A Song of Ice and Fire is a soap opera with Dragons and Ice Zombies. I’m not trying to besmirch the soap opera (we tend to revile things women like, so while soaps aren’t my thing, that’s just a matter of taste), but George Martin’s books, like some soaps, have a tendency to revel in the baser things of life. Sometimes it hinders my enjoyment of the epic world he’s built. I feel like I’ve been entranced by a snake-charmer, and should pull free.
Why am I reading this stuff?
I’m not afraid of reading about hard truths, about the things people can do to one another. George Martin has obviously studied medieval history. Tales of war are full of violence, rape and political intrigue. Mythology, of course, is full of sex. So what’s my problem?
In the last published book (A Dance With Dragons), we are treated to Princess Asha submitting to a rape, because as it turns out, she likes it after all! The ideal woman likes it rough, right boys? (I will not be reproducing that passage here.)*
Here’s my problem: was it really necessary for me to read a rape fantasy? I’ve seen authors joke that they don’t know what “plot-relevant sex” is anyway, so readers should stop being such prudes. But I feel compelled to point out that many speculative fiction authors deal with gritty subjects, and many do it with a great deal more class than Martin does. Louis McMaster Bujold, for example, in Shards of Honor (one of my favorite books) writes about the difficulties a woman protagonist faces in a militarized society. Cordelia Naismith is captured by the enemy and threatened with rape in a very tense scene, where we see her would-be-rapist prodded toward her like an animal. Bujold does not mince words, but she also doesn’t rub the reader’s face in in. In fact, even though we are treated to images of this naked, barbaric man, Bujold’s Cordelia pities him.
I read fiction so that the world in which I live can be recast in a new light. I should have an insight into human nature. That insight does not have to be accompanied with flowers and roses, or packaged in shiny Disney animation with talking animals. Oedipus has sex with his mother. Orpheus, the idiot, looks back. (Honey, you had ONE JOB.) Psyche looks at Cupid’s face. Lot, in the Bible, is intoxicated by his daughters and raped by them.
I could go on.
My point is that the hero does not always win, and I don’t need that to be the case for a story to possess verisimilitude, to have an insight into some deep truth about human action. I am not, therefore, upset that Martin kills his heroes. His storytelling has surprised me, even delighted me at times.
And yet, I still, at the same time, think that something smells. Martin gave an interview to Time Magazine recently, and he said something that I think nailed down what it is about his fantasy that bothers me. Here is the passage:
Did Lady Stoneheart come about because it was hard to say a permanent goodbye to Catelyn?
Yeah, maybe. That may have been part of it. Part of it was also, it’s the dialogue that I was talking about. And here I’ve got to get back to Tolkien again. And I’m going to seem like I’m criticizing him, which I guess I am. It’s always bothered me that Gandalf comes back from the dead. The Red Wedding for me in Lord of the Rings is the mines of Moria, and when Gandalf falls — it’s a devastating moment! I didn’t see it coming at 13 years old, it just totally took me by surprise. Gandalf can’t die! He’s the guy that knows all of the things that are happening! He’s one of the main heroes here! Oh god, what are they going to do without Gandalf? Now it’s just the hobbits?! And Boromir, and Aragorn? Well, maybe Aragorn will do, but it’s just a huge moment. A huge emotional investment.
And then in the next book, he shows up again, and it was six months between the American publications of those books, which seemed like a million years to me. So all that time I thought Gandalf was dead, and now he’s back and now he’s Gandalf the White. And, ehh, he’s more or less the same as always, except he’s more powerful. It always felt a little bit like a cheat to me. And as I got older and considered it more, it also seemed to me that death doesn’t make you more powerful. That’s, in some ways, me talking to Tolkien in the dialogue, saying, “Yeah, if someone comes back from being dead, especially if they suffer a violent, traumatic death, they’re not going to come back as nice as ever.” That’s what I was trying to do, and am still trying to do, with the Lady Stoneheart character.
Understanding Tolkien requires an understanding of Christianity. This does not mean possessing a fundamentalist view of sex or an inability to cope with gritty, ugly things. (Lot in the Bible, remember.) It requires a different understanding of death. To die for one’s friends is worthy of reward. That is why Gandalf comes back more powerful than before. That’s why it’s not a cheat.
In Martin’s view, Ned Stark is a probably fool. In my Christian view, he is a martyr. If Ned Stark’s death isn’t any different than Joffrey’s, then what the hell is the point? Am I really supposed to believe that they both end up in the same place?
Martin’s books like to show readers how hard it is to be a hero. That being good might not come with material rewards or power. In that respect, I understand the project.
But I’m afraid that we’re not going to get the eucatastrophe, the good that comes from the bad, that Tolkien so effectively delivered in his own stories. I don’t think readers will get that from Martin’s mind. Maybe it’s not fair to accuse Martin of not being Tolkien, but it helps me see why I have major problems with his his narrative decisions.
I’m too Catholic.
*Theon Greyjoy’s sister, as she’s named in the books.