Painting by Delacroix: Attila and his hordes overrun Italy and the Arts

Against N.W. Smith: A Game of Thrones is Good Fantasy

Painting by Delacroix: Attila and his hordes overrun Italy and the Arts
Delacroix: Attila and his hordes overrun Italy and the Arts

By R. M. Newcastle, an unabashed fan

Judging by his review Game of Moans (considering the links on the first page of Google results for that phrase, I fear the author’s phrasing was a bit untoward), published in July’s issue, N. W. Smith seems to suffer from the ineluctably hipsterish notion that a book—and his belief easily extends to any work in any artistic medium—must be profound or Elizabethan or inscrutable in order to be “good” or worth recommending, and forbid it Lord that it be popular, an adjective loathsome to the sensibilities of a discriminating consumer. In prolepsis I ought to remark that my belief that Mr. Smith recoils from popularity is grounded in his pretentious final sentence: “So it [Eddison’s novel] shall remain an obscure work for fantastical hipsters, while everyone else reads books like Game of Thrones [sic].”

Though I cannot comment on the quality of Eddison’s novel, since I have not read it, I can say with certainty that I find as risible Mr. Smith’s idea that discerning readers must choose between The Worm Ouroboros and A Game of Thrones (or the whole series A Song of Ice and Fire, for that matter)—that “fantastical hipsters” ought to read the former and leave all of the local library’s copies of the latter to those “gentle nerd[s]” who might come to know a good fantasy book only if it condescended to them and soliloquized in praise of itself—as the idea that they must choose between The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. In fact I recommend Tolkien’s and Lewis’s series, as well as the Space Trilogy and Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, alongside Martin’s series. I imagine if I eventually read Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, I will recommend at least some of its books to my friends. This is not to say that any book, so long as it entertains, is good; instead I offer that commercial success does not negate worth. Having so opined, I will keep the substance of my rebuttal to the portions of Smith’s review pertaining to A Game of Thrones.

Mr. Smith calls Martin’s novel “entertaining … [but] not imaginative.” This lack of imagination seems to be a sticking point for Mr. Smith, and he asserts it for two reasons. First, he offers the example of Martin’s descriptions of banners and sigils and claims they are not florid or dense with metaphor. (I will allow that Martin’s descriptions of feasts are usually fifty percent too long.) When he contrasts Martin’s narration of lists with that found in Scripture, one wonders if he has recently read Numbers. What symbolic and representative meaning is intricately woven through census data?

If Mr. Smith would care to continue reading at least to the end of the third book, A Storm of Swords (which, in my view, has the best plot, pacing, and characterization of any novel I have read in the genre), he might find that the repeated concatenation of houses, bannermen, and sigils at battles and tournaments throughout the series serves several purposes, primarily foreshadowing and underscoring the size and scope of the story. This trope allows the author to show, say, that House Greyjoy is sworn to House Stark, without requiring the reader to refer to a list of allegiances, knowledge that makes certain characters’ actions later on seem much more despicable (I fear to spoil the plot for those not turned away entirely by Mr. Smith’s review).

And indeed the sigils offer insight to readers hoping for interwoven metaphor. For example, Ramsay Bolton, an exceedingly cruel bastard born to a slightly-less-cruel lord, bears the sigil of the flayed man. Petyr Baelish, the Machiavelli of Westeros, chose a mockingbird for his sigil. Jon Snow discovers direwolves, House Stark’s sigil, in the woods near Winterfell near the beginning of the first book. The mother was recently killed by another house’s sigil animal and she left behind an albino, given to Jon, and five pups, given to the five trueborn Stark children. The lists of banners and sigils are not themselves rich with metaphor for the simple reason that good writers show instead of telling. Why say, “Petyr Baelish, as capable of mimicry and affected sweetness as the mockingbird of his sigil…” when you can show his constant machinations for hundreds of pages before mentioning that his sigil has metaphorical meaning? Of course, that is not to say that every sigil is a metaphor, that every house comes to center stage, or that every banner’s color was chosen for a plot-specific reason. Martin has created an intricate, detailed world in which, sometimes, he describes everything regardless of its importance to the story. It seems Mr. Smith was distracted by his distaste for the novel and failed both to notice the symbols and representations and to allow that in non-allegorical fiction, the story is sometimes more important that the moral.

The second reason Mr. Smith argues that Martin’s novel lacks imagination is that he does not create characters that, say, represent virtue and vice in a Manichean morality play. Please forget Mr. Smith’s assertion that Martin cannot conceive of “the reality of the good man”, the man who maintains his virtue and does not die for it, and allow that a rich cast of characters can include “the virtuous man” (Eddard Stark, many of the maesters, and perhaps Gendry the blacksmith’s apprentice), “the marginally virtuous man” (Jon Snow, who maintains his virtue through nearly three books), “the man virtuous when virtue is advantageous” (Petyr Baelish, perhaps, or at some points Tyrion Lannister), and “the despicable man” (“The Mad King” Aerys II Targaryen and Gregor Clegane), and that all are equally valid constructs in fiction. As are the myriad other types Martin uses: Stannis Baratheon as the legalist, Samwell Tarly as the kind-hearted craven, Ramsay Bolton and Reek as the agents of chaos, and the list goes on. Is it so implausible that virtue is an easy target for power-hungry political enemies? It is nowise difficult to convince corrupt men to kill someone who threatens their corrupt political system and has proven immune to cajoling.

Mr. Smith’s assertion that Martin’s “continuum of shades of grey on the morality scale is not an accurate depiction of the creature that is man”, despite being clichéd in its expression, is an indication that Mr. Smith sees the world, or believes that fantasy authors ought to see the world, monochromatically; this makes it as difficult for Mr. Smith to appreciate the complexity of Martin’s cast as he thinks it would be for an average reader to comprehend Eddison.

Mr. Smith writes that A Game of Thrones is a “page-turner”, but not “a good book, and it does not deserve the accolades it has received.” Perhaps Mr. Smith, holding Eddison in such high regard, would consider Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being a better read than Martin’s series, since Kundera wrote denser, more intellectually engaging prose. I contend that Mr. Smith’s distaste is simply that: taste. That he does not prefer Martin does not preclude Martin’s being good. Let us, however, turn to the specific reasons he gives to support his claim.

It is more than uncharitable to say that Martin narrates between women’s legs. It is false. Mr. Smith is right to say that some women (i.e. Catelyn Stark) care about breeding (both nobility and childbearing) and some use sex as a tool (i.e. Cersei Lannister). I honestly do not know whom he refers to as a man with breasts. Mr. Smith does the book a great disservice, though, to collapse the characters to that one aspect. I would be vilified and called a liar, and rightly so, for claiming that Lewis, finding reality too boring, resorted to narrating in a wardrobe. Not only is calling Martin’s narration “between her legs” as inaccurate as calling Narnia a series of stories about a closet, saying he does not narrate “from the mind of a woman”—as my wife attests—is as ridiculous an assertion as saying Narnia is an ill-written fairy tale.

Lady Catelyn is a devoted mother and wife. “Aching loins”, true, is among Martin’s worse offenses against poetic description, but those offenses are few and infrequent. And in a political system that encourages the valuation of wives by the number of heirs they bear (surely Mr. Smith, calling this a “tired caricature…repeated by the ignorant”, is the misinformed historian in this instance), it is natural that she would hope to give him another son (the next sentence indicates this hope). It is poor critique for Mr. Smith to accuse Martin of one-dimensional characterization based on the existence of that dimension; Mr. Smith neglects Lady Catelyn’s political acumen (a trait more clearly seen in later books), her respect for and admiration of both her lord husband (whom she loves deeply) and her lord father, and her responsible parenting.

Yes, Maester Luwin brings a letter (in which Lady Catelyn’s sister accuses the queen of a particularly suspicious murder) so shocking that Lady Catelyn drops her furs. It must be understood that maesters serve castles as doctors and learned advisors. Maester Luwin had delivered all five of Lady Catelyn’s children; the scene ought not look like she bared herself to a messenger boy. And for the implication he draws between the chill and the nakedness, with no prompting whatsoever in the text, Mr. Smith calls Martin perverted. To stretch the metaphor of The Office, perhaps Mr. Smith plays Michael Scott, constantly browbeating Toby R. R. Flenderson, the unfortunate recipient of his undeserved ire. And briefly, here, I must add that although it does not take two initials to be a serious fantasy author—Mr. and Mrs. Martin otherwise had assuredly high hopes when they christened their child “George Raymond Richard”—it seems it takes two for Mr. Smith to be a serious hipster.

Mr. Smith further criticizes Martin for the phrase, “Three quick strokes and it was done”, which emphasizes the changing power dynamic of another relationship, between a native of Westeros and an Eastern warlord, demonstrating that the woman is no longer allowing herself to be used sexually; three strokes underscore the much greater desire her husband has for her than on the night of their wedding. One may question Martin’s realism in this scene, but to accuse him of sexism indicates that Mr. Smith is startlingly unskilled in reading comprehension.

“Meat cannot be cooked unless over a spittle [sic], nor eaten unless grease runs down one’s face” when Martin describes cooking over a camp fire or the table manners of a warrior. Castles are home to kitchens and nobles eat respectably. One will never find Sansa Stark, her lord father, Cersei Lannister, or her children dribbling grease, nor will one find spit-roasted goat or horse-meat in cultured society.

The knights who skewer peasants and pillage their land are universally shown to be villainous, and their ill behavior is remarked upon with some frequency. Mr. Smith seems to think the rank of knight precludes men from abusing their power. A common theme in Martin’s series is the question of what makes a man honorable and whether or not he can survive in a world that largely forsook honor centuries earlier.

Mr. Smith’s final charge against Martin is that “he is unrealistically pessimistic”. There is little to say to this accusation that I did not write in response to Mr. Smith’s second reason for accusing Martin of being unimaginative, except that I might clarify that statement and say that Martin is “unrelentingly realistic”.

Perhaps Mr. Smith prefers allegorical fiction featuring archetype characters over non-allegorical fiction featuring complicated, conflicted, realistic characters, made to look like living, breathing, bleeding human beings. That is fine. But I think it is Mr. Smith’s condescending pretension—not his imagination—that prevents him from relating to Martin’s protagonists and antagonists and appreciating the depth that Martin has given them.

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