My Red Wedding Story

SPOILER ALERT: This article, like many of my conversations, contains massive spoilers about George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books and the HBO Game of Thrones series.

I was handed George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones in 1997, by a friend who has recommended many of the books I’ve read over the years. He warned me that it was a little different, and that he was curious about my reaction.


SPOILER ALERT: This article, like many of my conversations, contains massive spoilers about George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books and the HBO Game of Thrones series.

I was handed George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones in 1997, by a friend who has recommended many of the books I’ve read over the years. He warned me that it was a little different, and that he was curious about my reaction.

As I read, I wondered what he meant. The opening sequence, where Ned Stark forces his children to watch a beheading didn’t endear me to the character I thought was the hero. When Jaime Lannister pushes a six year old boy out of a high window to eliminate a witness to his incestuous relationship, I started second-guessing my friend’s recommendation. When Ned Stark was eventually beheaded, I realized this was the big twist – George Martin had set readers up to think of this as a conventional heroic story, in which the hero, Ned Stark, gets into big trouble, and then gets out. In Martin’s own words: “I killed Ned because everybody thinks he’s the hero and that, sure, he’s going to get into trouble, but then he’ll somehow get out of it.” (1)

What my friend thought was clever, what George Martin thought was subversive of readers’ expectations, didn’t impress me. Breaking rules, in rules-based systems, always generates surprise. If, during a mixed martial arts match, one of the fighters draws a knife and cuts the other to pieces, the victim and the audience will both be surprised. But it isn’t clear whether this breaking of the rules is a sign of any sort of creative genius. Indeed, Martin does this in his writing, and his characters do the same. Martin revels in characters that exceed conceivable limits of depravity and cruelty. If there is a hero’s journey in these books, to which I will return, it is a journey to greater depravity and cruelty. Characters who are utterly ruthless survive. Characters with any scruples or honor are destroyed. This seems to be the message, the moral, of the story.

But I was eternally optimistic, so I read on, picking up the next book. The king dies. Two of his brothers claim the throne. One of them (Renly) seems more compelling than the other (Stannis). So, of course, Stannis kills Renly. That was the end of my journey with Martin. But it wasn’t the end of my morbid fascination with the books, and why they are so popular. So, every few years (or decades) when a new book would come out, I would pick it up, flip around in it, see what happened, and, when spoilers became widely available on the web, I would find out what happened. So I knew about the Red Wedding when the third book of the series, A Storm of Swords came out in 2000.

What is the Red Wedding? Experienced by HBO viewers last week, the Red Wedding is the scene in which the son, Robb, and the widow, Catelyn, of Ned Stark (who was killed in the first book/season) are massacred at a wedding party. Again, in George Martin’s words: “I killed Ned because everybody thinks he’s the hero and that, sure, he’s going to get into trouble, but then he’ll somehow get out of it. The next predictable thing is to think his eldest son is going to rise up and avenge his father. And everybody is going to expect that. So immediately [killing Robb] became the next thing I had to do.”

I watched season one of Game of Thrones on HBO. I was amazed by the production, the cast, the acting, the dialogue – all of the incredible scale of Martin’s vision brought to life by a very talented team. I knew I would eventually quit, and I ended up quitting at an unexpected point: when the teenaged king forces one courtesan to beat another woman, possibly to death, with a mace (a scene that’s not in the books). So I never got to the third season. But I saw the reactions on the web and on twitter to the episode over the past few days, and, like I did 12 years ago, I find myself wondering where Martin, and the show, is going to go from here. Because I don’t think he has any idea.

Remember that it took five years for the fourth book, A Feast for Crows, to come out. And seven more years for the fifth, A Dance With Dragons. Both are big books, but if you look carefully at their plots, you realize there is not a lot going on in them. Most of the characters remain ineffectual, geographically separated from the main action. A few more characters die, in what has now become a predictable formula. The most depraved characters continue to prey on others. Many people believed that Martin had written himself into a hole that he wouldn’t be able to crawl out of, and because he was such a good writer in many ways, there were now millions of readers waiting for a fix to a giant flaw at the core of the story that is never going to come. I predict there won’t be any big twists or big reveals – which would be contrived anyway – just the evolution of this malevolent world until Martin stops writing it.

It’s worth looking at what this literary achievement is and what it really means, culturally. Stories follow certain patterns. As Joseph Campbell famously describes in A Hero With a Thousand Faces, the hero’s journey is a conventional pattern for stories to follow. From Star Wars to the Lion King, from The Matrix to The Avengers, we are all familiar with the hero’s journey. Martin set out to break the rules. But did he, really? Stories always have a moral core, they always convey some kind of message. In the name of gritty realism, Martin seems to be writing a story without a moral. But there is no such thing. In Martin’s world, those who are willing to do things that are more cruel (like throw children out of windows, skin others alive, and on and on and on) have a better chance of surviving and prospering than those who trust others, keep their word, or do other naive and heroic things. This is a moral universe, it is just a moral universe in which cruelty is the highest virtue and kindness is stupid and weak. That kind of morality isn’t actually convention-breaking. It isn’t creative, and it isn’t even new (it’s common enough in horror films, for example). It’s just a different convention.

Other than the idea that it is unconventional and bold (of which it is neither), Martin’s story can be defended on the grounds that “that’s what it was like back then”. But was it? Were there giant domesticated wolves, flying dragons, and murdering ghosts “back then”? Leaving that aside, it is of course obvious that Martin’s story is based on the Hundred Years War in England. But we don’t have access to how it was “back then”. We can try and imagine what it was like, based on some very limited knowledge and a lot of speculation to fill in the gaps.

In other words, the story you read is based on the author’s choices. If Martin was writing Latin American history, Che Guevara would have died in 1958 with Castro and not in 1967; Subcomandante Marcos would have died in the 1980s before anyone knew about the Zapatistas; Hugo Chavez would have been publicly executed in 1992 instead of being allowed on television to talk his troops down… and the pointlessness of all of their actions would have been obvious for anyone reading.

A different speculator could, with the same historical basis, fill the gaps with stories in which resistance to authority, subversion of rules, kindness to the weak, featured prominently. Martin chose to create a seemingly endless cycle of horrors in which the villains survive and the honorable die.

So, why do we read them? Partly because Martin is talented. His world is rich. His good characters really are pretty good, before he kills them. His villains are so vile that you want them to face justice, and read on and on long after you realize they never will in his world, in the vain hope that they will. But on the pretext of gritty realism or unconventional storytelling, what the Game of Thrones is really doing is arguing for nihilism: the idea that there’s no point in trying to do anything good, that people who do so are fools whose efforts are doomed. It’s hard to imagine a more self-destructive mythology for a society to adopt.

Notes

(1) http://insidetv.ew.com/2013/06/02/game-of-thrones-author-george-r-r-martin-why-he-wrote-the-red-wedding/

Author: Justin Podur

Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.