(There’s some spoilery stuff for Game of Thrones, so be warned if you haven’t watched the show or read the books.)
I don’t have cable, and I have not bothered to find less than legal means of watching the third season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, but I have read the books a time or two, so when the internet blew up over a little thing called the Red Wedding, I knew what had happened. That there was a major reaction did not surprise me. The nature of some of them did, namely a comment I read in an article about the hubbub, the gist of it going as follows: “How dare you kill of my favorite characters?! I turn to fantasy because I want a happy ending. The good guys are supposed to win, and the bad guys lose”.
To this I respond in two ways.
1) At what point in the previous seasons of Game of Thrones did you assume that everyone would live happily ever after? When Ned Stark was beheaded? When Drogo died and Danaerys was abandoned by most of the Khalasar? Or was it when Theon betrayed Robb, to the ruination of Winterfell? A what point does a person see all the terrible things that happen in the course of this show (or the course of the books, for that matter) and think “Oh, yeah. This is totally going to end well for everyone. Definitely“?
Characters like Cersei, vile and hateful as they are, survive because they hold positions of power, not because of any noble qualities they possess. The Game of Thrones is the ultimate gamble. Play your hand wrong, and you die, Ned Stark lost his head because he was too honorable for the game. Petyr Baelish survives because he has no honor.
The sun shines down on sinners and saints alike in this world and in Westeros, and when you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die. A character’s survival does not depend on whether he or she is a fan favorite, but by how well they play their hands in the great political game.
2) As I look at my bookshelf at all the fantasy series and standalone novels there, I notice that only two of them have really happy endings. Two. Out of a lot.
Now I know that Disney and Pixar have taken our notions of fantasy and dolled them up so everyone is pretty and lives happily ever after, but that’s Disney. That’s Hollywood. It’s a facet of current pop culture that demands a black and while morality in which the bad guy is very bad indeed, and dies because of his own flaws. But that’s not the way that fantasy- good fantasy- works.
Science Fiction and Fantasy have long been asked to occupy the same shelves where they are then diminished by many Serious Literary People as escapist or otherwise too petty to be considered Serious Literature.
I, of course, disagree. To me, Sci-Fi and Fantasy have always been two sides of one coin, where Sci-Fi asks the question “What might we become?”, and Fantasy asks “Where have we come from?” We the readers (or viewers) occupy the gray area between and wonder “What am I now?” and “What should I be?” Because good Fantasy (and Science Fiction) is not all sunshine and unicorns frolicking in pretty mountain meadows. It is about the nature of good and evil and standing up for what is right. It’s about courage, loyalty, friendship, and facing down your fears. And sometimes, no matter how hard you try, there is no way to win. The One Ring is destroyed at the end of The Lord of the Rings and the Shire prospers, but Frodo still suffers, the Elves still leave Middle Earth, and much that was good and beautiful passes away. Harry Potter ends on a happy note, but not without much sacrifice. In most of the legends, King Arthur dies from the world, sleeping in the fairy realm of Avalon until his land needs him again.
Disney aside, there is a lot of joy to be had in Fantasy, but there is darkness as well, and putting a pretty face and clever animation on it doesn’t make it all go away. What it should do is make us think. And here at the end, I’ll let Sam Gamgee speak for me:
“It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But it’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? Hose could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s on a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness will pass. A new day will come, and the the sun shines it will shine out thee clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why, But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.”
“What are we holding on to, Sam?”
“That there is some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”