Monday, October 3, 2016

Currently Reading 10.3.16

As popular culture sensations tend to do, A Song of Ice and Fire consumes advertisements, social media, and glimpses of conversation you hear in passing on a day to day basis.

A Song of Ice and Fire is the name of the ongoing series of novels by George R.R. Martin (lovingly called GRRM and/or Gurm by his devout fans and followers on the internet). If you don’t know anything about the series, despite its prominent success as a television show on HBO entering its 7th season, ASOIAF (another common abbreviation) is a Fantasy series filled with political intrigue that tackles questions of identity, authority, violence, sexuality, etc. In an interview with The Atlantic, Martin cites Faulkner in that the only thing worth writing about is “the human heart in conflict with itself,” and this very much comes through in a series spanning thousands upon thousands of pages.
A scene from the Battle of the Trident

A common criticism of the series is that it is an unnecessarily violent, sexual romp that attempts to stand alongside the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. What many fail to realize, heavily due to the rising success of A Song of Ice and Fire as a pillar of popular culture, is the immense literary power behind the series as a whole. The popularity of the HBO series has played a large part in the sensationalizing of blood, sex, and violence, something that HBO has mastered the art of selling for monthly subscriptions to premium television. But what Martin began in 1995 is more of an omen against the continuation of age-old conflicts, the kinds of long-term damage that war can have, and how we glorify it for both entertainment and personal profit.

Martin never shies away from depicting how grotesque a war can be, with this line from the A Dance with Dragons:

“[Quentyn] would be glad to put Astapor behind him. The Red City was the closest thing to hell he ever hoped to know. The Yunkai'i had sealed the broken gates to keep the dead and dying inside the city, but the sights that he had seen riding down those red brick streets would haunt Quentyn Martell forever. A river choked with corpses. The priestess in her torn robes, impaled upon a stake and attended by a cloud of glistening green flies. Dying men staggering through the streets, bloody and befouled. Children fighting over half-cooked puppies. The last free king of Astapor, screaming naked in the pit as he was set on by a score of starving dogs. And fires, fires everywhere. He could close his eyes and see them still: flames whirling from brick pyramids larger than any castle he had ever seen, plumes of greasy smoke coiling upward like great black snakes.
When the wind blew from the south, the air smelled of smoke even here, three miles from the city. Behind its crumbling red brick walls, Astapor was still asmolder, though by now most of the great fires had burned out. Ashes floated lazy on the breeze like fat grey snowflakes. It would be good to go.” (Martin)

This imagery is truly horrible, almost reminiscent of the kinds of horrific depictions of camps during the Holocaust. Though Martin employs numerous characters into his story through a Point of View writing style, it is important to keep in mind that though the characters are experiencing different things, the kind of message Martin is trying to make with the series remains constant.

Fire and Ice by Robert Frost
Martin has mentioned numerous times to have drawn inspiration from Robert Frost’s poem called Fire and Ice. The poem emphasizes the dichotomy between a coming destruction, either by desire (attributed to fire) or hatred (attributed to ice) in a manner that Martin also attributes to starting and fueling war/conflict. Desire, lust, and greed are natural to the will of fire and Martin highlights this through numerous characters in the series.

The former ruling monarchs of Westeros, House Targaryen are silver-haired and violet-eyed foreigners who escaped the complete extinction of their own race of dragon-riding kinsman in a land called Valyria. Their house motto (a device that Martin frequently uses to add more depth and characterization to his many Houses and characters within the series) is Fire and Blood and they are frequently associated with both madness and fire. Meanwhile, House Stark (another primary family in the series) is from the North and are frequently associated with ferocity and ice, with their house words being Winter is Coming.
Now let us revisit what Martin has named his magnum opus: A Song of Ice and Fire.

Frost repeats the phrase “Some say,” in the first two lines of his poem as a method of trivializing the topic of the poem, attributing this discourse of elemental destruction to a vocal minority. By calling his story a song, Martin highlights ironic aspects of his contemporary audience that seek to glorify the nature and abuses of war. Martin portrays singers as loving “nothing half so well as the sound of their own voices” (A Storm of Swords). War is fueled by pride, selfishness, and greed, all things that I argue Martin actively condemns throughout the series.

I understand a lot of the flak that Martin receives for his series. His writing speed has led to a lot of discontent among his long-term fans as the television series has now passed the book series. Many have criticized his writing in the later books for being far too congested and in need of more significant editing. But Martin's prose shines through numerous times over along with his ability to create such fleshed out, detailed, and imaginative worlds that make the reader want to continue to explore the depths of A Song of Ice and Fire as they wait in suspense for the release of the next book. The anti-war themes within Martin's novels are just a small glimpse into the line of questioning he poses with a series that spans nearly 10 books with several more on the way.

- Christopher LaSasso

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