A friend of mine, a devoted fan of the Game of Thrones books and the HBO show, posits that Thrones locations and groups of people correspond to real, historical, places and/or races. I am told that the Dothraki are the Mongols, the Targaryens are the Aryans, Braavos is America, the Shadow Lands are East Asia. It’s interesting to follow these correspondences to the point where they, inevitably, break down. As complex as the structure of the Game of Thrones universe is, Martin’s world is, of course, a fiction—it is a lie that is infinitely less complicated than the actual world that we live in.
Drawing a comparison between political groups in Martin’s fantasy and political groups in history is reductive and risky. It would be a huge, racist mistake, for instance, to think that the mystic shadow lands reveal something about “the East”—that imperial construction of homogeneity. George R.R. Martin isn’t pulling this stuff out of nowhere, though—the shadow lands do reveal something about racist stereotypes, Daenerys reveals something about the archetype of the heroic white missionary.
But the asymmetry of these kinds of comparisons doesn’t have to foreclose their consideration. Two-dimensional constructions in the escapist fiction that we read and the TV that we watch do—and do not—correspond to things that we perceive in time-space with its many dimensions.
All this being said, I’ll leave the biggest and most difficult questions about race and place for you and focus instead on the lesser question of the medieval tourney. With World Cup buzz all about us this week, I keep thinking that the Cup is kind of like a large-scale, neoliberal iteration of a King’s Tournament in Westeros. Here are eight parallels between the Cup and a Thrones Tourney, followed by the ways that the parallels, immediately, break down.
1. The Sport
The World Cup is a soccer tournament that takes place every four years. The first tournament took place in 1930 and there have been 19 cups since then. Teams are organized into groups that determine who, initially, plays whom. There are eight groups of four teams, each team plays three matches. After the initial group stage, the 16 teams with the fewest points are eliminated; while the other 16 teams go on to play one another.
Tourneys showcase several medieval sports and they occur whenever the King feels like hosting one. The three most common games played in Tourneys are: the joust, the melee and the archery competition. The joust is the most prestigious event. The melee is a battle on foot in which combatants fight with swords, axes or maces. The archery competition, like a soccer match and a joust, does not need to be explained.
While World Cup athletes risk injuring themselves, leg injuries are especially common, the stakes are much higher for competitors in medieval fantasy tournaments—one may be unhorsed, wounded and could even killed.
2. The Competitors
The World Cup showcases football matches between 32 national teams–Ghana, Brazil, the US, Germany, Portugal, Mexico etc.
The Tourneys in Westeros set lords, knights, princes and sworn swords (like the Clegane brothers) of family houses against one another in a competition for prestige and reputation.
3. The Viewers
In this our age of mechanical reproduction, the World Cup can be viewed wherever there is a TV. FIFA sells World Cup tickets at too high a price for the economically vulnerable to attend. The Guardian reports that indigenous people living in a complex next to the Maracanã stadiumwere evicted by FIFA prior to the beginning of the games.
Like a show in a music venue with no cameras permitted–think Berghain–Tourneys in Kings Landing are a spectacle reserved for those present in the pavilions approximate to the events. Highborn lords and ladies and commoners alike come to watch the jousts, archery competitions and melees.
4. The Costs and Expenditures
Brazil has spent and estimated $11 billion to host the games—much of which has gone to build or to renovate stadiums in 12 host cities. While economists expect that the World Cup will boost the Brazilian economy, some worry that protests and street demonstrations will drive away investors and tarnish Brazil’s image. Critics maintain that the $11 billion could have been better spent—on health care, hospitals or low-income housing, for instance.
In King’s Landing, tournaments cost ninety thousand gold pieces, in addition to the costs of feasts that take place in the evenings. The crown or the host family pays for all costs. The events are a financial loss though they do express the wealth and power of the host family. Robert Baratheon loves hosting tournaments—at the beginning of the Thrones series, he has spent all the gold in the treasury on these kinds of events.
5. The Prizes
This year, FIFA is giving out $576 million in prize money, the winning team will take away $35 million, the runner up $25 and the third place team $20. Wins are a cause for wild celebration and national pride. A world cup win may bring investors to a country, bolster its economy and symbolize its presence on the economic world stage. With five titles, Brazil is the most successful World Cup team.
Just as a soccer team’s win is also a win for his country, a knights win is also a win for his family house. There are prizes, too, for the winners of Tourneys. At Robert’s Tourney for the hand, prize money went to the champion of the joust, the man who came in second in the joust, the winner of the melee and the victor of the archery competition. A win in any of these competitions bolsters one’s reputation and may even get a character better job—in the show, we meet Brianne of Tarth when she beats Loras Tyrell in the melee at Lord Renly’s tournament. She is subsequently named to his kingsguard.
6. Boozing and Feasting
Bars and restaurants with cable access across the world make money thanks to the World Cup–happy hour deals give soccer fans and their friends an excuse to drink in the afternoons. Brazil recently outlawed the sale of alcohol in stadiums. But thanks to FIFA, drinking is temporarily permitted in twelve host stadiums during the World Cup. The Zurich-based multinational corporation convinced the Brazilian government to temporarily lift their ban on alcohol sales so that their sponsored vendors could sell Budweiser during the Cup.
It turns out that drinking and crowds are, in fantasy fiction and in reality, a dangerous combination. Taverns in King’s Landing benefit from the influx of tournament crowds but tavern brawls are known to break out and drunken horse races occur in the streets of the Westerosi Capital.
7. Match-Fixing Practices
Football matches in real life are rigged so that corrupt syndicates can retain illegal gambling profits. A FIFA report was recently leaked that suggests that some of the matches in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa were rigged. The report reveals that the Singapore based corporation Football 4U, a well-known front for a match-rigging syndicate, bribed the South African Football Association to use Football 4U’s referees in 2010. Critics have questioned FIFA’s determination to do anything about match-fixing—an illegal happening that may, or may not, go on all the time.
In the Thrones universe, one may die because of fixed match. Ser Hugh of the Veil, for instance, is killed in a fixed joust against the Mountain so that the truth about the death of his master, Jon Arryn, hand of the King, will remain veiled. Money, too, plays its role in the outcome of the joust. Littlefinger speculates that Loris Tyrell won the Hand’s Tourney because of a dishonorable trick. Tournament games are fixed in Game of Thrones to further the ends of Martin’s plot–to cover up scandalous intrigues unrelated to the tournament itself,
8. Travelers and Tourism
It’s projected that as many as 800,000 foreign tourists from around the world will travel to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup. Independent vendors—those reliant on informal economies for their income—will lose out in Brazil. FIFA has instituted an “area of exclusivity”—a demarcation up to 2 km around stadiums and official FIFA “Fan Fests”–inside of which only those authorized by FIFA can advertise, distribute and sell products. Brazilian hotels and airlines will benefit, but demand for flights and hotel rooms has not been as high as expected.
Travelers from all over the realm come to King’s Landing for Robert’s Tournament in honor of the Hand. Prostitutes, Blacksmiths, Tavern owners and Innkeepers all benefit from tourist activity.
9. Police Activity
Brazil will spend almost $798 million on security for the world cup. Last Sunday evening, police in Brazil fired bullets and tear gas on a small crowd of protesters outside of the Maracanã stadium, a venue that will host the World Cup final on July 13th—a video is here. There is concern that police practices are furthering, rather than mitigating, social unrest.
Ned Stark orders the Commander of the City Watch—King’s Landing’s keepers of the peace–to hire fifty extra new men to help maintain order in the Capitol during the King’s Tournament. George R.R. Martin, he whose fiction appeals to a mass audience’s baser tastes, captures all manner of brutality except police brutality. We are to assume that the City Watch remains uncorrupted.