The past was not PG

The Week has published a screed against the low moral quality of Game of Thrones, Game of Thrones is bad — and bad for you. Obviously there is something to this insofar as one can see a coarsening of entertainment, or at least a decline in the stylized aspects of the depiction of reality.

But one of my initial reactions is that much of the narrative that we value from the past was not particularly PG. If you read The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible you see that the “Good Book”, in fact the only book many read front to back by many after the Reformation in Protestant Europe, has some quite unsavory tales. The story of Judah and Tamar in particular is hard to digest from a modern Western perspective because many of the elements are understated and workaday. Greek mythology is no better obviously. From Zeus raping Leda, Achilles throwing a fit because his sex-slave was taken away, to the tradition of Agamemnon sacrificing Iphigenia.

In some cases the shocking aspect of ancient stories is because moderns have different values. Slavery and concubinage were taken for granted during the period that the Hebrew Bible and Classical mythology crystallized into the forms which came down to us. In other cases I presume that it was unlikely that small children were going to ever read the original stories themselves, so sexual elements that might confuse were probably omitted in some oral tellings.

This is not to say that Game of Thrones is a modern masterpiece. But some of the disquieting, and frankly perverse, aspects of the narrative are only shocking if your standard is the relatively antiseptic literary fiction which one finds between the Regency and the cultural revolution of the 1960s. That is the aberration in human history, while gritty genre fiction much closer to primal human storytelling.

14 thoughts on “The past was not PG

  1. I read that article yesterday. The prissiest Victorians would have been proud of that. So utterly silly.

  2. I recently recapped the lives of historic figures of Vlad the Impaler, Elizabeth Báthory and Sidonia von Borcke of early modern Europe (who lived in a period roughly contemporaneous with the time period, especially the War of the Roses, upon which the milieu of Game of Thrones is associated) in a blog post and could easily have added Ivan the Terrible and Sultan of Morocco Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif.

    Extreme violence, and sexual conduct that would be almost unthinkable today, was very much a part of reasonably well documented history up to the dawn of the Enlightenment, and not just in the distant legendary past of the Bronze Age/early Iron Age tales of Greek mythology and the Hebrew Bible

  3. Luke Lea: this is a question that has been asked, and I don’t know the answer, but I do note several articles that have this series consistently at #1 among D votes and not in the top ten for R voters.

  4. This is absolutely right about the content of the tales. However, visually potraying this kind of stuff in a realistic manner is something genuinely new. Sex and violence were rarely portrayed in the explicit manner of today’s tv or movies.

  5. I enjoy GoT but I see where the moralists are coming from. You can communicate violence without dwelling on it just to titillate the audience. Would “The Kite Runner” have been a better film if it had graphic depiction of Afghan child rape? Would “A Man for All Seasons” have gotten its message across better if we’d been treated to blood fountaining out of Thomas More’s severed neck and spattering the crowd in the final scene? Consider the WWII vet aged man I saw get up and walk out of the theater in disgust during the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. Should I have sneered and congratulated myself for sitting through it without flinching? Guys who stormed the beach at Tarawa were entertained by the PG violence of old Westerns. My generation needs horror porn to get our pulse racing. There’s something wrong with that.

  6. Yes, The Illiad is a good example here. Moreover, it’s a part of our cultural and literary heritage. The scene where Achilles kills Penthesilea and then rapes her corpse on the battlefield also belongs to that heritage.

  7. The scene where Achilles kills Penthesilea and then rapes her corpse on the battlefield also belongs to that heritage.

    That’s not in the Iliad. That’s from Robert Graves.

  8. Twinkie,

    There are many ancient alternative versions of Penthesilea’s death and you can find them in The Amazons by Adrienne Mayor, so that wasn’t invented by Robert Graves.

    http://press.princeton.edu/titles/10302.html

    One of footnotes from the book:

    23. Alternative versions, Lycophron 995; Hyginus Fabula 112; Dictys 3.15– 16 (Hector sets out to meet Penthesilea and is killed by Achilles) and 4.2– 3 (Penthesilea thrown in the Scamander); killed by Pyrrhus, Dares Phryg. 36; scholiast on Homer’s Iliad 2.219; scholiast on Sophocles’s Philoctetes 445 (Achilles had sex with Penthesilea’s corpse); Tzetzes on Lycophron; Virgil Aeneid 1.495. Photius Myriobiblon 190, summary of Ptolemy Hephaestion New History 6; Eustathius of Thessalonike (12th century AD) commentary on Homer 1696 (Iliad 2.220); Benjamin Hederich, Gründliches Lexicon Mythologicum (1724) s.v. Penthesilea. Dictys and Dares, The Trojan War 1966, trans R. M. Frazer.

  9. The sexuality in the Bible is often toned down in translation, but the double entendres can’t be translated. There is a scene in Song of Songs 5 that is a good example. The entire passage can be read as the female protagonist putting on oils and getting ready for bed when her lover comes to her door, it can also simultaneously be read as actually describing intercourse.

    The word dōwḏî is usually translated as “beloved”, but is better translated as “lover”. It comes from the verbal root which means “to boil”. In ancient Hebrew, the word for “hand/arm” was also a euphemism for penis. The word for feet was a euphemism for vulva. The word translated as “arose”, can mean getting up or sexual arousal. I’ve bolded those double entendres in my translation below. There are others, but they should be obvious enough the way I’ve translated them:

    I have pulled off my robe, how could I put it back on? I have washed my feet, how shall I defile them? My lover thrust his arm through the opening, and my insides moved for him. I arose to open for my lover, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh upon the handles of the lock.

    It’s really elegant in Hebrew the way it can be read both ways, since each simultaneous version of the scene fully conveys its own distinct emotional imagery. In one, there is sort of a nervous awkwardness of the two infatuated lovers meeting at the door, with the female protagonist somewhat protesting at the impropriety of the situation. While in the other, it’s deeply and apologetically erotic, with the female lover fully engaged.

  10. The violence and sex isn’t the problem; it’s the fact that it comes across as substituting for or distracting from poor story telling and film making.

  11. There are many ancient alternative versions of Penthesilea’s death

    Fair enough, but, again, that narrative is not from Homer. It’s not in the actual Iliad, and is a later, fanciful addition.

  12. I happen to enjoy the TV show “Game of Thrones.” I know, I know, it’s not exactly a very Christian show, to put mildly.

    The problem of cultural degradation isn’t GoT per se. It’s that the kind of nasty, meaningless violence and sex in the show is too pervasive throughout the culture. For someone like me who was reared on the ethos of, say, “Shane” (https://youtu.be/9vWNrFP4-AY) in which the Good sacrifices itself to protect the weak and innocent from the Evil, watching GoT isn’t going to change my core. It’s merely a pulpy entertainment, quickly forgotten.

    The problem is when young people are inculcated on little else. No high culture, no higher moral aspirations, no Christian (or Aristotelian) ethics, nothing transcendent. When all (or most of what) they get in the popular culture is materialism, gratuitous sex, and nihilistic violence, the net effect is going to be very different.

    Of course, the past was not PG. But our forebears channeled the dirt and grit of reality into something more noble, the tradition of which continued right onto the silver screen (e.g. https://youtu.be/2ILqbD6XXkA)… whereas today the entertainment tend to appeal to man’s baser instincts with little redeeming value. That’s not going to affect much the moral values of those whose ethos is already set, but for the young and the impressionable?

  13. Related to the Iliad, Euripides’ Trojan Women speaks directly to the theme of this blog, where does our genetic inheritance come from? Often the answer is “men came, killed all the men and boys, and impregnated the women and girls”.

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