30 October 2013

Maybe Modern Life Isn't Rubbish After All: George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire"

Over the past month-and-a-half, I have read the five volumes published to date of George R. R.  Martin's projected seven-volume series A Song of Ice and Fire, also known as the source material for the HBO series Game of Thrones. Here are my ratings for the individual volumes (via LibraryThing):

 A Game of Thrones - 4.5/5

 A Clash of Kings - 4/5

 A Storm of Swords - 4.5/5

 A Feast for Crows- 3.5/5

 A Dance with Dragons - 4/5

Note: The following discussion ranges across all five books, and thus contains some spoilers for those who have not read that far - but it's not primarily a discussion of the books' plot.

These are very long books, and the TV series being made from them, Game of Thrones, will probably run to 80 or 90 hours of television by the time [FAKE SPOILER ALERT...] Ramsey Bolton, Euron Greyjoy and Lady Stoneheart take their rightful places as the three heads of the dragon [...OR IS IT?], but nevertheless they are dwarfed by the volume of exegesis and commentary written about what has happened so far and what may be to come. You can check much of this out at Westeros.org and (for the TV series) winteriscoming.net; and the intriguing and detailed argument that GRRM is rewriting Ragnarök advanced at Game of Thrones & Norse Mythology.

ASOIAF (to give the series its rather unwieldy acronym) is high/epic fantasy set in an imaginary world with strong echoes of medieval Europe. That makes it sound a lot like Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, but - by authorial design - ASOIAF is very much the anti-Tolkien: a general rule of thumb of the series is that no good deed goes unpunished, and Martin's penchant for creating characters the reader cares about, and then killing them off, has become legendary.

What ASOIAF does have in common with The Lord of the Rings is that they are great works of fantasy literature: and also, like many great works of literature, they each have considerable flaws.

It's not all grim oop North of the Wall for Ygritte, Ghost and Jon Snow
Source: http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/527475-you-know-nothing-jon-snow
What makes ASOIAF so good? Most of all, it is GRRM's gift for thorough visualisation of scenes and their vivid, detailed, immersive description: a gift which is shown at its best in the scenes set North of the Wall in the Westeros, the continent where much of the story takes place. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I would place Martin equal to Tolstoy in the ability to plan and describe set-piece scenes.

Second, Martin has taken fantasy cliches and breathed new live into them by removing them from the archetypal plane and turning them into complex, flawed (often very flawed!) characters who act out of believable motives - self-interest, loyalty, fear, anger, hatred, love - rather than acting, and regarding themselves, as pawns for either pure good or pure evil.

Third is Martin's decision to employ an unusual narrative technique in which chapters are told from the viewpoint of different characters - a multitude of unreliable first person narrators, sometimes retelling the same events from their different perspectives. It's a brilliant way of capturing both the sprawling geographical scope of the books, and of discovering what makes very diverse characters tick.

But I did say 'sprawling'. Even more than White Walkers to the North and dragons to the East, sprawl is the main enemy facing Martin's fictional universe, which contains Westeros's seven Houses and their tangle of allegiances, plus the vast and far from empty lands north of the Wall, plus the even larger Eastern continent, Essos, with its myriad of cities of alliances.

Martin keeps the sprawl in check in Books 1-3, by concentrating on only some of the Houses and confining most of the action to Westeros, but in Books 4 and 5, the narrative gets away on him. There are too many new viewpoint characters, too many new territories to explore, and too much intrigue that is at best peripheral to the three main plotlines (which, one fervently hopes, will start to converge in the two remaining volumes). In my view, the series would be stronger if there were no chapters set in Dorne or the Iron Islands, and as for Meereen, where one of the leading characters is trapped, spinning her wheels, for an eternity - can we please just leave it behind and never go there again?

(Just like Tolkien, Martin struggles with his fictional East. Tolkien made Easterners evil by dint of location - Martin doesn't do that, but whereas his cities of Westeros are clearly delineated, the cities and societies of Essos are cut from a cloth of default Orientalism that renders them far less interesting.)

Still, enough of the narrative through-lines survive the longeurs of Books 4 and 5 to encourage the belief that, in Books 6 and 7, the excesses will be pared away and we'll get back to the question that drives the story: what will be the fate of Westeros in the winter that is now beginning? Will Ice, or Fire, or neither triumph? I'm eagerly looking forward to seeing what Book 6, The Winds Of Winter, will reveal.

But why my title? Because another of Martin's achievement is to dispel the notion, which is surprisingly persistent, that life in the Middle Ages was in some way nobler, better and brighter than life today. Martin shows that life was no picnic for the nobility, and, especially during times of war, absolutely wretched for the peasantry. If there is one thing I am grateful for after reading these books, it is antibiotics.

There's another contemporary resonance. Westeros has been enjoying a long summer, but now winter is coming, with its freight of dread and of the supernatural enemies from the North, the Others (White Walkers), whom the mighty Wall was set up to deter. Yet the impoverished and undermanned Night's Watch which guards the Wall pleads in vain for lords and politicians to send resources appropriate to the scale of the problem. In one scene, we see Tywin Lannister, the Henry Kissinger of Westeros, engage in masterful wheeling and dealing, playing off enemies and allies against each other, while scoffing at the notion that anything is amiss north of the Wall, or that the climate could ever change.

Westeros is facing a winter the likes of which it has not seen for thousands of years. Our world is facing a ferocious planetary summer. But the scorn and shortsightedness of those in power is just the same.


AJ Ponder said...

Nice review :)

Meliors Simms said...

Having neither watched the series or read the books, I appreciated your overview. Firstly for the peek into this bit of popular culture that seems so very popular among my TV watching peers. Secondly for giving me the information I need to make a decision about whether to start reading, at least the first three books. PS Have you read Ancillary Justice yet? I loved it and think you would too.

Tim Jones said...

Thanks, Alicia and Meliors.

Meliors, I haven't read or indeed heard of Ancillary Justice - please tell me more!

Nina John said...

Wow! This can be one particular of the most useful blogs We have ever arrive across on this subject Actually Great also a specialist in this topic therefore I can understand your effort.

Cccam Server

Penelope said...

I read the first one and enjoyed it, but not enough to devote myself to the next volumes. Perhaps I'll read the very last one when it's out. Shocking!

This is a wonderful review, or map, of the series, Tim. So many hours in the making!

Tim Jones said...

Thanks, Penelope! I believe the last volume, "Happy Happy Feudal Land", is scheduled for publication in March 2031 - but it's possible the schedule will slip.