In this post, I said that the only one of the eight POV characters that it was hard to love was Sansa, but I got good pushback in the comments, so let’s focus on different examples: Ned and Daenerys. In these cases, Martin definitely gets us to love them, but does he do so by loving them himself? Is it possible to create empathy for a character without feeling empathy for the character? This gets back to an old-post: Be a Good God. A good God is not just all-knowing and all-powerful, but also all-loving. Is Martin all-loving?
The second half of this book is all about suffering. Specifically, the good suffer and evil triumphs (except the capture of Jamie, which feels inconsequential, and indeed will turn out to be in future books). What is Martin’s point here?
- Is he just trying to be realistic? To show the way the world works? It doesn’t seem so to me, because if he was, good and evil wouldn’t be so clearly demarcated. Jamie, Cercei, and Tywin, at least in this book, seem like the sort of exaggerated mustache twirling villains one does not associate with realistic fiction.
- Or is he trying to make a moral point? Is he saying the good deserve to suffer? Is he harshly punishing naïveté and idealism because he wants us to know that these things are wrong?
In this and subsequent books, the good don’t suffer because they’re the victims of fate, they suffer because of their naïve decisions, because of their belief in goodness. Ned trusts Cercei to leave, then he doesn’t want to upset Robert before he dies, then he trusts Littlefinger to help oust Cercei. Daenerys tries to stand up for the women being raped, only to have one of them turn her husband into a zombie and her baby into a dead demon. In later books, Robb will lose everything, first by trusting Theon and then by trusting Walder Frey.
When we watch Ned getting his head chopped off from Arya’s POV or when Joffrey later taunts Sansa with that severed head, it’s hard not to use the word sadism, but is it merely the victimizers’ sadism to their victims, or Martin’s sadism to his readers? Do the readers feel masochism, and is that masochism part of the appeal of the book? (Masochism was certainly pleasurable for Masoch.)
May I indulge in some armchair psychology and speculate that Martin’s disadvantaged childhood might have caused him to be dubious of the noblesse oblige of the well-to-do? He loved Stan Lee comics, but did he come to believe that Lee’s good-triumphs-over-evil narratives were naïve and didn’t match his own put-upon experience? Did he come to posit himself as the anti-Lee, rewarding evil and punishing goodness? In the opening chapter, Martin repeatedly uses “lordling” contemptuously. Growing up did he see the other kids as lordlings, and resent the “good” ones even more than the self-interested ones?
(Some of you will say I’m being ridiculous. Martin is able to create a lot of love for his characters, so surely he must love them, and punish them with a heavy heart. This is possible.)
Does the book get away with it? Yes and no. This gets back to readers’ frustration with Martin for never finishing the series. One reason some readers are desperate to finish the series is that some continue to believe that, in the end, good will triumph over evil, despite the fact that nothing we’ve read so far has prepared us for that. It’s possible to reject the obvious moral if we can believe all will turn out for the best in the end.
And this is perhaps why he hasn’t finished, why he’s left Jon Snow bleeding out on the floor all these years. He wants to let his readers have it both ways. He will let some believe that Jon is going to pop back up and win the day, but the rest will suspect that, even if Jon survives, all will be for naught.
Some readers remain idealists, even after all that’s happened, and believe that Martin will eventually reward them and his remaining good characters. Others accept their own masochism, and warily crave more, even though they know that things will only get worse. Perhaps Martin can’t bring himself to let either side down.