For Game of Thrones fans, please don’t read this until you’ve seen Season 6, Episode 5 (“The Door”).
Normally stories about time travel dramatize the power of human agency, our potential ability to know and intervene in past events and therefore change the future. These stories seem to be about the struggle for human freedom, not being sentenced to an immutable Fate. (Some examples are Back to the Future or, on a more profound level, brilliant parables about slavery such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Of course many other examples of time-warps in story-telling could be cited.)
But warg time-travel in Game of Thrones, Season 6, Episode 5 (“The Door”), suggested the other, scarier possibility of time travel: your Fate is already written and it can neither be changed nor understood by you until the moment when you must live out your destiny. Time travel can allow you to see your destiny but, like the Medusa’s stare, such a vision will paralyze you.
When the stable-boy Wyllis has his warg vision of the future (remarkably like an epilepsy attack), he repeats to himself the one phrase that embodies his adult Fate: he has to “hold the door” against the White Walkers’ armies of undead, allowing Bran and Meera to escape while sacrificing his own life. Though it’s a heroic self-sacrifice, Wyllis’ vision of his future is so traumatic that when he awakens from his vision he looses speech and understanding and can only repeat a cryptic or garbled version of his battle-cry. His one word is his Fate, and “Hodor” becomes his name. Hodor appears to have no idea what that word means, much less what his future holds. Yet on some deep level he reenacts that future moment’s pain again and again each time he says his name: we now have learned the “memory” of his death is buried in his name. It’s the revelation of that traumatic pain, as well as his heroic last stand, that made so moving the final installment of Hodor’s story.
Doesn’t this kind of time travel seem deeply deterministic? Like the Greek parable of how the gods erased our memory of our future Fate and mercifully gave us Hope instead. Bran too may be traumatized by his warg visions, by the ways in which (in his dreams at least) he understands that he was responsible for Hodor’s death. How Bran’s guilt and painful knowledge will influence his future actions will be fascinating to see as Season 6 unfolds. (And of course we can’t know from the books: the TV show’s now gone off-script into a future that George R. R. Martin hasn’t yet written.)
Obviously many characters who believe they can seize and control their destiny prove to be deluded: consider Stannis. But Thrones also offers up numerous stories that tempt us to believe that heroism means remaking your identity, sacrificing yourself for others’ needs, and changing the path of history—Jon Snow and Daenerys, for instance, particularly now in Season 6 after they have both emerged reborn from apparent icy or fiery deaths. Yet even as we thrill with their new power and growing confidence, it’s hard not to wonder whether their Fates too are already written and completely hidden from them. One of the reasons why we keep watching is to find out.
With characters like Cersei and Tyrion, Sansa and Arya/No One, the Fate/Freedom conundrum is just as hard to parse. Being driven by revenge has given Cersei a powerful sense of purpose in Season 6. Or does her anger control her, though now she’s better able to disguise it? Sansa’s confrontation with Littlefinger—one of the most powerfully written and acted scenes in all of Season 6—certainly makes us feel that she’s moved decisively past the delusions of her “innocence” into an adult world where she will now be a clear-eyed leader. Her story too will be fascinating to see unfold.
As will Tyrion’s. Is his new confidence that his destiny is to bend the arc of history toward justice deluded or righteous? Both Grey Worm’s and Missandei’s skepticism at Tyrion’s chutzpah (is there a Valyrian word for this?) certainly should give us pause.
Arya’s hidden Fate is perhaps the most ambiguous and intriguing of all, at least for those of us who believe characters don’t have to have armies at their command to be important. All of the major characters in Thrones arguably have split identities—but Arya’s split self/selves is really tricky to map. She’s currently at least two people, not one: whatever future self or selves she’s about to become, but also (despite her repeating—like Hodor?—that her new name is “No One”) because it’s clear Arya still retains and hides her Stark identity, her sense that she has her own revenge and reunion plot to pursue.
So, do plots about time travel in Game of Thrones amplify our sense of human freedom and responsibility? Or do they pretty much shut it down, proving that our Fates are already written? Revealing glimpses of the past and future, do warg powers paralyze or free?
At present, Thrones’ plotlines and character tensions are ambiguous enough that we can’t answer these questions—and that kind of suspense is one of the marks of good story telling. But maybe too it’s the job of good stories and their endings NOT to give us either/or answers to the fate and freedom questions I’ve said stories pose.
I leave you with one last thought: when Bran returns to the distant past in “The Door,” he doesn’t intervene; he just watches and gains knowledge. It’s when Bran wanders in his warg vision in the *present*—accidentally giving away the presence of himself and his friends to the White Walkers—that Bran does deadly damage, damage that in future he’s going to have to try to repair. Or was that his Fate all along? What understandings of his (and our) freedom and fate will come through “the door” at the end?
Terrific post Professor Schmidt. Glad to see you’re a fan of the show, even more glad to read your insight that has afforded me a different view. I’ll check back here periodically to see, hope all is well by you