On Palm Sunday, the HBO network will broadcast the first episode of their much-anticipated adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s A Game Of Thrones, which is the first volume of his fantasy epic A Song Of Fire And Ice. Since I didn’t want the television series to be my first introduction to the work of a writer that many have called “the American Tolkien”, I decided to burrow my way into this massive narrative. Currently, I find myself in the middle of the third volume, A Storm Of Swords. The whole opus so far consists of four books, A Game Of Thrones, A Clash Of Kings, A Storm Of Swords, and A Feast For Crows. A fifth volume, A Dance With Dragons, is supposed to be published this summer. It has been since 2005 that the last volume had been published, and Martin’s fans have been remarkably patient.
So, how does A Song Of Fire And Ice compare to its great predecessor? Like The Lord Of The Rings, Fire and Ice starts in media res. The narrative opens to the north of the Great Wall that protects the kingdom of Westeros from an unnamed and undescribed threat. A petulant lordling leads a group of reluctantly celibate lay brothers from an order known as the Night’s Watch deep into the northern forests in search of “wildling” raiders. They find a zombie-like threat none of them are ready to face. Immediately, Martin jumps a thousand leagues to the south, to Winterfell, the seat of House Stark. The Starks are the northernmost of the great baronal families that govern Westeros under the Iron Throne, whose current occupant, King Robert Baratheon, arrives at Winterfell to celebrate with his good friend Lord Eddard Stark.
Like Tolkien, Martin draws on an enormous canvas, and you learn about the complex history, geography, and anthropology of Westeros bit by bit, in much the same way as Tolkien introduced his backstory into Middle Earth. Martin is a masterful writer. He braids his tale from separate strands, yet never drops the thread. The pace is leisurely, and there is a lot going on at any particular time.
Martin accomplishes his remarkable feat by weaving third person viewpoints from nine or ten separate characters. Martin’s characters are where his genius really shines forth; the plot is fairly pedestrian, albeit ambitious, and the setting of Westeros is just medieval Britain written continent-size. There is a civil war between several baronial families, highlighted by the conflict between the conservative and honor-bound Starks of the North, and the arrogant and wealthy Lannisters of the West. It is the characters, especially Martin’s wonderful female characters; dreamy Sansa, masculine Brienne, resourceful Arya, compassionate Catelyn, troubled Lyssa, that hook you and drag you into the story.
In many places, I was reminded of Tolstoy’s War And Peace . Martin’s characters are that internally consistent. He excels at getting you to sympathize with morally shaky characters such as Jaime Lannister the Kingslayer, or rigid Stannis Baratheon. Without any doubt, however, his masterpieces are the dwarf Tyrion Lannister, and the last of the deposed Targaryens, Daenerys, the Mother of Dragons. The books crackle with excitement when they take up the story. I especially look forward to seeing Peter Dinklage portray Tyrion the Imp, which has to be a dream role for this talented actor.
If I had any complaints about this series, there would be three. First, Martin doesn’t seem to have any problem killing or maiming a character even though it doesn’t further the narrative. Bran Stark’s paralysis, Lyssa’s madness, the loss of Jaime’s hand, the deaths of Ned Stark, Daenerys’ husband Drogo, or Renly Baratheon leave the reader with a sense of uneasiness. It kept me from getting too attached to any of the characters lest I should find them ripped away from me without a moment’s notice.
Secondly, Martin creates a baker’s half-dozen intriguing faiths, but no one ever seems to believe in any of them. The gods (and there are a lot of gods) never intervene in the narrative, never work any miracles, never answer prayers. The best they do is to offer psychological support for the handful of devout characters that stand out from the general agnosticism. Of course, clerics are usually portrayed as venial and self-serving, so in that Martin is crafting a very up-to-date fantasy indeed. I know it isn’t fair to fault an author for not being interested in what interests the reader, but a glimpse behind the scenes of the fate of Westeros would have added a lot to the story. Competing gods would have made it a lot like The Iliad.
There is sex. Overall, I think this is a good thing. There are some R-rated scenes concerning whores, bawds and bastards. This is fantasy for the whole man, including below the navel. However, I didn’t find myself objecting to that so much as to the overall tone of the series. If you are going to write heroic fantasy, there should be some heroic figures in it. I do not foresee a eucatastophe for poor, sad, war-torn and zombie-plagued Westeros. There will be no Fall Of Barad-Dûr, no crowning of the True King, which is a shame, because Westeros could truly use one. Martin, though, appears too wedded to his post-modern viewpoint. I hope he proves me wrong. I really do believe he has it in him, but I also wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that “valar morghulis” turned out to be Old Valyrian for “shit happens”.