When we expressed our intention of reading George R.R. Martin’s fantasy saga A Song of Ice and Fire, reader Qsdn posted this comment.
“Tip when reading RR Martin: Don’t invest too much emotion in his characters. :p George RR Martin does like twisting your heart a bit too much. I stick with Robert Jordan.”
No truer words were ever posted on a comments page. Dammit, you get attached to a character and then something horrendous happens to her or him. Horrendous and often final. Why do you do this to us, George R.R. Martin! You don’t even spare the animals!!
Of course many beloved characters die in my favorite fantasy and SF epics Dune, The Lord of the Rings, The Once and Future King. (Look away now, spoilers coming.) Some deaths set the plots in motion: the Duke Leto Atreides must die on Arrakis and his house be scattered so that Paul may seek sanctuary with the Fremen. Some deaths are the price of redemption—Boromir tries to take the Ring, but he is cut down defending the hobbits. The manner of one’s death almost defines his life: Theoden goes knowing he has managed to live up to the code of his ancestors.
The most wrenching deaths are the pointless ones. It should not have happened, it is not fair, it could’ve been prevented; some foul treachery turned the hero’s own qualities against him. In The Once and Future King a truce had already been made, only to be broken by a random event.
Of these three epics T.H. White’s is the most melancholy, shot through with a gloomy beauty. The mood can change in seconds: a unicorn hunt begins in a comical vein and ends in a bloody absurdity. There are schemes, battles, power struggles, and none of them have the destructive force of true love.
(Recently we sat through a new TV series about Merlin and Arthur. Its creators, working on the Harry Potter and Smallville models, were going for a teen-friendly origin story. We had a fit of what can only be called English Major Rage: They are not the same age! Arthur never knew his father! Arthur was conceived with the aid of Merlin who sent Uther to Igraine in the guise of her husband the Duke of Tintagel! Then Merlin took the child and gave him to Sir Hector to raise! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa. That night we went to sleep using Thomas Malory’s doorstop Morte d’Arthur for a pillow. We have not seen the current King Arthur series with Joseph Fiennes as Merlin, but suspect we will need to have strong liquor within reach.)
A Game of Thrones, the first novel in George R.R. Martin’s series, is compelling to read and harsh on its protagonists. One is well-advised not to get overly fond of anyone, as nine times out of ten he or she will come to a bad end. In the traditional epics courage, valor and a pure heart are rewarded; in this contemporary epic they are frequently a cause of doom.
But we will go on reading, being unable to stop. Not for nothing are we readers of epics.