The publishing world went medieval this month with the publication of A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in George R.R. Martin’s epic series A Song of Ice and Fire. The series inspires lifestyle-changing devotion among its biggest fans, seething ire among those it has lured in and let down, legions of new enthusiasts drawn in by the HBO adaptation of the first book, and bewilderment from those who can’t imagine what’s so interesting about knights and dragons.
These detractors, frankly, bore me. Seabiscuit wasn’t about a horse. You don’t have to like football to love Friday Night Lights. A great narrative is great in any genre, and A Song of Ice and Fire is perhaps the most compelling, fully realized narrative in modern literature.
Set in the kingdom of Westeros and its neighboring lands, the series follows the political unrest that results from the king’s death in the first book. That king, Robert Baratheon, was himself a usurper, and his eldest son Joffrey is still in puberty. That, combined with the fact that Joffrey’s legitimacy is in serious question, means loyalty to the young king is easily shaken, and before long there are a handful of lords hoping to take the throne. All these claimants at war with each other throws Westeros into chaos and, as of Book Five, it still hasn’t calmed down. As one character says, “So long as men remember the wrongs done to their forebears, no peace will ever last. So we go on century after century, with us hating the Brackens and them hating us. My father says there will never be an end to it.”
The books are narrated in turn by several of the principal characters — Catelyn, the widow who supports her son’s campaign to be king of the North; Tyrion, the dead king’s dwarf brother-in-law who is brilliant, funny, and hated by his family and eventually the whole kingdom; Davos, one of the claimants’ lowborn adviser, as wise as he is downtrodden; Sansa, a beautiful young heiress, dumber than a box of rocks, who is fought over as a marriage prize; and Daenerys, the daughter of a murdered king, who has grown up in exile with dreams of reclaiming her father’s throne.
These characters, among several other narrators, are our windows into the upheaval in Westeros. Although the action has brought in dozens of noble families and their households, several kingdoms, and more than 1,500 named characters, the two foci are the Starks and the Lannisters. It seems that no matter who you are in Westeros, you will eventually be fighting for or against one of these families.
The Starks are a stoic, noble family who are prone to loyalty, principled action, and terse conversation. The late Lord Eddard Stark is still quite present in the books as a fallen paragon of goodness. All but one of his children are narrators, and they are impossibly lovable with their stubborn, well-intentioned ways. The Starks have been separated since Book One, and none of them remain at their ancestral castle. The beating heart of the series, for me, is the hope that the remaining Starks will be reunited and reclaim their home. Killing off the Starks, or putting them in mortal peril, is one of Martin’s most painful habits.
The Lannisters, on the other hands, are presented in the first book as the slimeballs of the series. They scheme, lie, betray, and murder. They are unpredictable, and complicated, and throw a chaotic element into every situation they enter. Where the Starks’ life has been stable and loving, the Lannister siblings have been pressured, rejected, and distrusted since childhood. Martin has spent five books fleshing them out — showing how their manipulative natures were formed, and are in turn forming their adult lives. If the Stark family is a study in the limitations of morality, the Lannisters are a study in the limitations of existentialism.
Because in Westeros, your family is who you are. The honor or dishonor of your family name defines you, sometimes despite your actions. This is where Martin’s multi-voice narration brings Westeros to life. Looking into the inner lives of the characters shows us the knight who is afraid, the Lannister with regrets, the leader who needs advice, the boy with a destiny who just wants to go home. In A Dance with Dragons, Jon Snow perhaps speaks the most. Newly elected the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, a small force that guards Westeros’ northern border, he finds himself with few allies and no good council. “I am a son of Eddard Stark,” “I am the commander of the wall,” he reminds himself, but more often than not he feels unprepared and outnumbered.
All of the narrators are constantly doing this — comparing who they are meant to be with who they feel they are. Self-reflection is always done on the move, though, in this world where duty never ends. As Tyrion puts it, “Fight or hide or shit yourself, as you like, but whatever you decide to do, you’ll do it clad in steel.”
The narrative is operating on three levels at all times. The first is the day-to-day lives of the characters as they sit in council meetings, tell dirty jokes over dinner, haggle with ship captains, or pass the time with kingdom gossip. Martin is not wont to say that a voyage to Oldtown took five weeks and was difficult, he’ll drop in on the voyage a few times, tracking the mood of the travelers, showing them hash over their plans. This attention to minutiae takes most of the credit for the books’ lengths, but it doesn’t try your patience.
The second level is book-length story arcs for the narrators, like leading an army against the lords of the west, or journeying back to the capital after escaping from prison. These arcs, though, are rarely completed. Rather, when a character is about to accomplish what they’ve been striving for, they will usually find that the situation has changed, and will start on a new path. Jaime Lannister, for instance, spends a book trying to get back to his beloved sister in King’s Landing, only to reach her and realize he no longer enjoys her company. The characters continue to make their plans and predict their outcomes, but these plans will usually be rendered obsolete in the reshuffling of loyalties and quests that typifies the last 200 pages of each book.
The third level of Martin’s narrative is the slow march of history that manages to make the series, even though it’s at 4,000 pages and counting, seem like a small part of a much larger story. Martin has not just invented Westeros and its people; he’s invented thousands of years of its history, which he doles out little by little throughout the books. Westeros has seen the rise and fall of dynasties, new conquerors, centuries-old blood feuds, and plenty of wars. The conflicts that take up A Song of Ice and Fire will eventually be summed up in a few words sung by one of the kingdom’s minstrels.
Game of Thrones, the first book in the series, trained us, Martin’s readers, how to read his books. The beheading of Eddard Stark, the series’ original hero, sent the message that none of this was going to be pretty. We’ve stopped expecting fair outcomes. We know that a young, handsome, brave king can be killed by an old angry man while they’re eating dinner. When we see a character say, “I’m going to rescue your lost daughters,” we don’t hold our breaths. And we’ve become patient. When I finished Book One, I hurried on to Book Two with the expectation that I would soon see Arya Stark reunited with her companion direwolf (long story). Four books later, I’m still waiting. Another subplot — the murdered king’s heir’s return to Westeros to reclaim the throne — which was promised in the early chapters of Book One, is only realized in the final chapters of Book Five.
Much as the struggles of the Starks and the Lannisters hold our attention, they are not, the reader comes to learn, the be all and end all of Westeros. History will eventually forget most of them. And yet, as we follow them, each narrator is on an epic journey of their own. We see their daily lives, their attempts at glory or happiness, the way each of them — to themselves — is the entire world. We also see how, to Martin, and to Westeros, they’re only drops in a bucket. Every epic battle, king’s reign, or family history is a fleeting moment, and a story all its own.