If you’ve visited TTAF more than a couple of times, chances are the following two statements strike you as painfully obvious and clear as day, respectively. The first is that I write (and think, and talk) about books more than any other subject, and the second is that I am the biggest nerd of the four administrators. By a long shot. (Matt is the least nerdy, if you’re wondering; he has never seen Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, nor has he read the latter – these are like the driver’s permit test for being a nerd.)
Given the information above, it should come as no surprise that I have, on more than a few occasions, dipped my toe into the enormous pool of nerd-fiction available to the contemporary sci-fi/fantasy enthusiast. (It’s times like these when I wish WordPress had a footnote system, so that I could simultaneously provide you with tangential thoughts like this one away from the bulk of the piece and ape my favorite author’s signature stylistic flourish. Anyway, I want to point out that I am not likely to win any nerd comparison contests with anyone who thinks a conversation about geek/nerd/dork semantics is truly worth having, and my interest in sci-fi/fantasy books, films, or television can only really be defined as mainstream. So all you Dragon-con attendees can keep right on feeling superior, no skin off my back.) I’ve watched – and enjoyed – the first season of Battlestar Galactica, I’m working my way through Firefly (though I’m in no way a Whedonite), I’m a die-hard Star Wars guy, love The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series (books and films, in that order), I’ll give a whole lot of sci-fi films the benefit of the doubt, I’ve read some Alan Moore and Frank Miller, but have no independent interest in comic books. Another way to put this is that I get about 85% of the jokes on The Big Bang Theory.
I can’t articulate a clear reason for giving you my bona fides regarding all this stuff other than that any analysis of a work of science fiction or fantasy seems in part predicated on how familiar the analyzer is with the conventions and tropes of the genres. Basically, we nerds don’t like it when other people spout off about things with which they are largely unfamiliar (this is, of course, probably true about anyone interested in any topic, although nerds seem significantly more concerned-slash-vocal about it).
Which brings me (thanks for sticking this out, by the way), to George R.R. Martin’s landmark fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire (the HBO show is called A Game of Thrones, but that title only really applies to the first book in the planned – Martin has thus far published five novels in the series – seven-book epic). I started reading the novels last summer after I got a Barnes & Noble gift card for my birthday and used it to buy a paperback box set containing books one through four. I was looking for an epic in which to get lost, an immersive fantasy experience. In that sense, I got what I was looking for. I also, as it turns out, got a good deal more than that.
I knew going in that these books had a reputation as bleak and, at times, stomach-turning. No character, no matter how beloved or well-meaning, was safe from the merciless slashing of Martin’s pen. The author has created a world very different from Tolkein’s (this, despite Martin’s acknowledgement that without Tolkein there is no Song, and curious, then, that both men have four names and the initials “R. R.” in their names), a world where absolute truth and clear moral choices essentially do not exist. There are heroes and villains, to be sure, but the lines between them are much, much fuzzier than most readers are probably used to. This was actually part of the allure of the series for me. As much as I love Tolkein’s work (and Lewis’, and Rowling’s, and Lucas’, etc.), I like the idea of contending with worldviews that don’t reflect the clearer sense of good and evil evident not only in so much science-fiction and fantasy, but in my own ethos as well. Just to get a sense of how different Martin’s world is, consider the similarities between the major works of the writers mentioned above: in LotR, Narnia, Harry Potter, and Star Wars, the following occurs (I’m giving you a perfunctory SPOILER ALERT here, if you’re in the middle of one of these works, or somehow just don’t know the basics of these stories, beware):
- The central character(s) accept a heroic task and set out on a literal and figurative journey to complete it
- The central character(s) accept some special weapon/device to aid them in their quest
- The central character(s) is (are) initially unsure of / reject their quest
- The central character(s) are mentored by a wizened male figure fraught with religious allegorical significance
- Said wizened male figure is temporarily lost/perishes, only to return later in some form to provide critical guidance
- Magic or metaphysical power plays a large role in the hero’s ability to complete his or her quest
- A character betrays the heroes and throws them into great peril, further complicating the quest
- Finally, and most importantly for my discussion here: The lines between good and evil are drawn clearly, with very few exceptions. What’s more, the good guys win, usually with minimal loss of life and limb (the occasional wizened male figures or side characters notwithstanding). Basically, no matter how bad things appear at any given time, there is always the sense that something, be it a divine being or force or a set of universal moral truths, is at work for some ultimate good.
It’s all very Joseph Campbell-y. The similarities of structure and plot generalities do not – to my mind, anyway – make these stories less enjoyable, nor do I think that there is inherent value breaking from them – in killing off characters or muddling morality without clear thematic intent. For example, Boromir’s moral failings in LotR (and his brother’s subsequent success) give readers a clear glimpse at the One Ring’s power and reiterates the inherent qualities that make Frodo the only choice to carry the it Mt. Doom-ward. If Tolkein had just thrown in his betrayal (and never shown us his redemption), to illustrate that people suck and the world is full of evil and chaos, he would not serve a purpose nearly as valuable.
Which leads me back to Mr. Martin.
I just finished the third book in A Song of Ice and Fire, and my journey (no pun intended) has not been without its own set of discoveries and challenges. The books are, true to their reputation, unrelentingly bleak. The characters that I would imagine most people identifying with do not always possess the clearly defined moral codes of their mythical predecessors, there are relatively few of these people to begin with, and a great many of them have thus far suffered terrible tragedy, been killed, or both (and again, I’m only through three of the five novels so far published). While this no-one-is-ever-ever-safe dynamic makes for an often uneasy reading experience, it also serves one of what I would think is Martin’s major concerns: keeping his fantasy grounded in reality.
What I mean is this: Martin looks at political and social history as un-romantically as any human can. He sees blood and sex and betrayal and destruction as the DNA of the medieval age upon which the warring monarchs and kingdoms of his novels are based. Rightly so, perhaps. He has no use for a world where good and evil are clearly defined, where the good guys win and the bad guys are punished, and where our protagonists are often physical manifestations of the abstract notions of purity, valor, intelligence, and compassion, rather than more complete (and perhaps more honest) mixtures of light and dark.
Intellectually, abstractly, I appreciate his position (or, more fairly, what I assume his position to be based upon interviews and the novels themselves). However, reading more than 3,000 pages wherein every success of a good, decent character is met by three soul-crushing victories by characters who are, variously, guilty of murder (fratricide, infanticide, regicide, take your pick, really), incest, rape, betrayal of every imaginable type, and a host of other deceptions and destruction has taken its toll on me. I first felt exhausted with this gauntlet about half way through the second novel, A Clash of Kings. I put the novel down for months and only picked it up to finish because I needed something – how to put this – less intellectually demanding than my other options at the time (A Song of Ice and Fire is well-written enough, but certainly has more in common with Stephen King than Tolstoy, literarily speaking).
In the time since I re-entered the world of Westeros (Martin’s fictional realm), I have, despite my understanding and appreciation of Martin’s goals, become increasingly weary in the face of the near-constant stick-and-carrot game he seems to be playing with me and his legions of other readers. But why? If I know that he’s trying to undermine the conventions of the genre he loves while also demonstrating something about his worldview – if, in other words, I believe that his choices are not merely gratuitous readership torture – then why do I feel like I’m being punished?
The best explanation I’ve come up with doesn’t actually have much to do with George R.R. Martin, but everything to do with the ways in which I’ve chosen to construct meaning (or accept an already constructed meaning, to be more accurate) from my experience, which leads me to fundamentally reject Martin’s over-arching premise that not only are people fallen, broken, flawed, and often evil and destructive beings, but that that is all they are, and that redemption is just a child’s dream, a foolish wish that doesn’t reflect the way the world works.
The depiction of humanity as essentially sinful doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is the assumption that it must be that way, and to see grace, hope, and love as silly wastes of time rather than essential elements of the transformation of a humanity that must and will be redeemed. This discomfort is surely a response due at least in part to my acceptance of and need for faith. Think about the common elements of all those stories I mentioned before: they mirror the grand narrative of redemption through a savior, the narrative that has propped up Western civilization for more than two thousand years (surely it’s no accident that so many people respond so strongly to them). As a Christian, I believe this narrative true, and thus essential to my understanding of the world around me. I don’t know Martin’s religious beliefs, only that religion is treated contemptibly in Song, a haven for fools, cowards, and predators. In truth, it would feel like slander except that fools, cowards, and predators inhabit every part of Martin’s fantasy world (and, of course, that people of this description inhabit real-world religion far too frequently).
A certain scruffy, bandanna-clad, bespectacled author who shall remain nameless once said that he was most annoyed by fiction which seemed as though it was written primarily for the enjoyment of its authors. He used Ayn Rand, Thomas Pynchon (sometimes) and a few others as examples. I’m tempted to add George R. R. Martin to that list. Perhaps he believes the world is really as cruel as Westeros. There is certainly much in it that he might cite as evidence for that belief, and is under no obligation to represent his fictional world differently. It’s important to note that I am not advocating fiction which only sticks to our comfortable tropes and confirms my personal views of the world, only pointing out that a world in which nothing is universally true (except that there is no universal truth) has worn on me as a reader and – in some senses – a human. I will continue to read Martin’s epic, because I’d like to see if I have the measure of him, or if he’s holding a surprise up his sleeve. Something makes me doubt it. Something makes me feel like Martin would laugh at any reader who’s waiting for a light at the end of the tunnel in A Song of Ice and Fire, thinking them as foolish as all the characters who’ve suffered and died, still clutching their belief that salvation for the kingdom was ever a possibility.