About halfway through A Clash of Kings, the second installment of George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, a refugee princess—she is fourteen years old but already a widow, has silver hair and purple eyes, and happens to be part dragon—stands exhausted before the walls of a fabulous, vaguely Babylonian citadel called Qarth. The last surviving scion of the deposed ruling family of a faraway land called Westeros, she has led a ragtag band of followers through the desert in the hopes of finding shelter here—and, ultimately, of obtaining military and financial support for her plan to recapture the Westerosi throne. Her first glimpse of Qarth leaves her bemused:
Three thick walls encircled Qarth, elaborately carved. The outer was red sandstone, thirty feet high and decorated with animals: snakes slithering, kites flying, fish swimming, intermingled with wolves of the red waste and striped zorses and monstrous elephants. The middle wall, forty feet high, was grey granite alive with scenes of war: the clash of sword and shield and spear, arrows in flight, heroes at battle and babes being butchered, pyres of the dead. The innermost wall was fifty feet of black marble, with carvings that made Dany blush until she told herself that she was being a fool. She was no maid; if she could look on the grey wall’s scenes of slaughter, why should she avert her eyes from the sight of men and women giving pleasure to one another?
However difficult it may be for Daenerys (“Dany”) Targaryen to make sense of the exotic city and its people, anyone familiar with Martin’s slowly metastasizing epic—it began as a trilogy in 1996 and now runs to five volumes of a projected seven, each around a thousand pages long—will find it hard not to see in the Qartheen decor a sly reference to the series itself. What drives A Song of Ice and Fire is a war story: clearly inspired by the Wars of the Roses, the series traces the internecine power struggles among a group of aristocratic clans, each with its castle, lord, “sigil” or heraldic arms, and lineages, following the not entirely accidental death, in the first novel, of King Robert I of the Seven Kingdoms. Robert had seized the throne from Daenerys’s father at the end of a previous civil war, thereby ending the Targaryens’ three-century-long rule. The civil wars that follow Robert’s death will stretch from Westeros—whose culturally diverse regions, evoked by Martin in ingenious detail, form the Seven Kingdoms—across the Narrow Sea to the exotic East, where Dany Targaryen, as we know, plans to make her own power play.
These bloody struggles take place in a world whose culture is, on the whole, familiar-looking—Martin gives the civilization of the Seven Kingdoms a strong medieval flavor—but whose flora and fauna remind you why the novels are classified as “fantasy.” Westeros may have castles and drawbridges, knights, squires, and jousts, “sers” and ladies, and a capital city, King’s Landing, that looks and smells a lot like late-medieval London, but it also has giants, shape-shifters called “wargs,” blue-eyed walking dead known as “wights,” seasons that last for decades, red-faced “weirwood” trees that grow in sacred groves called “godswoods”—and, of course, dragons. At the end of the first novel, Daenerys emerges from a fire holding three newly hatched specimens that, you suspect, will greatly improve her chances of gaining the throne.
Against this wildly inventive natural (often supernatural) backdrop, the books’ characters engage in a good deal of unsentimental fornication that is not without a certain imaginative élan of its own. “In a cushioned alcove,” one not atypical scene begins, a drunken man “with a purple beard dandled a buxom young wench on his knee. He’d unlaced her bodice and was tilting his cup to pour a thin trickle of wine over her breasts so he might lap it off.” The pubescent Dany, as she herself acknowledges, is no innocent: deprived of the attentions of her dead husband, she now and then accepts the ministrations of a teenaged handmaiden. Why avert her eyes, indeed?
War, fantasy, sex: averting one’s eyes from at least two of these became a hot issue when Game of Thrones, the hit HBO television adaptation of Martin’s books, began airing in April 2011. From the start, the show’s graphic representations of violence (you lose count pretty early on of the times blood pumps out of gaping throat wounds) and of sexuality—of female nudity in particular—have led many critics and viewers to dismiss the series as “boy fiction.” (Thus the New York Times critic; the climactic section of a shrewder, more appreciative review by the New Yorker critic began, “Then, of course, there are the whores.”)1
And yet the show has been a tremendous hit. This is, in part, a testament to the way in which fantasy entertainment—fiction, television, movies, games—has moved ever closer to the center of mass culture over the past couple of decades, as witness the immense success of the Lord of the Rings adaptations, the Harry Potter phenomenon, and the Hunger Games books and movies. What’s interesting is that the HBO Game of Thrones has attracted so many viewers who wouldn’t ordinarily think of themselves as people who enjoy the fantasy genre. This has a great deal to do with the complex satisfactions of Martin’s novels, whose plots, characterization, and overall tone the series reproduces with remarkable fidelity—and whose mission is, if anything, to question and reformulate certain clichés of the fantasy/adventure genre about gender and power.
At first glance, A Song of Ice and Fire can look like a testosterone-fueled swashbuckler. The first novel (and the first season of the TV show; until recently, the show was tracking Martin’s books at a pace of roughly one book per season) introduces the ambitious patriarchs who were on the winning side of “the War of the Usurper”—the rebellion that had rent Westeros asunder and ended with the murder of the mad, bad King Aerys Targaryen, young Dany’s father—and who, along with their clans and feudal allies, will struggle for power once again.
The present king, Robert of House Baratheon, is Henry VIII–esque in temperament—he is always roaring at terrified squires and bedding buxom wenches—but Henry VII–like in his historical role. It was he who led the rebel forces against Mad King Aerys, whose other children and grandchildren Robert’s men brutally slaughtered after seizing the throne. Robert’s wife, Queen Cersei (pronounced “Circe,” like the sultry witch in theOdyssey) belongs to House Lannister, a wealthy, golden-haired, black-souled clan who are the Boleyns to Robert’s Henry VIII: the patriarch, the coldblooded Tywin Lannister, endlessly schemes on behalf of his unruly children, nephews, and siblings by whatever means may be called for.
The royal marriage was, indeed, one of political convenience: the Lannisters supported Robert’s rebellion with money and arms, and Tywin aims to see his descendants on the throne. As the first novel unfolds we understand that the marriage has failed—not least because Cersei prefers her twin brother, the handsome knight Jaime, who is in fact the father of her three children. The most interesting member of the Lannister family—and by far the most interesting male character in the series—is the other brother, Tyrion, a hard-drinking, wisecracking dwarf whose outsider status gives him a soulfulness his relations lack. (The role is played with great verve by Peter Dinklage, one of many strong actors on the show.)
Staunchly loyal to Robert and just as staunchly wary of the evil Lannisters is Eddard “Ned” Stark of Winterfell, the king’s “Hand” or chief minister, a gruffly ethical northern lord who, along with his family—his wife Catelyn, their five children, and a bastard whom he has lovingly raised as his own—provides the violent goings-on with a strong emotional focus. After Robert dies during a hunting accident engineered by his wife’s relatives, Ned finds himself locked in a struggle for the regency with the Lannisters, who have placed Cersei’s eldest son, Joffrey, a Caligula-like teenaged sadist, on the throne. But because the high-minded Ned is insufficiently ruthless, his plan backfires, with fatal results for himself and the Stark family. One of the pleasures of Martin’s series is the grimly unsentimental, rather Tacitean view it takes of the nature and uses of power at court. Often, the good guys here do not win.
Indeed, the shocking climax of the first book—Joffrey’s surprise execution of Ned, who up to this point you’d figured was the protagonist—is a strong sign that Martin’s narrative arc is going to be far more surprising than you could have guessed. “When my characters are in danger,” the author said in an interview, “I want you to be afraid to turn the page…you need to show right from the beginning that you’re playing for keeps.” A sense that brutal, irreversible real-life consequences will follow from the characters’ actions—rare in serial novels and almost unheard of in television series, which of course often depend on the ongoing presence of popular characters (and actors) for their continued appeal—is part of the distinctive tone of Martin’s epic. I suspect that one reason Game of Thrones has seduced so many of my writer friends, people who have either no taste for fantasy or no interest in television, is precisely that its willingness to mete out harsh consequences, rather than dreaming up ways to keep its main characters alive for another season, feels more authentic, more “literary” than anything even the best series in this new golden age of television can provide.
After Ned’s death, the multiplying plotlines adhere, for the most part, to the various Starks. The widow Catelyn (splendidly played by Michelle Fairley), a complex character who oscillates between admirable strength and dangerous weakness, and her eldest son, Robb, lead a new civil war against the triumphant Lannisters. Her son Bran, crippled after being unceremoniously defenestrated by the corrupt Jaime Lannister, finds that he is gifted with second sight and has the ability to inhabit the body of a giant wolf; the beautiful young Sansa, once betrothed to Cersei’s son Joffrey, now finds herself a terrified political hostage in King’s Landing; and the plain but spirited Arya, a girl of nine when the story begins, is separated from the rest and starts on an unusual spiritual and emotional journey of her own.
And then there is Jon Snow, ostensibly Ned Stark’s bastard. (“Ostensibly,” because there are proliferating hints that he is the love child of two other significant characters, long dead.) The most sympathetic of the younger generation of male Starks, Jon is a spirited but troubled youth who, in the first novel, goes off to join something called the Night’s Watch. Informally known as “Crows,” this black-clad cohort, part monk and part warrior, vowed to celibacy and trained to arms, culled from the realm’s rich stores of bastards, criminals, and political exiles, man “the Wall,” a fabulous seven-hundred-foot-high edifice that runs across the entire northern border of Westeros. Clearly modeled on Hadrian’s Wall (much of Westeros’s topography reminds you of Great Britain’s), the Wall, one of Martin’s most striking creations, is meant to protect the realm against the giants, monsters, undead, and the unruly clan of “Wildlings” who inhabit the frozen region to the north—and who, when the action of A Song of Ice and Fire begins, have begun, terrifyingly, to move southward for the first time in thousands of years. The novels are strewn with ominous portents—not least, a red comet that illuminates the sky for much of the second novel—of an imminent, cataclysmic confrontation between the supernatural and natural worlds.
Martin renders the Eastern cultures in particular with Herodotean gusto: the nomadic, Scythian-like, horse-worshiping Dothraki, to one of whose great warlords Daenerys is bartered when the saga begins (their unborn child is referred to as “the Stallion Who Mounts the World”); the quasi-Assyrian city-states of Qarth, Astapur, and Meereen, with their chattering merchants and unctuous slavers (and warlocks); the decadent port of Braavos, a cross between Switzerland and Venice, whose moneylenders finance the Westerosi wars, and where young Arya finds herself, at the end of Book 5, an acolyte in a temple of death.
But what keeps you riveted, in the end, are the characters and their all-too-familiar human dilemmas. Jon Snow on the frozen Wall, torn between family loyalty and duty to his vows; Dany, both his counterpart and his opposite, far away in the burning Eastern deserts, learning the art of statecraft even as she dreams of love; the vindictive Lannisters and fugitive Starks, conniving and being betrayed by their various “bannermen”: these people and many more suggest why Martin likes to paraphrase William Faulkner’s remark, in his Nobel speech, that the only great subject is “the human heart in conflict with itself.” (A question worth raising about Martin’s novels is how different they’d feel if you subtracted the dragons and witches and undead; my feeling is, not much.)
One of the few serious missteps that Martin has made in his grand project was, indeed, to abandon most of these characters and locales in the fourth novel, A Feast for Crows, introducing instead a group of new characters, cultures, and dynastic schemers. I read each of the first three novels in a few days, happily addicted; it took me a month to get through the fourth, because I simply didn’t care about these strangers. It will be interesting to see how the writers of HBO’s Game of Thrones, which cannot afford to try the patience of its audience, handle this lapse.
It’s a point worth wondering about precisely because the TV series has followed the outlines of Martin’s action, and his various tangled subplots, with such fidelity. The very few deviations I noticed have no significant repercussions. Sometimes, the writers on the show have invented material that brings home Martin’s important themes in a pungently dramatic way. There’s an amusing scene in Season 2 when, in response to an unctuous minister’s smirking suggestion that “knowledge is power,” Cersei, now riding high as queen regent, suddenly orders her bodyguards to seize the courtier and cut his throat—and then, at the last moment, to release him unharmed. As the terrified man sags with relief, the queen looks at him and says, “Power is power.” (The one-note, smirky performance of Lena Headey in this crucial role is a major weakness of the TV show; far worse is the tinny portrayal of Daenerys by Emilia Clarke, an untalented lightweight who accidentally succeeds in conveying the early Dany—the cowering virgin—but can’t come close to bringing across the character’s touching complexity, the girlishness and the ferocity combined.)
Inevitably, the TV series can’t reproduce, or must violently compress, much of the novels’ most entertaining material—the elaborate back-stories that give helpful context to certain plotlines, the biographies of complicated and interesting secondary characters who, in the screen adaptation, are reduced to little more than walk-ons. (The most regrettable instance of this is the treatment of the admirable “Onion Knight,” Davos Seaworth, the loyal Hand to one of the pretenders to the throne—a man whose rise to power came at the cost of four fingers, the bones of which he good-naturedly wears around his neck as a reminder of how dangerous it is to deal with the great and powerful.) Nor is there really a way to render, in a dramatization, Martin’s imaginative linguistic evocations of his invented cultures: the compound coinages that replace standard English (“sellsword” for “mercenary,” “holdfast” for “fort”), the ingeniously quasi-medieval diction and spellings of names, the perfumed language—the horses called destriers and palfreys, the gowns of vair and samite—that give you a strong sense of the concrete reality of this imagined world.
An omission on the part of the Game of Thrones writers that is less venial is the elision of a major theme: religion. From his earliest published work, Martin has shown an unusually strong interest in serious religious questions. His first Hugo Award–winning science fiction story, “A Song for Lya” (1974), is about two telepaths sent to a planet whose ostensibly primitive inhabitants have achieved a kind of religious transcendence unavailable to humans; in what may be his most famous single short story, the creepy “Sandkings” (1980, also a Hugo winner), a man plays god to a colony of insectoid worshipers who are more sapient than he credits, with gruesome results. (Both stories have now been collected in the two-volume set Dreamsongs.)
No wonder, then, that the action of A Song of Ice and Fire seems to be leading not only to a resolution of the dynastic question, but to a grand showdown among three major religions whose histories, theologies, and ritual practices Martin evokes in impressive detail. There is the easygoing polytheist pantheon of “the Seven,” the religion of the indolent South (complete with priests and priestesses called septons and septas, who worship at temples called septs); the Druidic, tree-based animistic worship of the Northern clans, which we learn was the older religion superseded by the “southron” gods (“The trees will teach you. The trees remember.”); and the unforgiving, vaguely Semitic Eastern cult, now infiltrating Westeros, of “the one true god”—a fiery “lord of light” with the nicely Semitic name “R’hllor,” who insists on a furious moral absolutism, and who enjoys the occasional auto-da-fé. “If half of an onion is black with rot,” R’hllor’s terrifying priestess, Melisandre, tells Davos Seaworth, who has good-naturedly observed that most men are a mixture of good and evil, “it is a rotten onion. A man is good, or he is evil.”
These religious motifs are more than window dressing: there is a strong suggestion that the “fire” of Martin’s title for the entire series refers not only to Dany, with her fire-breathing pets, but to the fire-god R’hllor, and that the “ice” refers not only to Jon Snow but to the old northern gods who animate dead men; and hence that the climax to which the entire epic is moving is not only political but metaphysical.
It’s too bad then that, of all this, the writers on the series have focused only on Melisandre and her fiery deity—likely because she triggers so many plot points. I don’t think that the theological preoccupations of Martin’s novels—grittily realistic, for all the fantasy—raise them, in the end, to the level of, say, Lord of the Rings, whose grandly schematic clash of good and evil, nature and culture, homely tradition and industrialized progress gives it the high Aeschylean sheen of political parable, the enduring literary resonance of cultural myth. But the not inconsiderable appeal of A Song of Ice and Fire lies as much in its thematic ambitions as in its richly satisfying details, and the former ought to be a salient feature of any serious adaptation.
Martin’s medieval narrative, the distinctly Anglo-Saxon milieus alternating with exotic “oriental” locales, everywhere bears traces of the author’s deep affection for the rather old-fashioned boys’ adventure stories that, he has said, formed him as a writer—not least Walter Scott’s crusader romance Ivanhoe, but also Arthur Conan Doyle’s The White Company and Thomas B. Costain’s The Black Rose, stories in which European men have grand adventures when they wander into exotic, often Eastern cultures and climates. On his blog, Martin recommends these texts, along with a number of classic sci-fi and fantasy titles, to readers who ask what they should be reading while waiting for the next George R.R. Martin book.
Given those literary antecedents, it’s striking that a strong leitmotif of the series is pointed criticism by various characters of “chivalry,” of romantic stories about knights and fair maidens—of, you might say, “fantasy” itself. In the third and, perhaps, most violent novel, A Storm of Swords, Dany, whose ongoing political education leaves her with fewer and fewer illusions, ruefully acknowledges a childish yearning for stories “too simple and fanciful to be true history,” in which “all the heroes were tall and handsome, and you could tell the traitors by their shifty eyes.” It’s as if Martin is drawing a line between his work and an earlier, more naive phase of fantasy literature.
The purest expression of this disdain for naive “romance” is put in the mouth of the dwarf, Tyrion, who understands better than any other male character what it means to be on the outside—on the other side of the myth. After a battle, he declares that he is
done with fields of battle, thank you…. All that about the thunder of the drums, sunlight flashing on armor, magnificent destriers snorting and prancing? Well, the drums gave me headaches, the sunlight flashing on my armor cooked me up like a harvest day goose, and those magnificent destriers shit everywhere.
The juxtaposition of “magnificent” and “shit” is pointed: this is a mock-medieval epic that constantly asks us not to be fooled by romance, to see beyond the glitter to the gore, to the harsh reality that power leaves in its wake, whatever the bards may sing. There’s a marvelous moment in the second novel when a knight notices the sigil, or arms, of some legendary warriors above the door of a tavern. “They were the glory of their House,” the knight mournfully observes. “And now they are a sign above an inn.” Martin’s willingness to question the traditional allure of his own genre gives his epic an unusually complex and satisfying texture.
As it happens, the knight at the inn is a woman—a most unusual character. In fact, nowhere is the unexpected subversive energy of A Song of Ice and Fire more in evidence than in its treatment of its female characters—the element that has provoked the strongest controversy in discussions of the HBO adaptation.2
Almost from the start, Martin weaves a bright feminist thread into his grand tapestry. It begins early on in the first book, when he introduces the two Stark daughters. The eldest, Sansa, is an auburn-haired beauty who loves reading courtly romances, does perfect needlework, and always dresses beautifully; in striking contrast to this conventional young woman is the “horsefaced” younger daughter, Arya, who hates petit point and would rather learn how to wield a sword. (Later on, she gets a sword that she sardonically names “Needle”: she too, as we will see, plays for keeps.) At one point early in the first novel Arya asks her father whether she can grow up to “be a king’s councilor and build castles”; he replies that she will “marry a king and rule his castle.” The canny girl viciously retorts, “No, that’s Sansa.”
The two girls represent two paths—one traditional, one revolutionary—that are available to Martin’s female characters, all of whom, at one point or another, are starkly confronted by proof of their inferior status in this culture. (In a moment from the second novel that the HBO adaptation is careful to replicate, Ned Stark’s widow Catelyn realizes that Robb doesn’t think his hostage sisters are worth negotiating for, although his murdered father would have been: they’re simply not worth what a man is.) Those who complained about the TV series’ graphic and “exploitive” use of women’s bodies are missing the godswood for the weirwood trees: whatever the prurient thrills they provide the audience, these demeaning scenes, like their counterparts in the novels, also function as a constant reminder of what the main female characters are escaping from. “I don’t want to have a dozen sons,” one assertive young princess tells a suitor, “I want to have adventures.”
All the female figures in Martin’s world can be plotted at various points on the spectrum between Sansa and Arya Stark. It’s significant that the older generation tend to be less successful (and more destructive) in their attempts at self-realization, while the younger women, like Arya and Daenerys, are able to embrace more fully the independence and power they grasp at. Cersei Lannister is a figure whose propensity to evil, we are meant to understand, results from her perpetually thwarted desire for independence, as is made clear in a remarkable speech she is given at the end of A Clash of Kings (reproduced faithfully in the TV series):
When we were little, Jaime and I were so much alike that even our lord father could not tell us apart. Sometimes as a lark we would dress in each other’s clothes and spend a whole day each as the other. Yet even so, when Jaime was given his first sword, there was none for me. “What do I get?” I remember asking. We were so much alike, I could never understand why they treated us so differently. Jaime learned to fight with sword and lance and mace, while I was taught to smile and sing and please. He was heir to Casterly Rock, while I was to be sold to some stranger like a horse, to be ridden whenever my new owner liked, beaten whenever he liked, and cast aside in time for a younger filly. Jaime’s lot was to be glory and power, while mine was birth and moonblood.
This is an arresting echo of the Greek notion that childbirth is for women what warfare is for men.
Cersei is a portrait of a tragic pre-feminist queen—someone out of Greek drama, a Clytemnestra-like figure who perpetrates evil because her idea of empowerment rises no higher than mimicking the worst in the men around her. (She ruefully remarks at one point that she “lacked the cock.”) By contrast, Dany Targaryen can be seen as a model of a new feminist heroine. Apart from the Starks, it is she who commands our attention from book to book, learning, growing, evolving into a real leader. We first see her as a timid bride, sold by her whiny brother Viserys, the Targaryen pretender, to a savage nomadic warlord whose men and horses the brother wants to secure for his own claim. But eventually Dany edges her brother aside, wins the respect of both the warlord and his macho captains, and grows into an impressive political canniness herself.
This evolution is pointed: whereas Viserys feels entitled to the throne, what wins Dany her power is her empathy, her fellow feeling for the oppressed: she, too, has been a refugee, an exile. As she makes her way across the Eastern lands at the head of an increasingly powerful army, she goes out of her way to free slaves and succor the sick, who acclaim her as their “mother.” She doesn’t seize power, she earns it. What’s interesting is that we’re told she can’t bear children: like Elizabeth I, she has substituted political for biological motherhood. Unlike the frustrated Cersei, Daenerys sees her femininity as a means, rather than an impediment, to power.
And so Martin’s saga goes to considerable lengths to create alternatives to the narratives of male growth, the boys’ Bildungsromane, that have, until relatively recently, been the mainstay of so many myths and so much fantasy literature. “Boy’s fiction”? If anything, it’s possible to see in characters like the feisty Arya an antecedent of the protagonists of such popular contemporary Young Adult series as The Hunger Games, in which the “heroes” are girls. Whatever climax it may be leading to, however successfully it realizes its literary ambitions, George R.R. Martin’s magnum opus is a remarkable feminist epic.