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On George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” Series

December 29, 2011


Martin is being called “the American Tolkein” on the strength of his massive, interminable, intricately-woven fantasy about the “Game of Thrones” in his somber, blood-soaked medieval world. Martin has made a point of dividing his Seven Kingdoms among various ancient Houses, each of which is diligently provided with heraldic arms, mottoes and a history of prominent or peculiar ancestors, marriage alliances with other Houses, etc., etc., etc. And every book ends with an exhaustive “Appendix” of everyone mentioned in it, arranged according to family or profession. There are as many characters as “War and Peace,” as many battles as the Civil War, but I suppose what sets the series apart from the usual quasi-medieval fantasy is that most of the main characters are nobles, and “right barsterds” – ruthless, conniving, treacherous and utterly devoted to seizing power, while the peasants or “smallfolk” are routinely massacred by invading armies or bands of defeated stragglers, but otherwise regarded solely as the source of foodstuffs, tax revenues or riots. And rather than being romanticised or ignored entirely, sex scenes are described in sordid detail. Far from resembling Tolkien’s works, Martin’s story is both more complex and more banal. His harsh, war-ravaged landscapes lack the the bucolic charm of Tolkein’s cozy English countryside; his ruthless, revenge-obsessed characters lack the idealism and eternal tenacity of  Tolkein’s Hobbits.

The Seven Kingdoms themselves are obviously a clone of medieval Britain, even including a Wall to keep out the marauding savages from the North, and guarded perpetually by a band of monastic warriors.

The fantasy characters, mainly invading from the frozen north beyond the Wall (which, let it be said and then forgotten, is 700 feet high and made of ice which somehow never melts) include cavemen, cannibals, Eskimos, mammoths, giants (which resemble Neanderthals) and Pict-like “wildlings” who call themselves “freemen” (as opposed to the civilized medieval “kneelers” they despise), and who seem to share the anti-government attitudes of the most rabid Tea-Baggers, or the “Survivalists” of the 1960s.
And behind them come an army of litches, or reanimated corpses, invulnerable to anything except fire or dismemberment, and beyond those the Others, a sort of malign elvish knights invulnerable to anything except obsidian, or “dragonglass.”
Mix them all together, add the memory of the domesticated Dragons (now extinct in the Seven kingdoms)Meerkat at the San Diego Zoo, which were instrumental in the conquest of the land by the deranged Targarden kings, who were eventually bloodily deposed, and whose last surviving member (a beautiful young girl, obviously) is now plotting an invasion from the Continent with the last three surviving Dragons, and you should have a plausible fantasy cycle. And so it is, for the most part… although there are technical clunkers and gratuitous implausibilities scattered through it that rather spoil the pleasure for a nit-picker like myself, and parallel but opposing forces of blatantly obvious Dark vs. Light…  neither of them particularly concerned with the happiness or welfare of mere humans.
Still, my main complaint is that Martin is the master of the end-of-chapter cliffhanger, which is what makes his phonebook-thick tomes so addictive – and thus devourers of one’s free time.
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