Game of Thrones 3: Khaleesi as the Great White Hope

Final scene from the third series of Game of Thrones

Final scene from the third series of Game of Thrones

The dizzying climax of the third season of Game of Thrones features the dragon queen Khaleesi walking into an encircling crowd of her newly ‘liberated’ people. As the dragons circle up to the heavens, the camera ascends, transforming the blonde queen into a speck of white at the centre of a sea of brown arms bowing to her in adoration.

It’s an ecstatic scene, worthy of the great expectations granted to the most popular narrative series since Harry Potter. But it’s also laced with a familiar irony. The blonde leader Khaleesi has establish a paradoxical form of domination based on freedom. Previously she had released the ‘unsullied’ slave warriors of Astapor from bondage, granting them freedom to come or go. In gratitude, they provide her with undying loyalty. The same logic applies with the Yunkish. Despite the violent overthrow of their city, the population welcome their liberator with an absolute devotion.

You don’t need to travel far in thought to reach the conclusion that this is a bold fantasy of Western power in a postcolonial world. Like the role of Jason Russell in Kony 2012, Western engagement with the rest of the world has enjoyed the idea that a single white individual can transform the lives of whole populations. This racial narcissism has an extensive lineage in Hollywood scenarios when heroes like Indiana Jones venture forth beyond the limits of European civilisation.

As such, this final scene would be a remarkably crude revival of this unilateral fantasy. However, in the broader cosmology of Game of Thrones, it has a particular narrative charge. At the core of the epic is a battle between North and South. The Starks are an honourable family speaking in broad Yorkshire accents, lead by brave men with dark beards. More than anything, Starks are true to their words. Their mortal enemies are the Lannisters, a priestly family, clean-shaven and without scruples when it comes to realising their family’s ambitions.

The conflict between the Starks and the Lannisters harkens back to the cultural fault-line in English history, between the democratic Anglo-Saxons and the hierarchical invading Normans. John Ruskin extended this binary to the division between the honest labour of the Gothic craftsman and the baroque ornamentation of the Italians – read godly Protestants and corrupt Catholics. Later versions include Manuel in Fawlty Towers and the representations of feckless Greeks in the recent financial crises.

The Northerners are given added gravitas in Game of Thrones as the guardians of the wall, a massive structure designed to keep out the wild creatures of the north. The coming winter threatens an apocalyptic invasion of Westeros. Thus the north-south conflict finds itself potentially outflanked by enemies from either end.

In this context, Khaleesi seems to follow the established narrative from the Second World War of the new democratic United States that has potential – aided by magical technology – to sweep away the tired rivalries of the Old World. But in re-creating this myth in 2013, they’ve had to transform GI Joe into a Zenobia-like warrior queen from the East.

The irony, of course, is that the effect of this freedom is to create conformity on a mass scale. The current concerns about mass surveillance by PRISM makes us particularly receptive to the compromises seen necessary to protect our freedoms.

However, given the savage narrative reversals that mark Game of Thrones, this great white hope is unlikely to magically resolve global conflict. In the next series, do we look forward to re-run of the second Iraq war, as the liberated turn upon themselves? It is the constant demand of the series to keep us on the edge of our seats that offers the most positive prospect for its geopolitical allegory.

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The idea of Antarctica

Invitation image to The Antarctic Kingdom of Gondwanaland

Invitation image to The Antarctic Kingdom of Gondwanaland by Wanda Gillespie

Edgar Allen Poe’s novel ‘The Narrative Of Gordon Pym’ (1838) evokes the belief, prior to the exploration of Antarctica, that a lost civilisation may be contained within its icy borders. Rather than the black-skinned inhabitants of deepest darkest Africa, this furthest reach of the world would reveal a race of Hyperboreans, with a culture that was foreign but comparable to the civilised West.

Poe’s tale concludes when the hero manages to escape the violence of dark-skinned natives by fleeing further south, until the waters mysteriously grew warmer…

The darkness had materially increased, relieved only by the glare of the water thrown back from the white curtain before us.  Many gigantic and pallidly white birds flew continuously now from beyond the veil, and their scream was the eternal Tekeli-li! as they retreated from our vision. Hereupon Nu-Nu stirred in the bottom of the boat; but upon touching him we found his spirit departed. And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.

Rather than representing the end of the world, the icy wastes of Antarctica would turn out to be a means of keeping this other civilisation isolated from the rest of the globe.

Installation shot of The Antarctic Kingdom of Gondwanaland

Installation shot of The Antarctic Kingdom of Gondwanaland

Today, the artist Wanda Gillespie has revived this myth in an installation at Craft Victoria titled The Antarctic Kingdom of Gondwanaland. The story behind this work is of the discovery of wooden artefacts in Queen Maud Land, Antarctica, as a result of global warming. It is suggested that these objects are from the same period as the ancient civilisations of Sumeria and Egypt. As the artist statement claims, ‘The meticulously crafted objects recovered from three initial archaeological missions suggest the culture may have been a precursor to such modern-day indigenous cultures of the South Pacific as Maori, Aboriginal Australian, Polynesian and East Indonesian.’

While the faces depicted are undeniably of European origin, the hair styles and demeanour suggest a Pacific culture, such as Maori. Gillespie surmises that these objects refer to a ceremony that attempt to ensure the safe passage of a spirit into the afterlife.

It’s a curious racial fantasy that white people preceded other indigenous groups to the South. It does have precedents, such as the notion that the Lost Tribe of Israel fled south thousands of years ago (shared broadly from Cecil Rhodes to Mormons). While the earlier fantasies had clear a imperial agenda, what does it mean to invent one today?

In Australia, the idea of one’s special relation to landscape has been largely given over to its Indigenous peoples, who are granted a privileged, if symbolic, relation to ‘country’. This is relatively easy arrangement for settler Australians as most live in cities, where there is little engagement with land, beyond real estate prices. But it would be argued that this does leave settler Australians with a undeveloped sense of place. Fair enough to give over country to traditional owners, but then what are you still doing here?

Detail of The Antarctic Kingdom of Gondwanaland

Detail of The Antarctic Kingdom of Gondwanaland

Antarctica seems immune to such issues, as it has no indigenous people. It thus provides a blank screen on which to project speculations about place and culture. One of the notable elements of Gillespie’s Hyperborean world is the prevalence of the banksia. This figures strongly in the early colonial imagination, which populated the bush with mysterious figures such as bunyips. So by this detour south, Gillespie seems to return to where she come from. She manages to imbue an otherwise sterile, commodified and urban world with the enchantment that once belonged to traditional societies, who had an active engagement in rites of passage, and believed there was something more than the sum total of individual interests.

As the world continues to warm, it will be interesting to see what more is revealed of this mysterious south.

 

Wanda Gillespie acknowledges Rodney Glick and Indonesian carver Made Leno (who produced the heads), writer Varia Karipoff and Alastair Boell from the Melbourne Guild of Fine Woodworking. Her website is http://www.wandagillespie.com/

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What becomes of the Old South with the rise of the New North?

Contrary to the usual talk about the rise of the Global South, The New North: The World in 2050 by Laurence Smith argues that climate change will favour the development of the Arctic region, where there is more land than the south. From his RSA talk

In 2050, Northern countries – notably Canada, Russia and Scandinavia – will rise at the expense of southern ones. Patterns of human migration will be dramatically altered – and where we are born will be crucial. But, argues UCLA Professor Laurence Smith, humans are adaptable: and there will be gains as a new world takes shape.

While there is logic in this argument, there is always the danger of a Northern triumphalism behind this story. It has the potential to soothe anxiety about a future where the energies of the Global South might seem to eclipse Europe and North America.

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Yantra from Ahmedabad

image

imageYantras are square charms whose power is based on words and diagrams. The above yantra was obtained from a market in Ahmedabad, India and contains the principles of India geomancy on which much architecture is based. Vastu Shastra gives particular meaning to the cardinal points. In the Vastu Purusha Mandala, the earth is represented by a square. In this case, the direction on top is east. The morning sun is considered especially powerful. While North is ruled by Kubera, the god of wealth, South is governed by Yama, or death.

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From heresy to beauty products–the idea of South in France

Beziers

It is tempting to position the South as a victim of the North. Certainly, the conflict between the French North and South appears to be a story of ruthless oppressor that violently subjugates a peace-loving and tolerant victim. Is that necessarily so? Whichever way, French history straddles a cultural fault-line that continues to move in opposing directions.

France contains at least two nations. While the north was populated by Franks from Germany, the south was a separate entity ruled by Visigoths in the Middle Ages. They were more closely connected laterally with the Catalans than vertically with the Franks. During its independent history, the South, known as Occitania, was a site of resistance to imperial rule.

Their first form of Christianity was Arianism, which taught that God came before Jesus. Around the tenth century, an interest in ‘courtly love’ emerged under the influence of poetry from Andalusia. The word “troubadour” was derived from an Arabic root ta-ra-ba meaning “to be transported with joy and delight”. The literary genre of ‘chanson de geste’ emerged celebrating refinement of taste in contract to the tales of war and heroic deeds prevalent in the north.

Cathars expelled from Carcassonne in 1209.

Cathars expelled from Carcassonne in 1209

At the same time, the religion of the Cathars developed, which denigrated earthly life and adopted values of simplicity and abstinence. In 1208, a Papal legate was assassinated in Saint-Gilles which prompted the Franks in support of Rome to cleanse the South of heresy. The Albigensian crusade led by Simon de Monfort became legendary for its brutality. In 1209 the town of Beziers was sacked and none of the population was spared, even those who sought refuge in the church. When the commander was asked by a Crusader how to tell Catholics from Cathars once they had taken the city, the abbot supposedly replied, Neca eos omnes. Deus suos agnoscet, “Kill them all, God will know His own.”  The second crusade against the South involved the siege of Montségur (Montsalvat) during which the inquisition was first established.

The successful completion of the crusade led to the Frankish domination of the South and the status of France as a unified country. Nonetheless, the South continued to be a source of suspicion, characterised as stubborn and greedy. During the reformation, it contained Protestant strongholds. As administration became more centralised around Paris, French was enforced as the language of administrations.

Frédéric Mistral

Frédéric Mistral

From the Revolution, the South was identified as a source of political change. Some autonomy was restored to the Midi, as it was now called. In the nineteenth century, writers such as Augustin Thierry and Michelet celebrated the South as a source of democracy. In 1854 Frédéric Mistral founded the Félibrige, dedicated to supporting Occitan literature, which gradually shifted to support for the Catholic Right. Inspired by his Nobel Prize in 1904, the Chilean poet Lucila Godoy Alcayaga changed her name to Gabriela Mistral. The mystical legend of Cathars was established by Napoléon Peyrat with the 1871 publication Histoire des Albigeois. But at the same time, there was pressure to standardise French under la Vergonha (the shaming), which prohibited the teaching of Occitan in schools. In reaction, the youth movement

Hartèra emerged to promote Occitan, as one of its posters says:

To hell with the shame…
Our patois is a language: Occitan;
Our South is a country: Occitania;

Our folklore is a culture.
We want respect for our difference.
Share, mix, walk!!

During the 1930s, there were attempts to identify the Cathars as ancestors of the Nazis, particularly through the romantic myth of Montsalvat. However, during Second World War, the area of France not occupied by Germans corresponded to that of Occitania. In 1940, editors of Cahiers du Sud, including Simone Weil and Louis Aragon called a gathering in Marseille to found a community of tolerance. As Weil said at the time, ‘Catharism was the last living expression in Europe of pre-Roman antiquity. It is from this thinking that Christianity descends; but the Gnostics, Manicheans and Cathars seem to be the only ones that remained faithful to it.’ After the war, the South became a site of creative experiment. In 1946, the Dada poet Tristan Tzara founded the Institut d’Etudes Occitanes in Toulouse.

Popular interest developed in 1960 with a two-part television series Les Cathares, drawing on Peyrat’s romantic history. The South became an issue in the revolutionary movement of May 1968

imageNow the South has become a significant luxury brand, associated with the region of Provencal in cuisine and home goods. Olivier Baussan founded the company l’Occitane, ‘L’OCCITANE has drawn inspiration from Mediterranean art de vivre and traditional Provencal techniques to create natural beauty products devoted to well-being and the pleasure of delighting and caring for oneself.’ This company has now extended its southern taste to other countries. The brand L’Occitane do Brasil expresses the authenticity of a first natural sun care line made exclusively in Brazil.

Part of the mythology of L’Occitane revolves around the ‘everlasting’ flower immortelle, the source of eternal youth.

Meanwhile, the flower has become a rallying point for revival of Occitan culture. In 1978, the band Nadau composed the song L’immortèla (The Edelweiss) which tells of the flower of love and the mountain journeys of the southern people,

Up we’ll walk, Little Peter, to the edelweiss
Up we’ll walk, Little Peter, until we find that place!

Occitania follows a familiar path in Europe, where civilisations known for their tolerance and poetry fall victim to the northern military regimes. This internal colonisation then provides the rehearsal for the subjugation of peoples beyond. Once the target of heresy has shifted to the colonies, then the internal other becomes a subject of nostalgia and commodification.

Rather than a single identity, countries like France seem constituted by a dialogue between opposing halves. While the heretic South helps to sharpen the values of the North, the brutality of the North conjures the idea of a sensual and tolerant South.

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