Just received word from Amazon that my copy George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book Five (that I pre-ordered when I finished its mediocre “prequel” A Feast for Crows) has shipped. And while my enthusiasm for his saga has somewhat lessened since I first blogged about Martin’s books, I expect to spend the better part of my free time in the coming week reading Dance.
In that earlier post, I noted that while I found much wisdom in Martin’s “tale, particularly in how the individual characters face their particular challenges,” I wondered if his story “was wise as is Tolkien’s trilogy, Tolstoy’s novels and Homer’s epics.” After four books, we still don’t know and may not know even after reading the latest installment. We may well have to wait until the last book comes out.
Martin’s wisdom lies, by and large, in how he portrays many of his many characters, particularly in showing the strength of the “outsiders,” characters who find themselves on the periphery of his imagined society similar to the chivalric world of the High Middle Ages. We see how Jon Snow, the bastard brother in the family at the core of the saga, comes into his own, how Brienne, the woman with the strength, skills and values of the men of her society, faces her challenges and fulfills her duties, how Sandor Clegane, despite his burned face and gruff manor embodies the code of the knights whose honors (and title) he rejects, how the obese Samwell Tarly, who stumbles when he attempts to fulfill the obligations of his sex, shows unusual pluck when it’s most needed. To give put a few examples.
In just the first book (the subject of a recent HBO miniseries) A Game of Thrones, we see early on that Martin has crafted characters fare more complex than those we usually find in fantasy fiction. When the aforementioned Jon Snow walks out of a banquet held at his father’s seat, feeling out of place because his bastard birth prevents him for enjoying the same honors as his siblings, he encounters the deformed dwarf Tyrion Lannister who has spent his life overcoming the disadvantages of his deformity in a family known for the beauty of its members.
Despite the rivalry between the two houses, the dwarf offers the young man advice on dealing with his difference:
“. . . Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it and it will never be used to hurt you.”
Jon was in no mood for anyone’s counsel. “What do you know about being a bastard?”
“All dwarfs are bastards in their father’s eyes.”
[Later Tyrion added,] “All dwarfs may be bastards, yet not all bastards need be dwarfs.”
Good advice to anyone who has differed from the social norm. Or his parents’ expectations. Still, when Jon goes to the Wall to be trained for the Night’s Watch, he, because of his noble birth, has a chip on his shoulder, condescending to his peers, not trained as he in the art of sword-fighting. He feels even more of an outsider at Winterfell where he was raised with his half-siblings, able, unlike him, to carry their father’s name.
Donal Noye, the armorer offers Jon advice in a similar vein to that Tyrion had offered him earlier. The conscript’s peers, Noye said, at the Wall didn’t hate him because, as Jon claimed, he was “better than they are,” but because he acted like he was better than they are: “They look at you and see a castle-bred bastard who thinks he’s a lordling.” Noye again reminds him who he is as he educates him about the shortcomings of his peers’ upbringing; Noye suggests he show greater sensitivity to their situation in order to gain a better sense of belonging.
Providing counsel to the struggling young man, Tyrion Lannister and Donal Noye each help Jon Snow deal with his own awkward situation and help him find his path. With good counsel, Martin seems to be telling us, the outsider can, as if in defiance to his birth, achieve success in this world and accomplish great things.
And in showing this outsider, struggling, learning, adapting and then advancing, Martin gives his fantasy a degree of heft that other books in the genre lack. He does, however, see love more as an impediment to accomplishment than a sustaining aspect of the human condition. He also seems to go out of his way to deprive us of those moments of reconciliation between family members long separated that, in long works of fiction, provides a certain emotional fulfillment.
Perhaps, Martin is trying to earn the favor of literary critics who sniff at cheap sentiment and deride any type of emotional reconciliation as such sentiment.
That is just one of the flaws of this series. Yet, despite my frequent disappointment with the characters’ various journeys, I do, when I read these books, find myself drawn into the story and Martin’s imaginary world. As I read, his fantastic universe becomes real.