Last night we saw the opening of the 4th season of Game of Thrones, one of the most popular and important series ever adapted from print to screen. Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Narnia all have their place in fiction firmly cemented, and the theatrical versions have, mostly, done them justice. Of them all, however, it is George R.R. Martin‘s masterwork that is by far the most compelling, fully developed, and surprising.
Epic Fantasy gets short shrift from a lot of non-fans due to some really grating problems that were clearly outlined by Piers Anthony, the man who decided that puns were the easiest way to make money and so resolved to write books that were as full of them as the language would allow. Plot and story would ultimately be bent and shaped to fit the puns, not the other way around, and it got very tedious very quickly.
I haven’t read most of the Xanth novels, only about four, I think, The one that pretty much guaranteed I would stop reading them, however, was the one where Okra Ogress, Jenny Elf, and whothefuckever was with them decided to completely ruin epic fantasy by laying out the Rules for us: namely, nothing bad ever happens to a Main Character. Sure, Luke Skywalker got his hand cut off in Star Wars, and Walker Boh lost his arm in “The Druid of Shannara” but those were mild inconveniences, really. Those characters were never in any real danger of actually dying, and Luke got a neat bionic hand that was virtually indistinguishable from the original.
It was worse than reading about Chekhov’s Gun. When you know the protagonist isn’t in any real danger, the dramatic tension is gone, and why even bother reading now? To see how many times the hero almost gets caught? When an established, successful author tells you that the Good Guys Never Lose, then what is the point? How are we supposed to believe their intellectual or moral growth is real? What we’re left with is just socially acceptable violence, nothing more.
George R.R. Martin turns that idea on it’s head by giving us A Song of Ice and Fire. Zombies versus dragons and a world laid to waste between them. No matter which side ultimately triumphs, the world itself will be shattered and torn asunder. This is not necessarily new ground, Martin has really just changed the names of the characters, but aside from some magical jewelry, this could be Lord of the Rings.
What makes this work stand out from the crowd, however, is Martin’s eagerness to break with convention. Very Bad Things happen to Major Characters all the time, and the idea of the protagonist being safe from death is tossed on the bonfire as Martin ruthlessly cuts down characters with horrific ease.
Joffrey‘s decision to kill Ned Stark set off a chain reaction that has torn the Seven Kingdoms asunder leaving a mountain of corpses behind, many of which were Major Characters: Rob, and Catelyn Stark are the most recent examples, and the most compelling. Wasn’t this series about House Stark? It opens in the North, they seem to be the most noble and righteous, if not perfect, of the noble Houses of Westeros…aren’t they the Heroes? And aren’t Heroes (mostly) safe from harm?
In most series the answer would be a resounding “Yes!” From Robert Jordan‘s (often tedious) Wheel of Time to the absurdly action-packed Drizzt Do’urden novels of R.A. Salvatore, the white hats are tested often and while some will bend, none will break. Westeros is a much different, much harsher place where winters last for years and the mightiest can be laid low by carelessness.
Last night we returned to this world and spent a little time with all of the major factions.
Daenerys Targaryen is still marching her army of newly-freed slaves (both the elite Unsullied and the untrained slaves who follow her) towards the city of Yunkai on a mission to free still more slaves. At the same time, her dragons are growing larger, now taking down whole cattle to feed themselves. When Drogon snaps his teeth at her, Danaerys begins to realize that the stories of dragons she was raised on didn’t cover the reality of dragons.
These aren’t pets, they are vicious killers that will need a strong hand to control them.
Meanwhile back in Westeros where the rest of the cast is hanging out, we pay our first visit to King’s Landing, home to the Iron Throne and the king who occupies it.
The Lannisters have Jamie back, but the reunion isn’t exactly the happiest since, despite losing his sword hand, he refuses to bow to father Tywin‘s wishes and leave the Kingsguard to take up residence as Lord of Casterly Rock. Jamie‘s son/nephew Joffrey is still a ponce, this time going out of his way to mock his father/uncle because there are no great deeds listed under Jamie‘s name in the history of the Kingsguard. At the same time Joffrey is claiming an end to the civil war and naming himself hero of the day, a point that Jamie knows better than to press. And he can’t even find comfort in the arms of the woman he loves, Cersei. She has been giving him the cold shoulder, angrily telling him that “he took too long” to get back to her.
Cersei cannot stand the idea that her beautiful, perfect brother is no longer perfect, his maiming is a constant reminder that her own beauty is fading, that she is being eclipsed by the young Queen-to-be Margaery Tyrell. We can only expect things to get worse, I’m sure.
Fan-favorite Tyrion Lannister finds himself sent out to meet the prince of near-by Dorne when he is told that Oberyn Martel the infamous Red Viper will be visiting instead. We’re introduced to the Viper and his lover Elaria Sand in some of GoT‘s trademark sexposition when Tyrion finds them at a Lannister brothel where Martel has gone to let the lions of Casterly Rock know he is coming seeking vengeance for the death of his sister and her children at the hands of Tywin Lannister‘s pet thug the Mountain.
Then, because he doesn’t have enough trouble, his lover Shea decides that she needs to come harass him in the chambers he shares with his wife, Sansa. There quarrel is so loud that one of Cersei‘s spies hears it and decides to make a report.
Sansa continues to mope around the castle, a shuttlecock waiting to be batted by the next player to use her for some sort of advantage. The less said about her the better, I think. It’s a shame that the actress had to play such an uninteresting character, but someone had to do it, I suppose.
Jon Snow has made it back to Castle Black and had the arrows Ygritte put in him removed. Sadly some of the men on the leadership council don’t believe him, so they’re going to be very surprised when Mance Rayder and his Wildlings show up at the gates.
As to them, apparently they aren’t especially choosy about their allegiances, even bringing on a clan of ritualistically scarred cannibals. My enemy’s enemy is my friend, right?
Finally we turn our attention to Arya Stark, the Legend in Training. Alone with Sandor Clegane, the Hound, they really don’t have anyone in the world except for each other now. And while there might be affection growing between them, it is a rough, grudging affair between a man who has only known cruelty and a girl who has had her world shattered by the same.
Unlike Sansa, little Arya was never cut out for a life of silks and lace; her interests always lay with adventurous pursuits like archery and fencing. Now that she is adrift in the world she clings to two things: hatred for those who have wronged her, and the desire to see them fall by her hand. For his part, the Hound has nothing except this girl, and maybe a small chance at redemption. This could be his opportunity to write his own page of heroic deeds, much like Jamie Lannister has.
Only time reveals if they will take it.