Literature Commentary: A Song of Ice and Fire (Books 1-3)

07 Jun

It’s been a long time since I sat down to read an epic high-fantasy series. Too often, these books end up being blatant Tolkien rip-offs, with a clever variant or two to keep things interesting. With the recent popularity of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” TV show, however, one series has emerged at the forefront of the American cultural consciousness: the “Song of Ice and Fire” series, by George R.R. Martin. After TIME labeled him “the American Tolkien,” I was skeptical…but thought the books were worth a try.

The series (planned to be seven books, five of which have been released) is set on the continent of Westeros – geographically similar to the UK. The lands of Westeros are subdivided into seven kingdoms, each of which is ruled by a “Great House.” Among these Houses are the noble Starks, the cunning Lannisters, and the royal Baratheons.

As the series progresses, two major plotlines emerge: the struggle for ultimate political power between the seven houses, and the constant threat of invasion by the monstrous “Others” of the north. Succinctly summarizing Martin’s story would go far beyond the scope of this review (and necessarily involve heavy spoilers), but suffice it to say that the books remain compelling even after 3,500 pages.

Martin is a brilliant writer. He successfully juggles multiple points of view per book, while simultaneously managing to give each character their own unique voice. By any metric, his prose is far superior to many of his contemporaries in the genre. Accounts of the mythic world unfold with fluid lyricism, without ever lapsing into Tolkienesque descriptive tedium (yes, I know that’s heresy), and a ruthlessly fast-paced plot consistently engages the reader.

Martin is known – and often derided – for his tendency to kill off popular characters. This, however, makes “A Song of Ice and Fire” incredibly gripping: if heroes aren’t genuinely vulnerable, there’s little reason to cheer when they succeed. In Martin’s viscerally lifelike world, no one is safe.

Any discussion of “A Song of Ice and Fire” will inevitably raise questions regarding the TV show, “Game of Thrones.” The HBO adaptation is notorious for its graphic content – and while Martin’s books certainly contain plenty of depravity, the show (from what I’ve seen of it) certainly exaggerates this.

The multiple-viewpoint style employed by Martin results in differing reactions to immoral behavior: a corrupt character may attend a brothel (and engage in what that entails), while a noble man of honor feels disgust and revulsion at the very idea. By unfolding the story through stream-of-consciousness techniques, Martin sheds light on the inner thoughts and emotions of his characters. Just as in life, a character’s response to moral darkness is contingent on their personal convictions. It’s probably fair to say, though, that immorality isn’t objectively glamorized.

This brings up an interesting question: can it be healthy to appreciate a fictional work that, by its very narrative structure, forces one to engage with diseased minds? I think the answer is a qualified “yes.”

In a very real sense, Martin is telling multiple stories within one overarching “meta-plot.” Some of these stories have deep moral flaws, but these flaws stem primarily from the characters telling them. If one were to read the inmost thoughts of several world leaders – say, Barack Obama, David Cameron, Hu Jintao, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – one might very well be exposed to moral darkness. Throughout his opus, Martin leaves the question of ethical judgment up to the reader (which may be a strength or a weakness, depending on one’s perspective).

All that being said, however, this is definitely a series intended for mature readers. Martin’s world – which draws much of its stylistic inspiration from real-world history – contains brutal violence, sexuality, strong language, moral ambiguity, and pervasive cynicism. Many will be turned off by the frank portrayal of these elements (and to be entirely fair, at times these become excessive). The books are excellent reading and remarkably thought-provoking, but certainly feature their share of human vice.

Whether or not “A Song of Ice and Fire” embraces a single overarching worldview is unclear. Martin does, however, address religious issues: the three predominant faiths in Westeros are each patterned after real-world belief systems. The “old gods,” worshiped in tree groves, clearly derive from ancient pagan/animistic traditions. The ritualized faith of the “new gods” – specifically, the worship of a deity that reveals itself in seven aspects, yet exists as one god – is obviously rebadged Catholicism. And finally, the dualistic “Faith of R’hllor, the Lord of Light and Shadow” draws inspiration from Zoroastrianism.

This subtext provides a fascinating backdrop for the events which unfold, but is criminally underutilized. Almost without exception, major plot developments occur because of military victories, acts of treason, or forged alliances…throughout the series, the importance of ideological conflict never truly takes center stage. Given Martin’s propensity for rooting his novels in history, this deficit is somewhat surprising. The Reformation – which initially began as a theological dispute over church doctrine – led to centuries of bloody conflict between states. In Martin’s world, however, all is reducible to raw power (to an almost Machiavellian extent). This makes for pulse-pounding reading, but lacks depth; in reality, ideas – even more than the insatiable lust to dominate – have been shown to catalyze action.

So are the books worth reading?

It depends. Fans of “traditional” fantasy may find Martin’s realistic/historical storytelling dull. Those expecting a “clean” story will be horrified by the vivid depictions of evil on display. On the other hand, those who appreciate political intrigue will find the books eminently compelling…and inquiring minds will appreciate the thorny questions the series raises.

Not everyone will enjoy “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Even critics, however, must cede that it is an outstanding work of prose. On both stylistic and thematic levels, Martin draws on a rich tradition of history, myth, and legend – then makes the story uniquely his own. And that, in an increasingly simplistic and derivative genre, is a remarkable accomplishment.

An intense, dark exploration of humanity through the eyes of a mythmaker. Martin fully deserves the title “American Tolkien.”


Posted by on June 7, 2012 in Fantasy


3 responses to “Literature Commentary: A Song of Ice and Fire (Books 1-3)

  1. ASOIAF Fan

    September 26, 2012 at 10:07 am

    Nice analysis, it seems rare to find people who appreciated this story while remaining able to criticize it “objectively”.
    One minor correction : While Westeros looks/feels like UK, its size is closer to the south american continent. Characters travel a lot and spend a lot of time on the move to get from a location to another, it’s usually only mentionned as we don’t spend a lot of time on “travel scenes” unlike a lot of other fantasy fictions.

  2. Francisco Salas (@FG_Salas)

    June 3, 2014 at 6:24 pm

    It seems to me, according to this analysis, that Martin wrote a story that could happen in any period and region of our own world. It was not necessary to locate it in some fantastic world. The fantastic characters and places were only accesories.

  3. Marcy

    May 23, 2019 at 1:44 pm

    I appreciated your thoughtful article. Since the series ended I keep looking for intelligent discussion about the book/series. What I want to share is this, which I’m sure you know. Fantasy genre is a commentary on the socio-political times we live in and GOT has it down above and beyond on multiple levels. I don’t read fantasy genre, but I am grateful to the writers of fantasy for the metaphors – a folk tale of my own current time. How generous of them! So, this is NOT a piece of work about some long ago period in a galaxy or continent far, far away. It is about NOW. I don’t personally ever get caught up in story or characters in this genre, as I am looking for meaning and lesson only through them. They are showing me my time, not theirs and I try to hear their lesson. So in GOT, the author is brilliant at using all of time to depict the “end” of time as we have known it. To include the opening of the show with the kingdoms as Swiss time pieces and a fiery sun our original “clock.” Also, the series is brilliant even in its casting as one can immediately transpose Cerci and her brother right into the streets of downtown Manhattan. This could not happen in the book. He used the visual medium of TV to enhance his meaning in the novels. The actors are not “types” cast normally for period drama, no small coincidence. And when I saw Ned Stark die I saw the most perfect symbolic image of ALL loss of soldiers in Vietnam in the death of one brilliantly cast, directed and filmed actor. Aria and her sister went down paths that are what happens to GIRLS when a society gets rid of or corrupts too many fathers…they are taken advantage of sexually or raped/killed and/or they become fighters having to protect themselves with too few good dads around to do the job and let them be just girls. Do you know what the rate of female kidnapping and molestation increased to in the 1970’s? Look that up. The author sure as hell does. The author knows EXACTLY what happened to our nation, very, very well. GOT (like any good fantasy book) is what is going on or has just gone on in our own world. Why else are the ones Danni is uplifting and protecting of African descent? The story projects our future forward, too. And like with any bit of genius writing, as readers we mostly only know all of this subconsciously. Brilliantly, he uses all history and pre-history (pre-historical subconscious tendencies, darkness, rage we don’t remember represented by what’s in the snow…white walkers, who are beyond a “wall”) to bring about the depiction of an end of history, an end to “systems” we see now cannot work even when those with the best of intentions try…and a start of a new epoch and story now without that fucking throne. The dragon melts it but not Jon, important. Jon’s an orphan because it is the only type of person symbolically that can carry out good action in a truly terrible time.

    The “game over” that we are experiencing now in OUR world, all the hideous abuse and hurt and harm and loss and misguidedness and helpful guidance that has brought us to this point, is come to a head. It is our turning point that is happening and the start of a whole new game. This is magnificently depicted in his story. It resonates with the whole world because of it, but mostly in the US because this is where history came to finally draw the line. That’s the reason so many stuck with this story, passionately. Operative word: passionately. Also because the author wrote it so well, cast it brilliantly and then they shot it like a beast, truly amazing work. But it was mostly because we knew it, felt it. The pain and problem was cathartic. It was real. It was really about us.

    Thank you so much for this forum and your writing!!


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