Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

The American Pratchett?: Muck and Modality in George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

The American Pratchett?: Muck and Modality in George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire

Article excerpt

Lord Hoster Tully, father of Catelyn Stark in George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, dies after a long illness. Tully's body, resplendently armed and armored, is set adrift in a boat on the Tumblestone river; the boat will then be set ablaze with a burning arrow fired by his son Edmure and sink, uniting him bodily with the waters he ruled so nobly. Thus the Tullys observe their defining connection to their lands. Sadly Edmure had drowned his sorrows the night before and is still "tight." He misses three times before swearing angrily and "thrusting" the bow at an uncle, who manages the job just before the boat passes out of range (A Storm of Swords 1.474-1.478). Catelyn's sense of peace is tainted; Edmure seems to take none at all.

How different this is from the departure of Boromir in The Lord of the Rings. Arrayed much like Tully, Boromir is set adrift on the Anduin, a river of rich symbolic importance to his family. Human error is not admitted into J. R. R. Tolkien's report of this ritual. Aragorn and Legolas improvise songs as if they had been rehearsing for years and graciously accept Gimli's appropriate declination to join them. (The Two Towers 407-408) Tolkien does not allow Aragorn to slip in the mud--the difficulties encountered in carrying Boromir to the river indicate his stature rather than the weakness of his mourners (406)--or Gimli to insist on singing an inappropriate song. If an arrow needed to be fired, Legolas would surely make the shot effortlessly, with the wind rippling his hair. This is exactly the sort of dignified, storied, elegiac occasion Catelyn and Edmure Tully hoped for.

The essential failure of the Tully funeral is indicative of Martin's story. Throughout his "song," conceits of glamour, ritual, aristocratic pretension, and even personal dignity are frustrated or spoiled. Some of these let-downs are the result of villainy but most are due to predictable complications that these people seem nonetheless not to have foreseen--mourners drink; drunks are poor shots. Martin's characters are repeatedly denied any pretense of majesty, solemnity, or ceremonial catharsis, apparently due to sheer bad planning.

This theme has been overlooked by those who seek to compare Martin and Tolkien. Such attempts may predate Lev Grossman's 2005 "proclamation" of him as "the American Tolkien," but this label has certainly stuck. This fact no doubt gratifies Martin's promoters, whose decision to include his middle initials--identical to Tolkien's--in his nom de plume, and to trumpet his books as "the greatest fantasy epic of the modern era," (A Clash of Kings, back cover blurb) are surely attempts to provoke such comparisons. No interview with or blog post about Martin is complete without an assessment of how his work relates to The Lord of the Rings. Given the "new coherence" (Attebery 14) Tolkien's novel gave to modern fantasy, this discussion is neither unexpected nor unhealthy. But Grossman himself notes the comparison has limits:

   What really distinguishes Martin, and what marks him as a major
   force for evolution in fantasy, is his refusal to embrace a vision
   of the world as a Manichaean struggle between Good and Evil.
   Tolkien's work has enormous imaginative force, but you have to go
   elsewhere for moral complexity. Martin's wars are multifaceted and
   ambiguous, as are the men and women who wage them and the gods who
   watch them and chortle, and somehow that makes them mean more. A
   Feast for Crows isn't pretty elves against gnarly orcs. It's men
   and women slugging it out in the muck, for money and power and lust
   and love. (139)

These qualifications gesture towards the deflated glamour in Martin's writing; his characters are "slugging it out in the muck." The purpose of this article is to place such qualifications within a framework of literary theory. Martin depicts that muck frequently, and in a way carefully targeted to place his story far further down Frye's hierarchy of modes than Tolkien's work. …

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