So, if Martin is interested in busting up generic tropes, then what about the spiritual triumvirate he posits? He invokes the multiple universe of opposing religious systems constantly (and gives us lenses through which we can see them in action, in all their glory and ineptitude and cruelty); he has all kinds of magicks that might even be (again, invoking Silverberg) technologies from the future; and he creates an entire order devoted to good government, the Maesters, whose very name and masculine-dominated rigidity feels both Jesuitical and monkish, at least in the preserve-all-knowledge kind of monkdom that makes me think of A Canticle for Leibowitz.
I’ve elsewhere argued that maybe Martin is going back to revisit a time in human history when science became a force in order to rethink those particular origins (and origin stories), but I wonder if there isn’t also a bit of trolling of generic expectations about magic. There is so much magic in this series, and it is done for a whole bunch of micro-reasons, when I think that Martin is more interested in planetary balance and the planet’s ability to defend itself (as I’ve written elsewhere).
Magic in fantasy, though, is almost always done in black-and-white terms. Martin has mucked up the genre for this easy approach, as evident in bunches of cocurrent and new fantasies that portray magic (and knighthood or soldiery) in much more complicated terms, but before ASOIAF magic was most often good wizards vs. bad sorcerers.
No you shan’t.
But the competing uses of magic in this series – similar to the multitude of worship systems – doesn’t neatly break down into good vs. evil, especially if the novels go opposite of the HBO series and portray the white walkers as simply forces of elemental, planetary powers designed to wipe the virus (humans) off the planet. Melissandre is a powerful sorceress, for example, who is simply wrong about her choice of the anointed one, the various Maesters who dabble in magic are deliberately opposed to the anti-magic mainstream Maesters, those who can ride dragons speak hypothetically magic words to them (or just jump on), there are entire cities that are devoted to black magic (and that seem to somehow thrive and survive), hell, even the Iron Islanders, with their cult-like love of an inferior technology (iron) and a desire to immerse themselves in a sea that both provides and kills, have odd uncles who bring magic horns that can destroy walls and tame (or kill) dragons.
All magic, I’m guessing, is a bending of physical and elemental forces in ways that appear technological. It’s too easy to say that Martin simply identifies flaws in all characters – he clearly favors many of his point of view characters, and the fact that two Lannisters become sympathetic when they start off as ridiculously easy evil leader caricatures shows that he definitely wants to tell the story from specific perspectives (and ideals and value systems). None of it is wrong, necessarily, but it is all driven, and ideological, and none of it comes from someone’s innate goodness. It’s easy to read the COTF as these mystical elf-like beings living in harmony with the forest, but they are fighting the white walkers, who might actually be a force for planetary balance. It’s easy to see Volantis as a primary hubris-destroys-us-type story-within-a-story, but the Volantenes created a civilization out of nothing and were able to tame dragons (an elemental force).
The one reading that is absolutely incorrect, I’m guessing, is the magic-as-a-natural-force argument. In this equation, magic that “aids” nature is good, while magic that “perverts” nature is evil. My guess is that for Martin nature, in the form of Gaia, doesn’t want anyone else to speak for it.