A Song of Ice and Fire: A Critical Reading

While I patiently wait for certain parties who shall remain unnamed to finish their review of A Game of Thrones, I thought I'd throw out some thoughts about the book that have been bouncing around my head for a while.

First, let me say that the series is not done, so some of this is speculation. Further, I have only read the first two books out of four published, so it may be the case that some of my speculation is already invalid (or has come to fruition). Also, this discussion has some very light spoilers, insofar as I talk about non-plot twist events in the second book.

For much of the second book I disliked Catherine Stark. She spends a good part of the novel ensconced at Riverrun, and her principle activity there is worrying. She awakes in the morning, worries about nine impossible things before breakfast, takes her meal, worries about the war, eats lunch, worries about her children, watches for ravens that might bear fresh news to worry about, has dinner, worries about her father's health, then it's off to bed for a good night's sleep in anticipation of another long day's worry.

Most of her worrying revolves around the war. Why, she asks, can't we just stop fighting? Wouldn't that be better for everyone? You read it and want to throttle her. "Good lord! Can't you see that your hippie peacenik ways will only lead to death and destruction? Can't you see that sometimes things are worth fighting and dieing for, and your children have chosen this path for themselves? Get ahold of yourself!"

But here's the trouble: Fundamentally, she's right. The game of thrones is, in the end, just a game. A violent and destructive game, but a game nonetheless. It doesn't matter one whit who sits on the Iron Throne to most of the populace, and it probably won't matter too much for the nobility, either.

I feel this gets thrown into sharp relief by the lack of standard magic/quest fantasy tropes. There's no hideous warlock bent on world destruction, no sinister Other that the band of heroes is questing against. (That's not to say there aren't Others, but almost nobody's paying attention to them; they're too busy playing with swords). When a story features heroic protagonists pitted against an evil force that seeks to destroy the world, you can easily suspend your disbelief about the brutally oppressive nature of the Medieval polity.

But Martin's world is much closer to the real world than it is to Middle Earth, and as such it's harder to ignore the fact that you have a political system based on a small caste of gangsters exploiting the 95% of the population that's weaker than them. We can sort of accept that Eddard is relatively benevolent as gangsters go (Maybe. He's loved by the castle folk, and he's loved by his vassals, who are all members of the Gangster Caste). But do the Smallfolk, as they are called, really experience a better life if they toil on Stark lands than if they work under Lannister's banner? I have my doubts.

A point that comes up several times: The Smallfolk don't particularly care who the king is, and on the occasions they do care, they wish the Targaryens were back on the throne. This is important: The inbred and evil Targaryens were vicious to their gangster underlings, but treated the bottom 95% of the country about the same as anyone else did. The only difference between life under the Targaryens and life under the Baratheons is that there was a hell of a lot less war while the Targaryens ruled. But just because the Smallfolk don't care who rules doesn't mean they won't have to die over the question.

The argument that some of the nobles are good rulers who truly care about their people is undermined by the fact that nobody demonstrates effective rulership. Leave aside the gathering army on the Eastern Continent; the Westeros can't be expected to know about that. Leave aside also the wildling hordes and the Others; the North hasn't been a problem in years, and while a good ruler might take note of the disturbing reports by now, it's hardly a count against them to lack that sort of prescience. But the one thing that everyone knows damn well is that Winter is coming. Further, it having been a long Summer, it can be expected to be the longest Winter in history, 15, 20, 30 years. And how do the lords of Westeros collectively respond to this calamitous and inevitable natural disaster? By sowing more crops while they can and storing extra food to wait out the cold? Of course not. They take all the able-bodied men they can muster, march them to the middle of the continent, and set them about hacking one another to pieces. And while they're at it, they burn the most fertile fields on the continent to prevent their enemies from getting easy supplies. This, I would argue, is not a wise course of action.

The best course for the Starks would be to give in, accept the current King, and start sacking away for the coming famine. If they really feel it necessary, they can nurse a grudge and enact their vendetta when the time is right and their imminent destruction isn't at hand. Cruel as most of the Lannisters are, it seems unlikely they would seek to wipe out the Stark family out of spite. Of course, everyone calling it quits and enacting sound and rational agricultural policy wouldn't make for a very interesting novel.

I wonder if Martin agrees with me. The elements are certainly there, and we know that something's going to happen eventually with the Wildlings, the Others, and Daenerys Targaryen. Eventually he's going to give the Lords of Westeros a collective whack on the head and tell them to stop playing around and deal with the real problems they face. I hope he also throws some cold water on the medieval nostalgia that his book plays into so well(and that, to be fair, I absolutely love when I'm not wearing my Critical Studies cap). Remember: if you lived in the Middle Ages, the overwhelming probability is that you would live out your life poor, weak, and uneducated. You would live in fear of the local nobility until you perished as a toy soldier in someone's game of war, or were slaughtered by troops (probably from the very noble sworn to protect you) as they passed through your land on the way to battle.

Still, we care about who the author tells us to care about, and Martin wants us to care about the game of thrones (or perhaps he's waiting to drop the sword on our heads and scold us for misplaced priorities; I can only hope). In the end, though, caring deeply about whether the Starks or Lannisters prevail is like caring about whether the noble Bechtels or the sinister Halliburtons get the over-inflated government construction contract: At the end of the day, they're all a bunch of crooks.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on January 13, 2006 9:34 PM.

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