6 Ways George R. R. Martin and ‘Game of Thrones’ Changed Fantasy Forever
******WARNING NOVEL AND TELEVISION SHOW SPOILERS BELOW*******
For most people August 6, 1996 was probably of no great significance. People mourned the 51st anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, went to work, watched television, and made love to their significant others. In other words, it was a typical and pedestrian day. I myself was a month out from my senior year of high school, working a part-time busboy job, and still wondering where I would be going to college. But for the world of fantasy, the date was as landmark as the Battle of Hastings, Neil Armstrong landing on the moon, or Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon.
It was the day author George R. R. Martin published the first novel in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Game of Thrones. That was the day the world of fantasy fiction changed forever.
Although Martin’s novel was well received by critics and won the 1997 Locus Award, as well as being nominated for the prestigious Nebula and World Fantasy Awards, it didn’t sell particularly well. In fact Martin often likes to tell the story that at his first book signing he only had twelve people show up. The novel itself didn’t even crack the New York Times Best Sellers list until almost fifteen years later in January of 2011.
Eighteen years later, five books, and four seasons into the television show and “Game of Thrones” has become a worldwide cultural phenomenon. Merchandising, Wiki pages devoted to the characters and various plotlines, DVDs; Martin’s epic fantasy tale of Westeros and it’s complex and engaging characters has captivated everyone from fifteen year old girls to eighty year old grandfathers. The “Game of Thrones” popularity is beginning to make Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings look like “SpongeBob Squarepants” by comparison, and I’m a huge LOTR fan.
Although I’ve been a lifelong fan of the fantasy genre, I was kind of late to the party when it came to “Game of Thrones.” Relatively speaking that is. I didn’t even know about the series until 2005 when a friend of mine at work suggested the series. I read the synopsis and wasn’t incredibly impressed. It seemed more pseudo-medieval fiction to me, something that held little appeal. But I decided to give it a shot anyway. Five pages in I was intrigued. Ten pages in I was fascinated. Twenty pages in I was hooked. I plowed through all four novels in less than a month. I had NEVER read a fantasy series like A Song of Ice and Fire. Hell, I’d never read a work of FICTION like A Song of Ice and Fire.
And here I sit almost a decade later, as addicted as ever to the novels as well as the television show. “Game of Thrones” is something I love to discuss every chance I get. It’s the hot watercooler topic every Monday at work, something I greatly look forward too. Yet I found myself asking the question the other day about what makes “Game of Thrones” so different, so fundamentally groundbreaking? While scholars could probably write dissertations on the subject, for the sake of my readers’ sanity I’ve managed to narrow it down to six main points:
Up until I read A Game of Thrones I had never seen swearing in a fantasy novel. Oh sure there had been the occasional “Hell” or “Damn” but other than that nothing. When I read the first “fuck you” in the novel you could have knocked me over with a feather. I was in shock. This was unprecedented for me. Since when did fantasy characters use the words “asshole” and “cunt”? Surprisingly enough, the use of the coarse language only drew me in further. It added a realism and connection that I’d heretofore not experienced. The fact that the characters in the novel (and now the television show) swear just like people from all walks of life, made them much more relatable. Despite the knowledge that characters like Ned Stark, Robert Baratheon, and Jeor Mormont all lived in a fantasy realm, the fact that they swore just like me fleshed them out, added dimension and depth, and brought them to life. Despite my love of fantasy characters like Frodo and Rand al’Thor, I always felt a distinct remoteness from them as people. George R. R. Martin’s characters however, felt like people I could walk into a bar and have a cup of Dornish red wine with.
2. GRAPHIC SEX AND VIOLENCE
Again, how many fans of the fantasy genre can recall any work of fiction that comes close to the amount of violence and sexually explicit content found in “Game of Thrones”? (And I’m not talking about the dirty Anime you have hidden under your bed either). I can’t think of a single novel, television show, or movie that’s in the same ballpark as Martin’s work. Violence you can maybe make a case for. Obviously The Sword of Truth and Wheel of Time series had their fair share. However, for the life of me I don’t recall scenes of violence ever being that descriptive in a work of fantasy. Whether it’s the Boltons flaying people, the Hound’s scarring by fire, or the crucifixion of small children on the road to Meereen, Martin never skimps on the gory details. And sex? In a fantasy novel? Yeah right. When I was twelve I thought Faramir kissing Eowyn in the garden was a hot scene. What the Hell did I know? Martin’s epic comes (pun DEFINITELY intended) replete with oral sex, three ways, straight sex, gay sex, brothels, incest; you name it, it’s bound to come up. The first time I read the scene where Bran stumbles across Jamie fucking his own sister Cersei in an abandoned tower, you could have used a backhoe to lift my chin off the ground. At the time I don’t think I fully appreciated what I was reading: nothing less than the sexual revolution of the 1960s transferred to the realm of fantasy.
3. MAGIC IN THE BACKGROUND
Whenever you read fantasy there’s one thing you always expect: magic. Whether it’s Elves, wizards, goblins, witches, incantations, or potions, people expect magic to be a part of the story. Make no mistake “Game of Thrones” has it’s share of magic, but it’s always been to the background of the story. Often times, magic becomes so all-encompassing in fantasy that it can completely take over the narrative. Consequently, little space remains for things like plot and character development. Thankfully, Martin’s tale is long on both of those last two. Rather than put magic to the forefront, as is often the case, Martin made the innovative choice to push magic to the fringes of the story. If you ask most people who enjoy “Game of Thrones,” especially the ones who only watch the television show, what they like most about it, you might get 1 out of 10 who cite the magic aspect. More likely than not you’ll get reasons like plot, characters, scenery, etc. I mean think about it. What exactly are the magical elements of “Game of Thrones”? There’s pretty much only three main ones: Dany’s dragons, the White Walkers, and Melisandre’s dark powers. Sometimes there will literally be entire episodes where no magic is alluded to. That’s astounding for a fantasy epic. And in many ways I think it’s a large reason why “Game of Thrones” found a broader mass appeal.
4. EASILY RELATABLE POLITICAL, ECONOMIC, AND RELIGIOUS THEMES
Politics, economics, and religion dominate headlines. They make up a good chunk of our news stories whether it be the plight of local businesses in Vermont or reform by Pope Francis in the Catholic Church. Yet often times people don’t look beyond the surface either because the underlying issues are too convoluted or they flat-out don’t care. It baffles my mind then that Martin has been able to interweave political, economic, and religious modalities within “Game of Thrones” and it doesn’t kill the story one iota. There are multiple houses vying for power in Westeros–Baratheon, Targaryen, Lannister, Bolton, Greyjoy; the list is practically endless. But at the heart of this struggle is political manipulation that makes what’s going on at Capitol Hill look like a game of Magic The Gathering. Promises are made and broken, money exchanges hands, lands and titles are promised, marriage pacts made. People try virtually everything and anything to gain an advantage. It’s dirty politics at its best and readers and viewers alike eat it up.
Even economics, typically the most boring aspect, manages to be somewhat intriguing based on the Iron Bank alone. These guys don’t play. The Lannisters say they always pay their debts but you get the sense that reneging on a debt to the Iron Bank may find you at the bottom of Slaver’s Bay. The economics of gold make the Seven Kingdoms go round, whether it’s pirates like Sallador Saan or sellsword companies like the Second Sons.
The religious themes are perhaps the most intriguing. I think Martin has a keen eye for social commentary here. Whether you follow the Seven, the Old Gods, the Drowned God, or Red R’hllor, the constant theme seems to be “my God is better than your God.” Various characters use their Gods to justify all kinds of actions in “Game of Thrones.” People believe so fervently that they are willing to burn people who don’t agree with them! I don’t know about you, but I don’t fancy a theological conversation with the Red Woman anytime soon. Not near an open flame anyway. Then there are those like Tyrion or the Hound who think the Gods are nothing but a fantasy. Are the concepts Martin presents any different from our own society? How else can you explain groups like the Westboro Baptist Church, or the unending strife in the Middle East, or the Boston Marathon bombing last year?
People gravitate towards Martin’s ideas because we see devious politics everyday, we see how money corrupts Wall Street and debt devastates people, and we see religious strife everywhere we look. The themes are relatable because they are present in our own lives.
5. MORALLY AMBIGUOUS CHARACTERS
In a recent interview with “Rolling Stone” Martin derided how the fantasy genre is inundated with Dark Lords who are ugly and terrifying, along with requisite brave and dashing heroes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of that type of fantasy. It’s what got me interested in the genre in the first place. However, real life never contains people who are all evil or all good. We each of us have a light and a dark side. We each of us are capable of good and evil acts on any given day. The hope is that the good wins out over the evil more often than not.
George R. R. Martin skewers the idea that the bad guys wear black hats and the good guys wear white hats. If you examine “Game of Thrones” there are very few people who are straight good or straight evil. Maester Aemon and Gregor Clegane (The Mountain) are two that immediately spring to mind. However, the vast majority of people in Martin’s universe are imperfect, often morally ambiguous characters.
In other words, they are just like 99% of the people of planet Earth.
Fans of “Game of Thrones” develop real attachment to characters in the story. Consequently, when those characters die (as they often do) it’s much more emotionally devastating because fans are so invested in the characters. But why? I think it’s because, despite the fantastical aspects and circumstances of the plot, most of the characters are realistic. They have faults. They make bad decisions. Again, they are like 99% of the people on planet Earth. Martin is unparalleled in creating these types of characters.
Take for example Jamie Lannister. If you would have told me after reading only the first five chapters of A Game of Thrones, that I would eventually feel sympathy towards this person I’d have called you crazy. The dude banged his sister and pushed a kid out of a window to cover it up! And he killed his king! Yet as the story develops you see below the surface. Yes he killed his King, but his King also commanded Jamie to bring him the head of his own father and burn the entire population of King’s Landing with wildfire. Rather than do that, Jamie killed the King. He also saves Brienne from certain rape and stands up to his demanding father. Even Cersei, as twisted and manipulative as she is, all her acts are prompted by her love for her children. Did Ned Stark love his children any less than Cersei loved hers? I don’t think so.
Or think of Sandor Clegane, also known as the Hound. This guy is a vicious vile bastard who kills an unarmed boy, says “fuck the king,” and gets drunk constantly. Yet he also saved Sansa Stark from being raped, didn’t hand Arya Stark over to the Frey’s when he easily could have, and survived a trial by combat. Also his world view is heavily distorted by the violent act perpetuated on him by his brother as a child. Trust issues much? Yeah I’d say so.
These characters and others demonstrate the duality of mankind. They also call into question whether or not a person can be redeemed. Can good acts cancel out bad acts? Does Jamie saving the entire population of King’s Landing negate his attempted murder of Bran? Rarely will you find works of fantasy that dare to ask these questions.
6. NO ONE IS SAFE, ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN
There’s a great line from 1984’s The Neverending Story that works well here. At one point in the movie, Mr. Koreander tells Bastian, “Your books are safe.” I think that’s spot on when it comes to the majority of fantasy novels. The heroes and villains emerge early and while some characters may die along the way, the main character always triumphs in the end. In other words it’s safe.
“Game of Thrones” is the complete polar opposite of safe.
Whether it’s Ned Stark’s abrupt beheading, the Red Wedding, or most recently in the show, Prince Oberyn losing (dramatically) to the Mountain when the battle was all but won, ANYTHING can happen in “Game of Thrones.” And I think this is a main reason why “Game of Thrones” is so popular and why it’s so groundbreaking. As much as I love fantasy, whenever I start a new fantasy novel I have a pretty general idea of how things are going to play out. I mean even though The Wheel of Time was fourteen novels long, I was fairly confident in what was going to happen.
When it comes to “Game of Thrones,” just when I think I know what direction we are heading in, Martin throws in a monkey wrench that reminds me I have no fucking clue how this is all going to play out. A classic example was in Martin’s last novel A Dance With Dragons. I was astounded to discover that Rhaegar’s son Aegon was in fact NOT killed by Gregor Clegane but had been raised in secret for years and was a new contender for the Iron Throne.
At the end of the day, unless you’re dead, no one is a clear favorite to sit the Iron Throne of Westeros. In many ways the novels and the show have become one extended suspenseful mind-fuck. And I couldn’t be happier about that.
Whether or not George R. R. Martin brings A Song of Ice and Fire to an eventual conclusion remains to be seen. The man is a notoriously slow writer, much to the chagrin of his millions of fans. At one time it seemed ludicrous that the television show would ever catch up with the books. Now it appears as though it’s a very strong possibility. Parts of season four have already pulled material from book five. It’s my sincere hope that the man lives long enough to complete his epic. But whether Martin, HBO, or both finish the tale, “Game of Thrones” has left a searing and indelible mark on the fantasy genre and the public at large.
In the world of fantasy, George R. R. Martin has blazed a trail that the dragon Balerion the Black Dread would be proud of.