It’s easy to think of certain historical eras and civilizations as being more romantic or enchanting than they really were. Part of this is due to the fact that so many historians, rulers, and writers had a bias for their particular country or culture, so it makes sense that they’d make themselves seem as awesome as humanly possible.
Nowhere is this more evident than the British legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, which in turn was an inspiration (among others) to J.R.R. Tolkien, who more or less founded the whole modern genre of high fantasy single-handedly. Cue several hundred fantasy authors all trying to write Lord of the Rings ripoffs and derivatives (or derivatives of The Chronicles of Narnia, if you’re a C.S. Lewis fan) and it’s easy to see why medieval fantasy is so popular: it’s got romance, adventure, gallantry, and no actual basis in reality–just an excuse for imaginative, good old-fashioned fun.
And then along comes George R.R. Martin, who proceeds to shows us what an actual medieval story would look like in his epic novel series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Today, we’ll be looking into the first of his oh-so-cheerful books, A Game of Thrones.
The Story: “There Is No Middle Ground.”
In the land of Westeros, summers and winters can last for years on end, and the summer of nine years is slowly drawing to an end. Nowhere is this more evident than in the family motto for House Stark: “Winter Is Coming.”
Get used to that phrase because it will be repeated ad nauseum throughout the entire novel.
Basically, Lord Eddard Stark is an honorable man in a dishonorable world. He helped his friend Robert Baratheon take the Iron Throne, only to now regret also giving power to the Lannister family. Through the eyes of Eddard, his wife Catelyn, his bastard son Jon, and the rest of his children, we see a fragile peace in the kingdom finally shatter as intrigues swell, men are killed left and right, and Houses Stark and Lannister finally go to war. While all this is going on, Daenerys Targaryen, a thirteen-year-old princess of the old line of kings, is in exile, trying to build a new power base of Dothraki horse-riders and three newborn dragons, the likes of which have not been seen in the world for ages.
By the way, in case you forgot? “WINTER IS COMING.”
The Cast: Heroes? Definitely Not. Heroic? Well, Maybe…
There is a very large cast, but in a grim story like this one, it also means that anyone can die (although to be fair, it depends a lot on circumstances and just how trusting or arrogant some characters can be). In this story we see Houses Stark and Lannister. The Starks are all fairly noble (although some like Sansa seem more noble-minded and blatantly idealistic than actually capable of heroism), while the Lannisters are mostly cunning and ambitious (although Tyrion Lannister makes up for these qualities by being hysterically funny and actually quite sympathetic). Appropriately enough, Eddard Stark is the most sympathetic character despite (or perhaps because of) his tragic fate, while Cersei Lannister, the queen, is the most vile of the story, although her son Joffrey appears to be trying to outdo her in that regard by the end.
There’s also the brotherhood of watchmen and rangers in the north known as the Night’s Watch, who defend the frozen Wall from all kinds of terrible dangers. Jon Snow is accepted into their ranks, being a nobleman’s bastard and all, and in my opinion, he has the best storyline of the novel. He’s earnest but jaded, cautious but courageous, and forever torn between his sense of duty to the Watch and his sense of loyalty to a family that isn’t really his.
The Setting: “Ooh, Dennis, There’s Some Lovely Filth Over Here!”
Westeros is in one sense your typical high fantasy landscape: an endless vista of forests and hills, rivers and mountains, with small towns and castles. It is, however, lacking the clichéd elves, orcs, hobbits, and wizards you’ll find in most fantasy today. There are dragons, but not until the very end of the story (spoiler alert), and the knights aren’t really all that gallant. This is essentially what medieval Europe was more like as opposed to the romantic view that the old tales have given us: crime is common, intrigue is everywhere, horrible things are done to children, and for the right kind of money, you can have just about anyone killed.
That said, there are some fantastic elements like the mystical Others who dwell beyond the Wall in the north, the direwolves that befriend the Starks, and the dragons that now serve Daenerys Targaryen. I think part of the story is as much about how the old things of the past that have now passed into legend are slowly making their return. It adds a good breath of fresh, cold air when the reader would like to step out for a moment from the vicious feud between the Starks and Lannisters.
Final Verdict: As Beautiful And Vicious As A Direwolf
It’s a very rich story because Martin gives us a very clear picture of how this world works. Life is Westeros is hard and it’s a miracle anyone lives past thirty with all the intrigue, battles, and assassinations going on, but it also has an element of bravery and camaraderie if you know where to look. It’s a good read straight through and I’ll definitely take the time to follow this series all the way to the end.
I would also point out that, whether you read the books or not, there’s also a live-action TV adaptation on HBO called Game of Thrones. So far, the casting has been great, the scenery is appropriate, and the plot has been very faithful to the original novels–something that can’t always be said for TV or film adaptations these days.
Bibliography: Martin, George R.R. A Game of Thrones. New York: Bantam Books, 1996.
Game of Thrones (TV series). Created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Produced by Mark Huffman and Frank Doelger. HBO. April 17, 2011 – present.