Beyond the Wall: Exploring George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire

Beyond the WallIt’s not often that SF and Fantasy literature gets the serious attention it deserves from critics and the academies of higher learning, and what attention has been received over the years has tended to dismiss it for a failure to address reality, for being concerned with plot over character, and for any number of other reasons that contrast it unfavourably with realist fiction. Such criticisms are of course true about some SF and Fantasy fiction and patently untrue about much of the rest. But even when these charges are true, they can be virtues in the best literature that these genres have to offer as authors pursue certain kinds of exploration and investigation that are simply not possible within the constraints of realist fiction.

Failing to take SF and Fantasy literature seriously is an error of judgement on the one hand because anything that is consumed so widely and enthusiastically demands our critical attention precisely because it is consumed so voraciously. At the very least it needs to be taken seriously as a social and cultural phenomenon.

But even then, merely considering works in these genres as social and cultural phenomena is a mistake because at its best SF and Fantasy literature (and film for that matter) is simply great art, and all art, whatever the label assigned by the marketplace or the academy, deserves serious critical attention.

One series of novels that is bucking the trend and changing perceptions of what Fantasy literature is capable of is of course George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Not only has Martin’s series achieved a large and active fan base with fan sites, blogs and other popular venues giving it serious and often critical attention (which is not unusual for the SF and Fantasy readership), but with each book published in the series, mainstream and literary reviewers are increasingly approaching Martin’s fiction without the condescension that is often implicit to main stream reviews of genre fiction, treating it as it deserves, that is, as good literature.

In June this year a collection of essays edited by James Lowder will be a worthy addition and perhaps even benchmark for the critical assessment of the series. With a Forward by R.A. Salvatore and Introduction by Lowder, Beyond the Wall: Exploring George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is a collection of 14 essays, a number that I suspect is not coincidentally the same as the number of point of view characters in Martin’s series (so far at least).

The essays approach Martin’s fiction from remarkably diverse points of view, from consideration of its Romanticism (of the Byronic flavour) through to the place and function of religion and superstition in Westeros and beyond; from the unreliability of history and memory, to the series’ sexual politics, surely one of its most contentious issues. Consideration is given to the complexity of sexual relations, as well as the prolific sexual violence perpetrated (mostly) against women, with a conclusion that it is far from gratuitous or exploitative as some have argued.

The critical analyses and arguments in Beyond the Wall vary in quality and persuasiveness but almost without exception the essays are fascinating and insightful, thoughtful and thought-provoking, and as a whole the collection presents the complexity, depth and richness of Martin’s creation. Where editor James Lowder succeeds masterfully with this collection is identifying the place and significance of Martin’s series within the Fantasy genre but also how it transcends such narrow (and some might argue arbitrary or market driven) classifications of genre.

Almost all of the essays are worthy of comment but several stood out for me. Daniel Abraham’s article Same song in a different key is not only a revealing insight into the challenges of adapting Game of Thrones as a graphic novel but also, in the process, a superlative discussion about the nature of the graphic novel itself.

Equally fascinating is Myke Cole’s essay Art Imitates War – post-traumatic stress disorder in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. The title says it all and Cole brings a perspective to the novels and characters, with a focus on Arya Stark and Theon Greyjoy, that few of us, I suspect, would have considered.

Susan Vaught’s contribution, The Brutal Cost of Redemption in Westeros, is a convincing refutation of claims that Martin’s series does not have a moral foundation – that it is hedonistic, nihilistic, bleak with its lack of moral sign posts. Vaught proposes a framework for considering what is moral and immoral in Westeros, and the conclusions drawn about which side of the moral fence some characters stand may surprise readers of the series.

Matt Staggs character study, Petyr Baelish and the Mask of Sanity is another standout with its convincing thesis that Baelish fits the classification of Psychopath.

You will not agree with all that you read in Beyond the Wall, and nor should you expect to: any work of art as complex and rich as Martin’s is open to interpretation, and what these essays provide are different approaches to thinking about Martin’s work, perhaps opening up a dialogue.

There are a few final points worth making about this collection of essays which does, after all, concern itself with all the novels in an unfinished series. The first is a warning to the reader: these essays are inevitably packed with spoilers and if you have not yet read all five published novels, be warned that you will learn things about characters and events that you may not wish to learn outside of the pages of Martin’s novels.

The second point is this: if there is a flaw to such an undertaking it is that arguments are proposed and conclusions drawn on an incomplete set of data. Some arguments more than others appear quite vulnerable to being undone as Martin delivers the final novels in the series. For that however, we’ll have to wait to see.

Highly recommended.

Book Details:

Title: Beyond the Wall: Exploring George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, From A Game of Thrones to A Dance with Dragons

Editor: James Lowder

Publisher: Smart Pop (An Imprint of BenBella Books), distributed by Perseus Distribution

Publication: June 26, 2012, $14.95 (CAN $17.50), Paper, ISBN: 978-1-936661-74-9

Official website.

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