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Reflecting on A Game of Thrones, the book that spawned a global obsession


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As the final season of Game of Thrones draws to a close, it seems apt to look back on the source material of that television series.

And so, we go back to the very beginning - to A Game of Thrones, book one of George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy cycle A Song of Ice and Fire, first published more than two decades ago in 1996.

Image credit: Bago Games via Flickr

But first, a confession. I was late to this particular game; it was only two years ago that I caught up on the TV series from the beginning, and until now I had never read any of the books. And even now, whilst the final ever episodes of the show air, I have still only read the first volume of Martin’s series. So, I am looking at the book with fresh eyes, refracted through my (only recent) familiarity with the TV programme.

Whilst the show has overtaken the books in recent years (and for some, particularly as this relates to the final series, this has proven a bitter disappointment) the earlier seasons were pretty much straight adaptations of Martin’s work (and he himself wrote episodes for the first four seasons of the show). As I was reading A Game of Thrones, hazy memories of the first series intruded upon my mind. I saw the characters as they were in the TV show, even when Martin’s descriptions of them differed to the on-screen versions. Nonetheless, one cannot help but feel that the TV series was at its best when relying heavily on the source material, for Martin’s original version of this saga of war over the Iron Throne and distant undead threats, at least as far as my experience goes, is masterful.

Martin undoubtedly owes a great debt to Tolkien but, while this is valid, it is also the case that A Game of Thrones is very much anti-Tolkienian fantasy. Martin weaves history, world-building, myth, and magic into his narrative, which is never short of absorbing and easy to read despite its length and density. This is Tolkien’s legacy; where Martin differs, of course, is in the dark realism of his world.

He describes Daenerys Targaryen’s sexual relations with the Dothraki warrior Khal Drogo and the abuse she suffers at the hands of her vile brother Viserys; he weaves in vulgarity which one would never find in Tolkien; action and battle are described in grisly detail, the horrors of war and violence laid bare instead of seen through a romantic, courtly prism; many of the characters are bitter, torn outsiders, like the bastard Jon Snow and the dwarf Tyrion Lannister.

In Westeros, handsome, golden knights like Jaime Lannister are in fact traitorous schemers, who engage in crimes like incest - and are willing to murder children to keep their secrets secret. Wise old men like Grand Maester Pycelle are in fact, lecherous cowards. War is not glorious or romantic but disorientating and horrific.

The romantic idealism of Sansa Stark, who sees in Joffrey Baratheon (really the bastard son of Jaime and his sister Cersei) handsomeness and gallantry, is shattered by hard reality; Joffrey is truly sadistic and vile, and the royal court is not all poetry and music so much as intrigue and betrayal; Petyr Baelish, or Littlefinger, and the eunuch spymaster Lord Varys, who hides his cunning beneath a soft exterior, are the true faces of this world. Sansa learns this the hard way, as she watches her father Eddard killed by Joffrey’s lackey Ilyn Payne. This latter is a seminal moment- not often does fantasy, or much fiction for that matter, kill off its central protagonists so suddenly and shockingly.

In short, Martin’s world is a negation of King Arthur, Tolkien, and the rest. The magic is on the sideline, confined to the eastern lands and the barren, icy, wintery world beyond the Wall. Courtly romance is a myth under which rotten reality festers. The honourable characters like Ned Stark are killed precisely because of their honour, which is no shield against the ruthlessness of the ambitious Lannisters. Ice and fire, death and blood, haunt these pages- and the book ends as the stage is set for an epic confrontation between several contenders for the Iron Throne.  

And yet one is compelled to keep reading because Martin writes so well. He has clearly worked out in great, indeed exquisite, detail the history, politics, religions, and cultures of this world. It feels utterly real, even when the supernatural does impinge on events. Each chapter is told through the point of view of a different character, taking us to wildly different places both geographically and temporally, and different events are seen through many pairs of eyes. One example: the death of Ned Stark is felt at its rawest when the point of view is of one of his children. But when seen through the eyes of Tyrion Lannister it is merely an unfortunate political misstep, condemning the Lannisters to continue their war with the Starks, led by Ned’s heir Robb, who proves himself worthy of his father on the battlefield.

But for all this, thematic coherence - concerning betrayal, lost innocence, hard choices, honour, the repetition of history, the importance of family and culture, hidden meanings in signs and symbols, brutal reality versus romantic idealism, and much else besides is kept intact. Martin is a master at keeping several complex, interweaving plotlines and thematic threads in hand as the narrative advances and shifts. The book is absorbing - impossible to put down, to use a cliché if I may be forgiven. The book’s imagery, symbolism, and foreshadowing are rich and rewarding to decipher, keeping one’s mind focused and alert to the nature of this world and the story. Despite being 780 pages long it feels much shorter, and I am quite certain I shall shortly be reaching for book two, A Clash of Kings.

So, take heart if you are one of those disappointed with the paths taken by the TV series; the books are still there in all their glory, thousands of pages worth, not including spin-offs and prequels, and Martin is yet to complete the series - and you would be missing out not to read at least A Game of Thrones, the very first in an epic cycle of stories, to which I have barely been able to do justice here, by a writer of quite unequalled talent for tale-telling and world-building.

Lead image: Bago Games via Flickr

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