I have been tasked with answering Mr. Newcastle on the part of the editors. We decided this would be a good idea because we think he’s wrong, but he wrote nearly two thousand words on the subject, so that might be worth something. That, and I’m single, so my Friday nights are free. Since Mr. Smith gave George R. R. Martin a thorough spanking in his review, I’ll try to limit myself to answer Newcastle’s claims alone.
First, our respondent admits that feast sections with the banners are “usually fifty percent too long.” Thus, they are still too long. Good art knows when to shut up. More troubling is that Newcastle believes the Song of Ice and Fire series to have “an intricate, detailed world.” Since Tolkien is generally the gold standard for lots of fantasy now, we need to be careful with this claim. Anyone who’s read the whole gambit of Middle Earth works knows that that sucker is wound up tighter than a Swiss clock. Indeed, other worlds are great deal more vague (Eddison’s included). But we ought not be touting Martin as intricate when he doesn’t quite stack up. There are other post-Tolkien fantasies that quite outmatch Game of Thrones.
In the second place, Newcastle grossly caricatures Mr. Smith’s opinion when the former writes, “Mr. Smith argues that Martin’s novel lacks imagination…[since]….he does not create characters that, say, represent virtue and vice in a Manichean morality play.” Newcastle accuses Smith of seeing the world “monochromatically.” The former no doubt prefers a more “realistic” approach, replete with a scaled spectrum of virtue and vice. However, I have a hard time sympathizing with this analysis when the notorious three “F’s” (fighting, feasting, and concupiscence) dominate the social interactions of Martin’s world. There really is little culture; perhaps this is because the cultus is reserved to babbling old ladies. In reality, things are indeed much more intricate than this. The skeptical and devout—the sacrificially virtuous and selfishly vile—inhabit all levels of society. But the authentic man—the non-consequentialist, to use ethical terms—has no room for the “realistic” and “practical.” That is, of course, if the eternal and spiritual realm isn’t real. If I may steal an insight from John Lukacs, oftentimes when people argue for a “unrelentlessly realistic” take on the world, they really mean a materialistic one.
The same goes for other virtues as well. The whole populace of Martin’s world is all quite grey—perhaps fifty shades thereof? Unfortunately for Newcastle’s thesis, mankind seems to be, in the words of Peter Augustine Lawler, “stuck with virtue.” Man cannot become so utterly craven and evil that he never ever exercises something of virtue. On the wider scale, in the medieval period, not all lords were cruel and exploitive taskmasters. Some at the same time were sacrificially noble and won the love of their subjects. The dilemmas and clashes with such characters makes history and fictional literature interesting. Fiction authors may reflect this or not if they so desire. They can shoot for complex character explanation, symbolic figures, absurdity, and so forth. Regardless, making the entire ruling class a niggardly evil rabble is unrealistic in the deepest sense and proves to be a moral bore. That Martin tries to create a near-virtueless fantasy world really does not separate him from most of Hollywood during the summer blockbuster season.
Now, to really understand Mr. Smith’s position on the morality issue, let us look at his alternative book, The Worm Ouroboros. Labels of “good guy” and “bad guy” simply fail to apply to the story’s characters. One might as well use the same for characters in the Homeric Iliad. Is Achilles good? Bad? The question is rather hard to answer (and perhaps not the most perceptive to ask). The Worm is truly pagan. Greatness, beauty, and honor fill out the spectrum of virtue. The Witches at Carce may be despicably crafty like the Greeks seemed to the Romans in the Aenead, but one does not find the clarity found in Le Morte D’arthur since the pre-Christian pagans often lacked the Hebrew conception of exclusive holiness. Smith’s love of the Worm does not reveal some kind of puritanical impulse for white and black hats; he simply finds the moral imagination—even of the heathen—to be more compelling than the world of Martin.
As for sexuality, I really find Newcastle’s stance indefensible. I’m pretty sure George Martin would use the adverb “boobily” if it could be found in a dictionary. The man has some seriously absurd understandings on sex. No doubt this will keep our gentle nerds celibate or on the offender database for the decades to come. Contrast this with the response garnered from the high Germanic-style women of Eddison’s book: dread and awe. From the massy coils of the noble ladies of Mercury springs a particular fear that could only emanate from some kind of divine feminine. Seriously, Lady Mevrian and Lady Prezmyra give Wagner’s Brunhilde a run for her money. And their power comes not from 1) prowess with the sword or 2) prowess in, ahem, other things.
Newcastle’s strongest point is this: “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.” Though the very existence of this defense may cause me to mistrust his taste, I confess I haven’t read more than the first book in the series. Unfortunately, life is short and I don’t have much time to wade through crap. I will never read The Shack since the long-passed Lancelot Andrewes wrote some of the best theology in the English language and the still very much alive N. T. Wright produces fascinating, more accessible tomes on soteriology. Similarly, I’ll neither patronize Martin’s wares nor punish myself with reading them when Eddison, Williams, and Snuri Sturluson remain on my reading list.
Mr. Newcastle pokes fun at us for condemning the popular. What is more, we do so in a supercilious manner. He no doubt would prefer a much friendlier, happier, and culturally-accommodating blog, an example of which can be found here. To this, I answer on behalf of our editors: we’re the goddamn Hipster Conservative.
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- Against N.W. Smith: A Game of Thrones is Good Fantasy