I spent quite a while staring at the blank screen in front of me to come up with a fitting estimation of A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. Should I compare it to the classic Lord of the Rings for its impressively epic scope? Would it be best to focus on the honest, often painful humanity of the many characters — so rare in a fantasy novel — that personalizes each point of view? Perhaps I could impress some readers here with the sheer brilliance of a plot that weaves so many seemingly disparate stories together to form a believable alternate universe in which not only politics, intrigue, war, adventure, and romance can coexist plausibly, but magic as well. And philosophy, or course. How could I do such a work justice? How could I do just that? Hmm?
George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series is one of those series that, as someone who from time to time inhabits libraries and bookstores, seemed to saunter off the shelves. Back in June 2012, in the wake of the television series, friends and acquaintances rave about the telly program, and as I watched the first few episodes of the first season, suspected that the books might be a bit beyond my literary tastes. Said folks then explained to me their favorite bit was the part where the horsey’s SPOILER got SPOILERED with a big thrusting SPOILER.
(This attempt at a review may contain spoilers).
Enthusiasm for equine decapitation aside, I found out that Game of Thrones (the TV version) brought an already popular book series to an even larger audience. This is a good thing. Quite often when novels are this popular they are described as stepping stones towards bigger and better things (this is the most positive spin many can put on a series such as Twilight or, gulp, Fifty Shades of Gray: “Well, now they’re reading that, they might end up reading something good”. A Song of Ice and Fire, or at least A Game of Thrones, is considered to be one of the bigger and better things.
Naturally, I am well aware that literary taste is similar in many ways to one’s taste in food: what one finds too bland, another finds too spicy. I am also mature enough to recognize that what I dislike might be liked (even loved) by others and that there might be merit in such things. Of course, I do not subscribe to a literary subjectivism — more so, not to an aesthetic subjectivism — so I do not accept that literary discussions end after one has expressed one’s like or dislike. As such, I will endeavor to present a rough discussion of what the fuss is all about.
The first book in a series of fantasy novels along this storyline was a worthy read. It is difficult for me to effectively convey what I actively liked about the book without pointing out where I thought it could be vastly improved. The strengths of this book, I suppose, are in its very compelling, epic-style story, its grand design, with believable characters who possess human levels of trial and error wisdom. Here’s my only beef: The novel contains some great characters. But why, why in the world does this author throw forty of them at the reader at once? I know, I know… He has four other books to help flesh out the ones who aren’t killed by the end of the first book. Martin can’t be accused of not having main characters — he does, about seven or eight of them, and I liked his style of giving us a look into them all. My issue was with the continual need for him to throw in a couple dozen more, all at once, and expect you to suddenly understand what the impact of their vague existence is, when they do something plot-connected later on.
If you’re an ADD-style reader like me, you won’t even remember who’s who a few chapters later, when the son of the cousin of the deposed king’s vassal’s daughter says fatal words that affect main characters he’s never interacted with. Sounds confusing? It certainly can be. It’s grueling to sit through histories of fringe characters that we’re supposed to be concerned about, but that are easily confused with their relatives, or other fringe characters of a similar name. Some of these characters have nicknames, too, and Martin, more than occasionally, changes which name he’s using for the same person in mid-paragraph. It’s trivial, I know, but these were the moments in the novel that were like, ugh.
On the brighter side of things, while reading through the series, I kept thinking to myself “Hey, this world has real political and philosophical dilemmas?” I do not know which specific concepts were implicated, but if ever a story was ripe for philosophical analysis, this book is. In Westeros and beyond the Narrow Sea, Martin’s fantasy world is filled with dozens of complex characters in conflict with themselves and others, facing self-doubt, moral hazard, deception, uncertainty, hubris, and social and political unrest. While the Seven Kingdoms have been plunged into war, beyond the Wall, the horrors of winter are coming. And far away, a young queen wrestles her destiny as she journeys to reclaim her home. If you have background on some philosophy, you can draw on the works of Machiavelli, Descartes, Augustine, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Nietzsche, and perhaps many other philosophers to analyze key characters and plotlines while exploring themes of war, honor, knowledge, morality, gender politics, and more.
When discussions about sexism in Game of Thrones (the HBO series) sprouted here and there, I noticed a trend on friends’ Facebook status messages and commentary threads where a number of posts seemed to be denigrating the series for advocating the ethical theories of Thomas Hobbes. Sadly, what this ultimately means is that George R. R. Martin is inculcating a deep-rooted adherence to such morals in today’s impressionable “hipster” younglings.
I know. It’s devastating isn’t it?
Let’s assume, for a second, that we’re all Hobbes novices. Thomas Hobbes is an English philosopher who is probably most famous — or infamous — for his phrase “…and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (Leviathan, 1651, not to be confused with the excellent 2000 AD comic of the same name (though that’s your next holiday reading sorted). Often, his ideas get misrepresented as advocating brutish and short lives as the “natural condition of mankind.” Instead, Hobbes believes this to be an accurate portrayal of mankind’s nature, which is why people adhere to social contracts (ceding some rights in return for protection from a governing body) in order to avoid a crippling struggle.
Obviously no one wants to hang out with folks wanting to believe in, live up to, or practice the writings of a seventeenth century philosopher. That would be dreadful. It’s also been one of the consistent trends of fashion that absolutely no one ever announces things like: “Well, I’m going to strictly adhere to Hegelian ethics. You can stuff Adam Smith up your arse.”
Ethical philosophical theories, especially in the realm of meta-ethics, do not hold sway over a great many of the populace. This is because, when it comes to philosophers constructing and analyzing them, practical application is of secondary concern. Like modern art or Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy, ethical theory is largely abstract, self-congratulatory, and entertaining to a few. Attacking a book or television show with reference to a specific ethical theory seems like a niche approach to castigation, especially when it could be argued that A Song of Ice and Fire reflects the work of Nazi-influencing Friedrich Nietszche instead. So far I have not met anyone watching the TV adaptation who have picked up on any ideals of Master Race supremacy, being more concerned with the neighs splats bludgeons rapes dies sections.
Until a book becomes moving pictures, any moral issue with it doesn’t seem to reach national press levels, because it shows these contentious issues to a wider audience. The “show, don’t tell” rule is especially pertinent when it comes to immoral acts. If you show the act, but don’t tell anyone what to think about it, the fact that an author or film-maker hasn’t clanged down a big sign saying “and this is bad” is tantamount to advocation. There’s a strange, momentum-gaining hysteria that wreaks havoc with reasoned arguments.
For example, when confronted with something morally repugnant, some people automatically use the word “glamorize.” Trainspotting is another book accused of glamorizing dubious behavior. I haven’t finished reading the said book, but 100 pages in it and it’s easily one of the least glamorous books ever written. The transition to moving pictures seems to exacerbate this phenomenon, as if having a cool soundtrack is going to persuade people to take heroin over the tenuous negative of a dead baby crawling across the ceiling.
Irvine Welsh uses multiple narrators in Trainspotting. George R. R. Martin’s use of multiple third person point-of-view narratives isn’t being used to make the reader agree with something, for example, a Lannister does, but to make them understand why they do it. His main characters are nobles and associates, not everyday folk. If there were Wombles in Westeros they would have to cope with a metric fucktonne of stuff left behind, assuming they hadn’t been desecrated and burned first. The notion that, without protection from the Iron Throne, the land falls into an every-man-for-himself struggle does echo the ideas laid down in Leviathan.
If you disagree with Leviathan then obviously this means it is advocating a flawed code of ethics. Anarchists could possibly be annoyed at the perceived advocating of the social contract, but really, if they’re trying to persuade people to live outside of a political system, A Song of Ice and Fire is not their most pressing problem. There are, ethically, worse crimes than saying some sort of governing body prevents chaos.
Advocating a philosophical theory is not something that is going to drastically alter many people’s lives. The Bible has both immoral and moral passages according to contemporary secular thought (this idea existed before Alain de Botton smugged it around like a cloud of raw guff). It doesn’t mean that the book itself is an inherently immoral book (and, for those who defend aspects of Game of Thrones due to its medieval setting, can’t the worst passages of The Bible be defended based on the time it was written in?) The difference is, of course, that there aren’t two billion people adhering to a Hobbesian worldview because they’ve read the books of George R.R. Martin.
From a purely technical point-of-view, a subtext is good. From a moral point-of-view, it depends on what that subtext is. A Song of Ice and Fire might very well deliberately echo Leviathan. Let’s not kid ourselves that this could hugely influence people in a negative way. Twilight plays up its fairy tale rapist aspect as romantic wish-fulfilment (like Todd Akin had decided to make a Snow White movie). It seems intuitively a more damaging a message to convey. You get national campaigns to raise awareness of domestic abuse, but nothing about “one in four people have been affected by the writings of David Hume.” People don’t complain about the Wittgenstein jokes in Family Guy.
The fact that a lot of intelligent people like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey suggests that subtext isn’t a huge influence on most people’s reading habits. What’s going to sound better: “Hey, there’s this really romantic book where this girl falls in love with a vampire” or “It’s about how women should abandon all their ambitions and enslave themselves into a child-bearing marriage after some unbelievably violent sex”?
Normal, average readers don’t care about subtext. If they did, we’d have to have separate charts for ‘Reading for Enjoyment’ and ‘Reading it to Check it was Definitely as Awful as I Thought It Would Be’. If I’m going into a book looking for subtextual meaning, I’d rather pick up on references to ethical theories than sexually regressive insinuations. Because there definitely aren’t any of them in A Game of Thrones.
In conclusion, most people just want to be entertained.