This piece was written by Gautam Bhatia (Batch of 2011) and was published in a previous edition of Quirk.
Modern fantasy is in a pitiable state. A confused morass of plots and sub-plots endlessly recycled in one book after another have led to complete saturation in the genre. A typical modern fantasy author starts basic tenets of a hero of sterling valour and a heroine of startling beauty, a romance between the aforementioned, an Enemy, a Quest, a War and a happy ending. Dragons, elves, dwarves, trolls and other beasts of monstrous description are then added as deemed fit. The language resembles that of a high school student and the characters seem cut straight out of cardboard. The epic fantasy of Morris, of Le Guein and of Tolkien is all but lost in a sea of mediocrity.
Into this vale of boredom George R R Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” comes as the clear breath of fresh mountain breeze. Martin is an iconoclast, shattering all established norms of the genre in this enthralling series. In “A Game of Thrones”, “A Clash of Kings”, “A Storm of Swords” and “A Feast For Crows”, Martin takes the reader into a war-torn world without honour or justice, nobility or truth. It is a world where treachery meets intrigue, where incest meets betrayal… a world in which either you win or you die.
Into this canvas of violence and villainy Martin paints a memorable cast of characters. The “heroes”: Ned Stark, whose own nobility is the cause of his death; Robb Stark, the Young Wolf, an unforgettable tragic hero; the dark and moody Jon Snow; the sisters Arya and Sansa, as different from each other as chalk from cheese.
Then there are those on the other side… Jaime Lannister, whose treachery is matched only by the ruthless villainy of his sister Cersei and the ruthless cunning of his father Tywin. Roose Bolton, whose allegiance switches with each turn of the tide; and finally, there are those characters who can truly be called “grey”, and it is they who live longest in the memory. Tyrion Lannister, the deformed imp whose fiery intellect more than makes up for his physical shortcomings. Lord Stannis, whose twisted thoughts lead him through a tangled labyrinth of intrigue, villainy, and finally heroism. And lastly, Daenerys Taregeryn, hurrying across the sands of the desert to reclaim the Kingdom once lost by her father, and leaving a trail of ruined cities in her wake.
George Martin is himself every bit ruthless as the characters he paints so vividly. He has absolutely no compunction in killing off his heroes, and this is what makes A Song of Ice and Fire so unique. Too often in modern fantasy you will see the heroes facing insurmountable odds, yet somehow emerging victorious either through their own unmatched valour or through serendipity. Martin resists this temptation. If you’re caught in an ambush, you die, regardless of who you are. Period. And so far he has, thankfully, resisted the temptation of bringing any of the protagonists back.
Another reason why A Song of Ice and Fire is such an enjoyable read is that it’s “medieval fantasy” in a true sense. In the acclaimed scholarly work, A Look Behind the Lord of the Rings, author Lin Carter, while describing William Morris (arguably the founder of modern fantasy), says “he considered it (the medieval age) to be a sort of bucolic utopia.” Carter then describes the features of this “bucolic utopia”- valorous lords, great-hearted ladies, magnificent castles… the like. Unfortunately, all of today’s fantasy (far, far below Morris’ epic style and imagination, it might be added) is written in this same mode of denial, in this same delusion. Carter goes on to add then, that the medieval age was actually very different from Morris’ idealistic impression. It was cold and cruel, with no thought for honour or goodwill, with plagues and diseases, where the common man often suffered during the wars fought by the nobility. Martin is the first author to capture this spirit in its entirety. Dispensing with the traditional fantasy concepts of honour, valour and the like, he focuses only on the lust for power and its consequences. Discounting the dragons, A Song of Ice and Fire could well be a historical account of some conflict like the Wars of the Roses. It is for these two reasons- a series with a difference, and the accurate portrayal of the medieval age- that I feel A Song of Ice and Fire should not be stereotyped into the genre of medieval fantasy- rather, it should be first in the line of a new series of works in a new sub-genre of fantasy which may be called “medieval realism”
Martin then, is probably one of the best modern fantasy authors alive today. His plots are always violent, often vicious, with no regard whatsoever for human life, but that is what makes his work stand out. Apart from everything else, it is top quality fantasy writing, complexly plotted, intricately detailed and written with verve and style. It is not for the faint-hearted, but if you’re one of those hard core fantasy aficionados getting gradually disillusioned with the genre due to every next Christopher Paolini who comes along with a whoop and a holler, pick up A Song of Ice and Fire. There is hope yet for modern fantasy.