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Winter Is Here: George R.R. Martin and American Fantasy

May 3, 2012

I’m not necessarily someone who embraces fads, or ingests media just because it’s “popular with nerds.” For example, I never watched Lost, and I’m probably never going to. I think it’s this stubbornness that lead my brother to give me the first four installments of A Song of Ice and Fire this past Christmas. Of course, just because I had them didn’t mean I read them.

It took a lot of public transit to finally whittle away all the other things I had to read before I finally relented and picked up A Game of Thrones. I honestly kept reading because of the first ten pages, which are pretty much the exact mixture of low fantasy, horror, decent pacing, accessible writing, and solid narration that I’ve ever wanted. Of course, the first ten pages really have little to do with the book as a whole. It winds its way through the stories of a few characters quite clearly, but it’s not what drives the plot, it’s just a really great cold open.

Then I stopped reading because I found it to be… somewhat boring?

As someone who has been reading fantasy literature since they could read, I am sort of tired of reading about leather and chain, named swords, and men who are referred to by a variation of the English ‘Sir.’ Also, I was overcome with the realization that the first ten pages were nothing but a cold open, and that instead I was being drawn into a slow lumbering political soap opera that just happens to be set in a low fantasy world with European influences. Not necessarily being in the mood for such things, I set it aside. I became inevitably drawn back to it however for several reasons; a drive to complete it, the way the book makes me reflect on the type of fantasy I would like to write, and also the fact that it is a well written series.

The point that I’m lackadaisically arriving at is that one of the most interesting things I’ve found about this series, is the way other people have reacted to its popularity, and their own enjoyment of it. Many of my friends have stated that they, “don’t normally like this sort of thing,” or that they’re, “not one of those fantasy nerds,” but that they love these books. One of my nerdier acquaintances has even said, “It took me a long time to admit this, but I do love A Song of Ice and Fire more than Lord of the Rings.” In fact, George R.R. Martin has even been called “The American J.R.R. Tolkien,” a moniker that I find both very fitting and very inappropriate, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Let’s first deal with why it should surprise no one that “normal,” people love these books, and that the television show is very popular (no matter how much the New York Times derides it). As I stated, this is not really a fantasy novel, it is a political thriller with fantasy trappings. The series is about the intrigues of the noble families of Westeros, and how the intricate relationships between them shape the continent-nation and the wider world as a whole. Sure, there are magical creatures, dragons, a lot of leather and chain, and some general whacky stuff but at the end of the day that stuff is there to make it stand out against Tom Clancy’s latest stack of pulp or the latest season of As The World Turns than Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera or Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

When I first started reading these books I was sort of angry with all the main characters. Largely because they’re all nobles, they’re the elites of Westeros. I began to wonder about the lowborn peoples of this world. How do the pikemen marching to battle under banners of wolf and lion feel about their lot in life? Or the politics of the day? Do they care at all?
Then I realized, to excuse the crude parlance, that the life of a pikeman probably sucks a lot of balls. Nor would the life of a pikeman be particularly interesting in a world run by people who inherit their titles.

The other thing is that Americans do love nobility and the elites. We always have, even de Tocqueville wrote about the queer American love for aristocracy and money. As many more intelligent men have theorized, perhaps it is our lack of such titled persons that makes us so intrigued by them, or a strange yearning for our English roots. Maybe, our love for the elites in our society stems from the fact that everyone likes to believe that in America it’s just a matter of hard work, and a little luck, that can elevate someone to the elite. While these may not be true social facts, they are part of our cultural system, and part of what most likely drives us to wonder over the lives of the rich and famous.

By extension, the Lords and Ladies of the Seven Kingdoms are the rich and famous of their world. Their deeds are sung of across the land, and they wear clothing embroidered with jewels. I’m certain it would turn the stomach of any Marxist who read it. Of course, the average American isn’t a Marxist, the average person wants to imagine themselves wearing a doublet crested with rubies.

Frankly, to anyone who says this isn’t their thing, or they wouldn’t normally like a “fantasy series,” I really would beg to differ. This is totally your thing. Even if you don’t think you’ll get off on the political intrigue, the elitism, the escapism, and so on, did I mention there’s tons of sex and violence? Sex, Violence, and Political Intrigue? Yet, when you put it inside of a castle, and you replace Senator with Lord and Colonel with Knight, people don’t think it’s going to appeal to them? So strange to me, so very strange.

Now to turn to you, nerds.

Within the community of people that supposedly, “like this sort of thing,” you know guys that know miniatures need three colors for regulation play, there has been this really weird response. The community of fantasy lovers definitely likes A Song of Ice and Fire, but their love has this sort of trepidation to it. There is that acknowledgment that this is not quite fantasy. Most people that fall into the assumed audience of this series are people that could explain what I just did. It’s not news to them.

Hence, why there is this brief hesitation to say, “Yeah, it’s better than Lord of the Rings.” This is because George R.R. Martin’s tale isn’t one of grand adventure, righteousness, and good vs evil. It’s a story of political intrigue, shades of gray, and dickish nobility. Of course, just as Tolkien has inspired many a table top roleplaying game that traverses continents because of magical artifacts and prophecy, there are games and stories that have always reflected the tale that Martin tells. The fantasy-wrapped political thriller is legitimate fantasy, it’s just a side of the dodecahedron we haven’t been paying as much attention to these past couple of decades.

The other thing about Martin being better than Tolkien is pretty simple. Martin writes a lot more accessibly than Tolkien does, and I feel no need to make apologies about that statement. When I was a child with an insatiable appetite for books, the notion of reading ten pages about trees sounded awesome because it was cool to just be reading ten pages regardless of what was on them. Trying to read the same pages just a few years later was agony.

Meanwhile, Martin crams a lot of plot, characterization, and sex, into ten pages. Is Martin a flawless author? God no, sometimes I feel like there is no difference between different character’s chapters. His pacing can sometimes be off, and that’s not helpful when there’s a massive field of characters that I’m supposed to know because some of them are going to get killed off left and right. Also, in interactions off the page, he can sometimes come off as sort of a pompous dick.

Then again, there are people ready to dub him the American Tolkien so, can you blame him?

That title of course, irks me on some level.

Though I must admit, in many ways its apt. Martin is really the first American in the past decade or so to really win acclaim in fantasy. The whole genre seemed like it was trapped on the other side of the pond for some reason. He’s helped make fantasy popular once more, and he has ratcheted up the sex and violence giving fantasy an edge (we Americans like to make things edgy and cool). He’s certainly won over some loyal fanboys who are trying to wrap their minds around Dothraki as well as some did Elven or Black Speech, and maps abound. Martin has made waves in fantasy fandom, and the rest of our culture. He’s certainly deserving of some kind of respect.

At the same time though, the American Tolkien doesn’t quite sit right with me.

There a number of reasons why, first of which is just world development. I don’t feel like Martin has thought his world out as well as Tolkien did. Once again, it’s not a requirement that fantasy authors’ worlds be as well thought out as Tolkien’s, since it could quite easily be argued that Tolkien wrote his books just so he could write about his world. However, there are definitely other American authors of far less prominence whose worlds have been much more meticulously thought out, some even go so far as to base their magic off of quantum mechanics.

Next is the fact that I find Hobbits far more relatable than any of the Starks. Tolkien did to an extent write a story about the everyman saving the world. Frodo was an innocent youth who ends up carrying the burden of the world, and his predecessor Bilbo was just a shlubby man who got wrapped up in this ‘adventuring’ business. Hobbits are distinctly more like humans than the humans that Tolkien writes because they’re the ones who we experience the world through. Meanwhile, the Starks are a bunch of stuffy inbred weirdos constantly going on about honor. Hobbits clearly show us that the common man can ascend to great deeds, while the Starks show us that business is best left to those who have the blood of the First Men in their veins. Even a Stark bastard is better than you are.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly is the fact that this doesn’t feel very American to me. It certainly feels Western, and it’s certainly Fantasy, but it doesn’t resonate as American. Yes, Americans will like it, for all the reasons stated above, but the other thing about America is that while we do love the idea of monarchs and lords and ladies in our escapist past times, we don’t actually like them. We do, regardless of its truth, believe that a poor immigrant can ascend to greatness. America is based on democracy, equality, and its citizens are average despite their nation being “exceptional.” I’m also not reminded of America physically when I read descriptions of the world that the characters exist in. Even the harshest New England winters don’t compare to Winterfell, and nor does passage to the Eyrie remind me of crossing from Nevada to California. Only when I come to the alien lifestyle of the Dothraki do I feel a connection to America’s vast plains though I think I’m supposed to feel like I’m on the Mongolian steppe.

America is a place of many cultures and ecosystems, and I feel its fantasies should reflect that more. If we’re going to crown someone as the American anything, maybe they shouldn’t be playing to medieval European fantasy tropes. So perhaps, George R.R. Martin hasn’t won his crown yet, after all when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die…*

*: I do not advocate killing George R.R. Martin…though if someone were to write something so great that he had a heart attack from its awesomeness and the realization that he could never out do it, that would be pretty amazing.

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