Reading the Heresy threads on the ASOIAF forum can be a bit of a time suck, but they have definitely made me think more deeply about the generic expectations of fantasy. The conversation right now is about the place of magic in the genre, and it moves (too quickly for me to keep up) between discussions of magic as an unnatural force and ways that in ASOIAF Martin seems to value or privilege balance among his characters. That is obviously a tricky argument to push too far (the intentional fallacy keeps saying ‘hey, dumbass…’), but this is clearly a series written by a very smart guy who has *always* pushed generic expectations in unusual ways.
I’m most interested in this discussion in the ideas of generic expectations and how those shape readerly responses, and this discussion made me wonder about things like magic. Fantasy is often read as a longing for prelapsarian utopias, with authoritarian fantasies (Silverberg, Delaney, and others notwithstanding) and a not-nearly-as-anti-mercantilist-as-the-Luddites fear of technology (and science), and if that is the case then magic becomes an anti-science of sorts.
What ASOIAF does is much different, I think, and the difference lies in the ways that I think Martin does a cultural studies reading of medieval texts. Why, I’ve always wondered, has the cult of the gentle knight been such a dominant trope in Western literature for so long? What anxieties about the middle ages (and our cultural legacies from that time period) still linger, enough for nerdy pre-teens like myself to read LOTR obsessively and fantasize about living in Middle Earth?
As I thought about this I remembered Keats, and re-reading “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” now makes me root for women who show no mercy to these nasty steel-clad savages. I’m hoping Keats shares my reading…
One reading, of course, has the knights as maintainers of social order, in which they morph into a sort of extra-judicial force rooting out even representatives of the king if those folks aren’t just. This sort of portrayal underlies LOTR, I think (although Tolkien himself clearly wasn’t happy with it, or else he would not have rewritten elves as versions of our idealized selves). We want all knights to be pious and virtuous even to the point where it hurts them, and we want (in this reading) Aragorn to regain his throne not solely on birthright but on his own competence and kindness and generosity.
Ain’t nothing wrong with this, of course, unless you value democracy and egalitarianism and social mobility (and don’t think that casual rape is a good thing). I’m sure that the relationship with the peasantry was complicated – peasants wanted to think of knights as maintainers of order when they saw them appear over a rise or emerge from a forest on horseback (peasants couldn’t afford to keep horses to plow, let alone to ride) with their weaponry and armor and supranormal judicial authority.
Martin, though, is looking at knights differently, and his ASOIAF makes that clear in a bunch of ways. My guess is that he thinks of folk ballads like “Three Ravens” and wonders why there is social energy devoted to essentially maintaining pretty corpses (he definitely populates ASOIAF with lots of unpretty corpses, both animated and not). He lovingly recites menus at feasts because he knows that outside the castle walls starving peasants eat roots, hunger sometimes caused by knightly violence in the burning of crops and sometimes caused by the death of the farmers in some war for political gain that the farmer would not have seen benefits from. He creates brotherhoods without banners because he wants us to see alternatives, even if those alternatives are quickly co-opted. And he tells us the story of Tyrion, seen as a monster in the popular imagination who actually lives by his wits and not his own violence, someone who has lived as a brigand and a slave and who can recite stories of common folk – stories that give a bit of perspective to lives we never see in tales – and who dares dream of dragons.