Warning! Here be spoilers for the Game of Thrones episode “The Rains of Castamere”, and also for the books.
There is an existential bleakness and cynicism at the heart of George Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books that often makes them hard to take. As a reader, you can fall in love with them, but sometimes it feels more like falling into an abyss, as they steadfastly refuse to return your love with anything in the way of hope, romance or joy. The big, set-piece deaths, of characters like Ned Stark, and the events of the Red Wedding, are the most famous examples of Martin’s unflinching brutality, but while these are huge shocks in the narrative, their contribution towards the tone is surpassed by the many small cuts of equally bleak, but smaller moments. Mistakes, misunderstandings, lies, accidents, abuse, assaults, maimings and murders are the constant currency of the books and their culmulative effect is one of slow dawning, depressive horror.
What makes it possible to bear the books, even to love them, is two things: The first is the barest traces of light that Martin allows to infiltrate his work. The characters of Jon Snow, Arya Stark, and Tyrion Lannister endure terrible things, but their respective honour, vitality, and wit provides a small candle amid all the darkness that the reader can hold on to, even if they are all the while wondering when Martin will snuff it out, that stops the books from turning into an unbearable slog. It’s no surprise that when the books’ focus shifts away from these characters, to others like the Martells, that they tend to suffer. The second thing is the sheer richness of the world and its mythology. The endless details of long dead lords and kings, myths, stories and past wars can be overwhelming, but they also help make Westeros more than just a killing field, into an edifice of the imagination. The richness of the language and descriptions of pageantry, landscape and feasting make the barbarity easier to swallow. It’s like a masterful painting of a scene of carnage, the technique can’t disguise the horror, but its skill can make it more palatable.
The TV series makes the story bearable in similar and different ways. One way is by filing off the roughest edges of the story. While the adaptation retains the biggest, darkest beats of the story, the murders and the maimings of the protagonists, lesser ones are skipped, reduced or simply hinted at. Arya in the books, for example, witnesses appalling horrors when she encounters Gregor Clegane’s reaving of the riverlands, and her response is dark and violent. The TV show follows the broad strokes, but the details are nowhere near as nasty. In the books, Tyrion is horribly maimed at the Battle of Blackwater Bay, with most of his nose being cut away. In the TV show, Tyrion is injured in similar circumstances, but only ends up with a badass battle scar. And all throughout, humour and levity are allowed to seep into many scenes and characters were it was absent in the book. Partly this is the show’s writing, which maintains a brisker, lighter and more modern tone than the books, and partly it is the actors. Jerome Flynn and Peter Dinklage can instill a sense of humanity, black humour and shared camaraderie in their characters that a dozen pages of prose could not replicate.
The TV show also redeems the bleakness through the richness of its detail, although in this case the detail can be seen and heard, not just read about and imagined. Many die hard fans of the book will always dislike the adaptations because they make concrete, and therefore limited, what previously only existed in those fans imaginations. And if the real thing doesn’t match or live up to the imagined version, then it can be a let down. But this is not always the case. At its best a TV show or a movie can give you something better than you could have ever imagined yourself. A combination of the best actors, writers, set and costume designers, directors and editors produce something that acts as a window into a collective, gestalt imagination. Reading a book and fantasizing about its story and characters can help to strengthen your imagination, but perhaps also seeing how that book is interpreted through the collective imagination of others can help to teach your imagination better and more intricate ways to conceive of things. Perhaps a mixture of both is the best medicine for a healthy mind.
Because the TV files off some of those hard edges and lets more light into the scene, it also means the moments of true darkness -and they don’t come much darker than the Red Wedding, as it is referred to, in the episode the Rains of Castamere- tend to hit that much harder. They are an unwelcome intrusion of brutal reality into what otherwise hews a little more closely to a conventional narrative. These beats, the death of the hero, followed by the death of his avenging son are doubly shocking, because not only are they ugly, violent events within the context of the story, but they also upend conventions of narrative they viewers, and readers, unconsciously rely on. This is, of course, an entirely intentional effect, as testified to by George Martin himself, but it also has the effect of pissing off a lot of viewers, as some of the online reaction to the latest TV episode attests. Some have responded with a stream of invectives aimed at HBO, the show’s producers, and Martin himself. Others have threatened to boycott watching the show, much as they did after Ned’s death in season 1.
It’s easy as a ready of the book to roll your eyes at this kind of reaction, but while it may be over the top, it’s important to recognise that it stems from understandable sources, particularly the way most people are conditioned to expect certain tropes and established patterns to occur in fiction. Noble protagonists dying horrible, bloody deaths surrounded by the corpses of their family and friends are not a common event in fiction. We book readers may have become somewhat inured to their effect within Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire, firstly due to the longer time we’ve had to process them since we first read them, but also because the remorseless bleakness mentioned above gradually adjusts your attitude to the narrative, until your expectations are better aligned with how Martin does things. After such an adjustment, it’s easy to laugh at those who haven’t, or won’t, adjust their expectations accordingly, but we shouldn’t forget that our original reactions probably weren’t much different.
An interesting question arises, why is A Song of Ice and Fair bleaker and brutal than many equivalent stories in its genre; enough to confound the expectations of at least some of its audience and inspire such strong reactions? You could just say, it’s because that’s just Martin’s temperament, but that doesn’t really get you anywhere. Why is his style different? I can’t say for sure, but if I had to hazard a guess it would be the greater influence of history over Martin and his writing, than other writers. My theory is as follows: Most fiction is shaped by the writer’s own reading, and by their environment. A writer from a difficult background, perhaps containing poverty, violence and abuse, is likely to write darker material than a writer from a happy or contented background. Most modern western writers have the happy privilege of living within societies that are on the whole more peaceful, healthier and more plentiful than any others that have existed in history, and this is reflected in their writing. Even those whose writing features heavier material, inevitably tend to place it within a framework that has some degree of hope and positivity. Furthermore, over time all the stories written by these authors has formed into a shared corpus that serves as the second great influence over new writing, which itself becomes part of the corpus. In this way, the tropes and idioms of fiction are established, and become expected by both writers and readers alike.
Where Martin differs from many of his contemporaries, perhaps, is that an additional, primary source of influence on A Song of Ice and Fire is historical record. Studying and reading history tends to inspire a very different view of human nature than that which follows from narrowly observing western society and fiction. The current peace and stability enjoyed by some in the modern world, becomes not the default state, but a tiny cap on an otherwise bloody and horrible history, replete with famine, war and genocide. The capacity of historical peoples, particularly their rulers, for torture, slaughter, and pointless cruelty is staggering. There are few events in A Song of Ice and Fire, including the Red Wedding, that don’t have some equivalent historical event lurking in the background. Those events are magnified and modified through the lens of fantasy and Martin’s imagination, but the original brutality is retained. The fact that the narrative has such a basis in real history is probably the best defense against charges of sadism that Martin occasionally faces. If every terrible act he wrought upon his characters as purely the product of his fervid imagination, then you might well worry about him. But by reflecting what humanity has already done to itself, Martin should make you worry less about him and more about all people, and your self. In the right circumstances, are you, or any of the people you know, capable of the barbarity displayed in these novels?
The unflinching brutality is both the novels most difficult aspect, and its most important. For all its fantasy trappings, A Song of Ice and Fire tells a story far more true to life than many more conventional books. Tasha Robinson at The AV Club also posted an excellent analysis of the Red Wedding’s impact, and includes an interesting theory on Martin as a romantic writer, despite his cynicism. It chimes with what I’ve noticed in his work, that there are certain lines he won’t cross, even with all the abuse he heaps upon his characters, that help separate it from horror porn. Many of the escapes from death, torture and rape that characters like Bran, Rickon, Arya and Sansa manage are actually rather unlikely, given the establish facts of his world, but Martin doesn’t seem willing to hurt them that badly. They’re not unscathed, by any means, but what mercy they are shown hints at some hope for their survival and even happiness, before the novels reach their end.