Yes, this is real.
Yes, this is real.
A sword shivers from a scabbard. A lion banner flaps in the early winter wind. The moors are disquiet. To the north are the cold mountains and crags; to the south are the lands of decadence; to the east are the horselords and their strange wild customs. To the west is the open sea, the end of the world, from which no sailor returns. Kings brood in golden halls. Something that isn’t quite the Catholic Church holds sway with the peasantry.
Hey, look at that! We just built 90% of all fantasy settings!
The Medieval European Milieu Experience (MEME for short) is the most common setting for fantasy stories through the last century. That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions – there are tons of exceptions – but the image of fantasy is a decidedly French-British-Germanic one, variations on the theme of the heyday of feudal Christendom.
A Song of Ice and Fire, aesthetically, fits this milieu. The swords are broad and the armor is plated. The main players are kings, queens, lords, and ladies, all dressed in Ren Fest gear, boiled leather, and jeweled hairpieces. It’s a comfortable place for many fantasy fans, this MEME. But while ASOIAF dwells in the MEME, the meat of the series – the blood and sinew, the stuff that makes it move – is uniquely, categorically, American.
In the following essay, I will talk about the myth of the self-made man in America, and how many characters in ASOIAF explore this idea, both in a historical sense and in a literary one, arguing that ASOIAF is a much a part of the Great American Novel Canon as it is the Sci-Fi/Fantasy Hall of Fame.
George R. R. Martin likes boats.
In Arya’s The Blind Girl chapter in A Dance with Dragons, we hear tell of two boats in particular: the Elephant and the Goodheart. These two ships – a pair of Lyseni galleys, crewed by pirates and rascals – dropped anchor at Hardhome after having been driven north by a storm. Ever the enterprising (and amoral) businessmen, the Lyseni pirates offered to take all the women and children from Hardhome to safety. As soon as the women and children were loaded on the galleys, however, they were clapped in chains and hauled off to be sold as slaves at the markets in Lys.
Fate intervened, though. The gales of autumn still blew in the Narrow Sea. Another storm separated the Goodheart and the Elephant. The Goodheart was blown to Braavos, where the Sealord immediately seized her and her cargo. Slaving, after all, is illegal in Braavos. Arya (as Blind Beth) overhears sullen sailors from the Goodheart discussing their plight. She relays their conversation to the Kindly Man:
The unifying idea that ran under all the stories in “The Spoils of War” was the return of magic – including both literal magic, like voodoo and dragons, and the magic of the story, as scattered plot threads are stitched back together like Beric Dondarrion’s flesh and bone.
“DRAGONSTONE” felt very much like exactly what it was: the beginning of the end. The pieces are moving, the old plot threads are coming home to roost.
Overall, I liked this episode. I did. It set up the remaining six episodes of the season, it had some memorable scenes, and generally moved pretty smoothly.
Here’s what I really liked.
As much as GRRM likes to draw on traditional high fantasy tropes, A Song of Ice and Fire is very much a sword-and-sorcery world, akin to something written by Robert E Howard. Howard himself was a contemporary and collaborator with H.P. Lovecraft himself, the father of eldritch weirdness. A lot of people have pointed out the many Lovecraftian elements to the world of ice and fire – from Leng to the Five Forts to Asshai to Toad Isle to the Seastone Chair to Battle Isle to the mazemakers to the squishers.
But there’s one big element that needs to be addressed: the Others.
One common theory is that the Others are, essentially “misunderstood snow elves.” They’re a race whose goals and aims run contrary to human life…but they aren’t necessarily evil. This is a popular theory. Some think there’ll be a pact with the Others, that humans need to resolve their Other-ing of a different race. That to end with a big battle would be disingenuous to the messages of ASOIAF, about hard peace etc.
I disagree. And I promise I’ll explain! But first,
You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!
Spoilers below the cut