After reading a marketing email about how one of the characters in the series by George R. R. Martin is the Mother of Branding as well as the Mother of Dragons, I decided I would give the books a try. The first book in the series A Song of Ice and Fire is Game of Thrones. While it has been a bestselling novel and one of the most watched shows on HBO for many years, I have never done HBO so this is my first experience of the book.
“In the game of thrones, you win or you die”
This is the major theme of the first book, mentioned multiple times by different characters. I was reading and I realized that the people who win the throne are not true winners. As a matter of fact, the only people who work their way to some point of rest are those who have died.
So, my theme for the book review is to twist Martin’s words back against him: in the game of thrones, you lose.
Or you die.
There are no winners.
Now, if you are a major fan of the book or television series, you may start arguing with me, but realize that this is a review of one book from a new fan. I will not have your point of view on the characters that somehow manage to survive the next few books and make a life for themselves. But, even so, I am going to hypothesize that this theme will continue through the books.
To borrow from Longfellow,
The vanquished in A Song of Ice and Fire is the victor of the field.
I saw several other reviews that praised Martin for creating a fantasy world that was more realistic than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings epic, set in a medieval plot-line loosely based on the English War of Roses, where the houses of Lancaster and York fought each other (and everyone else) for the throne of England.
I don’t know that the amount of violence portrayed in the book is true to medieval life.
But, this book fits in well with pre-Christian epics like the Illiad, the Odyssey, or the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Yes, it uses military techniques and technology from around 800-1200 AD Europe, including the massed hordes of horse archers used by Moslem, Mongol, and Hunnish armies and the knights and longbowmen of England and France.
But, as a fantasy, it also pulls together a unique blend of the brutal intricacies of Greco-Roman family politics with the magic of Norse and Celtic mythologies and the capriciousness of Homeric deities.
In other words, the good, the bad and the ugly in this work is more of a reflection of the author and our modern culture than it is of any other human culture in history.
The Theme of Death in Game of Thrones[Spoiler Alert]
The book starts in the 15th year of the reign of Robert, a minor foil in the series. His inability to mourn and move on from his young love has lead to a power vacuum in the kingdom. Through the book we discover how little he has actually done in his kingdom; he has not even sired any children to carry on his line. All his wife’s children were in fact made in an incestuous affair she carried on for the entirety of her marriage.
Before the opening of the series, we read about the war with the descendants of the dragon kings whose own incestuous habits had lead to a high degree of instability in the family. The last dragon king was known as a mad man. His surviving son is also crazy.
So, we learn that the main characters have ALL lost family members in the last war, including fathers, brothers, sisters, children.
In the course of the book, the king dies and the main male character, Ned Stark also dies.
Ned is the most consistent character in the series. Besides one somewhat mysterious affair when he was on the war path, no one knows who the mother of his son is, he has lived committed to his wife, Catelyn. He honors his friends and his enemies alike through plain spoken candor. But, as he attempts to fill the power vacuum left by his friends’ poor life and untimely death, he gets outsmarted by the Queen, betrayed by many, and executed after he issues a false confession in an attempt to save his daughter’s life.
Ned’s death removes him from the survival equation, mostly unscathed. He dies as a moral and virtuous man, just like those who died before him.
The survivors in the Game of Thrones have not won, but they have all lost much.
They lost the love of a joyful home. They lost the love of a healthy marriage bed, if they ever had it. They lost the peace of a truly just government. They lost sanity. They lost loved ones on the battle field, on the sickbed, and in the intrigues of various court battles.
The survivors are attempting to hold on, to survive for another day.
And the book ends the way it begins: with hurt people playing a game for a transitional power structure and a sense of identity where death is the only victor.
Yes, Game of Thrones is an interesting read, but I have to follow it up with something more full of hope. So I leave you with the entirety of Longfellow’s poem as my response to the first book in A Song of Fire and Ice.
As one who long hath fled with panting breathLongfellow
Before his foe, bleeding and near to fall,
I turn and set my back against the wall,
And look thee in the face, triumphant Death,
I call for aid, and no one answereth;
I am alone with thee, who conquerest all;
Yet me thy threatening form doth not appall,
For thou art but a phantom and a wraith.
Wounded and weak, sword broken at the hilt,
With armor shattered, and without a shield,
I stand unmoved; do with me what thou wilt;
I can resist no more, but will not yield.
This is no tournament where cowards tilt;
The vanquished here is victor of the field.