Dec 8, 2013

Game of Thrones: Book Review

One would have thought that writing one fantasy series would be enough for a lifetime. JRR Tolkien spent his life writing about Middle Earth, his work spilling over into his son’s life who completed some of his unfinished writings. No wonder, since his writings consisted of much more than just Lord of the Rings, it consisted of the entire, history, mythology, and languages of Middle Earth. JK Rowling tired after one fantasy series and turned to crime fiction. Philip Pullman, before his masterpiece His Dark Materials, wrote fantasies that he must be ashamed of today, and never wrote anything half as good after. 

But not so for George RR Martin. Not satisfied with inventing many fantasy worlds and winning every major award that exits for science fiction, Martin is now writing Songs of Ice and Fire, a medieval fantasy series that has topped the chart of both books and TV series. And this fantasy is no ordinary one. Like Tolkien, Martin has invented not just a story but an entire world with its own history and mythology. At the age of 64, Martin is just arriving at his peak form, and we don’t even know if it will be the last thing he writes.

What sets Martin’s works apart from other classical fantasies is his moral axis. Gone are the days when the two sides are rigidly divided into right and wrong, like in Lord of the Rings where Aragorn can do no wrong and Sauron is pure evil. In Martin’s world, even the most lovable characters have complexities: the perfect Catelyn Tully mistreats Jon Snow, son of her husband’s mistress. Villains have their redeeming points: cunning and ruthless Imp Lancaster nonetheless finds it in him to help a cripple. Martin knows no king can live up to his fables: his Robert is no Aragorn but a brave-heart of old gone to seed, complete with a potbelly, many bastards, and irresponsible drinking habits. He writes not about the glory of power and how peaceful the realm is under a benevolent king (think Ramrajya) but of how chaotic it is to manage the day to day events of the realm. There is nothing he will not talk about, even taboos like incest that earlier fantasies steered clear of are worked into Song of Ice and Fire. The component of sexuality marks a departure from most popular works of fantasy which focus on power roles, relegating women to the background as objects of ideal affection (like Arwen in Lord of the Rings). But even otherwise, Martin’s women are forceful characters with a will of their own.

Such a potpourri makes Martin’s work the most realistic in recent times. Bypassing modern favorites like Lord of the Rings, what Songs of Ice and Fire most resembles most is old classics like Mahabharata and Iliad, where each side has a solid array of relatable characters, and where each person has hidden depths of grey. Maybe that is because his work is grounded in medieval history. At first glance, it looks like any other fantasy where magical instruments are made up on the author’s whim. But in personal life, Martin is a collector of medieval artifacts and is known for his meticulous research into them. Song of Ice and Fire is said to be inspired by the War of Roses, a dynastic war between two powerful families and their supporters in medieval England.

A curious detail about Martin’s work is the way he writes about clothes. Almost lovingly he describes the luxurious doublets worn by knights, the flowing capes of the kings. With intricate details found only in Jane Austen’s work, he describes the silk-soft gowns of princesses, their colors, patterns, cuts, and even their lace trimmings. Maybe the visual part comes easily to him because he has worked in television for long. Anyhow, Martin is a milestone in the trend of more approachable, realistic, and sensual fantasy writing. Independently of him (because her first book was published barely a year after Martin’s A Game of Thrones), JK Rowling had given similar details of food and clothes in the Harry Potter series, and the descriptions of food in Hunger Games was so sumptuous that there is now a separate book of Hunger Games Recipes.  But it is notable that Martin is the first male to do so in modern times, such sensuality is lacking in prominent fantasies like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.
No matter how sophisticated a writer is, in fantasy they never fail to include some tried and tested formulas. Tolkien borrowed heavily from Norse mythology, and Pullman did a modern take on the time-tested Bible. Even a writer as innovative as Martin has used the number seven indiscriminately. Seven has always been a staple of Indo-European fantasy and folklore, remember Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? Even in Nepali folklore, there are plenty of stories with one sister and seven brothers, or of seventh time lucky. The roots of seven’s popularity go deep, as it is believed to be a mysterious and magical number in many Indo-European cultures.  In Martin’s world, seven is the number of gods, the number of kingdoms, and also the number of hells, patterns which are repeated many times in the series.

Like in many epic fantasies, the language is as Old English-y as possible, to lend it an air of mystery. The use of “is” for “has” is an example, as in “The kingslayer is fled.” Names draw from old mythologies: Baratheon where Theo makes a reference to God, Khal Drogo where Drogo itself means dragon, Rhaegar meaning king, and many more. Referring to ancient spelling, Martin uses the letter “y” where the common practice is to use “i”: Lysa, and the house of Targaryn. The compound syllable “ae” is another such element, used in names like Rhaegar, Aemon, and Maegor.

Martin’s world, like any other work of fantasy, is not free from racial stereotyping: the concept that people of a certain blood have a certain characteristics. Tolkien had characterized Sauron’s army as being “full of vile men of low races with evil, mean faces”, as if a face can tell a character. Similarly, Martin’s heroes, the Starks, are proud that “the blood of the first men” flows in their veins, which apparently makes them better than everyone else. The Lannisters, in contrast, seem to be vilified just for their last names.

Martin’s work brings to mind the curious effects of primogeniture in literature. The technique in Martin’s writing is so far advanced than that in Tolkien’s, the characters so much better developed. And yet, Martin’s work will never have as much impact on readers as Tolkien’s. Fans of the old classics will find any number of faults in Martin’s work to justify this, but the truth is that impact can be made only by the first in the field. Those that come after cannot even hope for a fraction of its fame, no matter the quality. With a head full of the details of one fantasy world, it is very difficult for readers to understand and cram the details of another, at least not with as much passion as the first time around. The new book competes not just with the quality of the old book’s writing, but also with its attachment and nostalgia. We, the generation that grew up with Harry Potter, will never have the time to spend another ten years fixated on a book, which is why nothing else will appeal to us as much. Only on the young generation that grew up on Game of Thrones can it have its greatest impact.

Also, the impacts of early works on succeeding literature is so far reaching that it is just not possible for more recent works to compete. This may be because today fantasy books are only read by fans of the genre which limits their reach, while Lord of the Rings was read by all lovers of literature. Taking these factors into account, we as should be careful to judge new books on their merit, and not on how their impact compares to that of older classics. Here’s to hoping that the most talented fantasy writer of our generation gets his due from readers and critics alike.


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