A Song of Ice and Fire
by George R. R. Martin
(5 of 7 planned volumes).
Bantam, 1996–2012. Paper, 5232 pages, $75.


The embarrassment of narrative in a radically skeptical postmodern world is that it implies meaning. Simply constructing a story with beginning, middle, end, in which incidents are chosen and arranged for some artistic purpose, implies an intention to put forth meaning, to make sense of the world by giving an account, however elusive and puzzling it might be. The pervasive trope of modern and postmodern fiction, therefore, is irony. One constructs narratives not to make sense but to call into question the making of sense itself. Kafka’s narrative conundrums give us a familiar modern example, as do Thomas Pynchon’s postmodern works. The Trial or The Crying of Lot 49 are not just attempts to get the last nervous laugh on life, but the last laugh on narrative itself. Yet people go on making stories and reading them. You might say we can’t help ourselves, and that is often taken as part of the joke. Sartre summed it up by calling man a useless passion, a creature condemned to look for meaning in a world that has none.

What happens when a postmodern writer tangles with the problem of meaning in the realm of Tolkienesque fantasy? One answer is George R. R. Martin’s enormous production, A Song of Ice and Fire, showing on HBO under the title of the first book of (to date) five, A Game of Thrones. Martin has been at work on the series since 1991 and has sold 22 million copies of the books. A blurb from Time Magazine that appears on the back cover of each book, calls Martin “the American Tolkien.” There is a rather eerie truth to this, but I’d qualify the statement by saying that Martin is as much the twenty-first century American Balzac or Zola of fantasy. As one reads through the first five books of the series, which are enormous (the third, A Storm of Swords, is over 900 pages long, and the fifth, A Dance of Dragons, closer to 1,000), one gets the sense of a narrative that could go on forever, in more and more diverging story lines, spreading out into the distance like channels in a vast tidal flat. Martin is now working on book six, The Winds of Winter.

The first book, which focuses on the House of Stark and its beginning conflict with the House of Lannister, is fairly contained as it develops a War of the Roses variant told through the members of the Stark family, one Lannister, and the exiled surviving daughter of a previous royal family, Daenerys Targaryen. The book is well knit by its main focus on one family, a relatively limited location, and a governing story line: the destructionof that family. The story of Daenerys moves in a different part of the world and functions, except for historical connection, independently of the Starks. By the time we reach the fourth and fifth books (totaling about 1,600 pages), which cover the same time span in different locales and among different characters, the viewpoint characters and thus the story lines have grown from eight in the first book to twenty-one, and the minor characters to numbers I cannot count; noble houses and locations proliferate, as do maps and appendices with lists of characters by household affiliation. The Lord of the Rings, whose length gave its publisher pause, looks like a Hemingway short story in comparison. I get the sense Martin’s world will come to focus once again as he makes connections between Daenerys’s story and that of the rest of the planet, but how long that will take is any reader’s guess.

Martin is a genuinely engaging writer of great inventiveness and stamina who writes the clear, self-effacing prose appropriate to popular fiction. His aim is to write page-turners. Prose is not an obstacle, though plot can be. He has constructed a medieval fantasy with the gore and grotesquerie of a Jacobean drama. Initially it worked well, but the story has now gotten so big and diffuse that it is hard to keep all the pieces in mind—for me, at least, it requires backtracking, as I try to reconnect with each plot line after so many others have intervened. The sheer size of Martin’s story and the proliferation of characters and back-story make his management of the narrative almost as interesting as the tale: what will he do now to help the reader keep it straight?

Martin is working with four genres, all of which encourage sprawl. The first is fantasy. Edmund Spenser’s enormous yet incomplete work, The Faerie Queene, was conceived as illustrating twenty-four virtues in twenty-four books. Spenser completed six and started a seventh, which was plenty. Tolkien’s published fantasy compared to his private papers is the tenth of an iceberg above the water; happily, we got only that tenth, and perhaps a bit too much of that. Fantasy caters to writers and readers who love to inhabit and explore imaginary worlds: world-building is much of their attraction and fans appreciate scope. Modern novels with roots in the quest motif or the picaresque have the potential for indefinite expansion: Don Quixote and Tom Jones provide examples; of course, the chivalric romance, such as Morte d’Arthur, which is also epic and quest, is long indeed. The modern social novel that wants to portray and analyze a complete society at all levels must be vast: Balzac and Zola are the champions.

A Song of Ice and Fire has elements of all these expansive genres, each of which tempt authorial desire to create or capture an entire world, and each of which pose proportionate challenges to narrative structure. Regardless of genre, some writers simply love characters and want to create lots of them. Chaucer promised to give each of his thirty pilgrims four tales to tell, for an astonishing one hundred twenty. He delivered twenty complete tales—his ambition, like Spenser’s, outdistancing his life. Martin loves lots of characters. And wait a moment. There’s a lot of money in this. Card, board, and video games and calendars are available as well as comic book adaptations and the HBO series. Why stop the music?

With such a vast project and an author with an affinity for every genre that would accommodate it, it is no wonder that A Song of Ice and Fire is not just huge, but potentially impossible to end, and here I return to postmodernism and George R. R. Martin’s relation to John R. R. Tolkien. In a world inhabited by story-telling and story-consuming creatures, in which narrative is no longer expected to function as a vehicle for any deep meaning, our fate may be to get stories that never reach a conclusion. Once the trick of irony has been played over and over again, and the ironic effect of stories designed to thwart interpretation becomes passé, we are left with the mere construction of stories with nowhere to arrive yet no capacity to end. A Song of Ice and Fire may be an example.

Edmund Wilson wrote a famously scathing review of The Lord of the Rings that firmly categorized it as a book for boys. Few women, no sex. The heroes survived, mainly. Its ending, too rosy. Wilson did not say the book lacked a sense of self-irony, but to Wilson the modernist, this might have been its worst crime. It should have portrayed life as much more grim, much less noble. If it couldn’t achieve a sneer at itself, at least it should have chuckled. Tolkien does not turn to laugh at himself, any more than a Catholic would laugh at communion. Oddly, this lack of irony is something J. R. R. and George R. R. share. Even though some of his characters use irony, Martin seems to have recognized that authorial irony has been used up. He writes sincerely from a Hobbesian premise, that life in a state of nature (and his characters are never far from that) is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” and he subjects his characters to that law. There is plenty of sex and violence (and with regard to the sex, HBO adds more). Martin has no compunction about killing off major characters, however admirable or nasty: in the end, everyone goes into the same meat grinder of battle and betrayal, no matter their moral quality or reader sympathy. One of the reasons for his series’ populiarity is its cliffhanger quality: your favorite characters may turn up dead on any page.

Tolkien and Martin are the converse of each other when it comes to religion. Tolkien never portrays religion, but The Lord of the Rings is a deeply religious book, and Tolkien’s Catholic commitments pervade his text. Critics including Bradley Birzer and Ralph Wood have recognized specific sacramental imagery in The Lord of the Rings, but Tolkien’s entire viewpoint is sacramental, the world of Middle Earth being the outward sign of Iluvatar’s grace, a material manifestation of the music (the Word) of creation that Tolkien figures forth in the two creation myths of The Silmarillion. The Lord of the Rings assumes a depth of meaning in human struggle, fully known only by God.

But while Martin portrays many religions, his book is not religious. Even when he writes about sorcery and the supernatural, he writes from the locus of Hobbesian materialism. His magic is black, a force that humans are sometimes able to harness to achieve their own goals; religion is something they can turn to for solace and comfort, however ineffectual. Magic is a kind of dark technology, religion, a placebo. His world’s four main religions are northern animism (the weirwood of the Starks and northmen), that of the Seven (a multifaceted but unitary god containing three female figures), a Manichean religion of dueling light and darkness, and a death cult. These religions are historical facts in Martin’s world; they are treated with ethnographic precision; but none are meant to be accurate descriptors or pointers to underlying spiritual truth. They are part of Martin’s human world, institutional factors in human power contests and means of personal comfort and release.

TThere are times when the resemblance between A Song of Ice and Fire and The Lord of the Rings recalls that between a living character and its reanimated corpse. I don’t mean this as a witticism about Martin’s writing, which is lively if long, but about his story, which not only incorporates large elements of horror, but often does so by giving one of Tolkien’s Christian elements a macabre twist. Take, for example, the resurrection of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, brought back to lifein Middle Earth to complete his task of stewardship. It is a true resurrection, consistent with St. Paul’s description in 1 Corinthians 15. Gandalf is not who he was but something mightier and better. He is Gandalf the White, and, since he is not immediately recognized by Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas, he provides a strong allusion to Jesus’ resurrection appearances, a figure of wonder and joy.

Martin has (so far) written two important resurrections—more properly resuscitations—of Beric Dondarion and Catelyn Stark, two avengers. Of the two, Catelyn Stark is the most horrific. She is a major sympathetic character in the first three books who is murdered with her son by a treacherous vassal. Her corpse floats in a river for three days, but is brought back to life by Dondarion’s kiss. She is no Sleeping Beauty but a walking corpse, vengeance animated, worse than the woman she was.

Given their different premises, Christian and Hobbesian, you would correctly expect Tolkien and Martin to have different preoccupations. Tolkien’s is with the fall and redemption. He tells the story of the fall again and again: the fall of the elves, the fall of Numenor, and the fall of everyone who takes the ring. He is also interested in redemption, through Gandalf and eventually Galadriel, Frodo, Sam, and Aragorn. For Tolkien, it is the pattern of fall and redemption, the eucatastrophe of unexpected rescue, that stamps human history. The pattern plays out again and again, but it has a beginning, middle, and end, and the end is what gives the story meaning.

Martin’s preoccupation is with the will to power, which he sees continuing endlessly for no rational reason. The plot of A Song of Ice and Fire is a repetition of intrigue, treachery, and the stab in the back. The game of thrones has no point, but the characters cannot stop playing. Hosts kill their guests, guests their hosts, sons their fathers; knights slaughter the innocent, and a medieval Frankenstein patches his monster together in a dungeon. There are no beginnings or endings, just an endless struggle for power, a struggle as inescapable as its consequences. It is history, the nightmare we cannot wake from, just one damn thing after another. It makes for a very long story. 

Craig Bernthal is a professor of English at California State University, Fresno. His books are The Trial of Man: Christianity and Judgment in the World of Shakespeare, and Perfection in Bad Axe, a collection of short stories.