George R. R. Martin in The New Yorker

A friend mentioned last night that he was watching a bit of A Game of Thrones, the new HBO series based on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. I’ll probably wait until after the DVD version comes out, if I watch it at all. I’m not generally impressed by visual media adaptations of science fiction and fantasy literature, and have even less use for film & TV only science fiction & fantasy. I’m not a snob, I’m just easily bored. In any case, George R. R. Martin has gotten The New Yorker treatment. I had to laugh at this sentence from near the end of the piece: ‘Martin hopes that, after he surmounts the particular thorny problems of “A Dance with Dragons,” the final two books will come much faster.’ Of course he he said this after the last book. To be fair, there wasn’t that much of a gap between book two and book three.


I still remember the cold January day in 1999 when I picked up a paperback version of A Game of Thrones. My roommate at the time was baked and passed out in front of the television, as was his usual Saturday night ritual. I read the first chapter of A Game of Thrones after having finished Paul Gottfried’s A Conservative Movement. I went to sleep after I got tired, but then finished the book the next day. Lucky for me I had to wait only one day to read the sequel, A Clash of Kings, which had just been published (in hindsight obviously they were pushing copies of the paperback f A Game of Thrones to coincide with the hardcover publication of A Clash of Kings). As someone who had read some of the other “heirs” of Tolkien, such as Robert Jordan, Martin’s contribution put me in the mind that the time had come to put away childish things.

Martin had a friendly relationship to Robert Jordan, who passed away before completing his series, The Wheel of Time. He has asserted that The Wheel of Time set the groundwork for the panoramic post-Tolkien epic fantasies which A Song of Ice and Fire is an exemplar. In short, no The Wheel of Time, no A Song of Ice and Fire. I think this is probably not totally accurate, insofar as it posits a Great Man model of fantasy literature. But, Robert Jordan’s success clearly was a signal to both writers and publishers about the possibilities of the genre. Yet The New Yorker article also addresses the fact that The Wheel of Time is an elaboration of a formula meant to appeal to twelve year old boys. The repertoire of the various reactions of the characters to the exigencies of life are very limited, and after a few books you become rather tired of the flat personalities on offer. Jordan’s aim seems to have been to make sexual tension intelligible to a twelve year old boy. Unfortunately that makes much of character development ludicrous to those of us who have passed the first blush of puberty. Additionally, the world-building in The Wheel of Time exhibits a tendency toward shallow flash and gimmickry. It has none of the rich historical thickness of Middle-earth or the earthy realism of Westeros.

Though the philosophy of Epicurus has been caricatured by the ignorant as a byword for excess and gluttony, like most ethical systems he argued for the importance of moderation and balance in the aim of the full appreciation of the hedonic experience. The problem with much of heroic fantasy is that it lacks such balance, and does not manage to negotiate the knife’s-edge between the banal world that is, and the fantastical that could be. The juvenile aspect of much of fantasy literature is exhibited in its gluttony for the black & white aspects of the world which a fictional world can give full reign to. The Dark Lord who is the apotheosis of evil. The teenage farm-boy who is good, naive, and also handsome and gifted with incredible powers beyond imagining (and, who at the end of the series finds out that he is in fact the son of a king!). Martin’s great insight, which he clearly shares with other writers such as Robin Hobb, is that writing within the fantasy genre is not a license to engage in every wish-fulfillment. It is a liberty to enchant, and surprise. At least if you aim to appeal to adults who have lived enough life to have experienced enough to intuit that the sweet life is to a large extent given color only by its contrast with the bitter. Perfection does not move.

As for George R. R. Martin and A Song of Ice and Fire, I will probably keep reading. For now. I’m not a public hater, there are more important things in my life than a fantasy series. The first books of his grand vision are the standard now, for me and many others. That’s an achievement in an of itself.

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