As I’ve been reading and thinking about GoT too much lately, but the connections between ASOIAF that are made in a blog I linked to in a previous post have made me rethink a fundamental weakness that I see in fantasy in general. The construction of race in fantasy has long been an issue, and the problems go far beyond the lack of characters of any ethnicity beside European, or even the casual racism of Tolkien’s portrayals of the men of Harad and the Easterlings who fight for Sauron.
The insistence on the purity of blood lines is the issue that I find far more troublesome, and I thought that GRRM had fallen into this same trap – after all, his intended purpose is to base his story on the English War of the Roses, and so I saw nothing more than a fascinating, obsessive fantasy that attempts to be more true to medieval life.
Doran the Historian has made me seriously rethink this take. His argument that ASOIAF is actually an elaborate reconstruction of Norse mythology, with the Children of the Forest and the Others actually natural, primeval forces trying to take back what humans have forcibly taken from them, sounds so incredible that it might actually be accurate, at least as a reading of the text (what GRRM intended none of us know, but he’s a smart guy who’s written some brilliant stories).
If the text is read in this way, then the concept of race becomes reversed, if perhaps no less troublesome. In reading LOTR, it’s hard not to read the golden haired warriors of Rohan and the light-skinned hobbits as true inheritors of something, whether that something be concepts of human dignity supposedly only available in the West or some sort of racial purity that borders on being eugenical in nature. GRRM instead sees humans as the troublesome ones, and notions of the purity of racial lines are used for dark and inhuman purposes, with a Stark having to be in Winterfell in order to continue human subjugation of the natural world, and the plot trajectory that many of us think we are reading, one in which Daenerys Taergaeryn comes from across the sea in Viking ships to marry John Snow and defeat the evil Others and rescue humanity is not where this song is going.
I struggle mightily with Doran’s interpretation mostly because it is so far from our generic expectations of fantasy. That shouldn’t trouble me, though, since GRRM killed the hero we all wanted to win in the first book, killed his avenging son in the third, put the evil queen through horrendous humiliations as punishment for her crimes, and consistently refuses to let us get comfortable (he might well have killed John Snow, who I have to remind myself knows nothing, at the end of DwD). The character driven to patricide, Tyrion, also suffers untoward humiliations and might have greyscale, and Daenerys frees slaves only to realize that she probably has to feed them, suffering all the troubles of rulers who are tyrants.
The book paints a consistently dark picture of human culture, and at first I applauded that as a realistic departure from the standard fantasy, but I should instead have done what Doran did and look for the connections to better understand why GRRM is going to this much trouble. His arguments are frighteningly good, and maybe, just maybe, what GRRM intended to do was to write a natural world’s version of Ragnarok, one in which the world is consumed with fire, the gods of technology and commerce destroyed, and the natural world can emerge, cleansed and ready to start over with far fewer humans on the planet.
If folks who are watching the HBO version felt their heads asplode when Robb was killed, well, if GRRM pulls this off as Dorian thinks he will, with the beginning of Ragnarok, the asploded head count will be off the charts.