Thoughts on A Song of Ice and Fire
By David Pilling
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Right, then. This is my counter-argument to Martin Bolton’s thoughtful deconstruction of A Song of Ice and Fire, which I’m sure needs little introduction as the best-selling fantasy series by George R.R. Martin. The screen version by HBO, retitled Game of Thrones, is of course a monster hit and about to enter its fifth season.
For those who haven’t read the books, I would advise looking away now, as it’s impossible to have an argument/debate like this without giving away spoilers.
To anyone who hasn’t yet read Martin’s piece, here is the link again:
Firstly, let me say that Martin Bolton is a decent guy. A solid citizen, goes to work every day, not a bad cook, likes a few ales. Basically harmless. There’s just one tiny problem. He tends to suffer from multiple brainwrongs that lead him to express inaccurate opinions. Without me around to point him onto the true path, he would probably be living up a tree somewhere by now, worshipping rocks.
He’s done it again with A Song of Ice and Fire. Don’t believe all that guff he wrote about not wanting to dissuade anyone from reading the books, or about it being a matter of ‘personal taste’. That’s just a smokescreen. He hates George R.R. Martin and all his works with a terrifying passion, and it’s my Christian duty to word-slap some sense into him.
Martin claims that the books are too rambling, and feature lengthy and unnecessary descriptions of food and clothes. Well, there may be a kernel of truth in that, but what you have to understand is that George - I’m going to refer to the author as George, to avoid talking about Martin and Martin - cares about us. He really does. By taking up a whole five pages describing a meal, or the colour of the flagstones in a back alley, he’s trying to paint a vivid picture of his fantasy universe, and pull us readers out of humdrum reality for a couple of hours.
Also, he likes to make us hungry. Reading about his characters eat - shortly before they get an axe in the head, or engage in lesbian/dwarf/animal coitus - makes me want to eat. Otherwise I would probably forget, and fade away to nothing. So in that sense, I owe George my life. Maybe.
Granted, George could probably do with a good editor or three. If you were to comb all the extraneous detail from the last two books, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, and just keep the essential plot, you would probably end up with a small pamphlet. And you can’t sell pamphlets in hardcover at £25 each, so it’s essential George keeps writing reams and reams of irrelevant pap about comedy Vikings, 16-course buffets and the interesting fauna and flora on a made-up island. Otherwise he might go bankrupt, and I would forget to eat. Do I want that? No.
To be serious for a moment, the first four volumes in the series were, in this one’s humble opinion, riveting, fast-paced, unpredictable fantasy fiction, dark and bloody and harrowing and utterly compulsive. They were the literary equivalent of crack, and deprived me of sleep for weeks on end as I sat up all night, thinking ‘I’ll just read the next chapter and then go to bed...”- before I knew it, the sun was rising and I was only halfway through. Only one other series, the Jack Aubrey novels by Patrick O’Brien, has had that effect on me.
The trouble is, and here I can’t really disagree with Martin’s analysis, George wrote himself into a corner. He grew too fond of killing off likeable characters in various nasty and unexpected ways, a shock tactic that served him well in the first book but just got silly by the time of The Red Wedding. This scene, in which pretty much anyone you could possibly care about in Westeros gets massacred, is one of the most horrifying and darkly powerful passages I’ve ever read. Few authors would have the guts to attempt such a thing, but I was left with the sense that George had shot his bolt. Thereafter the books decline in focus and quality, and many readers are left hanging on solely to find out what happens in the end. Something similar happened with the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, which started off as a compelling read and then got bogged down until the narrative virtually ground to a halt.
George’s initial idea, to create a fantasy tale inspired by the real Middle Ages, specifically the Baron’s Wars and the Wars of the Roses in England, was genius. He was by no means the first to try it, but no other fantasy author (with the exception of Frank Herbert) manages to convey the savage warfare and intrigue between rival Houses with such panache. The Wars of the Roses is his most obvious reference point, though he also draws on the history of various noble families such as the Percies of Northumberland and throws them into the melting pot along with the House of Lancaster (Lannister) and Stark (York). Some of his characters draw cleverly on historical figures in a general sort of way - for instance, the supremely ruthless Tywin Lannister is a blend of several Plantagenet kings, mainly Edward I or Longshanks, the Hammer of the Scots. So George clearly knows his history, and how to effectively weave reality into fiction.
Martin makes the point that there is far too much darkness in the series, and the few chinks of light quickly get smothered in the general mayhem. I would agree to a point, but the slaughter of the ‘good’ characters, while it does become excessive, merely reflects the sadness of reality. The cold, hard fact is that nice guys rarely come out on top, especially when competing for power, which is why our world is governed by Killer Bastards from the Planet Sly. Ned Stark’s demise, while tragic and shocking, could have been avoided if he had laid aside his precious honour and got out of King’s Landing while there was still time. George was making the - entirely valid - point that those who refuse to compromise inevitably come to bad ends.
In a way, Ned Stark’s version of honour is exposed as selfish: by getting himself captured and killed, he left his family to endure the storm that followed. Hence, The Red Wedding was the direct consequence of Ned’s folly in refusing to tell a few lies in order to save his bacon. He left his son Robb to make one mistake after another, ending in the wholesale slaughter of the Starks and their bannermen at the hands of the dreadful Freys.
BUT...George does leave room for hope. Most of Ned’s children are still alive, though scattered, and I confidently expect them to get revenge for their father in due time. Whether there will be anyone left to avenge themselves on - the Lannisters have been going down like ninepins as well - remains to be seen. It could be that the whole cycle of honour and revenge turns out to be a massive waste of time, which is again a valid lesson. You need only glance at history to see that blood-feuds only result in more blood, generation after generation, until someone has the courage to forget about revenge and draw a line under it all.
In the end, I don’t think the series needs to be about ‘balance’, as Martin puts it. There is no balance of light and darkness in the real world, only shades of grey and people trying to get through the day as best they can. This is reflected in Westeros, where knightly virtues of chivalry and honour turn out to be either delusional or sheer hypocrisy.
I can’t disagree too much with Martin’s final comment, that the series lacks a sense of humour. There isn’t much laughter in Westeros, and sometimes you do wonder why anyone bothers to get out of bed, since they only have another weary round of mud and violence and treachery to look forward to. In that sense it doesn’t mirror our reality at all: few of us would care to struggle through life without a joke or two.
There’s always the hot lesbian sex, of course. George is very fond of hot lesbian sex.
So, that’s my take on A Song of Ice and Fire. What do YOU all think? Don’t hold back, now....and remember, points (might) mean prizes...