Probably you know that A Clash of Kings is the second book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series – which you may know better as Game of Thrones. In this instalment, the war for the Iron Throne of Westeros has begun in earnest. Robb Stark has declared himself King in the North; King’s Landing, home to the court of the sadistic eleven-year-old King Joffrey Lannister, prepares for a siege at the respective armies of warring brothers Renly and Stannis Baratheon.
We see, of course, plenty of the political manoeuvrings that bring things to this pass, the counsels of war and diplomacy the various powers take, as well as getting glimpses into the work of the Night Watch as they venture beyond the Wall to try and protect Westeros from the long winter to come, and into the exploits of Danaerys and her new-formed khalasaar. So far, so like the first novel.
But A Clash of Kings also offers us some insights into what life is like for the smallfolk – those with no political power or influence, the farmers and the labourers and the people who make the lords’ and ladies’ lives possible. We see riots in King’s Landing as food grows scarce and refugees from burned villages flood in. We see Arya, fleeing the city in the wake of her father’s death, captured by the Lannisters, who, unaware of her noble status, set her to work scrubbing the stones of Harrenhal Castle. We see a miserable, squalid wildling camp beyond the Wall; and, over the Narrow Sea, we see Danaerys rag-tag khalasaar starving in the deserts as they try to find a way to the coast. We see burned villages, their populations slain; we see murdered peasant children; we see people for whom the lords they work for are interchangeable, equally remote and equally uncaring.
These are some of the most interesting parts of the book; I’ve no doubt that Martin intends to call attention to the plight of these people, as part of his project to deflate the high-flown, noble rhetoric of Tolkienian fantasy. The feudal contract is broken in Westeros: it’s a rare lord who lets their beleaguered peasants into the castle for protection, as Catelyn Stark’s brother does. The peasants are left on their own, to do what it takes to survive – many of them don’t care whether their lord’s on the side of the right or not.
All of this is undermined somewhat, though, by the fact that we only come into contact with the smallfolk when our highborn protagonists do. The riots in King’s Landing become urgent only when they threaten the Red Keep – and when the rioters turn on their lords. We only know about the peasant workers of Harrenhal because Arya, a lady in disguise, finds herself among them. And so on. Jon Snow may be an illegitimate son, but he’s been raised as a lord; Danaerys may be orphaned and wandering in the wilderness, but she can hardly be called a nobody. There are no viewpoint characters who are peasants; the closest we get is an ex-smuggler who’s now a knight high in the counsels of Lord Stannis. This tends, I think, to put our sympathies with the highborn characters. We know Arya’s in the right when she asks Genly the smith to help her escape Harrenhal, despite Genly pointing out that he’ll be considerably worse off if he does. And we hardly bat an eyelid when we see King Joffrey’s court feasting off roast chicken and red wine when the people in the city below are living off stewed rat; because there is no voice in the text that objects to this.
I know that’s kind of the point. Even the most level-headed of the highborn characters have blind spots; even supposing they actually care about their people, which most of them don’t really. But that’s exactly why we need the voice of the smallfolk to balance them out – if we’re to think of Westeros as actually “realistic”, rather than just so much grimdark misery.
Because, oh, there’s a lot of torture and violence and assault on women here; so much so that I reached a point in the last fifth of the book where I just wasn’t interested any more? I don’t want to have to wade through so much viciousness just to meet up with my favourite characters – so much pointless viciousness, that is. This is violence as an aesthetic; because, actually, and as per Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books, you only need a very small amount of graphic violence to play merry hell with the conventions of Tolkienian fantasy. The less there is, the greater the effect – and the more interesting the conversation. Saturating a world with senseless violence doesn’t say anything more about what human experience is “actually” like – it says more about your limited authorial imagination, actually.