I VIVIDLY REMEMBER discovering A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin for the first time, in the 1990s. It happened in a manner that is fast becoming extinct: I was browsing the shelves of Barnes & Noble, and I noticed the cover. In those days my quest for good new fantasy was constant; I couldn't get enough of the grand epics (I was 17). The book’s cover immediately had two things going for it: a blurb from fantasy author Robert Jordan, whose work I liked, praising the story as “brilliant,” and cover art that was not embarrassing. In the age before Kindles, fantasy cover art was an ongoing source of humiliation, from badly proportioned, muscle-bound heroes to lushly proportioned ladies whose bodices were mostly symbolic. Protests of, “But it really isn’t like that!” were invariably met with disbelief. In contrast, while the Game of Thrones cover still depicted an armored man, he was at least an armored man of realistic proportions. It would do.
Fast-forward to 2013 and everyone on the New York City subway is reading George R. R. Martin. To most of these readers the series is not A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin’s title for the multi-volume epic, now in its fifth instalment and still going. Thanks to the popularity of the HBO program (whose third season debuts on March 31), from now on these are and shall forever be known as the “Game of Thrones books.”
With the explosion of Martin’s fantasy epic into the public sphere, the adulation of his work that animated genre circles for years has gone mainstream, and ballooned accordingly in the terms of its praise. Author Lev Grossman has twice declared Martin the “American Tolkien” in Time magazine. The New York Times review of Martin’s A Dance with Dragons baldly states, “Tolkien is dead. Long live George R. R. Martin.”
This millennial supplanting of J.R.R. Tolkien — author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings — with Martin is summed up by Grossman as follows, “What really distinguishes Martin, and what marks him as a major force for evolution in fantasy, is his refusal to embrace a vision of the world as a Manichaean struggle between Good and Evil. Tolkien’s work has enormous imaginative force, but you have to go elsewhere for moral complexity.” Grossman cites the ambiguity of Martin’s characters — that there are no clear-cut heroic figures, and that it’s sometimes hard to know whom to root for in the battles of the Seven Kingdoms. In fact, Martin ridicules the concept of heroism by alternately decapitating, stabbing, or corrupting his heroes. Implicit is a message to readers that their pretty little fantasies are … just that.
Grossman uses the term “evolution” deliberately: his thesis is that A Song of Ice and Fire, and by extension HBO’s Game of Thrones, represents fantasy in an evolved phase of development because its moral ambiguity mirrors the realities of our world. Those few characters motivated by such obsolete notions as honor or nobility, like Ned Stark, are soon parted from their heads. This “gritty realism” wins praise from genre fans and critics alike, with the implication that, by contrast, Middle Earth is a place of daydream without relevance to our reality.
The character of Sansa Stark, Ned’s twelve-year-old daughter and a major player in the first volume and first season of the series, may as well be a stand-in for Martin’s idea of the naïve fantasy reader. This emerges more in the book A Game of Thrones where we have insight into her thoughts, which are almost cartoonishly idiotic in their blindness. Sansa believes the psychopathic Prince Joffrey is gallant and that his mother Queen Cersei is kind — and this because both are golden-haired and beautiful. Most notably, she is constantly referencing the romantic stories and songs that comprise her world-view, which are indeed populated with handsome princes and gracious queens.
When we see the tournament in King’s Landing through Sansa’s eyes, we are meant to laugh at her, pityingly, as she gasps at the beauty of the armor-clad men parading before her. We know Jaime Lannister is an incestuous killer, but Sansa is charmed by his appearance in golden armor. The particularly stunning Sir Loras Tyrell, who courts Sansa’s favor, turns out to be gay and just playing the game. The noble spectators slyly place bets and make jokes. Sansa is the only one affected by the experience on an emotional level. And when the only character who believes in love and beauty is a spoiled, sheltered twelve-year-old girl, the reader knows what to think; there is no attempt here at dialectic.
The critics who praise Game of Thrones for its realism often assume that because the Middle Ages were a terrible time in which to live, it must have been populated with cynics. This would make the nobles’ belittling attitude to a tournament realistic. But according to the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, for nobles in medieval Europe, tournaments represented the chivalric ideal at its pinnacle. Huizinga writes in his classic book The Waning of the Middle Ages,
Overloaded with pomp and decoration, full of heroic fancy, [tournaments] serve to express romantic needs too strong for mere literature to satisfy. The realities of court life or a military career offered too little opportunity for the fine make-belief of heroism and love, which filled the soul. So they had to be acted. The staging of a tournament, therefore, had to be that of a romance…
Huizinga does note that these nobles were painfully aware that they were not Arthur or Lancelot, and that self-mockery did therefore accompany these displays. But the displays nonetheless served a real need for romantic expression. Huizinga suggests that people in medieval Europe were driven by a “quest for the life beautiful” which found its most revered expression in the idea of chivalry.
Nowhere is Martin’s vendetta against chivalry more visually apparent than in the duel between Bronn and Sir Vardis in the Eyrie for the life of Tyrion. That the honorable knight is in service to an insane noblewoman is itself a parody of chivalry, especially when we discover later that she is in no way virtuous. Bronn is a mercenary without even a trace of compassion or goodness — yet paradoxically he is in service to Tyrion, who is good. In a scene that is relentlessly gruesome both on the page and screen, Bronn eviscerates Sir Vardis with dirty fighting tactics. That final swordthrust to the knight’s heart is Martin bringing chivalry to its knees.
What we have then, in the Song of Ice and Fire series, is a cynicism that is not necessarily “realistic” so much as it is a reflection of the author’s personal vision. Contemporary readers may like these characters because they are easy to relate to; most of us would find it difficult to take the spectacle of a medieval tournament seriously, or not sneer at the code of chivalry (especially knowing what we do about the Crusades). But it’s important to acknowledge Martin’s grafting of contemporary values onto a medieval setting rather than mistakenly labeling his series a realistic depiction of the period, or even of human nature.
Finally, I’d argue that Grossman is mistaken in his dismissal of Tolkien as lacking in moral complexity, as well as about the source of Martin’s appeal for readers. For the first: while it’s true that from a superficial perspective there are only two sides to the battle in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the greatest enemy comes from within. The more noble the character in Lord of the Rings, the more vulnerable that character is to the Ring’s corrupting power. And in fact — in one of the most stunning turns in the book — Frodo actually fails in his quest, and succumbs to the Ring in the end. It is only because he made compassionate decisions in the past that he is saved from himself — and even then, at irrevocable cost.
But even with that aside, when Grossman cites the complexity of seven kingdoms at war with each other as the appeal of Martin’s series, he is ignoring a crucial element of the story. The fantasy reader represented by Sansa has never existed in reality; rather than being drawn to a world of utopian beauty, what fantasy readers actually most often desire is epic scope combined with a powerful charge of meaning. The first books promised a sweeping confrontation between the land of the Seven Kingdoms and the powerful evil beyond the Wall. That is why the first scene of A Game of Thrones takes place beyond the Wall — to establish the terrifying potency of this threat. Without it, it’s doubtful that so many readers would have been drawn into what amounts to little more than a protracted dynastic battle. Certainly the series is inspired by the Wars of the Roses, but with a twist: paranormal enemies and dragons. And that twist is everything. The tagline of the series is “Winter is coming,” and for good reason. That’s how you get fantasy readers to care.