Beyond the Wall: Exploring George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire - James Lowder

Despite the fact that only one name is listed for author on Booklikes, this is one of those anthology collections of critical essays. The "critical" part being debatable. My notes on it are long and subdivided by individual essay. Also, it annoyed me that for a collection that was supposedly edited, there were quite a few mistakes in the text - unforgivable.


The Palace Of Love, The Palace Of Sorrow: Romanticism In A Song Of Ice And Fire


-- "Our meaning when we discuss romanticism in relation to Martin's work is quite specific; an emphasis on emotionality and the individual, a gaze aimed firmly at the past, and a belief in the indomitable human spirit. All of these things were traits of the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century..." With this definition, then, yes, it is quite easy to see ASoIaF becoming classical literature from the 21st century. It will be surreal to explain the atmosphere of the media and fandom to our (great) grandchildren!


-- "The melancholic mythologizing with which many characters recall [events of Robert's rebellion] provide an interesting vantage from which to consider romanticism in the series, as it combines one of the topics Martin generally depicts most viscerally - the violence of war - with the tendency to elide the horrors in favor of poignant remembrances of things lost." Another reflection of real life and something I love and find infinitely frustrating in the story: one side says one thing, the other says the opposite, so who is telling the truth? It lies somewhere in the middle (or never happened at all).


-- "What chiefly ended the Kingsguard's place as the epitome of chivalry and honor in Westerosi thought was the murder of Aerys by Jaime Lannister." Interesting that it was the very public - by rumor? song? other news? -  brutal action by one of the Kingsguard that tarnishes the group's reputation when the silent behind-the-scenes deliberate inaction of the guards (re: the queen's rape, beating, etc.) is never acknowledged by anyone except Jaime. In context of what Jaime knew, he did do the honorable thing, didn't he?


-- "The romanticism of the misunderstood, brilliant man... It has survived into modern literature and media, too. There is a certain exceptionalism inherent in romanticism, a focus on the individual as a key figure who needs to be understood to be fully appreciated. The sins of the past might be forgiven, or at least reevaluated, when placed in the fuller context of the character's inner workings." Sherlock and Dr. House pop into mind, although in this quote they are talking about Jaime Lannister.


-- "The Great Man Theory is very much a reflection of the Romantic era, in that it supposes the history of the world is largely driven by outstanding individuals initiating world-changing events." A reflection of sociocultural influences as well, declining in favor as scientific methodology and (the attempt at) unbiased observations became more popular.


-- "Readers identify with characters, not socioeconomic trends, so it's natural to position protagonists and antagonists as the primary instigators of events." A tendency reflected in real life despite the above musing; we have definite representative figures for every era and major event in human history.


-- "the "sparrows" who follow the Seven who gather together to protect one another against the predations of war..." A reaction to the atrocities permitted by Tywin Lannister, etc, and empowered by Cersei's incompetent law administration.


-- "'s a story that's romantic in part because it's not yet been fully told." And so ends what I think is my favorite essay in the book, because how true that statement is!


Men And Monsters: Rape, Myth-Making, And The Rise And Fall Of Nations In A Song Of Ice And Fire


Now this one was interesting as it discussed a particularly touchy subject about the series. I've yet to see a discussion about it on the ASoIaF Reddit that didn't erupt into a flame war. A good argument is made, however, that rape is the line in the sand when it comes to the questionable nature of Westerosi morals.


Firstly, "the fact that women are property in the Iron Islands in a way that makes Westeros look like a feminist paradise - is one of the markers set for the reader to show that Theon is in a corrupt and dangerous country." An intriguing idea when read with the later essay about Theon as negatively affected sufferer of PTSD. The morality and culture of the Iron Islands is the opposite of Theon's own supposed beliefs which seemed, at times, to be more Northern.


Secondly, the example of Daenerys, who herself could be considered from a certain point of view as a victim; "the woman she saves from assault views her actions as naïve paternalism, and it convinces many of Drogo's followers that Daenerys is alienating him from their common values" and "her efforts to rule compassionately... mark Daenerys as a vulnerable ruler... It's a tragic testament to the limited power of good intentions in the face of deeply ingrained and intractable cultural practices." The more I think on it, the more it seems to me like another way that the reader is given to see that Daenerys does not belong in Essos. She is trying to impose Westerosi values in a foreign country, literally. And it backfires spectacularly.


Then we address the escalation of violence that is set off in the first book when both Robert and Ned Stark are killed, courtesy of King Joffrey of course: " of the clearest signs that Baratheon rule in Westeros is breaking down is the erosion of sexual norms, particularly those that protect noblewomen from assault beyond the court. The Lannisters begin to recognize that their position with the common people in King's Landing may truly be untenable after the riot in which Lollys Stokeworth, a minor and not particularly popular member of the court, is gang raped by more than fifty men. Her assault is a sign of how deep the public contempt for the regime runs." Not to say that Joffrey is the sole cause of it all, but he definitely tarnishes the public image of the ruling family by making hanging his dirty laundry in public. The disdain and disregard for the public and selfish concern for power by the likes of Cersei, various nobles, the Kingsguard, and suddenly changing roster of officials does not help.


And lastly, the two likeliest characters for greatest offender: Gregor Clegane when he confesses to raping Elia Martell in a rageful rant ("It's a monstrous way to end a fight, and one that forces polite Westerosi society to acknowledge what kind of beast they've tolerated in their midst all these years. They could ignore Clegane's atrocities while he himself was quiet about them. His public affirmation of his guilt, though, indicts the nobility for harboring him.") and Ramsay Snow ("While it may be decidedly antimodern to blame children who are the product of rape for his parents' sins, there's something to the idea that unpunished rape is a sin that carries implications far beyond individual victims and perpetrators, a crime that comes back to haunt the society that permits and enables it."). Somehow these two ideas had never occurred to me despite all the character debates I've been following since discovering ASoIaF. I rather think I agree.


Same Song In A Different Key: Adapting A Game Of Thrones As A Graphic Novel


-- "I have chosen to age Daenerys up to match our legal standards, even though it means telling the story of an immature, controlled, and sheltered young woman rather than a powerful, exploited, and complex child." While I understand the legal considerations for doing this (as is discussed by the writer at length in this essay), I found this sentence to especially hit the nail on the head about my mixed feelings for the character of Daenerys. On the one hand, reading the series, she is a fantastic female protagonist - strong, naive sometimes, taken advantage, but also opportunistic and learning to take and wield power. On the other hand, due to the influence of the TV series which faced the same legal (and moral) quandary, it forces the impression of a girl, or young woman as the case may be, who should be old enough to know better a lot of the times; we are quite unforgiving, as a species, of naivete in the aged. I feel that it unfortunately diminishes the value of Daenerys character in a world where all of these different media interpretations jumble together.


An Unreliable World: History And Timekeeping In Westeros


I find the debates raging about time (or the lack of it) in Westeros to be very interesting, kind of like how people debate geological versus biblical age of the planet nowadays. Martin did an interesting thing implying that the maesters of the Citadel "believe that magic should be made obsolete and stamped out wherever it is encountered for the benefit of science." In theory, that should mean they would be able to fill in the gap with technological advancement, but what form would that take in Planetos? I should have liked this essay more if it had at least touched on that topic and expanded into how time is or could be tracked by the maesters.


Back To The Egg: The Prequels To A Song Of Ice And Fire


I shudder in fear at the thought suggested by the writer of this essay that writing prequels is one way in which the author of a famous series can find escape from the pressures of finishing the next book; but it's a bit of paradox in that writing prequels answers questions or fills in blanks for dedicated readers, which just fuels the lust for the next book even more! Is that really what's happening with GRRM? Uh oh...


Art Imitates War: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder In A Song Of Ice And Fire


-- "[GRRM] got an essential and often missed aspect of PTSD exactly right: sometimes traumatic experiences profoundly damage a character, but sometimes they enfranchise and strengthen the sufferer. These polar opposite, yet fully authentic PTSD reactions, are exhibited in A Song of Ice and Fire through two major characters: Arya Stark, enfranchised as a result of trauma, and Theon Greyjoy, destroyed by it." This was a gem - never encountered this observation before!


-- "Some may argue that Theon's seizure of Winterfell is the bold action of a man intent on standing alone and proving his worth to a family that judges men by their feats of arms. I see it more as the spiteful lashing out of a child wounded by everyone around him, all those he loves and might love. This is classic Condition Black: Theon engages in highly risky behavior, flailing in reaction to trauma he cannot handle. Arya's choices are deliberate, empowered. Theon's are reactive, driven by his inability to reconcile the real world with the one he thought he'd lived in." Must read the suggested text on PTSD symptoms and behavior; on TBR list.


- "Where Arya's litany is one of empowerment - a hit list of her enemies - Theon's is a reminder to adhere to a path of self-destruction: "Serve and obey and remember your name. Reek, Reek, it rhymes with meek." That is something that I had noticed but not quite registered given how often the refrain occurs in Theon's POV chapters, especially as the chapter titles keep changing as his sense of self is defined by his captors. I must admit that I shrugged it off as one of the GRRM's writing tics where he repeats the same darned phrases over and over again trying to stretch out page count to break readers' wrists.


The Brutal Cost Of Redemption In Westeros: Or, What Moral Ambiguity?


Another interesting take on morality in Westeros, suggesting that it is less about individual morals/values and more about decisions made that have an effect on the country or world at large: positive values reflect doing good for everyone and are rewarded, negative values reflect doing good only for one's self and are punished. "They commit sins against the unity necessary to survive the coming darkness, either to such a level that they become irredeemable, or to lesser extents, with failure or refusal to comprehend the seriousness of their wrongdoings." And among the examples listed include Robb Stark being murdered for 'selfishly' marrying Jeyne Westerling for the sake of her honor rather than honoring his agreement with Lord Frey for the sake of the Northern alliance. Additionally, "when Ned Stark attempts to send Sansa back to Winterfell, she commits the unforgivable sin in Westeros. She focuses on her own personal wishes instead of the well-being of her family or the people she imagines she will one day serve as queen," and she starts down the path of woobieness.


-- "Afterward, [Jaime Lannister] takes a seat on the Iron Throne - but he makes no move to claim it. He hands it over to Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon without a battle, creating unity and seeing to the good of the whole, even if he probably does not grasp the importance of his choice." A counterexample, which I rather like as I hope Jaime gets a decent ending in the series.


Of Direwolves And Gods


-- "Even heartless Cersei Lannister is portrayed as a once-frightened child who lost out on the chance at a great destiny and also as a fiercely protective mother, both traits that engender some measure of empathy - just enough to keep the reader from cheering unconditionally at her degrading downfall." I'm sorry, did we read the same book?! I was under the impression this essay (this entire book even) was talking about the written series but this sounds way more like the TV series and their poor attempts at trying to make Cersei actually likable. Her actress, yes, exceptional woman, but no one really cares about Cersei Lannister at this point.


A Sword Without A Hilt: The Dangers Of Magic In (And To) Westeros


-- "There is some indication that the maesters, or a conspiratorial subset of them, may have worked to suppress magic in the world. It is unclear how the last dragons died, and while the first legends we learn say Aegon III poisoned them, Archmaester Marwyn tells Sam Tarly a different tale: "Who do you think killed all the dragons the last time around?..." Now this could be taken in consideration with the previous essay about timekeeping and magic vs. what passes for science in-universe. Potentially true? Revisit discussions on the power and influence of maesters and what a lie it probably is that they forsake their Houses.


-- ...another theory is that the dark magic of the Others is not as dependent on dragons as the magic practiced south of the Wall. Whatever the cause, though, there's no denying that magic holds a greater sway over the lands beyond the Wall." Why is that? The Ice vs. Fire theme of the series? Ice magic originating from the Land of Always Winter against Fire magic from... Asshai, Valyria?


Petyr Baelish And The Mask Of Sanity


-- "All of those who seek to best him share one fatal mistake: they assume that Littlefinger operates by the same rules that they do." Happens not just to Ned but Cersei, Tyrion... maybe Varys?


-- "Littlefinger's skill at manipulating others might only be bested by Varys's. What differentiates Littlefinger from the Spider, though, is motive. Varys acts to preserve the stability of the kingdom. His peers may consider him untrustworthy, and he may very well be, but it is because his allegiance is to crown and country rather than any particular individual. Littlefinger's allegiance is to Littlefinger." So what I got out of this was that Varys is Batman, or rather, Spiderman! Haha. Also, Littlefinger just got creepier in my mind.

"When there's a darkly seductive [item]... luring the righteous off the path of the just, we can continue to cleave to the illusion that evil is something outside of us instead of existing as a potential within us all."


"Few of us play a game of thrones. Most of us are limited to, at most, a game of cubicles. But there are heroes and villains among us, and  some days we can play both roles. We also have our own Littlefingers. Some lurk in dark alleys with axes, while others siphon away our pensions and turn our government against us. Some of them are as close as the apartment next door, or perhaps even the nearest mirror."

A Different Kind Of Other: The Role Of Freaks And Outcasts In A Song Of Ice And Fire


Regarding the stereotypical hero of a fantasy story: "But just how much are these characters really outsiders? Sure, these boys and men of privilege have usually lost some of their standing in the world, and they learn valuable lessons by trying to get it back. That said, they're still almost always boys and men of privilege. / This paradigm made sense in its time. After all, most of these tropes date from a pre-Enlightenment era when attitudes about the minorities and outsiders were so entrenched that it was difficult to even conceive of a hero as anyone other than a boy or man of privilege. It was just obvious that big problems could only be solved by just such a person. And let's face it: it was men of privilege who were invariably financing and disseminating these stories, too. / Still, if protagonists in these tales are outsiders at all, it's usually only due to circumstances, not as a result of anything innate about them."


-- "Just because the men of the Night's Watch are all outcasts themselves doesn't mean they can't reject others, too. On the contrary, creating social codes that play outsiders against each other has long been an important way those in power have maintained their control." I am reminded of the suggestion that when more nobles took the black, that they were the ones who were given commanding posts within the NW over the lower class members.


-- "When writing about outcast or minority characters, many authors fall into exactly this trap. But the idea of the "noble savage" - the notion that being a despised other always endows you with great dignity and wisdom - is just another stereotype. It's a well-intentioned one, but it's almost as limiting as the others."

"One argument against such brutal content, and it's a compelling one, is that the sexual humiliation of women in A Song of Ice and Fire is just too cavalier, too omnipresent - that it overwhelms other aspects of the books. How would male readers react to an epic story written by a woman where virtually every chapter features a man being violently assaulted?


The counterargument posits that, by presenting all the raping and whoring so casually, Martin is commenting on women and powerlessness, perhaps even making an ironic point: women are the ultimate outsiders. Their complete and vicious degradation is so commonplace that almost no one in Westeros notices. For the majority of characters - including Tyrion, who usually has a keen eye for fellow outcasts, and even many of the other women in the cast - the nonstop violence against women is mostly invisible, barely even worth a mention.


This violence, of course, is true not just in Westeros and Essos: it's been true for most of real-world human history. Is it any more visible in our history books and museums?

History, they say, is written by the victors."

 -- "In fact, despite her gender, [Daenerys] may be the books' most classic fantasy story line: a royal in exile seeking to reclaim her throne who is given the benefit of several mentors and a magic item, in the form of three dragon's eggs. Whether her destiny is real or not, she certainly believes it is, so much so that she is impervious to fire." Ohhhh, interesting idea - what if Daenerys' abilities are result of her belief only? Contrast with accident (Thoros) or intent (Melisandre, the woods witch).


Power And Feminism In Westeros


-- "In situations where she might begin to gain some personal power by refusing to participate in Littlefinger's plans - or, like her sister Arya, concocting plans of her own - Sansa remains the passive pawn. / In this, she fills the role of the traditional princess of medieval fantasy. But in assigning her that role, Martin is making a powerful point about the dangers inherent in fantasy: how fanciful myths hide - and perpetuate - a fundamentally oppressive social structure." A good point and probably further proves the irony in that Sansa is one of the least popular characters of the series yet the "princess culture" is still perpetuated in modern society.


-- "Sansa and Arya were Starks, Westerosi royalty. Once Ned is killed, their identities become murky. Because they are female, their identities are largely dependent on designations of male power - the rank, land holdings, and wealth of their fathers or husbands. Take those away and they become, in essence, no one, non-people." But that is the point, isn't it? The Starks as a known (united) family have to die in the story; the mythology implies that the Starks might be the only House that can end or help bring about the end of an apocalyptic winter, so they have to be metaphorically or literally destroyed for that climax to be reached. Then, by reassuming their identities and/or reuniting, they can 'save the day' although I doubt it will be a happy ending. Also, Arya literally practices to become No One, because it is advantageous to her situation and future character development. (Yay, assassin school!)


-- "The only sons who will sit on the Iron Throne after Robert dies are those of the queen's Lannister bloodline alone. That they are children by her twin implies a mirroring of herself in their creation, a startling statement of control and self-defined identity." Hmmm... a deliberate or subconscious attempt to establish something as close to a matrilineal ruling line as possible?


Collecting Ice And Fire In The Age Of Nook And Kindle


Literally a waste of space. I don't know why, exactly, this was included. It is not an essay criticizing anything particular besides the trivialities of fluctuating book prices; about as interesting and practical as trading on the stock market. If collecting books is, perchance, one's hobby, then I suppose it is interesting. Otherwise, a poor choice to include in the book.


Beyond The Ghetto: How George R.R. Martin Fights The Genre Wars


A nice ending essay, but not terribly memorable nor interesting to me. I felt that the writing could have been stronger; it was definitely too long and would probably have benefited from some judicious cutting and reorganization of key points.