Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Coin: Money and the Gift Mentality in the Song of Ice and Fire

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Coin: Money and the Gift Mentality in the Song of Ice and Fire

Article excerpt

IN GEORGE R. R. MARTIN'S SERIES, A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, (1) MONEY IS AS frequently mentioned as in our present-day experience. Not only does Martin refer to it in the appropriate contexts--buying, selling, budget, taxation, etc.--but he also makes evident the changes of a society where money is beginning to be a moving force. Though the background of the novels consists of many details drawn from historical data, it would be unwise to ascribe to this work of fantasy literature a precise historical moment and completely rule out anachronism. As far as money is concerned, Martin takes as his model a period when the market, trade, and finance are gaining importance, but traditions related to a land-based economy still prevail. What he captures in his novels is the tilting of the balance toward a monetary economy, for while reciprocal obligations persist in custom, money is gaining ground, bringing about new possibilities, freedoms, and forms of exploitation. Today, when money is not only ubiquitous but also abstract, Martin's reconstruction of medieval finances fits the fantasy framework not only because it shows money in material and concrete form, but also because it considers the possibility of an alternative economy where money does not exist. Inspired by that possibility, we can contemplate the full extent of money's impact on our society.

Beyond a mundane preoccupation with earning, spending, and saving, there is a rich philosophical, historical, and anthropological thought surrounding money, which can serve as a theoretical framework for the present exploration. Pascal Bruckner's evocation of the French saying, "money is a promise that demands a wisdom" tidily encapsulates the importance of thinking about it: "The expression has a double meaning: it is wise to have money, and it is also wise to give it thought. It makes us constantly choose between what we want to do, what we can do, and what we ought to do" (15, my translation). The mixture of desire, necessity, and moral imperative points to the complexity of issues inseparable from the human condition. It is indeed hard to find a time or place where money is totally absent, yet it can be thought about in different ways, and its function can distinguish one historical period from another. Adrian Walsh and Tony Lynch are right to ask: "Why think that money is always one and the same thing? Might it not be related, but still quite different things in different times and circumstances? Certainly, this was something Marx (1818-1883) insisted on, distinguishing in Capital between 'money that is money only, and money that is capital'" (8). Money thus has a varied history and may be conceptualized in different ways. While our culture's tendency to conflate it with capital narrows the field of inquiry to economics, considering money in a wider context inevitably leads to connections with other aspects of human interaction.

David Graeber observes that economics textbooks start by urging readers to imagine a vaguely medieval world where people exchange one thing for another directly, without money, and as he argues, the very fact that it must be imagined indicates such a society may have never existed. The "barter economy" that supposedly leads to the invention of money is a myth, and anthropological research shows that barter is only a sporadic practice between groups of people who do not know each other (33). Consequently, the idea that, after the fall of the Roman Empire, European economy reverted to barter is also a myth (37). Although direct product exchange was frequent in the Middle Ages, money remained the standard. Marc Bloch explains: "Payments were often made in produce; but the produce was normally valued item by item in such a way that the total of these reckonings corresponded to a stipulated price in pound, shillings and pence" (66). Money did not disappear, but due to a scarcity of coin, it acquired a virtual existence. Scarcity eased during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, when the growth of trade, the rise of towns, and the return to a gold currency increased money circulation and changed the way it was perceived, according to Jacques Le Goff (Money 14). …

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