In this Man of Character column, Man of Many takes a look at some of popular culture’s most notable male protagonists. We discuss the origin of the character and why they have had such an enduring influence on the popular consciousness.
‘First lesson: stick ’em with the pointy end.’ – Jon Snow
Six years and now seven seasons on and it’s easy to forget ‘Game of Thrones’ originally marked a huge gamble for HBO: a big-budget, globe-trotting production, with a period setting and huge cast, and based on a series of popular – but ultimately niche – fantasy novels.
It has since emerged as a bona fide cultural phenomenon, bringing the fantasy genre into the mainstream in a way that arguably even ‘The Lord of the Rings’ never managed to. Key to its success are its well-publicised penchant for sex, violence and shocking character deaths.
But beneath the labyrinthine twists and political machinations, ‘Game of Thrones’ is the story of people and their nature, exploring every shade of grey in a genre more often associated with an established black-and-white morality. Here, the fantasy setting serves more as a backdrop for a rich tapestry of conflict and characters, navigating the cruel and unforgiving world of Westeros.
Each has left their indelible mark on the narrative landscape of ‘Game of Thrones’, established patriarchs like Ned Stark and Tywin Lannister to misanthropic journeymen like The Hound – all memorable for the complex, masculine archetypes they represent.
Yet it is arguably Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), who both subverts and fulfils the traditional hero’s journey and, as such, best embodies the confluence of traditional fantasy storytelling and post-modernism that distinguishes both George R. R. Martin’s novels and HBO’s streamlined, but generally faithful, adaptation.
Of the extensive cast , Jon steers closest to the well-worn tropes of fantasy fiction: the handsome outcast of mysterious parentage destined for greater things; a child of prophecy thrust into a position of leadership he neither demanded or wanted.
As such, he is the natural, and obvious, protagonist of a fantasy story that has so far concerned itself more as a meditation on humanity than a straightforward tale of good versus evil. The erstwhile Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch and now the King in the North, Jon represents the struggles of those bound to a sense of duty and honour in an uncompromising world.
Having watched many of his allies and family fall, he is then killed for doing what he believes is right – a relative paragon of virtue in comparison to the more sinister denizens of Westeros. Whereas a conventional fantasy story would find a character like Jon prevail in the face of adversity, here he is subjected to a series of formative tragedies that stem directly from his noble intentions.
It’s not surprising that he has emerged as the poster boy for a series often defined by its ruthless propensity for killing off major characters. The fact Jon has returned from the dead hints at a level of narrative significance afforded to few others, as does the matter of his birth and knowledge of the impending White Walker threat.
Jon and his allies represent the final hope for humanity in the looming war against this ancient foe, as well as the best chance a a type of meta-narrative justice for viewers waiting for vengeance to be enacted on the Stark’s many enemies. Whether Jon fulfils his heroic promise, or even makes it through the series alive, he’s emerged as a fascinating case study in how both Martin, and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, play with the audience’s expectations of narrative and character, and should prove an enduring icon of pop culture long after the series ends.