Monday, August 27, 2012

"Game of Thrones" and the Fantasy Genre

Good Monday,

This Monday, as promised last Monday, is all about George R. R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” the first book in his “A Song of Ice and Fire” series.

Before I begin, though, I’d like to observe a virtual moment of silence for Jerry Nelson, who recently passed away. He was the voice of many beloved characters from my childhood—“Sesame Street’s” The Count and “Fraggle Rock’s” Gobo Fraggle to name just a few. Please, pause with me.


Thank you

All right, back to business. “Game of Thrones.” It was my first required book for my contemporary sf and fantasy class this semester at Seton Hill, and I didn’t dislike it as much as I thought I would. One of my classmates who had read the book before told me back at residency “You’ll be lost for the first 50 to 100 pages, but after that it starts to pick up and make more sense.” True, at least I found it to be true. I didn’t really understand what was going on until Bran saw the queen and her brother together, which falls between the 50 and 100 page mark. So, when Eddard Stark confronted Cersei about her bastard children, I had an “ahah” moment. It all made sense, which was probably Martin’s intent, and I no longer felt like I’d read several hundred pages of “wtf’s going on here?”

I intend (when I have tons and tons of free time) to read the rest of the series. I want to know what happens.

Moving on to the meat and potatoes of this post. One of the instructor’s prompts was to compare Martin’s fantasy to Tolkien’s. Basically, the following is my post for class on that topic. Here goes.

What genre is this again? All of Martin’s characters are human, and their problems all center on politics. If not for the dyer wolves, the dangers beyond the wall, and Daenerys, the events of “Game of Thrones” could have happened in our world. To compare to Tolkien, try saying the same about “Lord of the Rings.” You can’t do it. “Well, if not for the elves, dwarves, Lady of the Lake, hobbits, wizards, orcs, oh—and by the way—the giant eye that is the ultimate evil—” See what I mean? There are no magical artifacts of power in “Game of Thrones,” and it’s not about the destruction of the dark power that threatens the world.

This brings me to ask what makes “Game of Thrones” fantasy? It’s certainly not the majority of the conflict. There’s Daenerys and the dangers beyond the Wall, but those are minor compared to all of the political conflict. The Starks are good people. The Lannisters are, with the possible exception of Tyrion, bad people. The story is about the people who want to do the right thing against the power-hungry people and how the power-hungry people win. It’s something you could find in many parts of our own history.

So, what does this say for fantasy? Fantasy is one of the “escape genres.” I made that term up just now, and I’m going to define it as “a genre where the reader can escape the real world.” Unless classified in the paranormal section (and sometimes not even then) mystery, romance, young adult, and any other “non-speculative fiction” genre keeps the reader on Earth. “Game of Thrones” takes us off of Earth and dumps us in a world that could have been Earth. Pardon my directness, but what’s the point?

Tolkien introduced the reader to an exotic landscape filled with fantastical species. That, to me, is what fantasy is about. I expect some kind of fantasy in my fantasy. Heck, Maester Luwin says to Bran “But, Bran, no man can teach you magic” (580). And, why can no man teach him magic? Because it doesn’t exist. What kind of fantasy is that? No magic? In reality, there is magic—Bran just doesn’t know it—but its presence, at least in this book, is so small it’s like it’s not even there.

It seems, too, that I’m not the only one that noticed this. Many other epic fantasy authors (David Eddings and Terry Goodkind to name just a couple) stuck with the idea of mythical species and exotic landscapes. Their worlds had political strife and war, but it wasn’t what the stories were about. They were about people with supernatural powers fighting supernatural odds. So, if Martin is so influential, does that mean that readers want political strife as their fantasy? While a good read with wonderful characters and intense conflict, “Game of Thrones” doesn’t give me the imagery of the flaming swords, magical blasts, or even reading of minds that I want from the genre.

If I sound harsh, that is not my intent. I really did enjoy the book, and it is clear to me, as a writer, why Martin is given such high praise for what he has constructed. I praise him too. To keep seven main POV characters straight and to not have them overlap is amazing. My complaints are really opinion based. It’s nothing to do with the telling of the story or the writing. It’s to do with what I want from fantasy and what “Game of Thrones” doesn’t give me.

See you out of the box,

P.S. A few weeks ago, I talked about ”Hazard Yet Forward”, an anthology to help a fellow WPFer battle cancer. I have another one. This time it’s to help the wife of one of my instructors with her own cancer battle. Have a look here. Many thanks!

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