Salvete, qui legant –
I don’t read much fiction. What fiction I do read is usually something I missed a long time back but want to experience, or further stories by authors I relish.
But a while back I came into possession of a relatively new (& relatively immense) little pocketbook titled, “A Game of Thrones” by Geo. R. R. Martin. We’re treated here to a fantastical realm, very concretely laid out but still very much a fantasy world: Westeros. And the narrative’s master arch is of two widely-separated but converging story lines – of the Stark family of Winterfell (think medieval Europe) and of princess Daenerys Targaryen (think of a child of the Mediterranean betrothed to the kha-khan of the Steppes). Martin is a very capable writer, his characters were interesting and three-dimensional, and pretty soon I was hooked.
I marveled at Martin’s gift for concluding every chapter with a twist, usually sad and retrograde, never letting his reader relax in his or her pursuit of the resolution of the characters’ troubles. Finished with the first book, “A Game”, I snapped up the whole series (as it stood at that point in time) and eagerly started the second book, “A Clash of Kings”. The first book had seen the collapse of an inwardly troubled regime, and the outbreak of general hostilities between the various nominally feudal powers of Westeros, and instead of Tolkien’s Battle of Five Armies, it was now the Armed Politics of Five Kingdoms.
The chaos becoming deeper and grimmer with every chapter, and the characters never getting an even break except that it was followed by two or three or four chapters of misfortune, slavery, mutilation or death of loved ones, I found myself tiring. Martin’s “gift” for twists and unwelcome turns became less and less engaging, and more and more dismaying. Finally (for me) comes the moment when the – well, no spoilers; but suffice it to say that we receive a HEAPING helping of fictional tragedy mid-book in the third one, “Storm of Swords”, so much so, and of such an undeserved sort, that I just folded up the bloated little paperback and filed it away. I was through.
Some have called him “the American Tolkien”. I differ. While it’s true that J. R. R. Tolkien’s books had their own grim insistence on evil, it’s also true that those elements were balanced with moments of sensual pleasure, comedic interludes, and heroic fights. Boromir is tragic and doomed, but goes very far towards redeeming himself at the the end of his life. Frodo struggles and suffers and suffers and struggles, and in the end, but for chance, succumbs to the evil of the Ring, yet he survives wounded and tired, and goes his way, still accompanied by Sam, even unto the Grey Havens, the final resting place for the Elven.
But in Martin’s universe, most everyone seems to be Orcish – not literally, but morally and in terms of their luck. His heroes soldier on, suffering disfigurement and abuse, but – like God above – Martin has no particular love for them, and strives to defeat our expectations that have naturally arisen from the story-telling – expectations that order will return, that a good decision will be made by somebody somewhere, that people will finally choose life instead of foolishness and infamy and suicide. But, in the post-Night of the Living Dead pop-ethos that this age prefers, Martin keeps the bad guys winning, as fish after fish eats or mutilates or betrays the other fish around him or her. Breaking with sword & sorcery tradition and formula, Martin leads us through a hopeless Inferno of political and personal crime, without any hint of reprieve, and brings forth a truly Jacobean pot-boiler of a series. But his Sadism quotient is simply too high, and any appellations of “American Tolkien” are sadly off target, as well.