I’ve loved this series forever. I remember having long discussions with a coworker about how Cersei changes through the series, remember my trepidation at the idea of a tv series and my joy at the casting of Peter Dinklage – and of Sean Bean. (“But – Ned – Oh, damn. Not again.”)
It’s a different experience reading this now, more than ten years and a tv series later. More than with the Lord of the Rings – because I read LotR more often, or because there’s been more of HBO’s GoT – it’s harder to separate the extraordinary cast of the show from the extraordinary characters on the page (“No, Martin, you’re wrong! That’s not what Jorah looks like!”) But it’s still so, so good.
(I’m going to do my best not to do any kind of point by point comparison between series and book (not yet, anyway – later books, maybe); I’m just going to complain about one thing and leave it alone. “The banner of the Starks of Winterfell: a grey direwolf racing across an ice-white field”. That’s not how it is in the series (it’s a snarling wolf’s head on a grey background), and I wish they’d got it right. Okay, I’m done. Pretty much.) (All right, one more: “Stone was a bastard’s name in the Vale, as Snow was in the north, and Flowers in Highgarden; in each of the Seven Kingdoms, custom had fashioned a surname for children born with no names of their own.” That makes a great deal more sense than the show’s habit of, iirc, using “Snow” for all bastards.)
The first thing that struck me, hard, was how obscenely young everyone was here at the beginning of the tale. The book is filled with children. Theon is nineteen, Jon and Robb both fourteen. Fourteen! And so is Margaery. Bran Stark and Tommen Baratheon are seven, Arya nine, Sansa eleven, and Joffrey twelve. Dany is thirteen. (Hell, Ned Stark is only thirty-five.) (Lyanna was only sixteen.) This, in somebody else’s hands, this would mean modern YA fiction, or – what’s the silly term for it? New Adult? Tween? This would mean something like “Jon Snow is an unloved boy with martial training – he finds a home and a place and people to love him at Castle Black, where his skills are appreciated!” “Arya is a tomboy who chafes at embroidery lessons – she secretly learns the sword and saves the day in the end!” Things like that.
But this is George R.R. Martin, so – yeah: no. Even people who have never read a word or watched the HBO adaptation probably know that GRRM is not a kind writer, not to his characters and not to his readers. None of the characters ever are allowed to skate by based on what or who they know (or if they do, it doesn’t last long): “A boy you are, and a boy you’ll remain until Ser Alliser says you are fit to be a man of the Night’s Watch.”
Not-kindness, case in point: “…Beyond this point the tombs were empty and unsealed; black holes waiting for their dead, waiting for him and his children. Ned did not like to think on that.”
And: “‘Lord Eddard had a brother named Brandon as well,’ Jaime mused. ‘One of the hostages murdered by Targaryen. It seems to be an unlucky name.'”
And: “Jon climbed the steps slowly, trying not to think that this might be the last time ever.”
And: “‘I wanted him to stay here with me,’ Lady Stark said softly. Jon watched her, wary. She was not even looking at him. She was talking to him, but for a part of her, it was as though he were not even in the room. ‘I prayed for it,’ she said dully. ‘He was my special boy. I went to the sept and prayed seven times to the seven faces of god that Ned would change his mind and leave him here with me. Sometimes prayers are answered.'”
Also: I have often pointed out that when there is a medieval or medieval-esque setting for a book, and someone goes out to hunt boar, it’s not going to be pretty. Case in point…
“He heard talk of some monstrous boar deeper in the forest…”
“Lord Frey controls that bridge. He’s your father’s bannerman, isn’t that so?” The Late Lord Frey, Catelyn thought. “He is,” she admitted, “but my father has never trusted him. Nor should you.” “I won’t,” Robb promised.
Bran: “… Watch them and keep them safe, if it please you, gods. Help them defeat the Lannisters and save Father and bring them home.”
Thanks a lot, gods.
GRRM’s writing is not kind, and it’s also not necessarily something you’d hold up as exemplary of great lyricism or beauty. Much like a few of his characters I could name, he says what he needs to say, chooses the right words, and moves on. For a man who writes VLFN’s (Very Long Fantasy Novels), he writes with concise economy. (Is that redundant? Do I care?)
Which isn’t to say he doesn’t produce beauty:
“The scabbard was soft grey leather, supple as sin.”
“They whispered of Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning, deadliest of the seven knights of Aerys’s Kingsguard, and of how their young lord had slain him in single combat. And they told how afterward Ned had carried Ser Arthur’s sword back to the beautiful young sister who awaited him in a castle called Starfall on the shores of the Summer Sea. The Lady Ashara Dayne, tall and fair, with haunting violet eyes.”
And glory – though for the most part glory is something that happened long ago, and is told of in stories:
“Ser Ryam Redwyne. Prince Aemon the Dragonknight. The twins Ser Erryk and Ser Arryk, who had died on one another’s swords hundreds of years ago, when brother fought sister in the war the singers called the Dance of the Dragons. The White Bull, Gerold Hightower. Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning. Barristan the Bold.”
He set out into the dead lands with a sword, a horse, a dog, and a dozen companions.
One by one his friends died, and his horse, and finally even his dog, and his sword froze so hard the blade snapped when he tried to use it.
He does good names. (I love the “shadowskin cloak”. No idea what it is – but it’s evocative.) (“Sweet reds,” he cried in fluent Dothraki, “I have sweet reds, from Lys and Volantis and the Arbor. Whites from Lys, Tyroshi pear brandy, firewine, pepperwine, the pale green nectars of Myr. Smokeberry browns and Andalish sours, I have them, I have them.” I want them, I want them. And I don’t even drink.)
And wit and wisdom. His characters inhabit a grim and violent and terrifying world, and they deal with it like any of us would, when it’s all that they know or have ever known. They know that “The gods mock the prayers of kings and cowherds alike.”
A classic: “First lesson,” Jon said. “Stick them with the pointy end.”
“Why do you read so much?”
“My mind is my weapon. My brother has his sword, King Robert has his warhammer, and I have my mind … and a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.” Tyrion tapped the leather cover of the book. “That’s why I read so much, Jon Snow.”
“Would you rather be called the Imp? Let them see that their words can cut you, and you’ll never be free of the mockery. If they want to give you a name, take it, make it your own. Then they can’t hurt you with it anymore.”
And I wonder if this was planned with an ironical end in mind: “Ser Jorah had tried to swell the family coffers by selling some poachers to a Tyroshi slaver.”
Multiple points of view can be, to put it bluntly, a pain in the neck. They usually lead to confusion – for the reader, or, at worst, the writer; repetitiveness is often an unfortunate byproduct. But Martin uses all the many and varied points of view to good effect, building up the relationship between the reader and the POV character while also enriching his world by showing it from many angles.
POV Bran: “Robb was calling his Grey Wind, because he ran so fast. Sansa had named hers Lady, and Arya named hers after some old witch queen in the songs [Nymeria], and little Rickon called his Shaggydog, which Bran thought was a pretty stupid name for a direwolf. Jon’s wolf, the white one, was Ghost.”
There is rarely overlap – especially not when the reader might want some overlap. And it’s a natural, and evil, way to build suspense and keep the reader hanging on: finish a POV with a cliffhanger, then move on to someone else, and then someone else, and don’t come back to the one hanging from the cliff for a hundred pages or two. Or the next book.
There’s a rather good murder mystery at the heart of the story, with Eddard Stark acting as investigator. (This is not, I repeat not a cozy mystery.) At times you can almost see the image of a deerstalker cap forming over Ned’s head. Unfortunately, the murder mystery is soon swamped by non-mysterious murder and overall slaughter, but it’s kind of fun to think about how Ned would have done, given the chance. Wait, did I say “fun”? I meant “devastating”.
GRRM is also very good at the Catch Phrase™.
“It is known.” Short, sweet, and to the point – everything these books are not.
“Oh, my sweet summer child,” Old Nan said quietly, “what do you know of fear?
You have no idea how many times I have just barely stopped myself from calling inappropriate people “sweet summer child”. It’s such a nice way to say “You naïve and ignorant fool.” (Then there was that one time I didn’t manage to stop myself. Fortunately, people already know I’m a bit weird, so I didn’t even have to explain.)
“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
“There is no good hammering your sword into a plowshare if you must forge it again on the morrow.”
And the characters are just … fantastic.
“For true?” “For true.” He smiled. “If I took it away, no doubt I’d find a morningstar hidden under your pillow within the fortnight.
Ned with his children, with his family, is heartbreaking.
Syrio Forel: “Now we will begin the dance. Remember, child, this is not the iron dance of Westeros we are learning, the knight’s dance, hacking and hammering, no. This is the bravo’s dance, the water dance, swift and sudden. All men are made of water, do you know this? When you pierce them, the water leaks out and they die.” He took a step backward, raised his own wooden blade.
The fourth sliced his stick in two, splintering the wood and shearing through the lead core. Sobbing, Arya spun and ran.
You know what they say about soap operas and whether or not you see a body …
I love the background I had forgotten about for Jorah Mormont: “My son loved that young wife of his. Vain woman. If not for her, he would never have thought to sell those poachers.” And here’s his mother: “Stout, grey-haired Maege Mormont, dressed in mail like a man, told Robb bluntly that he was young enough to be her grandson, and had no business giving her commands”. That adds a lot of dimension to the man – and look how subtly it’s done.
I was beside myself when I learned of the perfect, perfect casting of Tyrion Lannister, because – well, if you don’t think Tyr is awesomeness personified, here:
– Tyrion Lannister reached up and slapped his nephew hard across the face. The boy’s cheek began to redden. “One word,” Tyrion said, “and I will hit you again.”
“I’m going to tell Mother!” Joffrey exclaimed.
Tyrion hit him again. Now both cheeks flamed.
Normally I wouldn’t be a fan of a child being smacked around. But, my friends, this is Joffrey we’re talking about. This is a wonderful scene. (If you do a quick search, I’m sure you can find a gif where it’s looped, so that Tyr hits him over and over and over … good stuff.)
– And of course: “No, I just want to stand on top of the Wall and piss off the edge of the world.”
– Tyrion felt a sudden urge to leap up, brandish his axe, and boom out, “Casterly Rock!” but the insanity passed quickly and he crouched down lower.
And I highlighted this because it’s just flipping adorable: “Tyrion Lannister was bundled in furs so thickly he looked like a very small bear.”
– “Oh, I think that Lord Tyrion is quite a large man,” Maester Aemon said from the far end of the table. He spoke softly, yet the high officers of the Night’s Watch all fell quiet, the better to hear what the ancient had to say. “I think he is a giant come among us, here at the end of the world.”
With the rest of the series in mind, I made note of: “They found the white hart, it seems … or rather, what remained of it. Some wolves found it first…” Nymeria? I do hope that loose thread is tucked in one day. Or maybe I’m the only one who maintains it’s a loose thread.
Recently someone explained to me the Jon Snow parentage theory, and so I began collecting bits and pieces as I went along (I love my Kindle):
– “Lord Eddard Stark is my father,” Jon admitted stiffly. Lannister studied his face. “Yes,” he said. “I can see it. You have more of the north in you than your brothers.”
– “Never ask me about Jon,” he said, cold as ice. “He is my blood, and that is all you need to know.
– Whoever Jon’s mother had been, Ned must have loved her fiercely, for nothing Catelyn said would persuade him to send the boy away.
– Jon was never out of sight, and as he grew, he looked more like Ned than any of the trueborn sons she bore him. Somehow that made it worse.
– Yours was … Aleena? No. You told me once. Was it Merryl? You know the one I mean, your bastard’s mother?” “Her name was Wylla,” Ned replied with cool courtesy, “and I would sooner not speak of her.”
Aleena is kind of close to Lyanna….
– Troubled sleep was no stranger to [Eddard]. He had lived his lies for fourteen years, yet they still haunted him at night.
– “You avenged Lyanna at the Trident,” Ned said, halting beside the king. Promise me, Ned, she had whispered.
– He could still hear Sansa pleading, as Lyanna had pleaded once. [(Pleading for a life)]
Hmmm: “She must have been a rare wench if she could make Lord Eddard Stark forget his honor, even for an hour. You never told me what she looked like …”
Ned’s mouth tightened in anger. “Nor will I. Leave it be, Robert, for the love you say you bear me. I dishonored myself and I dishonored Catelyn, in the sight of gods and men.”
Hmn: Ned saw Jon Snow’s face in front of him, so like a younger version of his own. If the gods frowned so on bastards, he thought dully, why did they fill men with such lusts?
A few days past, he had taken Ned aside to show him an exquisite rose gold locket. Inside was a miniature painted in the vivid Myrish style, of a lovely young girl with doe’s eyes and a cascade of soft brown hair. Renly had seemed anxious to know if the girl reminded him of anyone, and when Ned had no answer but a shrug, he had seemed disappointed. … The maid was Loras Tyrell’s sister Margaery, he’d confessed, but there were those who said she looked like Lyanna.
I also highlighted a few things I hadn’t remembered and just purely enjoyed:
Theon Greyjoy had once commented that Hodor did not know much, but no one could doubt that he knew his name. Old Nan had cackled like a hen when Bran told her that, and confessed that Hodor’s real name was Walder. No one knew where “Hodor” had come from, she said, but when he started saying it, they started calling him by it. It was the only word he had.
Good. I wouldn’t want Hodor ever to be called Walder.
Sam: “My father is Lord Randyll, a bannerman to the Tyrells of Highgarden.” Hmmmm.
“Hear my words, and bear witness to my vow,” they recited, their voices filling the twilit grove. “Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.” The woods fell silent. “You knelt as boys,” Bowen Marsh intoned solemnly. “Rise now as men of the Night’s Watch.”
And, of course, “There is an inn at the crossroads up ahead…”
When all’s said and done, A Game of Thrones is an iconic work, and in my opinion deserves every bit of the acclaim it’s garnered. It’s one of those edifices that will endure as long as good books are sought out.