American Tolkien

George_R_R_Martin_2011_ShankboneThere is a kind of writer whose name evokes not just the titles of their best-known novels or the characters in them, but a certain way of experiencing the world. If one hears the name “Hemingway” it is hard not to think of cold Italian rains and the sound of mortar shells, or perhaps smoky bars in Paris or Madrid. “George R. R. Martin” is synonymous with politics that might give the Borgias pause, and an unrelenting, hostile world whose joys must be savored while they last.

The conventions of modern fantastic literature were firmly established by a series of writers in the twentieth century. Robert E. Howard was the founding father of the “sword and sorcery” story in the heyday of the pulp magazines; C.S. Lewis mixed children’s adventure tales with Christian theosophy; Ursula K. Le Guin transformed fantasy into a genre that was irrefutably literary; J.R.R. Tolkien gave us the tools with which to address a new genre and format of epic fantasy. Despite Le Guin’s work and continued impact, Tolkien remains the byword for the ability to transcend genre, to combine popular entertainment with lyrical prose and a grand scope to one’s imagination.

Martin, or GRRM as he is affectionately known to his large and dedicated fanbase, may be the most subversive author writing today. Martin systematically deconstructs the popular pseudo-medieval mythos of the SF/F genre: knightly chivalry exists only in stories for children; your most dangerous enemies may be your own family; there are no heroes who are going to swoop in at the last second to save the day. The argument could be made that the contemporary trend for “gritty” science fiction and fantasy media originates directly from the 1996 publication of <i>A Game of Thrones</i>, the first novel in his <i>A Song of Ice and Fire </i>cycle.

In 2005, Lev Grossman wrote a review in <i>Time Magazine</i> in which he proclaimed George R. R. Martin “the American Tolkien,” praising the intellectual capacity and intricacy of his work:

<i>What really distinguishes Martin, and what marks him as a major force for evolution in fantasy, is his refusal to embrace a vision of the world as a Manichaean struggle between Good and Evil. Tolkien’s work has enormous imaginative force, but you have to go elsewhere for moral complexity. Martin’s wars are multifaceted and ambiguous, as are the men and women who wage them and the gods who watch them and chortle, and somehow that makes them mean more.</i>

This is an understatement.

I remember the first time I read <i>A Game of Thrones</i>. I was on my daily commute on the DC Metro, arm curled around a pole to steady myself from both the jostling of other passengers and the rocking of the train, and I was completely absorbed in Westeros. Arya Stark was outcast on the street, watching her father being paraded by the villains, and everything looked pretty grim. I’m not sure what I was waiting for, I only knew I wasn’t too terribly concerned because I knew how this sort of story went. Someone was going to step forward, Eddard Stark would be absolved, things would be tense a while, and after an epic battle, everything would be sorted out.

I couldn’t have been more wrong if I had <i>tried.</i>

Ned died, Arya was suddenly pretending to be a boy, the Starks were going to war with the Lannisters, and I missed my stop. Taking a second train back, I flipped through the pages, convinced I had somehow missed a page. Surely there was something, a hint to the adult reader that her father wasn’t <i>really</i> dead—after all, he was the hero. The hero didn’t just die in the middle of the story, it was against the rules!

Again, I was wrong. I hadn’t yet learned that in the world of George R. R. Martin, you’re playing by his rules, which all but guarantee that nothing will happen the way you expect it will. Reading his other work, it seems he takes delight in crossing and subverting genres. Though <i>A Song of Ice and Fire </i>is the best known of Martin’s corpus, it doesn’t stand alone. All of his work, from the beloved television series <i>Beauty and the Beast</i> to his other award-winning novels such as <i>Dying of the Light </i>and <i>Fevre Dream</i>, reveals an intellectual preoccupation with understanding the truth of people. His characters may be good, bad, and everything in between, but they are all deftly drawn and nuanced portraits of figures that face emotional and physical trials—in short, life. Martin provides a staggering sense of realism against what are otherwise the tropes of genre. His writing goes against the grain, defying expectations and eliciting sympathetic responses from even the most reluctant reader.


Recently, the University opened an exhibit devoted to Martin’s work which I curated with a colleague of mine, Todd Samuelson. We assembled a fairly length academic catalog as a companion to the event, entitled <i>Deeper Than Swords</i>, for which I wrote the piece excerpted above. You can check out the video of Todd’s interview with George (and my breathless introduction) here:

(Ed. Note: the author of this piece, Catharine Coker appears at 4:20 in the video.  GRRM’s website can be found here)

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