On September 30th, the Book Club met for its third discussion, this time diving into George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Michael Koss attended the discussion, led by English Department professor Anne Clark Bartlett, and gives us the rundown below.
One does not attend Book Club for the food. One does not immediately feast on said food when A Song of Ice and Fire is up for discussion at Book Club.
George R. R. Martin, author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series—the source material for HBO’s Game of Thrones—has a tendency to bring narrative meals especially full of the macabre and morose into readers’ literary realms. But we love him for it all the more. Since the Nineties, Martin has immersed readers in his fictional Westeros—a world not historically far from our own—fattening his characters and us with indulgent paragraphs of feasts in high halls, educating us on histories we wished we learned in school, and impaling us, too, with the sharp knives that often lacerate our favorite characters. No serious reader of Martin’s would deny this along-for-the-ride empathy; we’ve all felt it before. (Ned!) Martin’s talent for making the mortal end so vivacious and eternal, still raging in our minds, fresh and clear and red, even after a thousand pages of his novels have passed, is part of what makes A Song of Ice and Fire so addictive and engrossing, like a meal you want to last forever.
Back at the Book Club, in time, the food was eaten, the Reins of Castamere without orchestration, and the group next tucked into hearty discussion. Contrasts between the books and HBO’s interpretation were noted—naturally, favor stood by the books—and there developed an agreement, or an awareness, at least, that Martin’s massively successful series was about more than jousts and intrigues, though they do satisfy the aspiring knights and Machiavellians in most of us.
Martin’s books are about humans, symptomatic and nuanced. Black and white characters rarely exist in Westeros, and those that might at first glance seem so are worthy of a second look. Their identities are cast through a prism, and they play across the page in a mess of shades. The group considered the subtlety with which Martin crafted this dynamic, noting that their misdoings, as in, say, the case of Jamie Lannister, come from a familial instinct. Protecting the family. Protecting Cersei. In this way, Jamie’s actions—as crippling and murderous as they have been—are grounded. He is not an animal. His actions may be unforgivable, but they are understandable. In characters like these, Martin displays a nuanced world populated by characters in whom we recognize ourselves.
Considering this, I recall my mother asking, on several occasions, about Martin’s work, grimacing as she inquires. “I don’t understand why you like that show”—in her mind, the books and shows are one in the same; to a point, she is right— “Is anyone good?”
“Is anyone bad?”
The answer, I think, is no. While we may wholeheartedly despise any one of Martin’s characters that are still alive, in each and every one there is, if one reads carefully enough, an underpinning purpose, a rationale for their actions. Evil for the sake of evil is boring. Good for the sake of good is predictable. Martin has brought us a world that is both fantastical, far beyond the average readers’ reality and a near-perfect mirror image of our own actual reality.
The Book Club on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire produced a nuanced discussion on a book series that can, at times, be overlooked for its untraditional approach to high fantasy. It was a discussion that amused, enlightened, and was appreciated for the complexity it emphasized in a series that works very hard to emphasize characters as people—as us.