A couple of years ago I watched the first season and a half of Game of Thrones, and stopped because it was too sexist. I had no plans to read G.R.R. Martin’s series of novels, but one day I found myself in the library and the first novel was there looking all shiny and new and…well.
I’ve never been a major fan of epic fantasy, but I enjoyed it. It scratched an itch, wallowing in this cod-medieval world for 800 pages. The tale of two warring houses, the honourable Starks in the frozen north and the morally defunct Lannisters in the south, in the fictional land of Westeros, it’s told in alternating chapters from the point of view of characters on both sides of the feud: nine of them, according to Wikipedia, which gives you an idea of the scale of this 800-page doorstopper.
It’s also, famously, grimdark. Martin has form for killing off major characters, describing death and ‘orrible injury in graphic detail, and generally having nasty things happen. (Content warning for rape and general gore.) Calling it a reaction to Tolkien is such an obvious reading that it’s practically a truism.
And yet: I’m interested in how meaning and story is working in this novel, and particularly working for its characters. Martin’s particularly at pains to undercut idealistic notions of battle and chivalry, not just through general grimdarkness but also, specifically, by having chivalric narratives fail for his characters. So we have a singer, Marillion (sadly not the 70s rock band), volunteering to accompany the noble Catelyn Stark on a journey so he can sing about the deeds of her party, and then hiding behind a rock as soon as they’re attacked. Or there’s 11-year-old Sansa Stark, whose naïve belief in the true love of a noble prince (just like in the songs) is shattered far, far too late for her to do anything about it. Or her sister, Arya, who loves the heroes of legend, but is prevented from following in their footsteps by her gender. (Although it is worth mentioning that there are female warriors in A Game of Thrones – not in major roles, and they are clearly out of the ordinary, but they exist, pretty much as they would have done in real life in the medieval period.) These are people failed by stories, who go out into the world with the wrong information because of them – and I think it’s fairly obvious that Martin wants us to draw an analogy between them and us. Tolkienian fantasy fails us by not preparing us for reality.
(Incidentally, I don’t agree with him: I’m re-reading Tolkien at the moment, as I do every year, and it seems to me to have a surprising amount of relevance to the current political situation. A naïve reading of The Lord of the Rings is not the only possible reading.)
For me, the most successful part of A Game of Thrones was the magic, which is in short but significant supply: a dream here, an incantation there. A motif of note is an unspecified threat from beyond the Wall, a colossal barrier of ice separating civilisation from the wilderness in the north. In Westeros, by (I assume) some quirk of astronomy, summers and winters are decades long, and the novel is set as the world runs down to winter again. There are whispers of the Long Night, the Others and the white walkers. It’s effective precisely because it’s undefined, because these things are mysteries. And because everyone in power is ignoring them.
I’ve been thinking recently about the link between magic and meaning: in modern fantasy, I think, magic is meaning made manifest. Magic is a way of making literal our place in the world, our agency and our significance. So, these characters’ lives may be nasty, brutish and short, but the presence of magic – by which I mean real magic, shadowy, suggestive, mystical, random, never glimpsed full-on – tells them that, nevertheless, they have a place in the world, that there is a purpose to things, rituals to be remembered and performed, that there is somehow a right thing to do.
That reassurance is, I think, something we’re increasingly lacking in the modern West, where rationality reigns and even our relationship to the seasons has been driven out by produce available on supermarket shelves all year round. Which is, perhaps, one reason why Martin’s work is so popular at the moment, despite (or even because of) its grimness and gore. Life is random and unfair, but it still matters what we do, what we choose. It means something.
Which feels, I guess, like Martin having his cake and eating it: ostensibly taking away the consolation of Tolkienian fantasy while leaving us with a premodern sense of significance and grandeur. I’m hoping to read at least the next book in the series, and I’d like to trace this idea further when I do.