Someone older and wiser once told me, ‘You can get away with a lot if you can do characters.’ I think there’s a lot of truth in this. One of the great pleasures of reading is getting to know people who seem real, even though they’re only made of words.
On the evidence of the DVD box set of the first series of Game of Thrones, George R R Martin can do a lot more than characters, but character is something he does spectacularly well. Maybe that’s part of why his fantasy saga A Song of Ice and Fire has exerted such powerful crossover appeal, and won over readers and, ultimately, an audience who aren’t all that familiar with the fantasy genre. (I’ve just ordered the first book in the series – can’t wait!)
Truthful characters, fantasy world
We’ve just finished watching the box set of Game of Thrones, having put it off till after I’d finished the first draft of my new novel. I knew it would be amazing – and it was. It’s a pretty unbeatable combination: the alien, unknown world that you escape into and get to know, peopled with characters who are absolutely believable. If the characters weren’t real, the fantasy might not seem so either; but because there’s so much truthfulness in the way they behave, you give yourself up to the whole of the world they inhabit. That little doubting, sceptical voice in the back of the mind that says, ‘Oh come on, this is ridiculous, it would never happen,’ is hushed, and you’re free to enjoy the ride.
Was the fantasy genre kicked off by Tolkein? If so, it really has its roots in everything that inspired him – Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf and all of that. Apparently there are dwarves and so on in Wagner (not that I would know, I’ve never quite managed to engage with Wagner, it all seems a bit lush and thundery). Maybe the fantasy genre ultimately owes a debt to Germanic folklore. Anyway, you can see bits of Tolkein in the DNA of Game of Thrones, but there’s a whole lot more sex – and a lot more women.
Girls, women, queens: powerful women in Game of Thrones
Tolkein did either elf maidens or Rosie Cotton, and not a whole lot in between. But Game of Thrones has Arya, the spunky girl who wants to be a boy, and the scary Cersei, who could be one of those fearsome Roman women, like Agrippina, who plotted and schemed to use their relationships with sons and other relatives as a way to wield power. There’s Catelyn, the resourceful queen, and her deranged sister Lysa, who breastfeeds her little boy, her only child, as they sit together on the throne. Perhaps most original of all is Daenerys, who is a weird combination of innocence and invulnerability, buoyed up by magical powers of which she herself is only just becoming aware. She is instinctive, intuitive, and, when she deems it necessary, completely ruthless.
Of course, the male characters are terrific too. Poor old Ned Stark is always trying to do the right thing, not that it’s easy. There are the snakelike, cunning plotters at court, Baelish and Varys; the psycho princeling, Joffrey, who is both cowardly and sadistic; fat, choleric, boozy Robert Baratheon; Daenerys’ hopeless brother Viserys, who wants desperately to wear the crown his father lost, but has no personal qualities that are likely to help him win it back, and few assets other than a once-feared family name and a pretty sister. There’s Cersei’s dashing brother Jaime and bully-boy father Tywin – played by a magnificently scornful Charles Dance – and best of all, Tyrion, who compensates for his lack of stature by being wittier, more insightful, more honest, bawdier, funnier and more commanding than just about anybody else.
Threat from beyond the borders and within
The story is full of threat. There is danger from the north, where the supernatural White Walkers appear to be stirring from a long sleep, and also from the south, from the nomadic, horse-loving Dothraki tribe, living just beyond a narrow strip of sea which they have never yet brought themselves to cross. The Dothraki are a fearsome lot, exactly the sort who lay waste a crumbling empire, and would have given Genghis Khan and his Mongolian hordes a good run for their money.
Perhaps a strong leader could rally the various powerful families of the seven kingdoms of Westeros and see off these dangers, but no. Nature abhors a vacuum, and a power vacuum is particularly untenable. The seven kingdoms have had a mad king, then a drunk, hunting-mad king, and beyond that the succession looks uncertain. There are internal factions, old grudges, uncertain loyalties, and one very big, incestuous secret, threatening to destabilise everything.
Not so very long ago…
Go back five or six hundred years, and that was pretty much what the British state was really like. There were pretenders to the throne; noble families battling it out for power or, the next best thing, proximity to power, and, on occasion, paying for it with the lives of their heirs; question marks over whether those heirs were really descended from their supposed fathers; strategic marriages; wars fought as displays of wealth and power; brutal punishments – amputations, beheadings, burnings alive – and, inevitably, less able sons taking over from capable men, and mucking things up. (If you can manage three generations of leaders who can hold onto the reins of power in such a set-up, you’ve got a dynasty that hold a rare and special place in history – like the Tudors.) It’s ironic that we tend to talk of the hereditary principle today as bringing stability, when history shows it’s anything but. If you want a stable state, you want stable institutions; have a figurehead monarch by all means, but on the whole, the less real power they have, the better.
Power and vulnerability
Game of Thrones is all about power: what people will do to get it; how they behave when they have it; how they survive, or go under, when they don’t have it. It’s also about love, loyalty and honour – and their opposites, hatred, treachery and betrayal. There’s a flavour of many different times and places in the mix, from the Wars of the Roses to the Ottoman Empire, where, if I remember my history correctly, the sons were kept locked away until the Emperor died, whereupon whichever one had the support of the army made it to the capital first, and the others were strangled with silken cords. However, having grown up a prisoner, the new Emperor would be barely fit to rule. This system limped on for a surprisingly long time before eventually collapsing. But it did in the end, as all empires do. I have to say, by the end of series one of Game of Thrones, I’m not filled with confidence about the outlook for peace and stability in Westeros, and wonder if its decline and fall is on the way sooner rather than later.
The landscape of Westeros felt recognisably like a reimagining of Britain to me: cold to the north, beyond the Wall, with a coastal capital further south, separated from potential invaders by a thin strip of water. But then someone else pointed out that North America also has an icy north and a hot South. Perhaps the geography of Westeros is just another way in which the Game of Thrones stories put a fresh spin on familiar patterns.
Watching the extra feature on the DVD box set about the making of the series, and the dedicated work of so many people – the animal trainers, the carpenters, the location scouts, and so on – it was amazing to think that all of this had originally been made up by just one person. That’s the potential power of the writer for you. A king can only rule a kingdom, more or less wisely and well; but a writer can create it.
Random new terminology I learned this week…
The comments in this week’s Guardian Review section about J K Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy included a couple of references to the Harry Potter stories as ‘low fantasy’, which I assumed was people being snooty about it, but no – it’s a whole genre of its own, in which fantastical happenings take place in the real world, as compared to high fantasy, where the whole world is fictional.
I also discovered, via Wikipedia, that there’s a narrative technique called sexposition – a TV technique for keeping viewers watching while you’re giving them chunks of narrative information by having some steamy goings-on for entertainment while someone explains it all.