One down, four to go: I finished re-reading A Game of Thrones the other night. As noted the other day, I’m going to read something else before returning to Westeros (and the lands beyond the Narrow Sea) for A Clash of Kings. (What book will that be? I wonder!)
So…what do I make of A Game of Thrones?
As I’ve noted a number of times, my overall impression of the series is that it starts off very strong and gets less good with each book. I’ll need to read the others before I can verify whether this is the case or not, but for now, my original view is somewhat confirmed: A Game of Thrones is a very strong book, indeed. But it’s also a changed one when one knows what’s coming. The moments that were clearly designed to shock no longer do so, and instead, I find myself being more attentive to George RR Martin’s story architecture than simply being swept along in the momentum of his narrative. The question I kept asking myself during this re-read is simply this: What is this story about?
I don’t mean this as a criticism, but I once compared A Song of Ice and Fire to a soap opera, and I have to admit that I’m standing by that comparison. All the trappings of soap operas are here: families with long-standing enmities between them, members within the families who are both honorable and complete louses, threats from within and from without, et cetera and so forth. I don’t mean it a criticism when I say that often A Song of Ice and Fire feels to me like General Hospital with swords and dragons.
I’m also intrigued that the series, by its very nature and structure, seems to have absolutely no protagonist. Instead, we have the very soap opera-ish conceit that every person is the protagonist in their own story. And besides, protagonists are overrated, anyway.
So, to return to the question: what is A Song of Ice and Fire about? Well, given that we’ve got a story that currently stands at somewhere around 5000 pages in length, it’s not going to be about a single thing, is it? It’s about a lot of things. Here are some of them:
:: A Song of Ice and Fire is about the passing of conflict from one generation to the next. Every family depicted here has a history of not much liking the other families, and every family is depicted in multiple generations. Every conflict, it seems, is handed down to the kids to deal with. Especially the Starks versus the Lannisters.
:: A Song of Ice and Fire is even more about the demands and expectations placed upon children by their parents. If there’s one dominant recurring motif in A Game of Thrones, this is it. How is it that the child of Eddard Stark who so seemingly manifests his father’s honorable qualities is Jon, the bastard he sired outside of his marriage (and whose mother he refuses to discuss…now there‘s a plotline that’s certainly not a dangling thread!)? Arya, too, seems to be cut from the block of Ned…but she’s a girl, so it matters little, and by book’s end, Arya’s been used as a marriage pawn to buy an alliance, even though she’s not even present to know about it. Then there is Tyrion Lannister, the misshapen dwarf who is loathed by his father and only allowed to be useful when preferred older brother Jaime is out of the picture. And let’s not forget Samwell Tarly, who was so hated by his father that he was given the choice of either joining the Night’s Watch or find himself the victim of an unfortunate ‘accident’. Yeesh, indeed.
And then there’s young Robert Arryn, who is still breastfeeding at six years of age. He actually isn’t falling short of his parents’ expectations, as father Jon is dead and mother Lysa is something of a protective lunatic.
It interests me that of all the characters in the book, the ones I like the most are the ones who are children whose success in things will depend greatly on their abilities to outstrip the expectations placed upon them by their fathers and by their world. Here I’m talking about Jon, Arya, Tyrion, Daenerys, and good old Samwell Tarly.
:: A Song of Ice and Fire is about great, vast, huge, oceanic amounts of suffering caused by people in power who care about two things, and two things only: Keeping their power, and avenging personal slights. That’s it. What motivates Robert Baratheon to muster an army and ride to war against the reigning Targaryen dynasty? A personal slight. What motivates all of Cersei Lannister’s scheming against King Robert? A personal slight. What motivates Viserys and Daenerys? Nothing more than the desire to get back the throne that was stolen from their family.
The only characters not motivated by some kind of personal slight or out of a desire for personal power seem to be the Starks themselves — all they want is to get everything nice and peaceable again so they can all go back to living in Winterfell, far away from all the various intrigues and dark things going on – and the men of the Night’s Watch up on the Wall, who are on guard against whatever very dark things there are that live in the icy, frozen North. There’s a real sense in which only the men of the Night’s Watch are concerned with the survival and protection of the entire realm of the Seven Kingdoms.
So, A Song of Ice and Fire is about suffering, and hereditary conflict, and grown-ups who drag their children into their conflicts and saddle them with all the issues that come from expectations, both unfulfilled and those that are impossible to fulfill. What a good thing that Martin is a fine writer with a gift for often sparkling dialogue, because otherwise, this would be an insanely depressing series to try to get through. Even as it is, an awful lot of depressing stuff happens. We’re talking about a book that in the first hundred-fifty pages has one kid getting pushed out a tower window when he saw something he shouldn’t have, another kid basically getting forced to go join the Night’s Watch (a lifetime commitment of hardship) because he’s not wanted around by his step-mother, and another innocent kid getting sucked into her sister’s mischief and having her pet wolf killed because of it. Heavens.
I mention above that I noticed more of Martin’s story architecture on this re-read, and it surprises me to see that some of the plot developments that shocked me the first time seem almost contrived the second time. Cersei’s manipulation of Robert into ordering the murder of Sansa’s pet direwolf is a good example. The first time I read this, I remember being viscerally surprised by this, and it certainly went a long way to cementing a hatred of Cersei as a character. But this time, I don’t know…it just felt forced to me, as if Martin felt a need to really get the audience firmly on the anti-Cersei side of the fence.
Ditto a bit later on, when Ned Stark decides that he’s had enough of being King Robert’s Hand, resigns the position, and makes arrangements to leave King’s Landing. Problem is he’s attacked that night by Jaime Lannister and his men – for something his wife has done – and he’s injured, this forcing him to stick around, so that the rest of the plot can unfold. There are more such false-feeling moments in the book, where it seems as though Martin is simply providing plot-related reasons as to why characters can’t do the very obvious thing.
A special note about Ned Stark: he’s a deeply likeable, deeply honorable man. And yet, he’s a complete idiot whose time in King’s Landing is marked by one mistake after another. This is a guy who places his trust in another guy who is well-known for being somewhat slithery as an individual, was once notably in love with Ned’s wife, and who specifically tells Ned, “You don’t want to trust me.” Ned carries on an open investigation as to why Jon Arryn was killed, not bothering in the least to cover his tracks or look like he’s not investigating; and when he discovers the reason, he tells the guilty party about it and leaves it up to them as to what to do! This, obviously, goes exceedingly poorly; so poorly does it go, in fact, that it quite frankly makes Ned Stark the dumbest blockhead in the entire book. Who else can compete? Well, there’s Robert Baratheon, who is an awful King; seriously, folks, when a King cuts off virtually every discussion of some matter of statecraft with something like “Enough of this, let’s go hunting/whoring/have a tournament!”, you’re not dealing with a good King.
Joffrey? He’s a brutal bully, and that’s all. He’s stupid as a post and acts with no agency of his own…but then, he’s not really supposed to. Cersei? She’s a very lethal blend of stupid and shrewd, able to play Ned and Sansa like cheap violins but also sanctioning governing decisions after Robert’s death that even her own family members judge to be awful notions. Sansa?
Ah, now Sansa is a special case. I remember hating her when I first read the book, but this time through, I didn’t dislike her nearly as much. Again, part of this is probably sympathy from knowing just how disastrous her dream-life is about to become, but also, it’s partly because I can understand her blissful naivete. The only thing I’m not sure of is how her blissful naivete even exists in the first place; Winterfell does not strike me as a place conducive to the raising of children who harbor deep illusions about the coldness of the world. No, I don’t dislike Sansa now nearly as much as I did.
But Catelyn? Not nearly as fond of her now as I remember being. I find her attitude toward Jon to be deeply ugly, and her indulgence of her instincts as soon as Tyrion practically drops into her lap is the event that pretty much causes the entire state of the world to ride off the rails. True, she does come to her senses later on, but after the damage is done. I remember Catelyn as being more likeable than she came off on this re-read. Maybe I’m misremembering, though. Catelyn is one of the book’s most three-dimensional characters, though.
I’ve heard praise of the worldbuilding of A Song of Ice and Fire for years, but to be honest, I just don’t see it. Westeros is your basic northern European-style realm, with frozen wastes to the north, warmer climes to the south, important strongholds in various places, lands that are often trampled by war, et cetera and so forth. No mechanism at all is posited to explain seasons of varying length, magic and religion exist but aren’t explained much at all, and so on. No, the strength of A Song of Ice and Fire is not in the worldbuilding; it’s in the people that inhabit it. And I’m fine with that. I’m also fine with all the foreshadowing that goes on, and the fact that knowing a lot of what comes, I can see now how Martin sets a lot of it up. Now, I rather doubt that Martin really plans for what seems like a throwaway detail in Game of Thrones to come back as a fairly major point in, say, A Storm of Swords; but it’s to his credit that he clearly knows his world and the history he’s creating enough to be able to use stuff he’s done earlier to good effect later. Even with things like the afore-mentioned plot contrivances, I never get a feeling of Martin not being in control. (This, I fear, is yet to come.)
Next up, obviously, will be A Clash of Kings. After I read Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny (and a few graphic novels, to be determined).
I've never liked Catelyn, mostly for the reasons you stated (her attitude towards Jon, the move she makes with Tyrion). I think she's not very smart, and her courtly attitudes towards family and duty make her very snobbish. I think that's where Sansa comes from; like her mother, she's not very smart–maybe shrewd is the word I want here–and very snobbish, and she seems to have been sheltered. She's not curious like Arya.