On the back of my edition of ‘a Game of Thrones’, you can read this bit, which may or may not be the worst description I’ve ever read: “in a Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin has created a genuine masterpiece, bringing together the best the genre has to offer. Mystery, intrigue, romance, and adventure fill the pages of the first volume in an epic series sure to delight fantasy fans everywhere.”
This ‘genre’ that is being referred to is obviously fantasy, more precisely high or epic fantasy, the genre that Tolkien popularized and that is now hailed as the flagship genre of fantasy as a whole. What I find most interesting about these lines, is how hard they fail at describing high fantasy. Let’s do this the easy way, through a little LotR comparison:
- Mystery! [ ] Nope. Tolkien has no great liking to mystery. His world is very defined, with polar opposites and people leaning toward one or the other, with overarching goals and people trying to achieve them. You might sometimes wonder about a few things (‘who is this Striker fellow?’), but soon all will be explained, and the mysteries won’t be central to the plot.
- Intrigue! [ ] Absolutely not. Middle Earth isn’t devoid of intrigue, but intrigue is something dark and despicable. You lower yourself when you use intrigue; people like Grima could do it, but would a hero? No way. Even Sauron seems above intrigue: he’s very open about his strengths and his weaknesses, he’s ready for an honorable fight (as in army vs army, no low blow). Frodo’s plan to destroy the ring is a huge FUCK YOU to intrigue in general: basically ‘Imma just walk in the middle of enemy territory and then destroy the ring, deal with it.’ Intrigue goes against one of Tolkien’s messages: ‘Even the smallest person can change the course of the future’. But he does that by acting grand, not by schieving.
- Romance! [ ] Lol no. Love is a marginalized idea in LotR, it happens on the side, it happens in the end. When the threat is over, when the good guys won, fine, it’s time to marry. It’s almost like a reward, that you earn through having been badass in your adventures; it’s part of your own happy ending. Tolkien’s characters are focused on their quest, which is larger than them – because of that, they have no time for such personal (petty?) concerns.
- Adventures! [x] Finally a check. There are tons of adventure in Tolkien! We visit lots of strange places, we meet new people, we get to accomplish stuff. The problem comes when you reverse it: there is a distinct lack of adventure in Game of Thrones. More than a lack, there is a denial of it. ASOIAF is overall pretty static, depicting a lot of people who stay where they are, or want to stay where they are and are forced to move by circumstances. There is worldbuilding, but it’s done through dialogue and history, much more than it is done through actual world travel.
So yeah, we get a big fat no on our comparison between Martin and Epic Fantasy, because Martin isn’t writing high fantasy at all. Editors just saw ‘Tolkien influence’ and lazily wrote it off as epic, because they could only think of positive influence.
On the other end of the spectrum, you then see people who tell you that Martin is writing realistic fantasy, or alternative history or something like that. Much like editors saw ‘Tolkien’, they see ‘War of the Roses’, and they are just as litteral about it. Let’s take a few steps back.
Is Martin’s world actually realistic? Well, it certainly is more than Tolkien’s. However, it isn’t ruled by its realism, realism doesn’t drive the story. Notice how ta’veren the Stark children are, that they get to be involved with so many important people and so many important events. Is that realistic? It’s certainly convenient. Focus on Arya: can you imagine everything that happens to her? Wouldn’t it be more realistic to have had her killed on her way out of King’s Landing, or have her captured in King’s Landing, or have her join her family at some point in the Riverlands? Is Ned Stark a realistic character? I may have to expand on that, but for now I’ll just say no.
Martin’s realism is a symptom of his use of deconstruction. But people tend to understand realism before they understand deconstruction, and because of that it becomes easy to mistake the consequence for the cause.
I was recently listening to a podcast (http://castroller.com/podcasts/UnspoiledGameOf/3626654), in which one of the speakers had trouble understanding Martin’s use of rape. Why is it that when the Dothrakis march against Westeros, they start raping the villagers who were minding their own business on the way? And why do we have to see it? The other speaker tried to explain to him that it was because that’s just how war works, and he’s displaying how ugly this is, but the first countered that it wasn’t a revolutionary idea, and that we really didn’t need Martin to understand that about war in the first place.
The answer that was missing here is the answer that we actually do need him. Not because we are so naïve about war; that would be if we were into realistic fantasy or whatever; but because HIGH FANTASY is naïve about war; you go to war with these collections of heroes who are all worth singing for. No Walton Steelshanks, certainly not. Maybe with the exception of Sword of Truth, which is a little less angelic about this (but Sword of Truth has other problems, not the least of which is having been written by a massive asshole). That’s what a deconstruction is: singling out something the genre takes for granted, one of its tropes or clichés, and questioning whether the use of this trope actually makes sense.
The reason I’m being so uptight about what Martin is doing is because of a deconstruction’s usual goal, which is reinforcement. The idea is that playing with something tropy makes you realize why that thing became a trope in the first place, and why it’s essential to the specific genre. That doesn’t work with Martin, because that’s not how he reads fantasy. Martin’s deconstructions don’t tell us: ‘Hey, look at how I’m changing stuff, this is why Tolkien’s model works so fine’. Under his pen, the tropes appear incoherent, either childish or anachronistic. ‘Hey, look at how much Tolkien’s model doesn’t make any sense, and despite that it’s having success. Just imagine how much success we could be having!’
High fantasy has always been written under the shadow of two towers, Minas Tirith and Minas Morgul. Every fantasy author will tell in interviews how they respect Tolkien’s world, how he’s the master of fantasy, and how they have been heavily influenced by him. Martin’s project isn’t simply to create a distance between his work and Tolkien’s work. He isn’t simply telling you that he’s writing in the shadow of no towers, no; he wants to bring these towers the fuck down.
Seeing how Martin is being so methodical about it, a worthy analysis of the process should follow the same path, and at the same rhythm. If I’m ever attempting this analysis, or if anyone else does, I think they should go at least book by book, maybe even chapter by chapter, with the perspective of a fantasy reader, who is carefully gathering what he’s being taught about the genre and its shortcomings.