Category Archives: North

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.

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.

John Stanley Martin – Australia as an Iceland of the south

One way of reading an antipodean country like Australia is through the lens of its symmetrical opposites. For many, Australia has been compared to Nordic countries. One of Australia’s leading Nordicists, John Stanley Martin, unfortunately passed away this week. Here he talking about the commonality between Australia and Iceland.

image John Stanley Martin, descendent of the Eureka rebels, went to Iceland to pursue a degree in Old Norse. He recalls a conversation with Icelandic novelist Sigurdur Nordal, who saw both nations as sharing the challenge of new beginnings:

As an Australian you understand Iceland better than the Europeans do, because we are Europe’s first colony. We are the first time they came. Every time there was a movement in Europe, there was always a group before—the Celts moving in, the Germanics moving in—and there would be an amalgam of the cultures… In Norway, from where they came, it was limited resources, someone gets more and someone gets less. Come to Iceland and it’s a free for all, grabbing land, so you don’t respect the environment in the same way any more.[i]

[i] John Stanley Martin, interview, 16 February 2001.

Why ‘Up in the Air’ should be grounded

New critique or old myth?

You could be forgiven for thinking that the recently released Up in the Air heralds a new wave of American films that reflect the real social realities of America exposed by the Global Financial Crisis.

‘ target=_blank>Rolling Stone claims that ‘Up in the Air is a defining movie for these perilous times’ and gives a ‘bravo’ to its exposé corporate cynicism.  The ABC At the Movies gives the film top rating – ‘It is part of the reality of contemporary economic life in America, as opposed to this totally superficial life that he’s living.’

But do we see any change in the key values that lead to the piracy on Wall Street. Take some key features of the film:

  • The young woman who challenges the elder male is shown to be an emotional child needing his assistance
  • The world is nothing but the United States of America and the key characters (apart from those being sacked) are all white Anglos
  • There is not one reference to the carbon emissions generated by jet travel
  • The human ‘shark’ who is employed to do the dirty work by faceless companies is revealed to be warm and responsible person compared to the alternative of online retrenchments
  • The humble mid-Western couple ‘grounded’ by poverty are gifted a round the world flight by the generous corporate brother (the meek will orbit the earth)
  • It celebrates the verticalist fantasy that the world above is exempt from the realities of what lies below

Up in the Air is an attempt to maintain ‘business as usual’ in a culture that is destroying itself and the world through an unbridled capitalism. Just when reality seemed to expose the irresponsibility at the heart of this system, Hollywood coopts the anti-corporate narrative in order to reinforce the very world that created the problem.

Don’t board this flight. I have a premonition that this plane will not arrive at its advertised destination.

Go down Moses


How was the world oriented north? We take it for granted that north is up because you place the more important things on top. But does this mean that people in the South must feel forever inferior? To counter this psychological disadvantage, it is important to understand the historical processes that led to this arrangement.

The most obvious point of reference is the map. Who decided that North was up? It seems that the vertical orientation of the world map was developed during the Italian renaissance, accompanying the great voyages of discovery by Columbus and co. Before that, the Arab maps were oriented upside down to us, with the south up. So as the practice of map-mapping passed from Eastern to Western empires, was it informed by a particular north-orientation in the Judeo-Christian tradition?

We are now on the verge of the great Jewish ritual of Passover, which commemorates the escape of the Jews from Egypt to find the promised land of Israel. In the Bible, the relationship between Egypt and Israel is vertical. In Genesis, Abraham goes ‘down into Egypt’ to escape famine (10). Later Joseph is brought ‘down to Egypt’, followed by his brothers (39). And the Exodus (32), Moses is described as the man that brought the Jews up out of the land of Egypt.

At the Passover feast, those gathered for the Passover feast read from the Haggadah, which includes the Afro-America spiritual Go Down Moses, expressing the hope among slaves that they would find a Moses to release them from bondage. William Faulkner’s story of the same name clearly identifies Pharaoh as the white slave master.

Up and down feature elsewhere in the Bible, but not along the north-south axis. The Book of Ezra tells the story of the Persian king Cyrus who invaded Babylon and released the Jews from bondage. Though himself a Zoroastrian, Cyrus had a great respect for other religions and won the allegiance of Babylonians by praying at the temple of Marduk. He also vowed to help the Jews re-established their great temple in Jerusalem. Cyrus proclaimed, ‘Anyone of his people among you—may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD.’ Though the trajectory from Iran-Iraq-Israel is along the east-west axis, it is still a matter of going ‘up’ to Jerusalem.

The particular Jewish arrangement of cardinal points seems quite independent of this vertical axis. The most important direction is Kedem, or east, towards which everything of importance is directed. They share with the Arabs an understanding of North as left and South as right.

The Hebrew word for ‘go up’ is aliyah. At one level, it describes the process of migrating to Israel, from the exiles of ancient Babylon to the more recent diaspora from Russia. At a more immediate level, it also describes when someone is called in the Synagogue to come up to the front and read from the Torah.

The opposite of aliyah is yerida, to go down. This is clearly a less desirable direction. There is even today argument about whether Abraham sinned when he committed yerida in going down to Egypt. One interesting paradox is yerida l’tzorich aliya (go down in order to come up), as evident in the folk wisdom about the necessity of hard times to acquire knowledge of the world.

So, the vertical root that surfaces in the Renaissance seems to strike deep in the Judeo-Christian tradition. But where does it begin? It becomes more difficult to find sources, but there’s an interesting resonance in the culture of Babylon itself. The creation epic known as Enûma Eliš is one of the first references to a sacred domain above. It pictures the beginning of the world… ‘When in the height heaven was not named,/And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name…’

And where did the Babylonians acquire their verticalism from? Where do we stop?

From the Judeo-Christian roots, we have a better understanding of why it is important whatever is given the elevated position. But it still does not explain how this privilege was granted to the North. We may have to go back to the Renaissance for that answer.

Thanks for Bernard Rechter and Paul Forgasz for their assistance with this issue.