Book Review: A Song of Ice and Fire, Part One (An Overview)

The back of George R. R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons showcases, along with all the usual laudatory blurbs, a quote from Time that proclaims Martin to be the “American Tolkien.” There are some obvious parallels between the two authors. Tolkien spent much of his adult life working to elevate the genre of fantasy from the depths of childish stories in which it was drowning. In the same vein, Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series adds a decidedly adult spin to stories about dragons and medieval clans. In this way, the two authors both have sought to craft out of the stuff of our childish fantasies stories for adults to enjoy.

However, I think calling Martin the “American Tolkien” does a disservice to both authors. It sets the reader up for disappointment, because the style and essence of Martin’s writing could not be more different from that of Tolkien. Also, both men had markedly different approaches to and reasons for writing. George R. R. Martin has said that his approach to writing is like a gardener – he weaves stories and plants the seeds of ideas within them, and then allows those ideas to develop. He sort of lets the story go where it will. For him, writing is about the characters and their development. And, admittedly, Martin is ridiculously good at having characters go through believable progressions. Despite all the fantastical elements that the reader just knows aren’t true (the dragons, the magic, the very world), it feels like you are reading about real people. As an aspiring author, I can tell you that this is almost unfathomably difficult to pull off.

Tolkien, though, had a much different approach (at least, from what I can tell). I’m not a Tolkien scholar by any means, but I did grow up amidst the Lord of the Rings movie hullabaloo – and I have read the Silmarillion. Slogging through the dense narrative of that book and watching hours of DVD Special Features on the languages Tolkien created have left me with a distinct feeling that Tolkien was out to create a mythology. He wasn’t really about the story itself, per se. Rather, it seems to me that his main goal was to craft languages, cultures, and religions – and to do this in a writing style that mimicked the feel of ancient texts. It was supposed to feel like the reader found a piece of writing detailing the histories of Middle Earth. One of my friends (who is, by the way, a huge fan of both authors) recently made the claim that if Tolkien were alive today no publisher would take him on as a client. This is entirely possible. His works, while brilliant and amazing and highly deserving of the heaps of praise they’ve earned over the years, do not make for great stories. DISCLAIMER: I have not yet completely read through the LOtR trilogy (though I have read the Hobbit and the aforementioned Silmarillion). Don’t get me wrong: the history in Tolkien’s work is rich, deep, enjoyable, interesting, etc. etc. ad nauseam. But the characters are simply talked about by the narrator – they are not experienced by the reader in the same way that Martin’s characters are.

While the above paragraph will probably draw harsh criticism from Tolkien fans, the point I am making is: the authors could not be more different. I said earlier that few (if any) publishers would want to take on the task of publishing Tolkien if he submitted his work today. Martin, however, has achieved every writer’s dream. His seven-book series consistently tops the best-seller lists and has been picked up by HBO for television adaption. Indeed, the show is in its second season already and is making the big bucks. Why is that, though? Why do we all love Martin’s work so much?

Apart from the reasons I’ve already mentioned regarding Martin’s dedication to character development and story, I think the series is so successful because he’s a genuinely good author. He writes about fantasy in a way that is somehow believable and enjoyable. We build attachments to his characters, we become engrossed in the plotlines (the many, many, many interwoven plotlines), and we fall in love with the numerous cultures and religions of Westeros and beyond. The man can world-build like nobody’s business, and he does it through dialogue and not just dry description. We also love them because it is surprisingly difficult to predict the next plot-point. Not only is there a vast number of narrative lines told from the perspectives of multiple characters, but Martin does not always adhere to conventions. Just because someone seems to be a main character, and just because Martin’s spent a few thousand-page books developing that character, there is no guarantee that Martin is not going to kill the person off on the next page. And this makes the story more believable – but more importantly, it makes it exciting.

But let’s be honest: these works are not going to please everyone. I’ve talked with numerous people who have tried to read the books and have left off, disgusted. Set in a time period that somewhat mimics our own medieval days, Martin’s story does not pull any punches. Women have virtually no rights, they are consistently (and with detail) mistreated both physically and sexually, and the men pretty much use the women for their own entertainment. On the one hand, this is an example of Martin’s “going where the story wills” – he doesn’t make a character’s speech easier on the ears just because it is offensive. There is a substantial claim that Martin is just being true to the time period. On the other hand, the sex scenes (which to me are too detailed and could use a bit of cutting-away) often read like the fantasies of a dirty old man. Regardless of intent, it is creepy to be reading something and at the same time realizing that what you are reading is a rape or sex scene imagined by an old man in a basement. And while I don’t want to commit the fallacy of equating the narrative with the author’s views, the way the scenes are handled constitutes, to me, an odd voyeurism that sometimes leaves me feeling icky.

Another reason I’ve heard people give in defense of their dislike of the series is that the world is so big that the story moves very slowly. If this is your opinion, you are entitled to it and it is likely that nothing I say will change your mind. The pacing is sometimes slow, but there is always something important going on. Characters are developing, plot “seeds” are being sown, the world is being painstakingly built, the plot lines are converging, etc. Sometimes there is very little action, but that is fine by me. Those of us who like the series tend to be the kind of readers who want to know all the ins and outs of the story – we want to understand the political motivations of one faction or another, we want to learn about all these intriguing and novel cultures, we want to have our emotions tugged and pulled, and we want to grow attached to characters. The going might be slow, but the reader is always doing at least one of those things.

Finally, something that attracts me to the story (if “attracts” is really the correct word) is based on my own theology. As a Calvinist, I believe in something called Total Depravity. Without getting into too much detail, this doctrine essentially says that man is depraved in all parts of his being and incapable of good apart from the working of God. Even though we may do good things, this doctrine says, we do them for wrong reasons – reasons that bespeak a profound ugliness within our nature. So one of the things I really appreciate about this series is that Martin captures that. I don’t know Martin’s religious beliefs, and I certainly don’t think he was trying to provide an examination of Calvinist doctrine when he began writing his novels. But what is great is that each character in this book has his or her own set of serious flaws. Whether it’s oathbreaking, sexual immorality, murder, pride, or even just being a colossal asshole, Martin’s characters are – to the person – depraved. And this makes for a better, more believable story than just “here are some bad guys and here are some good guys… the good guys win.”

I say all that to say this: Martin’s series is phenomenal, but it is not something akin to Tolkien. The two might both have tried to take fantasy into the realms of adult literature, and both might also have two middle names that start with R, but the comparison really must end there. If you go into the Song of Ice and Fire series thinking it to be the American version of what Tolkien did, you will be sorely disappointed. Not because Martin is a worse author, but because he has his own unique brand of genius.

COMING NEXT WEEK: PART TWO (ON A GAME OF THRONES)

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