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Wednesday, 03 October 2012 19:58

Winter has come and Martin turns up the heat

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bookKind hearts, winter has come. That dire prediction that began over 4,000 pages ago with A Game of Thrones has been fulfilled. In this, the final (?) book in the Songs of Ice and Fire series, all of the bleak predictions that began with “Winter is coming,” are gradually come to pass. However, that does not mean that we will finally see justice done. Unlike the marvelous world of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, where the good king finally comes home and the world becomes orderly and rational once more, the final chapters of A Dance With Dragons finds Westros and the Seven Kingdoms racked by war and famine. The majority of Martin’s characters appear to be lost, trapped or missing in action.

There is a simple answer to this dilemma. George R. R. Martin’s Songs of Ice and Fire does not end with A Dance With Dragons because there are two more books — one partially written (The Winds of Winter) and a seventh which only exists in the fevered brain of its author (A Dream of Spring). If, like me, you are a devout fan, we must be patient. I understand that a few chapters of Book Six are already published in a few appropriate magazines. However, as we wait, perhaps we can ponder the significance of this astonishing series.

Anyone who has finished the first five books will probably agree with the critics in a recently published collection of essays (Beyond the Wall edited by James Lowder) that there is a great deal more going on in Songs of Ice and Fire than mere entertainment, masterful writing and in-depth character-driven plotting. By the conclusion of A Dance With Dragons, a number of significant themes have emerged. Some of the most thought-provoking are: a theme of 18th century Romanticism; the significance of “Outsiders and Misfits,” and the emergence of religion in a world moving toward apocalypse. However, the most pervasive theme is a complex depiction of the role of women in a world dominated by men. I would like to comment on each of these themes.

Martin’s use of 18th century Romanticism takes the form of two themes: an almost elegiac treatment of the past and the appearance of “Byronic” characters (personalities who struggle heroically against daunting odds). Throughout these five books, the past is viewed with a kind of reverence. Characters such as Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon lament the loss of loved ones and speak bitterly of the present which is filled with intrigue and danger. The world of chivalry and noble ideals is vanishing and such attributes as dedication, courage and honor that has sustained “The Wall” for centuries has been replaced by a cynical army of former criminals. The Night Watch, the once vast army that defended the Wall for thousands of years has dwindled to a handful of demoralized soldiers. As for “Byronic characters,” the most obvious are Jamie Lannister and his dwarf brother Tyreon. In fact, Jamie’s gradual “conversion” from a cynical, arrogant and debauched member of the ruling class to a stoic, courageous, honorable warrior who slowly (and reluctantly) becomes an admirable character is one of the dominant themes in this epic saga. The catalyst for Jamie’s change seems to be the suffering and shame brought on by the loss of his hand — that and his growing empathy for helpless victims. “The Imp” is the ultimate Byronic figure — a man who is branded “an outsider” by the world and even despised by his own family. Against all odds, he not only survives, but occasionally, triumphs. Lacking physical charm, he relies on “his wits.”

One of the favorite expressions in Songs of Ice and Fire is “By the old Gods and the New.” By the time Martin gets to A Dance With Dragons, religion in Westros has evolved from the ancient seven-faced gods of Ned Stark to the bizarre and disturbing creeds such as the Drowned God (which requires voluntary drowning and resuscitation to be “born again” and finally the Red Woman’s supernatural fire-based religion that thrives on prophecy and human sacrifice. Then, there is the strange cult of the Sparrows in which the members crowd into the cities such as Kings Landing and gather on the steps of civic buildings as a kind of “living judgment” on the bankrupt society that has destroyed their villages and sent all of the men to wars that left devastation everywhere.

Martin’s message here seems to be that countries governed by greed, privilege and a callous indifference to the suffering of “the small folk,” will invariably foster the religion(s) that they deserve ... In other words, a religion that will judge them and bring them down.

The most pervasive criticism of Songs of Ice and Fire is the frequent accusation that Martin’s epic fantasy is marred by scenes of excessive, gratuitous sex ... or more specifically, rape and torture. Certainly, there are countless scenes involving the physical and political abuse of women. However, Martin’s defenders contend that such unrelenting violence has a purpose, which is to accurately depict the consequences of treating women as a commodity — something to be used as a pawn in a game in which females are traded, sold and suppressed. In fact, the brutal treatment of women in Songs of Ice and Fire is an accurate depiction of the fate of “the weaker sex” in 16th century Europe. (Much of the abuse, such as slavery, forced prostitution and draconian laws regarding morality still exist in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Russia, etc.)

By this time, most readers are aware that these five books of Songs of Ice and Fire have nothing to do with unicorns, mischievous elves or magic.

Martin’s world is filled with disillusioned knights, outraged women and a host of characters who have ventured into dangerous realms in which the dead come back, the old gods hold sway and the coming winter may last for a century. Stay Tuned. The Winds of Winter is on the way and A Dream of Spring is rumored to existed as “a rough draft.”

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