I am quite late to this George Martin party, but, having seen seasons one and two on HBO, I decided to read the Game of Thrones series. I knew what to expect for the major plot points of books one and two, but book three was all new and it was here that I started to really think about what Martin was doing. I’ve read that he was inspired by the War of the Roses, a late medieval English civil war between the Yorks and Lancasters, but, despite the knights and castles and map that looks something like England, GoT has much more to do with our own world than that of the Late Middle Ages. By book three, the only hero who stays a hero is Ned Stark, who lost his head early in book one and about whom nothing horrible has been revealed. Yet. Except that he didn’t tell his bastard son where he came from and let his wife treat him as the proverbial red-headed stepchild. Jaime Lannister pushes a small boy from a tower window because he witnesses an act of incest, but he finds his heart for the wench, Brienne, whom all others mock. Cersei is a conniving bitch, but her conniving would be brilliant if she were a man and had not been shaped by that resentment. No one wins the Game of Thrones. Not those gaming for the thrones or those who just try to live quiet lives under their rule. In book three, Storm of Swords, the smallfolk pay the ultimate price. They are robbed, humiliated, raped, gutted, and left to the elements. Or worse, left to live on when all around them are gone. The rape is so graphic and relentless in book three that I nearly stopped reading out of a survival instinct. No one’s word means anything. Castle walls are treachery, not protection. The capital city, King’s Landing, is first sensed through the smell of shit and rot, not seen for its sparkling monuments to progress and humanity. The Hound kills the butcher boy, but saves Sansa from gang rape at the hands of an angry mob. He cries and asks her for a lullaby when faced with a city of fire, but dies crowing about his massacre of Micah and other innocents. His brother, the “true” night, is an sight less welcome than one of the horsemen of the apocalypse. The weirwoods are holy sights, the Seven seem to be reasonable gods, but their septons are corrupt. The fire lord gets the job done, but demands sacrifices that defy common morality and is served by fanatics. The Others walk, mammoths and giants exist, wildlings are democratic and undisciplined, and some people truly become their dogs.
We live in an age that can believe in magic and zombies, but not a godly church; an age that worships the individual as well as discipline. We have faith in democracy, but not democratic institutions or our representatives in them. We have faith in individuals, but not people. Game of Thrones is the fantasy epic for our cynical, distrustful, violent age.
The little blurbs from reviewers at the beginning of the trade paperback version often cite T.H. White’s Once and Future King. I read that novel decades ago, but it may bear revisiting just to test this comparison. My memory of White’s Arthur is much more optimistic than I can imagine GoT ever becoming. When Mordred kills Arthur we weep for the events that led each man to this place. When Tyrion kills Tywin in the privy, we simply cheer. Maybe the sunshine comes out in books 4-7. Maybe. Or maybe I just see it all more clearly.