A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin: who needs reality?

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A massive fantasy series kicks off with a story that is light on magic, heavy on politics.

Having finished the “poetic works” in the Britannica Great Books set—a project that occupied me for the last 3 years or so—I felt ready to relax with some lighter reading. It struck me that A Game of Thrones might be just the thing, for not only am I especially interested in epic as a genre, but my own work in progress, The Age of Pisces, is also conceived as a vast narrative told from multiple points of view. Accordingly, I asked my wife Kimmie to pick up a copy of GOT while she did the grocery shopping one week, and voila, the mass-market paperback came into my hands.

It happened that I had already seen season 1 of the HBO miniseries, so I already knew the plot of this book, and that knowledge did diminish my enjoyment of it slightly. The big story is well designed, and there are a number of surprising twists along the way. Nonetheless, I found I still enjoyed reading the book, and felt that the TV show had not really realized its potential in some ways, even while striving to follow the book so closely.

If you’re one of the 60 or 70 people in the world who have not read this book, it’s a medieval-style fantasy set in a land that looks vaguely like Great Britain, complete with a large wall across a pinch-point that cuts off the frozen wilderness of the north. The map, I’m afraid, is only so-so; it lacks a scale, and many of the places mentioned in the text do not show up on the map. This land comprises the Seven Kingdoms of the story—places run by lords who are no longer kings, but serve a great king in the southern capital of King’s Landing. It’s a world in tension, because the current king, Robert, is a usurper in many people’s eyes, and so there are those who wish to right the wrong of his unlawful accession.

The seven great families are all structured alike in the sense that they each have some dominant trait for which they’re known, and they all identify themselves with a characteristic sigil that symbolizes their identity. In this I felt that they resembled characters in a board game or video game; it felt a bit tidy and symmetrical to me.

The narrative is presented from the point of view of no fewer than eight characters: four male and four female, four adults and four children. This too struck me as being symmetrical, and maybe done partly for commercial purposes, to maximize the appeal across audiences. It’s a lot of point-of-view characters to manage, but George R. R. Martin does a good job of making them stand out from each other and giving each a strong story of his own. Some of the stories were slower to get going, but the author succeeded in involving me in all of them eventually.

And at least one character stands out as a truly striking and interesting creation: Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf brother of the queen. Tyrion is played excellently by Peter Dinklage in the TV series, but the character is already fully formed in the book: intelligent, insouciant, flippant, and toughened by being despised. I was always glad when Tyrion’s turn came around to star in a chapter.

The prose itself is easily readable, but tends to be workmanlike rather than poetic. In the opening chapter (not the prologue) I went looking for figures of speech, but apart from a few stock ones, I didn’t find any to evoke a vivid image in my mind until this on the third page, in a description of blood pouring from the neck of a beheaded man:

The snows around the stump drank it eagerly, reddening as he watched.

But the world itself is exotic, so even straightforward reportage creates an impression in the imagination, and there are many descriptions of the kit and clothing of characters; indeed, I could have done with less of this.

One problem with fantasy as a genre is its relationship to our real world. A Game of Thrones is set in a nonexistent but Britain-like realm, where characters have names that are similar to real-world names, without being quite the same. The point-of-view characters, for instance, are named (in order of appearance) Bran, Catelyn, Daenerys, Eddard (Ned), Jon, Arya, Tyrion, and Sansa. But among the minor characters (and there are many, many of these) I noted the name Bethany, which is a biblical town. The book contains other echoes of the Bible as well: Ned, confronted with the machinations of the royal court, thinks of “wheels within wheels within wheels,” an image from the Book of Ezekiel. Elsewhere a character refers to “beating swords into plowshares,” an image from the Book of Isaiah. Such references point to the difficult balancing act of presenting a world that is like our own, while not being formally connected with it in any way.

It’s almost impossible to come up with an entirely made-up world that has any of the richness of our own world. J.R.R. Tolkien set the standard by working for years purely on the structure and lore of his fantasy world. While A Game of Thrones does not have the imaginative richness of Lord of the Rings, Martin has shown great creative power in creating his world, which does have many surprising and believable details.

My impression is that George R. R. Martin is one of those rare people who has inborn storytelling talent. I think Stephen King is another. Such people can take a few elements and quickly start building a narrative that can capture one’s attention. And I think that only inborn talent can explain Martin’s prodigious ability to put out so much work so quickly. He’s a natural.

I will probably go on to read book 2 of A Song of Ice and Fire—the series of which A Game of Thrones is the first part—even though I don’t find the material fully satisfying as a literary experience. I realized as I read that in being cut off from the real world, a fantasy loses much of the power of association and symbol that a work possesses by being located in it. The author has to provide all the context, and that’s a job too big for anyone. Sometimes I felt I was reading a soap opera: it was involving without being nourishing.

But that’s too unkind. I did, at several points in the narrative, have true surges of feeling as I read—something that never happens with soap opera. That’s a sign that the story is touching me. Heck, I tend to lose interest in books quickly, and I stuck it out for all 807 pages of this. So George R. R. Martin is doing something right, even for this fussy, critical reader. Bring on the dragons!

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