A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Monday, April 21, 2014

Game of Thrones

This well-known pseudo-historical romance series flying under the flag of fantasy is written by America's most beloved serial killer. If your name is Stark, if you are married to a Stark, if you are friends with a Stark, if you have even bumped into a Stark in a crowded market-place, you are walking around with a bull's-eye painted on your backside.

The books are exceptionally well-written -- George RR Martin is a gifted writer -- which may be why they have blown so many people's minds. The books contain (so far) not a single unicorn and only a few virgins.

One of the Readership's favorite characters in the series is a young tomboy named Arya Stark, who was taught sword fighting and was given a blade named Needle. She is usually praised on message boards as "kickass."  And this is the first thought for the day: namely, the damning, patriarchal praise of women as "kickass."  It seems the Modern Woman (and her projection onto medieval and crypto-medieval tabulae rasae) is held as admirable only insofar as she behaves like a man. This is the stealthy victory of masculinism over feminism: that Womyn's Ways of Doing are discounted and thrust aside in favor of the certified kickass style.
     My patient was intelligent but badly educated, as only products of the British educational system can be after 11 years of compulsory school attendance. She thought the Second World War took place in the 1970s and could give me not a single correct historical date.
I asked her whether she thought a young and violent burglar would have proved much of a companion. She admitted that he wouldn't, but said that he was the type she liked; besides which—in slight contradiction—all boys were the same.
     I warned her as graphically as I could that she was already well down the slippery slope leading to poverty and misery—that, as I knew from the experience of untold patients, she would soon have a succession of possessive, exploitative, and violent boyfriends, unless she changed her life. I told her that in the past few days, I had seen two women patients who had had their heads rammed down the lavatory, one who had had her head smashed through a window and her throat cut on the shards of glass, one who had had her arm, jaw, and skull broken, and one who had been suspended by her ankles from a tenth-floor window to the tune of, "Die, you bitch!"
     "I can look after myself," said my 17-year-old.
     "But men are stronger than women," I said. "When it comes to violence, they are at an advantage."
     "That's a sexist thing to say," she replied.
     A girl who had absorbed nothing at school had nevertheless absorbed the shibboleths of political correctness in general and of feminism in particular.
     "But it's a plain, straightforward, and inescapable fact," I said.
     "It's sexist," she reiterated firmly.
-- Theodore Dalrymple, "Tough Love"
The irony is that the real middle ages marked the first time that women erupted onto the public stage. There really were not many masculine occupations that women did not fill back then, even if they did not fill them in quite the same frequency. Biology may not be destiny, but she does cast a heavy vote in the Diet of life.  It is left to the Late Modern and Post-Modern to propose that biology (like will, self, etc.) is an illusion and such things are culturally determined. (All other things are of course biologically determined by the genes and evolution.)

The second thought of the day was triggered by a conjunction between Game of Thrones and the Exsultet, a/k/a Praeconium Paschale. In the Game of Thrones, the Red Priestess often repeats a mantra of her religion:
"For the night is dark and full of terrors."

Then, on Saturday evening, came a rejoinder:
"The night shall be as bright as day,
dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness."
Et nox sicut dies illuminábitur:
et nox illuminátio mea in delíciis meis.
which illustrates nicely the difference between the faux-medieval and the real thing.


  1. I'm finding it darkly amusing that after seasons of violence, explicit sex and everything else, some people who love the show are now really, really upset about a rape scene...

    1. It's not the rape. People who read the books see it as a change in character arc of Jaime. There was a similar scene in the book, but it wasn't right after Joffrey's death. Also, it wasn't motivated by his hate for her, and she consents, even encourages him in the book. The timing ang motivation for the scene is the problem. Also, Jaime was starting to try to become honorable. The timing is off for events here, but Jaime names his Valyrian steel sword "Oathkeeper" (if I remember correctly) and gives it to Briene, who he admires, to try to find Arya and keep her safe as a fulfillment of her promise to Caitlin.

  2. Just going by the TV series here, but does anyone agree that Westeros is just plain nastier than the real Middle Ages? I mean, sure, people could be ruthless, but I've always got an impression of gratuitous sadism from AGOT which I never got from actual histories. Plus the Westerosi don't seem to have any real virtues to balance out their vices: pretty much all we see them doing is killing, torturing, plotting and going to the brothel. We never see any poetry or music or philosophy or great works of art or religious devotions, nor do we even see them admiring others' virtue. The whole thing feels like a vicious and debased modern's guess at what a pre-modern society might look like.

    1. Yup, that was pretty much my take. But I'm biased towards real history, for that very reason. Right now, I'm working through St. Gregory's History of the Franks, Book X, with renegade nuns leading armed bands against each other and their Abbess...

    2. Oh, those fun-loving Franks.

    3. well, with the Middle Ages, you just can't win. Film directors have given us either the beautiful version, or the mud & blood version. The only movie that's tried to do some of both is "The Name of the Rose" where the author was actually a medievalist and had some artistic control of the film made from his novel (and even so, 80s gratuitous sex). When "The Messenger" was made about Joan of Arc, they tried to do some of both, and it got shredded by just about everybody. I don't remember who first said this, but it especially applies to the Middle Ages in popular culture: "cynicism assumes all motives are base." And I think pointing to GRRM's historical sources to justify his artistic choices isn't too satisfying, because, yes, the Hundred Years War sucked, but Malory didn't therefore decide knighthood sucked or that all tragedy was merely personal & Martin runs that risk. I enjoy Martin's books more if I don't take them too seriously. As a modern fictional examination of knighthood & medieval war culture, we're far better off with Gene Wolfe's "The Wizard Knight" (knighthood without its Christianity) and T.H. White's "Once and Future King" (nationalism, use of force, and religion). Wolfe and White obviously love their subject matter enough to actually use it to make serious points & I'm not convinced Martin is making a point beyond the cynicism of the work.

    4. Certainly. You can see where some of the incidents come from, but they are torn from their context and hastily re-sprayed a shade or two darker before being used. The relentless cynicism, along with excellent production values and a constant stream of comely T&A is what persuades the punters that, although a fantasy, it is fit for grown-ups, and they needn't feel ashamed to admit at the office to having watched it.

    5. Forget the Middle Ages, Westeros is just plain nastier than Warring States Japan. Oda Nobunaga acquired the name "Devil King" because of a sarcastic remark he made to monks whose temples he was sacking (basically "It's fine if you think of me as the devil"); but even he made damn sure his peasants were protected from his battles (actually he innovated several methods of protecting them that gave him an economic advantage over his rivals). The nobles of Westeros mock the only lord who lets his peasants into the castle! What did Martin think castles were made so big for? Conspicuous consumption?

      The other point is, are Westeros' peasants more downtrodden than Japanese serfs? I ask because the war that kicked off the Warring States era, the Ônin War, saw about a third of Japan taken over by peasant uprisings and Pure Land Buddhist militias, a few years into its eleven-year run. (Remember those temples Nobunaga sacked? Yeah, they were strongholds of the Buddhist militias, he wasn't just doing it for kicks.) Where are the uprisings against the bad lords in Westeros?

      And East Asian conflicts were far worse than medieval European ones; you can, for example, compare the Hundred Years War to Toyotomi Hideyoshi's invasion of Korea, in that both were invasions of coastal kingdoms by island nations—but the Hundred Years War killed 3.3 million in 116 years; Hideyoshi killed 1.1 million in six. That's six times the kill rate, and while the tech was a little different, it certainly wasn't remotely that different. (Also, the Hundred Years War was the medievals' Vietnam, the war that made them question all their values; Hideyoshi didn't do anything contemporary Asians didn't do while at war—indeed a good portion of the Korean death toll of his invasion was killed by Korea's Chinese allies.) Even the worst of Warring States warlords, though (which is probably Nobunaga, the man's official motto was "All the World by Force of Arms"), were not as bad as the average lord in Westeros.

    6. Apparently, I need to learn more about Warring States Japan. Got any suggestions for a good overview?

  3. [T]he Westerosi don't seem to have any real virtues to balance out their vices: pretty much all we see them doing is killing, torturing, plotting and going to the brothel. We never see any poetry or music or philosophy or great works of art or religious devotions, nor do we even see them admiring others' virtue.

    And this is why I began to tire of the book series a while ago. The constant moral nihilism is exhausting. Raw power is the only virtue. The world of ASoIaF feels like having Thrasymachus, but no Socrates to respond to him.

  4. Real history is far more fascinating than Martin's darker shades of grey version.

  5. Exceptionally well-written? Gifted writer? Blech. I read the first two books and thought they were repugnant and cliche-ridden. I agree with your essay's points about stereotypical kickass women characters though. It's a problem in modern literature, not just SF/F. My feeling is that boyish or "kickass" female characters represent imaginary women that men can use and abandon without guilt; they are tough, don't need a man, can defend themselves, might be sexually promiscuous, and probably won't require any long-term commitment to care for the woman herself or her children,

    1. I never know when people say "well written" or refer to a gifted "writer" if they're talking about the individual's skill at writing the prose or the individual's skill at crafting the story. I suppose Martin's prose is just fine. I didn't really notice. But I have a hard time admitting that his storytelling is good. I thought the books were a mess personally. But he's got millions of fans and I'm nobody so.... *shrug*


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