Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Annotation Project: A Game of Thrones

Permission to treat this book as hostile?  Like Festivus, these annotations turn into a bit of an airing of grievances, even though there’s a lot to like about this book and this series.  I’ll get into my history with the series next time.  You can download these notes as a Word file here.  As always, apologies that this series doesn’t work very well on phones. 


Sam Zucca said...

That was very well thought out, I haven't read the books in a while, but even then the conservative themes flew right by me. As for the language, this might help you out: https://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2012/04/03/the-language-of-game-of-thrones/. I'm not sure about all of the names, but at least Stark and Lannister come from the houses York and Lancaster, and 'Ser' and 'Maester' are both Middle English.

Jesse Baruffi said...

Martin doesn't come across as conservative in the modern American style of the term, at least in blog posts and other writings. I wonder if it's something inherent to the fantasy genre that tends to drive stories in that direction.

Matt Bird said...

Sam-- I did wonder. It seems Martin is using Middle English just in little bits to create a feeling of another world.

Jesse, I'm actually not surprised to find out he's not a right-winger. Martin has created a world in which compassion is always punished and ultimately pointless, but is that because he genuinely dislikes compassion (in the way that Ayn Rand does), or simply because he's a basically compassionate person, writing for compassionate readers, who wishes to torture himself and his readers for what he sees as their own and his own weakness? I eventually gave up on both the TV series and books series because I said "I'm just not masochistic enough to let him torture me anymore." I think maybe the ultimate masochist may be Martin himself, and he's written this miserable (but beautifully-written) series to punish himself.

McL said...

Does this tie into the story writing convention of "think of the worst thing to do to your character, and then do it" to create drama? And while he does punish a lot of characters for being compassionate, he does reward characters for a sense of humour, and an ability to adapt to situations, which are not conservative traits. Think of how Tyrion is one of the most beloved. He's lost things, but it looks now like he's in a good position of backing the right side, from a position of power and dignity. Aria isn't funny, but she's adapted. Varis is funny and adapts to changes well. Maybe Martin is showing not that compassion and youth are folly, but that they are up against a strong foe? One which has high costs?

Matt Bird said...

Good points, all.

metas said...

Man I would kill to get annotation like this in podcast form. I would listen to it 100 times over on a loop.
Unrelated Question: Is there a social humiliation event in Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit?
Would love to see some annotation of those books ;)

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fran said...

Although this post series is quite old, I re-discovered it yesterday after listening to your book (for the second time) and repeating to myself "but what about ASOIAF?" over and over.

ASOIAF is undoubtedly an exception when it comes to popular stories, but it is my favourite story of all times (barring a TV-show-like faceplanting ending), so I was keen on distilling the secrets of its success (either because of ---my perspective--- or despite ---your opinion--- its uniqueness).

Among other topics, I was looking forward to discussing whether your insistence that "audiences will choose (only) one character as their hero" meant every audience member would choose the same character as the overarching hero, each audience member would choose their unique overarching one, or at any given time there should be one specific hero whose perspective we follow, but this can change throughout the story. Since choral, multi-perspective stories are a staple of (epic) fantasy, I feel this is a very relevant topic to discuss for those of us who eventually want to write in the genre.

But re-reading your annotations reminded me why I kind of (silently) rage-quitted the first time around: labelling ASOIAF as a "conservative story" seems ludicrous to me. Instead of rage-quitting, though, this time I will try to argue my point (and sorry for the excessively long comment).

For disclosure, I consider myself a pretty progressive person, even for European standards. It is entirely possible that my views on this matter are tainted, refusing to see my favourite story of all times as disagreeing with my core values. That being said, before I started reading ASOIAF, my previous favourite story was The Lord of the Rings, and there is no denying that TLotR is conservative through and through (progress as a destructive force, royalty returning as saviour, etc). And despite its conservative themes, I have always loved it unapologetically.

Due to size constraints, I will post every argument in a separate reply. So sorry about this. I doubt anyone is ever going to read all the points, but if anyone does and thinks my arguments are not solid enough, I’ll be happy to discuss.

Fran said...

1.- It is an anti-war story.

As you've mentioned yourself, GRRM was a conscience objector in the Vietnam war. You argue that not having served in the military, he's climbing a steep hill because he's not writing "about what he knows". But I think you are missing the point here. He actively protested against the war. He is not writing "about war", he is writing about "the horrors of war". All throughout ASOIAF, we are shown that "when the powerful fight, the poor suffer". The fourth book is explicitly titled "A Feast for Crows" ---the result of mindless carnage---, and it clearly, graphically, describes the pointless consequences of the conflict. Even before that, Arya's storyline from A Clash of Kings onwards, including the horrors at Harrenhall, shows how innocents are caught in the middle of said clash of kings.

Fran said...

2.- Blood doesn't make might.

An argument you use in your annotations to justify your idea that ASOIAF is fundamentally conservative, is that you interpret the prologue as reflecting that "the young shouldn't rule over the old". I disagree. Maybe because I'm European, where nobility and royalty are still a thing, I see the message from the prologue (and beyond) as meaning "no one should rule over others just because they are noble-born". Waymar leads the outing not because he's young, but because he's a noble. There are plenty other youths in the Night's Watch, but he is the one put in charge because he is a Royce.

Later on, Jon starts his days at the Wall as an entitled arrogant prick, but he only succeeds when he realises he is no better than the rest. He was only privileged enough to have been trained, while others lacked such an opportunity, barely managing to make ends meet. This is a fundamentally progressive point of view. His arc all throughout the story revolves around this theme, including joining the wildlings to learn to understand them and refusing Stannis's offer to become an actual Stark and inherit Winterfell.

In addition, there are plenty examples of despicable old rulers in the story, such as Walder Frey. The problem with Joffrey and Sweetrobin is not that they are young, but that they become rulers just because of who they (supposedly) share blood with in spite of their obvious unsuitability.

Fran said...

3.- The world is all shades of grey.

I must admit I am a bit baffled by this. In one of your posts, you mention that one of the reasons you felt compelled to keep watching the TV show was because it “made no attempt, in that first season, to justify the Lannisters’ behavior,” suggesting you were looking forward to a traditional “good versus evil” narrative. When characters such as Jaime start being displayed as more sympathetic than they originally were, you find this “disturbing”.

Aside from Jaime’s redeeming arc, we also see this in other initially-despicable characters, such as the Hound or Theon. And some characters we root for have undeniably twisted traits, or at least seem to be on a corruption arc, such as Arya. You even mention that one of the most sympathetic characters is Tyrion, a grey character if there ever was one.

I would posit that traditional “pure good” versus “pure evil” stories, such as The Lord of the Rings, are much more inherently conservative than those that portray characters, both protagonists and perceived antagonists, as human beings with flaws and strengths. At least seen from the outside, the conservative movement seems to rely largely on alienating “others”, a perceived opposing group that supposedly intends to disrupt the world order. In the story, wildlings largely fulfil this role, but when we finally meet them, they are not what the characters expected. They are human beings as well, fleeing a life-threatening danger, just trying to survive, and trying to cross a Wall. Not particularly conservative, I would say.

We don’t even know if the ultimate antagonist of the series, the Others, will turn out to be “evil”, or just a force of nature without any moral one way or another. Can an earthquake be evil? A tornado? A plague of locusts?

Fran said...

4.- There are many ways of being a woman.

You suggest in your annotations that GRRM appears to equate femininity with incompetence, and that Sansa’s chapters (in AGOT, at least) demonstrate that only masculine attitudes deserve respect, stating that hers are the only “feminine POV” chapters. First of all, this is not true. Leaving aside future POV characters, in AGOT there are four perspectives from a female point of view, and of those only Arya is tomboy-ish. Cat and Danny are thoroughly feminine in a traditional way, both eventually exploring themes of motherhood.

As I will detail later, I think that the “contempt” that you seem to find in the way Sansa’s POV is written has little to do with her femininity and a lot to do with naivety. I feel she and Theon follow a similar arc, where on their first POV chapters they are portrayed as full of vanity and dreams of grandeur, but after being horribly tortured (mentally and/or physically), they embark on a painful path to find their true selves. Note that while Theon does lose his masculinity/manhood during the process, Sansa remains feminine throughout. Strong traditionally-feminine characters, such as the Tyrrell ladies, help her discover how to embrace, exploit that side of her without becoming a puppet.

There are three clear “non-conventional” women POV throughout the books: Arya, Brienne, and Asha. These display more traditionally-masculine traits. According to you, the author appears to favour these. Even if that was the case, which I don’t agree, wouldn’t that make it less conservative, not more? From a conservative point of view, gender roles should be strict, or otherwise society collapses. So, wouldn’t the author show more contempt for the non-conventional women than those that follow social norms if this was a conservative story?

Similar to point 2, I think you are conflating two themes. For me, Waymar’s description doesn’t reflect femininity, but wealth and its associated vanity. It’s not “feminine people” who shouldn’t lead, but those who reach positions of influence merely because of having been born among the already rich and powerful. (Incidentally, Sansa later recalls having met Waymar Royce and thinks about him as a handsome young man she got a crush on.)

Fran said...

5.- Magical elements are (likely) allegorical.

This is not as much a conservative/progressive divide in Europe as it is in the US, but since both the author and you are Americans, I suppose it is relevant for whether the story is fundamentally conservative. Although the number and variety of “fantastical” elements appearing in the story increases as the series progresses, the two main ones are probably the Others (Ice) and the dragons (Fire). As far as I know, GRRM has not confirmed this, but it is largely accepted among the fandom that these two elemental forces are allegories for what the author perceived as the two major existential threats to our own world: climate change (or global warming, as it was known when he started writing) and weapons of mass destruction. On the one hand, we have a thread that is lurking behind the shadows and for which some are trying to warn all society, but rulers are more concerned about their own petty squabbles; on the other hand, we have someone controlling a force that can overwhelm, subjugate or exterminate any opposition. We, as audience, want the characters to stop fighting themselves and address the thread coming from the North, and are wary of the destruction that dragons can cause if unchecked, despite rooting for Danny to succeed. For me, these are allegories of non-conservative points of view in our world (or at least the US).

Fran said...

6.- Their Old Way is not “our old way”.

You say on your annotations that Ned stating that the Stark ways are the “older ways” is “high praise” because the books are “fundamentally conservative.” I just want to point out here that Ned is referring to the traditions of the First Men, the worship of the Old Gods, which, in our world would be equivalent to paganism. The two religions that are more clearly associated with real world conservativism are the Faith of the Seven (with clear references to the Catholic church hierarchy, plus the multiple aspects of a single divinity) and the following of R’hllor (with the strict monotheistic dogma yet dualistic eternal struggle between Good and Evil, Light and Darkness, that is quintessential to Abrahamic religions). The former of these two is also established as the status quo of the continent, placing the Starks and the other Northerners as more contrarians than conservatives.

The Faith of the Old Gods, if anything, is more akin to animistic, almost “new age” beliefs, so not particularly “conservative”. (And we later learn of the horrific rituals that the “Old gods” required, so maybe not even this is shown in completely positive light --- which would make sense since GRRM is not a particularly religious person.)

Fran said...

7.- Compassion doesn't mean naivety.

I left for last what appears to me as the most convincing argument for considering ASOIAF a conservative story, at least to some degree. It is undeniable that some acts of compassion that would be rewarded in more conventional stories end having undesired, and often fatal, consequences. It is also true, or at least I want to believe it is, that compassion is a trait more often associated with non-conservative ideologies in our world. It might be tempting to conclude, then, that since the author is punishing compassionate behaviours, he is advocating for ruthless (aka “conservative”) attitudes.

I find this reasoning excessively simplistic. For once, one of the mantras of this story is that every act has consequences, intended or not. This include both compassionate and despicable acts. Joffrey and Tywin die without having been compassionate in any way. Theon and Cersei get punished because of their hubris, not compassion. Oberyn Martell dies shockingly because his thirst for revenge blinds him when he had victory in his hands. And so on.

There are also several acts of compassion that are rewarded, at least for a while (since everyone seems doomed for tragedy sooner or later). Jon spares Ygritte and she becomes her first love (with tragedy ensuing after). Brienne learns to trust Jaime, and he later comes back to save her life, launching his redemption ark. Danny frees the Unsullied and they decide to fight for her. And so on.

I feel that the perception that GRRM punishes compassionate acts comes from our pre-conception that compassionate acts must always be rewarded in fiction, so we remember when they are not. What it is often punished, both in and out of the story, is naivety. Some compassionate acts are indeed naïve, but it seems to me that equating compassion with naivety is purely a conservative perspective. As I mentioned above, both Theon and Cersei get punished because of their hubris, not because of any compassion they show. They are naïve in thinking that they are going to achieve anything they want just because they are entitled to, they are blind to everyone else’s perception of them. And they get punished for it. Yes, Ned died because of an undesired consequence of his compassion, but also because he was blinded to what other people were capable of (namely Cersei and Littlefinger) --- he was naïve.

Finally, I just wanted to point out that, even though there were many reasons for Robb’s downfall, the most obvious of them was that he decided to marry a girl to avoid shaming her --- both a compassionate and old-fashioned/conservative act all in one.