I would like to defend my conviction that George R. R. Martin may well be the “American Tolkien” (which just happens to be the title of a famous essay written by a Time magazine columnist, Lev Grossman, about George R. R. Martin over seven years ago). Somewhere in the midst of an epic tale in which a dozen narrators recount sea battles, the death throes of a poisoned king and the nurturing of young dragons, I became aware that I have been here before.
Does this arrogant warrior who struts before the gates of Astapor daring Queen Daenerys to send out her best warrior ... does he remind you of Achilles before the walls of Troy? Is he an echo of the braggart warriors in Beowolf? Does that ghastly army of the dead ... those rotting corpses dragging their battle axes toward the 700-foot wall that marks the boundary between civilization and chaos ... do these soldiers resemble the reanimated dead in the ancient Scottish epic, The Mabinogion? Where have we met the supernatural beings called “wargs” before? Are they not the servants of goblins in Lord of the Rings? In A Storm of Swords, it looks as though some of our favorite characters: Bran, the paralyzed son of Eddard Stark and Jon Snow, who defends the Wall ... are actually wargs? What new twist is this on an ancient, supernatural creature? (I recommend watching “Warg Attack” on YouTube.) Is it possible that the mysterious man who befriends Arya Stark (the one who can change the features of his face at will) ... does he not have ancient ancestors in both The Arabian Nights and the folklore of Japan? Further, is not the Knight of Flowers and the multitudes of glittering lords who attend festival jousts ... are they not variations on King Arthur’s court? Siegfried? The Holy Grail?
All of this reminds me of a marvelous word, “palimpsest,” that the writer, Gore Vidal used for the title of his autobiography. The word refers to the consequences of recording message on ancient wax tablets that contain older messages. The old message is dimly visible. In modern literature, the word is meant to suggest the presence of an old story or song that is faintly visible beneath our modern tales. So it is with George R. R. Martin’s Songs of Ice and Fire. Behind Martin’s treacherous queens, deformed tricksters, dire wolves, bandits, priests and necromancers are shadowy multitudes of prototypes that stretch away into the ancient past: Tyrion (the Imp) has much in common with generations of tricksters like Coyote, Brer Rabbit and Shakespeare’s Falstaff. Plucky little Arya, the lost and abused child of Eddard Stark, learns to survive in a brutal world by her wits, shifting from thief to servant to cook; even becoming male or female in accordance to which offers the best odds of survival ... like the protagonists in a Grimm tale.
This resemblance to other fanciful worlds and characters does not, in any sense, diminish Martin’s accomplishments. In fact, he takes the remnants of other characters and assembles a new creation that is more complex (and often more humane) than its predecessors. His villains are especially noteworthy. The lecherous, incestuous Queen Cersei and her vicious psychopathic son, King Joffrey, deserve a special niche in the Villain’s Hall of Infamy. Then, there is the hideously scarred Sandor “The Hound” Clegane, who finds the act of slaughter a joyful exercise; Vargo Hoat, the lisping bandit, is my special favorite. He retains his prisoners by cutting off their hands and/or feet (as poor Jaime Lannister discovers). Hoat tells Jamie, “Thith is a sweet day! ... Oh, yeth! Half the gold (ransom) in Casterly Rock I thall have. But firth I mutht thend him a methage.” The message is ... Jamie’s hand.
After completing A Storm of Swords, I feel prompted to make some observations on the underlying (like a palimpsest) structure of Songs of Ice and Fire. All of the books contain elements that are considered “classical” characteristics. For example, Martin has numerous “catalogues” that take the form of painstaking descriptive details in regard to clothing, foods, and battle equipment. These catalogues resemble the extensive lists in The Iliad and The Odyssey in which the death of every “noble” warrior is recorded along with the manner of death, the names of his family members and the location of his home. In A Storm of Swords, King Joffrey’s wedding is meticulously recorded: luxurious clothing, exotic foods and entertainment.
I am also mindful of Martin’s attention to the “ordinary” world behind the pomp and glitter of royalty. Many of Martin’s most memorable characters are either members of the “small folks” (farmers, blacksmiths, cooks, etc.) or common creatures forced to struggle against daunting odds. An impressive number of characters have physical or mental defects, such as Hodor, the simple-minded giant that can only repeat his name. The obese and cowardly Samwell Tarley who finds himself trapped in the Night Watch where survival demands skill and courage. There are numerous maimed and sickly children, both in the royal courts and in the village streets. Martin seems to say, they are there, struggling to cope, but gamely playing the cards that fate or the gods have dealt them. As the murderous Sandor Clegane tells the hopelessly silly Sansa Stark, “It is not all lemon cake and music out there.”
George R. R. Martin is in the process of creating a new mythology ... an astonishingly complex world which, in turn, has its own mythologies of tales within tales of a time when dragons ruled the ancient world and religious faith was devout and tangible. The people who fight, love and die in A Storm of Swords are motivated by money, power and lust, like the rest of humanity. But across the Narrow Sea, a golden-haired woman called Khaleesi, the Dragon Queen, is moving toward the Seven Kingdoms; in the north something cold and relentless is attempting to scale the Wall. There is also a woman called “The Red Queen” who has the power to make her god “tangible” again and she has the forces of King Stannis of the House Baratheon behind her. Stay tuned.
A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin. Bantam Books, 2000. 973 pages.