Just after midnight last night, I pre-ordered the next volume in George R.R. Martin‘s .A Song of Ice and Fire, A Dance with Dragons. And while my criticism of the works has increased since I first blogged about this fantasy cycle, my enjoyment has not lessened. That said, these books differ from the other great fantasy cycles I’ve read in their absence of defining relationships. To be sure, there are relationships, but each seems limited to a particular volume, sometimes limited even to a series of chapters.
One character falls in love with another, either to see his feelings consummated or remain unrequited, yet certain to see the beloved perish shortly after the love was declared or otherwise acknowledged. We see a growing sympathy develop between two seemingly opposed characters, only to have them part company, likely never to see each other again, even as each has helped transform the other.
It seems that in good fiction (and yes, this is good fiction, far more readable and offering more insight into human nature that much literary fiction) as in great movies, there is always a defining relationship, oftentimes several. In Star Wars, we see the mentor-mentee relationship between Obi-Wan and Luke Skywalker as as well as his fraternal relationships with Princess Leia and Han Solo, the latter bond which causes the space smuggler to come back and help our hero destroy the Death Star. (Indeed, one friend believes it the absence of just such a character (Solo) which accounts for the weakness of the prequels; I believe that it’s also the absence of the hero’s relationship to a character like Han that makes Anakin Skywalker far less compelling than his son.)
Indeed, once director Francis Ford Coppola has established the character of Don Corleone character in The Godfather, the movie only really gets going when he notices the absence of his son Michael as the family poses for the requisite wedding picture. “Where’s Michael?” he asks, “we’re not taking the picture without Michael.” Later, when, through the blinds, he sees his son arrive at the reception, we know there is something significant about this relationship. And it is that relationship which will define Michael’s journey in the film.
These thoughts came to mind yesterday when I finished perhaps the greatest science fiction novel I have yet read, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Among the many things which define the hero is his recognition of his isolation, that most of his relationships are fleeting. And that acknowledgement allows us, the readers, to better relate to his plight.
Sometimes, I think, writers, whether of film or literary narrative, consider first not the structure of their story, but the relationships which define it. That said, sometimes it seems that Martin never did that. And yet when I was reading the first four books of his opus, I put each down only with regret.