Friday, 3 March 2023

Diplomacy, Protagonists, Macbeth, Tully and Caithness

A recent post at Monsters and Manuals set my mind going. I don't watch a great deal of television and would likely endorse the moral of the story that no-one reaches up from their deathbed to say 'I wish I'd watched more TV'. But more to the point: I grew up with - possibly even to a greater degree than television - games (and books more than either, but this was a jumping-off point). The early 2000s had their share of real-time strategy games, but I suspect that Age of Empires (and sequels/derivatives) loomed highest in my mind. There's two things that these do or did to my developing preferences and understanding of (faintly realist) fiction (in a variety of media). The notion of multiple players who may succeed and the process of organisation and resource management. 

Firstly, there is the notion that anyone can win. However advantageous it may be to start as the Julii in Rome: Total War the notion of an entirely Carthaginian Balkans or a Seleucid Iberia is not implausible. I've not played the Paradox grand strategy games (Europa Universalis, Victoria, Hearts of Iron) but they at least allow this to an even greater degree. There is not always a protagonist, no-one chosen for victory. The mind goes to the board game Diplomacy, with its particularly obvious balance of forces: every player starts with three armies or fleets - except Russia, whose size is as much hindrance as help. 

Hence, I suppose, the light scorn I thrust in the direction of the Song of Ice and Fire Tabletop Miniatures Game here (the paragraph beginning 'Even if...'). Eight nominal or near equals on Westeros: the notion that Tully interests are permanently shackled to Stark is irritating. You have to cultivate and maintain allies - you don't just plug their troops into your command structure and keep fighting. Am I really so incensed that I can't bring about GLORIOUS TULLY HEGEMONY? 

I take it this has activated some neurones.
(Found here, the best and clearest Westeros Diplomacy map I found online.)

Which brings one back round to television: I watched Game of Thrones for long enough to A) be aware of its flaws and B) Give up on it. Fun while at Uni and able to chat it over with housemates, but not worth revisiting. The finale has been dissected at length in a variety of forms, but a recurring theme is that it got to attached to big showy character moments, and neglected the underlying logic and social structures of its setting (EG, people writing here, here and here). Teleporting armies, curiously obedient subordinates, religion with no grip on the hearts of the faithful. 

Time is limited in an episode of television. Special effects are limited. Books have the room to put this stuff in; games demand it, as the price of moving an army north is part of the challenge. The cost of logistics, even if only sketched in, can be displayed. There are cheap jokes about all the walking in The Lord of the Rings, but footslogging is a reality of campaigning! 

More to the point, the treatment of non-protagonists. You're either the commander, the champion, or nobody. A butt of jokes, a burden. Costuming reinforces this: I accept that the Freys have an unenviable family resemblance, that their patriarch is a disagreeable fellow, that the rest of the nobility don't much care for them. But they are wealthy and use their leverage to the best of their ability: they should be near as armoured and colourful as any lord rather than dressing in leather the colour of mud and wearing unflattering coifs. They're nouveau riche, not swamp-dwellers - and 'Betrayed by Unappealing but Vital Ally' is more interesting than 'Stabbed in the back by a bunch of Obviously Shifty Bastards'.

Specifics aside, if you've opened a broadsheet's Arts and Culture section in the last decade, you've probably read something about the importance of who we make protagonists, or representation, or similar questions. It's the sort of idea discussed here by Palmer and Walton, who extend it to the question of protagonists and chart the decline of Tapestry books (do read that link!). It's something I've speculated on before, and Noisms moots in the post that started this all off 'it is almost as though [Television] were designed to destroy our capacity to develop a fully-fledged theory of mind.' Terrifying if true. 

Well, that's all wonderful. But do I want a literal 'World without Extras' in my fiction? I approvingly cited Diplomacy above, but only the great powers get a say there (and depending on how many can make it for a game, we might kick Italy out of that club. Guess the Risorgimento went down in flames!). I still have to acknowledge that there are limits to the size of a novel or the processing power of software. 

My mind goes to Macbeth. I have no particular objections to Macbeth and, frankly, it would mean very little indeed if I did. Macbeth starts the play as Thane of Glamis, he becomes Thane of Cawdor also. Macduff is Thane of Fife. Banquo is clearly a peer of Macbeth: I don't believe he is referred to as Thane in the text of the play, but both Holinshed's Chronicles (Volume 2 of the 1577 Edition) and Hector Boece's earlier History of Scotland (Book Twelve) a source for Holinshed, refer to him as Thane of Lochaber. The Thanes of Angus, Ross, Caithness, Mentieth and Lennox appear, with or without lines. 

Do I really suppose that Macduff would as willingly usurp Duncan I as Macbeth? Well, that's a question for the philosophers and theologians. Who, other than Orson Welles, knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Do I want a play which plausibly might end with GLORIOUS CAITHNESS HEGEMONY?

Flag of Caithness.svg
They do have a pretty cool flag these days.

I know full well that that wouldn't be Macbeth. But I would hope that the Thane of Glamis is dressed and staged in a comparable fashion to his peers. The rest of Scotland's nobility are not yet cowed by him*, driven into embarrassing spectacles - and useful or useless, you can't ignore Drunken Incompetent Regional Magnates. I'm leaving out much here - the world view of Shakespeare's England, to say the least. 

So, Macbeth may not be something that needs the above 'Diplomacy-perspective.' But there's room in my library for Portraits and Tapestries alike. The possibility that society will only start making (or praising, or honouring, or writing about, or otherwise considering to the exclusion of others) is a little unnerving. Compare this extended basketball analogy.

Perhaps we need some sort of Rawlsian Original Position. You might end up as any of these characters, so you should write something that at least considers any of these characters. Of course, the veil of ignorance doesn't always work quite as intended

*You thought that The Death of Stalin invented tense dinners of horseplay with moustachioed Dictators?


  1. This was quite fun to read! The links, from the basketball analogy (being from Chicago and coming of age in the nineties, I have to admit I'm biased, but the argument was a good one) to A Habsburg Behind the Veil of Ignorance (which was hysterically funny) were all worthwhile and I am honored to have a place among them :).
    I think it's important, just as you say, to keep room in the library for tapestries and portraits both - and I think that the observation that books have room for things that television doesn't is astute. Some time back Patrick S. did a few posts on a series I was not familiar with (and still have not read, though it is on The List) - Gormenghast. At one point he quoted a passage that described the passage of birds over the land (if I recall correctly) and then said something about it being an anime rather than a movie. That immediately made sense to me. OK, now I have to find the post...
    Here we go:
    Anyway, this recognition that the content was too much for a movie struck me as an interesting parallel comment to the one you made here about television not having room for content that is welcome in a book.
    And I guess I don't have a point really, after all, except maybe that I enjoyed reading your post and looking through the links. It sparked ideas and made me think and was funny and I'll be quiet now.

    1. This may be a case of 'Write rambling posts, get rambling comments'!

      Glad you enjoyed some of the above links - I know next to nothing about Basketball, but that video has stuck with me down to the way it was structured and delivered.
      I'm not sure if I could articulate the genre conventions of anime sufficiently to say whether it can avoid some of the TV pitfalls. Mind you, the sheer length of some anime series gives plenty of scope.

  2. Turns out I'd completely forgotten this post: