Tolkien, Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, and a dash of Conan, the Barbarian!
As I begin to write these lines, who wish they were well-written – therefore, be merciful with the scribe – a huge feeling of nostalgia sinks in on me.
The idea of this text is, as its title makes it clear, to share with you some of the impressions, feelings, and wonders I’ve had with this saga and its characters, who won their place in the contemporary pop imagery: I am obviously speaking about the series Game of Thrones, which just entered its last season this year.
Based on the work of George R.R. Martin, the series was taken over by two young producers, David Benioff and Dan Weiss, who convinced the reluctant author to authorize the adaptation after an answer to the enigmatic question: who was the mother of Jon Snow, main character in the saga?
The question, as well as the right answer to it, already indicate an aspect present in the books and their TV adaptation: there are layers of mysteries and secrets determining the path of their characters – both the main ones, as well as the smaller ones – and these characters sometimes follow their destinies completely blindly, even when they imagine to have full control of their steps.
Tolkien, Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, and a dash of Conan, the Barbarian!
George Martin is an unabashed Tolkien fan, and has in the works of the English one of his main sources of inspiration. The elements of fantasy, the hero’s journey (especially his inner journey), monsters, dragons, magic, and darkness, exist profusely in the works of the two writers. As well as Tolkien, we can also find in Martin’s work much of the Shakespearean imagery. There are parallels and stories which mirror themselves in such a way that sometimes it is impossible not to see one of the English bard’s characters walking around the castles of Westeros. More than that, the number of plots and characters in similar – especially if we consider Shakespeare’s historical plays – and the way in which these characters and events echo through the Shakespearean dramas seem to have inspired the Song of Ice and Fire.
What is interesting as well is that George R.R. Martin seeks his inspiration in the Greek epic poems and tragedies – their plots, characters, and brutal endings – and in Conan, the Barbarian – not just the character of the adventures created by Robert E. Howard, but especially its comic version, who is portrayed among an imagery of fantasy, filled with violence and eroticism. And, purely for a matter of space, we will not explore here the references we can find in Martin’s work to Wagnerian operas and Old Testament narratives, full of violence, fury, and, let’s not play dumb, sex.
And, lastly, nothing could be more inspiring that the political history of Europe itself, with its share of tragedies, acts of vengeance, civil wars, and mad kings.
But something that must be pointed out in Martin’s work is that, even with all its violence and brutality, even with copious amounts of blood and sex, there is hardly any scenes a mere appeal to the reader/spectator’s excitement. They exist, and are usually built up instead to make us feel aversion for the acts committed, or to mark clear situations of power and submission.
If there are exceptions, what they do is to confirm the rule. Unless our sensibilities are a little perverse, one would be hard-pressed not to notice the inherent evil in the acts of violence and sadism portrayed.
All these elements are inserted in Martin’s work in a magisterial way – and yes, breaking the protocol, since I assume I am an unconditional fan of the Song of Ice and Fire, not only because of the elements I have listed so far, which prove the author belongs to a rich cultural and narrative tradition, but also due to the immense labor effort of writing a work in which tens of characters weave in and out, and whose narrative is made through unique points of view, that is, each chapter is narrated under the point of view of a specific character, in such a way that we have a vision of the whole, but a vision similar to that of a cubist painting: the fragments are on the same plane, but they do not correspond exactly to reality, since they are an amalgamation of different interpretations, and therefore lack the truth or distance needed for an impartial analysis.
And it is only by reading these reports and memories that we can, little by little, build our own picture of the events. Curiously, this leads us to understand and see better than the character the undergoing huge and apocalyptical drama. But, on the other hand, we are often manipulated by these characters, who express their own private view of facts, events, wonders and horrors.
And, by delivering us a narrative in which trusting the words of a specific character is to make a choice. Martin seems to want to show us more about us than we dare admit. Through the course of the story, he jokes around with our choices, because those characters we initially judged with rigor often show themselves to be magnanimous and honored, while others who seemed noble to us show themselves to be the exact opposite.
Martin disdains allegories and archetypes – or at least manipulate extremely well our expectations around them – and he creates characters who, just like any of us, are capable of good and bad attitudes, redeeming or cruel, depending on their situation and their interest.
In the end, what we have clearly is a story in which many actions are happening simultaneously, and, through them, the meaning of the work gets deeper, grows, and gains new contours.
George R.R. Martin not only created a magisterial narrative, but an entire universe – even more, he was able to revitalize the imagery itself of the fantastic.
A Misfit World
“…my heroes and viewpoint characters are all misfits. They’re outliers. They don’t fit the roles society has for them. They’re ‘cripples, bastards, and broken things’—a dwarf, a fat guy who can’t fight, a bastard, and women who don’t fit comfortably into the roles society has for them.” George R.R. Martin – Interview for EW
It is necessary to resist the temptation of thinking that everyone read Martin’s work, or even watched the series. This is why I will describe, along general lines, the plot for all neophytes. But I believe that even those who know the “Song” by heart may find some use in the comments I am about to write here about some points of the saga.
The ‘Song” portray events which happened in the kingdom of Westeros, when it was going through not only one of its biggest social and political crises, the so-called War of Thrones, but also through another, deeper and more catastrophic crises: the reappearance of the White Walkers and their army of living corpses.
The political plot, which moves most of the characters and houses of Westeros, the Baratheons, Starks, Lannisters and Targaryens, happens right after the death of the main advisor of King Robert Baratheon, who won the throne after rebelling against the former ruler, king Aeris Targaryen, the second of his name, nicknamed The Mad King by his enemies. King Robert then summons Eddard “Ned” Stark to replace the deceased advisor and lead the royal council. Ned Stark is his old friend, Warden of the North, and had helped the king to win the Iron Throne.
But the presence of Ned Stark in the court at Westeros causes even more concerns in the realm, not only due to his sense of honor, justice, and compassion, but also because he holds in his past secrets which are crucial to the fate of the kingdom. Instead of appeasing the crisis, he ends up becoming its catalyst (or scapegoat): everything that happens in Westeros is directly or indirectly connected to his fate. And I am not talking here about a political crisis, there are also the White Walkers – and they are directly associated with Ned Stark’s ascendance.
The founder of the Stark family, Brandon, the Builder, was one of the creators of the Night’s Watch. Under his leadership, men and mythical beings got together and worked to build the Wall that protects Westeros from the White Walkers, creatures created by magic who have the ability to wake the dead and turn them into their soldiers, the army of living corpses. After this grandiose accomplishment, Brandon Stark was crowned, becoming the first King in the North.
The reign of the Starks lasted for a millennium, until they surrendered to Aegon Targaryen, who defeated them with the support of his dragons. Aegon was the first king of the Targaryen dynasty, founded King’s Landing, and forged the Iron Throne. Torhen Stark, the defeated king, placed his House at the service of the Targaryen, and, from then on, the Starks became the Wardens of the North. Eddard “Ned” Stark is a direct descendant of Brandon and Torhen, and is the current Warden of the North, a frosty and inhospitable land.
In his castle, Winterfell, Stark is surrounded by his ‘pack’: his wife, Cat, and their sons, Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran, Rickon, and the bastard Jon Snow. It is this legacy and this family that Ned carries within his heart when he accepts the request of the king and goes to King’s Landing, capital of the realm.
With the arrival of Ned Stark in King’s Landing, the crisis becomes inevitable. In the capital, political intrigues and personal resentments become even more intense. In the North, the White Walkers find a free path. Shortly before leaving to King’s Landing, the Warden of the North failed to hear the frosty whispers of the apocalypse sounding around him – to put it in a less poetic way, Ned ignored the warning of a deserter of the Night’s Watch who witnessed the reappearance of the dead: he did not believe such myths were true. His decision to leave for King’s Landing at the service of King Robert is a clear demonstration that people should not change their true battles for political bickering.
His decisions in King’s Landing, along with those he took in his youth, spark new events, which will echo throughout the saga.
Ned is the key point, the moral and existential North of this “Song”. But, in a misfit world, to carry this weight is to be, after all, the stumbling block disturbing the realm. Thanks to him, the Targaryen were not completely exterminated at the orders of King Robert Baratheon; thanks to him, House Baratheon itself has a chance to survive; thanks to him, his sons feel compelled to fight for justice in a divided realm; thanks to his warnings and his temper, the central characters know that “winter is coming”.
Just as Stark, the main characters of the saga, the ones which belong to the main houses, live their heroes’ journeys, and, precisely due to the fact that they belong to these portentous lineages, their journeys are often complicated, since, in order to break the aristocratic ego of their origins, an extra dose of suffering, anguish, and pain is needed. But do not think for a minute that the Song of Ice and Fire are only about noble warriors and their adventures: Martin also gives voice and importance to characters which in any other saga would be considered “lesser”.
As we turn the pages, we realize that, if there is any salvation for the realm in face of the imminent catastrophe, it does not depend on the great lords, but on those misfits, flawed ones, sometimes broken and maimed, who discover or recover their dignities through the course of their stories. Sor Davos, Brianne, Jorah Mormont, Samuel Tarwly, Podrick, Grey Worm, among others, are the framework of temperance, prudence, honor and charity in this misfit, Dantesque world, not because they are puritan or flawless characters, but because they are precisely those who, even though they are modest, undergo the hero’s journey, presented here stripped of its beautiful mystical reveries, and is revealed in its whole cruelty and carnality.
And if Martin often makes them weak, incoherent, worn-out, inconsistent, I always remember a line said by one of these great characters played by Al Pacino:
“Ordinary people under extraordinary pressure (…). What the hell do you expect? Grace and consistency?”
From the pages of the books to the television: the magical and sacred realm
“…of course all legitimate acts are, in a sense, just acts; because the acts prescribed by the art of the legislator are legitimate, and each of them, we say, is just.” Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
When producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss contacted George R.R. Martin to discuss an adaptation of the Song of Ice and Fire for the television, the writer had already published four books of the saga, around four thousand pages.
We all like to remember the anecdote told at the beginning of these impressions – the one about Jon Snow’s mother – but, in concrete terms, the main challenge was to make the author of the “Song” believe it was possible to adapt his work without losing its essence, even though fundamental changes occurred.
For many, such changes are unforgivable, but, if we face the situation realistically, there was simply no other way; but by detaching themselves from Martin’s work, Benioff and Weiss were not only able to advance their story (something Martin is far from doing, considering he is still two books away from the end of his Song of Ice and Fire, around 2,500 pages!), but also turn their characters into striking figures in the pop imagery on the beginning of this century.
Martin himself, who used to work previously as a TV screenwriter, in series such as “Beauty and the Beast”, in 1987, with Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton in the main roles, knew it would be impossible to take to the television the whole scope of characters, sceneries, bestial beings and narratives described in the books. Cuts and adaptations would be needed, and the most important change would be in the way the plot is narrated, the TV series adopting a more “conventional” form than the one used in the books. In his words:
“A novelist has at his hand techniques and resources which are not available for screenwriters: internal dialogues, inconsistent narrators, first and third-person point of views, flashbacks, expositive narratives, and several others. As a novelist, my effort is to put readers inside the minds of the characters, making them aware of their thoughts, allowing them to see the world through their eyes. The camera, on the other hand, remains outside the character, and its point of view is necessarily external, and not internal.”
Since its first season, the producers handled with a unique masterfulness this complicated adaptation. Whether in choosing actors, in the details of the production, in the magnificent locations portraying the kingdoms of Westeros, whether in the soundtrack behind battles, intrigues, skirmishes, and heroic acts, we are seeing something being delivered like few times we have seen in television: wonder!
To adapt the plot and voices of the books for a series with a limited number of episodes and a restricted narrative time results in a more dry plotline, but no less dramatic; it results in opting for simpler paths, but yet more surprising; it results in a vision of the story which is now more complex, in which we are able to see in its totality, its internal truth.
At first we realize more clearly that we are dealing here with characters from a fantasy universe, but that curiously do not believe in monsters, magic, or giants, nor in spirits of the woods, much less in witches, and even the goods are mere mementos of a tradition to be maintained, more due to nostalgia and remembrance than because they answer the prayers destined to them.
These are skeptical characters in a “magical realm”, who little by little begin to realize that there is something beyond their reality, “… something of a “different” order, of a reality that doesn’t belong in our world.” This something, this possibility, is nothing less than the sacred.
We can realize the sacred in two lines of the development of the narrative of the series. The first one is in the importance given to the idea of legitimacy, which expresses Justice in the realm. This is transparent in the series, and determines the events and the different narrative lines which unfold.
From the discovery of Cersei’s illegitimate sons with her brother, to the need for approval of bastard sons by their parents, which generates acts of savagery and sadism like the ones committed by Joffrey and Ramsey, to the Theon Greyjoy’s personal tragedy, the search and need for legitimacy is fundamental for George R.R. Martin and for the producers of the series.
To confirm that, one need only to remember that the two main characters in the saga, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, are not mere pretenders to the Iron Throne, but actually their true heirs. Since the beginning of the series, and especially after the events of the first season, we have come to understand the importance of that to the plot. Of all the disputes involving the War of Thrones, and as much as there are reasons for each pretender to claim his or her worthiness of this throne, the legitimacy, the Justice, is only on the side of one of these houses.
The other aspect which reveals us the presence of the sacred is that, as the seasons unfold – now disregarding everything that happens on the books – we can see that all political intrigues, all battles waged among pretenders to the Iron Throne, all deceptions to win over a castle or a domain, merely hide the terror which little by little installs itself into the heart of the characters: the fear of death embodied by the White Walkers and their army of “living corpses”.
The fear of death is what will make all characters gain, for us, a unique reality, since, after all, it is from death that we run away from every single day, it is to her that we always say no, and it is her visit, the most undesired one, that makes us all look for sense, for the sacred, in our lives.
After all, “…there will never be anything wholly secular about human fear. Man’s terror is always “holy terror”—which is a strikingly apt popular phrase. Terror always refers to the ultimates of life and death.”
By becoming aware of these nightmares threatening the kingdoms in Westeros, the characters of the saga have the chance of showing themselves bigger than their vices, sins, and resentments. It is in that final moment that we will know if there is a possibility of Good (or at least Justice) in George R. R. Martin’s misfit world.
And isn’t it the same in our real world, after all?