Now Playing: The Horrors--"Still Life"
A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin (1996--)
"A fantasy series for hip, smart people, even those who don't read fantasy." That appalling blurb (from The Detroit Free Press, no less--maybe it was Mitch Albom) first appeared on the back of A Feast for Crows (2006), George R. R. Martin's fourth (and much underrated) novel in his uncompleted series A Song of Ice and Fire, now filmed as the hit HBO series Game of Thrones (named after the first installment). Even had I not already gone through the first three, it irritated me and made me feel slightly uneasy that I'd taken to the series so. Martin's ongoing magnum opus has in many ways become U.S. cultural shorthand for "fantasy" in a way that Tolkien used to serve (Martin's been called the "American Tolkien," too, in a way that does him little justice). The buzz long predated the shows, to be sure, even for someone like me who wasn't paying a great deal of attention: co-workers were trading synopses, criticism, and even books when I first started working at my present job four years ago. Intrigued by the news of not only the series, but also Martin's cultural adulation by people who likely wouldn't go near fantasy otherwise (even Laura Miller seems to approve), I decided to take the plunge last year, reading A Game of Thrones (1996) on the bus ride back from Toronto. My doubts evaporated: it was superb. A vibrant, robust, detailed saga with rich characters and dialogue set in a world that was at once so recognizably generic yet utterly unique, Thrones whetted my appetite for more, and I followed suit, finally finishing A Dance with Dragons (2011) last week.
Though further familiarity with Martin's world and characters brought to light a few problems that weren't quite as obvious in A Game of Thrones, I still love it. The world of Westeros (the large continent vaguely reminiscent of Britain and western Europe, bisected towards the north by a coast-to-coast wall) is tremendously involving, and Martin's narrative device of telling chapters through the eyes or presence of a single character (by the end of A Dance with Dragons, the count's reached over thirty) works wonderfully for this complicated world and the complicated moral universe he constructs. That it's complicated in the first place is one of the series' major themes and draws: nobody's completely good or evil, just players in the game of thrones--or, indeed, the game of life (one that involves neither Art Linkletter nor apparent Gilded Age fashion icon G.I. Luvmoney).
It's a great device to hook someone like me, who largely forsook fantasy because of these reductive schemes. That notion, after all, has been paramount in "literary" fiction (sorry, Himadri) pretty much since its inception, and certainly throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Tolkienian project was partly aimed as a riposte to modernism, to be sure, and when I remember the fantasy I enjoyed as a kid, much of it followed that formula. It's hard, for example, to conjure my fondness for Katharine Kurtz's Deryni series, with their clever aping of Celtic and medieval European history and style, and to realize how two-dimensional her characters (for the most part) are. Thrones came out in 1996, around the same time I gave up fantasy. I wonder if I would have recognized its challenge back then, or if I did, rejected it as something that could be more profitably explored in a book by... any non-genre writer. Dickens. Philip Roth. Rosario Castellanos. At any rate, it seemed to answer many of the questions and criticisms I'd developed through my boyhood. There had been fantasy novels I'd read before that did present relatively complicated characters--or, taking another route, making practically all of them nasty, obnoxious or unpleasant, as in the dismal works of Robert Adams--but none with the psychological depth of Martin's characters.
The "Seven Kingdoms" of Westeros, ruled over by King Robert Baratheon since his overthrow of the mad King Aerys Targaryen, enjoy peace and prosperity--both of which we'll find are hugely relative. The Wall, overseen by the military order of the Night's Watch, protects the rich, fertile southern lands from the wildlings and barbarians of the frozen North. King Robert's Hand--essentially his prime minister--dies, and Robert asks his longtime friend Lord Eddard Stark--whose lands border those of the Wall--to come to the capital city of King's Landing and become his new Hand (in a wholly non-sexual way). The Starks view the new job with a certain degree of misgiving--"Ned" Stark has little taste for what he sees as the capital's (and the south's) enervating corruption, and a letter arrives at their seat of Winterfell suggesting that the last Hand's death was no accident. On top of all this, the Westeros-world's years-long seasons are due to change, with grim consequences; "winter is coming," as people (especially the Starks and various northerners) can't stop saying (the motto might not cause me such irritation were I not presently suffering from a near-constant barrage of tired, unfunny catchphrases at work). That's all the plot I feel I can safely deliver, but it sets up A Game of Thrones (more or less). Considering that the TV show is now well into the second book, my reticence may strike some as a little silly, but just in case, I'd prefer to leave the major plot points untouched for anyone who hasn't read, seen, or heard about it. Call it an overdue middle finger to Internet culture. The saga careens through bucketloards of violence, intrigue, suspense, heartwrenching moments, and mysterious supernatural threats which may or may not have anything to do with each other. Lots of people die, get mutilated, raped, etc. That could, of course, be a prescription for the worst kind of intellectually empty sword-and-sorcery slugfest (Robert Adams springs to mind again, heaven knows why), but the richness of the characters and of Martin's worldbuilding really militate against that. This is a series that sucks you in: I was fully prepared--indeed eager--to dismiss the hype as the online frothing of cultured elites who's been given some kind of critical go-ahead to actually enjoy speculative fiction (as per the Freep blurb earlier).
Its many narrative virtues, at least, have rightly won A Song of Ice and Fire much acclaim and popularity. Unsurprisingly, though, for such a cultural touchstone, there's also been considerable criticism of the series' various approaches to questions of power, identity, and agency. Heady stuff, maybe, for an epic fantasy series, but game nonetheless, all the more so for its present pop-cultural prominence. The main buzz seems to concern its portrayal of women, particularly Marin's apparent fondness for rape scenes (or the casual mention thereof, and the TV show's allegedly kindred tendency to insert nudity and sexual violence). A good example is Alyssa Rosenberg's cogent discussion at ThinkProgress (in post and in comments), itself a response to Sady Doyle's ad hominem onslaught that briefly made much of the rest of the Internet look like Dick Cavett's old PBS talk show. There's also been comment on the degree to which a fantasy series so dependent on dragons as an existential threat (or are they?) should follow the historical milieu of medieval Europe (or rather modern society's perception of that milieu). Saladin Ahmed's piece in Salon is a good examination of the issue, as well as an affecting apologia for childhood fantasy enthusiasts bemused at the series' success (some of the comments aren't bad, if only for the immortal line "Thor never got as popular as Jesus, so they made Jesus white instead").
My take on these questions? It does seem to me like the sexual violence quotient increases as the series unfolds (and, perhaps, as the editors wielded less and less power over their distinguished author). There are ways to show the presumed brutality of a medieval society that don't rely so heavily on a device that starts to look--possible offense aside--lazy by Dragons. Coupled with the increasing disappointment of at least one of the series' most potentially fascinating women, the problematic treatment of female characters (both speaking and non-) is an issue that deserves at least to be taken seriously. I think the "too white" charge is a little trickier to unpackage, but I will marvel at people's zeal in defense of the series' demographic whiteness. A lot of their assumptions appear to rest on a monolithic view of Western European culture during the Middle Ages. The areas near the Wall (running with this assumption of equivalence) may have been representative of the typical Tolkienian fantasy kingdom, but more southerly places like King's Landing gave off a strongly Mediterranean, even Byzantine, vibe (a notion borne out, I think, by its somewhat stereotypical politics and by the TV show having the same idea in terms of art direction--as well as being filmed in formerly Byzantine--and Arab!--Malta). These latter would have been much more ethnically diverse than the standard picture of medieval Europe. Throw in the tidbit that Westeros is apparently supposed to be the size of South America (which would fit a Europe and a half, or maybe three or four of the western bits), and things get even weirder.
Taking both questions a little further, I'd like to see a medieval historian's view of the series, heavily based as it appears to be on the period (and as Martin and its more zealous defenders have pointed out). My closest friend in grad school was a budding medievalist, now teaching in Arkansas with a Ph.D. from UC-Santa Barbara, and I remember well, even over a decade ago, how wrong I (and hence the general conception of medieval history) was regarding the Middle Ages, a time when, it turned out, women had many more rights, and power, than they would in the Renaissance and early modern eras, and in which feudalism (more properly termed "manorialism") was nowhere near as important as popular imagination suggested. Something tells me things have only progressed further along this line in the years since my own time in academia, and it would be illuminating indeed to hear how different the paeans to historical accuracy would sound, set against a historical analysis of the series' inspirations. None of these observations, I should add, are meant to cast aspersions on the legitimacy or quality of what I think is a terrific (if sometimes stylistically indifferent) work of the imagination, but I do think these are all questions worth exploring (the last paragraph of Ahmed's analysis puts it far better than I). That is, unless Martin gets the biology of the dragons right this time, without all that PC "science" (will no one stand against this multi-culti onslaught???).
Maybe it would help to mention things I like? Martin knows how to write a cliffhanger ending. The finishes of the last three novels are beauts indeed, and the end of Dragons elicited a startled "WTF?" that may have alarmed the creepy old bastard living next door, not that I care. His willingness to kill off central characters is technically laudable, even if it starts to seem like borderline sadism (not that I generally deny the value of a good hand-rubbing, especially if coupled with a cackle). Nobody is really safe in this world, however well they play the game. One thing I love is the prevalence of unreliable narrators. I'll try not to give too much away, but the picture and knowledge we're given of Westeros' generally situation--especially political and cultural--change over time, not only forward, but backward, altering presumptions that inform the development of the plot, and casting characters into different lights than previous. Not only are there battles, (ambiguous) adventure, and intrigue, but also full-blown mysteries that give the plot added dimensions. It's been a while since I regularly read fantasy, but I don't remember those being so important (or compelling) in any of the stuff with which I was familiar. It's also a pleasure to see possible influences of classic "weird fiction" (and favorite present-day fantasies) in the lands of Westeros (and beyond), influences that seem to arise naturally and don't feel like shoehorns. The Drowned God and his hold on the Iron Islands call to mind Cthulhu, while the curious mansions of Qarth might have come straight out of Clark Ashton Smith. Oldtown, on the other hand, evokes the academic intrigue of Ellen Kushner's Riverside, and so on. Another positive is the relatively low profile of the supernatural. There aren't wizards running around willy-nilly in starry robes calling forth "mind flayers" or some such. Whispers come of sinister doings beyond the wall, and rumors of dragons in the east, but for the most part this is all sweaty human action, with magic the province of rumor or hearsay (maybe this emphasis lends the "historical accuracy" cries some of their power). Things start to change through the series, but the narrative never loses sight of its human focus (thus far).
That the series' popularity has brought to light the pleasures and pitfalls of "nerd culture" hitting the mainstream, or that such a talked-about phenomenon doesn't actually seem to be about anything in the larger thematic sense, lies beyond my present purview, partly because I haven't quite made up my mind on either issue. One great thing, though, that the series has done is decisively rekindle my interest in fantasy. As mentioned in previous posts, I took Michael Moorcock's advice to stop reading the stuff a little too much to heart. My withdrawal had its benefits, and now it's time for confidence in my own tastes and capacities and not to worry that fantasy will somehow rot my brain. There'll certainly be a few titles showing up in later posts. Elitism can be a good thing; I've never believed otherwise, but as with all good things, there can be too much. One can even say that about fantasy series, but even with the increasing lengths of the novels in A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin has yet to reach that point in my neck of the woods (unless there isn't heavy-duty maester action in Oldtown for The Winds of Winter; then there'll be rage).