Category Archives: A Song of Ice and Fire

Game of Thrones and the Worrisome, Awkward, No-Good Topic

If you’re a fan of the show, you know what I’m talking about…..

***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***

Okay, let’s tackle this puppy– Dany and Jon.  Such a cute couple.  I mean, these guys are obviously made for each other. Two dynamic leaders meeting after both have struggled and suffered and lost, and then triumphed, but who need each other.  Two youngsters with oodles and gobs of chemistry and probably lots of compatible psychological profile stuff and major inter-fertility and all the jazz that Make Relationships Work.

Except that she’s his aunt.

By most modern standards, we have entered serious no-no, uh-huh, hands off the girl-or-boy territory.  This is despite the fact that the Dany and Jon are about the same age, and have no idea, at least at this point in the show’s story arc, that they share anything other than leadership qualities and hormones.  In 21st Century American society we have been conditioned to consider anything that smacks of incest to be taboo, to be universally rejected and and even criminalized.  In my lifetime there has been a growing recognition of the terrible price incest and child-abuse exacts from its victims, and we rightly reject attempts to normalize it.

Except….

Well, here’s the deal.  We’re talking about a television show.  We’re talking about television show set in a fantasy world.  We’re talking about a television show set in a fantasy world with distinctly different rules about sexuality, consent and what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t.  That has to alter the way we talk about this.

Allow me to digress for a moment to talk about the show’s source material– George R. R. Martin’s five (and counting– c’mon, George, Rome was built faster than this) books of the A Song of Ice and Fire series.  Admittedly the show long ago diverged from the precise story- line of the books, but the universe Martin created, and the general story arc, remain its guidance system.  It is well known that Martin has drunk deeply from the well of history to inform his work, and particularly the history of Medieval Britain.  And part of that historical understanding is that the rules about sexuality, consent and incest that nowadays we think are set in stone were often very, very different in ancient or medieval societies.

Take, for example, age of consent.  In Martin’s universe, girls who have their first menses are immediately considered marriage material, which means thirteen year-olds are getting married.  In the books, Dany is, in fact, thirteen when she marries Khal Drogo (this was changed in the show to sixteen, for obvious legal reasons).   This attitude is distinctly at odds with modern sensibilities, but was actually common in previous eras, and is still prevalent in certain non-Western societies.  And the shift in Western attitudes is actually a comparatively recent phenomenon– the age of consent in Texas was ten– ten—  as recently as 1880, and that was not unusual among American states in that period.

Even what has been considered incest has varied from time to time and place to place.  Before the American Civil War it was legal in every state for first cousins to wed.  It still is in some states (e.g. California) while it is restricted in some and outright illegal in others (Texas– go figure).

Bear in mind, as well, the cross-cultural weirdness of how elites and nobles in different eras and cultures determined who could get hitched to who.  It’s well-known that the rulers of Ancient Egypt and Pre-Conquest Peru both permitted brothers and sisters of royal lineages to marry, to keep bloodlines “royal”.  Martin drew on this history directly when he created the Targaryens, whose kings often wed their own sisters.

And then there is the startling institution of “avunculate marriage“, which was a piece of history unknown to me before I started thinking about this subject.  Apparently this custom had a heyday among European royals in the Middle Ages and afterwards, in which uncles and nieces, and occasionally aunts and nephews (ding!) were wed to one another, again in the interest of keep bloodlines pure, and wealth and power in the family.  Unfortunately, it had the at least occasional effect of producing children with major mental and physical defects, such as Carlos II, the last Hapsburg king of Spain–

Rey_Carlos_II
Poor guy…not his fault his parents were uncle and niece….

Rather more startling, avunculate marriage is actually legal, sometimes with restrictions, in several modern countries, including Russia, Argentina, and the Netherlands.

Give me just a second– gotta slow down my brain’s RPMs.  Whew, that makes me dizzy….

Okay, so what does this all mean for Dany and Jon, two fictional characters in a fictional universe with way different rules about sex and marriage and such like?  And how wound up should we get that these two probably related characters may– and it’s still just potential at this point, folks– be doing the mambo sometime in the near future?

In all of this the saving grace is that there is no hint or suggestion of abuse, which, aside from genetic risks, is the most destructive aspect of sex between close kinsfolk.  Dany and Jon are consenting adults, even by American standards, and doubly so by Westerosi.  They have met as equals, however much Dany wants Jon to bend the knee, and the story-line so far gives every indication that their mutual respect and attraction will grow.  If Jon’s little secret never came out they would have nothing to cloud their budding relationship, aside, that is, from civil war, invasion, winter, the Night King and his hordes of White Walkers and undead.  You know, the little things that every couple has to put up with.

I think, in the final analysis, fans of the show (including me), whether pro-Dany-Jon or anti, all need to take a big calm pill and chill out.  This is fiction– moreover, it’s fiction about a time and place with its own rules.  We need to trust Martin and the showrunners Benioff and Weiss to take us where the story needs to go.

Of course, given that this is Game of Thrones, where heartbreak and disappointment are daily meat and drink, this may all be a lot of worrying about a whole lot of not much.  Westeros is not devoid of rules about incest– certainly Jaime and Cersei’s relationship is widely censured.  It may be that Dany and Jon will get really close, only to pull back with the aforementioned heartbreak and disappointment when Jon’s true heritage is revealed.  That’s one way this could go.  Another way, and maybe more likely, is that they establish a relationship, and then one of them (I’m betting Jon) dies heroically/tragically/spectacularly in the show’s finale, or close to it.  Either way, given the nature of this show and its willingness to impose suffering on its characters, the odds are way stacked against Dany and Jon walking hand-in-hand off into the sunset in the closing minutes of Season Eight, Episode Six.

And if, by chance, they do– well, I think I could deal with that.

So….everybody calm down (me, too).  Let the story unfold.  And brace yourself.

Later.

 

 

A few somewhat more focused thoughts on Game of Thrones

I’m going to have to start numbering these puppies or something.

***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***

Episode Four  was so epic that it just keeps on giving.  I’ve already stated my opinion that this sequence is one of the greatest battles ever on TV, and probably one of the greatest in any sort of cinematic presentation, period.  The editing and beats just keep you riveted to the screen, and our prior commitments to characters on both sides leave us in an ambiguous state of wanting everyone to win, or at least survive, simultaneously.

But online controversy about the sequence has sprung up like toxic weeds in a fair garden.  Some people, it seems, accuse Dany of being the “Mad Queen”, as her father was the Mad King Aerys, whose hobby of burning people set off Robert’s Rebellion in the first place, for burning Lannister soldiers in the battle.  Some of the criticism seems somehow tangled up with snarling diatribes against progressives, feminists, “SJWs”, and blab blah blah, as if Dany is somehow some man-hating feminist icon and anybody who roots for her is a limp-wristed, hypocritical “librul” who cheers when manly men are barbecued.

That kind of rant is too deep and convoluted for me to try to refute or even unpack here and now.  I’m going to focus instead on what I think Dany, as a character in the show, was trying to do in the Loot Train Battle, and maybe guess what show-runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were up to by having her do it.  And the best way I think I can do that is to compare Dany to the real mad Queen in the show, Cersei Lannister.

By now almost everyone hates Cersei.  I mean, holy shit, this is a woman who’s one redeeming feature, often noted by other characters in the show, was her love for her children, and now they’re all dead.  She blew up (with wildfire, note) the Sept of Baelor without batting an eyelash to settle the hash of her political foes, along with that of doubtless thousands of innocent bystanders.  Her treatment of Ellaria Sand and Tyene is not only the action of someone who’s never heard of “blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy”, but who would have thought it silly clap-trap if she had.  She has usurped a throne to which she has no right by terror and force, and now believes she can do what she wants precisely because she sits on the Iron Throne.  Lastly, her one remaining emotional attachment to the world of human beings is her incestuous relationship with her brother, in which she plays the role of emotional vampire on Jaime’s genuine affection for her– a parasitism to which Jaime’s starting to get wise.

Dany, for her part, is not without sin.  She has at times acted impulsively, even cruelly.  She arbitrarily put to death leading masters of Meereen as an act of vengeance.  She has at times been willing to engage in deception.  She lately has been displaying a distinct tendency toward political theater and intimidation, as well as a rather unpleasant arrogance toward Jon Snow, et. al.,  and she appears to be on the verge of accepting the idea that the ends justify the means.  Perhaps even more critically, her un-examined insistence that she is the rightful queen of the Seven Kingdoms based on her descent comes perilously close to demanding fealty she has not earned.  To put it another way, she needs to rethink the whole ‘bend the knee’ business.

Despite this, there is a qualitative difference between the actions of Cersei and what Dany has done.  Cersei has used terror, torture and outright murder as instruments of state policy.  Most spectacularly of all, she blew up the Sept of Baelor without regard to the cost in lives, an act perpetrated on largely unarmed (if we disregard the Faith Militant bozos) civilians.

For a moment in Episode Four it looked as if Dany were about to embark on the same path, when she says she will take her dragons to King’s Landing and burn her enemies out of the Red Keep (in the process, note, she quite cruelly attacks Tyrion, virtually accusing him of going easy on his relatives).  Critically, however, she does something Cersei has never done– she turns to an outsider, Jon Snow, for honest counsel.  It’s Jon who convinces her not to attack the Red Keep– and, I am convinced, is instrumental in redirecting her frustration into another course of action.

Instead, Dany launches her Dothraki and Drogon against the Lannister army.  Herein lies the qualitative difference– Cersei destroyed civilians in political vengeance, but Dany attacked soldiers as an act of war.  The two actions are not the same at all.  The online Dany haters who are trying to establish an equivalency need to rethink their premises, or perhaps, start thinking in the first place.

Cersei perpetrated a massacre.  Dany attacked soldiers who were, however inadequately, armed and ready.  The two situations are clean different.

Drogon’s attack is horrifying (it does bother me how some people in different reaction videos laugh and cheer when the Lannister soldiers burn.  Death by fire is very bad way to go, even for soldiers in the service of an evil queen).  It looks as terrible as it would be in real life, as terrible as I imagine getting hit by a pod of napalm would be.  As bad as it is, however, it is justifiable.  Because this is what you do in war.

War is the business of compelling your enemy to knuckle-under to your political will.  The mechanism of war is killing the enemy until they can no longer sustain the will to fight.  And killing, whether it’s done with a sword, or dragon-flame, or napalm, or a nuke, is always about turning another human being with feelings and hopes and loved ones into a mangled pile of meat, or, in this case, ashes.  That process is always, and inherently, horrible.

To accomplish the crushing of the enemy’s will to fight you employ every implement you have.  If you have a weapon to which the enemy has no effective reply, all the better.  It could well mean the killing will end sooner.  In effect, Dany ‘weaponized’ Drogon, and he’s a damned powerful weapon that probably sealed her victory at the start.  This is not the cruelty of Cersei, but the act of a leader intent on victory against a powerful foe.  It is not massacring innocents.  That’s Cersei’s path.  I think there’s a clear distinction between Cersei’s way and Dany’s.  I know which one I would pick.

To bring this back to the show as a show, what I believe Benioff and Weiss are doing is, quite simply, being honest about what war is and does.  If you try to pretty it up you’re lying about something that should not lied about.  B&W are too good a pair of storytellers to make that mistake.

I don’t think Dany is going to be the Mad Queen, not because she is sinless, but because she wants to do right, and listens to those who are trying to keep her on that path.  Hopefully Benioff and Weiss agree with me, and will keep on doing so right through the last episode of Season Eight.  If they have any problems, they should call me.  Really.

Later.

PS– I was also going to take on the subject of Dany and Jon, but I spent so much time on acquitting Dany of madness that I don’t think I have the energy to dive into such a fraught topic.  On top of that, I’m trying to digest my discovery of the historical fact of avunculate marriage  (it’s utterly amazing sometimes what you can learn from Wikipedia– or disturbing, depending on your point of view).  I’ll leave D&J as a subject for another post, some other time.

DD

 

 

More random and wild-eyed thoughts on “Game of Thrones”

Okay, Episode Three is in the bag, and I’m feeling maybe a little less wild-eyed and more thoughtful about the show at the moment.  These are less predictions than they are reflections.  Still, I now have a stronger foundation for my whacky ideas about what is to come for the rest of the show, so buckle up– here we go.

And, of course….

***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS**

Again, tentatively, but I don’t want somebody hunting me down with a catspaw blade because I ruined the show for them.

One note about spoilage– there has been a great deal of it online around leak episodes and scripts, and so far some of it has been pretty accurate.  At this point, for example, everyone knows Jon is going to lead an expedition north of the wall, probably in Episode Six, which apparently will get its ass kicked and cost Dany a dragon.  That common knowledge helps feed my speculations.

(What, you didn’t know?  Sorry about that.  Please put the knife down.)

  1. What is it with people online expecting Dany and Jon to get down to business (and I ain’t talking about accounting) in the next episode. Crap, she and Jon just met, and they are antagonists at the moment, people– their agendas are in direct conflict.  You’ve waited more than six seasons for this encounter, give it a chance to simmer.
  2. This, of course, ignores the fact that if Jon is, indeed, the child of Rhaegar and Lyanna, then Dany is his aunt.  Face it, folks, that’s kinda problematic.  How does this work, boo for incest if it’s between the bad guys, hurrah if the good guys are doing it?  Ugh.
  3. On the other hand, it may yet be just an assumption that R+L=J.  People watched the Tower of Joy sequence, and because it cut from an unidentified infant to Jon Snow, they assumed the theory was confirmed.  I think it is at least possible that the show runners may yet jerk that rug out from under us.
  4. Of course, if so, then Dany and Jon are not related.  In which case, Defcon One, Jon Snow….
  5. The whole interplay between Jon and Dany at their first meeting was worthy of a stage play.  No special effects, no epic battles, just two determined people with irreconcilable agendas confronting one another.  Some people thought it was boring, but I’m not one of them.  What were they supposed to do, get into a knife-fight?  Story-wise, this is exactly what needed to happen, as Dany’s plans begin to run up hard against the reality of what’s actually going down in Westeros, and Jon risks being eaten by a dragon because he knows his war is the real deal, not this petty dynastic squabble with which everyone else has been obsessed for the last six seasons.  A foundation had to be laid, and this was it.
  6. And no, they don’t like each other.  Think Beatrice and Benedick, only with dragons and undead.
  7. Damn, that sounds good.  They did it for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (a wretched film, btw– can’t speak to the book), why not for Shakespeare?  Too bad Bill is dead, I think he’d love the concept.
  8. Speaking of reality checks, Dany has come to rely entirely too much on political theater (which was what the dragon fly-by was about, of course, and the whole recitation of titles).  I think she’s going to find that sort of thing doesn’t, well, fly as well in Westeros as it did in other parts of the world.
  9. The whole sequence where Cersei poisons Tyene and leaves her and Ellaria in the dungeon, just out of reach of each other, was heartrending.  Ellaria deserves to be punished, and Tyene has her own sins, but this is vengeance and cruelty, not justice.  Of course, one of the points of the show is that this is a world short on justice and very long on cruelty and revenge.  In that kind of world Cersei’s actions approach the status of logical consequences, which only tells you how depraved the moral order of Westeros is.
  10. Contrast, then, Jon’s treatment of Alice Karstark and Ned Umber –  where Cersei would have acted with petty cruelty, Jon shows mercy, even when his own sister is urging vengeance.  It makes you want to pledge fealty right there.
  11. In the realm of actual predictions, from here on out major characters are going to start dropping like whores’ knickers.  Melisandre hinted at her own death and Varys’ in Episode Three, and I suspect they won’t die in bed sipping cocoa.  Varys will probably get cross-ways of Dany somehow, because people who think in terms of “the realm” are sometimes awfully inconvenient to monarchs.
  12. I suspect the showrunners have a much dramatic end in mind for Melisandre.  Perhaps she’ll give her life in the fight against the Night King, and so atone in some degree for her crimes.  In any event, I doubt she will suffer a straw-death.
  13. Beric Dondarrion is going to get it (finally and for good) when he follows Jon north of the wall (oops, spoilers, remember?), but not before he gets to use Thoros’ flaming sword, which should rock hard as a scene.
  14. Arya will make it back to Winterfell, but I predict she’s going to cautiously infiltrate the place to determine the lay of the land, and there may not be the sort of uber-joyful reunion we had with between Sansa and Jon.
  15. In the process, Arya may kill Littlefinger.  I’m just hoping.
  16. If Littlefinger does make it past Arya’s return, at some point he’s going to spill the beans about Jon’s true parentage (if there be beans to spill).  There have been plenty of hints he knows the secret.  Who knows what will happen then; it could be someone will even silence him in a rather permanent fashion to keep the secret secret. From some points of view, Jon as a Targaryen would be an inconvenient truth– it would probably destroy the allegiance he has won from the northern lords, among other things.  This could go any number of ways, though, and nobody who isn’t named Benioff, Weiss or Martin has a genuine clue as to the whole story.

Enough for now.  With each episode the possibilities narrow and the dramatic tension becomes more focused.  Anyway you cut it, we’re in for a ride.

I just wish there were more than four episodes left in the season.

Later.

A few random and wild-eyed speculations on “Game of Thrones”

So, we are two episodes into Season Seven of Game of Thrones, and I feel the urge to speculate on the ultimate endpoint of the series.  Perhaps this is premature; it is almost certainly foolhardy, from a critical standpoint.  It smacks of hubris; it reeks (no pun intended) of chutzpah.

But what the heck, I’m going to go with it.

But first, of necessity–

***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***

Well, maybe.  Speculations do sometimes turn out to be accurate.  More than accurate, though, they are fun.

  1. Dany is never going to be Queen of the Seven Kingdoms.  That would be a disappointingly straight-line narrative, and Benioff, Weiss and Martin are all too canny a set of writers to give us that.  They are certain to monkey-wrench that story-line into oblivion.  One way or another Dany will be turned aside from that path and that destiny, to find another.  A better destiny?  Hard to say, since Martin has already said that the end of the Song of Ice and Fire will be ‘bittersweet’.
  2. The Night King is going to win– at least in Westeros, where Dany’s vision of a ruined Red Keep will come true.  I suspect he’s going to destroy the Wall at some point, somehow overcoming the magical protections built into it.  This will probably be the Season Seven cliffhanger.  Winter will spread over Westeros and millions will die.  Dorne may escape and maybe the Free Cities as well, but it will snow in Volantis and even Meereen.
  3. Dany and Jon will hook up for a poignantly short time.  Jon will die again, probably after giving Dany the son she wants, the true Stallion Who Mounts the World.
  4. Jon may or may not learn of his heritage.  It almost doesn’t matter at this point.
  5. Thousands of Westerosi will flee to Meereen and the other cities on Slaver’s Bay, which will become a warm refuge against the winter.  Changes in climate will bring abundant rainfall back to the region, and it will enjoy a rebirth.
  6. Drogon alone will survive the Winter War, but since dragons are hermaphroditic, she/he will still be able to lay new eggs and hatch a new generation flying flame-throwers.
  7. When Jon dies he may see Ygritte again.  This could just be the sentimental slob in me.
  8. Jaime will kill Cersei.  Or Tyrion will do it.  Or Dany.  Or Drogon.  Or the fifth Dothraki on the left.  I don’t really care, so long as someone snuffs the bat-fuck bitch.
  9. Jaime will probably kill himself after Cersei’s death.
  10. Tyrion and Sansa may decide getting married to each other wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
  11. Tyrion and Sansa, on the other hand, may die poignant deaths just as they realize they love each other.
  12. Tormund and Brienne are probably going to die poignant deaths, too, although Brienne will probably spend the last few minutes of her life rolling her eyes at Tormund.
  13. Grey Worm and Missandei, of course, are utterly doomed.  They may have the poignant death market cornered.
  14. Assuming she lives, Sansa will advise Queen Danerys in Meereen.
  15. Arya will survive and defend Meereen with her stealthy powers.  The showrunners don’t dare kill her.  There’d be rioting in the streets.
  16. Dany’s grandkids will reconquer Westeros with hordes of dragons, zeppelins, incendiary ammo, and fuel-air bombs.  I’d pay HBO’s full price to see that series.

That’s enough wild-eyed speculation for now.  Once we have a few more episodes for Season Seven in the bag I may refine these.  Or add others.  The sky’s the limit, actually.

Later.

Some random thoughts on the finale of Game of Thrones Season 6

First thought–

Ho-lee frack.

Before I expand on that, however, a public service announcement–

**SPOILERS****SPOILERS****SPOILERS****SPOILERS****SPOILERS****SPOILERS

 

In making known my thoughts about this final episode, I assume most of you know at least the general outline of the overall Game of Thrones story.  I am not even going to think about summarizing the story so far.  We’d be here until winter (which is coming, you know).  If you don’t know the story, go and binge-watch the series, now.  This post will still be here in 2017.

So, in no particular order–

1.  Ho-lee frack.  Oh wait, I did that one already.

2.  Geez, how many characters were knocked off, blown up, incinerated, stabbed to death or self-splatted in this episode?  Margaery Tyrell (which made me really sad), Loras Tyrell, Mace Tyrell, Lancel Lannister, Kevan Lannister, the High Sparrow, King Tommen, Grand Maester Pycelle (good riddance), Walder Frey, Black Walder Frey and Lothar Frey (no tears shed over those a-holes, either).  That’s one way to help simplify the story-line.

3. Cersei has gone all Richard the Third.  I can’t decide if this was her plan all along or if it is a desperation move now that her crowned pawn, Tommen, is gone (although he had demonstrated a disturbing independence of late, as least from his mother).  Either way, she’s now got the power she’s always craved (and quite possibly full-on bat-shit crazy as well), with nothing in King’s Landing to stop her– but she’s also a patent usurper, even by the loosey-goosey standards of post-Targaryen Westeros.  Her destruction of the bulk of her enemies (along with a large number of innocent bystanders and a fair portion of King’s Landing) at a single blow is the move of a ruthless tyrant, brilliant as a piece of political assassination, but sure to set all of Westeros against her.

4. Maggy the Frog’s prophecy is coming true.  All that’s left now is for the “younger and more beautiful” queen to show up to finish Cersei off.  Smart money is on Dany, but GoT has thrown us curve balls before.  By the way, the show has allowed itself an extra degree of freedom than the books by omitting one line from Maggy’s prophecy, which reads as–

“And when your tears have drowned you, the valonqar shall wrap his hands about your pale white throat and choke the life from you.”

As valonqar is Valyrian for ‘younger brother’, this has generally been interpreted by fans as meaning that Tyrion will kill Cersei in the climactic confrontation between the Lannisters and everyone else (certainly that is Cersei’s interpretation, and the source of much of her antipathy toward her brother), but Jaime has also been suggested, since he was born after Cersei.  But since the show-runners excluded this line, they don’t have to expend any story time dealing with its implications.

5. The destruction of the Great Sept of Baelor is one intense piece of dramatic cinematography.  The music, which is a change of pace for the show, particularly builds up the tension.  The explosion and its consequences are dramatic, tragic and horrifying all at once (the bell’s a nice touch).  I’ve already noted how I hated to see Margaery Tyrell go out in this manner.  It all has the tragic inevitability of the Titanic’s sinking- you know it’s going to happen but you wish there was something you could do….

5. We see Olenna Tyrell negotiating an alliance with Ellaria Sand and the Sand Snakes (although it’s not so much a negotiation as a rather tart schooling), whereupon Varys, Daenerys’ envoy, shows up to offer an added element to the anti-Lannister vengeance coalition.  Olenna’s presence and appearance in Dorne makes an important point about something which has confused many fans– how people seem move around the world of GoT so quickly. For example, Varys appears to leave Meereen in one episode, appear in Dorne shortly thereafter, and then very quickly reappear on Daenerys’ ship at the end of the final episode.  The truth is that weeks have passed between each scene.  This is evidenced by the fact that Olenna is in mourning  when she goes to Dorne– she already knows about the deaths of her kin in King’s Landing.  She also refers to how “Cersei stole the future from me”.  If we took the breaks between scenes as amounting to a mere day or so, she would not have even yet received in Highgarden the news of the deaths of Margaery and the others, considering the distance between King’s Landing and the Reach.  In fact, in the show, as in the books, considerable time often passes between scenes, and the intervals are irregular, at that.

6. Daenerys is on her way to Westeros, and not before time.  There has been a lot of griping out there in fandom about the fact it took her six seasons to get moving in this direction.  As frustrating as that might have been to viewers, I think from a story perspective it could not have come any earlier.  Dany and her dragons have obviously been set up as key, perhaps critical, assets to be used against the White Walkers. Sending them to Westeros before the WW’s offensive reaches it’s critical moment would have ruined the whole plot-line, as if Frodo had actually flown a giant eagle to Mount Doom and just dropped the Ring into the lava.  Struggle, failure and frustration are essential to drama, and Dany’s effort to create a base for herself in Esteros was the necessary prelude to her offensive to retake the Iron Throne.  Time also had to pass in order for the dragons to realistically grow to their full, terrifying size.  You cannot rush drama without dissipating its energy (about which, see below).

7. We finally see the second part of the Tower of Joy flashback.  This sequence has been generally interpreted as confirming the “R+L = J” fan theory, that Jon Snow is actually the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen rather than Ned Stark and some unknown woman.  The scene certainly implies this, but I have to note that the show-runners are actually still teasing us– when Lyanna whispers to Ned, we cannot hear the first part (at least I couldn’t, and I turned my ear-buds up so high I nearly bled out my eardrums), hearing only “Robert will kill him” clearly.  The show-runners could still throw one of their curve-balls at us.  Fans, I think, should brace themselves for a surprise.  Just in case.

On the whole the episode paid off big in many ways, resolving story-lines and fairly effectively setting up the ultimate and necessary confrontations that will wrap up this whole epic.  Waiting a whole year for Season Seven is going to be very tedious.

Having said that, the episode is not without issues.  Chief among these (for me, at least) is the hurried way in which the alliance between Dorne, the Tyrells and Dany is cemented.  It seemed sketchy, as if the writers were feeling pressured to squeeze it into this season.  An alliance as critical to the story as this one should have involved more time and development.  The whole Dorne story-line, in fact, has felt rather thin, over both Season Five and Six, as if the writers didn’t have the time to do it up properly.

For me this raises a concern.  Despite the fact that the list of characters who still possess a pulse on this show is now considerably shorter, there are still a lot of story-lines to resolve, involving two major conflicts, between the Lannisters and their enemies, and between humanity and the White Walkers– and there are only ten hours of TV left in which to wrap it all up.  That’s not a lot compared to the weight of what needs to happen to bring this tale to a satisfactory conclusion.  It worries me.

Drama is hard.  Pacing in drama is hard.  Pacing in epic drama such as this, with hundreds of characters and all manner of disparate elements that all need to mesh, is supremely hard.  I’ve watched or read any number of epic stories in which the ending seems to be hasty, patched together, or thin, not living up to the promise of everything that preceded it.  J R R Tolkien is about the only writer I can think of off the top of my head who pulls it off successfully, resolving the critical story-lines and outstanding questions in a satisfactory manner, chiefly by taking time to work them out (in my paperback edition of The Return of the King, there are one hundred pages of action after the destruction of the Ring).  I am very much afraid the ten hours remaining to this series are not going to be enough.  I will be very, very disappointed if the good guys finish off Cersei in a perfunctory manner, and then vanquish the White Walkers in a few episodes, as if all the threat they have posed in the previous seasons was hollow and false.

Still, I’m going to risk the disappointment– I want to see how this all comes out.  I’m hooked.  It’s going to be a long year….

Later.

 

 

 

 

 

Five fantasy books that have influenced me

Despite the fact that I have stopped posting chapters of Horse Tamer, I remain intent on writing the complete novel. Although it has to take a back-seat to finishing Princess of Fire, I’ve started re-orienting the existing text to my revised start-point and my grimmer vision of Mankin. I expect this will be as much a labor of love as the posted chapters were.

Writing Horse Tamer got me to thinking about my fantasy influences, and I realized that some of the best deserve to be called out and honored, especially as younger readers might not be familiar with some of them. Considering how picky I am with my genre reading, it’s also worth noting the books I go back to, over and over again, for inspiration, or which influenced me at an early age.

In no particular order, here are five of my favorite fantasy books–

The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien– naturally. This is the ur-work of modern fantasy. Both fantasy and sword and sorcery existed before Tolkien– William Morris’ The Well at the World’s End was published in 1896, and Robert E. Howard created Conan the Barbarian twenty years before Tolkien completed LOTR. Tolkien’s work, however, has defined the genre for the last two generations.

I definitely fall into the camp of those who assert that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is, taken together (as it was originally meant to be), the most influential novel of the Twentieth Century. It powerfully encapsulates our culture’s growing realization that modern society was not the paradise its propagandists said it was– and suggests a remedy– not a bucolic retreat into medievalism, of which some critics accuse the trilogy, but a regaining of a sense of our dependent inter-relationship, both with each other and with nature. In one sense, the Lord of the Rings is the first ecological cautionary tale, published years before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. In another, it was a vanguard of the counter-culture. In yet another, it is a profound anti-war tale.

The Blue Hawk, by Peter Dickinson — an example of a rare type of fantasy I admire and aspire to write. These are fantasy stories with little or no magic. Other examples would probably include the Gormenghast trilogy, Watership Down, and Shardik. Personally, I dislike magic– to me, it’s a cop-out, and usually takes me away from the kind of setting I really enjoy– the sort that focuses on human relationships and struggles, while set in partly or wholly imaginary worlds. There is considerable debate whether these sort of stories are actually mannerpunk, steampunk or sci-fi; for me the debate is almost meaningless, precisely because genre boundaries on the whole are growing increasingly meaningless.

In the book Dickinson creates a world that is refreshingly not medieval, but rather a re-working of Egyptian or Sumerian culture and history. The young priest Tron intervenes in a ceremony and becomes entangled in a political struggle that at first appears to be merely between the kingdom’s priestly caste and the nobility, who want to break out the strait-jacket the priests have placed on the kingdom– but which in the end is revealed to be a story of gods and their purposes. I love the story, and the atmosphere Dickinson creates, of desert temples, winding rivers, highland peasants, shadowed struggles between priestly and royal factions, and of a place and time far removed from ours. More fantasy needs to be written like this.

The Doomfarers of Coramonde, by Brian Daley. Another story that blurs the boundary between sci-fi and fantasy, it revolves around the discovery of a portal leading from the mundane Earth to a fantasy world. The first half of the story involves a US Army armored cavalry APC in Vietnam that is pulled into the fantasy universe to help defeat a dragon. Inevitably, complications ensue. The second half involves the APC commander, who returns to Coramonde to help the rightful prince Springbuck regain his throne.

This book captured my imagination in large part because I read it while I was still in the Army, in an actual armored cavalry regiment, so I was immediately able to relate to the APC crew, their weapons and attitudes, and their profound sense of dislocation at finding themselves in a different world. Brian Daley was a Vietnam veteran, and he brought a great deal of authenticity to the story. The book was an important milestone for me, in terms of how it presented realistic characters and dialogue, even in a fantastic setting.

Unfortunately, Daley passed away in 1996 from cancer, far too soon.

The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold. This story has become one of my personal favorites, the sort where you read the book until it falls apart. Set in a fantasy world modeled on Reconquista Iberia, it tells the tale of the breaking of a curse that has haunted the royal house of Chalion. Its protagonist, Lupe dy Cazaril, is a rare example of a good character– honorable, honest and dedicated to those he serves– who is not boring. Bujold redeems Cazaril’s straight-arrow qualities by presenting him also as deeply-wounded, humble, self-deprecating and sometimes blundering. I’m the sort who needs characters I can root for in his books and movies, and Cazaril is just the sort of sympathetic character I latch on to.

Bujold also does something else in this book I deeply appreciate– instead of utilizing magic, she has constructed a detailed theology revolving around five deities who, to the characters in the story, are not theoretical at all, but participants in the action, with their own agendas (what the gods want, in fact, is a major plot-point). This allows Bujold to talk about a number of issues– faith, surrender to God, duty, miracles– that might be difficult to handle otherwise.

A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin (aka, Game of Thrones, which is technically the title of only the first book in the series). Since these books are still being written, the jury is not yet completely in as to just how effective the story will be as a whole when it is finished. For one thing, I am personally scratching my head as to how Martin is supposed to wrap up everything in just two more books– there are so many threads and loose-ends, it feels to me as if he needs three or four. Of course, that may be the difference between me and a literary genius.

Because, despite the incomplete nature of the series, it’s clear to me that A Song of Ice and Fire is a work of genius. It has re-defined the fantasy genre, away from the Lord of the Rings template toward something dark, gritty and more sensual. In fact, A Song of Ice and Fire is seen by some as the prime and most successful example of the “grimdark” sub-genre, which is itself a reaction to Tolkien’s work. Of course, as was the case with Tolkien, most of Martin’s imitators cannot match his power.

The power of Martin’s writing lies largely in his refusal to flinch away from the hard realities of life, and particularly life in a medieval setting. It’s often hard to read his work, but for me that resonates– it reads like history, and anyone who reads history knows the first requirement of a historian is a strong stomach. There is no idealization of the human condition in Martin’s work– he fully comprehends the basic fact that people are selfish, false, treacherous, violent and power-hungry. They use power to hurt, and rape as a weapon of war. Good people die for no reason, and too often the wrong prospers. Westeros is the power-obsessed Middle Ages re-written in a modern idiom.

The saving grace in all this darkness is a handful of characters- Brienne of Tarth, Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, Davos Seaworth, Daenerys Targaryen, among others– who you come to root for, because they preserve in themselves some aspect of hope and integrity. None of them are perfect– Tyrion, for example, is a completely mixed bag of lust and square-dealing– and you have to steel yourself for the possibility that someone you love is going to get it, as Martin has no compunction about killing off characters. But that just illustrates his narrative honesty.

Martin’s ability to create nuanced characters is another major contributor to his power. Good, bad, in-between, they are all three-dimensional and believable. I find myself liking amoral self-servers like Bronn the sellsword, because he has a pragmatic honesty and a sense of humor, and even Cersei Lannister is revealed, beneath her vicious exterior, as a fearful and wounded woman who loves her children. How Martin manages this while creating a cast that may dwarf that of War and Peace is an opaque mystery to me.

I hope that Martin can, in the end, wrap up his epic in a way that resolves all the threads. Writing a genuinely epic fantasy is tough, but resolving it in a satisfactory manner is probably the toughest part of all. Off the top of my head about the only author I can think of who actually accomplished the feat was Tolkien. But among modern authors, Martin is probably the one person who can do it.

It suddenly seems almost sacrilegious to mention my faltering and simple-minded effort with Horse Tamer in the same breath with these works. What inspires you frequently also creates a sense of futility– I know my stories will never match the grace and power of these books. But the inspiration also creates the desire to honor your sources with your own effort. Sometime after I complete Princess of Fire and before I start Princess of Stars, I intend to finish Horse Tamer.

And then I guess we’ll just see what happens.