George RR Martin’s series has really turned into the monstrous fan fascination and media magnet that it should have been for decades with the takeoff of the HBO TV show in the past year or two. I certainly don’t bash people who just watch the show: that was me for a while. And I’ve still yet to read Clash of Kings though I’ve read the latter three and most of the first. Still, if you are only watching the show, you’re certainly missing out.
Namely, you’re missing out on:
-Really important plot points
-World-building and depth
-Lots of awesome characters
Notably, Strong Belwas
-A way better ending to the fifth season/book
And most importantly: -All of Martin’s structural creativity and literary tricks
The most important outcome of his structural brilliance? A two-sided book. And with one glance at the title, you know it’s no mistake.
What are the two sides of ASOIAF?
1. Fire, light, life, day, summer, south, dragons
2. Ice, darkness, death, night, winter, north, wights
This fundamental conflict appears in literally every facet of the book. Most importantly it’s personified by one of the religions that is probably legit (unlike the predominant religion of the seven that seems entirely superstitious/made up): The Lord of Light. The one with Melisandre and Stannis and fire and the like. We know that the Lord of Light is real to a pretty significant extent, as the priests of the Lord of Light perform actual magical feats. Melisandre’s vision often come true, Thoros of Myr revives the Lightning Lord Berric Donderrion six times, Moqorro saves Victarion Greyjoy’s rotting hand, on and on.
Berric from the HBO series
So what’s the deal with the Lord of Light? Basically it’s a dualistic religion, but one deity is good, and the other is evil. #1 as listed above is good, #2 is evil. #2 is the “Other”. It is unnamed, and it must be conquered. #1 is connected with Stannis (who fights under the Lord of Light), along with fire-breathing dragons and thus Valyria and the Targaryens (who look inhumanly beautiful, per Tolkien/fantasy tradition).
#2 is also a source of magic. This one is even more obvious. A 700 foot wall of ice. People dying, coming back to life, and trying to destroy mankind as undead wights. The blue-eyed Others at their command. Furthermore, all this deadly evil ice magic is inseparable from its host, the North, the land. The land of weirwoods (which Bran and other greenseers can potentially use to see anything that is happening on Westeros at any time in history), direwolves, warging (controlling animals with your mind, an ability that seems distinctly Northern). #2 is also connected with the House of the Undying where Arya Stark trains, simply as to the extent that the Faceless Men deliver death, and death is connected wights and Others and therefore ice.
This end of the puzzle is a bit more complicated. Because if we’re viewing the north and the wights on the evil side of the spectrum, where does that put our beloved Starks and their old gods? What about the children of the forest that save Bran from the wights near the end of the 4th season? They seem good!
That’s the wrench in the puzzle. Clearly everything icy/Northern isn’t “bad”, just as everything associated with fire isn’t “good”. The wonderful Lord of Light seems to require human sacrifice at a pretty alarming frequency.
This brings us to the two literary sides of ASOIAF. What are they?
1. Magic, epic fantasy tradition, prophecy, dualism
2. Realism, grit, moral complexity, everyday struggle
Now we’re taking us a step back from the straight content of the book. Now we’re thinking what George RR Martin’s thinking. Thinking about how we’re crafting this tale.
Martin working on the series finale, A Dream of Spring
Fantasy and realism are always at odds in the Martin’s world, perhaps even more so than fire and ice are. Though most of our heroes are lords, almost none of them are constructed in a classic epic fantasy sort of way, like Tolkien’s Aragorn. Notably disrupting chances for a straightforward good-evil fight are horrific cruelty (Joffrey), childish stupidity (Daenerys), deformities (Tyrion), incest (Cersei-Jaime), and in general love and passion (Robb marrying Jeyne is like Aragorn deciding he’s pretty thirsty and needs the quench, thus fucking and marrying Eowyn when she makes her little advances. Can you imagine how Elrond would have felt about that? Does that make Elrond the same as Walder Frey? Ignore what I just said.).
Let me reel this point back in. Throughout the books, particularly through the stories of Arya and Brienne, we get a good look at how shitty life is for peasants during all the wars. Martin does not shy away from it, and in A Feast for Crows even focuses on it. Yes—he has all this crazy magic destiny prophecy stuff going on, and instead he focuses on Brienne getting hopelessly lost in the riverrlands. WHY? Because he cares about the realism. He’s intentionally making ASOIAF different from any fantasy we’ve ever read before, so you better think twice before you assume that the story’s going to end up with three Dragonriders fighting the Others.
Granted, things might end up this way. But there’s an intentional complication and disruption of the two-sided magical battle of the story. It’s disrupted by political intrigue, cruel realism, helpless love. And it might be that the shiny, magical side will win out. The fire might melt the ice.
Album of the Week: Fantasma, Cornelius
Book of the Week: Game of Thrones, George RR Martin