Were Vikings considered heroes or villains?
Heroes Are Dead: How Fatalism Is Sold As Realism
We live in times when fiction in general should always be as realistic as possible. Everything needs an explanation and every act should have the most brutal consequences possible. But contrary to the name, realism has only limited to do with reality.
"Crusader Kings 2" is probably currently the largest and most interesting representative of medieval-inspired global strategy games. From the early Middle Ages to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, players can take control of a single noble family and try not to die out in the centuries that follow, and ideally to build as large an empire as possible. At the same time, your own family will definitely dig into these plans, the members of which all develop their own character traits and likes and dislikes and thus also like to undermine their own dynasty head and his plans.
So both rulers and NPCs can develop the trait "insane" (in the original "lunatic") and thus cause a lot of unrest. Characters with this characteristic behave strangely and illogically, moreover in a way that often enough leaves the player completely powerless. Depending on the event, he simply appoints his favorite horse as chancellor, tears his clothes off in front of the court to howl at the moon, or enacts senseless laws that offend all vassals without having the opportunity to counteract them . I like this quality because it enables and even forces a few more absurd episodes in the history of a dynasty. This is a good thing because at the same time it always goes against the ruling image of an evil mastermind, who otherwise likes to propagate the game. “Crusader Kings 2” is basically a “Game of Thrones” that has become a game. Fake legal claims, forced marriage, intrigue, murder and, if necessary, war, if nothing else helps. Not for nothing is the right Westeros mod with one of the most popular among fans of the game and not for nothing is there an achievement for both incest and the murder of one's own spouse.
All of this is typical of a certain idea of realism. Under the premise of a dark Middle Ages in the style of "Game of Thrones", you can lively intrigue around the area and murder until the last vassal spurts out. This is all underlined with Wikipedia links in the profile of historical personalities, which gives a certain illusion of historical correctness, but which in reality - as to be expected and luckily - has to give way in favor of the game. For example, “Crusader Kings 2” conveys ideas from centrally organized nation states that are needed so that the game can function according to its rules, but questions of correctness are no longer relevant at this point. Anyway, "Crusader Kings 2" is probably best when the game breaks away from its original and tells its own stories by chance or player intervention, but the idea of cynical power people who keep their friends small and their enemies smaller remains. And it is precisely in this that another level of striving for authenticity is revealed, which has almost nothing to do with the desire for factual correctness or - in a historical setting like "Crusader Kings 2" - but much more to do with the way it is now very often "Realism" is conceived.
George R.R. Martin once spoke disparagingly in an interview about “Disneyland Middle Ages”, which was aimed at an idealizing form of fantasy that he did not want to serve with his books. Instead, he let it be known in this interview that he had a kind of authenticity claim with regard to his world. Basically, this claim is closely linked to notions of authenticity and the “Dark Ages”, but also to an idea of realism that goes far beyond fantasy or historically inspired stories.
Modern realism - at least in fantastic and historically inspired pop culture genres - is often measured in terms of brutality. The series “Vikings” is repeatedly referred to as a realistic Viking story because one bloody battle scene chases the next, “Game of Thrones” has long been stuck in a never-ending spiral of brutality that wants to trump itself, which is precisely what makes everyone Losing meaning and thus perhaps originally tried to meet Martin's claim to reality, but has now completely turned it over, and even originally stories and characters such as superheroes that were originally idealistically designed now use violence and mistrust to convey a certain claim to authenticity and are more realistic within their genres to act as others.
This is actually a paradox, because realism of course never depicts an actual reality, but basically only replaces the lens through which fiction is presented to a recipient. Consequences that obviously ought to occur, but are often ignored by the respective creators for a nicely told story or a pleasantly playable game, suddenly occur. From one moment to the next, heroes, who might otherwise have ricocheted off, are confronted with an idea of reality that they are suddenly powerless to face. The idea of the classic hero gets trashed because heroes are distinguished by the fact that they are extraordinary, and with this powerlessness they suddenly become more fallible and human.
Ned Stark behaves just like any heroic knight figure before him: He has moral lofty values and motivations, believes in law, order and its king and wants to expose an injustice. He even behaves so decently that he warns his enemies because he feels sorry for them and especially for Cersei's children. These kinds of morally lofty heroes have existed in fantasy and medieval-inspired fiction in general, without end. They believe in the right things and stand up for the right thing, in short: You could simply put a huge "good guy" stamp on their foreheads. And because they're the good guys, they win. That is not logical, but a narrative convention that aims to steer towards a happy ending. George R.R. Martin's realism is actually only expressed in the plot in the fact that he takes this convention and instead of using it, he processes it into confetti with the consequences that are actually quite obvious for everyone. It never made sense for a character like Cersei Lannister, so badly portrayed as a ruthless, power-hungry villain, to stand idly by as Ned ruins their lives, but the convention that the good guys generally win made it likely.
Such a game with consequences is especially interesting because it can lead your own target group on the black ice and thus cleverly surprise them. Nobody expects the dragon to simply devour the hero at the first opportunity and the princess to remain trapped in the hoard. On the one hand, because that would not have resolved the fundamental conflict of the story, and on the other hand, because we are used to the hero in this story winning. Maybe he could even stand naked in front of the kite, for a classic happy ending he has to win. The obvious problem that the dragon is big and dangerous, and the consequent consequence that perhaps our hero shouldn't compete alone if he doesn't want to become a midnight snack, turn out to be in favor of a beautiful story in which all is well in the end is ignored. Breaking with these types of traditions is what made Westeros so interesting in general. Because if I can no longer rely on my expectations and genre habits, then everything can only come as a surprise.
The key point, however, is this: This kind of realism does not necessarily bring fiction closer to reality, but just throws in a few more consequences or taboos. Incidentally, this is also something that cannot be blamed for the respective artists, because reality does not tell good stories. Reality is chaotic, complex and repeatedly shaped by meaningless coincidences that do not result in any stringency. The brutal realism claims of “Game of Thrones”, “Crusader Kings” or series like “Vikings” basically just swap one exaggerated idea for another. In this case that of a romanticized Middle Ages, in which the world was still in order, so to speak, versus that of a dark version of the epoch full of murder, intrigue and witch burnings. (The latter, by the way, still does not belong to this era.)
But this realism is not limited to scenarios inspired by the Middle Ages. Whether “Jessica Jones”, “Godless”, “Peaky Blinders” or, alternatively, just any story from the last few years that crucially thrives on a certain brutality and perhaps also brutal aesthetics, or at least tries to. There is actually only a certain fatalism behind this, which assumes that in case of doubt nothing will get better, but everything will get worse. The characters are selfish and do little or nothing if it doesn't help them personally, which goes so far that even Superman, who is actually the epitome of selfless rescues, actually almost only behaves like a hero in the films, because he wants to save his girlfriend.
In addition, this fatalism with a claim to reality is at the same time in an interesting way, stylistically more and more distant from reality. Where the characters and their motivations should actually become more complex for an approach to a reality, this realism is again only simplified, only with the difference that this time not everything is good, but everything is bad. Jessica Jones not only drinks too much and fights with her own demons, but also doesn't really want to be a heroine. Tommy Shelby longs for a respectable, quiet life, but this goal is always prevented by the fact that he is simply a power-hungry, ruthless gangster. And the "Game of Thrones" series gets lost in the fact that all characters are becoming increasingly cruel and is still celebrated for precisely that.
And not only gloomy scenarios are shaped by it. Modern fantasy has practically no trust in more or less state structures across the board. The "Dragon Age" series, for example, actually has a very positive basic tenor of honorable heroism, friendship and world salvation, but at the same time is actually a series of episodes in which the structures fail that should protect the general public. Kings, generals, guards, templars, magicians, church. Whichever organization comes into the focus of the story, it first turns out to be corrupt and broken and in the best case can be renewed by the appropriate hero.
Scenarios in which it would be perfectly legitimate to paint a picture of good kings and selfless knights in accordance with the style and the genre convention have largely deviated from this and only use individual representatives of these groups as positive counterexamples and exceptions. This is interesting because it makes it clear that the realism just mentioned is not just a phenomenon that is limited to dark stories. It makes it clear: Somehow we have come to a point where a fatalistic lens is supposed to bring more reality into a story.
Nevertheless, this realism still does not reflect reality and that is a good thing. Reality doesn't tell good stories. “Based on a true incident” is only interesting because the “after” part of this phrase and it means that parts of reality have been changed in such a way that they fit into a stringent form and still result in a good story. This also means that realism in general and also in a fatalistic form is not without alternatives. And that's actually quite a good thing.
Article image: "Action Figure" (https://www.flickr.com/photos/enerva/16319019095/) by "Sonny Abesamis" (https://www.flickr.com/photos/enerva/, CC BY 2.0)
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