Narrow bridges

From Westeros to Middle-earth: How Autumn Shows Building Worlds and Bridges

Big-budget sci-fi and fantasy offerings will dominate small screens in the months ahead. While the shows offer some escapism, it’s hard to avoid drawing parallels between their world-building tales and modern day issues.

Whether it’s Elves versus Dwarves in Middle-earth (Amazon’s “Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” which premieres September 1) or rival Houses vying for power in Westeros (prequel from HBO’s “Game of Thrones” “House of the Dragon,” premiering Aug. 21), these tales often reflect real-world tribalism.

Why we wrote this

Science fiction and fantasy programs now abound. What new perspectives do they offer on conflict and cooperation?

It is an acknowledgment that an “us versus them” instinct has assailed humanity since, well, forever. Yet these adventures also offer timeless ideals. Archetypal heroes exemplify leadership qualities that can improve polarization and develop unity and cooperation.

Those who study conflict resolution have observed that when individuals from competing camps come together to solve a common problem, it helps create a new shared identity. Bradley Birzer, author of “JRR Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth”, says of the author of “The Lord of the Rings”, “[He’s] really explore two different aspects of humanity. It tries to explore what our individual selves are and what we can do heroically as individuals. But he also tries to adapt that to the other side, and it’s our desire to be part of the community in some way.

In 2022, bigger-budget shows on the small screen are engaging in what’s been called “world-building.”

These sci-fi and fantasy programs are escapist entertainment, but only up to a point. It’s hard to avoid drawing parallels between world-building narratives and today’s issues.

Whether it’s Elves versus Dwarves in Middle-earth (Amazon’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” which premieres September 1, rated TV-14), rival Houses vie for power in Westeros (HBO’s “Game of Thrones” prequel “House of the Dragon,” premiering August 21, rated TV-MA), or the United Federation of Planets’ racist attitude toward Romulans (“Star Trek: Picard” from Paramount+, final season slated for 2023), these stories often reflect real-world tribalism.

Why we wrote this

Science fiction and fantasy programs now abound. What new perspectives do they offer on conflict and cooperation?

It is an acknowledgment that an “us versus them” instinct has assailed humanity since, well, forever. Yet these adventures also offer timeless ideals. Archetypal heroes exemplify leadership qualities that can improve polarization and develop unity and cooperation.

“When you’re telling stories, the mandate is to find something where there’s some tension,” says Daniel Abraham, co-author of “The Expanse” novels that were adapted into a recent Amazon series (for 16-year-olds). and more). “What epic fantasy and science fiction lend themselves to on this kind of scale is that there’s a scale to the stories. They’re well-built to tell stories about the clashes between cultures and the Nations.

In “The Expanse”, the solar system is divided into three warring factions: the people of Earth, those who colonized Mars, and the Belters, who mine asteroids in deep space. Miners are an exploited caste, recognizable by their tall and thin physiology as they live in a low gravity environment. They speak a language called Belter Creole. At its core, “The Expanse” is a critique of racism and tribalism. The difference between heroes and villains is a narrow or broad view of humanity.

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Amazon’s “The Expanse” features actors (left to right) Wes Chatham, Nadine Nicole, Frankie Adams, Steven Strait and Dominique Tipper. The show is about warring factions on Earth, Mars and in space.

“One of these two people says, ‘I want peace in the world and I’m going to try to create a consensus among world leaders that allows us to negotiate our problems,'” says Ty Franck, the other author of the books. “The Expanse”, which are published under the common pen name James S.A. Corey. “And the other said, ‘I’m going to get world peace by killing everyone who doesn’t belong to my tribe. “”

Although “The Expanse” seems to reflect our current milieu, its authors were mainly inspired by the pre-classic era where tyrants ruled the city-states. They note that history tends to repeat itself. For this reason, viewers read contemporary politics in fantasy genres.

When “Game of Thrones” – based on a series written by George RR Martin – was on the air, Ñusta Carranza Ko noticed that his students at the University of Baltimore’s School of Public and International Affairs regularly referred to the show’s tribal politics in the courtyards. “It reminds me of Thomas Hobbes’ great notion of group selfishness,” says Ms. Ko, who co-wrote the book “Game of Thrones and Theories of International Relations” with Laura Young, chair of the department of political science and science. International Studies by Georgia Gwinnett. Middle School. “That kind of notion of our group, and our interests versus those of others, is interfaced multiple times in ‘Game of Thrones’.”

A common trope in fantasy stories such as “The Expanse” and “Game of Thrones” is that individuals from disparate groups must learn to see beyond narrow interests based on group identity. They are forced into it by an existential threat that threatens them all.

For example, in Amazon’s latest adaptation of Tolkien, the elf Galadriel leads a community made up of representatives of various Middle-earth factions. Dwarves, Elves, Men and Harfoots (precursors to the Hobbits, who share a similar disdain for shoes) unite on a quest to battle the evil Sauron.

The plot seems in keeping with the themes that Mr. Tolkien elucidated in “The Lord of the Rings”. When individuals overcome their personal biases about others, it represents the overcoming of tribalism.

Those who study conflict resolution have observed that when individuals from competing camps come together to solve a common problem, it helps create a new shared identity. “[Mr. Tolkien’s] really explore two different aspects of humanity. It tries to explore what our individual selves are and what we can do heroically as individuals. But he’s also trying to adapt that to the other side, and it’s our desire to be part of the community in some way,” says Bradley Birzer, author of “JRR Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle earth”.

Once disparate characters team up with those from other factions, they do not relinquish their original identity. But neither do they remain indebted to them. “The Expanse” character Naomi Nagata embodies this duality by code-switching between her mother tongue Belter and English.

The archetypal heroes of these stories exemplify leadership qualities that foster cooperation. They are able to sympathize with multiple groups because they themselves are outsiders by nature. Jon Snow, the hero of ‘Game of Thrones’, believes he is the ill-begotten son of Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell. James Holden, the heroic spaceship captain in “The Expanse,” has eight genetic parents. (It’s science fiction. It’s complicated.)

Milly Alcock (foreground) and Paddy Considine (background) star in ‘House of the Dragon’, a prequel to HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’.

“There are leaders who might try to unite people through sheer force, but that tends not to work,” says Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University, who has written articles for the Washington Post on the political messages of “The Expanse”. and “Game of Thrones”. “And then there are leaders who can come together because they have enough empathy and theory of mind to understand not just where they’re coming from, but also where their potential allies are coming from.”

The protagonist’s ability to forge compromise comes from developing a balance between masculine and feminine qualities. In his 2004 book, “The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories”, Christopher Booker describes the hero’s journey as an arc in which the embrace of female characteristics brings “full life to male strength by giving it the ingredient vital to the connection..[…]which gives a connection to others and to the world outside of the ego.

In the final beat of these stories, the protagonist often makes a difficult choice (spoilers ahead). Jon Snow renounces his claim to the Iron Throne. Not just because a chair made of swords is perhaps the least comfortable piece of furniture in the world, but because he realizes that the lust for power perpetuates group conflict. Likewise, in “The Expanse”, James Holden gives up his ego by stepping down as president of a new intergalactic syndicate. He hands over the position to a Belter and thus strengthens the repressed underclass of the solar system. It is to set aside a close affiliation with one’s original identity for the greater good of humanity. “He’s trying to lean into the light,” says Abraham. “That’s what makes him a hero.”

Both he and his fellow author agree that the character represents idealism.

“I’m someone who believes there’s enough cynicism in the world,” says Franck. “I think maybe the piece we’re missing in our heroes right now is a bit of naivety.”