On the Fandom Road: From the Simpsons to Samwell

John Bradley as Samwell Tarly in Oldtown. Photo: HBO

I think I found the Game of Thrones fandom in one of the oddest ways possible.  It was via The Simpsons.

Back in 2012, the fifteenth episode of the twenty-third season featured this excellent Simpson-ized version of the now famous Game of Thrones opening (hey, you can shade the latter day episodes of The Simpsons all you like, but you gotta admit they still have some great couch gags).

Now at the time I had no clue what it was they were parodying, all I knew was that the theme tune was one of the most epic things I’d ever heard.  Plus all those cool twirly cogs and the fantasy stuff?  I needed to get up in whatever this was.  For context, at the time I was living in something of a cultural bubble; I was away at university, mired in the midst of my final year’s thesis and, being a skint Brit, equipped with a telly that didn’t have access to any of the cool channels.  I was vaguely aware of the ASoIaF books, having been an avid fantasy fan for many years, and that a television show had been developed, but I sort of assumed I’d missed the boat and would probably catch up later when it was all over (insert your own wisecrack about GRRM finishing the books here, folks).

I was head of my university’s sci-fi and fantasy society and a passing mention of how cool I thought this opening was left me inundated with cries of, ‘YOU HAVE TO WATCH GAME OF THRONES! IT’S RIGHT UP YOUR ALLEY! GET ON IT!’  The thing was, with my thesis deadline looming I wasn’t sure how ready I was to commit to a series people kept assuring me would take over my whole life.  Plus, I was in the middle of my first ever Buffy the Vampire Slayer viewing (my flatmate and I had a great system: every time I wrote a thousand words she’d give me another disk from her Buffy boxset).  To be honest, I can’t remember exactly what it was that prompted me to watch that first episode one fateful evening, probably looking for an excuse to stop writing about the ravages of syphilis on medieval skulls, but watch it I did.  I do, however, remember my exact reaction which was, ‘meh.’  Sure, that opening sequence was very cool, Sean Bean is always good value and I loved the twincest-Bran-out-of-a-window sequence.  But ultimately, I wasn’t sold.  I didn’t really feel a connection to any of the characters and frankly I was a bit confused at all the goings on.  But then, those skulls with the syphilis were raising their ugly heads, so I pressed on with a second episode, then a third, finally arriving at Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things. And there I found my emotional hook, in Samwell Tarly.

Jon Snow Samwell Tarly Pyp Cripples Bastards Broken Things

I fell in love with this bumbling brother.  Smart, abused, overweight and nervous, I instantly felt a connection.  I could find time for the haughty monarchs and noble warriors alongside this lovable book-worm; I just wanted to reach through the screen and hug him.  Suddenly, the rest of the show seemed to fall into place around me and began to really enjoy it.  A friend lent me the first book, and I devoured that before I even finished watching the rest of the series.  I began writing little Twitter recaps, disgruntled blog posts about book-to-show changes and lurking on internet forums, which led me to Winter is Coming and then, of course, to Watchers on the Wall.

By this time I’d left university, firstly for a stint abroad in Iceland, and then to a new city to live with my partner.  It was a stressful and often fractious time in my life, and with no-one close to me following the show, I felt a real sense of camaraderie and friendship in this wonderful online community, especially since deciding to live tweet along with the US broadcasts a few years ago.  It’s more than worth pushing my coffee maker to the limit in the mornings to stay up with you all and share our love for this extraordinary show.  I’ve even ended up on BBC Radio seven times talking about Game of Thrones, although that’s probably just because I’m cheaper than an actual expert.

There aren't any photos of me in the BBC studio, so here's one of me trying to break into Olly the wildling's house.

There aren’t any photos of me in the BBC studio, so here’s one of me trying to break into Olly’s house.

There’s another level to my love affair with Game of Thrones, an academic one, and that all began with Samwell Tarly as well.  For several years my focus had been on disability and disease in the archaeological record, but even as I was finishing off my thesis and beginning my new career as a field archaeologist, I was already beginning to wonder if my scholarly pursuits lay in another direction.  I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the treatment of overweight and disabled characters in genre fiction, generally cast as villains or objects of pity, and I’d found a welcome home for my angry rants on the subject in the body positivity community.  Now Game of Thrones is far from perfect in this regard, and I won’t pretend otherwise.  But in characters like Samwell, Tyrion and Bran I’d finally found something which didn’t degrade or disregard its protagonists simply for being different.

I decided to switch focus and ended up taking a Masters’ Degree in social anthropology, crafting my thesis around public reaction to protagonists with different body types.  Unsurprisingly, Samwell, Tyrion and Brienne all featured quite prominently.  Following this I was asked to lecture at an International Weight Stigma Conference in Reykjavik, at which I received not only the Best Oral Presentation Award, but also a standing ovation following these gifs of John Bradley.

JB1 Jb2 Jb3 Jb4 Jb5 Jb6

(No offence to John, but the applause might have been because I’d threatened to do an interpretive dance if my gifs didn’t work properly.  It was a dodgy projector)

It was undoubtedly John and his brilliant and sensitive portrayal of Samwell that not only drew me into the fandom that I’m so proud to be a part of, but who also gave the impetus and the confidence to switch my research focus to representation in the media.  Game of Thrones will soon be over, and I know adjusting to life without it will be strange, but I’m already looking forward to what comes next; you better believe my PhD will feature Samwell somewhere.  Maybe just a cut-out-and-keep picture to my superiors sweet.  Everyone needs a little Samwell in their lives.  I know I did.

I’m Lady Geoffery and you can read my thesis here and find mostly my angry rants about disabled villains here.

20 responses

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    1. I remember being in a bubble at university and having a several-year gap in my pop cultural knowledge, a bit further back than yours. Glad you discovered it anyway. If I’m being perfectly honest, having people be fat in the Night’s Watch jolts me a tiny bit, too, but not enough that I care. Just having done some similar cold-weather trekking, it isn’t remotely realistic. Even people who are already skinny lose 40 pounds in a matter of weeks, but it isn’t fair to expect the actors to starve themselves like would be happening in reality. Like he said, plenty of things in the show aren’t realistic, but usually they are explained by magic. They at least make some effort to show the effects a life like this would have on people with all the scars they have painted on.

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    2. Dear, this would have been the perfect curtain call for John Bradley – except that SAMWELL TARLY IS NOT DYING.EVER.
      I watched this interview of Bradley (Ellen, I think) saying that he actually changed a fan’s life, in the sense that the guy in question found in Sam the inspiration and courage to ask out the girl he was secretly in love. Well, I say he should read your essay, because Sam Tarly has been a real life changer for you.
      Thanks again for sharing your story with us and reminding us how important it is that characters with special traits are represented positively in fiction and elsewhere.

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    3. Oh my I remember howling at that intro back in the day, so perfect! Glad it helped you makes its way here! Your topic about the portrayal of ‘Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things’ for your thesis is up my alley – I did mine on portrayal of deaf characters in children’s literature. The whole general topic of how we portray people who are different in any way is an amazing and sobering subject when you realize even after the 40 years I wrote it, things have changed very slowly With any luck people start turning around and seeing the effects these portrayals have and making changes. Good luck with your continued work!

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    4. The Simpsons GOT intro always totally blew me away. And this is a great example of how one character can really hook us into a show and anchor us, even when the story fails to. Sam is a great one. I love him so much and you reminded me of that. <3

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    5. He is kind and gentle, but it still gets me how a bumbling coward gets so much love while Daenerys who is the definition of strength and goodness gets so much hate. Having an ambition isn’t bad.

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    6. Here is my guess – Sam will die, but Gilly or their son will write the books. Anyway, I love Sam very much. If I had to choose between him and Jon as a leader, I’d vote for Sam because, with a little more maturity and confidence, Sam would be a very wise leader, while Jon’s thinking parts are not in his brain. Of course, for leadership, my main vote is still with Sansa, whose experiences have made her skeptical and practical, but not cruel.

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    7. Thank you Lady G for sharing your journey! What a great thing to study and focus on as representation of overweight and disabled characters in the media is increasingly gaining traction. As a fellow academic, will definitely read your thesis. Currently writing up my PhD dissertation but will always have time for GoT/ASoIaF. Go you!!

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    8. Years ago, I had this scene firmly embedded in my mind:

      Scene: Army of the Dead attacking large party featuring several prominent characters, including Arya & Sansa. Arya is hacking her way through wights sort of like she did last week. She decapitates a red-haired wight

      Some Character: “Arya! You just killed the Zombie Sansa!”

      Arya: slight pause “Sansa was a zombie?”

      Sigh. Then they had to go and make the two stop hating each other…. 😎

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    9. Thank you so much for sharing this!!! What a wonderful Sunday-morning read. You’re an exceptionally perceptive and funny writer, and it’s always illuminating for me to discover what or who in the ASoIaF universe is the hook that draws in a reader or viewer. I’ll read your thesis now!

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    10. Have you got a link to your thesis anywhere? I would LOVE to read it.

      It actually wasn’t a formal thesis, our department didn’t require them but we did have a final project that consumed our lives about as much! So its not published anyway and I am ot even sure that I have my copy! But I read yours; very well written, and we are very much on the same page.

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    11. ash: Your topic about the portrayal of ‘Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things’ for your thesis is up my alley

      That pretty much summarizes all of the protagonists in this story nicely, particularly if we keep in mind that “lacks a penis” is a subset of “broken” in this world!

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    12. Kior:
      He is kind and gentle, but it still gets me how a bumbling coward gets so much love while Daenerys who is the definition of strength and goodness gets so much hate. Having an ambition isn’t bad.

      He owns his cowardice and works well within his limits and is about the truest friend and adviser anyone could ask for, Jon’s version of Jorah. I agree that Daenerys gets way more hate than she deserves, though. She ended slavery, brought down some of the world’s most brutal tyrants, turned the Dothraki toward a greater purpose than looting and pillaging innocent villages, and possibly turned the Ironborn away from their raping and reaving. At least she tried. She’s probably done the most tangible good of any character in the story, including Jon, sacrificed her entire army for the good of a continent and people that have shown little willingness to believe in her even though she turned to save them with the throne practically in her grasp, but still gets endlessly crapped on. It’s the great travesty of this fandom that so many are convinced she is really the story’s true villain and will be an all-time betrayal of a great character if that really ends up happening.

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    13. Kior,

      Sam is no coward. He knows, what fear is, he gets frightened, but he tries to overcome fear and fright and to go on. Only who knows fear can be brave.
      He’s fat – so what? More than the half of western people is fat and more than fat. Are they all dumb and corny? Deadbeats? Neither able nor worthy to warm hearts, to give and gain love?

      Daenerys isn’t “the definition of strength and goodness “, watch the show again!, but she is alas! so beautiful! And beautiful people must be good, yes?
      Look at statistics and studies: folk look at und listen to beautiful people and wonder, how clever and good they are, just because they are sooo attractive. But if someone fat or otherwise uncomely says just the same, it is stupid and boring.

      Frightened Dany would be touching and everyone would wish to cover her (yes, she’s a woman!), but frightened Sam is awkward (yes, he is a man!)?

      Sorry, but statements like this make me really angry.

      Thank You, Lady Geoffery!

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