“I sit on the damn iron seat when I must. Does that mean I don’t have the same hungers as other men? A bit of wine now and again, a girl squealing in bed, the feel of a horse between my legs? Seven hells, Ned, I want to hit someone.”
Compare that to anything you’ve heard Aragorn say, and you’ve arrived at the salient difference between George R.R. Martin and J.R.R. Tolkien, even while the frequent comparison of the two remains apt.
Aragorn, of course, is the true-born king in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, who spends the trilogy fighting to claim his throne while being handsome and eloquent. The above was said by Robert Baratheon, king of the seven kingdoms in A Game of Thrones. He’s fat, drunk, and far too easily bored to be an effective ruler. The comparison isn’t quite fair, though, because Martin never makes the claim that Robert was destined to be king, or that anybody is destined to be king.
That’s just the thing with Martin. He’s created a fantasy world – warring families, usurped thrones, dark magic, heroic creatures – but hasn’t peopled it with fantasy characters. Yes, there are noble characters and yes, there are villains, but there isn’t a good army and a bad army. Although there are epic landscapes, close-knit brotherhoods, and a reverent relationship with weaponry, there is no one hero and no central quest. The particular gift of George R.R. Martin is that he’s adept at both the epic trappings and the gritty details.
Within the first 50 pages, we are introduced to the book’s four main families – the Starks, Lannisters, Baratheons, and Targaryens. Put as simply as possible, the Targaryens had long held the throne of the seven kingdoms, until Robert Baratheon seized it, with the help of his wife’s father and brother – the Lannisters, who betrayed and killed the former king – and his lifelong friend Eddard “Ned” Stark. Years later, the last remaining Targaryens – adolescent brother and sister Viserys and Daenerys – are in exile, planning to take back their family’s throne, which Robert Baratheon lazily holds, under the contemptful watch of his Lannister wife and brothers-in-law. When Robert’s closest adviser dies, he travels with his household to Winterfell, the isolated northern home of the Stark family, to ask Ned to take the position.
For a spell, almost all of the principal characters are at Winterfell – Ned Stark and his wife and six children, Robert, his wife Cersei Lannister, their three insufferable children, and her two brothers, Jaime and Tyrion. What a tangled, tangled web. Old grudges, new grudges, old secrets, new alliances, and more than one drunken revelation reverbate around the halls of Winterfell, just until you’ve got a feel for everyone, and then they all split up. (Even the Targaryens, off in exile, pack up and start moving.) For the rest of the novel, the cast is always on the move, traversing the vast geography of Martin’s world.
I was a Russian major in college, so I can’t read a 500+ page book without Isaiah Berlin whispering in my ear. Berlin was the author of “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” an essay based on an ancient Greek adage: “the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin divides writers into these two categories. Hedgehogs view the world as a stage for a single, encompassing logic (power corrupts, love conquers all, that kind of thing). Foxes are more fascinated by the infinite variety of the human condition. In Berlin’s signature comparison, Dostoevsky is a hedgehog, and Tolstoy is a fox.
The fantasy genre, although I admit I’m not its most versed reader, is full of hedgehogs. Godfather Tolkien, certainly, is pure hedgehog. What I find most fascinating about Martin is that he’s a fox in a hedgehog genre. While his world looks like fantasy (bastards! dwarves! whores! knights!), and the action revolves around the question of the seven kingdoms’ throne (Will Robert keep it? Are the Lannisters plotting for it? Will the Targaryens reclaim it?), the focus is on the clashing relationships and motivations of the people involved in the struggle.
Eddard, for example, leaves his home to serve the king, whom he’s lost faith in. He has to work closely with the king’s council, who he fears are in league with the Lannisters. He has to protect his two daughters, who he’s brought with him, and trust in his eldest son Robb, still a teenager, whom he left in charge of Winterfell. His wife Catelyn is traveling around on a secret reconnaissance mission, which is a whole other thing. Each character’s path through the novel is equally hard to navigate, I can’t think of one who doesn’t fundamentally distrust a number of the people around them.
Destiny and heroics have little purchase in this murky world. No one is the people’s champion. In fact, the salt of earth rarely show up except to mug rich people while they travel. The conflict is confined to the elite of the seven kingdoms, squabbling over a throne, and no side can claim a right to it.
That’s not to say that you won’t take sides. The Starks are the crowd pleasers. They enter the game of thrones reluctantly – always a sign of moral fortitude – and Eddard is honorable to a fault (for which he is endlessly reproached, to reiterate that such nobility has no place in Martin’s universe). The Stark children, in the book’s coolest whim, each have a pet wolf that follows them everywhere, can sense their moods and when they’re in danger.
In the HBO series based on the book, the Starks are the heroes. When we meet them in the first episode, they’re wearing dark, dignified clothes and standing up straight, while the Lannisters wear pastels and lean on anything in sight. The Starks deliver their lines in earnest, the Lannisters in sarcasm. But for all that, the Starks have their ugly moments, and the Lannisters are sometimes kind. The series, as it has thus far, will do well not to ignore those nuances in favor of narrative.
My favorite moment of the series so far is a scene in which a midnight courier’s message forces Eddard and Catelyn out of bed. As Sean Bean, who plays Eddard, stands by the fire, his night shirt drapes open, revealing a wide swath of pectorals covered in scars. Really awesome scars. It’s a powerful visual, and one that conveys, in a heartbeat, the lives of these men. The men of Game of Thrones are rich, powerful lords, knights, and kings who rule over vast lands and kingdoms, and they’ve all had their asses kicked numerous times. Their lives are expansive, and extremlely hard.
“The things we love destroy us every time, lad,” says Tyrion Lannister, early in the book. And truly, if Martin were a hedgehog, I would say Game of Thrones is about the things we let destroy us. Sometimes those things are plotters, usurpers, or vengeance. Sometimes those things are misplaced trust or foolish love. It’s complicated.