Listers, Time Magazine has called George R. R. Martin, “the American Tolkien.” His A Song of Ice and Fire series, more commonly referred to as the Game of Thrones series, has broken into the realm few fantasy works do - mainstream America. The series’ growing popularity is evident in the recently released hardback fifth volume in the saga, and the premiere of the HBO TV adaptation, the Game of Thrones series. A few thoughts on this “American Tokien’s” work…
The following critique is written regarding the books 1-4.
1. Unique Style of Writing:
Each chapter of Martin’s work bears the name of the character it follows. Allowing for a host of perspectives, Martin is able to weave complicated, but followable political schemes. The popular name of the series overall and the name of the first novel, The Game of Thrones, sums up the saga completely. It is a narrative that focuses more on political posturing and wit, than the traditional foci of fantasy, e.g., fight scenes, magic, creatures, etc. If you are looking for a story riddled with subtleties and Machiavellian tactics, the Game of Thrones is that and some.
2. Characters over World:
As alluded, Martin composes a character-based narrative. Avid fantasy writings can attest to the fact that many authors fall into the sub-par range, because they are more interested in describing their world than making the characters seem real. Rigid stereotypes, flat personalities, and predictable outcomes plague most fantasy literature, but Martin strives to produce believable, anti-stereotypical, and unpredictable characters.
3. The Characters:
Coupling his unique chapter-character style with complicated characters lends the Game of Thrones series an unpredictable and entertaining plot line. One of the aids in this approach is the fact that it would be difficult, particularly in the first few novels, to actually state who is the main protagonist and antagonist. Another literary fault of the fantasy world is that no matter what danger your main character(s) find themselves in, they will escape. It leads the reader to just be waiting for the Deus ex Machina moment to happen. However, in GoT, this is not the case. It is not uncommon for a character to take a main protagonist role only to be unexpectedly killed.
4. Modern Good & Evil:
The literary trap that Martin does not avoid is that of modernity. One such pitfall is the inability for modernity to understand virtue. Almost every character in the series is an anti-hero. They are lesser evils fighting against greater evils. Those characters which do appear to be good speak of honor, not virtue. Inevitably, this leads to vague notions of morality based off naval gazing, i.e., seeking the “right” and “honorable” answer by self-searching and not external standards. However, even these vague moral heroes are naive, exploitable, and ultimately lost within a Machiavellian political power structure. It is a pit almost all modern literature falls into - modernity understands evil, but it does not understand good.1
The series is riddled with sexual activity. It is granted that a work focusing on political battles for the throne must reveal the sexual connections amongst the characters. Lines for the throne(s) are the basis of almost all political posturing within a monarchy. However, the book goes way beyond what is necessary and includes graphic sexual descriptions. Moreover, it moves beyond even those relationships which are important to the storyline and includes random sexual experiences that are completely superfluous to the story. The books contain sexual details of incest, child brides, and masturbation. Moreover, his description of sexuality is very juvenile in tone, and reads more like a male teen fantasy than reality.
6. The American Tolkien…
Time magazine’s statement - which appeared as a critique after the fourth volume - can only be seen as a shallow comparison of popularity. As stated, it is uncommon for a fantasy writer to become popular in the mainstream, and those who do accomplish this task are almost always compared to Tolkien. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings single handedly created the modern fantasy genre, while also adhering to a classical understanding of Good and Evil. If Martin and Tolkien are compared by their under-gird philosophies, then Martin appears to be another shallow modern author who thrives off describing evil and sexuality.
Update (1-12-13) A similar comparison may be made of the Lord of the Rings movies. As moderns, we are able to depict evil, but when the modern mind must depict the good and virtuous life, it is lost. We see how modernity had to recreate Tolkien’s heroes, most notably in turning Aragorn from a virtuous character to a insecure navel-gazer. To wit, as moderns, not only do we not understand the virtuous life but we also find it unbelievable; thus, it has vanished from our art and literature. Naturally, since we cannot grasp the entirety of the good, we - as moderns - falter on understanding the corruption of the good, evil. Our present culture displays this most notably in abortion, gay marriage, and the basic belief that there can be no wrong between two consenting adults. In retrospect, depict may have been a better word choice than understand. ↩︎