A Game of Tropes: Roles and Reality in George RR Martin’s Epic Fantasy by Tim Bayley

 

Anyone who’s taken more than a passing interest in Game of Thrones / A Song of Ice and Fire will know that much of it is based on elements of history. While working on projects of a not dissimilar nature myself it struck me that there’s also something more particular that George RR Martin is doing in his epic series.

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What I’m referring to is that our Mr Martin is not just basing fantasy on history and the harsher reality thereof but also, in his characteristic uncompromising style, expressing how treasured fantasy tropes might actually be realised in a historical setting.

Let’s dispense with the noble, knightly hero says George from almost the very start, going on to brutalise the image into redundancy as a tone-setter (I think we’re all clear on how doing the ‘right thing’ works out for Ned Stark). In fact the knightly class in Martin’s world is otherwise emphatically populated by brutes, sadists, and oathbreakers.

On a different note everyone’s essentially human. We discover significantly later that there is an ancient race perhaps analogous to elves. On the other hand, Tyrion – the favourite character of many and superbly played by Peter Dinklage in the TV series – was possibly Martin saying ‘Okay, let’s do dwarves’. But on to more specific tropes.

Rangers – warrior woodsmen – are a Tolkien invention. The term is almost entirely modern, at best an occasional synonym for a forester employed by the king to prevent poaching and generally maintain the forest laws. In fact Tolkien’s rangers are as much race as profession, possessed of distant elven heritage and elevated by a few superhuman senses. Historicity aside and without those abilities bequeathed by their creator, the ranger is a curious staple of fantasy and George RR wanted to play, serving them up in the form of the Night’s Watch with some surface relevance to Tolkien’s rangers:

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“Dangerous folk they are — wandering the wilds” – The Fellowship of the Ring, Script

In Martin’s world their existence is characteristically unenviable, dirty dozens who’ve chosen or been forced into swearing to a life of peril and hardship – dangerous folk indeed for the wilds of the north. They, along with the kingsguard, partake of the historical holy martial orders (Templars, Hospitallers et al) the latter at least by choice, even if religion hardly features in their lives.

But what’s of particular interest is how Martin captures / subverts the trope of the female warrior, mostly by intent though in some cases possibly by incident. Brienne is the bluntest example, through whom Martin expresses that a woman who would most immediately be able to stand up in a violent medieval world would have to possess some unusually large and muscular stature.

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Whether indeed she is lacking in facial beauty next to any other female character is secondary to her unfeminine form (and vocation) for which she is subjected to the most terrible ridicule in her youth and in the present of the story.

Sansa provides the contrast. She’s presented as being painfully naïve, but that naivety is torn cruelly from her. At first glance she’s irrelevant to this discussion; yet if Brienne is our realistic fantasy warrior-woman Sansa is our ‘historical warrior-woman’ in a fantasy setting. We can scour history for ladies who actually fought and while we find no few in legends – especially the shieldmaidens of Norse sagas, present here as Asha (Yara in the TV series) Greyjoy – those confirmed from historical sources are military leaders rather than actual professional fighters. In Martin’s world this, more recently, is Sansa.

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We see the stronger possibility of a female fantasy warrior, initially at least, in boyish Arya Stark studying under a swordmaster. Arya practices with a sword appropriate for her strength, taking on the fact that she is a child. But we discover Martin has something else from the canon of fantasy in mind for Arya.

 

Because fiction and games are replete with the anti-hero assassin, generally without particular thought to the historicity of the Islamic Hashishans from whom the word is derived. Whether or not Martin riffs intentionally on the religious angle with The Many Faced God venerated by his assassin cult, this is where aspiring swords-lady Arya Stark ends up.

In Arya – as youth or grown woman – we have the possibility of the skilled lady-warrior, in whom any lack of physical strength is made up for by expert training, capable of believably slaying enemies by subterfuge if her skill is insufficient. Her story is more about whether she can retain the decency instilled in her by both parents as she pursues her goals and becomes the warrior she always intended if not quite in the shape she might have envisaged.

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But how about the biggest fantasy career trope: how about wizards? Well you might be surprised to discover that history offers comparatively little by way of documented evidence of card-carrying mages lobbing sorcerous missiles at one another. Accordingly there’s no wizard, heroic or otherwise, to wave a wand at in Westeros, the closest thing being the dark theurgy employed by devotees of the Red God (their religion quite pointedly representing the worst elements and excesses of Christianity).

But if there had been actual wizards in medieval times where would we find them? Well society was pretty rigidly framed with people belonging to one of three classes: Those who fight – the nobility, those who work – the peasantry, and those who pray. Of these the greatest opportunity for arcane knowledge is found within the latter. Indeed there are historical individuals to whom arcane feats are attributed: Ramon Lull, Roger Bacon and Michael Scot to name but three. All were monks.

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In Westeros the clerical class is represented by Maesters. They, like the Watch and the Kingsguard, have sworn to some flavour of holy orders as advisors and doctors of noble courts. Etymologically ‘maester’ relates to more than a few other occupations and titles: master, magister, magistrate, Charlemagne (Charles Magnus or Great Charles). It’s root lies in the biblical Magi, the wise men learned in astrology and, we might assume, other areas besides. Still, no wizards for us in Westeros so far.

But amongst the Night’s Watch is Samwell Tarly, who’s so far been an ineffectual counterpoint to his physically capable compatriots but has been made a maester of the Watch – and here a likely scenario emerges. Because like cubs and scouts (who’ve likewise promised to do their best) maesters collect badges of those areas of learning that they’ve mastered. Only, we gather, there are some badges of Valyrian steel not possessed by any maester thus far encountered.

The smart money’s on that this badge or these badges are concerned with magic and that Samwell Tarly will be the first to wield it in some useable form against the enemies of humanity. Because, yes, Magi is related also to mage and magician (magian with regard to the Zoroastrian Persian priests that they were).

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So Mr Martin is set to finally capture another fantasy trope in uncompromising historic form. He’s had ‘wizards’ all along – just lacking the supernormal agency that would make them wizards with a capital W – performing the romantic role of advisor to kings and lords. But as the finale approaches surely we’ll see hapless Samwell Tarly emerge in that final missing trope.

Martin’s maturity as a writer is most evident in his patience, weaving in plot elements from the start that are realised whole volumes on, the revelation about Hodor being probably the biggest example so far. The emergence of the most iconic fantasy role in the denoument would be the most fitting example, something earned in full on the author’s own terms.

 

Tim B

@timbayley1

Creator Profile: Tim Bayley