More than a decade ago I published the following article on the Arclist and in the magazine “Annals of the Earth” that compared the fantasy narratives of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and George Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” which had just published it’s fourth volume and which I was advocating to my friends and associates at the time. This was long before anything was said about the series being made into a film. Martin’s imaginary world is dark and complex, without the clear definitions of good and evil presented in the worlds of Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins. It was in fact a pioneering work in the emerging genre of what was being called “adult fantasy” which meant that it has an uncomfortable resemblance to the actual world we inhabit.
Before television’s recent so-called ‘golden age’ and the rise of the cable series franchise a work that did justice to Martin’s expansive vision would have indeed been impossible. The success and emerging dominance of the extended narrative form has bridged the gap between the literary form of the novel and the realm of visual storytelling.
As much as I regarded George R. R. Martin’s work as the best in it’s genre I could not have anticipated the phenomenal success of the HBO series “Game of Thrones” based on, and now actually extending the cycle of narratives taking place in the Imaginary world of Westeros and lands to East. Not only has the series succeeded as the most ambitious cinematic production ever attempted for television, it has become a cultural meme that dominates whole sections of bookstores, is referred to in political and cultural commentaries and taken over vast sectors of Internet culture.
In the piece I wrote in 2005 my argument was that, as “Lord of the Rings” represented the ‘climactic’ work of an age dominated by literature and the rise of industrial technology. As a cinematic production it made more extensive use of digital technology than anything that came before and thus it marks the transition from a primarily mechanical/chemical/industrial process of filmmaking into an almost entirely electronic medium. “The Song of Ice and Fire” is a ‘formative’ work that announces the birth of a new ecology of consciousness and communication. It is produced entirely within the digital medium of television and not for theaters, so it represents a further step into a more intimate form of storytelling. I believe that my argument is supported by the immense popularity of this cultural artifact that crosses the generations from those of us raised by television onto the new denizens of a ‘digital’ age.
It will be enlightening to further explore the particular qualities that have elevated George R. R. Martin’s tale far beyond the boundaries of fantastic literature. To start with I’ll republish here, slightly edited for clarity, the original article entitled “Winter Is Coming.”
Meanwhile, there are weekly “Game of Thrones” parties everywhere.
Begin forwarded message:
From: Ralph Melcher <email@example.com>
Subject: [Arclist] Winter Is Coming
Date: November 1, 2005 at 8:35:09 PM MST
To: Arclist <Arclist@cybermesa.com>
I look forward this fall to the release of “A Feast For Crows,” the fourth book by George R. R. Martin in his cycle of medieval modern fantasy epics collectively titled “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Martin, perhaps immodestly, displays the same middle initials as J.R.R.Tolkien, while departing radically from Tolkien in his construction of a world based as much on history as on myth. (England’s “War of the Roses” provided inspiration for a tale of two battling royal families) Where Tolkien weaves an apocalyptic tale of a Manichaean clash between ultimate good and evil in which most of his characters appear more as classical archetypes than familiar people, Martin’s narrative proceeds through revelation of the evolving perceptions of a cast of very recognizable human characters. In Tolkien’s world every character’s move is the culmination of larger forces with origins deep in the mythical history to which he dedicated his creative life. As massive and ambitious as his popular masterpiece “The Lord of the Rings,” it was a small piece in a much larger and more ambitious tapestry that traced the mythical prehistory of humanity all the way back to the time of creation. George Martin’s intentions are modest in comparison, that is to tell a good yarn with engaging characters recognizable by modern readers. As different as these works appear, they each represent significant milestones in the evolution of a literary genre, as well as exposing the underlying foundations of the cultures out of which they emerge.
The cultural historian William Irwin Thompson, in his many explorations into cultural ecology, presents a critique of literature as cultural artifacts, in which there are three stages of that correspond to the unfolding of consciousness. The kinds of text that define particular stages in this model are the formative, dominant and climactic. “The formative work enters into a new ecological niche of consciousness through the work of solitary and shamanistic pioneers; the dominant work stabilizes the mentality through the work of an institutional elite; and the climactic work consummates and finishes the mentality for all time through the work of an individualistic genius.” (2)
Although Thompson cites James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” as most clearly epitomizing the climactic work of the (last) age, I would argue that Tolkien’s epic more clearly and definitively fills that niche for a number of reasons, not least of which is it’s spectacular success as a genuine artifact of mass culture. Tolkien lived and wrote his myth while witnessing the titanic struggles of a century defined by the rising power of technology and industrialization. In opposition to the dominance of machine culture he identified with attempts to maintain some vestige of traditional memory and culture. The author was clearly conscious of the scope of the intent to summarize an age. He states in a quote, cited by David Day, “I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country (England): it had no stories of its own, not of the quality that I sought, and found in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish; but nothing English, save impoverished chapbook stuff…I had in mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story…which I would dedicate simply to England; to my country.”(3)
David Day goes on to compare Tolkien’s undertaking as the equivalent of Homer first inventing Greek mythology single handedly before embarking on the “Illiad” and “Odyssey”. His argument is founded in a rather culture centric idea that England was the fount and seed carrier for much that reflected the transition from the medieval European world of moral absolutism to a transatlantic culture that worshiped progress and modernity. Tolkien’s work is reflected in it’s ambition by that of Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle,” which was a similar attempt to both crown and transcend the operative form. “The Lord of the Rings” is a text that depicts in markedly Christian terms the final battle between good and evil, in which an agrarian civilization faces down the rising power of the machine. After many heroic struggles humanity emerges forever transformed, while the ancient powers and principalities of an older time are either defeated or simply fade away. Tolkien both sums up the moral landscape of a pre-modern civilization while proclaiming its ultimate replacement by a new world order in which the heroic tribal quest ultimately leads to a new bourgeois world of trade and acquisition governed by new rules and individual initiative. At the end of the tale, the heroes disappear in the west while Merry and Sam and Pippin take up the settled life of the Shire.
What better characterization of the historical nature of the twentieth century, where ancient tribal mythologies mingled with the ascending powers of technocracy and fueled the rise of new orders and empires that clashed in climactic conflagrations that involved the entire civilized world? Ultimately, at the end of two massive wars the nation state was subdued by a new order embodied in globalized commerce and transnational communication, where the centers of power were continually challenged and then overtaken by explosive evolutionary forces generated near the boundaries of the known. At the the century’s transition a reaction has set in as people seek retreat in familiar rules and in texts of a world that is rapidly passing away. Tolkien’s fantasy wistfully recounts the passing of a time when the simple desire for comfort, family and the hearth, represented by the hobbits of the shire, was sufficient. The ‘War of the Ring’ represents nothing less than our collective passage into a new age and a new order where values must be forged anew with little assistance from the guardians of the past.
Tolkien’s work portrays in many ways the rise and final conflagration put forth in the Judeo-Christian paradigm of creation and apocalypse. His work that invents cultures, races and language echoes the birth and rise of nation states. As in the Christian mythos, all things proceed toward a final apocalypse that results in the ascension of the savior-king as ruler of a new order and at least a temporary peace governed by principals of honor, charity and love.
If, as Thompson proposes, the solitary and shamanistic explorations of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and “The Tempest,” Cervantes’s “Don Quixote,” and Descartes’s “Discourse on Method,”(4) created the formative texts of the new mentality that replaced the medieval Mediterranean with the modern Atlantic cultural ecologies, then Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” surely fills the bill for “the work of an individualistic genius” which characterizes a climactic work that “consummates and finishes the mentality for all time.” Interesting as well is the fact that Tolkien’s tale truly came into its’ own as a work that achieved mass popularity when it was turned into a movie; and not just any movie, but one that marked the transition from film as primarily an optical/mechanical artifact at the pinnacle of the industrial process, to the fully realized digital creation of total worlds out of the imagination.
George Martin’s novels can be seen in this light as a preliminary shamanic exploration into a new level of culture. Its’ structure owes more to television than to the classic film or novel. Martin began his career writing television scripts for popular shows like “The Twilight Zone” and “Outer Limits.” The importance of his background in television perhaps can be found in the quality of the epic feature film, where background is as much a character as the actors within the frame. Television, due to its intimacy as a virtual presence in the modern household as well as the size and shape of the screen (a limitation growing obsolete), has evolved around the close-up, or talking head. Television narratives are generally driven by a succession of character portraits which emphasize individual points-of-view, and which change rapidly from one to another in a sequence of abrupt cuts.
Martin similarly unfolds his epic tale in a sequence of intimate character sketches functioning like a sequence of various camera positions. Every chapter is named for a single character, and as the narrative proceeds our feeling for each character deepens with each mention of their name. The books could actually be read as a score of separate tales, each about separate characters, all woven together through a tapestry in time. In a sense, Martin’s story begins where Tolkien’s leaves off, in an age dominated by men, where evil and virtue are no longer the province of externalized forces embodied by magical beings, but carried in the heart and mind of every individual. One could say that “The Song of Ice and Fire” is a postmodern fantasy, where the battle between good and evil is played out in the choices each person makes in a moment of crisis based on their own unique perception of right and wrong. Yet, underlying the human drama and giving it ultimate shape is a much larger unfolding, determined not by good and evil, darkness and light, but by the immense and irrevocable powers of the natural world. The destinies of men are less a factor of their own moral virtue than the result of the ultimate relationship between society and the complex and inevitable cycles of summer and winter.
In the world of Westeros the timing of the seasons is unpredictable, every summer lasting more than a decade followed by an equally long cold winter. In a sense the summer fosters the powers of the day while winter brings forth the demons of the night. These cycles are long enough that generations forget the fact that all that is will inevitably change. The ultimate lesson to be learned is that the castles and kingdoms built by men are only as strong as their memories for, although the precise timing is unpredictable there are plenty of signs and warnings for those who can remember. It’s on this stage of the inevitable cycles of the natural world that the dramas and struggles of human society are waged, and we are made conscious that the quest for temporal power meets final judgment in the face of what is to come. If there is ultimate virtue it’s in the value people place on wisdom and long term vision over short term ambition and greed.
Two families epitomize the poles of this very human struggle. In the north are the Starks of Winterfell, whose family motto is “Winter is Coming.” Their demeanor is conservative, their colors white and grey, their values shaped by necessity and tradition. In the south, near the colorful fountains of trade and culture and civilization is the ‘Iron Throne.’ There dwells the Lannisters, hungry for wealth and power and jealous of all those who would challenge their rule over the lands of men. Within this tale the common order of classical heroic fantasy is followed more or less faithfully, as the outsiders in both families emerge as heroic figures in the story which unfolds. When the seasons begin to change, awakening long forgotten dangers out of the northern wastes, and as another force driven by fire and signaled by the rebirth of dragons rises in the south, one gets a sense that the synthesis of human aspirations with the seemingly implacable forces of transition can only be found by those less invested in things as they are.
As I look on at the absurd struggles raging across our lands in a time when a future filled with the present and looming crisis of war, pandemics, climate change, water shortage, overpopulation and the rest, I find the Stark motto, “Winter Is Coming,” to be a succinct characterization of the realities we collectively face in our world, as a species and a civilization. Many of us are outsiders with little at stake in the petty power struggles of politicians and our so-called leadership. We find ourselves in a shamanic role, as observers on the periphery of social events, living in a reality that challenges the assumptions of powers-that-be, transcending the narrow limits of an obsolete world-view. Tolkien’s magnificent epic leaves us with a challenge, to face the future as moral and responsible human beings, without the crutch of certainty provided by ancient texts and ancient prophecy. We are in a new world after all. George R. R. Martin offers a rather dire tale of the consequences of short sightedness while giving us hope that we may find a way, as we always have, through new leadership and pragmatic vision. Our constant temptation is to dwell on what we lack, and to be trapped in a struggle that keeps us bound to a world that is passing away. Our salvation lies not in belief but in clarity, and our faith must be found not in the past but in the future.
1. Martin, George R. R. Martin’s cycle: A Song of Ice and Fire, includes: A Game of Thrones (1996), A Clash of Kings (1999), A Storm of Swords (2000) and A Feast for Crows (2005).
2. Thompson, William Irwin, Coming Into Being: Artifacts and Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness, St. Martin’s Press, 1996 (p. 233).
3. Day, David, Tolkien: The Illustrated Encyclopedia, Simon & Schuster, 1993.
4. Thompson, William Irwin, Coming Into Being. St. Martin’s Press, 1996 (p. 143).
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