There are many varied opinions on George R. R. Martin and the thousands of pages he’s penned to create the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Some fans prefer the novels for their intricate detail and lengthy historical context and undeniable increased character depth. The running joke is that George R. R. Martin can describe one meal for six pages. Others, who cite Martin’s literary techniques as excellent groundwork for a television script—especially his penchant for writing from the perspective of a different character in every chapter—believe the story is more accessible in its serial TV show format. It’s true that Martin has a giant cast of characters, each with their own intertwining story which can more easily be picked up and subsequently left behind with less whiplash than a novel. Whatever your choice, there are some aspects of both A Song of Ice and Fire and the show Game of Thrones that can and should be respected in both media.
Part of what distinguishes Martin’s work is his dedication to the rules and non-negotiables of a feudal society and medieval hierarchy. As an author, Martin found it incredibly frustrating to see so many modern fantasies and fictions which superficially adopt aesthetic and thematic elements from the medieval world, including the dress, language and class systems, without also adopting the genuine harshness of such a system.
Martin has been quoted discussing this, saying, “I sort of had a problem with a lot of the fantasy I was reading, because it seemed to me that the middle ages or some version of the quasi middle ages was the preferred setting of a vast majority of the fantasy novels that I was reading by Tolkien imitators and other fantasists, yet they were getting it all wrong. It was a sort of Disneyland middle ages, where they had castles and princesses and all that. The trappings of a class system, but they didn’t seem to understand what a class system actually meant.”
Martin notes that in many works, lower class members of societies, such as the “spunky peasant girl” speak out of turn, run away with members of another class, and generally behave as if ignoring the hierarchy is a considerable option. Martin, on the other hand, made sure that this mistake was not repeated in his own works. As he explains, if the peasant girl spoke out of turn in a medieval class system, the reality is that she would be whipped, at the very least, and likely raped and/or killed. Within the nobler families, one does not simply say “no” to an arranged marriage – we can see Martin sticks to this even with his most powerful family: Queen Cersei, mother of King Joffrey, can no more ignore the demands of her father to marry a man not of her choice than the next woman.
What this also means is that the show and novels are both littered with violent and sexual scenes. Some may have thought this was a personal preference of the author to push through boring dialogue or to create a more adult work and tone, but in the case of the violence especially, there is a bloody and historical truth which makes it almost a necessity. Westeros, one of the continents in Game of Thrones, which consists of seven kingdoms and multiple kings all fighting to gain power, is loosely based on England during the Wars of the Roses – a series of civil wars that took place during the mid to late 15th century. This time period was filled with the same violence one will find in Martin’s work. During this time, three kings were murdered; Henry VI, Edward V and Richard III and dozens of nobles were killed. Tens of thousands of ordinary folk were slain in battle. King Richard’s death, as one memorable example, consisted of being taken down in battle, stripped naked, slung across a horse and then stabbed in the buttocks before being dropped in a pit. So, while HBO was certainly never going to shy away from the more gruesome scenes in A Song of Ice and Fire, it can be noted that Martin’s imagined scenes are not far, and rarely worse, than happenings that would have occurred in medieval England.
Thrones fans of the novels have also learned to avoid getting attached to any particular character. Keeping in line with his understanding that war results in many casualties, Martin has been known to write off some of his most morally sound characters. Viewers who hadn’t read the novels were horrified to see the death of Robb Stark, his pregnant wife, his mother, and his men, occur at the hands of the Frey family – in the middle of a post-wedding dinner, nonetheless. At the end of the day (or at the end of summer, as Thrones fans know, chances are that the end of the series, both in novel and television form, will leave us with very few survivors. Though it can be difficult to watch our preferred champions die, it does give an air of believability to Martin’s work that is not found in similar high fantasy fiction. Something that many sword and sorcery fans can appreciate.
Elizabeth Eckhart is a blogger and aspiring author, born in Chi Town. Lives with three too many roommates and a poodle mutt named Reagan Parker Marshall. Spends too much time on Netflix and at the movies. Writes short stories when inspired.