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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Of Dragons and Kings (and Queens) and Broken Men

If you like happy endings, if you believe that good, honest, decent folks should triumph over adversity, and that evil, sadistic, psychotic, murdering bastards should die horrible deaths, then George R. R. Martin’s saga A Song of Ice and Fire is not for you.
Stay away from it, don’t go near it, don’t touch it with a pole of any length. In Martin’s world, acting all honorable and shit will get your head rolling on the ground. Honor will not get you anything, except a knife in the back—the metaphorical kind, and the physically painful kind, the kind that makes you dead.
And not only in the back; but also in the front, in your face, or in your neck. Decapitations are a common occurrence in the series.

The books (there are five: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons, with two as yet unpublished) set out providing in depth characterizations of various characters, and when you, the reader, gets to know them, the author kills them off. This not only happens to main characters, but to other characters as well, characters who suddenly appear in the narrative, and just as suddenly die. It can leave you wondering, “What was the whole point?” while scratching your head. Or stroking your chin, or frowning at the book. If you get too complacent, and you find yourself taken in on a character’s story, events in the books will remind you that the author, George R. R. Martin, is unlike most authors.
One character sums it all up: “If you think this has a happy ending, then you haven’t been paying attention.”

Towards the fifth book (A Dance with Dragons), the reader gets the sense that main characters dying are getting too gimmicky. Also their subsequent “resurrection,” if that device is what the author plans to use in the subsequent books (there are two more, we must remember). If this one particular character however (who seemingly died in A Dance with Dragons) stays dead, a good part of the series would seem pointless, and his part could have been omitted in the TV version. All those character back stories, all those character development, all for naught. 

Maybe that is the point? That everything is pointless, that all those sound and fury signify nothing? Death oftentimes does not make sense. Reading the series is an exhilarating experience, but it can also be depressing, and sometimes infuriating.
Syrio Forel to Arya Stark:"There is only one god, and his name is Death; and what do we say to Death? Not today."

Yes, we get it— the world is a horrible place, life is not fair, good guys are really losers, treachery is around us, and that the Law of Reciprocity (aka the Golden Rule) is a pathetic attempt of weak people to get other people to treat them fairly. We really do not need to read books to know all these things, right? All we need is to read the news, take a closer look around us, and pay attention.

But George R. R. Martin tells these life lessons masterfully and compellingly. Or maybe he is not giving us any lessons; he is just portraying the human experience as what it really is— oftentimes tragic, unfair, a constant battle for survival, but oh, what a journey. As Ygritte says: “All men must die, but first we’ll live.”  
One does not simply read A Song of Ice and Fire; one experiences it.

As it is an epic fantasy genre, there are of course sorcery and dragons and other fantastic beings, although these elements take a back seat for the deadly politicking and court intrigues that make the series riveting. The series is real life couched in fantasy, basically; the politicking, greed, corruption, apathy and the backstabbing of those in power contrasted against the chaos of a war-torn land and its starving populace is unfortunately familiar to many people all over the world.  
Consider this passage from A Feast of Crows, the fourth book in the series:

“Is a broken man an outlaw?"
"More or less." Brienne answered.
Septon Meribald disagreed. "More less than more. There are many sorts of outlaws, just as there are many sorts of birds. A sandpiper and a sea eagle both have wings, but they are not the same. The singers love to sing of good men forced to go outside the law to fight some wicked lord, but most outlaws are more like this ravening Hound than they are the lightning lord. They are evil men, driven by greed, soured by malice, despising the gods and caring only for themselves. Broken men are more deserving of our pity, though they may be just as dangerous. Almost all are common-born, simple folk who had never been more than a mile from the house where they were born until the day some lord came round to take them off to war. Poorly shod and poorly clad, they march away beneath his banners, ofttimes with no better arms than a sickle or a sharpened hoe, or a maul they made themselves by lashing a stone to a stick with strips of hide. Brothers march with brothers, sons with fathers, friends with friends. They've heard the songs and stories, so they go off with eager hearts, dreaming of the wonders they will see, of the wealth and glory they will win. War seems a fine adventure, the greatest most of them will ever know.  "Then they get a taste of battle. "For some, that one taste is enough to break them. Others go on for years, until they lose count of all the battles they have fought in, but even a man who has survived a hundred fights can break in his hundred-and-first. Brothers watch their brothers die, fathers lose their sons, friends see their friends trying to hold their entrails in after they've been gutted by an axe.  "They see the lord who led them there cut down, and some other lord shouts that they are his now. They take a wound, and when that's still half-healed they take another. There is never enough to eat, their shoes fall to pieces from the marching, their clothes are torn and rotting, and half of them are shitting in their breeches from drinking bad water.
"If they want new boots or a warmer cloak or maybe a rusted iron halfhelm, they need to take them from a corpse, and before long they are stealing from the living too, from the smallfolk whose lands they're fighting in, men very like the men they used to be. They slaughter their sheep and steal their chickens, and from there it's just a short step to carrying off their daughters too. And one day they look around and realize all their friends and kin are gone, that they are fighting beside strangers beneath a banner that they hardly recognize. They don't know where they are or how to get back home and the lord they're fighting for does not know their names, yet here he comes, shouting for them to form up, to make a line with their spears and scythes and sharpened hoes, to stand their ground. And the knights come down on them, faceless men clad all in steel, and the iron thunder of their charge seems to fill the world...
"And the man breaks.
"He turns and runs, or crawls off afterward over the corpses of the slain, or steals away in the black of night, and he finds someplace to hide. All thought of home is gone by then, and kings and lords and gods mean less to him than a haunch of spoiled meat that will let him live another day, or a skin of bad wine that might drown his fear for a few hours. The broken man lives from day to day, from meal to meal, more beast than man. Lady Brienne is not wrong. In times like these, the traveler must beware of broken men, and fear them...but he should pity them as well.”
Not quite how soldiers in other books in the medieval fantasy genre are portrayed. There is nothing romantic in being a broken man. No happy, easy-going hobbits in George R. R. Martin's world, no heroic Strider who will rise up and unite the kingdoms to fight a common enemy, no benevolent, sexy Elves to give the heroes powerful and magical weapons. There are even no heroes. The heroic ones are killed. George R.R. Martin is the anti-Tolkien--the Tolkien for the 21st century, as what Ian Irvine of The Independent calls him. 
John Irving, in his book “The World According to Garp,” says that, “A novelist is a doctor who sees only terminal cases.” 
He could have been referring to George R. R. Martin.

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