Spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire (book series) and Game of Thrones (television series).
George R. R. Martin’s acclaimed fantasy series, which has reinvigorated the fantasy genre and made it even somewhat acceptable to people who might have sneered at it in years past, is a natural place to start a series on thinking about writing worlds, what with the last season underway and all that. I had wondered about starting with the Forgotten Realms or the universe of Dragon Age, but I will save them for later.
Here, I propose to look at how Martin creates the world of A Song and Ice and Fire as an intellectual idea from which a story arises or in the framing of which a story can be told. I am not particularly interested in the geography of Westeros or speculating about the course of the narrative, there are plenty of YouTube channels for that sort of thing far better than I could. The focus is on what it is that draws people into a world which does not actually exist, primarily in terms of the novels but also, inevitably, about the television programme.
First things first: A Song of Ice and Fire is certainly better than anything I have ever written and probably better than anything I will ever write, and I am quite happy to acknowledge that. It is a sad fact of life that it is much easier to pick holes in something than it is to create something.
Secondly, although there are doubtless Q&A sessions, encyclopædias, articles and the like which might address some of my criticisms, they are irrelevant for the purposes of this blog: the point is, to what extent does the chosen medium (the novel) create a world. There is a reason why The Silmarillion and a GM’s notes are only of interest to a chosen few.
Thirdly, this is a blog so I will only be scratching the surface. I hope to give an overview with a few highlights, not an exhaustive analysis.
Finally, I am not so much concerned with specific characters except as they help us understand more about the book’s world. For some, perhaps many readers, that is not the point of literature, but I never claimed that my blog was literature.
With that in mind, I am not, at any point, saying that Martin’s world is bad. In fact, I am choosing to start with it precisely because it is a good world, a well-written world, but one with flaws nevertheless.
Time and Place
Martin has two key elements to the building of his world: the historical timeline and the cultural setting. It is no secret that both the timeline and the cultural setting draw from the real world: Westerosi history is (in no small part) British history, complete with Vikings, Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Romans, and regional stereotypes.
The Iron Bank of Braavos is clearly inspired by the House of Medici, and the Dothraki are Essos’ version of the Mongols. There are particular and important elements of each of these which distinguish them from the real entities on which they were based, but at the core is something based not only in reality but in history, which allows the reader to grasp onto something familiar in the fantastical. We may not understand the finer points of Dothraki culture when we meet them, but we know we can expect ferocious warriors and probably mounted archery. As the story progresses, their culture and religious customs differentiate them further from the Golden Horde, but that is still the reader’s way in.
There is nothing wrong with this. It is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to invent a culture ex nihilo and end up with something believable and compelling. The Empire of the Petal Throne has multiple examples of fleshed-out, alien cultures and yet, for one reason or another, it never caught on in the way that, say, Forgotten Realms did, and I suspect that the sheer strangeness of it all was the key factor. Looking back at it 34 years later, we can see other issues, but they were not necessarily hindrances at the time.
Dothraki are also certainly not the first example of their kind. The Mongols also inspired other fictional cultures: Star Trek’s Klingons, Sword of the Stars’ Morrigi, and Legend of the Five Rings’ Unicorn Clan, to name only three. The Morrigi are a particularly interesting case because, although there is certainly a strong core of ‘Mongols IN SPACE’ to them, they are also psychic bird-dragons with a culture deeply informed by their psionic powers, a genocidal atrocity committed against them, and the fact that half the species spends most of its time living aboard spacecraft.
The comparison between the Dothraki and the Morrigi helps show how an idea can grow beyond its kernel. Indeed, it may be that the Morrigi received a Mongol gloss later in the creative process, rather than stemming from the culture. It could also be that Martin began with the idea of a horde of equestrian nomads and the Mongolian influence inevitably crept in afterwards. I think these are unlikely, but they are possible. Nevertheless, the Dothraki – like the Northmen and one or two other groups – are fleshed out enough to be engaging, and others that are not are at least developed enough to add to the story.
Faiths and Followers
Martin falls down more in his portrayal of religion. Quick! What are the key tenets of the Faith of the Seven? How do followers of the Drowned God explain the seasons? What are the ceremonial or theological requirements to become a priest or priestess of the Lord of Light?
Real religions are overtly concerned with the whole of human experience and, historically, were deeply entrenched not only in the power structures but in the cultures where they existed. In many places, they still are. A Song of Ice and Fire allows us to think we know what the religions in it are like without actually going into too much detail. We probably know more about Melisandre’s faith than we do about that of most devotees of the Seven simply because, until the High Sparrow’s storyline began, the Faith of the Seven was presented as belief in a vaguely Celtic/Hindu/Christian god with seven faces, but all the trappings were clearly based around Medieval Roman Catholicism and the reader is left to infer the rest. Can anyone become a septon or septa? Are they of equal rank in the eyes of the faith? What authority do they have? Is marriage of sacramental or theological significance? How does that relate to the cultural imperative to prove consummation? Did the High Septon have authority to depose clergy he did not like, or was his position purely political? Why do Faceless Men and Red Priests have magic when the septons do not? How do theologians of the Seven square the clearly efficacious magic of heathen priests with the Seven’s apparent impotence? What are their rites and ceremonies? In short, what do they do all day?
Now, it could be that there are answers to these questions written in companions to the series or in Martin’s notes, or even in his head, but we do not see them for most of the story. Consequently, the faiths hide behind a series of symbols and the reader is left to infer much of the content for most of the books. This makes them seem shallow and lifeless compared to most of the rest of the story’s world. It could be that Martin did this deliberately: perhaps he sees himself more as an historian than a theologian, or perhaps he was concerned that people would misinterpret his portrayals of religion and see in them an attack on a specific faith, most likely Christianity, elements of which can be seen in or read into all the major religions: the title ‘Lord of Light’ is used to refer to God, and even though R’hllor occupies a dualist cosmology more akin to Zoroastrianism than Christianity, the idea of priests going abroad, converting the natives, burning their idols and their heretics alike, and waiting for a promised saviour, is all perhaps a little on the nose for some, although not as crass as a certain moment in HBO’s The Battle of Winterfell.
The Drowned God’s baptism, the rescue from suffering of the Many-Faced God, the weirwood trees as sources of knowledge and communion with the departed, all of these can be seen in some form in Christianity. Less obviously to most readers, they have clear parallels in other faiths as well: in Buddhism, Nirvana is the state beyond suffering believers try to attain, and Siddhartha Gautama came to enlightenment under a fig tree, for example.
Catelyn Stark is portrayed as a woman of some faith, a facet drawn out more in the television series, but because we do not know what that faith actually entails, what it requires, or what it actually means, we know less about her, except that it informs her motherliness in some way. Her faith could have been contrasted with the corruption of the High Septon but, for all the reader knows, his supposedly immoral actions could have been part of the exercise of his station: perhaps the Warior blesses sexual conquest, and perhaps there is theological significance for a man to move from a state of spiritual maidenhood to the experienced but world-weary facet of the Crone. The reader only really learns that this is all not so after the High Septon’s fall and before then has to intuit it due to his familiarity with a real-world religion. Had Martin developed these ideas more, Catelyn’s story could have acted as a potent foil to the High Sparrow’s and to Melisandre’s. As it is, what should or, at least, could have been a vital element of the story’s lifeblood is a surprisingly fragile façade. Martin has, essentially, created his religions as he has created his cultures but stopped the development at an earlier stage.
Spoilers and Sorcery
Magic is also a large part of the world. The books are shy about explaining the magic system, if there is one, and so, to draw upon Brandon Sanderson’s definitions, what the reader experiences is either a well-portrayed “soft” magic system, not entirely unlike that of The Lord of the Rings, or a “hard” magic system whose rules are deliberately concealed in order to maintain an air of mystery.
We can infer a little about the magic from the books: there is power in the blood of kings and of certain lineages and also dragons, and there is an element of instinct about it. Thoros brings back Beric Dondarrion almost by accident; Bran possesses Hodor in a moment of stress and need; Daenerys leaps into Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre with little warning, compelled by something ineffable, her hopes and expectations for herself and the eggs foreshadowed but unstated. What does the reader learn about magic from this? Very little concrete: was it the sacrifice of Mirri Maz Duur on the pyre that breathed life into the eggs? The words of House Targaryen are ‘Blood and Fire’ after all. Did Daenerys have to be with them in the fire? What would have happened if she had simply observed? We cannot be certain. This sense of mystery and uncertainty is very good for the atmosphere of the story due to Martin’s strong writing but he runs a very real risk.
When characters whose magical powers are not explained use new powers to solve a problem, it can be a form of deus ex machina. It can also be a way of protecting characters or nudging the storyline in a certain direction without having to do much work. When Melisandre uses her illusions to save Mance Rayder, the impact of the revelation is undermined by the lack of foreshadowing or outright demonstration of such a power. In A Dance with Dragons she reveals to the reader her use of powders to make her magic seem more impressive than it actually is, and the warlocks of the House of the Undying have some power of illusion, so it is not completely out of nowhere, but it is still one of the weaker resolutions in the series.
Keeping the mechanics secret can also have other consequences: Melisandre has not been able to create any more shadow monsters due to the dearth of kings able to provide the power required to create them. Yet, Stannis was not even crowned king when the first monsters were unleashed, and his blood had power despite the fact that at that point he was a pretender. Robert seized the throne through conquest, not through any royalty in his own blood, so the source of this magical power is rather dubious unless Stannis inherited it through Rhaelle Targaryen, his grandmother, who, unless I am very much mistaken, is not named in A Song of Ice and Fire, nor HBO’s A Game of Thrones. If a reader has to look at companion volumes of questionable canonical status in order to find justifications for the twists in a story, it is probably not a good sign for a fictional world’s internal consistency.
On the other hand, refusing to spell out the magical rules can make for good storytelling as well: when Melisandre burns the leeches to curse Robb Stark, Balon Greyjoy, and Joffrey Baratheon, does her magic result in their deaths? Or are their deaths a result of their own actions inspiring treachery? Is Melisandre herself surprised? Is that why she does not simply suggest leeching Edric Storm and killing off rivals one by one, because her ruse will be discovered? Remember, in the books, she wants to revive the dragons under Dragonstone. Such a convoluted motivation is rather harder to rationalize for the television series.
The place of sex and gender in A Song of Ice and Fire is a controversial topic for a reason. It is no secret that much of the show’s popularity and fame is built around the considerable physical assets which the cast frequently displays. Martin chose to represent a brutal fantasy world which (in Westeros) is unflinching in its hostility towards women, homosexuality, disability, and the “abnormal”. More than one commentator has pointed out that there is already more than enough genre fiction which does exactly the same and perhaps it might be refreshing to do something different. Yet, these elements are also subservient to a broader theme, that of violence: in Martin’s bloodthirsty saga, the powerful can always crush the weak, and the powerful can always make exceptions for themselves. There is no place for a Starscream in this universe.
I would hope that the forms of oppression seen in A Song of Ice and Fire are there, at least in part, to consider the individual and societal injustices around us, rather than to titillate or provide a reinforcement for the lamentable attitudes which still pervade societies around the world, because the specific kinds of oppression that we see still exist. We might well be due a story in which an oppressive matriarchy lords (ladys?) it over male chattel, or an enlightened meritocracy overthrows an oppressive caste system, but the story being told, the world being created, would be very different.
Martin’s propensity for murdering characters can also cause a certain amount of friction for the reader. Why become invested in a character if, at any moment, that character could die? To that, there can only be the answer of individual taste. I was horrified by the Red Wedding, but other aspects of the books – the writing, the characterization, the world itself – kept me invested. Martin juggles the senseless deaths with the tragic, the poetic, the ironic, and the dramatic, all of which inform the story and the world in different ways. Tywin’s death was probably the most impressive example, for me, because it straddled all of these forms.
Language and Linguistics
These points are rather more tangential than what I might call the core of world-building, and so, to return to that core, my final main point relates to language. Martin includes just enough fictional language to sustain the story without swamping the reader with imaginary terms. Valar morghulis is probably the most recognizable phrase to have arisen from the series, but other engaging words like R’hllor, arakh, and the various applications of the khal stem (khalasar, khaleesi, etc.) all spring to mind. The use of Your Grace rather than Your Majesty works in terms of the show’s medieval-fantasy premise: Your Majesty was first used by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor in 1519.
There are still a few oddities, though. From where does the term ser come and why is it spelled that way? British knights are called sir, derived from sire. There is no clear explanation for ser. Why do all Seven Kingdoms speak the same language with hardly any variation? Ease of narrative, probably, but it would have been easy to slip in a line about maesters standardizing language as an inevitable consequence of their centralized training; but even then, consider countries like Luxembourg which have three languages and use them all interchangeably despite the fact that the country is tiny, or Germany whose regional dialects are sometimes mutually unintelligible. The German comedian (YES I KNOW, TRUST ME, THEY DO EXIST) Bodo Wartke even has an act in which he spoofs the fact, deliberately mixing up Arabic and Bavarian German for comic effect.
The result is that a whole continent’s language became standardized at some point and then never diverged except, perhaps, in Flea Bottom, where, according to HBO, things are really very weird.
Martin’s world is rich and, where its composition is weaker, his strong writing, compelling dialogue, and complex characters smooth over the cracks. The world’s history informs the cultures within, and those cultures are close enough to those we recognize that it is easy to remain invested in them as they diverge, and there is just enough fictional verbiage to reinforce cultural forces like Braavosi religion and the doomed Valyrian Empire. If the writing is let down anywhere, it is in the construction and/or deployment of magic and religion, but those points are not enough to break a sense of immersion, suspense, and entertainment. Through A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin has set the bar for a new generation of fantasy writers very high indeed.