From The Claremont Institute:
During the summer of 1991, George R.R. Martin found himself with nothing to do. He had left a job producing the CBS dramatic series Beauty and the Beast and, looking for a new project, decided to return to the genre in which he had forged his reputation: science fiction. He began writing a giant novel, Avalon, that he hoped would turn out to be “War and Peace in space.” He worked diligently on the story, but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Martin has said that there are two types of writers, architects and gardeners: architects plan out their stories far in advance; gardeners meander, cultivate, prune, and till. Martin considers himself a gardener, and Avalon was a seed that failed to sprout.
Then, 30 pages into his sci-fi-meets-Tolstoy project, Martin had a vision “as vivid as a waking dream.” He imagined a young boy discovering the carcass of a wolf in the snow. The wolf’s neck was pierced with an antler. Mewling near the corpse were six wolf cubs. The boy convinces his father to take the wolflings home, and there the scene comes to an end. Martin didn’t know what to do with this piece of writing. But he did know that it was different from science fiction. He put it aside. Before long he was distracted by other television, film, and editing projects. A couple of years later, he returned to the story of the boy and the cubs, which he completed and called Game of Thrones.
The novel, the first of a projected trilogy, was published in 1996. But like a strong oak, the tale kept expanding, its roots spreading, and its branches multiplying. By the time the third book in the series, A Storm of Swords, was published in 2000, Martin was saying that it would take six books to complete his narrative. Then six turned into seven. Judging by the fifth book, A Dance with Dragons, published last summer, one wouldn’t be surprised if the planned heptalogy ends up growing into eight volumes or more.
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The series owes its success to the power of Martin’s storytelling and the richness of his creation. The story is set in a fictional world with continents that resemble our own. The two main landmasses, comparable to North America and Europe, are called Westeros and Essos. By our standards, the level of technology in these lands is primitive. Books are rare. Hardly anyone can read or write. The weapons, buildings, methods of transportation, manners, religious beliefs, and politics of the Westerosi would all fit comfortably in 14th-century Europe. There are knights, priests, sailors, traders, peasants, kings, and queens. There are tournaments, battles, heraldry, and castles. And there is the seat of monarchical power, the Iron Throne, a hulking black mass made of swords. Whoever sits on the Iron Throne is the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.
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But there is another reason the books are so popular. A Song of Ice and Fire is intensely political. Martin asks the most serious questions about the nature of power: Who governs? By what right? To what end? He is fascinated by the subtle effects power can have on ruler and subject alike. “You can have the power to destroy,” he told New York magazine’s Vulture blog last year, “but it doesn’t give you the power to reform, or improve, or build.” Quite unexpectedly, Martin has emerged as the Machiavelli of the modern novel. The grit, blood, and passion in his books show human beings as they truly are, as opposed to the idealizations one finds in chivalric romances. A dispassionate analyst of the cruelty of princes, he reveals the unstable ground of absolutist rule. He is exploring, through his characters and situations, whether enlightened despotism is possible in a broken world. This isn’t fantasy; it’s a crash course in political realism.
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At first glance, the political teaching of Martin’s novels may be difficult to discern. The array of social, political, and religious systems at work in A Song of Ice and Fire is dizzying. Custom and caprice rule these societies; there seem to be no natural standards of right and wrong. Most Westerosi adhere to the divine right of kings and worship a seven-faced god. The denizens of the Iron Islands worship a sea god and have a method for determining leadership through assembly that resembles an Afghan loya jirga. The northern barons who live near the wall of ice pray to animist “old gods.” Across the Narrow Sea in Essos are the self-governing merchant city-states modeled on the Venetian Republic. The citizens of the Free Cities bend the knee to a variety of deities; one of the more popular religions is a Manichean system that pits light against darkness. The marauding Dothraki horselords are organized in clans. Still farther East are the slave states in which gilded oligarchies rule over human chattel.
The most important actors in Martin’s story are the kings and queens. Who rules, on what grounds, and for what purposes are the central questions of the series. Martin sees the problems inherent in the theory of divine right: without a public declaration from the gods that so-and-so should be king, human beings are left to determine the monarch through bloodlines, a slippery standard. To overturn one line through violent rebellion, as House Baratheon does to House Targaryen, is to undermine the foundations of authority and invite further challenges to the throne.
This dynastic quarrel leads inevitably to skepticism of monarchy. When the grounds for legitimacy are so thin, one ruler seems a lot like another. “Treason…is only a word,” says a character in “The Sworn Sword,” a novella set in Westeros.
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It is a sad commentary on contemporary American “literary fiction” that the most complex, gripping, and thought provoking exploration of power and legitimacy in prose is a more than a decade old fantasy series that languished in obscurity for years. What Martin’s epic teaches is that pride, honor, virtue, and envy are coeval with human life, open to interpretation by authors high and low, and this includes screenwriters. By stripping genre fiction of its clichés, by describing a political culture in shades of gray rather than in black and white, Martin is composing a far more relevant and nuanced work than, say, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (2010). As Martin understood when he began his tale in 1991:
“Stories of the human heart in conflict with itself transcend time, place, and setting. So long as love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice are present, it matters not a whit whether that tall, lean, stranger has a proton pistol or a six-shooter in his hand. Or a sword.”
Link to the rest at The Claremont Institute