(Warning: Here be spoilers!)
Last week was the series finale for Game of Thrones, a series I’d been watching from the very beginning. Indeed, I first discovered George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books way back in 2002.
I still remember seeing the first book in the store, with the cover advertising it as the first in a trilogy, looking at the shelf and seeing two more books in the series, and thinking I was safe in buying that first book, since whole series was published. If only I’d known.
I poured through that first book, astonished at the gritty and stark world and the characters Martin had created. I remember being stunned at Ned Stark’s death. I finished the first book and immediately picked up the second and third books.
The second book stated it was the second of four books. Uh oh. And the third that it was the third of five. Dammit! I was annoyed, particularly with the length of the third book, which felt a bit bloated, until I got to the Red Wedding, and Tyrion’s escape from King’s Landing, events which left me gnawing on my soul.
I looked for the fourth book, eventually finding Martin’s web site at the time, which had a crotchety message that he hadn’t finished the next book yet, and asking people to please stop emailing him about it.
Annoyed again, but still hungry for more, I discovered the galaxy of fan sites. For the next several months I haunted those sites, reading about fan theories, many of which eventually turned out to be accurate. (When HBO producers approached Martin to make a TV series, they stated they were big fans. Martin asked them to prove it by telling him who Jon Snow’s mother was. It was something the internet had figured out years earlier. The producers knew the answer.)
But it would be three years (2005) before Martin finally produced the fourth book. While still intrigued, my fever for the series had dissipated, and I decided to hold off reading the fourth book until he had finished the series, which was now forecast to be six books. Surely he’d have them finished in a few years?
Of course, anyone familiar with this story knows the fifth book didn’t come until 2011, by which time the first season of the TV show was imminent. I never would have guessed that the show would pass by the books and finish well before them.
Martin seems to have let the tale sprawl into so many settings and characters, that it’s become extremely difficult to move it forward, much less bring it to completion. Of course, the show has done it, but to widespread criticism that the final seasons felt rushed and, while obviously still showing Martin’s touch, lacked much of his storytelling acumen.
At this point I’m not sure whether I’ll ever go back and finish the books. It’s been 17 years and I’d probably have to start from the beginning again. Maybe in my retirement once he finally finishes them.
As an aspiring storyteller, I’ve often wondered what it was about Martin’s tale that drew so many people in. Was it the unpredictablity? His penchant for killing off characters? The overall grittiness of his world, a sort of Middle Earth for grown ups? Or some combination of these factors?
A recent Scientific American article, in an attempt to analyze what was missing from the later seasons, posited that the difference came down to Martin’s sociological rather than psychological orientation. Hollywood, the article asserts, is preoccupied with the psychological aspects of character experiences and actions, which was less effective than Martin’s sociological motivations.
I think there’s a glimmer of truth to this, but it somewhat misses the point. What makes Martin’s storytelling so compelling is his characters, and his ability to evoke emotions in us about them. And a big part of what makes those characters so compelling is their relation to the society they live in.
Jon Snow is a bastard whose father decides to leave and whose step-mother hates him, leaving him with the limited option of joining the Night’s Watch. Tyrion is a dwarf whose mother died giving birth to him, earning his father’s hatred, and living in a world that despises him. Daenerys starts off largely as human chattel, an offering from her brother to a warlord in payment for an alliance. Samwell Tarly has a gentle nature in a social class that despises him for it. And Arya has a warrior’s spirit in a society that expects her to grow into a prim and proper lady.
None of these characters are the types classically seen in fantasy. Conan the Barbarian, King Arthur, Aragorn and many others are alpha males, usually paired with iconic female leads that are in many ways the pinnacle of their world. Even the hobbits in Tolkien’s books are the elite of the Shire. (Except perhaps for Samwise Gamgee.)
Martin’s characters start off with glaring disadvantages. Of course, there are characters in his world who do have the advantages, obvious heroes who will obviously save the day. Except that all the obvious heroes, one by one, get killed, leaving the characters we’re following, with all their challenges, to cope as best they can. In the end, these characters are forced to become the new heroes, or villains.
That last point is important. With many of Martin’s characters, we’re left struggling to categorize them as either good or evil. Jaime Lannister, despite all expectations, becomes a sympathetic character. And Daenerys, well, we see her being ruthless throughout the series, but towards bad people, and we assume that’s a rule, until we start to see otherwise.
As noted above, the main thing Martin excels at is evoking powerful emotions in his audience. It starts with finding the characters engaging, then turns to dread as we see those characters endure searing agonizing challenges, then the triumph we feel if they succeed, or the grief if they fail.
In retrospect, knowing what I do now about story structure, the need for Ned Stark’s death and the Red Wedding are obvious. Like the death of the Lion King, they evoked the emotions needed at the right time. And the events of the final episodes evoked the emotions they did to bring about the bittersweet ending we saw.
I generally liked the ending, although I know a lot of people didn’t. But the story had to end in some manner, and a totally happy ending for this series wouldn’t have felt authentic. In the end, it’s the goal of art to produce powerful emotional experiences in the audience, which I think the ending accomplished.
If you who watched the show, what did you think of the ending? Or the show overall?