July 15, 2011

Tales from the Completist: "A Game of Thrones," by George R.R. Martin

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, I find myself sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)

A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin

A Game of Thrones (1996)
By George R.R. Martin

Oh Lord, here we go, I couldn't help but to think last month, when my friend Mark R. Brand handed over his copies for me to borrow of the first four volumes of George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" saga, already nearly four thousand pages of what a growing amount of people are starting to call the most important fantasy project since Lord of the Rings (and with another three thousand pages to go before it's finally over, including the newest volume [A Dance of Dragons] which is being released the same week I'm writing this review). And indeed, let me make my biases clear right away -- I am barely a fan of fantasy in general, precisely because so many of the projects seem to me like bad ripoffs of J.R.R. Tolkien, and I can barely stand to read even Tolkien himself despite him being considered the undisputed grand master of the genre. I mean, sure, I love the complex world-building of most fantasy projects just as much as any other science-fiction nerd, one of several aspects that the two genres share, which is why they tend to get lumped together so often, but there are just so many tropes in fantasy that I can't stand either: the Luddite stance towards technology, the hippie-dippie nature of all those elves and wizards and "forest folk," the excruciatingly bad faux-Medieval dialogue (ugh, all those endless "thee"s and "thou"s, all those endless refusals to use contractions), and a dozen more things I could mention but I won't, because today's review is going to go on long enough as it is.

Map of George R.R. Martin's Westeros, plus compared to Europe

Because, ah, yes, it's true; after reading the first volume, A Game of Thrones, I have become a dyed-in-the-wool fanatic of ASoIaF myself, although I'll instead be calling it Ice & Fire or simply "the Westeros books" today, because I'm just not enough of a fanboy to be able to refer to it with a straight face over and over as "ASoIaF." And in fact, that probably is the very first thing to know about these books for the uninitiated, that they largely take place on the fictional continent of "Westeros," one of several continents comprising an Earth-like planet where our story takes place. It's roughly akin in size and makeup to western Europe, only turned a bit askew; so in other words, its due-north is much like Europe's northeastern corner of Sweden and Finland, bleak and cold and full of stoic descendants of Vikings, while its due-south is much like real Europe's southwest corner of Spain and Morocco, a hot and exotic land that's been held by an interchangeable series of empires over the millennia, with most of our action taking place in the middle of these two extremes, in the area that roughly corresponds to the first true great powers of Europe by the height of the Middle Ages -- Britain, France, Prussia, Bavaria, etc. (In fact, it's a total of seven great powers that eventually rose in Westeros' own Classical Age, which then 300 years before the start of our particular story were all conquered by an Alexander The Great type, the entire continent transformed at that point into essentially a Roman Empire structure, and with these former kingdoms now existing as endlessly squabbling, semi-autonomous city-states.)

And in fact this leads us to one of the single most notorious things about the Westeros books, and why so many non-fans of fantasy like me are becoming obsessive followers of them; because Martin is not really that interested in painting a rose-tinted portrait of the Medieval period -- a tradition that started with the Victorian Romantics, then moved to Tolkien and thus almost every other fantasy novel that now exists today -- but rather takes a fairly serious and realistic look at what life must've actually been like in the Middle Ages, a subject that I myself have only started developing an interest in within the last few years. And as anyone who has done the least amount of research into this topic knows, the answer to that question for the most part is, "Short, nasty, violent, and with a sense of morality utterly different from our own;" and so that's the kind of world that Martin has created for Westeros as well, a place where everyone is filthy and flea-ridden all the time, where a bad cut or a serious cold can kill you, where boys are sent to war at age eight and girls start having babies at age twelve, precisely because most people are going to be damn lucky to live even to the age of forty, that is if they're not too busy being a slave, or having their head chopped off by some prince on a sudden random lark, because they're having a bad day and you just happen to standing next to them.

Martin knows how to convey all this in a nicely plain-spoken, straightforward way, and blessedly cuts most of the flowery elements of typical faux-Medieval dialogue while still retaining the rhythm and flow of such dialogue; and thus in many ways Ice & Fire feels more like a historical tale than a fantastical one, especially with Martin's decision to add actual magical elements only sparingly at first, and to tie them initially to the semi-mythical way that the very subject is even regarded anymore in Westeros' "modern, enlightened" times. Because that's another element of these stories that carried a deep power for me in particular as a history buff, is the sense of tremendous amounts of time passing, of the way we are essentially looking at a snapshot of this world in a period of its history when it's migrating from one all-encompassing set of beliefs to a profoundly different one. Because much like real Medieval Europe, the Westeros of our time is undergoing a transition from a pagan-based form of religion (full of nameless spirits tied directly to the forces of nature, the worship of a sacred type of tree, even supposed mythical creatures that are rumored to live in the uninhabited far, far north of the continent) to a more modern religion brought over by the invading humans who now dominate the continent, similar to Christianity but with them splitting God not into the three forms of Catholicism (the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit) but rather seven intimations, and thus with their entire society and most of their rituals now based around the idea of seven being a lucky and even holy number.

And so is Westeros right now going through the excruciatingly slow, thousand-year process of having their society defined by an entirely new belief system, with Martin inserting a whole series of fascinating details and small moments throughout the manuscript of the ways this transition is being handled. So just to cite one of my favorite examples, back when this paganism dominated Westeros a thousand years ago, tradition dictated the building of a "godswood" to be attached to every castle across the continent, essentially a formal garden containing at least one of these sacred "weirwood" trees just mentioned, which served as a mobile outdoor church of sorts; but while these spaces still technically exist in the "modern" times of our story, and are still used in the traditional religious way up in the far north where this paganism is still seriously practiced, most of the old weirwood trees in "mainland" Westeros either died or were cut down centuries ago, with the "godswood" spaces now more like secular city parks, even as they still continue to be the focal point for most of the purely formal ceremonies that take place across the kingdom, exactly like how there are still many pagan traditions woven into our modern marriage ceremonies and holiday parties in the real world.

To be frank, it's for elements like these that I've become such an obsessive fan of the Westeros books, and not the soap-opera-like actual plot, which to be honest is the element I find the least interesting of all, because of its inherently generic cookie-cutter nature. (This royal family hates that royal family; this prince has made a secret pact with that prince; this guy is claiming the suddenly empty throne but now that guy and that other guy are too, and now we've all got our swords out and we're screaming mottos at each other on blood-soaked battlefields, blah blah blah blah blah.) And the reason I like these world-building elements so much is that when they're done well, like they are here, they let us reflect on real history in a way that almost no other genre of fiction can, inspire us to look at timeworn cliches from our real society in an entirely new, almost deconstructionist light, and to understand the thousands of years of decline and progress and decline and progress that made them cliches in the first place. And as everyone who's been following these books knows, this is one of the other things that's been getting them so much attention, is just the mind-blowing meticulousness that Martin brings to his world-building in Ice & Fire, with each of the dozens of places he invents just so brimming with history and detail and an airtight internal logic that you could literally write a short standalone novel about each and every one of them simply on their own. (And indeed, with the full saga eventually clocking in at seven thousand pages, you could argue that there literally are several dozen small standalone novels embedded within it, the whole thing working as well as it does precisely because each of these places are so complex and fascinating on their own, so much so that they could literally be pulled out and serve as the main setting of their own self-contained fictional series.)

The Wall in Westeros

Again, I'll mention only one example of the dozens I could, which just happens to be not only my favorite but that of many Ice & Fire fans, which is the remarkable edifice known simply as "The Wall," similar to the real-life Hadrian's Wall that the Roman Empire built across the top of England to keep out the barbarian Scottish hordes, but in this case a far larger and more impressive structure, constructed entirely out of giant skyscraper-sized chunks of ice; as the legend goes, roughly eight thousand years ago Westeros saw an invasion of mythical creatures from the icy northern wastelands that nearly killed off the human race, and thus the great magicians of the time built this impossible large wall with their dark conjuring skills, which has been manned ever since by a private army known as the "Night's Watch" (once five thousand strong, now only a tenth of that number, because of no one ever seeing these mythical beasts again in the thousands of years since). And so the mere existence of this impossible structure is enough just on its own to make you wonder how much more of its semi-mythical history is true (which unlike Lord of the Rings is supposed to be not objective truth but a blurry mix of lore and legend, the kind of half-made-up bogeytales that nannies tell their wards at night to keep them on good behavior), even though it's entirely possible as well that this wall was built with actual manmade technology, but merely a technique that's been forgotten in the thousands of years since, exactly like how Medieval Europe really did forget how to pull off many of the architectural and engineering feats that were common among the Greeks, Romans and Persians. And then in the meanwhile, Martin paints this Night's Watch as a combination of monks, Jedi Knights, the French Foreign Legion and the Australian penal colonies of the 1700s, a forgotten militia of humorless straightedges who forsake sex, their families, and owning property for life once "taking the Black," who are derided by the rest of the population as pointless guards against nonexistent fairytale creatures, whose only real purpose anymore is to serve as a convenient dumping ground for all the kingdom's undesirables, the rapists and slave-traders and political prisoners who are shuttled there by force so that the citizens of Westeros never have to think about them again. And sheesh, how can you not be fascinated by that?

What may ultimately be the most interesting part of the Westeros mythos, though -- or at least definitely the icing on the cake that was made out of all these previous raw ingredients -- is how Martin is very slowly and very organically re-introducing elements of actual magic back into this modern world, which is ultimately what makes it a fantasy project instead of mere historical fiction, and very astutely doing it so that it's the most believable elements of the unbelievable stuff that first starts coming true again; for example, as we enter page one of the first book, Westeros lore is filled not just with evil wizards but mythical beasts, creatures like dragons and "direwolves" that like the rest of the myths haven't actually been seen in hundreds and hundreds of years, while by the last page of the book we've seen the re-discovery of all these creatures and more. And that's smart of Martin to do, because it's a lot easier to believe in the re-appearance of seldom-seen creatures than in some dude in a pointy hat shooting lightning from his fingers (think for example of all the supposed "mythical" creatures that Renaissance explorers discovered to actually exist), which when combined with its gritty Medieval setting lays the longterm groundwork for him slowly introducing yet more and more magical elements as the series continues, in a way so that we eventually will buy the idea of some dude with lightning shooting out of his fingers. And I'm excited about that, frankly, in a way I'm usually not with fantasy literature, and certainly in a way that wouldn't exist if Martin had simply introduced enchanted jewelry and bearded spellcasters on page one, much like how Tolkien does in Lord of the Rings.

Oh, and there are of course a thousand more things about this series I haven't even touched on, not just details but big major elements I've run out of time to mention; for example, one entire strain of this story takes place not on Westeros at all, but rather the vaguely defined continent just east of it, whose westernmost cities (the ones closest to Westeros, that is) are clearly supposed to evoke the exotic, seafaring nature of the eastern Mediterranean, and then inland morphs into a terrain much like Mesopotamia, and with an entirely new tribe-based race to go with that. (And again, Martin uses this topic to make a little dig at the way Tolkien handled the same subject; instead of the faceless, animalistic berserkers that non-whites come off as in Lord of the Rings, Martin's easterners are more a combination of Native American spiritual agrarians and proud Bedouin warriors, a group just as multifaceted and worthy of our empathy as anyone on mainland Westeros itself.) But I'll leave it to you to discover all these unmentioned elements for yourself; because as it's probably clear, A Game of Thrones comes highly recommended to just about everyone out there, and in fact I'll be posting smaller reviews of all the other books as well this summer, fall and winter, for those who would like to make the journey with me and be part of a longer conversation about it all throughout the rest of this year. It is a truly special event in the history of modern literature, and I'm excited to be a part of it as it's actually unfolding in front of our eyes.

Read even more about A Game of Thrones: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 5:27 PM, July 15, 2011. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |