A couple of years ago my sister told me to read Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin. She promised me I’d love it. So I downloaded it onto my Reader – there was a 4-book set and the fifth newest book, yay – and there it stayed for well over a year. I didn’t know anything about it except that it was fantasy literature and I was mildly deterred by that knowledge – sometimes fantasy can be hard to deal with. You have to suspend disbelief to enter a whole new world, complete with mythology, history, speech patterns, languages, names. It’s a lot. In my experience, the best fantasy literature uses known culture as a framework on which to drape the imaginary world. This facilitates acceptance and understanding so that you don’t confuse people with too much new stuff. Like bizarre names, for instance. The toughest fantasy lit takes you FAR from your frame of reference and usually thrusts upon the reader too many new nouns, usually names. The Silmarillion comes to mind. Interestingly, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are very grounded in western idioms, which make them accessible, yet Tolkein goes nuts in his other books and even though there’s still a discernible Celtic influence (fantasy authors love the Gaelic), he falls victim to his love of linguistics and it’s a veritable avalanche of names and languages. People who love LOTR and The Hobbit try The Silmarillion and are usually defeated by it, me included. I will say, I love LOTR and the Narnia series. I’m one of those people who periodically re-read LOTR and sat there in the movie saying things like, “That didn’t happen in the book.” I also love Ruth Nichols’ books A Walk Between the Worlds and The Marrow of the Earth which you can’t even get anymore except from alibris.com but they are wonderful. Lian Hearn has done an amazing job with his (her? – Hearn is a pseudonym) Across the Nightingale Floor series which is a similar parallel-world fantasy based on Japanese history, geography, and legend. Again, there is a grounding, a familiarity which makes the fantasy world easier to understand and care about. I’m also enjoying fantasy literature that is located on earth, but incorporates magic and fantasy, such as Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and Lev Grossman’s books The Magicians and The Magician King. Fantasy, and we didn’t even have to leave Earth. Well, we do in the Grossman books, but still. (I hear there’s a third book coming out, yay!)
Generally though, I’ve found that most fantasy literature omits aspects of life that prevent the “world” from becoming fully realized. Lord of the Rings in particular, has a simplicity that helps the narrative flow and makes the plot easy to understand. Its simplicity conveys powerful emotion and the reader becomes vested in the outcome. But let’s face it, Middle-Earth is not a fully functioning world. There is a lot missing. Religion, for example. There is no religion whatsoever, institutionalized or otherwise. What do the hobbits believe in, besides gardening, pipes and beer? There’s no hobbit deity? No hobbit church? That’s odd. What do they do when tragedy strikes? When bad things happen, many people need to believe in a benevolent deity in order to get through the pain and survive. We need to believe that someone is looking out for us, that justice will be served in the next world, because it clearly isn’t being served in this one. We need to have some belief in an afterlife. We need to believe that we’ll be reunited with loved ones, and that the inexplicable phenomena that occur in the world are designed by a deity who may be harsh but loves us anyway and is just teaching us a lesson. Maybe. Well, I don’t, but lots do and it’s fine, I’m not criticizing. But what’s up with the hobbits? Are they just so down-to-earth and practical – and, frankly, dull – that they don’t look to a god to help them when times get rough? They are very English so maybe the stiff upper lip is good enough, but it’s hard to believe. Often the simpler the folk, the more they need religion to explain the inexplicable. Which brings me to the Rohirrim. Remember, the people with the horse culture who inhabit the steppes and are essentially Saxons, except without the Horse God which seems like a big omission. They don’t seem like a very literate people, so you’d think superstition would be rampant, no? Apparently not. The elves are practically gods already, and seem to be held in some reverence or superstitious fear by the other inhabitants of Middle-Earth. They’re pretty godlike already. Smart, gorgeous, immortal, kind of detached about stuff the rest of us care deeply about. The end of the world is imminent but they’re all going to emigrate to some sort of Elysium overseas, no worries. The most goddess-like character in the whole book is Galadriel, who definitely comes across as powerfully divine. Yet she isn’t worshiped as a goddess and even rejects the opportunity when offered the Ring. Remember when she roars, “All will love me, and despair!” Awesome. But ultimately she’s not interested. So definitely no religion, even when there are ready-made gods available, if unwilling, for worship. Interesting. I think the introduction of religion was dismissed as distracting to the overall story.
What about the economy of Middle-Earth? A certain amount of trade is inferred but it is of severely limited scope. Goods from the Shire make it across Middle-Earth, at least as far as Saruman’s domain, but other than that we don’t get a sense of an economy, of trade, and how that economy is impacted by war. What about agriculture, besides the hobby-farm type popular in the Shire? In the movies, the absence of farming communities makes for a stark and dramatic landscape, but what do these people eat? In the battle of Gondor, you have the walled city and then just barren land all around? No way – that would be inhabited and farmed and full of shops and businesses thriving because of their proximity to the city – in the real world. But in Middle Earth? Nothing, not even refugees. What about small business? Entrepreneurship? There’s one inn, at Bree, but that’s it. Barliman is the sole businessman. There’s no big business either, obviously. There must be industry somewhere, because the hobbits’ houses have glass and metal features to them, but not only is there no sense of it, but the evils of industry in the Shire are shown as a warning to Frodo as what will happen should he fail in his quest. So clearly the ideal is the pastoral life. There isn’t even a sense of a basic social structure like the serf system of medieval Europe. The Shire has agriculture but no serfs and obviously no machinery. Elsewhere, there’s the lord, or king, and everyone follows the lord, usually to war, but there is no politics, none of the alliance-building and ulterior motives, the double-crossing and secret pacts that characterize human political systems in practice. There are no powerful families or groups that need to be bought or appeased, or threatened, into compliance with the lord’s agenda. Again, more streamlining.
I mean, I get it. That stuff can detract from your story, and it can be kind of boring. We prefer the struggles of princesses, and magical beings, and prophecies being fulfilled. We love that stuff. But it can make fantasy a somewhat thin genre. The standards of good fiction just don’t get fulfilled in a lot of fantasy literature, that’s all I’m saying.
For instance: how many fully realized characters do we enjoy in LOTR? Frodo, Sam….that’s about it, and I’m being generous with Sam. The hobbits in general are a pretty plain and unimaginative people, essentially cultural philistines. I mean, nobody even reads, except Bilbo, and he’s regarded as an odd bird. (I relate to that.) Gandalf, maybe? The obsessed Smeagol? Character depth comes from internal struggle, with the growth of the person, with revelations of the character’s history to give insight into the character’s motivations. There’s not a lot of that in LOTR, even for the major characters. You can’t get away with that in conventional literature!
The big thing in LOTR is choices. Frodo’s choice to carry on with the destruction of the Ring, Arwen’s choice to marry Aragorn and live as a mortal queen, Smeagol’s choice to betray Frodo, Sam’s choice to take up the Ring and keep on truckin’. And the consequences thereof. But all the other characters are very basic or else just cannon fodder. Orcs? What do they want, really? Just to kill and destroy? Are they just puppets? I can’t believe that. What is their motivation? Roman soldiers were promised land, farms, in return for their service. What are Orcs promised? I don’t see orcs farming. Sauron is just an evil entity, the burning eye in the sky. Destroy, destroy, ya da da. All he wants is to kill everyone in Middle Earth and preside over the blasted landscape? Sounds like a partay! Come on. Even North Korean dictators take a break from the evil to enjoy a good movie now and then. And most evil monomaniacs are interested in personal gain so they can buy Lamborghinis and Loire chateaux and hire celebrities to attend their birthday parties. It’s not like Sauron’s after riches that he can squirrel away in a Middle-Earth Switzerland so that he can send his kids to Middle-Earth Eton and go gambling in the Middle-Earth Macau – although I’d like to see that. (Can’t you just see Sauron at a party at Hef’s mansion?) He’s just a force of darkness with apparently no pleasures in life. Sad, really. Poor Sauron.
So where am I going with this? Game of Thrones, which rejects the tendencies of most fantasy literature and is so incredibly realistic that it blew my mind. Realpolitik! Changing allegiances, double crosses, spies, dark horses that come out of nowhere and mix it all up, new opportunities to complicate things…It’s brilliant. Complex human relationships. Real motivations. Conflicted characters. Characters who grow as people, learning and developing. Wow. Plus magic, dragons, supernatural beings and what have you just to make my cup runneth over. Competing religions! Sweet!
I don’t think you can get all this from just reading the first book. There is one character in the first book who seems irredeemably evil, but lo and behold, he gets to grow as a person and becomes a sympathetic character in the second book and thereafter. He’s not perfect – nobody is in GOT, that’s my point – but he develops a whole new facet to his character. Love it.
I’ve heard criticisms of GOT, about the violence against women in particular, and someone said something about “fake Welsh” which I thought was odd. GOT is definitely set in a European landscape. I don’t know how you can have a problem with that. It’s essentially England, but extended, so that the far south is almost Mediterranean in climate, and the far north is essentially Arctic. It’s medieval, time-wise, so I think that the level of violence is actually fairly consistent with that era. And it’s a time of war – violent by definition. The language is not chivalric language; it’s fairly rough but again I think it’s consistent with the “times,” so to speak. If anything these elements add verisimilitude to the story. Rape, looting, mayhem, bad language – it’s all part of war and not just medieval war either. So it’s distasteful but truthful and convincing.
Names of people, places and things are fairly straightforward and not tongue-twistingly complex, so it’s easy to keep track of who’s who, although there are so many relevant characters that when you start a new chapter sometimes you have to read for a while before you figure out who it is you’re reading about. Often they’re concerned with mundane matters such as food, shelter, warmth, the basics of survival in wartime. It’s quite amazing to have such realism built into a fantasy series. You see the impact of war on a countryside. Byproducts of war such as famine and disease are present. There are refugees! War needs financing – bankers show up to call in loans. All the trickle-down effects of war are felt in GOT.
Characterization: unlike the orcs and elves in LOTR, it’s not always easy to tell who is “good” and who “bad” – these are not stormtroopers in white armour. Ugly does not equal evil. Even the idea of “good” and “bad” is not clear – good people do bad things, for their own reasons, and vice versa. I always liked Ken Follett’s spy novels because he always explained why the bad guys did what they did, so you could understand their motivation. I love that. I hate the evil-for-evil’s-sake bad guy. GOT is rich in this way; the characters grow and change and develop and surprise you, and it’s wonderful fun.
I first realized how involved I was with the series by my reaction when a major character was killed. I already knew that Martin does this – it’s part of the realism that hooks you – but I was so shocked I had to put the book down and go do something else for a while. I had a physical reaction – sweaty, heart pounding, major anxiety – for a fictional character! I’m not going to spoil it here but I simply could not believe this character died. My expectations were conventional – that this character would last to the end. Not so! There are a lot of shockers like that in GOT. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, Martin throws in a doozy of a plot twist or kills off someone important. There are also enough YAY moments so that you don’t get too depressed, thank goodness. There is religion, there is an economy – I love that there are bankers involved – there are different fairly fully-realized cultures that figure peripherally in the story and correspond roughly to Middle Eastern and Central Asian culture, and they have their own social structures and history and everything else.
At the core of the story is the Stark family and they are amazing, flawed and loveable characters. And I have to say, you cannot but care for these people. When I was in New York I was just starting the first book, and I saw in a market a t-shirt that had the Stark names on it: Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran, Rickon (Jon Snow). And another one with their direwolves’ names: Greywind, Lady, Nymeria, Summer, Shaggydog, (Ghost). The ones in brackets were printed in a different colour to denote Jon Snow’s illegitimacy. See? Complex family relationships! Pets! I’m pretty cynical about fiction but I confess, it’s incredible how much I care about the characters in GOT. I kind of regret not picking up that t-shirt now. I’m not the “fan” type, but I love the dwarf Tyrion, I love the last princess of the Targaryens (you rock Dany!), I love the female knight Brienne of Tarth, I love the onion knight – you know who you are – and I’m even liking Jaime Lannister although I never thought I would. If you’re reading GOT you know what I’m talking about and you understand all this cheering and stomping.
Game of Thrones: my favourite new fantasy series. My only concern is, I hear that the series will run to 8 or maybe even 10 books. Part of me is excited about that, but I hate waiting.
End note: I’m enjoying the TV series but does it need that much nudity? If I hear my kids even approaching I need to shut it off quickly because they tend to start new scenes with gratuitous sex. I don’t think it needs it but apparently it gets the husbands watching too so I guess that’s something.