At the end of 2011 someone gave me an article to read, literally torn out of their copy of The New Yorker – The Dragon’s Egg, by Adam Gopnik. Always good to start with a digression, I think. It discusses why two particular pinnacles of teen literature (let’s not name names, but one features sparkingly sexualised vampires and the other misspells “dragon”) are as popular as they are among their respective readerships, despite their generally questioned literary qualities. To give a thumbnail of the argument, it first suggests that female teens are primarily looking for something that speaks to them emotionally, and that whatever sins the Twilight series (oops) might hide within its covers, it hits the raging hormonal maelstrom target dead on. Secondly, it claims that what young male readers most connect to in high fantasy is the discovery of an iconic history, with sequences eagerly committed to memory the way English school pupils were once expected to memorise the order of Kings and Queens, and that powerful weapons or significant battles seem far more valued than authentic depths of character in the heroes or villains. Though I have read neither Stephenie Meyer nor Christopher Paolini’s (ah well) Eragon books and am unlikely to do so, I found the argument, this division of focus, interesting. What strange things teenaged readers are, eh?
One other name that featured regularly in the article was that of J. R. R. Tolkien, and that name also appears prominently somewhere else: inside and outside the covers of the only-one-word-for-it epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin (no apparent relation), of which seven volumes are planned, number six is being written, five have been published, four read by me, and ten (episodes) broadcast in HBO’s fantastic adaptation of the first instalment, A Game of Thrones. It says something that, coming to that book almost directly after watching the series, it proved no disappointment at all. I can’t speak to the accuracy of the parallels with English history, although better informed viewers than myself have suggested them to be both reasonable and deliberate. What I can say is that, in the murky depths of its many characters and the breadth of ferocious action, A Song of Ice and Fire seems to have it all: sex, violence, passion, bad-language – teenagers ought to love it.
Everyone seems to love it. I love it. So what’s the problem?
The grand sweep of the action tells a story of royal families and factions at war, and despite the rich heritage of pseudo-medieval fantasy that has come before it there is no sensation of treading old ground. As the initial groups of characters divide and scatter throughout their world we are carried with them along many different storylines, events weaving around to influence each other, some threads cut short, new ones beginning. Hints of actual magic are tantalisingly few and far between, at least at first, and any hint of a Tolkienesque conflict between Good and Evil is lost almost as soon as the battle lines are drawn: allegiances are fluid on all sides, there are honourable figures and unknown betrayers in every court, all offering loyal service – and there are thousands of common men and women paying the price in death and destruction as their lords move the pieces, oblivious.
From the very beginning of A Game of Thrones the characterisation is varied and intriguing, not to mention intriguingly variable. There are children, teens, adults and ancients at play, but few are obvious in their motivations and fewer are static; Objectives and loyalties are realised or unveiled, switched or sacrificed, rarely achieved and more often thwarted, sometimes terminally. The first time an apparently significant person ended their involvement in a spray of blood it was genuinely stunning – perhaps, thinks the reader, no-one in this world is safe. As the series continues this proves true, sometimes shockingly so. That unfinished plans and dreams offer these people no protection from the contrary plans of their rivals, or simply from chance misfortune, brings a layer of real-world authenticity that is somehow more troubling than satisfying; we are used to even our heroes being sacrificed to a cause, but rarely to the causes themselves being cut off in their prime. What is the real story being told here amidst the many that die by the wayside? What is it actually about?
Over the course of reading I realised that this, for me, is the problem. While the teen-aged boy I once was is no doubt enraptured by the scope of conflict that is still unfolding four books in, and though the psychological teen-aged girl lurking in some clouded nook or cranny of my personality is surely thrilled to a flutter by all the passion and treachery, there is another part of me – is it the adult? – that takes up a book in search of something bigger than battles, bigger even than mere human feelings. I read for the exploration of some thing, some concept to be tested to destruction, some statement of position to be agreed with or found wanting. Not just to know who wins, but to discover some point, however simplistic. Isn’t that what stories are, what distinguishes them from mere history: not just events, but events with meaning?
What a problem, one that has had me hungrily reading four gigantic novels, and will certainly bring me running to hopefully three more. A Song of Ice and Fire is just great. No question. I’d recommend it to anyone. Honestly, as a contemporary work not hindered by the style of an earlier time, I find it a more satisfying read than The Lord of the Rings. But, in being not about simple Good Versus Evil but presenting through its fantasy something more earthily real, I wonder if come the final page it will prove only to be the record of who won, a vibrant, tumultuous history which never really happened.