Why 'Game of Thrones' Matters

by Steven Aoun

10 June 2013

George R.R. Martin's series looks and feels like a historical drama, except the audience doesn't know how the story will turn out. Martin's 'fantasy' is preoccupied with power -- its relations, differentials and dynamics -- because he's interested in the way 'history' is really made.
 
cover art

Game of Thrones

(HBO)

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A Song of Ice and Fire

George R.R. Martin

(Bantam Books)

Spoiler Alert: The following article presumes familiarity with developments of the first three books of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. This also obviously applies to the first three seasons of HBO’s Game of Thrones (although the television series brings some events forward and dispenses with others entirely). While the book and TV show remain distinct entities, it’s worth noting that the television series has become the surrogate for A Song of Ice and Fire for many people. While we purposely talk around Martin’s other books, we do give a sense of their general direction. So proceed with caution.

“History is a novel that has been lived, a novel is history that could have been.”
—Edmond De Goncourt

“In life, there are no essentially major or minor characters. To that extent, all fiction and biography, and most historiography, are a lie. Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story. Hamlet could be told from Polonius’s point of view and called the Tragedy of Polonius, Lord Chamberlain of Denmark. He didn’t think he was a minor character in anything. Or suppose you’re an usher in a wedding. From the groom’s viewpoint he’s the major character; the others play supporting parts, even the bride. From your viewpoint, though, the wedding is a minor episode in the very interesting history of your life, and the bride and groom both are minor figures. What you’ve done is choose to play the part of a minor character: it can be pleasant for you to pretend to be less important than you know you are, as Odysseus does when he disguises as a swineherd. And every member of the congregation at the wedding sees himself as the major character, condescending to witness the spectacle. So in this sense, fiction isn’t a lie at all, but a true representation of the distortion that everyone makes of life.”
– John Barth, The End of the Road

Ways of World Making

It isn’t difficult to sing the praises of A Song of Ice and Fire. Like the TV adaptation Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series has become a landmark in popular culture. It’s many points of interest include, of course, a sprawling world with morally ambiguous characters and situations. But so far we could be describing any number of creations forged in the crucible of imagination. Nonetheless, Martin’s series has one thing to rule them all—and it is the way in which he bring everything together (including the reader/viewer) to bind them to his will. It’s the building of a world through shifting points of view. Or more to the point, it’s how these shifts point everyone in the direction of a history in the un/making.

Martin’s use of limited points of view obviously serves a greater purpose. They provide access to the experiences of individual people while opening our eyes to a bigger social picture. Martin’s storytelling choices are strategic, and capture a guiding theme: that history is about the struggle for control of ‘the narrative’.

We therefore mustn’t be misled by the genre. A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t intended as a mere ‘fantasy’. Instead of offering escapism or a world of make-believe, Martin returns us to ‘reality’. The ultimate aim is to change the way we view history. The famous writer readily acknowledges that his visionary series is historical fiction about a history that never happened. The guiding principle behind the ‘game of thrones’ is the interplay of various perspectives and forces. Most importantly, it’s written as if the struggle for control over narrative were happening in real time.

Martin’s series looks and feels like a historical drama, except the audience (like the characters) don’t know how the story will turn out. Martin’s ‘fantasy’ is preoccupied with power—its relations, differentials and dynamics—because he is interested in the way ‘history’ is really made.

Martin’s recognises that ‘history’ might be the real ‘fantasy’. History doesn’t plot the triumph of good over evil or point to the way truth will out. The division between (say) the beginning and end of events or ‘heroes and villains’ is merely a way of seeing. The history of civilisation/s invariably document the will to power and the emergence of a dominant narrative.

We’re not suggesting that fantasy should normally be trivialised or that Martin’s stories transcend the genre because of their heightened realism. As a genre, ‘fantasy’ is obviously distinguished by its attempt to transport people to novel (new and distinctive) worlds. Given its mode of transportation, it explores traditional world views in different ways. Nor do we want to imply that Martin is disinterested in creating a powerful fantasy in the traditional sense, as magic and other supernatural phenomena remain an integral part of history. Martin is a self professed fantasist, not a professor of history or philosophy. Nonetheless, the reason his story matters so much is that the epic fantasy series is an analogue for the struggle over historical meaning and value.

It enacts the search for an overarching perspective (or grand narrative) in the random occurence of events. The fantasy’s constant shifting between limited perspectives (or competing narratives) therefore keeps pointing to a troubling reality: the problem of finding our place in the world.

History typically provides a canonical view of events, and the irony is that it traditionally does this with the techniques of fiction. It’s a story told from the perspective of people trying to seize control of events through the very act of narrating. The narrators, however, are choosing to believe their own fiction. Any attempt to adopt an objective overview remains limited by the narrator’s range of vision.

When Martin’s narrative keeps shifting perspective, however, he is also shifting our way of seeing things. This has the effect of destabilising the moral universe we thought we had control of. The narrative’s instability divests observers of the ultimate power fantasy: that it is possible to completely understand and/or control the unfolding (meaning) of events. And yet it is this very instability that gives A Song of Ice and Fire its real power.

Witness the way an infamous power monger reacts to the news of Ned Stark’s death. The Hitler parody speaks for many people when he rants and raves about the unexpected beheading of “the fucking main character!” Given Stark’s centrality in the original narrative, we assumed that this was his story: that history would be on side because Ned was (presumably) the story’s main protagonist. Ned was not only our main entry point into Martin’s world, he originally provided us with a moral compass. Or so we were led to believe. We invariably lost our bearings when Ned lost his head.

The recent reactions to the Red Wedding also speaks volumes. Despite the fact that our compass was already broken, we still somehow assumed that Robb and Catelyn would play a decisive role in the game of thrones. Many observers thought (hoped) that they would go on to avenge Ned’s death and claim the iron throne as their own. Indeed, wasn’t Martin’s story eventually going to be about them now? Instead, Martin turns such conventional narrative assumptions on their head—as history often does. Unfortunately, these characters ended up being supporting players in other people’s stories. By this point, the psychos seem to have taken over the narrative, resulting in a psychological disturbance in observers like ourselves. We can still try and console ourselves, of course, by the possibility that Arya and Bran will live to tell a different tale. Nonetheless, the fact that we were so disturbed by the horrific developments suggests that Martin had also violated our guest rights. Our host invites us into his world only to suddenly turn on us.

History is a set of lies agreed upon
—Napoleon Bonaparte

A more hospitable storyteller would be anxious to provide the consolations of a straightforward narrative. S/he would try to get us to see the unfolding of events through the eyes of a main character so as to reassure us that they’re the one in control. Such identifications help stabilise the flux of experience and impose meaning on the order of events by ordering them into stories in the first place. Such a moral order, however, typically reinforces our own world view. It suggests that our place in history is secure, and sanitises a troubling reality: that such peace (of mind) might be the result of atrocities.

Martin is clearly not interested in telling us a bed time story or tucking anyone in at night. As another famous writer urges, “we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us.”

Martin’s narrative approach is hardly a novel idea. The script for (say) Psycho is famous for Hitchcock’s sudden change in direction. One minute we’re following Marion Crane around until she gets into the shower to wash her away her sins. The next minute we’re being stabbed to death by Norman Bates and start seeing the world through his disturbed eyes. The point of view in William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury similarly does not remain stable or consistent. The novel’s first three sections are narrated from the perspective of three different brothers while the fourth section adopts a broader third person overview. The Sound and the Fury sees the same family history from four different perspectives and so ends up telling a different history each time.

It should come as no surprise that Martin cites Faulkner as the biggest influence on his writing. The relevant differences are that A Song of Ice and Fire works on a bigger scale and in a different register. Martin multiplies the perspectives in order to similarly explore the theme of a humanity divided against itself.

Before you cross the street take my hand. Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
—John Lennon, Double Fantasy

The irony is that Martin appears to have lost the plot. Martin’s inability to control his own history obviously frustrates him too. Originally conceived as a trilogy, A Song of Ice and Fire has become increasingly tangential and expansive. At last count, there are now a projected seven volumes and, like Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, Martin’s cycle might not be completed within his lifetime. There are currently five novels in the series, and the first three were published within two years of each other. Despite the wayward approach, A Game of Thrones (1996), A Clash of Kings (1998) and A Storm of Swords (2000) had a (relatively) discernible through line. The subsequent two novels took 11 years to appear and during the interval between A Feast of Crows (2005) and A Dance with Dragons (2011), Martin found himself entangled in a huge knot. The process of storytelling invariably raises a question about everyone’s relationship to history: does history belong to its authors or to its readers?

Martin’s intractable problem was two-fold. He had not only written himself into a corner, the books were spiralling out of control. Our kind host’s novels were getting longer and more protracted. Perspectives and characters keep multiplying while the plotlines seemed to be divided against themselves. Time will tell if the forthcoming The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring will eventuate, or whether a novel called A Never Ending Story will appear in their wake. Well, there’s one for the books. Martin had gotten so caught up in the minutiae of his world that he appears to have lost perspective.

Ironically, the television series might end up saving the day. Game of Thrones has already demonstrated considerable flair in streamlining Martin’s writing, and Martin has told the creators how the ‘game of thrones’ plays out. But there is still the problem of the television drama overtaking the books, resulting in a possible power struggle over ‘the narrative’.

It’s safe to assume—although by this stage we should already know that it is not safe to assume anything in Martin’s world, including whether a dead person remains dead—that A Song of Ice and Fire refers to the parallel stories of Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow. Generally speaking, their histories have failed to gather momentum or meaningfully relate. Danys and Jon have tended to remain on the margins of ‘the narrative’ and/or have been sidelined by unexpected developments. Winter might be coming , but the looming threat doesn’t seem to be in a rush to get anywhere. Indeed, Martin has been more focussed on the power struggles within Westoros than on bringing everything (and everyone) to a head.

Even worse, there is a fear that all the attention to internal politics and court intrigue has little to do with anything. If this is ultimately a story about a legitimate princess returning from exile, the resulting cleansing fire will also purge the narrative of its own excesses and instabilities. If this is really (or also) the story about the illegitimate Snow’s role in history, what is his relationship to Dany, and are they destined to start the cycle of madness again? We’re not going to presume to answer these questions, although (like many people) we have our own theories. The narrative issue is that Martin seems intent on displacing such questions onto increasing irrelevancies (historically speaking) .

Perhaps that’s Martin’s guiding theme: the way history displaces the meaning of events and undermines the significance of its own tales. If true, Martin is merely following the lead of history and throwing history (back)  into question. Historical developments are typically characterised by cognitive dissonance. Delaying our understanding and control appears to be the point of history.

The turn of events are always reminding us that ‘history’ is a mere fiction: it’s a work in progress that can’t even be controlled by its own genre.

Given the aimless wandering of Martin’s five books (so far), it’s been alleged that A Song of Ice and Fire has turned into a tragic disaster. The main complaint is that the book’s sequence of events generally occur without a sense of where the narrative is going. The irony is that complaining about Martin’s fantasy series in this way misses the bigger picture. A Song of Ice and Fire’s lack of a sense of direction is where its historical value lies. It doesn’t seem to occur to the normally astute book critic (Matt Hilliard) that Martin’s waymaking movement has become—whether intentional or not—an analogy for ‘history’ itself.

Suppose that A Song of Ice and Fire ends up being a complete wreckage, and Martin never manages to regain control of the narrative, assuming that he was ever in control of it to begin with. Maybe the series remains incomplete, even unfinishable to the outrage of emotionally invested observers. From the point of view of ‘history’, such a tragic defeat would be perfectly apt. From the point of view of narrative, of course, Martin’s failure would be entirely a different story. Nonetheless, if the pattern of events and plot lines point in different directions or fail to converge, Martin has still successfully managed to navigate the line between ‘fantasy’ and ‘history’. We therefore cite the book critic’s concern further and encourage you to view the same criticism from an entirely different perspective.

“Most of the series has been devoted to the titular game of thrones, as countless nobles struggle for power in Westeros… This main thread does not follow normal conventions. It is almost completely without structure. Events happen one after another without any kind of cohesion. It’s not that they don’t make sense… everything seems fairly logical and Martin proves to be a very inventive spinner of intrigue and conspiracy. Yet this all proceeds outside of the narrative structure that has characterized western literature for centuries. There is no development, there is no sense of progression of any kind, there is no climax. It’s the plot equivalent of someone banging an endless series of chords, each unrelated to the next, on a piano. Now I readily admit to being far more interested in the way stories are constructed than the average reader, but I think this has many important downsides even for those who aren’t consciously aware of the dissonance… Since there’s no plotline developing and advancing towards a climax, the reader realizes there’s no reason why the intrigue surrounding the throne of Westeros can’t go on indefinitely. And if the plot goes on indefinitely, then the individual events are completely deprived of meaning…”
—Matt Hilliard, “A Song of Ice and Fire 1 – 4”, 14 August 2010

To cut a long story short (and no disrespect to Martin):

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
—Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19–28

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