My wife is, as I have often said, not a Geek. She doesn’t like superheroes, Star Wars, science fiction, or a host of other things that routinely appear on this site. She has two exceptions. One is YA distopias. We always go see a new Hunger Games movie. Actually, that’s the only one she’s really interested in. She watched The Maze Runner but wasn’t overly impressed.
Her other, bigger weakness is high fantasy. If it’s based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, she’ll be there. She loves Harry Potter. And, though it took me a lot of effort to convince her to give it a shot, she goes for Game of Thrones in a big way. Why did it take me so long to get her into that one? Well, I had to sell it for what it was: the opposite of Tolkien, and in a good way.
Explanations and SPOILERS after the cut.
George R. R. Martin writes his novels with each chapter taking place from the perspective of a different character. He has a handful of perspective characters in each book that he goes back to again and again. For example, in the first novel, most of his perspective characters are Starks: Bran, Arya, Sansa, Jon Snow, Catelyn, and Eddard. He also adds two more for good measure: Tyrion and Daenerys. Later books will add to this number, some with new characters, others with characters who may have been just lurking in the background or were important supporting characters in their own right like Jaime, Samwell, and Ser Barriston.
Anyway, after a short prologue showing a doomed guy from the Night’s Watch encountering a White Walker (or Other, as they are called in the books), the first chapter focuses on Bran. We’re told he has a bastard half-brother Jon, and he’s out seeing his father execute a criminal according to the law. Jon tells him to make sure he’s watching the execution or else their father will know. Afterwards, Eddard makes sure Bran understands why he, Eddard, had to swing the sword.
This sort of tutelage would be important in many novels in this sort of setting. Bran would, in many cases, be set up here as a boy with a great destiny. Many fantasy series do this: give us a boy or a young man who maybe has some special gifts and have him go off on a long quest that ends up saving the entire kingdom from some sort of terrible threat.
Then after a few more chapters with other people, Bran gets dropped off a high tower and paralyzed. He spends the next few chapters in a coma. Whatever Bran’s destiny, the standard fantasy trope would seem to no longer apply.
Now, the story isn’t finished and Bran could still have that great destiny to save the day. We’ll just have to wait and see. Lots of things could happen, but the big thing here is that Martin’s work seeks mostly to defy the tropes and cliches of high fantasy rather than embrace them. Contrast that with the late Robert Jordan’s even longer Wheel of Time series where embracing those self-same tropes and cliches is actually the underlying point on the repetition of those themes and motifs.
Bran isn’t the only example of this, obviously. In a normal fantasy series, the Starks would be heroic figures that save the day. That doesn’t even begin to happen. Here are some of the cliches Martin has avoided thus far:
- Jon Snow may be a literal bastard, but he isn’t a figurative one. There is a twisted and evil bastard in the North, but it isn’t Jon.
- Eddard presenting a paper proving the legality of his actions simply causes Cersi to shrug and rip it in half.
- Eddard securing promises of support from various members of the Small Council doesn’t do him any good when the people who he approaches either run off or betray him.
- Magic is rare and never works without a horrible price attached.
- Eddard is set up as the hero of the story. He is beheaded before the first novel is over.
- The Lannisters may be adversaries of the Starks, but the more we get to know them, the less evil they seem to be. Tyrion is a fairly decent fellow right from the start, and even Jaime improves over time.
- In fact, few of the series’ villains are all that villainous. Most of them are people trying to get by, forced to make hard decisions under adverse circumstances. The truly evil people (excluding White Walkers) are often insane people like Joffrey and Ramsay Bolton.
- Factoring in as well that the smartest, kindest, or most capable people are often the outcasts: dwarves, eunuchs, fat people, bastards, and the like. Even the hideously deformed Hound is a better person than he appears to be for a ruthless killer.
Factor in also Martin has added details that certainly would have been true in a medieval setting, but not the sorts of things we should feel comfortable with here. The Stark children, along with Daenerys, are much younger than presented on the show. Sansa in the first novel is constantly told, often by adults, how beautiful she is. She’s 11 years old. Robb and Jon are both about 14. Daenerys is 13 when she’s married off to Drogo.
In many ways, Martin’s world is a more realistic version of the standard fantasy setting. Yes, there are giants, magic, and the Children of the Forest tossing fireballs, but giving the characters more motivation beyond being incorruptible paragons of virtue or founts of pure evil makes for a richer, better story.
It is also the Stark family weakness. Every blood Stark is an idealist, and it costs them. Eddard and Robb both believe in honor. Sansa is about romance. Jon believes in the ideals of the Night’s Watch. Arya thinks of justice above all. Bran dreams of being a knight.
I think it is safe to say that all of them are disabused of these notions in one way or another.
It’s why the Red Wedding is such a game changer. It isn’t the end of the story. It isn’t even the end of the novel it appears in. Reactions follow, and actions have consequences. Violence never solves a problem for anybody. King Robert had a righteous cause to overthrow the Mad King, who sounds outright awful in every way, but Robert himself was a terrible king with a tenuous grasp on the Iron Throne at best. His “children” have even less of a claim than he does. Viserys Targaryan actually does have a rightful claim, but he’s clearly not the right man for that job.
While I have some strong suspicions where Martin is taking his story, I have enjoyed how he’s taking us there thus far. There’s pleasure in the familiar. There’s also pleasure in the familiar being turned on its head in an expert way, and that is what A Song of Ice and Fire has been doing all along.