by Calvin Johnson
Art casts a shadow, and any artist must move out of that shadow to create new art. This is the theme of The Anxiety of Influence by the critic Harold Bloom. Bloom identified six strategies but they really come down to two: doing it bigger and better or opposing, inverting, and subverting. Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong was of the bigger-and-louder variety, while the reboot of Battlestar Galactica was a thorough subversion of the original.
Bloom was analyzing poetry but it applies to all arts and all genres. Nowhere is it more true than in fantasy literature, where the long shadow of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien has sent would-be writers scurrying for light for over half a century.
It is almost — almost — impossible to out-Tolkien Tolkien, hence many subsequent fantasies have relied upon some sort of inversion and subversion. Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant was a morally flawed anti-hero (who early on commits rape) and just to rub our noses in it, Covenant is also a leper. And whereas Frodo loses one finger to Gollum, Covenant loses two to his disease, another topper. Although Ursula Le Guin’s wizard hero Ged is no creep, her Earthsea series sheds the war-between-Good-and-Evil trope altogether, as well as highlighting heroes with non-European phenotypes.
Despite the flourishing (or infestation) of urban fantasy with vampires, zombies, and werewolves, and despite the welcome branching out of fantasy into more Asian and African-inspired settings (such as two of this year’s Nebula novel nominees, N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and Nkendi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death?), high fantasy still often echoes Tolkien and the Euromythic setting of Middle-Earth. Illuvatar knows I despair of all the awful, tepid, Tolkien knockoffs I still read these days in writing workshops.
But occasionally it’s done well.
Over a decade ago, our good host Athena sent me a paperback copy of a novel. At the time I was in a funk, struggling with faculty politics while an assistant professor at LSU. The cover showed a novel that was clearly high fantasy in the Tolkien mode and having been soured by too many bad imitations, I was prepared to dislike it.
The book was George Richard Raymond Martin’s A Game of Thrones, the first in the series A Song of Fire and Ice. It is set in a quasi-medieval land, full of echoes of Middle-earth. But Martin both outdoes Tolkien and thoroughly, ruthlessly subverts him.
Tolkien was a medievalist, specializing in the languages of a thousand years ago, and Lord of the Rings has the scent of the formal Arthurian epic in it. There is war and death and struggle, but nonetheless LotR is sanitized. Not so with A Song of Fire and Ice. Martin does his homework; his series reads as if he had gone back in time, spent a couple of years banging around old castles and village hovels trading tales with the village witch, and then popped back with fresh memories of the stench of manure and hung pheasant. Imagine Middle-earth written with the grittiness of The Wire. Quite unlike Tolkien, Martin’s characters are complex and morally ambiguous.
Three sequels have appeared, with three more planned. Unfortunately the time between sequels has grown longer and longer, and the books ever longer too; the third, A Storm of Swords, weighed in at over 1100 pages.
Hence even a concise synopsis is not easy. There are half a dozen kings in the land of Westeros alone. The king in the North, Eddard Stark, is a noble if earthy lord who attempts to do what is right when what is right is impossible. Foremost of his foes is the conniving Cersei Baratheon née Lannister, queen in the South. You know the evil queens in Disney movies, the jealous Queen in Snow White, the shape-shifting Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty? Or real-life schemers such as Lucretia Borgia? Cersei would eat them all for breakfast and boil up the bones for tea for her brother, Jaime Lannister, the greatest swordsman in the land, who earned the nickname Kingslayer after killing the mad king Targaryen so that Cersei’s husband Robert could become king. But Cersei is bedding her brother Jaime (I told you she was evil), who casually cripples Eddard’s son Bran for spying on them; after that, it’s no stretch for them to plot to kill Robert, frame Eddard, and place Cersei’s son — fathered by Jaime, not Robert — on a throne made from the swords of defeated enemies.
Got it? And that’s just the beginning.
Thrown into the mix is Cersei and Jaime’s brother, Tyrion Lannister. Tyrion is the brains of the family. He is also a dwarf, so Cersei and Jaime tend to discount him, always a bad idea.
Tyrion is one of my two favorite characters, the other being Daenerys Targaryen, the daughter of the mad, dead King Targaryen. She was exiled overseas and forced into marriage to a Genghis Khan-like barbarian who promptly dies, leaving Daenerys nearly helpless. But not quite, for Daenerys has her wits and, importantly, her daddy’s dragon eggs. I forgot to mention that the Targaryens conquered Westeros with dragons several generations earlier; as the heirs of Eddard Stark, Robert Baratheon, and others battle to exhaustion, Daenerys begins a looping journey back to Westeros and revenge, collecting an army along the way.
I’ve left out, oh, about a dozen major characters, such as Stark’s daughters and his bastard son Jon Snow, sent to the farthest north to defend the land against an eerie, unseen foe. But you get the idea.
Martin plunks down dozens of sharply realized, multifaceted characters; even the least tavern whore whom Tyrion beds comes across as a real person, not just a prop. Martin also downplays the fantastic elements in favor of realpolitik: where there are dragons and there appears to be magic, it slinks arounds the edges, giving atmosphere rather than magi ex machina solutions to plot problems.
It’s not clear that Martin actually has a plot. In what is both the series’ greatest strength and biggest frustration, the books read like a fictionalization of real history, with all the messy, chaotic, and even unfair turns of events. There is no quest. There will be no vindication of good over evil. There is a war for power, but like real wars and political struggles, it is messy and chaotic. Main characters, characters who in any other series would clearly be destined to be the heroes, die halfway through, leaving the reader to swear in the name of the seven gods (Martin postulates a Jungian seven-fold deity rather than a Freudian trinity and gets in some nice wordsmithing, coining words like septon). Given the unraveling skein of events, narrative voices that multiply like rabbits with a supercomputer, and the increasing time between books, Martin is in danger of losing his audience.
But it’s been a hell of a ride.
And now A Game of Thrones is coming to television — to, alas as I don’t have cable, HBO. And what a great cast. Sean Bean (the tragic, haunted Boromir in Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring) is Eddard Stark. Lena Headey (the robot-ass-kicking eponymous heroine of the short lived series The Sarah Connor Chronicles) is Cersei Lannister. And Tyrion is played by Peter Dinklage, usually unrecognizable under pounds of latex in fantasy movies, but who proved his acting chops in The Station Agent. Dinklage was Martin’s favored choice for this role as well, and I’d give good odds of him stealing the series. The buzz is favorable. We shall see.
Images: 1st, Stephen Yull’s cover for A Game of Thrones (cropped); 2nd, Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister) as Sarah Connor; 3rd, Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister); 4th, Sean Bean (Eddard Stark) as Boromir.
Update: PZ Myers Why I’m not Interested in Watching GoT encapsulates my feelings about the opus.