For much of my life I was baffled by the urge to proselytize. I am not particularly religious; I was raised in the Lutheran faith, and the general sense I had growing up was that we had some Good News, but we weren’t necessarily going to go bothering people about it, a la the Baptists or the Mormons or (if you have money) the Scientologoresticians. As I grew older, I, like any thinking person, developed beliefs and preferences and ideas about how the world should work, but these posts aside, I’ve never really seen the point about bothering anyone with them.
(Sidebar: when I was younger I went hiking with my family which at the time, I recall, comprised my mother, her parents, and my brother. I, having generally neutral feelings about nature, was not stopping to smell the roses too terribly often and, eventually, I made my way to the front of the line and then beyond the front of the line, out of sight and awareness of my family. At some point there was a path off the main trail that I took, blithely unaware that this was not the direction I should be going, and eventually I became dimly aware that my family was nowhere to be found. I bumbled back onto the main path and fell in with another group of hikers, eventually finding my way back to the staging area where our car was, as both ends of the trail met there. Meanwhile, my family, beside themselves with worry, had no idea where I was, and a search was underway, complete with helicopter. I remember, at the time, wondering what all the fuss was about; after all, I knew where I was, and I was fine. It now occurs to me that this story may be a useful metaphor for my feelings about organized religion.)
That is, until George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, in particular the HBO adaptation of same, got popular and I found myself feeling like a genre fiction hipster. Martin was (and is, I suppose, since they’re still coming out) the editor of the Wild Cards series, a group of books in a shared universe (which were a big thing in the ’80s and ’90s; think Star Wars, or Marvel comics, except no one has ever heard of them) that document an outbreak of an alien virus on post-World War II Earth; said virus gives some people super powers, disfigures many more (while possibly also giving them token super powers) and kills even more than that. The books are way problematic and hard to recommend without a boat-load of caveats, but Martin’s characters were funny and I dug the couple of books in the series he wrote himself, so based on that I picked up A Game of Thrones soon after its publication (in other words, before it was cool, as if there is anything cool about being on the cutting edge of elfbooks).
The shocking M. Night Shyamalan twist that you may not have guessed if you read the title of this post is that I liked it. Really liked it, in fact. I totally loved Tyrion and totally hated Sansa and I was rooting for Jon and was really upset about Ned (spoiler alert! Also when is Sean Bean, whose name should really rhyme with Sean John, going to live to the end of a fantasy epic?) These are not the bitter nerd tears of someone who just doesn’t get it; these are the bitter nerd tears of someone who came to realize, gradually, that he grew out of something that now everyone is into.
Why did I grow out of it? It’s hard to say. The last book I read was A Storm of Swords, a book that contains, among other things, the infamous Red Wedding, i.e. the thing that everyone who was watching the show and hadn’t read the books was freaking out about a few weeks ago. I don’t remember throwing the book down in disgust; in fact, I remember not feeling much of anything. To Martin, his groundbreaking dispatching of one of his protagonists at the end of AGoT was a warning for his readers. No character is safe! Anyone you care about could die at any time! To which my response was, “well, in that case I’ll stop caring.” At that point the books became an academic exercise, and when the Red Wedding hit, I wasn’t shocked. I was bored.
I also, as I grew older, became more and more disenchanted by the series’ vaunted grittiness. Part of the appeal of the series for its fans is its stark contrast to the rest of the fantasy field at the time; Martin’s Westeros has very little use for many of the stereotypical trappings of the genre, with very little magic, none of the typical Tolkienien fantasy races one finds in so many derivative works, and more of a focus on political conflicts and intrigue (and, as Sady of Tiger Beatdown points out, plenty of sexual assault, some of it on underage victims). It is, after all, a series where one of the first things to happen to one of the protagonist’s children was for that child to get pushed out a window after he witnessed brother-on-sister incest. The problems with this are twofold.
One, grittiness and violence already existed in the fantasy genre. Glen Cook has been writing about the Black Company since the early ’80s, and the first book of Gene Wolfe’s bleak distant-future epic The Book of the New Sun was published at the start of that same decade, and Robert E. Howard, even further back than that, was telling stories about a certain man who had a few gritty-sounding assertions about what was best in life. To be fair, fantasy in the ’90s was seemingly dominated by The Wheel of Time, a multi-volume high fantasy series featuring an ever-growing stable of protagonists with plot immunity, which ASoIaF could be seen as an answer to, and both approaches are certainly valid, but the notion that Martin was filling some previously-unfilled hole with the fruits of his imagination isn’t quite the case.
Two, the sex (consensual or otherwise), violence and moral ambiguity of the citizens of Westeros strives for maturity and ends up seeming juvenile. I don’t have some puritanical stance against sex and violence in fiction, but I think its use should be carefully deployed. Consider another HBO series, The Wire, where every fallen body contributes to the narrative and the message. Some are symbolic, some serve to highlight and deepen character motivation for the survivors, and all underscore a message about who is truly getting ahead in America (hint: it isn’t the poor). Death in Westeros is a way of keeping score in the Who’s Got the Throne game. That’s not to say that Martin isn’t playing a longer game. The body count and unsettling underage sex may be building to a larger message, and it may be churlish and unfair for me to write off the series on the basis of the first three books. I would, however, argue that if I decide, three books (and substantially lengthy books, I might add) into a series, that said series is not for me, I have enough information to make an informed judgment on the matter. More to the point, I find myself bothered by the series’ newfound popularity in context with much of what other stories are being told.
We are in a Golden Age of television, but it’s also the era of the anti-hero, and an age where there are very few unambiguously heroic figures in fiction. This piece at Comics Alliance on Man of Steel underscores how discouraging it can be when one assumes that every protagonist must have feet of clay. “Why do we fall? So we can pick ourselves up again,” says Thomas Wayne in Batman Begins. We seem, as a society, to be preoccupied with the fall, with stories about deception and self-destruction. I’m not arguing that those stories don’t have a place, but it troubles me that those stories seem to be the most popular, to the point that it feels like they’re the only ones being told, and that most of those tellings don’t have a purpose. We’re being told, over and over, that goodness is impossible, that virtue is punished, that lies win the day over truth. Even Batman was allowed to ride into the light.
Bad things are allowed to happen in a story, but if your story is only bad things, to the exclusion of all else, as I feel ASoIaF is, then I lose interest. The series ceased being unique or mature and I moved on to other things, things that didn’t make me feel like I needed a hot shower after reading or seeing them. I recently described reading the books to be like reading a slow suicide, and I stand by it. I’m getting less cranky about it; I’m willing to allow that people enjoy it. My hope, ultimately, is that it will lead to people reading other things, different, more positive things; my fear is that it will spawn a horde of nihilistic imitators, and that the fantasy genre, in print and on film and television, is going to be eating its own tail for quite some time. Either way, I cut through the woods, and now I’m at the end of the trail, wondering what all the fuss is about.