George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

Short take: I don’t think I’ve read better fantasy than Game of Thrones. It beats hell out of The Hobbit, for sure.

Longer take: I saw some of the episodes of the HBO series and was impressed, and I’d seen Martin’s name referenced all over the place as someone whose work was an “attempt to revise Tolkein,” the quote from no place in particular but surely used by more than one observer. I’m all for ditching the Tolkein model of retrograde monarchist, legitimist, patriarchal, racist fantasy (adjectives is no particular order).

I will not rehearse the plot, widely available elsewhere. More of interest is the role Martin may play in junking the Tolkein model, and then the larger question of whether or not the genre can even be salvaged in a socio-political sense.

Before I hit the political stuff, I should point out that not only is the book better than what I’ve seen in the series (to be sure a worthy adaptation), it’s as well-written as any fantasy I’ve read. Martin is not simply an exceptional technician, but rather he brings a broad and deep understanding of human social development in both cultural and historical terms. I imagine I would disagree with his take on some of these understandings, but we would actually have something to disagree about. Everything about his work indicates not only an exceptional curiosity but a willingness and ability to do the reading it’s satisfaction requires.

So, on to the scorecard. Round One, Gender. Martin comes out of this gate strong, and not only takes the point but for my money gets a bonus for actually having a much more forward approach to gender than not only Tolkein–low-hanging fruit, you might say–but than the HBO series. Meaning, unlike the series, Martin’s book doesn’t undermine itself with soft-core porn.

The issue with gender is both a matter of women and men. If Martin deals with it well, we see a range of ways that characters can be women and be men, and also the ways that they are socialized into relatively constrained roles. This he does.

First, women. Most important is that Martin draws his female characters as fully as his males. The Stark sisters, Sansa and Arya are instructive: both are female children of a great lord, so each has enormous status and no institutional power. They boys get the institutional power. Martin clarifies the gender role in this way. However, and this is the key, the two respond entirely differently to the situation. Sansa wants to play at courtly romance, and Arya learns how to use a sword herself. Two responses to the same problem.

Outlining the problem, Martin then puts forward the exceptions, which in reality–fantasy is fantasy, but it must have resonance with our actual experience as people to have meaning–happen consistently. How do women find themselves wielding institutional power in a rigidly patriarchal institutional system? Two ways: 1) through men and 2) by creating a new set of rules. For the first, we have Cersei Lannister, who, once Robert Baratheon shuffles off his mortal coil, acts as regent more or less for her son, the contemptible Joffrey.

Beauty, thy name is eyeball.

For possibility 2) above, we have Daenerys Targaryen. Emilia Clarke, who portrays her in the series, has taken no small amount of flack on Tumblr for her acting, which never bothered me as I don’t expect much from television. In any event, and though it barely begins in this first novel, we can see that Daenerys, in addition to developing personal qualities that fit her for wielding political power, creates a new set of rules. Receiving dragon’s eggs for a wedding gift and through magic of some sort hatching the dragons successfully, we see her becoming a political leader through the new rule: the person with the dragons makes the rules. Nobody will argue with the dragons. Clearly, this will be a thread a couple books down the road.

Second, men. Not just women, but men, too. And what, in Martin, is a man? Not just a rightful heir to the throne who now is a ranger, but we see a variety of men. Above all, we have Tyrion Lannister, widely considered the most interesting character of any. He is very likely the single clearest-thinker in the book, certainly the most decent in his family–not an achievement, as the near-universal villainy of the Lannisters is one of the weak elements in Martin’s conception–and a dwarf, disappointing to his father because he will never, in an obvious way, achieve martial valor expected of a man of his class. Tyrion has a full sexual life in his relationship with Shae, and shows himself to be a military asset despite his personal stature. Martin sketches the expections of a man, and then shows how real men in their diversity of being confound them.

Round two: legitimism. Martin exposes legitimism–the idea of a “rightful” king descended by blood–for the farce it is. Like Marx’s critique of political economy’s abstraction from actual history in Capital, v. 1’s famous section on “So-called Primitive Accumulation,” so does Martin note that state power is, in some original struggle, always stolen. The sitting king, Robert Baratheon, stole his throne. By the end of the book, Joffrey, publicly known as his son and heir but in fact his wife’s son through an incestuous relationship with her brother, takes the throne. The veneer of legitimacy there, but not legitimacy in fact.

Martin’s larger point, similar to Moorcock’s with Elric, is that monarchs were, as a group, awful people who did awful things to keep themselves in power. It went to their heads. The king Baratheon replaced was insane and presided over slaughter. Baratheon, friend to Eddard Stark, the most sympathetic of the noble lords in the book, is himself sympathetic but at the same time miserable as a ruler and not at all suited to it. Joffrey, his replacement, is petulant and cruel. Very simply, quite the contrary to Tolkein’s absurdly sanitized true king, there are no good kings in Martin, and the violence they use to maintain themselves is only legitimate in hindsight, never in advance.

Nearly done.

Round Three (in this fight): Class.  I might better put this as “social identity,” but given the text “class” is the more appropriate word.  Tolkein’s approach to the genre, which largely defined its terms, was rigidly classist, fairly obviously.  The drama was between elites, and the laboring classes showed up for the battles.  Not surprising from a Tory.

It is, at least thus far, the same in Game of Thrones, to my disappointment.  To be sure, Martin will tell the story Martin intuits, and one likely can’t resolve all the tensions in a genre in one novel or even one series, just as much as Tolkein crystallized the form of the genre rather than invented it.  In any event, though there is much opportunity to really develop a broader look at class, Martin elects not to.  One imagines he could.

That’s all for now. I’m in the second book and will talk about indigenous people when I do the write-up of that one.


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