Posts Tagged ‘George R.R. Martin’

Canon of Thrones

April 4, 2019

If George R.R. Martin rewrote the classics of English literature a la Game of Thrones…

Pride and Prejudice and Dragons

Illustration by Rebecca Schuchat

Pride and Prejudice

Elizabeth Bennett is engaged to Fitzwilliam Darcy, but Darcy’s aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh disapproves and hires mercenaries from the Golden Company to slaughter the entire engagement party. Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Lucas vows revenge, travels across the sea to apprentice with a cult of assassins, and decapitates Lady Catherine with a garden rake.

Mrs. Dalloway

Clarissa Dalloway is throwing a party, and her daughter’s tutor, a religious enthusiast, tells her the party will fail unless she sacrifices her daughter to the Lord of Light in a ritual bonfire. The daughter is burned at the stake in Regent’s Park but white walkers nonetheless descend upon the party, eat all the canapés, and then eat the guests. The party is not a success.

The Great Gatsby

Daisy and Gatsby, brother and sister, are happily committing incest when Daisy’s power-hungry father forces her to wed Tom. Tom is in love with Myrtle and launches an armed insurgency to defend Myrtle’s honor from Rhaegon, even though Myrtle is secretly married to Rhaegon. Myrtle and Rhaegon die but first have a secret son who ends up sleeping with Rhaegon’s baby sister. Yep, just another wild Roaring 20s party at West Egg.

Beloved

Sethe and her family are freed from slavery by Daenerys Stormborn, Mother of Dragons. But Sethe’s daughter Beloved is chopped into tiny bits by vengeful Sons of the Harpy and becomes a ghost. Sethe falls in love with Grey Worm, a eunuch who is the only other dark-skinned character in the entire universe. Together they feed the Sons of the Harpy to very large and hungry dogs.

On the Road

Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty travel across the country for kicks. On the way, they each lose a leg, an eye, an arm, and their manly parts. They eat rats. They sleep in mud. They get buboes. When they finish their journey, Sal publishes a best-selling epic poem about it, “The ’47 Cadillac of Castermere.” Dean poisons him. He dies.

To Kill A Mockingbird

When white lawyer Atticus Finch defends a black man accused of rape, his daughter Scout is ostracized and attacked. Mysterious neighbor Boo Radley summons dragons to rescue her and they incinerate Maycomb, Alabama. Everyone dies.

Catcher in the Rye

Holden Caulfield is expelled from the Night’s Watch and wanders around north of the wall with his direwolf, expressing disgust with the hypocrisy of feudal society. His sister Phoebe follows a one-eyed raven to find him, but they are ambushed by white walkers. Everyone dies.

Of Mine and Men and Dragons

Illustration by Rebecca Schuchat

Of Mice and Men

Lenny pets the puppy. It’s actually a dragon. Everyone dies.

The Road

A father and son travel through a bleak post-apocalyptic landscape. Reaching the sea, they find a fleet of tall ships heading to Westeros. The father turns out to be an ace swordsman. The son discovers a hidden talent for baiting bears. They sail away, help Daenerys Stormborn win the throne, and marry princesses. Nobody dies.

Game of Thrones and (our need for) happy endings

September 25, 2012

I’ve been reading Game of Thrones and thinking about happy endings.

If you’re not familiar with it, A Game of Thrones is the first book in a humongous, sprawling fantasy series that gained a lot of fans when it was recently made into an HBO series. With five volumes totaling some 5,000 pages, its size makes Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings look like a 98-pound weakling on the beach. And five volumes isn’t the end of it. I just finished number five and everything remains cliffhangers; author George R.R. Martin says there is at least one more volume to come, maybe two.

Like Tolkien, Martin has created an entire cosmology with thousands of years of back history, religions and civilizations, largely derived from feudal Europe (knights, kings, castles, the only light is fire). But as my friend Nick Herold pointed out in recommending the series to me, Martin differs from Tolkien in the depth of his characters.

Game of Thrones is made up of chapters with alternating protagonists — dozens of them. Each chapter, you’re inside someone else’s head, seeing their rivalries and desires and feeling their pain as they get imprisoned, seasick, maimed or betrayed. And there is a LOT of maiming and betraying. I like that Martin doesn’t sugarcoat his feudal kingdoms a la Disney. Villages are muddy and starving, wounds fester with yellow pus in a world without antibiotics, rats and dogs are a dinner staple for common people while the royalty eat elaborate, gout-inducing banquets.

That grittiness applies to the plot(s) as well as the details of daily life. No one seems to catch a break in Game of Thrones. Good, honorable characters are killed. Evil characters are killed. People who should be allies become antagonists. Well-intentioned plans go awry. Children are orphaned; innocents are betrayed; heroic gestures lead to disastrous outcomes.

Sometimes I wish I could take all the “good” characters and bring them together, in one place and on the same side, but they are scattered across two continents and don’t even know that their family members or friends are alive. They experience one setback after another. Really, it would feel like The Perils of Pauline — damsel now tied to the railroad track, now dangling from a bridge, now up against a firing squad — if the flow weren’t broken up by moving between the ups and downs of those dozen-plus different characters.

About halfway through the five books, I realized these aren’t really novels. None of the volumes end with closure. There is no visible narrative arc — no rise toward a climax, followed by resolution. The story just goes on and on. Ups, downs, ups, downs, more complications, more characters, more ups and downs. It could go on like this for a dozen volumes. A hundred.

Which makes me wonder how Martin is going to end the series. At any point, he could wrap things up and bring all the dozen plot lines to tidy conclusions. That’s what I yearn for as I read it — the good characters all uniting, the lingering mysteries revealed, the triumph of a Good King (or Queen) who brings permanent peace and justice to the beleaguered lands of Westeros. But to some extent, that would feel like a betrayal of the rest of the series.

The series is like life — nothing ever seems to really end, and one “resolution” just leads to a new set of conflicts. Compare it to world politics. Our involvement in Iraq is “ending.” Obama is bringing our troops home. But the internecine conflict and sectarian tensions there continue, and at any point there could be a new eruption of violence that spills over and affects the Middle East and us in unforeseen ways. In Game of Thrones, none of people’s efforts to establish a just and peaceful kingship have succeeded so far. Why should we believe they will succeed at the end of the series?

So I started thinking about happy endings. We crave them. We want good to triumph over evil, but perhaps even more, we want things to be resolved. Static. In tragedies like Romeo and Juliet, the heroes die but as readers we are still satisfied because things are wrapped up, static, concluded. Everything is known. The story stops.

And this is of course pretense, artifice – no less on the individual than on the political level. Pride and Prejudice ends neatly with the marriages of Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley. But marriages begin, not end, on the wedding day. There are a zillion conflicts that happen afterwards – illnesses, jealousies, power struggles, intergenerational conflicts, who knows what. But we don’t want to see any of that. We want things to be wrapped up, resolved, static.

My favorite Darcy and Elizabeth – Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle – at their static, happy ending

Would anyone buy a novel where everything — everything — was left unresolved at the end? Could you even call that a novel?

And why is narrative resolution so important to us, when the only thing in life that is truly static and permanent is death?