On Ian’s Favorite Books: A Song of Ice and Fire
I took a class up at the university last spring and summer, with Ian, one of my co-workers. He’s a history teacher whose major interest is the American Civil War–“since you ask”–though the class was on writing. We did have the opportunity, though, to discuss our favorite books as part of the program, and Ian raved about the George R. R. Martin series, A Song of Ice and Fire. He was a Martin zealot, crazy for the books. As it happened, I had recently read an article about Martin and the series in The New Yorker, published just at the time the series was first being televised on HBO; the article itself was enticing enough, with descriptions of Martin, his fans, his anti-fans, and the world of Westeros he’d created. But I resisted. I’m not a fantasy reader.
This winter, Ian got on my case again. I had to read the books. All right, I wasn’t a fantasy reader, but what he liked about the series, he claimed, was less the fantastical elements (there are dragons in it, after all) and more what he called the Medieval flavor of the stories. In The New Yorker article, Laura Miller pointed out that readers couldn’t really get too attached to characters, because it was likely that they’d be killed in incredibly horrific ways, good guys and bad guys alike. That, Ian insisted, is what makes it like real life. (Either a cynic or a realist, that Ian, but I can’t really decide.)
He brought me the first book, A Game of Thrones, on the Thursday before Christmas break. In case I read fast, he brought me the second book the very next day–never mind that each of them was around 800 pages long. I started reading immediately. And got sucked into the story immediately. In the first chapters, there was a really cool little kid, Bran. I made a mistake: I liked this character. Never mind that he climbed on towers and high walls in the castle of Winterfell, and that his mother, Catelyn Stark, warned his father not to let him climb, and to keep him safe–by page 75, he hadn’t fallen but had been pushed off a high tower by one of the bad guys. Ack! The first cool character! And a seven-year-old kid! I knew it was going to happen–I’d even found myself thinking as I was reading: don’t get attached…this might be one that dies horribly…or maybe this one…or all of them–and I fell into the trap anyway.
But Bran didn’t die. I still knew better, though: The New Yorker wasn’t going to be lying to me about this terrible trend in the Martin books, and Ian wasn’t going to be, nor were any of the other Martin readers I spoke to as I made my way through the first 800 pages. I still, however, came to be attached to Bran’s father, Eddard Stark, known as Ned. Man, what a guy. Good, strong, upright, always measuring his conscience to make sure he was doing what was well and truly right; loyal to his faraway wife, even when tempted by the lusty Queen Cersei; a good, kind, loving, firm father to his children…and by the end of the first book, it was just that rightness that got him brutally and unexpectedly beheaded by the spoiled young king, despite that king’s own mother’s and own betrothed’s pleas for mercy. Oh, I got suckered into that one, all right.
One of the most attractive things about this series so far is, as Ian hinted at, the characterization. There is no single character here who is completely good, and no one who is completely bad (though I reserve judgment on Cersei and Jaime Lannister for the time being). Eddard Stark, though as close to a good guy as we might come, has an illegitimate son, the mother of whom he never mentions. Catelyn Stark, though a strong and loyal mother, has moments of incredible unkindness where that illegitimate son is concerned. Tyrion Lannister, though a member of the family which opposes and for the most part destroys the House of Stark, is a physically and perhaps emotionally stunted character who shows great kindness in defense of the young and self-centered Sansa Stark. Sandor Clegane, the Hound, who acts as young King Joffrey’s bodyguard, gives Sansa some of the best advice and strongest support of anyone who is ranged against her family. In this series, there is no black and white, though I knew exactly where my sympathies lay.
I didn’t finish that first book before Christmas break; but I did finish it and the second before New Year’s. By then I was well and truly trapped: I had to know what was going to happen to these people, or at least how my absolute favorite ones would meet their bitter and bloody ends. When Bran was betrayed and killed by his foster brother at the end of the second installment, A Clash of Kings, I was heart-broken again by his death…until I found out that maybe he wasn’t really dead. Again, suckered in by George R. R. Martin, then wrung out to dry. Even though I wouldn’t see Ian again until January 3rd, I dashed off a frantic email to him: bring that third book to school when we go back! Two straight days he forgot to do it, and I thought I would die of frustration. I needed to know!
Ian’s finally come through, however. I’ve got the third book, A Storm of Swords, and I’m devouring it with both greed and dread. I need to know what’s going to be happening. I fear what’s going to be happening. This series has become a fixation with me, an addiction. I need more! I fear I’ve turned into one of those Martin-crazed people Miller described in her article. The next thing that’s probably going to happen is my grabbing Ian and taking him on my search for Martin, to see what kind of quest he will set for us. Then we’ll all get knighted. He’ll be Ser Ian, and I? I’ll be like Brienne of Tarth: I’d like to be a Ser, but I am a woman, after all.
I don’t have HBO. I haven’t seen the series on television. I don’t know if I want to. Perhaps reading is enough for me.