Moral Order in Moral Ambiguity

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, Bantam Spectra, August 6th, 1996

After re-reading and re-reviewing A Throne of Bones recently, I decided I would follow-up by reading A Game of Thrones while waiting for the physical release of A Sea of Skulls. Like many, I was introduced to this series through the HBO television adaptation and was not previously familair with the books even in name. I really only started reading fantasy works beyond Lewis and Tolkien in my thirties; so am relatively new to much that has been written since (and even before). 

I also did this with some trepidation as the series remains unfinished and the last release was back in 2011 when the television adaptation began. Like Patrick Rothfuss, George R. R. Martin doesn’t seem to have it in him to finish what he started and by most accounts I’ve read, the latter books waffle on and introduce far more characters than can be easily kept track of. This was also true from memory of the television series, which became more and more convoluted before I stopped watching it around the seventh season.

Although they are both overweight gammas who haven’t finished their fantasy series’; these comparisons end when it comes to writing as Martin can certainly tell an engaging story with an interesting setting and characters. The world-building in this first book alone is incredible. Without slogging readers with long-winded exposition, it introduces fascinating histories, characters and a believable group of Houses vying for power and influence in the land of Westeros. Rothfuss’s book was a painful slog that imagined his otherwise uneventful days in university in a fantasy setting with him as the hero he certainly was not.

The only reason I have no plans to read past the first book, is because I know it will only get worse and that there will probably never be a proper ending. There is also the moral turpitude to consider which was certainly present in this book and only gets worse if the television series is anything to go by. Indeed, I have previously mentioned my decision to generally avoid such material. This book is thankfully much tamer than I expected though is still unecessarily crude in a number of places. I certainly won’t be watching the series again and likely never would have had I not started watching it before my conversion to Catholicism in 2017.

What is more important here is not what the series is but what it could have been. Because their are the seeds of a fantasy series that would have been loved well beyond the death of the author. Even in the event the author comes to finish it, I don’t expect it will be well-remembered by generations yet to be born though one can hardly deny it hasn’t been extremely popular in his lifetime. 

People generally describe the series as a more realistic and morally ambiguous version of The Lord of the Rings. Or one could say it is a series that “subverts your expectations” which is normally a good indication of what to avoid whether on film or in literature. My initial takeway from reading the first book and even with knowledge of many events to come, was that it didn’t really start out this way.

What I believe hooked many readers and certainly those who just watched the HBO adaptation was actually quite conventional. The main protagonist Eddard Stark is introduced as a virtuous man. He is devoted to his wife and has many children who love him. He is shown to be a fair and just ruler of Winterfell and perhaps more importantly, a man that lives by the laws he enforces. 

The reader soon learns that he is not a perfect man which is no less true of any one of us. He helped his friend Robert Baratheon take the throne from the Targaryens whose dynasty had existed for centuries. He had an understandable reason for this as the king they overthrew was a mad and murderous one; but this still violated the order that was. When the usurper King Robert visits Winterfell where Ned rules as Lord, we are quickly shown that Robert is not that much of an improvement.

In the first third of the novel, the reader is introduced to a fat king with a ferocious temper who is ruled by his passions; which include a love for drink, food and various women who are not his wife. He is also careless with the finances of the kingdom as Ned soon discovers when he reluctantly becomes the Hand of the King. He is also shown to have a ruthless streak as when he orders the assassination of the last two remaining Targaryan heirs living in exile that are part of the wider narrative. Worse still, his wife Cersei has little love for him and his son, Joffrey who is heir to the throne, is insolent and it is clear will be even worse than his father. 

Anyone who is familiar with the series knows things are worse still. Joffrey and his other two children are actually the rotten fruit of an incestuous relationship between Cersei and her brother Jaime Lannister. Ned’s son Bran discovers this by accident while coming upon them in flagrante and is pushed out of a high window by Jaime in an attempt to hide this being discovered. There is also a minor murder mystery of the previous Hand of the King that is related to the same dark secret of the Lannisters. This particular portion of the book is the initial hook and from memory was the cliffhanger of the very first episode. Claims of no clear distinction between good and evil fall kind of flat from here. Incest as well as the attempted murder of a young child are clear violations of moral order that demand justice.

Wanting to see justice for this act is what drives the series from the start. It establishes Cersei, Jaime and the Lannisters as evil people which they are. Further, what opended the door to all this were the sins of Robert Baratheon, Ned Stark and others in usurping the throne from the rightful dynasty. Afterall, mad or not: kings don’t live forever. These early actions are shown to have merely kept a temporary peace at what becomes a much greater price. There is of course a lot more going on beyond this but this is what really drives the plot and there is nothing morally ambigous about any of it.

We’re also introduced early on to Jon Snow who is the bastard son of Ned Stark. An infidelity of his youth which further enhances his status as a good man trying to right his wrongs by taking responsibility for him. That this happened around the time the throne was usurped makes Jon the living evidence of the sins of his youth. As an illigitimate son, he receives little kindness from others — especially his stepmother — and his family name is one denied to those born illigitmately. He is destined for a hard life, on a northern wall, guarding the kingdom from a threat that becomes more important later but is introduced in the very first chapter.

I have spent a good deal of time explaining the story but only to demonstrate that despite Martins efforts, there is a clear moral thread to follow in his story. His decision to subvert this is actually what I believe has ultimately wrecked what he set out to do. After reading A Game of Thrones, I don’t believe he consciously set out to do what he now claims either. He can’t finish what he started because he is trying to avoid it reaching its rightful conclusion. Or as has been suggested elsewhere, to marry Ice and Fire

After the first book, my familiarity with this epic fantasy comes almost entirely from the television series which I know did make significant changes. More importantly, it went beyond Martin’s work and came to an end though by most accounts: quite poorly. I am aware of how it ended though I didn’t watch the final season and I honestly don’t remember with any coherence much of what happened beyond season four or so.

The other major event that hooked both readers and viewers alike was the death of Ned Stark in the final chapters of the book. One thing I will criticise is his admission to false charges of treason in hopes of saving his life which is noticeably uncharacteristic. This may seem minor but it does become important later. The death of a good man who was trying to do the right thing is another example of the moral core the author is another moral fire he is trying to stamp out though he was the one that lit it. The execution of Ned Stark is an outrage that demands justice and the audience captured in this climax would not be satisfied with anything less.

Even the equally famous “Red Wedding” where Ned’s eldest son Robb and his young pregnant wife are betrayed and murdered can work within a moral framework. Robb is being punished for breaking a promise to marry one of Lord Freys daughters. Frey’s betrayal is still evil but it is forshadowed by Robb Stark’s own decisions and all the more by Frey’s own loathsome characteristics. This event only grows the reader’s desire to see justice done for what has happened to the Starks and so many others.

Something hinted from the very first book was the true parentage of Jon Snow which is revealed to be Ned’s sister Lyanna and Rhaegar Targaryan (at least in the television series). This being true serves to enoble Ned Stark even more as he was willing to bear the shame of infidelity in order to protect his nephew and the one who would be the rightful heir to the throne. Jon Snow is a genuinely heroic and popular character and his mix of Targaryan (Fire) and Stark (Ice) blood makes him the logical solution to the game of thrones played out from the first book.

The television series absurdly ended with Bran Stark becoming king though paralysed form the waist down and unable to have children. This obviously wouldn’t have restored order as issues of succession would be rife before he ever came close to old age. The logical (as well as satisfying), way to end the series would have been to have Jon Snow come to the throne in some way. This was not to be I believe because Martin doesn’t want the natural ending and is unable to close his narrative in a way that would satisfy the audience while keeping his desire to excise any true notion of good and evil. 

After reading the first book, it is more disappointing than anything that such a great story was sabotaged by its creator simply because he was so intent on departing from the moral order. Martin prefers profanity, fornication, gratuitous violence and both literal and verbal filth. The backstabbing, ammoral court politics provides his avenue for all of this. Yet, it is the noble Starks that make the series more relatable than any of what Martin would describe as “realistic” within the narrative. His deliberate moral blindness has made this own work unfinishable. 

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