George R.R Martin – Writing Virtuoso or Delusional Dreamer?
In the summer of 1993, the respected, if relatively unknown, author and television writer George R.R Martin was in the early stages of writing his newest science fiction novel ‘Avalon’, when he had a vivid idea of a scene with a young boy, no older than seven, witnessing the beheading of a man and finding direwolves in the snow. Believing that this idea was part of the epic fantasy Martin had always wanted to write, he drew maps, created numerous genealogies and carefully crafted the 12,000 year long history of his world. However, this project was put on hold for a few years as Martin returned to Hollywood, but some time later, this scene would be part of the first non-prologue chapter of ‘A Game of Thrones’, narrated by Brandon Stark, the second son of a great lord. He is but one of the many characters living in Martin’s harsh, medieval world, for this story is not your typical High Fantasy epic of good battling it out against evil, and inevitably triumphing.
Though Martin has cited J R.R Tolkien as inspiring him to become an author, he has profoundly rejected the classic fantasy tropes found in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and the way that the genre of fantasy was changed after its success. The flurry of indistinguishable fantasy stories wherein the lines between between good and evil are clearly marked, and where the hero simultaneously finds his love, defeats the dark villain and prevents the doom of humanity had disenchanted Martin. Early on, he
had asserted that his epic would be a different sort of story, one that would finally break the the hold that these tropes had over the genre and usher in the age of the long awaited modern fantasy. If you asked the loyal and fanatic fan base that Martin has grown, they would tell you that he has succeeded in this with his novels, a belief shared by many fantasy critics. However, there are those who hold the somewhat unpopular opinion that ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ has not only failed to light the spark of the modern fantasy, but has also reverted back to the same allegory that Martin had attested that he would solemnly avoid. Being the leading authority on all things fantasy, we at Fantasy Factualised have given ourselves the task of evaluating both sides and providing an irrefutable answer to the most heated topic in the genre. Is ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ the revolutionary reboot or is it just another fleck of dust in the mountain of failed fantasy?
Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’, is an atypical fantasy series, where the magical aspect of the story is minimal and marginalised, and is only addressed in the myths and legends told to frighten the children of the series. The stories talk of dragons and White Walkers, of giants and the little green men, and it seems that magic ‘was once a force in the world,’ but it is widely accepted by Kings and peasants alike that these are all simply tall tales. With magic being one of the epitomes of fantasy, tearing it out completely looks like a daring move, something that had to be done to promote change in the genre. And we would forever admire Martin if this is what he had in fact done. However, disappointingly, this is not the case. There are three dragons by the end of the first book, warlocks and prophecy start appearing in ‘A Clash of Kings’ (the second entry in the series) and the race of undead ice zombies (referred to as ‘the Others’ by the people of Westeros) appear in the very first pages. Magic does not remain in obscurity, but instead grows exponentially in importance. Martin gives a good in-universe explanation for this, claiming that the rebirth of dragons ushered in a fresh era of magic. However, by bringing back this mysterious, unexplained force, Martin takes a miss step in his storytelling, detracting from his hard work in building the rich political and human story that the first books were so acclaimed for.
The world of ‘Ice and Fire’ is not a sugar coated fairytale land, and Martin does not shy away from showing the cruel and unfair life of a medieval world. War in ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ is not pretty. The small folk are brutalised, their homes burnt, their crops stolen and their daughters raped. The quarrels of the few High Lords unfairly affect the lives of thousands, and, as Brynden Tully puts it, the ‘lands are awash with blood and flame,’ often due to petty disputes or a perceived slight from another ruler. Martin depicts how all actions can have grave repercussions. For example, in order to field ones army of twenty thousand men, they most forage from the forests or take it from the nearest small folk. This leads to the peasants starving, to outbreaks of fatal diseases and inevitably to the indirect death of thousands. brutal aspect of life is consistently put under the microscope chapter after chapter. The innkeeper Masha Heddle is hanged for ‘igniting the wroth of Tywin Lannister’, when she served the men of a rival house. This extreme yet accurate depiction of violence is somewhat unnerving to the modern reader, as we have been bombarded with stories that do not deal with the sensitive topics that are integral to meaningful story telling.
Perhaps Martin’s greatest achievement in the series is how well he has flipped the classic tale of good against evil in to something less black and white but just as intriguing. There are seven great families, each with their qualities and flaws that battle it out for land, freedom or power, but very few of the characters can be described as evil, and even less can be heroes. Though the reader feels naturally inclined to support those who strive to do good, they are all, shockingly killed off. Martin defies convention with his storytelling, forcing fans to evaluate the good against the bad of each and every character in the series. So it comes as no surprise to find that two of the favourite characters in the fandom are the witty dwarf with a drinking problem who enjoys nothing more than murdering family members, and an oath-breaking, incestuous knight who tried to kill a child, but is one of the few who seeks to bring a peaceful end to the conflict.
‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ is an ambitious project. It takes the author more than six years to release a book, and only five of the planned seven novels have been released, although the word count stands high at 1,736,054 – double that of the Bible. George R.R Martin promised to inject new life into the Low Fantasy genre, and has not completely failed to deliver. Yet despite flipping some of the classic fantasy tropes on their heads, Martin has trapped himself with his beasts and dragons, making it likely that the series will end in a large scale death event in a battle between Ice and Fire. Perhaps this was Martin’s plan all along. A lot can change in however long it takes for him to publish his last two books. His series may not occupy the Low Fantasy role he intended it to, but it poses important questions. Martin likes to point out that it was easy for Tolkien to say that Aragorn ruled wisely and well, but he doesn’t talk about what his tax policy was. The series is fundamentally about the politicking of the medieval court, and this is what makes it attractive to its millions of readers. It shows that having good intentions doesn’t make you a good ruler – you must make the hard decisions. Who doesn’t love watching strong fighters squirm at council meetings? But hey, if Martin never delivers the final books, well, there’s always the HBO show