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[dropcap letter="G"]ood always wins versus evil. The hero, bloodied but unbowed, avenges his loved ones' death and wins the girl. Despite the onslaught of war, plagues, and the marching armies of darkness, the kingdom stands strong and rebuilds its lost glory. The plot variations may vary, the body count may rise, but in a nutshell, that's what most readers (or viewers) have come to expect from the classic fantasy epic after J.R.R. Tolkien set the standard with his legendary "Lord of the Rings."

Until George R.R. Martin had his noble hero Ned Stark  beheaded in the penultimate scene of his novel "Game of Thrones."  Not long after, Stark's family (and he has young kids, btw) would be torn apart as the aftermath of that execution plunges Westeros into a bloody civil war.

That's just one way by which Martin's seven-book "Songs of Fire and Ice" has turned the classic fantasy epic and the dozens of Tolkien wannabes on their collective ear. And the thousands of readers who follow his books or watch the HBO series have their hearts torn and their minds rocked as complicated twists and turns in his storylines leave favorite characters in limbo or, worse, at death's door. Nobody is safe in Westeros. Invest emotionally in one character, and you risk pain and anguish should Martin decide to have him or her orphaned, tortured, murdered, and mutilated.

(Don't believe us? Here, watch this.)

Call us fans a stickler for punishment but we keep coming back for more. We just want to know the story ends, and what ultimately happens to the characters who grew on us. But there are no guarantees—because of the at least eight ways by which Martin has redefined (or subverted) his genre:

(WARNING: SEASON 3 SPOILERS TO FOLLOW SO READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.)

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Actually, the more honorable the character, the higher the chances of his demise. Westeros is a treacherous place where you trust someone at the risk of your own life. Ned Stark was just the beginning. Robb, his oldest son and heir to the throne who was winning every battle to avenge his father's death, was slaughtered along with his bannermen under a fake flag of truce. Tyrion Lannister who saves Westeros from the attack of Stannis Baratheon's men is stripped of his position as Hand of the King and sent to a forgotten miserable basement for his troubles.

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In most fantasy series, acts of forgiveness and altruism are rewarded with loyalty and gratitude. Not in this series. Daenarys Targaryen saves a woman from rape and murder in the aftermath of battle—and she repays her by killing her husband and their first child. Theon Greyjoy is raised by the Starks as like their own son; years later, he captures their castle in Winterfell and has the two youngest heirs who regarded him as their older brother killed and burned as an example. (Or did he?)

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Even the most unsympathetic character you'd like to see pilloried and quartered turn out to have very understandable human motivations on why they do what they do. Hate them all you like, but the roots of their behavior run deep and ring true. Tywin Lannister became the richest and most ruthless man in the kingdom because he saw his own gentle generous father taken advantage of and bullied by his peers. His son, the Kingsguard Jamie, was ostracized because he literally stabbed in the back the King he was supposed to protect; but hey, that's because the Mad King was about to let loose a hail of fire on Westeros, burning every man, woman, and child.

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At this point, the underlying theme should be clear: the familiar tropes of black and white do not exist in this universe. The whole seven kingdoms are layered with shades of grey.

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Just look at what happens to the Stark kids after their father dies. Sansa, the stereotypical lovely innocent princess, loses her Pollyanish outlook on life and learns how to lie and manipulate in order to survive. Arya, the lovable tomboy who wants to fight in a man's world (think Eowyn in LOTR), joins the League of Assassins before she reaches her 10th year. Bran, the feisty boy who should have grown up the shining knight to fight beside his older brother, is thrown out the window and ends up a cripple.

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Normally, in other epics, it's the stereotypical eternal love between two major characters that saves the empire. Not in this case. Rhaeger, the crown prince who was the only one who could have repaired his insane father's mistakes, kidnaps the lovely Lyanna Stark. This sets a chain of events that leads to the Mad King's burning of Lyanna's father and oldest brother in the middle of his palace, the uprising led by her fiancé Robert Baratheon and second older brother Ned—and the rest is history.

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The Lannisters may be devious, but reading the books which give the entire back story makes you realize they're just among the many families that are being played by an unseen hand (or several). Who is really calling the shots? Varys the Eunuch? The League of Assassins outside the Capital? Or Little Finger, once described by another character as so cold-blooded that he wouldn't mind razing the entire kingdom to the ground if it meant his ruling as the "king of the ashes?" There's no one Dark Lord (like LOTR's Sauron or Harry Potter's Voldemort) to march against.
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Martin's many clues have fans speculating. Daenarys and her dragons will join with the Night Watch of Jon Snow, Ned's bastard son, to fight the Whitewalkers (zombies who like the snow) as the decades-long winter approaches. Jon might turn out to be the son of Rhaegar and Lyanna, and the actual legitimate heir to the empire. Martin himself said in an interview that, taking a page out of LOTR, he will bring the characters he disbanded back to the one place where he first introduced them to the audience. This could mean a reunion of the Starks (or what remains of them) in Winterfell.

However he pens it, don't expect a totally happy ending. After the proverbial war to end all wars, the Whitewalkers just might end up as the sole survivors.  Martin did say (through one of his characters): "When you play the game of thrones, you either win or die." In his world, only the strong—and the ruthless—survive.
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"Game of Thrones" Season 3 airs on HBO Signature this November every Thursday at 9PM.

Do you think GOT has subverted the fantasy epic genre? Share your opinions and thoughts in the Comments Section below.


Cora Llamas

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