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.