A Song of Ice and Fire: Further ThoughtsAugust 18, 2010 at 5:16 am | Posted in Essays | 31 Comments
Tags: George R R Martin
Recently Charlie Jane Anders on io9 linked to my thoughts about the first four books in A Song of Ice and Fire, pairing them with a Martin fan’s discussion of Martin’s writing issues. There’s been a pretty vigorous discussion there as well some interesting comments here, and since I don’t have time to reply to everything individually I thought I’d make a follow up post here. Before I get into the objections some people have raised, I want to make sure a few things are clear.
Unlike some I’m not criticizing Martin for the series’ delays. Writing fiction is hard enough and writing series fiction may be the hardest kind because no one lives long enough to get a lot of experience at doing it. JRR Tolkien, to take just one example, had enormous difficulties writing Lord of the Rings and spent fifteen years in a failed effort to finish the Silmarillion. I wouldn’t dream of second guessing him, or Martin either. By the same token I also am not criticizing his many fans. Unfortunately it didn’t quite come together for me and my post was an attempt at thinking about why that was. I think that with a tighter plot this series would be even more popular, but who knows? Finally, and maybe most importantly, I don’t have any more access to Martin’s mind than anyone else. Maybe less…my guesses about the origins of his work are based almost entirely on the text itself and his Wikipedia article, although over the years I’ve read the odd interview and some (but not nearly all) of his blog.
One more note: I stuck to fairly general observations in my previous article but this time there will be more spoilers, so if you haven’t read these books, you should probably go do that first. While I’m obviously not crazy about the series, there’s an excellent chance you’ll love them and in any case you can do far, far worse when it comes to fantasy.
Now, finally, let’s talk more about some of the responses people had to what I wrote.
An air of realism was the intended effect of the plot structure – I’m definitely willing to say I may have not given him enough credit here. I reasoned that since the standard elements of fantasy were present, just relegated to being second-class citizens to the realistic political story, that he wasn’t intentionally going for realism. But a few people have said he wanted to meld the two together and that could well be right. If so, I don’t think it was very successful. I think the problem is that the fantasy elements are relegated to the geographic sidelines. Almost all of the story (my guess was 85% but I think the io9 piece gave it more credit than a completely wild guess deserved) is set in Westeros, but the fantasy is where Daenerys and Jon Snow are, outside the borders.
The later books are going to tie all this together. – Some will object (have already objected actually) that I’m jumping the gun here. And I totally agree that all this is going to come to a head within the borders of Westeros before the end. But I don’t think it’s correct to say a series that, when complete, will probably be well over two million words can be structured the same way as an eighty thousand word novel, and more than a short story should have the same pacing as a novel. There are limits to the amount of material a reader can internalize. Fans who have reread the extant series ten times can probably speak comfortably about every narrative thread, but for the vast majority the disproportionate detail of the Westeros material is an obstacle to appreciating Martin’s project.
It’s wrong to write off the politics as “window dressing” because all of this will become important in later books. – Well, I disagree. Yes, a unified Westeros seems like it would be able to fend off the evil from the North as well as defeat Daenerys on the beaches when she arrives. But after reading the four books, is it anyone’s impression that but for some small chance this would have happened? The impression I got was that there were absolutely massive fault lines under the surface of King Robert’s nation that would inevitably rip it apart once it was put under the slightest stress. And once apart, all the King’s men are patently unable to put it back together. If Sansa hadn’t told Cersei about Ned Stark’s plans, perhaps Stark would have gotten an advantage for a short time, but would Tywin Lannister have given up his ambitions for his family? I think not. That’s just one example, but for me the takeaway was that Westeros is hopeless without some foreign overlord like the Targaryens to impose order.
But if efforts to staunch the bleeding in Westeros are futile, then why are we subjected to such endless detail of people trying? If a point is being made about power and ambition, why do we need the explicit fantasy sections at all? Why cloud the picture with the evil and the princess when you’re actually talking about mundane human government? And if the point is that in the face of these existential threats the government still cannot function, well, this would be more persuasive if more time was devoted to the existential threats. I think before the fourth book there were, what, ten or twenty people in Westeros who know anything about Daenerys? And if most of the Night’s Watch doesn’t believe they are facing a supernatural evil, or even remember how to fight it, it seems unreasonable to expect the rest of the country to take it more seriously.
Robb and Ned Stark are definitely main characters – Oh, I agree they are absolutely main characters of A Game of Thrones. I just don’t think they are main characters in A Song of Ice and Fire since, as I discussed above, no matter what they did they were going to be ground up in the mill of Westeros before the Ice and Fire parts of the story actually get moving. This is the heart of my concerns. The series is called A Song of Ice and Fire and most would agree that’s a reference to Daenerys and Jon Snow’s stories, but the individual books spend all of their time on Westeros politics. Notice that despite the series title, the titles of the books that have been released (A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows) all refer to events in Westeros. The unreleased book titles (A Dance With Dragons, The Winds of Winter, A Dream of Spring) all seem to be referring to the fantasy side of the story.
(Incidentally, apparently Daniel Abraham is a good friend of Martin’s…if so it’s humorous that he swooped in and got to the season-based titles with his Long Price Quartet after Martin had announced the last two book titles but before either were written.)
The story is really about the Stark children – My guess is the story is about Daenerys and Jon Snow (and that Snow is not, in fact, a Stark child) but I could be wrong about that. However if it’s true that Sansa, Arya, and Bran are more central than they appear (without a doubt they’ll ultimately have a significant role, the question is how central they’ll be) then I have a different complaint: why have the main characters been stuck being passive for such an excruciatingly long time? Robb was hugely active but was killed off for his trouble. Sansa, Arya, and Bran have changed due to their experiences, but have spent most of their viewpoint scenes being carted around by other people (and are totally absent from all other viewpoints). It’s nice that Sansa isn’t quite such an idiot any more and Bran has gone about two feet down a two mile spirit journey, but if this is so important why haven’t they been given more to do? Arya does get a lot of screen time in Feast for Crows but unfortunately it was mostly spent on what seems like it’s going to be end up being ninja training, probably the most generic part of the entire series. If the series’ realistic tone is such an asset (and I do agree that, while I’d like more structure, it’s an asset) is it helpful to turn a main character into a ninja? I’m all for strong female characters but I’m anti-ninja (male and female alike) in fiction which aspires to even a passing relationship with reality. Oh well.
This gets back to what, if anything, is “window dressing” in the series. It matters that Robb Stark was killed, in that he won’t be around later, and it matters that Arya has been forced to kill people and become a ninja. But given the number of pieces likely to be left on the board when we start approaching the final act (i.e. way, way less than the number of dead characters) was all the endless detail necessary for the story that was told? I think the answer is no. I know the fans liked that detail, and I certainly liked some of it as well. But surely most people would agree that there’s a point where it gets to be too much. We all draw the line at a different point. Maybe some fans could spend a hundred books of this size on Westeros politics and the characters caught up in it. I felt like my point was somewhere in Feast for Crows. Other people (including the io9 writer I think) didn’t make it that far.
Martin wasn’t “distracted” by the political side of the series, he was focused on it from the beginning – Apparently he’s talked about how he was inspired by the Wars of the Roses, he grew up fascinated by knights, and so forth. I’ll cop to being flippant when I said he got distracted by the politics. Whether or not he intended it from the beginning, certainly neither Martin nor his editor could fail to see it was the focus of Game of Thrones once there was an actual draft. But looking at the first four books together (since that’s how I read them) I still say that it is trying to be a fantasy story. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, except that the fantasy structure has been distorted by the narrative emphasis given to the unstructured politics. Being realistic doesn’t mean you have to give up on an orderly plot…I’d point to The Wire as the best recent example of a story that feels real despite keeping tight control over the plot at all times. I think, and I emphasize it’s my opinion, that the series would have worked better with me and probably a lot of other readers if it was written both with a better sense of narrative direction and momentum.
When I was in high school English class we got in groups of about eight and each group performed a Shakespeare play for the rest of the class. For time reasons, we had to abridge the plays, and if I recall part of the grade was based on how well we boiled the play down to its essentials. It felt like sacrilege (and I had the misfortune to be given the role of Macbeth…it turns out that when you boil down Macbeth the best way is to cut out everyone else’s lines and Macbeth just talks to himself and mostly silent people around him for the whole play). I don’t think anyone would ever come away thinking our butchered versions were even close to as good as the original texts. I think it’s a rule of thumb in writing circles that less is more. Less fluff, that is. The most effective stories are lean stories. I couldn’t tell you how true that is but if you’ve read A Song of Ice and Fire you can now decide for yourself. Are there scenes that can be removed without damaging the story? No doubt you’ll consider some of these scenes too good to cut. But remember other people are going to want to cut the scenes you liked and keep the ones you didn’t. I think this is why writers are told to “kill their darlings” and cut everything that isn’t needed regardless of how neat it might be. If that was done to A Song of Ice and Fire what would it look like?
We’ll find out one answer when the HBO series airs. I certainly don’t know the right answer. This question is hard, and having to answer it is yet another reason why writing is hard. Fortunately for us, backseat driving on the Internet is a lot easier.