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In which I finally discuss at length my thoughts about George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire

August 8, 2011

I’ve written a lot about George R.R. Martin and his EPIC fantasy tale A Song of Ice and Fire lately. This is mostly because, in the span of about 3 months, I read all five of the books that have so far been released in the series. It was a little bit like a part time job, except with dragons and direwolves – either of which I would love to have at my side when I work my regular job, by the way.

I’m sorry ma’am, no I won’t remove that gag novelty gift item from the shelf (the one that normal people think is funny) because you think it promotes a “culture of violence.” What’s that? Ok, I’m going to ask that you please speak to my dragon associate Balerion the Dread regarding that matter. Ooops, now you’re burnt to a crisp. Have a great day!

Ah, to dream.

In any case, I finished A Dance with Dragons a few weeks ago, and now that I’ve had some time to digest it I thought it would be fun for me to try and put into words exactly why I find Martin’s saga so engrossing. If you’ve neither read the books nor seen any of the HBO series based on the first of them (Game of Thrones) than you might find the following post mildly spoilerish, but nothing too earth shattering. I promise.

Morality isn’t as simple as we want it to be

One of the most interesting features of the story, and one you notice rather early on, is that there are no really solid archetypal characters present. There is no brave hero that will quest to save the world, no dashing rogue with a rough exterior but a heart of gold, and most importantly no singular, all encompassing, evil bad guy whose only motivation is to make sure all good things burn for eternity.

In fact, not only don’t Martin’s characters fit into neat categories like that, they wouldn’t have the decency to stay in those categories even if you thought you could define them in the first place. Over the span of the series, Martin has managed to take many different characters on journeys from good to bad, or bad to good, or hero to dead, and even a few time from dead to alive; and do it all in such a compelling manner that the reader can end up both loving and hating a character at different ends of the same book.

This is a normal feature of real life, by the way. No one is either all good or all bad. The world doesn’t work that way, even if it’s easier for us to think that it does. Shit happens, as they say, and we all do our best to react to it. Martin’s characters are no different. So sometimes we think, oh what a terrible thing it is to push a child out a window; and other times, about the same character, we think, no, don’t go with her. That way can only lead to trouble, and you’re my favorite one handed swordsman in the world!

Don’t get me wrong, I think that underneath all of these mostly morally ambiguous characters Martin has built in a solid understanding that there certainly is a right and a wrong. It’s just that the people who populate his world sometimes have a difficult time telling the difference between the two; and I find that refreshing.

Religion is a fool’s pursuit (maybe)

There are a few very distinct and often competing religious sects in the series, and these sometimes appear to guide many of the characters though difficult decisions. A cursory reading of A Song of Ice and Fire might, in fact, lead a person to believe that George R.R. Martin actually has a bit of a thing for the virtues of religion. But I think that this would be an incorrect assessment of Martin’s views.

While it’s true that there is a lot of talk about gods intervening in the world of men – and indeed many of the characters in the series appear quite devout in their prayers for this to happen – the most interesting and important characters actually seem quite unimpressed by the notion. Prayers, in the end, don’t win wars in Martin’s world. Swords and gold are much better at that, and treachery doesn’t hurt either.

In fact, in basically every situation where the gods could intervene to help one side or the other, they don’t. And only one god, R’hollor, seems to interact with the world at all. Although I think even that might be a misdirection on Martin’s part. I won’t spell out why, but a comment on reddit (which you shouldn’t read if you don’t want spoilers) offers up the best theory about the origin of R’hollor’s powers that I’ve seen so far. So given all of that, the most sensible conclusion I can come to is that even in a fantasy world, gods don’t really exist.

Frankly, even if they do, Martin makes it very clear that a person shouldn’t count on them. There are far too many problems that are much closer to home, and which can truly do serious harm, that one should be worried about if they live in Westeros (or anywhere else for that matter). In the end, I think this is why the strongest characters in the books all reject the idea that the gods will intervene on their behalf when the time comes. They would much rather take matters into their own hands – and they’re right to do so.

Bad things happen to good people

The elephant in the room in all posts about George R.R. Martin is that we know what he’s capable of doing to characters that we love. Some think that this is a cruel feature of his writing, but I think it’s by far the best feature. You see, in the real world, bad things happen all the time; and sometimes quite randomly. To be shocked by the beheading of a beloved and seemingly main character is understandable, but only because we’re used to reading stories that don’t do that.

In the majority of epic stories I’ve read, the identified, number-one, good guy lives to the end. He has a vision of the world as it should be and is there to see it when it actually gets that way. Star Wars, Superman, The Lord of the Rings, and even Harry Potter come to mind when we think about this. The main reason for this is that there is a certain formula that audiences have come to expect, and it’s one that actually helps them to follow along and stay engaged.

It goes a little like this: there’s a good guy, and there’s a bad guy, and the two clash; and though things look bad for the good guy at times (some of his friends might even die – which actually only makes them sad pawns in the hero’s own story arc, but I digress), in the end we can feel confident in our decision to invest some of our feelings to him because we all know he’s going to win. The end.

This is a wonderful formula, and often very uplifting; but it’s also quite limiting. Because while having a well defined good guy who is guaranteed to win sets the stage in our minds for really epic heroism, it also leaves no room for any really epic bad stuff to happen. Therefore, any story that follows this formula is only about half of what it could be. The option “bad guy wins,” and all that goes with it, is taken away from the start. So the world that the epic hero lives in is actually very one-sided. In fact, it’s almost a little boring sometimes.

Really bad people do exist

Martin avoids the trappings of the one-sided hero story by allowing us to attach ourselves to good characters we believe are the real deal, and then proceeding to destroy all that we hold dear in that belief with the edge of a very sharp sword. And it should be noted that it’s always the edge of a human’s sword. Because, you see, the other side of having no real apparent hero, is that Martin can build into the world some really terrible characters who we know stand a chance of actually winning in a pretty big way.

Martin has opened up his world to allow for the development of characters we can both root intensely for and against. So, you want to know what would happen if a petulant child were to gain absolute power over the realm? Let’s find out, his name is Joffrey Baratheon and he’s the 13 year old you really do love to hate. What about what would happen if a true psychopath were to become a landed Lord. Here you go! Let’s meet Ramsay Bolton, he flays people. Seriously fucking flays them, and no one does anything about it.

What makes these characters so hated by us is that we know they might kill someone we really thought could be the hero. They are all actually capable of doing really terrible things in a way that Lex Luthor or Darth Vader never could. That, to me, is what real conflict is all about; and I, for one, absolutely love it.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that at the end of this series I think that the world will be covered in darkness and all humanity will have been killed off. I don’t believe that Martin is that bleak. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the story arc brings us a battle that Westeros comes through by the skin of it’s now frozen teeth, and all we get is a world not unlike it was at the beginning, except with a few less heroes in it.

Dragons, and magic, and Others, oh my!

I would be remiss if I did not, in a post about an epic fantasy series, mention the elements that most readily identify it as a fantasy. However, there’s a reason that I almost see them as an afterthought; and that is that they really don’t play a very big role in most of the story. Sure there’s the occasional dragon attack; but  dragons are hardly the weapon we all wished they would be. At least so far. They actually almost seem to be more trouble than they’re worth – like huge raccoons that eat sheep and occasionally small children.

I feel a similar sentiment about the Others – the white walkers that so far seem to be the closest things to real “evil” beings in this whole series. Although, I must admit, I wouldn’t be completely surprised if at some point we find out that all they want is to live their lives without those annoying “men” always poking at them with dragonglass. That said, they do seem pretty scary – though not nearly as dangerous to one of my favorite characters, Jon Snow, as some of the other, well, actual people who are at the Wall with him.

All of these pieces of the story, as well as much else (like the strange and varying length of the seasons), appear to have some basis in a vague kind of magic that we don’t know much about yet. However, even if we never learn anything more about it, it won’t matter all that much. Because A Song of Ice and Fire has never really been about the magic anyway. It’s always been about the people.

Some of the people we love, and some of them we hate. Some of them are selfish or cruel, and some of them are simple and loving. Some of them are mysterious, and some, lets say, make their intentions abundantly clear. But most of them are just trying to do what they think is best for themselves and the people they care about. And regardless of the kind of fantasy world Martin has created, this is something that we can all relate to – whether we can get our hands on some cuddly and/or bloodthirsty direwolves or not.


Phew, that was a mouthful. I dictated this all in one take to my own personal Maester, by the way. Thanks for sticking with me to the end…

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