On Fantasy Part I: A Game of Thrones

I recently finished George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. It made me wonder why I stopped reading these types of books in the first place. Were they childish, simplistic, lacking in literary merit? While that could be said for Dragonlance or the newer Terry Brooks, I’d say Martin’s work is none of the above. I put a break after three Robert Jordan tomes that read as clones – I was turned off by the whole Fantasy Franchise thing (think Harry Potter and Endless Bag of Money)

Game of Thrones (GoT) was refreshingly different, and a much needed break from the angsty, post-modern literature that had been my reading stack for the past few years. For one, it’s a strong mix of realism (sex, violence, shades of grey), political intrigue and expert writing. Martin has a knack for crafting a compelling narrative – the perfect blend of tension, character development and imagination. There aren’t any clever “gimmicks” employed, this is simply powerful writing.

The specifics (might as well quote the blurb):

In a world where the approaching winter will last four decades, kings and queens, knights and renegades struggle for control of a throne. Some fight with sword and mace, others with magic and poison. Beyond the Wall to the north, meanwhile, the Others are preparing their army of the dead to march south as the warmth of summer drains from the land. After more than a decade devoted primarily to TV and screen work, Martin (The Armageddon Rag, 1983) makes a triumphant return to high fantasy with this extraordinarily rich new novel, the first of a trilogy. Although conventional in form, the book stands out from similar work by Eddings, Brooks and others by virtue of its superbly developed characters, accomplished prose and sheer bloody-mindedness.

But this brings us back to the overriding question – why is fantasy compelling? Why does the genre endure, from Tolkien to Rowling?

1. Honorable Violence. I think there is a lament for the glory days of melee combat, at least among the nerd populace. What can be more glorious than swords and battle armor? While modern warfare has its bombs, guns, tanks and planes – the heroes are the weapons themselves, not the warriors. The archetypical GI is hardly more than memorialized cannon fodder, hardly heroic. The commanders themselves plot in underground bunkers – a far cry from a warhorse-mounted King of the Realm. Fantasy is just as violent (even more so) than modern life, but the violence is stylized to make it exhilarating, not horrific or depressing.

2. Archetypical Characters. The post-modern lit-snobs would call this a downfall. Joseph Campbell and (his pupil George Lucas) would voraciously disagree. Despite the language and the setting, the archetypes always emerge: the scoundrel/rascal, the corageous but green youth, the weary warrior, the wise but cooky wizard/crone, the exquisite maiden/princess, etc. Archetypes allow us to map our own experiences upon a template, and in turn strengthen our connection to those literary characters.

3. Differing Worldviews. In GoT we follow the Dothraki, a wandering band of horse raiders that make Ghengis Khan look tame. And the Seven Kingdoms, where the majority of the action takes place, are full of all the medieval conventions: public executions, forced exile, brothels, bastards, and strict feudalism. We are totally without the modern enlightened traditions of democracy, civil rights, representation, modern capitalism. It’s interesting to see these worlds fully realized, practically workable. It sincerely puts a question mark behind the western worldviews we hold as sacred and immutable. Even for the Dothraki horse lords, who frequently rape, pillage and enslave there is honor and tradition that supersede anything found nowadays. If anything, the intricate worlds of fantasy allow us to test (or experiment) taboo theories of civilization.

The question is still open-ended, however, and I think there is a lot more to it. The next “installments” will take into account World of Warcraft and the novel I’ve been half-hazardously jotting out the last four months, Seyemi Spire.

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