A Game of Thrones. A Clash of Kings. The titles have an epic ring to them – and they deliver on that promise.
I’m two books into the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin, which have now inspired an HBO series. I’m well wrapped up in the soaring plot, acted out by gutsy, flawed characters.
Like some British novelists, the American Martin seems obsessed with social class, and the tension between the value people in high stations are accorded – and the value they deserve. The world Martin creates in these books is pretty much medieval. Kings, queens, lords, ladies, and knights dance through plots and intrigues, while a mass of commoners lurks in the background, paying taxes and forming the armies the lords lead into battle. “The common people pray for rain, healthy children and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace,” one knight says in the first book.
Martin’s world has a whole language of courtesy and reverence, and there’s a fair share of the usual proud, strong-headed spoiled-brat nobles who think everything is their due. But an earthy realism blasts through all this posturing. There’s a sense that these egomaniacs are dancing on air.
Bastard children – among the least respected – play central roles in the story, and they have steely, honourable characters. And one of the lead characters is a dwarf with an ugly face, each eye a different colour – also one of the cleverest and bravest characters. “Most men would rather deny a hard truth than face it,” he says at one, point. He spits out honest, salty lines.
The nobility is Martin’s focus. They are the decision makers. Their power creates the high stakes.
“Why should a strong man with a sword ever obey a child king… or a wine-sodden oaf?” asks one of Martin’s characters, a wise, devilish eunuch. He answers himself: “Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.”
“So power is a mummer’s trick?” the dwarf responds.
“A shadow on the wall,” the eunuch says. “Yet shadows can kill. And ofttimes a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”
The fact that the entire world is at stake in the power-play between warring noble families also lends a certain romanticism to the story.
It’s not a good world in which to be a woman. They’re very much pushed around by the men – removed from decision-making, unlikely to inherit thrones – and after a battle, soldiers have a bad habit of raping innocent villagers.
But the highborn ladies weave their way through this man’s world and manage to get their way when they need to. There are a few women who want to be knights – and who succeed, despite the jeers that greet them. There’s a little feminist narrative in there.
Martin goes all out in creating a new world – he’s built a whole other planet, with continents and oceans and countries, languages – the works. It’s a bit like Lord of the Rings – but it’s heavier on the sex scenes and lighter on the magic (This is a work of fantasy, but the supernatural effects are few and far between.). Despite all the different names Martin invents, in terms of the technology and customs and overall feel of the place, we may as well be in medieval England – Martin has said that the English Wars of the Roses inspired him. In the HBO adaptation, all the characters have English accents, with the Northerners given appropriate Northern English ones.
The story takes place on one continent, and the central plotline belongs to the family that rules the north of this continent, the Starks, who seem to be losing their grip on power. They’re a tough, almost Stoic bunch, not ones for lavish displays of emotion – but likeable. The Starks’ family motto is “Winter is coming.”
Summers and winters in Martin’s world don’t come and go in regular intervals. Instead, they last for years at a time, and during the first two books, winter seems to be on its way with fervour. A particularly long summer has just ended – I think it was maybe nine years –and Martin sets an ominous tone – senses of foreboding, a comet across the sky, old, wise folks with bad feelings in their guts.
That is a real theme of the books – foreboding, unavoidable loss. It’s all part of the seasons, but you never get used to it. People die – important characters – ones that I was really starting to like.
But this sense of foreboding drew me in.
One of the little Stark boys, Bran, is bedridden for a time, and he tells his caregiver Old Nan, a woman who has taken care of the Stark children for as long as anyone can remember, to go away – leave him be — he doesn’t want to listen to her stories. And yet, she manages to capture his interest with one story in particular:
“’Thousands and thousands of years ago, a winter fell that was cold and hard and endless beyond all memory of man. There came a night that lasted a generation, and kings shivered and died in their castles even as the swineherds in their hovels. Women smothered their children rather than see them starve, and cried, and felt their tears freeze on their cheeks.’ [Old Nan’s] voice and her needles fell silent and she glanced up at Bran with pale, filmy eyes, and asked, ‘So child. This is the sort of story you like?’
‘Well,’ Bran said reluctantly, ‘yes, only…’
Old Nan nodded.”
At the peak of this sense of dread is a great uncharted territory that lies at the very northernmost part of the continent in Martin’s world. The “civilized” part of the world has built a 700-foot-high wall to shut off everything beyond it – and there are strange tales of horrible creatures that live there.
One of the lead characters, Jon, gets sent up to the Wall to join a group called the Night’s Watch. They’re a band of men, around for centuries, who patrol the border and fight off any intruders – for their whole lives. And not only that, but they must vow to never marry – “for love is the bane of honour, the death of duty.” It seems a tad harsh, until you hear one of the members of the Watch explain the rationale to Jon. “What is honour compared to a woman’s love? What is duty against the feel of a newborn son in your arms, or the memory of a brother’s smile? Wind and words. Wind and words. We are only human and the gods have fashioned us for love. That is our great glory, and our great tragedy.”