A Dance with Dragons and Story Questions

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I just finished George RR Martin’s A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in his Song of Ice and Fire series.

To sum up without many spoilers: The hopes we had from the last book will be stabbed to death in front of our eyes, while corruption, scheming, and evil continue.

A Dance with Dragons covers some ground that the other books have, but it does highlight Martin’s strengths as a storyteller.  The world continues to be full of bright and memorable characters in dire circumstances wrapped up in bright and dynamic situations.  Martin’s world is vivid, well-thought out, and continues to hearken back to actual Western structures without true derivation.  The combination of Mongols and African nomads in the horse warrior Dothraki are just the first.  There are echoes of the old Greco-Roman slave economies blown to hideous proportions, complete with the corruption that semi-Christian Byzantium left as its nominal legacy through all time.  The religious faith of Westeros, the Seven Gods, mixes semi-Buddhist thoughts with Western cultural values and Roman Catholic monastic structures.

The main characters (whether they survive or not) show themselves, with the notable exceptions of Brienne of Tarth and much from young Bran Stark on his journey from cripple to super-psychic.  Denaerys’ new throne in the Bay of Slaves faces a coming war with Byzantine divisions and desperate plots.  Jon Snow’s drama continues on the Wall.  The ruins of Winterfell become a pivotal plot point.  Arya’s path takes a new twist in a brief but interesting blerb.  Winter is no longer coming.  The white raven is sent out to announce that the seasons have changed.  The last two books filled Autumn, and Winter has now come.

Without giving too many spoilers, I will quote the lesson that the HBO’s producers pulled from the book series as a rule for their production of the amazing but gratuitous flesh-filled series.  To whit: honor, duty, and faith never work out.  So, take all of the pseudo-medieval slime that may or may not have been part of European history, and there are plenty of staggering stories, corrupt manipulations, and plots to draw from.  Take out any truth, justice, honor, reliable religious belief, and hope.  Wallow in that cess-pit long enough until it starts to seem like home, just do it magnificently with technical skill.

The best summation comes from heretic and apologist Vox Day (ponder the irony in those two roles, when Arians fight more for their faith than the Orthodox for ours), who despite his other issues has a deft turn of wit on Martin’s work:

Don’t get me wrong. A Game of Thrones is an excellent novel when read in its own context. So are A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords. But among their various themes is the subversion and overt mocking of concepts that Tolkien honored, concepts such as honor, courage, commitment, love, loyalty, and family. In Martin’s world, nobility is equated with stupidity; evil and treachery prospers abundantly on every side. While there is something to be said for rejecting the tedious old tropes of good, in the persona of the young farmboy, inevitably saving the world by triumphing over cackling, cartoonish, and cretinous evil, the reaction against the shadow of Tolkien that began with Michael Moorcock has gone much too far into nihilism and moral blindness.

I don’t object to the ugliness, hate, and perversion in A Song of Ice and Fire and other modern epic fantasies. Such things exist in all fallen worlds and must be included for the sake of verisimilitude in any work of sufficient seriousness and scope. Is there not ugliness, hate, and even perversion in the Bible? What I object to is the near-complete absence of beauty, love, and normalcy to oppose them. As I have written in other contexts, I don’t object to modern epic fantasy on moral or religious grounds, but on literary and philosophical grounds. Theories abound as to why the Martin series has declined so dramatically, but the fact that it is written from a nihilistic and overtly anti-heroic perspective may well have contributed to the lower quality of the two more recent books.

This quote came from a year and a half ago, and recent releases have continued to prove Vox’s point.

I will probably read the next book, but Martin has joined David Weber on my probation list.  If I want to watch despair, corruption, plotting, double-dealing, and no trustworthy faith, I can just follow Middle Eastern politics for a lot less money and higher stakes.

Stories are about tension and conflict.  There has to be a question in the air, a story question, as it were.  WHEN [Something Happens] THE HERO SETS OUT TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.  BUT CAN HE/SHE/IT SUCCEED IN THE FACE OF [Enemies, weaknesses, challenges, etc.]?

Heresies about theology aside, Martin and Weber’s technically deft (in different fashions) long-winded series commit heresies against the fundamental principles of story craft, to ask a question, maintain tension, provide a dramatic climax, and then end the story.

I used to work in a Christian bookstore, but I have long since stopped reading “Christian” fiction for four reasons.  I will discuss them in the next post.  Theology aside, there are seldom real story questions in Christian fiction.  After a lifetime of Christian media consumption, the title Christian in the fiction kicks of a Pavlovian yawn.  The good guys will win, because someone will say Jesus at just the right moment, and all the bad guys who are not killed off or driven away will become Christians.  Forgiven sins will immediately disperse all earthly consequences.  The Christians are all good people who live nearly perfect lives, no enduring struggles with sins or heroic weaknesses.  Peter’s waffling is nowhere here.  Paul’s battle with his flesh (Romans 7) is invisible or redacted.

There is no story tension.  Good guys win, with white cloaks unstained and their arms have the power of a hundred men because of the purity of their souls.

Folks, I have been around the Church and in churches most of my life.  I haven’t really seen that anywhere.  The most amazing Evangelist I know has real theological weaknesses.  The most theologically orthodox man I know has no spine to assert the truth.  The most successful and conservative seem devoid of love and compassion.  Elders harbor dark pasts, sexual sins, and more.  So Christian fiction is not just predictable, but predictable fairy tales.

Back when he wrote his Wild Cards series that I encountered in High School, George RR Martin was praised for writing super hero stories without the heroism.  Twenty-five years later Martin is pounding on the same drum, and he has drowned out the story question with its monotonous beat.

When I pick up a David Weber book written solo (I’m still a fan of his collaborations by and large) I know the answer to the story question, WILL THE HERO SUCCEED is going to be: Maybe next novel.

When I pick up a George RR Martin book, the answer is only slightly more complex: WILL THE HERO SUCCEED?
Option 1: If the hero is noble, good, upright, just, kind, or loyal, the answer is no.  He will make progress, be seen as admirable, and then fail in a gruesome and nihilistic fasion.
Option 2: If the hero is treacherous, murderous, corrupt, perverse, or otherwise vile, the anti-hero will either succeed over the poor schmuck hero, or he will succeed only to be supplanted by someone better at treachery, murder, corruption, perversion, manipulation, and all evil.

Christian fiction fails because good always wins easy victories.
Weber fails because the good will typically make no real progress either way.
Martin fails because the good get F-ed over (a deliberate choice of words given Martin’s fiction) and darkness and evil prevail in one guise or another.

A Dance with Dragons has decent plot progress, some great character development, fascinating resolutions to previous dilemmas, and an end as dark and depressing as anything I have read from them.  Sure, the opening novel in the series was dark, but we had hope because Arya was on her way home with the Night’s Watch, Robert’s son was saved from the purge, John Snow was safe and rising in the Night’s Watch, and Rob Stark had rallied his father’s men in righteous cause with a good chance to win independence from the corrupt south, or overthrow the evil usurpers.

Four novels later, anyone with a functioning memory has learned that Martin only throws false hope.  Never trust the light at the end of Martin’s tunnels.  They may not always be trains.  They may be Kaiju.

Where is the motivation to see more people I’ve come to love die?  Where is the tension for the story’s ending when Martin himself has described his ideal ending as a battlefield graveyard with nothing but wind blowing over the bones?  That probably isn’t the actual ending in mind, but that is the heart, the spirit behind the ending, and we know we can tell a tree by its fruit.

A writer must be able to see the love in both good and evil to tell a story in this fallen world.  With no empathy for evil, there are only medieval style morality plays (trust me, they are pretty boring).  With no home or love in the good, there is only a nauseating darkness like dipping your mind in rancid oil.

It is possible, possible that Martin, who needs to eat and is subject to market standards, will bow to pressure.  His HBO producers need to give a satisfactory conclusion if they want high-paying jobs when Game of Thrones wraps.  His publishers may look at Martin’s plummeting sales and decide Something Needs to Change.

So, I will probably see the series through, but I deeply understand why many will not.

PS. Vox Day would do well to remember Ephesians 5:11-12.  The Bible does indeed speak of many terrible things, but neither explicitly nor in a titillating manner.  It is important to imitate HOW God’s Word discusses terrible sins and crimes as well as the fact that they do so.

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