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 be aware that George RR Martin bases much of his fantasy on elements of history. It’s rather the approach I’ve taken in a certain project of my own, but it struck me that there’s also something more particular that Mr Martin is doing in his epic series.

What I’m referring to is that George is not just basing fantasy on history and the harsher reality thereof. Because it seems to me that he’s also, in his characteristic uncompromising style, expressing how treasured unrealistic fantasy tropes might actually be realised in a historical setting. I’m particularly talking Tolkien-derivative characters, and tropes common to lower grade fiction and role-playing games which – whether we love them still or just remember them fondly – George RR Martin is subjecting to what Alan Moore might call an ‘affectionate character assassination’.

The image of the noble hero, knightly or otherwise, is of course brutalised into redundancy as a tone-setter more or less from the start (I think we’re all clear on how doing the ‘right thing’ works out for Ned Stark). And the knightly class in Martin’s world is otherwise emphatically populated by brutes, sadists, oathbreakers and worse. On a different note everyone’s essentially human: we discover significantly later that there is an ancient race somewhat analogous to elves though, on the other hand, Tyrion – probably my favourite character – was possibly Martin saying ‘Okay, we will have a dwarf’. Maybe not – but on to more specific tropes.
‘Rangers’, present here in the form of the Night’s Watch, are more of a non-historic allowance of Martin’s. The fantasy ranger is essentially a lesser derivative of a pure Tolkien invention (who are actually possessed of a few supernormal sensory abilities from elven ancestry). 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 areas designated as the kings forest. Still Martin’s crows have some relevance to Tolkien’s rangers:

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

Their nature in Martin’s world is characteristically unenviable, an array of dirty dozens who’ve chosen or been forced into a life of danger and continual hardship without the comfort of a relationship or offspring. Dangerous folk indeed for the dangerous wilds of the north. They – the kingsguard also – partake of the historical holy martial orders (Templars, Hospitallers et al) the kingsguard at least by choice, though religion hardly features in their lives.

Of particular interest to my mind is how Martin captures / subverts female warrior tropes. What he comes up with seems mostly by intent, though in some cases possibly by incident. Brienne is the bluntest example, through whom Martin reminds us that a woman who would most immediately be able to stand up in a martial medieval world would have to possess some unusually large and muscular stature.

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. Her painful naivety torn cruelly from her, we see her develop but in no respect to a ‘fantasy warrior-princess’, rather the ‘historical warrior-woman’. We can scour history for ladies who actually fought and if we are disappointed in the number of incidents of confirmed, real fighting women, there are at least those who lead or influence in a military capacity, even if they do not take part in actual combat. In Martin’s world this, more recently, is Sansa.

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 as well. But it seems Martin has something else in the canon of fantasy tropes in mind for Arya.

Because fiction and RPGs are replete with the anti-hero assassin, generally without particular thought to the historicity of the Islamic Hashishan cult from whom the word is derived. Whether Martin riffs intentionally on the religious angle with The Many Faced God venerated within his assassin cult, or whether it’s simply the frame he wanted for them, this is where aspiring swords-lady Arya Stark ends up.

In Arya – as child or grown woman – we have the option of the skilled lady-warrior, in whom any lack of physical strength by gender is made up for by expert training. Perhaps to Martin’s mind it wasn’t sufficiently realistic for Arya to become a fighter who genuinely could take down any comers; or perhaps he simply always intended her to be trained as an assassin. Either way Arya seems destined to be exceptionally capable in the art of killing. 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 seemed to intend, if not quite in the shape she might have envisaged. We still may see a believable warrior woman in Arya – otherwise I imagine we’ll have the realised trope of honourable anti-heroic fantasy assassin.


But how about the biggest fantasy career trope: how about wizards? Well, in case it wasn’t apparent, 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 certain 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 it’s perhaps first worth touching on the fairly rigid states of medieval society of which there were three classes: Those who fight – the nobility, those who work – the peasantry, and those who pray. Now learning is not the prime function of any of these, but the greatest opportunity to become persons of knowledge is found within the class of those who pray: the priesthood and monks. Indeed there are historical individuals to whom are attributed feats of magic as opposed to the theurgic working of miracles: Ramon Lull, Roger Bacon and Michael Scot to name but three. All were monks.

In Westeros the clerical class is represented by Maesters. They, like the Watch and the Kingsguard, have sworn to some flavour of holy orders and service as advisors and doctors of noble courts. On examination ‘maester’ relates to more than a few other occupations and titles throughout history such as master, magister, magistrate, Charlemagne (Great Charles), and it’s root lies in the biblical Magi, the wise men learned in astrology and, it can be assumed, plenty of other areas. Still, no wizards for us so far.

But with Samwell Tarly’s progression to becoming a maester of the Watch – a character who, aside from some random successes has been an ineffectual counterpoint to his physically capable compatriots – a likely scenario emerges. Because like cubs and scouts who’ve likewise promised to do their best, the magisters collect badges of the areas of learning that they’ve mastered; only, we we gather, there are some badges, of Valyrian steel, not possessed by any current magister 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.

So Mr Martin is set to finally capture another fantasy trope in uncompromising historic form: unpowered wizards performing the romantic role of advisor to kings and lords. But with the potential to emerge empowered once more in the character of Samwell Tarly as the finale approaches. Perhaps 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


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