Originally published on guardianbooks.co.uk
A wealthy dynasty brought to its knees by popular revolt, the highest in the land caught in a web of corruption, and at the heart of it all a powerful woman with remarkable hair. If you see the Murdoch clan, Chipping Norton set and Rebekah Brooks in these archetypes then you have clearly been spending too long watching the news. If on the other hand you recognise the Targaryen kings, Small Council and Cersei Lannister then I accuse you of reading A Dance with Dragons, the fifth volume in George RR Martin‘s A Song of Ice and Fire saga. (Now perhaps better known as A Game of Thrones for the HBO TV adaptation from the original books.)
It is rare indeed for a fantasy novel to receive either the attention or thecritical acclaim heaped upon A Dance with Dragons. Among all literary genres, epic fantasy is surely the most widely reviled and ignored. And it can be hard to identify the genre’s best and most original works when they are surrounded on the shelves by hundreds of third-rate knock-offs.
But in the hands of authors who understand their potential, the secondary worlds of fantasy provide a lens that can bring to sharp focus truths that the chaos of modern life obscures. JRR Tolkien crafted a mythology for the modern world from ancient teutonic sources, a mythology that expressed many people’s deep fears about industrialisation and world war. Mervyn Peake created a dark and painfully accurate reflection of the oppressive British class system in Gormenghast. And China Miéville transfigured Dickensian London and showed the daily exploitation of the poor and vulnerable that still powers the modern city in Perdido Street Station and his Bas-Lag novels.
George RR Martin also draws on historical sources to build his fantasy world. Westeros bears a startling resemblance to England in the period of the Wars of the Roses. One throne unifies the land but great houses fight over who will sit upon it. With no true king the land is beset with corrupt, money-grubbing lords whose only interest is their own prestige. Two loose alliances of power pit a poor but honourable North against a rich and cunning South. And the small folk must suffer through it all, regardless of which side wins. Many things change over the course of five centuries, but not politics it seems.
But if Martin had only transposed a historical and political context to a fantasy world his books would never have achieved such staggering popularity. Their author’s real strength is his compendious understanding of the human stories driving the grand political narrative. There does not seem to be a single living soul in the land of Westeros that Martin does not have insight into, from the highest king to the lowest petty thief. Martin does not compartmentalise evil on one side of the map and good on the other. It is a world of high stakes, where the winners prosper and the losers are mercilessly ground under heel. Against this tapestry every one of Martin’s characters is forced to chose between their love for those close to them and the greater interests of honour, duty and the realm. More often than not, those who make the noble choice pay with their lives.
Beheading, dismemberment and being roasted alive have, perhaps fortunately, become less common punishments for the losers in our modern games of ego. And while the throne itself is no longer up for grabs, the same human dramas still play out every day between those who vie for power in the elite spheres of business, politics and the media. The scandal engulfing News International is just the latest example of those archetypal dramas bubbling up in to public view.
Take Rupert and son James. What words pass between the reigning monarch and the heir apparent in private we can only guess. We might think of Odysseus and Telemachus. Too noble perhaps? Hamlet and his ghostly father then? Closer. But the portrait of a father manipulating a son that George RR Martin paints between Tywin and Jaime Lannister seems closest of all to me.
A Game of Thrones has captured the imaginations of millions for the same reason the archetypal dramas of Homer, Sophocles or Shakespeare have lasted for millennia. They show us the conflict between self-sacrifice and self-interest, between the human spirit and the human ego, between good and evil. And when we look up from the page we recognise those same conflicts in the world around us and in ourselves.