George R. R. Martin’s prose is fit for more than simple storytelling in this postmodern saga. I use the term postmodern in the sense that Martin is deliberately mixing different styles, but also his work seems self-conscious and respectful of earlier conventions. He has layered his narrative with myths and stories going as far back as antiquity, and though the medieval elements of the world he has built are evident, it is these earlier mythologies woven into the fabric of his characters that seem to tout his mastery at making a neo-medieval novel. Whether you’ve known about the series since the first book was released in 1996 or you discovered it with HBO’s Game of Thrones television series, the first installment of A Song of Ice and Fire has much to offer, and much to love, for any literary taste.
And this is why it is so wonderful. For even the snobbiest literary critic can’t deny that this work of genre fiction, or fantasy, or the more recent highbrow moniker speculative fiction is a novel for the new age. As verbose as this first book may seem (it clocks in at 298,000 words and is one of the shortest of the series), it is a festival of language and characters and settings that are mixed in such a manner as to take nothing away from the narrative. The details, in fact, enhance it at every turn. I found myself enjoying Martin’s language more than expected, and was taken with his most adept and poetic snippets of prose. I was often reminded of some of the evocative verses I’ve encountered in my studies of the classical poets.
For instance, selecting at random, something like this comes to mind, “Fireflies drifted amongst the tents like wandering stars.” The richness of this single line is undeniable, describing the Lannister encampment as Tyrion wanders alone about the tents of the twenty thousand men sworn to House Lannister. Subtle yet plain, the reader may make the leap to see Tyrion as one of those fireflies wandering aimlessly like a star, a visual that emphasizes the isolation and ridicule he faces all the time, even among the ranks of his father’s men.
But Martin also strives for poetry even in his simplest descriptions of action, such as with this passage: “They crossed at evenfall as a horned moon floated upon the river. The double column wound its way through the gate of the eastern twin like a great steel snake, slithering across the courtyard, into the keep and over the bridge, to issue forth once more from the second castle on the west bank.” The beauty of this passage lies in its vividness. First the horned moon floating on the water is an elegant way to show the reader the entire setting, the backdrop on which this scene takes place. No more need be written to evoke the calm water and the umber of the approaching night. But also the snake simile is keen for the paradox it invokes. The snake is not some enemy come to despoil the garden. Rather it is chosen to describe the parade of horses carrying Robb and Catelyn Stark, two of the narrative’s heroes, through Lord Walder’s nest. The alliteration of the snake and slithering may be taken for a cliché and yet it works because the poetic sounds of these two words side by side give pause for the contradiction Martin sets up.
So it is in the writing, yes, that this work shines brightly, but one cannot discount the brilliance of the structure of this neo-medieval saga too readily.
After moving from chapter to chapter with the main characters of this installment, the structure in fact comes together at the close of the final chapter, when the reader uncovers Daenerys with three infant dragons born of fire suckling at her breast. If it hadn’t been clear until then, Daenerys Stormborn, daughter, bride and mother of dragons, is the heroine we’ll root for when we pick up the second book in the series. But the end reminded me of the beginning and I came back again to read the first chapter. It is Bran’s narrative, but it may as well belong to Jon Snow. With the discovery of the direwolf pups, he shows the greatest sense of honor, and sacrifice, when he suggests there are as many pups as Stark children, foregoing his own position as one of Eddard’s true born sons. He claims the number of pups are a sign they belong to the five children of House Stark. And he is rewarded for his insight when he catches the sound of a sixth on the wind, one who has gone astray. The white albino pup could have been lost in the snow, but his bright red eyes are open, ready to see the world, which makes him the most fitting companion for Ned’s bastard, and Martin’s hero in the making.
The parallels between Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen have been made time and again. They are the ice and fire of the series. But I wonder how far into thinking about his world of thrones Martin realized these two similar moments of inception, and conception, make perfect bookends to the opening installment of his postmodern saga. Either way, the choice and the work are genius.
TITLE: BOOK ONE OF A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE: GAME OF THRONES
AUTHOR: George R. R. Martin
PUBLISHER: Bantam, Reprint Edition