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Artist, Heather Oliver             

The Anxiety of Kings

by Calvin Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica and Harry Potter.

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.

I didn’t.

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.

27 Responses to “The Anxiety of Kings”

  1. Asakiyume says:

    I haven’t read the books in question, but I’ve heard a lot about them, and I appreciate the short intro to some of the major characters and situations. I did enjoy the dwarf character in The Station Agent–a great film.

  2. Athena says:

    Although I was the culprit who introduced Calvin to this juggernaut, after I read the first one and found out there were going to be seven of them, the wind went right out of my sails. For one, the poorly mixed cultural and linguistic salad dismayed me. To give you a glimpse, the name of Daenerys’ short-lived husband is Drogo and everything beyond Westeros (eek) is a shallow blend of Arab and Mongol. For another, vividly written real history like Barbara Tuchman’s The Calamitous Fourteenth Century — or even Guy Gavriel Kay’s thinly-disguised historical novels passing as fantasy — beat this rehash of the War of the Roses any day.

    All that’s left in my memory are interesting flourishes: Drogo has a long braid decorated with tiny bells (and is loving to Daenerys)… someone is imprisoned in an open-sided eerie with a sloping floor, so he can’t sleep… a fierce old sealord chastises his wayward son in a cold, echoing hall.

  3. Caliban says:

    Apparently the producers at HBO hired a linguist to create a Dothraki language (for the ill-fated Mongol-like people whom Daenerys comes to lead) so in addition to Klingon (and Na’vi) you’ll be hearing that at fantasy conventions in the future…

    I actually thought the story picked up a bit in books 2 and 3. Martin has some nice twists and abrupt, even shocking turns of events. However by the fourth book–which I was skimming through last night–Martin has introduced not only many new characters, but many new narrative voices, that it becomes difficult to keep track. (This is a trend in SF/F that has begun to really, really annoy me.) And when it’s been six years after the last book it’s going to be hard to pick it up again. Some characters have disappeared and I don’t know if they will return or not. So while I had a higher tolerance than you for a while–and believe me, through overexposure I’ve developed quite an allergy to “epic fantasy”–my enthusiasm waned a bit in the last book. Also Tyrion and Daenerys were missing in the last book. I’m hoping they are back in full force in the next book, due out this summer.

  4. Athena says:

    It’s just that after Daenerys hatched her dragon eggs I couldn’t believe it would take her seven books the size of doorstops to crush the seven kinglings, just as the original Targaryen ancestor had done.

    I don’t mind multiple narrators, especially if the voices are distinctive. I also enjoy having the same event told by one person, then retold by another, revealing additional facts (or character facets). And I like first-person, as you know (I guess that makes me a romance writer?! Not that I mind…) Single third-person narration is just as artificial, when you think of it, whether omniscient or limited. They’re all conventions.

  5. Caliban says:

    It’s not multiple voices per se, but whether or not having them really adds distinctive views to the story.

    I agree completely that seeing events from a different point of view can add layers to a story. But that’s not what often happens in doorstopper fantasy and space opera. Instead, those authors clearly believe their story is Too Big for one POV to handle and so go on a make-work program for POVs. But I personally think that’s a combination of arrogance and laziness. A well-plotted story should have a unity that can be handled either by one POV, or by competing POVs that indeed provide different interpretation of events.

    Martin is somewhere in between. Indeed we do see events differently through the eyes of different characters. But he’s also just greedy and wants to show off every thing he can think of about his world. And that’s when this starts getting tiresome.

  6. Athena says:

    The shortcomings (or should it be longcomings?) you point out are indeed tiresome. I agree they arise from a combination of laziness and arrogance. Along the lines of layers, I much prefer loosely linked (or even unlinked) stories in a single universe. It’s another way of seeing events from different angles and allows the secondary world to breathe in ways precluded in straight sequels.

  7. Athena says:

    Heather Havrilesky’s NYT review makes some of the points of the Grin/Abercrombie debate.

  8. Caliban says:

    Though there have been quite a few positive reviews of the TV series, including at Salon (Havrilesky’s old stomping ground), I won’t post the link because it was a meta-review of another NYT review (the one you deleted the link to).

    In the end, of course, each reader/viewer has to decide for herself.

    As I said, I have been thumbing through book four, “A Feast for Crows.” I remember now why I thought this was tedious; huge stretches of the book involve Cercei sitting in staff meetings managing the kingdom. While we do gain some character insight, really, I don’t know why we needed chapter after chapter after chapter of this.

    But I will read book five. Tyrion, who is on the lam from Cercei, will be back, as well Daenerys, who is still on her way to reconquering Westeros, only her horsemen refuse to pull over and ask directions.

  9. Athena says:

    I deleted the link to Bellafonte’s review because Havrilesky’s was more accurate. Laura Miller wrote an interesting larger-picture discussion in the New Yorker. Apparently, George Martin isn’t sure where his plots are going either (he doesn’t write outlines, it seems) and he has to ask fans for continuity of details. Maybe a good way to keep disgruntled aficionados (pre)occupied.

  10. Asakiyume says:

    Athena, that prison with the sloping floors and the open end is ingenious-sounding!

  11. s johnson says:

    Having seen the pilot, but not a word of the novels, I do have to ask: Exactly what is entertaining about seeing a ten year old boy murdered?

  12. Athena says:

    I have read the first book, but haven’t seen the pilot (not having access to HBO). Martin has been trying for gritty realism in the series. After all, in real life, 10-year olds did get killed and still do. So it’s certainly not light entertainment — but given HBO’s preferences (The Sopranos, Deadwood, Rome), it’s par for the course.

  13. Caliban says:

    I haven’t seen the opening episode–in the book, the boy is not killed but crippled. (Perhaps this isn’t clear.)

    This brings up the sticky issue of, Why, and when, is suffering “entertainment”? Why is anyone’s death entertaining? Even “bad guys”? For this question I highly recommend Walter Wink on “The Myth of Redemptive violence”

    I too feel uneasy when children are used as tools for manipulating the audience. That’s one reason I never read or saw “The Lovely Bones,” in which a young girl is raped and killed. (Although, somewhat ironically, and perhaps to my shame, I too am guilty of using the death of a child as a story element

    Of course, is entertainment the sole value? Aristotle famously discusses the role of catharsis (for the pedantic — clearly I’m not going into details here) although this does lead back, in corrupted form, to “redemptive violence.”

    My point is that it is not a simple issue. I agree that there are many times when I am uncomfortable with the portrayal of violence against children. But exactly where that line is drawn differs for each one of us.

  14. Athena says:

    I think the line is between catharsis and titillation — but that does differ individually, as you pointed out. And in your story, the child’s death is the engine that drives the protagonist (though I agree that the concept of a mother under duress is well-used and can easily backfire).

  15. s johnson says:

    In the pilot, the murder sets up a punch line. I don’t think catharsis is an issue here.

    There is a scene in which the exiled heir to the previous king fondles his sister’s breast with his fingertip, then strips her. Later he informs her that he would have her gangraped to regain the throne. But he keeps calling her “sweet sister.” Historically the women of royal families have dutifully mated as directed. But I think they were motivated by appeals to duty and affection and their own desire for what power such consorts have, or at least to retain their social position. Whatever is going on in Game of Swords may be gritty but realism has nothing to do with it. Besides, physics and chemistry would give a lot more realism to epic fantasy.

  16. Athena says:

    I don’t consider most epic fantasy of the gritty/grotty variety original or challenging (see my article A Plague on Both your Houses for a longer opinion), so take my comment as it’s meant.

    The Targaryens have been practicing sibling incest to keep their line “pure” and given the gender power differential in the series it’s not surprising that Viserys would consider his sister an instrument he could use as he saw fit (to me that was one major turnoff in the book, though Daenerys ends up using whatever slim advantage she has).

    Most women throughout most of history married through family pressure, sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle. Beatings and incarcerations served as instruments of “persuasion” even for royal women (read how Marguerite of Valois married Henri of Navarre, for example).

  17. Caliban says:

    It seems to me that HBO tends to specialize in series with lots of awful people. The Sopranos was not about a church choir. And on Showtime, the series Dexter has a serial killer as the hero.

    This is not meant to excuse any problems one may have with A Game of Thones. No one is required to like it. At my house we don’t have cable precisely because so much on television is grim and awful–and that’s just American Idol 🙂 . (Yes, I know American Idol is on so-called broadcast. We still don’t watch it.)

  18. s johnson says:

    I’ve seen both Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour and The Gong Show, so American Idol had nothing new to offer. Thus I’ve never seen it either. The Sopranos had a Mafioso seeing a shrink, an absurd premise adequately explored (I think) by the movies Analyze This and William H. Macy’s, Anxiety. So I’ve never seen that either.

    The thing about Dexter is that in his domestic life, Dexter is an extraordinarily nice person, who never, ever, fails in the end to try to do the right thing, despite his comic inablity to deal with his or other people’s emotions. In that respect, the show was as challenging as a sitcom and equally dedicated to humor. However, the show is increasingly centered on vigilantism as a Good Thing. The more important that aspect becomes, the worse the show gets. Dexter’s successful vigilantism was barely plausible in the first couple of seasons. As his continued success gets more and more absurd, the wish fulfillment gets more and more blatant. Those who don’t wish for vigilante murders will find subsequent seasons of Dexter get worse and worse, very rapidly after his girl friend, the root source of the domestic comedy, is killed off.

    But the thing about Game of Swords is that it’s hard to suspend disbelief. I believe Viserys would rant about family duty, instead of that creepy sexual display. I think Daenerys might hate the idea of marrying Khal Drogo but I also think the idea would be perfectly comprehensible to her. Her stunned look I think is supposed to be visual code for sexual innocence, but to me it just comes across as stupidity. Since there are two examples of brother/sister incest in just the pilot, the dynastic impulse seems like a feeble justification for a (supposedly) fun idea. Also, I think of the later Ptolemies. Daenerys doesn’t seem like a sister-queen of the Ptolemaic dynasty to me.

  19. Athena says:

    I haven’t seen the series — but my recollection from the book is that Daenerys came across as politically sophisticated, if inexperienced (in contrast, Viserys appeared unworthy of rule). I suspect that the sorry remnants of the once-mighty Targaryen were Martin’s “end of Númenor” depiction, dynastic incest included.

  20. Athena says:

    I have now heard that the HBO series has also gone for the cliché of “dark barbarian rapes blond princess until she learns to like it.” A great pity: one of the few real surprises in the book was how gently Drogo treated Daenerys.

  21. s johnson says:

    Strictly speaking, Daenerys realizes that making Khal Drogo happy is a possible road to power. She takes hooker lessons from her maid, who by a happy coincidence is a very experienced courtesan. Whether she actually likes it is irrelevant.

    Bran turns out to have survived the fall, implausible to my eyes, but there you are. But a ten year old butcher’s boy is thoroughly killed in this episode, just to make sure we know the writer isn’t squeamish I suppose. Astonishingly, there is more angst over killing a dire wolf for biting the prince! If I’m going to watch nonsense, I prefer nicer people coming into my living room.

  22. Rose Lemberg says:

    Watched the first episode of GoT tonight. Not going to watch another. Martin’s narratives lost me somewhere, but this has lost me much faster.

  23. Athena says:

    I saw the trailers and the opening which was freely available for a while… it lost me right there. Good to hear I’m not the only one in the entire western world with a dim view of this opus.

  24. Rose Lemberg says:

    You know, I’ve been sitting there thinking, how could I have read Martin’s opus, with his really pithy selection of female characters to read for? These were my reasons, I think: Jon Snow (completely lost me in the later books); Daenerys/Drogo; and after Drogo’s death, that scene where Daenerys buys herself an army with her dragons and then calls them back to her.

    Take away the tenderness of the Daenerys/Drogo relationship, take away the *viewpoint* of Daenerys, who may be young, but is smart and determined; aim the camera at the boobs, and voila! just another installment of All Male Gaze All the Time.

    There are plenty of women who watch and love this, but I’m afraid I’m going back to my imaginary friends tonight.

  25. Athena says:

    Exactemundo! The unexpected gentleness of the Daenerys/Drogo relationship and how Daenerys coped with her ordeals was what kept me going in the book. Also — something that is not totally obvious in the book but becomes painfully so in the visual medium of the series — is the traditional light/dark division, modeled on Tolkien and his nasty swarthy Southrons.

  26. Rose Lemberg says:

    With the Dothraki respectfully and positively portrayed, I don’t think the books were quite there in terms of light/dark. Drogo was portrayed as wiser and, well, more just than Viserys. The book just presented characters as people; the pilot shows us familiar caricatures. There is that moment in the pilot where the beautiful, extremely white all over Daenerys is walking after Drogo, and behind her a throng of dark-skinned women – eeeeeek.

    I feel that Martin danced very precisely on the very edge of the rapey fiction and on the very edge of the Aryan-supremacy trope, but what redeemed it was the complexity of both his characters and his worldbuilding.

    Somewhat tangentially, I think that many women viewers remarked on the drool-worthyness of Sean Bean, and as Sean Bean does absolutely nothing to me, perhaps I am missing a crucial component here.

  27. Athena says:

    Agreed. That’s why I didn’t mind the skin tones in the book. I like Sean Bean myself, but nobody can carry a series single-bodedly!