After twice reading what so far has been available of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and viewing the first five seasons of Game of Thrones, I do not share Douglas Wilson’s impression that these are “rootless entertainment for a rootless people, lost entertainment for a lost people, and vile entertainment for a vile people” (“Game of Bones,” Society & Culture, May). Mr. Martin seems to me to make it clear enough that what I deem the wrongs his characters commit are indeed wrong in his own view—that he takes for granted, very largely, the morality I take for granted. As Mr. Wilson seems to me not really to substantiate his own impression, I am content merely to register mine in what must be but the minimal defense I think Mr. Martin is due. (I have been since the 1970’s an approving reader of Malory, Tolkien, Lewis, Lord Dunsany, and E.R. Eddison, if that counts as any sort of “credential.” Mr. Martin might not add much luster to their company, but I do not think he would disgrace it, at least not with A Song of Ice and Fire, if it proceeds as it has been going.)
Mr. Martin seems to be depicting the spirit of an age much like ours—one in which men are learned in science and some are fervently religious, but without any sort of unifying philosophy and especially lacking in attention to moral philosophy. Where Mr. Martin’s Westeros seems to me almost as superficial as it does to Mr. Wilson, this appears to me to result from Mr. Martin’s having taken for granted for his own purposes our own Middle Ages as general background and letting each reader conceive of that as the reader’s knowledge or lack thereof might permit, instead of presenting a definite conception of it as Mr. Martin’s own.
—Vincent Colin Burke
Port au Port, NL, Canada
I find myself wondering whether Mr. Wilson has read or seen George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.
As in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the events in Game of Thrones are only the most recent in a larger story. The history is rich and captivating. However, Martin’s concept of Westeros, the world in Game of Thrones, suffers from disjointed geographic descriptions that fall short of the well-fitted pieces of Lewis’s Narnia and Tolkien’s Middle Earth, which are easily navigated by readers’ imaginations. That said, a series that falls short of these literary peaks can still be worthwhile.
Though the First Table of the Law is absent from Game of Thrones, the Second Table is well present. Westeros certainly is a world where lords and knights murder, betray, and enslave to gain wealth and power. However, this is portrayed as evil, not good or amoral. Martin conveys this using conventional storytelling techniques, particularly the reactions of fair-minded and loyal protagonists. Faithful marriage is the standard by which the sexual relationships in the series are tacitly judged.
Though Game of Thrones does not have a moral paragon, many of its characters exercise virtue. Is its depiction of virtuous acts enough to impel virtue in our world? Alone, perhaps not, but it also depicts a steady hope that its good protagonists will prevail, protect innocent life, and bring justice to Westeros. Unlike Mr. Wilson, I believe this portrayal of active hopefulness is effective.
As for aesthetics, Game of Thrones provides plenty of heroics, sacrifice, and pathos. Martin’s prose is not Tolkien’s or Lewis’s, but it is effective nonetheless. The show has marvelous performances from some of England’s, Ireland’s, and the Netherlands’ best actors. Elderly characters are particularly well cast. It is true that both the books and the show needlessly detail sex, violence, and sexual violence, but the show has increasingly moderated itself. Perhaps the show’s worst indulgence is playing up the victimhood and vengeance of its young female characters, diluting the literary harshness of Westeros with popular moral fantasy.
Mr. Wilson Replies:
I thank Messrs. Burke and Hopkins for their responses, and would offer just several rejoinders. The first would be the reminder that my central critique of the world of Westeros was that it was architectonically story-less—not that it was morality-less. The drift of the narrative causes some moral problems, sure enough, but my main point was that civilizations, whether real or imagined, depend on a certain kind of story arc, the kind which I believe is missing in Martin’s world.
But even if we move the discussion to morality, the issue there should not be whether moral judgments are made—for they are always made, even by the most ardent atheist. And readers can always share in them. The issue is whether or not there is any basis for it, any reason for it. And that brings us back to the importance of story. Middle Earth and Narnia have moral anchors grounded in ultimate personality, something I take as a central requirement of story, and which is quite a different thing from rootless and random moral indignation.
I can get all the moral indignation I could ever want at the local Wymyn’s Study Center—just no basis for it. The fact that the feminists assembled there object to rape, as do all Christians, does not mean that we are sharing a system of morality. One objection is grounded in the preferences of a faction, while the other is grounded in the nature and character of God. This is not a trifle. Neglect of this principle is why Christians are so easily outmaneuvered in our cultural battles.
For example, do we think “discrimination” an evil? Why? Who says? Against what? On what basis? If we do not demand answers to those questions, we will find ourselves—to take an extreme example—ratcheted into craven acceptance of transgender bathrooms. And, why . . . here we are.
So morality does not just praise or blame in a snapshot fashion. Systems of morality animate stories, and must therefore have a denouement. And that is what I believe is fatally missing in the world of Westeros.