude. Rather than punishment, this is a corrective purging, even if the actual mechanism isn’t actually that different on occasion (the treatment of Pride, Envy, and Lust would not be out of place in Hell).

The lack of schadenfreude and the replacement of punishment with correction makes Purgatorio a less fun read than Inferno. I also personally found the early stages of the ascent rather heavy-going, with multiple cantos devoted to each level. Fortunately, Purgatory – explicitly – gets easier the higher the climb, and by the end I think there is a genuine sense of aesthetic satisfaction. Purgatorio, being set on the Earth’s surface, is the only section of the Divine Comedy that interacts with time, and there are some lovely poetic descriptions of the geography. The high point (literally) for me was the gorgeous account of the Earthly Paradise, where we are treated to some delightfully bizarre commentary on the history of the Church, starring a griffon, an eagle, a fox, a dragon, a giant, and a prostitute (yes, really) . And a prophecy that people have been trying to figure out for centuries. And, of course, Beatrice, who will take over from Virgil as Dante’s guide for the rest of his journey.

For me, the weak point of Purgatorio was the character of Statius, a Roman poet, whom Dante turns into a Christian convert via poetic licence, and who has just completed his time in Purgatory when our protagonists meet him. Statius accompanies Dante and Virgil up the mountain, and into the Earthly Paradise, but he gets very little dialogue after his introduction, and it honestly feels like the poem forgets about him at various points – he’s a sort of invisible third wheel, who serves one purpose, and then outlives his welcome. But that’s a minor complaint. While I personally prefer Inferno, I can see why some prefer Purgatorio as their favourite book of the Divine Comedy.

(ii) Paradiso

Paradiso, Dante’s journey through Heaven, is the most ambitious and least user-friendly of the three stages, and I think most modern readers would be lost without accompanying notes and commentary. It is a journey through the Ptolemaic solar system, with each successive sphere – the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Fixed Stars, and the Primum Mobile – representing a different type of heavenly soul (note, that this is only a representation. It is clarified early on that this is a structural allocation put on for our protagonist’s benefit). From there, Dante transcends the physical universe, encounters the celestial rose (it makes sense in context), and in the culmination of the poem, glimpses the face of God.

Paradiso is the least read part of the Divine Comedy, and I can see why. Whereas Inferno is fun, and Purgatorio is satisfying, Paradiso feels like a lecture in scholastic theology, with some on-the-nose political commentary thrown in. There is less sense of concrete location than earlier books – which is understandable (Heaven is an altogether more ethereal place) – but makes the book tougher to get your teeth into. I thought Dante carrying his politics into Paradise was also a bit much. Inferno and Purgatorio are fair game for such shenanigans, since punishment and purging inherently lend themselves to such things, but the succession of heavenly souls expressing their displeasure at earthly affairs gets tiresome after a while. It was also morbidly hilarious encountering Byzantine Emperor Justinian on Mercury. To modern eyes, it is rather like putting Josef Stalin in Heaven.

That said, while I enjoyed Paradiso less than Purgatorio, it is not without its charms. The imagery can be gorgeously surreal at times, what with the celestial rose, and the Eagle of Justice on Jupiter (again, it makes sense in context). Some of the theological questions Dante considers are also genuinely interesting, in the sense of addressing questions of natural (un-)fairness. Early on, Dante even attempts to consider more scientific issues, like the cause of dark patches on the Moon.

So yeah… Paradiso. Not quite the incomprehensible slog I have seen it characterised as, but not exactly light reading either. That said, a large part of the problem is the nature of what Dante is attempting to describe. As has long been noted, Hell is simply a more interesting subject than Heaven, and Dante is himself fully aware that he is trying to portray concepts that are literally beyond mortal ken (one almost wishes for a Lovecraftian take on Paradiso…). Moreover, Heaven is inherently devoid of the engine of story, since by definition it lacks conflict. In Inferno and Purgatorio we see souls suffering, but there is no suffering in Paradiso, only serenity. Dante uses theological and political discussion to fill the void.


Overall, I would say that reading the full Divine Comedy has given me a much better grasp of what Dante was actually trying to achieve with his work. Sure, the horrors of Inferno make for genuinely fun reading, but it is a mistake to treat this as the whole story, unless you want to limit yourself to a fantastical visit to the cosmos’ ward for the criminally insane. The full work, the one that Dante actually intended people to read, is a medieval mind trying to tackle key questions about the human condition, and as such, it’s well worth the attempt.

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Drogon: the Mad Queen’s Lunacy (A Reply to Robert Farley)

I was intending to wait until this time next week before having a little rant about Season 8 of Game of Thrones. It seemed only fair – if, somehow, the finale offers a meaningful conclusion, I can at least mention it alongside the inevitable copious complaints. However, on the major current point of debate – a certain character, a certain dragon, and a certain city – my hand has been forced, so to speak. Robert Farley, a military strategist, has an article over at Slate, looking at Episode 5 in some detail.

I do not challenge Farley’s interpretation of the actual military situation. Rather, I think he’s stretching his political arguments to breaking point, attempting to find method in madness when no such method exists. Hence my post today.



To appreciate what happened to King’s Landing, we need to move beyond the tactical and operational levels and think strategically. At the Army War College we think about strategy within an “Ends-Ways-Means” framework. Team Dragon’s Means include the army and the dragon; its Ways involve a siege or assault to destroy Cersei’s forces. But its Ends are not just the capture and defeat of Cersei Lannister: They are installing Daenerys Targaryen on the Iron Throne and giving her the ability to rule all of Westeros.

On this particular point, I agree. Daenerys’ aim is Queen Daenerys I Targaryen seated upon the Iron Throne – defeating Cersei is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

Political considerations necessarily infuse strategic calculations. For Queen Daenerys Targaryen, seizure of King’s Landing and the deposition of the usurper Cersei no longer cuts it. Aegon Targaryen (Jon Snow) has a better claim to the throne; he has a base of operations, a narrative of legitimacy, and his own army. Even if Jon doesn’t want to be King, people who dislike Daenerys will fight in his name. Dany is no longer the presumptive Targaryen heir and can no longer rely on her family’s right to the throne.

She can rely on Drogon, however. Her claim to the throne rests on demonstrating the power of her dragon. With Rhaegal—the dragon Jon had ridden—dead, she is uniquely capable of making such a claim. Daenerys need not be “mad” in order to see political value in burning King’s Landing to the ground. We impute a desire to burn things to hereditary mental instability in the Targaryens, but rational political calculation can lead her (and perhaps her Targaryen forebears) to the same conclusions. In terms that Thomas Schelling would surely appreciate, the destruction of King’s Landing represents a message of commitment on the part of Daenerys Targaryen to the Seven Kingdoms. It also represents her political maturation insofar as she is willing to do to King’s Landing what she could not imagine doing to the slaver-cities of Astapor and Yunkai.

This is the section of Farley’s article I disagree with. He is imputing a rational strategic motivation to Daenerys’ act of lunacy, when in fact her actions in Episode 5 were an unmitigated disaster as far as Westerosi politics are concerned.

Farley’s point is that Jon Snow is a political threat to Daenerys that needs addressing, and that the burning of King’s Landing represents just such an addressing.

In reply, I would cite Niccolo Machiavelli:

“Men love according as they please, and fear according to the will of the prince. A wise prince should establish himself on that which he controls, and not in that which others control. He must endeavour only to avoid being hated.” (The Prince, Chapter XVII)

Daenerys’ problem as of Episode 5 is that she has become more than just feared. She has broken Machiavelli’s Golden Rule, and allowed herself to become hated. Far from addressing the shadowy threat of Jon Snow, Daenerys has driven potential allies, including Jon himself, into opposition to her. Not publicly, of course – no-one wants to be cooked alive – but one suspects few will now mourn if Daenerys ends up poisoned or assassinated in her sleep, two situations where the might of Drogon is utterly useless. If Daenerys were simply engaging in a bit of raw imperial conquest, a la Genghis Khan, that would be one thing. The problem is that she wants to be Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Exterminating the inhabitants of the realm’s capital city – inhabitants that Daenerys actually wants to live among and rule – is, well, madness. Queen Daenerys will now have to take Drogon with her wherever she goes, and with both Rhaegal and Viserion dead, we – and her Westerosi enemies – know that Drogon is decidedly mortal. A Daenerys without Drogon would be finished, with any other form of legitimacy and loyalty going up in smoke along with King’s Landing.

Farley ignores the fact that there are a number of political ways of dealing with Jon Snow that do not involve burning a capital city to the ground:

  • Marry Jon, and rule alongside him. Tyrion’s solution is the most self-evidently logical, and Varys’ arguments against it are rather strained. An aunt-nephew marriage would not be out of place in Hapsburg Europe, let alone the Targaryen dynasty.
  • Re-form the Night’s Watch, and have Jon join that. Sure, there are no more White Walkers to guard against, but the Watch could still be a legitimate guard against the Seven Kingdoms’ frozen northern border. In fact, it could even be a sinecure position (though Jon would take it seriously), allowing Jon to hang out with Tormund and Ghost in a place he actually loves. The key is that having Jon re-take the Black means he is no longer eligible for royal inheritance.
  • Have Jon join the Queensguard. Again, a position where Jon has to give up claims to titles and crowns.
  • Have Jon join the Citadel. A less likely variant, but achieves much the same thing.
  • Have the Faith retrospectively annul Rhaegar and Lyanna’s marriage on the basis of bigamy. Would require a bit of jiggery pokery, but reinstates Jon’s bastard status.
  • If all else fails, arrange for a piece of masonry to fall on Jon’s head. How sad. Bonus points for blaming it on Lannister loyalists.

Moreover, if Daenerys wanted to use Drogon to make a point to the Lords of Westeros, there was absolutely no need to destroy the entire city – especially a city that had surrendered. Flying directly to the Red Keep, and incinerating the Lannister Queen (plus Qyburn and Gregor) would have been quite sufficient, without the war crime to go with it. As it is, everyone bar the Unsullied and the Dothraki now consider Daenerys a greater monster than Cersei ever was, which means that her days are numbered. Does anyone realistically imagine her surviving the series finale? I, for one, do not.

In The Star!

Myself and some other Dunedin writers, in Thursday’s edition of The Star:


May Library Event

On the off-chance any of you are in Dunedin on 7th May, I will be doing another public reading at the Public Library…


Dunedin Speculative Fiction Entrée – Fantasy Author Panel

Fantasy and Sci-fi authors: RL Stedman, Carolyn McCurdie, Debbie Howell, Daniel Stride, Mark McCabe and Kura Carpenter read a bite-sized taster from their novels.

Audience Q&A to follow – a great chance to meet a LOCAL author and pick their brain!

A book sales table will be available (cash sales only). Plus the opportunity to win FREE books on the night!
RSVP advised: 03 474 3690 or library@dcc.govt.nz
For more information: https://dunedinspeculativefiction.co.nz/

Tuesday 7th May, 5.30pm
Dunningham Suite, 4th Floor, City Library

[New Zealand Politics] Of Penguins and Anarchists and Communism


Oh dear. The Penguin thinks he is so clever sometimes. Today is 1st May, International Workers’ Day – though not in New Zealand, where our Labour Day falls in late October. Farrar has responded by portraying the Left in general (and the more radical Left in particular) as bloodthirsty monsters – the implication being that rather than celebrating the long struggle for workers’ rights, we ought to tar that entire struggle with the more sinister activities of those claiming to act on behalf of workers. It is altogether rather like the French Reactionaries two centuries ago, who would equate democratic government with the guillotine – because, of course, one must imply the other. Never mind that the Rosa Luxemburgs of the world were critiquing Lenin’s methods long before Stalin got his paws on the wheel.

There are really two parts to Farrar’s post. The first is his statement that the first of May was chosen by “communists and socialists” to commemorate an act of violence (the Haymarket Affair). Because the Penguin wants to smear Socialism as one big orgy of violence – as the online wing of the New Zealand National Party, it’s a representation he wants perpetuated, while carefully omitting references to violence going in the other direction. The truth, as ever, is more complicated.

As per a quick glance at Wikipedia:

Popular pressure continued for the establishment of the 8-hour day. At the convention of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1888, the union decided to campaign for the shorter workday again. May 1, 1890, was agreed upon as the date on which workers would strike for an eight-hour work day.

In 1889, AFL president Samuel Gompers wrote to the first congress of the Second International, which was meeting in Paris. He informed the world’s socialists of the AFL’s plans and proposed an international fight for a universal eight-hour work day. In response to Gompers’s letter, the Second International adopted a resolution calling for “a great international demonstration” on a single date so workers everywhere could demand the eight-hour work day. In light of the Americans’ plan, the International adopted May 1, 1890, as the date for this demonstration.

A secondary purpose behind the adoption of the resolution by the Second International was to honor the memory of the Haymarket martyrs and other workers who had been killed in association with the strikes on May 1, 1886. Historian Philip Foner writes “[t]here is little doubt that everyone associated with the resolution passed by the Paris Congress knew of the May 1 demonstrations and strikes for the eight-hour day in 1886 in the United States … and the events associated with the Haymarket tragedy.”

So the primary purpose of focusing on 1st May was an international demonstration in support of an Eight Hour Working Day (something New Zealand, at least partially, had already had for decades). I can’t imagine why the Penguin might want to ignore the role of the Eight Hour Working Day as a focal point for commemoration, what with the National Party’s hostility to organised labour in its very DNA…

But, yes, a secondary purpose for 1st May was commemoration of Haymarket. Which Farrar is implicitly suggesting was a monstrous act of left-wing terrorism. The truth is murkier. The police tried to forcibly disperse a peaceful workers’ protest in support of the Eight Hour Day. Someone threw a bomb – the actual culprit never being brought to justice – there were gunshots, and a number of people were killed and injured. The upshot was that a group of German Anarchists were arrested, forced before a kangaroo court on flimsy evidence, and executed. Hence the quote in the above article referring to the “Haymarket martyrs” – the Left at the time considered these men to be victims of social prejudice and unfounded accusations, and as such, wished to pay tribute to them. There is not even a hint in Farrar’s post that 1st May might be a commemoration of the victims of a miscarriage of justice. It just doesn’t fit with his insinuation that the Left loves itself some violence (bonus points for the fact that he does not even use the word ‘Anarchist’).

The second part of the Penguin’s little smear is his reference to the victims of Communism, with his list of alleged deaths. It’s a smear because, in context, he’s really insinuating that the Labour movement has the blood of millions on its hands. Why else cite the victims of Stalinism and Maoism on International Worker’s Day, rather than, say, 7th November, the anniversary of the October Revolution? Because beneath the surface, he’s not really talking about self-professed Marxists, but the entire Left – though he dresses it up as a comment on self-professed Marxists. The Penguin works by insinuation and implication, then lets the attack dogs in the comments section do the rest.

Funny thing though – Farrar does not cite his source for the listed death toll figures. But it is quite clear where he got them, namely, libertarian dingbat, Rudolph Rummel, otherwise best known for advocating the Democratic Peace Theory, aka the No True Scotsman Theory of International Relations. Farrar separates out 1918-1922 Russia (3.3 million alleged deaths) from the USSR (58.6 million alleged deaths) – but combined, they give Rummel’s total of 61.9 million alleged deaths in the Soviet Union. So, yes, Farrar is using Rummel.

Rummel (a Political Scientist by area) is considered a bit of a joke by Historians. Quite apart from his somewhat unique methodology in terms of defining what counts as state murder, he is also notable for not using actual primary sources, preferring instead to make estimates based off secondary sources. I would just cite this interesting reddit comment on Rummel’s Soviet figures:

For the Soviet Union Rummel’s estimates for ‘democide’ are grossly inflated, to the point of absurdity. He claims 61 million excess deaths for the Soviet period, the vast majority of which being pre-1953. (And this is the ‘probable estimate’, the ‘high’ figure is 115m… over two thirds of the USSR’s 1926 population!)

During the 1980s and 1990s there were fairly bitter disputes within academia as to the number of victims repression victims. Thankfully Rummel’s estimates lie so far beyond the pale that I don’t need to recap on these. There are a range of estimates out there for the Stalin period but the ‘high’ limit (Robert Conquest, The Great Terror) is around 20m and the ‘low’ limit (say, RW Davies, Economic Transformation of the Soviet Union) about half that at 10m. The archive evidence tends to support the lower figures, which are themselves heavily comprised of famine deaths.

Rummel provides a figure of 50m for the same period. Where he’s conjuring that from I do not know. Similarly, I have no idea where he discovered 15m deaths in the period 1945-53 that no one else knew about.

But, frankly, totting up death tolls is quite passé these days. The difference between five and ten million doesn’t change the fundamental nature of a regime. Hence the real value that the archives have provided lies in telling us more about Soviet institutions and experiences. For example, after the Cold War ended we learnt that the Gulag was not the death sentence that had been assumed – the flow through the system was higher and the mortality rate lower than expected (Getty, Victims of the Soviet Penal System). Instead of a 10% survival rate (Rummel) you end up with an average <10% mortality rate (Wheatcroft, Scale and Nature of German and Soviet Mass Killings). A large number of people went in for relatively short stints of time.

This is the sort of insight that Rummel’s figures can’t provide and, indeed, aren’t interested in providing. Rather than saying anything about the Soviet Union, his inflated numbers are there simply to bolster his polemical claims of ‘democide’.

The best that can be said about his Soviet work (Lethal Politics) is that it made it into Jonathan Smele’s Russian Revolution and Civil War Annotated Bibliography, which is my bible for the early Soviet years. Thankfully Smele’s description is as fitting as it is pithy:

A poorly researched, obsessively anti-Soviet polemical general survey.


So Farrar citing Rummel – without acknowledgement, which makes it doubly amusing – is basically a case of one right-wing propaganda merchant citing another right-wing propaganda merchant. This is not to say that Stalin’s Soviet Union or Mao’s China were anything other than nightmarish places, but honestly, the truth is bad enough without having to make stuff up to suit a particular agenda. And quietly insinuating, as Farrar does, that all this bloodshed is really an integral part of Socialism, is just nasty, on this of all days (‘Socialism’ is one of those words that can mean whatever you want, of course. It’s the old equivocation tango. The Labour Party is officially a democratic socialist party, so let’s tie that to negative connotations of the word by bringing in the old Communist scare. Not explicitly, of course – leave that for the comments section. It’s all in the insinuation, isn’t it, Mr Farrar? So much said with so little).


I have somehow managed to get through that without trying to apply Rummel’s methodology to capitalism – I doubt either he or Farrar would like the result there, what with the very, very creative use of state violence definitions. But I will leave that for forum rebuttals of Rummel – it smacks too much of whataboutery for my tastes.

In Defence of Abridgement


One thing you will notice about avid readers is a preference to read books unabridged – full and uncut, as the author intended. It’s a sentiment I generally share myself, and, all things being equal, I will seek out the unabridged text over a shortened version. However, I think this viewpoint can be taken too far. It is one thing to prefer an unabridged book, and quite another to query why abridgement exists at all, as though it were literary vandalism needing to be stamped out in the name of purity. A bit of perspective would be nice. Abridged works are not Satanic monstrosities: they actually serve a purpose. Indeed, it is often a necessary purpose. Today, I thought I would explore a couple of circumstances where abridgements might… actually… be worthwhile.

(1) Multi-volume non-fiction

A number of grand, old, and thoroughly groundbreaking, non-fiction texts are multi-volume beasts. That poses a problem on two fronts.

The first is the expense. If you are locating physical copies of, say, the unabridged version of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon, a set of all six meaty volumes does not come cheap. Sure, one could read them via electronic format, or through the library (I do want to read the unabridged Gibbon at some point, definitely through a library), but those options carry downsides as well. Physical books are so much more fun (and dare I say authentic) than electronic or online text, and the library option means having to return them – one cannot keep a copy for personal reference. An abridgement solves all these problems, as well as the not-insignificant matter of shelf space.

The other issue is the length. Now, it is all very well to harp on about authorial intent, but in the case of non-fiction, the intent is to present facts and reasoned argument, not to tell a story. If the length of a text is detrimental to the argument, if one is forced to wade through many thousands of pages for intellectual payoff, then abridging in the name of accessibility actually makes sense. Never mind unabridged Gibbon – around 4000 pages, if I recall correctly – imagine the thirteen volume third edition of The Golden Bough, by Sir James George Frazer, which totals around 6000 pages. If one just wants to read Gibbon and Fraser for their arguments, a thousand page single volume abridgement is the way to go. The alternative is no-one reading Gibbon or Fraser at all, which would be a crying shame – they may be obsolete in many respects, but they ought to be engaged with. 

(I actually have a morbid curiosity to read the unabridged Golden Bough. Electronically, of course – I could never afford the physical version. If I ever do, I’ll see if I can write a review of it). 

(2) Inaccessible Classic Fiction

This one is more debatable, and generally what people who hate abridgements are referring to. The great literary classics… how could anyone presume to butcher them? They must be read as the author intended, no more, no less!

It is a sentiment I fully understand, of course. As I have mentioned, I prefer unabridged myself. But before we write off abridged fiction, I think we need to take a step back, and ask why we are reading these books in the first place.

Is it for pure personal enjoyment? If so, who are we to presume to judge someone for preferring an abridged version? There is only so many hours in the day, and someone might want to read a book without going on strange tangents about Parisian Gothic architecture. Is it to better appreciate references to the work in popular culture? If so, having a shorter, more accessible form of the work is perfectly acceptable – and certainly preferable to potential readers, especially younger ones, being scared off classic literature altogether. Is it, as Mark Twain once suggested, a case of classics being a work everyone wants to have read, but no-one wants to read – or less charitably, because people want to sound smart by having read something? If so, one needs to look in the mirror. Classic literature as an intellectual fashion accessory strikes me as one of the weakest reasons for reading a work imaginable. Honestly, read for the fun, read for the stimulation, read for the self-challenge, read for the curiosity, but don’t read because you are worried what other people think of you. In that light, opting for an unabridged text might well be a recipe for unhappiness, boredom, and not finishing the book at all.

What about reading to understand a given book’s role as literature? Its importance to a genre? Its history? In that case, yes, an unabridged version would probably (but not always) be preferable. The same applies to the ‘bucket list’ idea of tackling unabridged Gibbon and Frazer – there can be a genuine sense of achievement at having completed such a challenge. I know I felt like a mountaineer scaling a Himalayan peak while working my way through the unabridged Oswald Spengler. But sometimes people don’t want to scale a mountain when reading a book. Sometimes people want to actually enjoy something more accessible – and that is fine (it’s also why abridged books are produced at all, because publishers know there is a market for it). Such people are not lesser readers or lesser people for choosing a version of the book they want to read, rather than choosing a version of the book they think they “should” read.

Reading abridged books is OK.

2019 Reading More: April

Completed reads for April:

  • Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder
  • The Decline of the West (2 vols.), by Oswald Spengler
  • The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs (Völsunga saga), by Anonymous
  • The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, by Victor Hugo
  • Purgatorio, by Dante Alighieri
  • The Mystery of the Blue Train, by Agatha Christie

The Spengler and the (topical) Hugo were unabridged – I generally prefer unabridged works, though I think there is a place for abridgement, especially in non-fiction. The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs was the William Morris and Eiríkr Magnússon translation, and Purgatorio was the Mark Musa translation.

I haven’t listed it, but I also read My Immortal this month. Truly, the Sistine Chapel of trolling.

Writing the Decline: Tolkien vs Spengler (and Michael Potts)

As I remarked in a previous blog post, my reading earlier this month was largely defined by Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, an early twentieth century text that postulates cyclical history with individual societies functioning as (mortal) superorganisms. Such a provocative framework of cultural and civilisational development naturally lends itself to applications – it is, after all, a distinctive way of viewing the world, and, well, being a Tolkien geek engenders a curiosity about whether one can apply the Spenglerian model to Tolkien’s invented setting.


Notwithstanding that few people bother with Spengler today, it turns out that someone has beaten me to the punch here: Michael Potts’ ‘Evening Lands’: Spenglerian Tropes in The Lord of the Rings is a scholarly look at Spengler’s influence on J.R.R. Tolkien. It is a highly interesting article, and makes some decent points – I love the idea of Denethor as the Fisher King of Gondor’s Spenglerian Winter. Potts does, however, misrepresent the Decline of the West in other ways, which results in misapplication. Hence today’s post – after mulling the matter, I think Tolkien only coincidentally mirrors Spengler, and that, despite Potts’ arguments, the model is a poor fit for Middle-earth generally.

Recall the twin pillars of Spengler’s thesis: (1) all cultures have a deterministic lifecycle, from birth to death, a cycle that Spengler represents as Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter, and (2) cultures are relativistic expressions of a particular world-view. Potts, in applying this thesis to The Lord of the Rings, makes the following points:

  • The Decline of the West heavily infused Western thinking in the first half of the twentieth century. Even if Tolkien did not read Spengler, he would have been aware of the other man’s ideas.
  • Winter-stage Civilisations are characterised by a declining birth-rate, a retreat into dry abstractions, and a divorcing of the people from the soil. This fits well with the long-run decay of Gondor – a declining population concentrated into a major city (Minas Tirith).
  • Younger, more vigorous, cultures like the Rohirrim lack the refinement of the Gondorians, but they are portrayed with more summery imagery, and interact with the land to a greater degree.
  • The hobbits – notably Sam – are seen as Spengler’s Eternal Peasant, who maintains his close connection with the soil, regardless of what takes place elsewhere.
  • Winter-stage Civilisation is also notable for imperialism. Potts sees Tolkien as presenting anti-imperialistic nationalism as a preferable option (the Elves of Lothlórien are interpreted through this lens).
  • Saruman and Sauron are presented as manifestations of the Faustian desire for knowledge and control, culminating in the malign influence of technology. Spengler argues that the defining trait of the real-world West is its boundless ‘Faustian’ pursuit of the infinite.

In short, Potts presents us with a sort of Tolkien-Spengler synthesis, whereby there is tension between ‘healthy’ cultures (typified by Spring and Summer imagery, warm vitality, creation, connection to the land, anti-imperialistic nationalism, and nature-focus) versus ‘unhealthy’ cultures (typified by Autumn and Winter imagery, cold refinement, stagnation, disconnection with the land, imperialism, and technology focus).

It is an interesting idea pushed too far.

Certainly, the Gondor of the late Third Age mirrors a society in Spenglerian Winter, and Faramir’s description of “childless lords musing on heraldry” is just what Spengler had in mind – a Civilisation that has exhausted its creative possibilities, rendering it abstract, self-referential, and living in the artistic and intellectual shadow of its past. But to get to a Spenglerian Winter, a society must pass through Spring, Summer, and Autumn first… and that is a poor fit for Gondor. After all, this is not a new culture representing a distinct world-view, but rather a surviving colony of Númenor, which over three millennia (far longer than Spengler’s model suggests) has managed to capture some of the imperial glory of the Old Kingdom.

Maybe this is not the Spenglerian Winter of Gondor as such, but of wider Númenorean Civilisation? If so, Gondor’s entire history, from its founding in the late Second Age onwards, is itself a Spenglerian Winter – Ar-Pharazôn makes a passable stab at Caesarism and Empire, and from then on, the Númenoreans and their descendants are in post-historical stasis. Which does not gel particularly well with Potts’ point about Aragorn suddenly bringing Spring to this tired old Civilisation. If Aragorn brings Spring, it is not a Spenglerian one – it is a rejuvenation of Gondor as a political entity (and a revival of Arnor), but the ideas underpinning the culture have still run their course. This speaks to the differences between Tolkien (for whom the eucatastrophe at the end of Rings is a genuine rebirth) and Spengler (for whom grim determinist logic is inexorable. One cannot escape the cycle of history). Hence my suggestion that one must be wary of pushing the Spenglerian model onto Middle-earth – not all models of cyclic history are the same, even if they share surface similarities.

Moreover, I feel that Potts is misrepresenting what Spenglerian cultures actually are. Spenglerian cultures are expressions of a world-view that is unique to them, and when they interact, the transmission of ideas ensures that those ideas mutate accordingly (Spengler, for example, details ideological differences between ‘original’ Middle-Eastern Christianity, and how the religion was later adapted in the West). When Faramir talks of the Rohirrim, he is not talking of a people with an alien world-view, he talks of them as kindred – a people who are a throwback to what the Númenoreans once were. Potts treats Gondor and Rohan as separate cultures, with one in its Winter phase and one in its Spring/Summer – and in Tolkienian terms, this is a valid distinction – but in Spenglerian terms, they are really the same culture. What Potts fails to realise, which is why Spenglerian analysis breaks down when applied to Middle-earth is that all Middle-earth cultures (save the Dwarves) are Faustian in Spengler’s eyes, or else ‘outside history’, like the Ents. This renders the seasonal metaphors pointless, unless you realise Tolkien was doing something quite different.

(A Spenglerian Middle-earth would have the Rohirrim with a fundamentally different way of seeing the world to Gondor, and neither side would truly understand the other, even if they were on friendly terms. The Rohirric elite might find themselves culturally shaped by their proximity to Gondor – a process Spengler terms pseudomorphisis – but if anything Faramir suggests that a sort of reverse is taking place, with Gondorians becoming more like the Rohirrim. Potts does not discuss pseudomorphisis at all).

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I would further take issue with the way Potts treats the Shire in general (and Sam Gamgee in particular) as representative of Spengler’s Eternal Peasant. In contrast to Gondor’s decaying Empire, the Shire is deemed a “youthful culture-state”, still tied closely to the soil. The problem is that Spengler’s Eternal Peasant is outside history – hence “eternal” – and thus outside culture. Culture, in the Spenglerian sense, requires something more elaborate than a collection of rustic peasants tilling the soil unchanging. Culture requires change, and a superorganism needs to live and grow before it can die. Potts even recognises this by noting that Empires may rise and fall, but hobbits remain – which is all very well, but means that the hobbits are not a Spenglerian culture, youthful or otherwise, and as such comparing them with Gondor is a mistake. Regardless of whether or not Tolkien considered the Shire utopia (he didn’t), he is not calling for Gondor to return to the soil via the hobbit example.

There is a tendency for people – especially those with a vested political interest in the notion of a decadent West – to ignore the determinism of Spengler. A culture moves through the Spenglerian seasons, not because of external factors, but because of a natural aging process – a declining birth-rate is a symptom, not a cause, of Winter. Similarly, imperialism is a symptom, not a cause, of a civilisation that is coming towards the end of its lifecycle. I think Potts is stretching his analysis to breaking point by using the Elves as “anti-imperialist nationalists” (in actuality, the Elves have been in conscious post-historical stasis for millennia – they are hardly youthful – and notions of nationalism are an extreme anachronism). Applying Spengler, Gondor is in no position to opt out of imperialism, so if Tolkien does present other roads and other paths for his invented cultures, it is precisely because he is not Spenglerian! Which counters Pott’s thesis…

In discussing the final Potts point – that of the Faustian nature of Saruman and Sauron – I would say that Potts (ironically) does not go far enough. Certainly, desire for knowledge and control of the natural world is an attribute of Spengler’s interpretation of the West, but I feel that Potts overlooks that a Faustian Civilisation is more than technology. It is the relentless and futile pursuit of the infinite, a wholesale rebellion against limits. Spengler’s Faustians revel in dynamism and distance. As such, Potts ignores the clearly Faustian nature of both Tolkien’s Elves and his Men. A culture that produces the palantíri – defined by distance – and which defies the gods themselves is Faustian. A culture whose ships reach the ends of the earth, and which defies a ban in order to wrest immortality from the clutches of the gods is also Faustian (Spengler even explicitly notes that a Faustian Man fears Death as a limit). But if Feanor and Ar-Pharazôn share the same fundamental world-view in Spenglerian terms, if the Elves and Men are just as Faustian as Saruman and Sauron, then does the use of Spengler to critique industrialisation actually mean anything? One could say that these villains have their effect precisely because Elves and Men understand the temptation to strive for power and knowledge, but as a critique of industrialisation in general, I think Potts is in error to see it through the framework of The Decline of the West. If everyone is Faustian, then we lose the entire point of Spengler’s relativism.

And thus we come full-circle: the problem with Potts’ thesis is that he is interpreting Tolkien and Spengler to fit his thesis, not to reflect accuracy (I note also that Potts uses the single volume abridged Decline of the West – maybe there was an issue with the abridgement?). When one actually considers the Spenglerian model, one is left with the conclusion that Tolkien’s Middle-earth is not fundamentally a Spenglerian place. There are some tempting surface similarities, but ultimately a shared fondness for cyclical history and seasonal metaphors is not enough to make the case. Notwithstanding that Tolkien was writing in a climate where Spenglerian ideas were commonplace – far more common than today – I think one ought to treat Tolkien’s Long Defeat notion of History more on its own terms.