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Sunday, June 17, 2012

"Beyond the Wall: Exploring George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire" edited by James Lowder (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

"Go beyond the Wall and across the narrow sea with this collection about George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, from A Game of Thrones to A Dance with Dragons.

The epic game of thrones chronicled in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series has captured the imaginations of millions of readers. In
Beyond the Wall, bestselling authors and acclaimed critics offer up thought-provoking essays and compelling insights"

INTRODUCTION: As a huge series fan and also as I own the art books inspired by the novels,  I was very curious about this essay book since I heard about it some months ago. 

While the recent A Feast of Ice and Fire is a bit "too out" for my interests, the upcoming map book "The Lands of Ice and Fire" is another huge asap, so this year we will have been treated with a lot of ASOIAF material, from the excellent HBO series, to three related works including the one discussed here!

Note that Beyond the Wall contains spoilers about the series up to and including A Dance with Dragons, though I will avoid such below.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS:  "Beyond the Wall" contains 16 essays including the foreword from RA Salvatore and the introduction from the editor, both worth reading by themselves too and they group naturally in a few categories:

The fan explorations of the wonderful ASOIAF universe which are the core of the book and are excellent and make the book totally worth reading. Here we have exceptional contributions:

 from Adam Whitehead on the mythical nature of Westeros' chronology:  

"In A Song of Ice and Fire, characters live in a world whose very history is uncertain and ill-defined, where myth and legend are hopelessly and inextricably entwined with accounts of real events.The predominant feature of Westerosi history is vagueness.",

from Linda Antonsson and Elio Garcia on the perennial Lyanna-Rhaegar question and more generally on romanticism in a Byronic sense:

"The most prevalent manifestation of romanticism is the view of the past espoused by many characters in the novel. It seems a part of human nature to idealize the past, to suppose things were somehow “better” in days gone by. The same can be said about how characters view the past of Westeros, citing examples of how the realm was once better off and has now declined.",

from Andrew Zimmerman Jones on the multiple and quite intricate religions of the series:  

"In fact, the religions portrayed in A Song of Ice and Fire are reflections of the religions in our own world. They require a leap of faith, because the effects of belief are so intangible. The religions of Westeros claim to dictate absolute, perfect truths through imprecise, flawed institutions and beings—just like the religions we encounter every day",

from Jesse Scoble on the way George Martin uses magic in the series:  

"What’s intriguing about this is that Martin’s world of the Seven Kingdoms is steeped in magic. But it is not used in a “traditional fantasy” sense."

and from Gary Westfahl on the Egg and Dunk stories, essay which starts a bit ponderously with some generic talk about types of tales as seasons - talk that is very vague and even self-contradictory - but then rights itself with a wonderful appreciation of the three prequel stories to date and of course noting how GRRM actually does not really fit in such a rigid schemata anyway

"Interestingly, there is evidence in the third novel of A Song of Ice and Fire, A Storm of Swords, suggesting precisely such a desire to heighten the import of the Dunk and Egg stories."

There are also three essays that are on the border between the pretentious and the interesting, but overall they fall on the interesting part mostly because they do not follow a particular pet-theory or ideology of the essay author, but stick to discussing the books and their universe.

In Men and Monsters, Alyssa Rosenberg tackles quite reasonably the nature of sexual violence in the series - as I note below, imho, any (faux) medieval world is a world steeped in violence especially in times of trouble as surely we have in Westeros at the end of Robert's reign and men are also tortured and mutilated casually - as we see vividly in the books and the essay author to her credit points this out and makes the discussion more balanced.

In "The Brutal Cost of Redemption", Susan Vaught has a good discussion of the moral nature of the series and I really liked this passage which summarizes my feelings too:

"Westeros is not built upon a shifting foundation of chaos. True, there is no clearly marked, brightly lit path to salvation. Yet characters face a painful retributive justice, born of moral absolutism, that lends reality and depth to the medieval society portrayed in the series."

Actually this topic is one of great interest as I think here the divide between the nuanced fantasy of GRRM and the "four legs good, two legs bad" fantasy especially pre-Martin but also today, is clearest.

In "A Different Kind of Other" Brent Hartinger discusses the role of freaks and outcasts in ASOIAF, and while the essay starts very anachronistically (hey the world of ASIAF is an aristocratic one where even the handsomest man or the most beautiful woman does not really count unless they have the noblest blood) with:  

"Who doesn’t love an underdog? As humans, most of us seem to be instinctively drawn to outsiders, to the excluded. At least on some level, most of us sympathize with those who are denied even the opportunity to prove their full worth. We recognize that’s just not fair."

After this very 21st century quote which denotes the author's lack of experience of any society beyond the wealthy modern western one, the essay gets better and has some good stuff to say about its topic, but the beginning jarred badly.

Then there are three essays following a pet modern theory (feminism, PTSD, pop-psychology) which imho are both useless and anachronistic. While they contain the occasional gem they generally read like debating angels on a pin as for example people in a world like Martin's have an exposure to violence which is almost infinitely higher than ours in the modern world so we cannot really comprehend their mindset from that point of view. 

 Similarly the world of ASIAF is a world where the powerless and the fallen from power are treated with no mercy and women and children (and the poor and non-noble) are part of the powerless, so feminism which is a modern western doctrine has very little relevant to say about the books beyond what can be said about any "realistic" faux-medieval stuff. Pop-psychology mercifully has not been invented in Martin's world so notions like psychopaths are just silly.

Of course such essays by Mike Cole, Caroline Spector and Matt Stags may appeal to some, so from that point of view their inclusion broadens the book despite that I found them quite uninteresting.

Finally there is general stuff like the Foreword, the Introduction, the essay about where ASOIAF stands in the "genre wars" - the usual bellyaching and moaning of some sff writers that they are "disrespected" by the literary establishment, when imho the correct answer is let the generally mortified canon die in peace and celebrate the vibrancy of genre - which actually here is treated quite well and rationally by Ned Vizzini:

"Martin thus fights the genre wars by sidestepping them. Working from within the system, refusing to apologize for what came before, he writes books that are too bloody, unexpected, and relentlessly story-driven to be ignored. In doing so, he elevates other fantasy along with his own."

Here I would also include the niche essays about adapting ASOIAF to graphic form by Daniel Abraham and the one about collecting the books by John Jos. Miller, neither of which are of particular interest to me, but they provided a good overview of the respective issues.

Overall Beyond the Wall exceeded my expectations and it's a highly recommended book of 2012 and a great companion to any lover of the series though keep in mind the spoiler note above if you have not read all five books to date!


Anonymous said...

"Pop-psychology mercifully has not been invented in Martin's world so notions like psychopaths are just silly [sic]."

Did you meant that we can't discuss the characters' behavior in terms of "psychopathology" in the present day, or that trying to squeeze the word into Martin's world doesn't make sense? Because I do agree with the latter.

Liviu said...

The social and political structures and the expectations for people - of course as far as we understand them - were so different in pre-industrial, pre-capitalist, aristocratic societies that modern terms are not that relevant.

In this concrete case, for example if you watched HBO's take on the series which is in many ways more modern than the author's - I would say that is due partly to the fact that TV itslef is a modern medium but that is another issue - and Littlefinger's monologue in season 1 where he 'explains" himself, monologue that I found that encapsulates very well his book character and his desire to be "taken seriously" and the fact that he needs to do this and that for it rather than be the straight arrow Ned, shows clearly my point and calling him a psychopath as in the essay I objected to, is useless as it does not bring any clarity

neal call said...

Your review certainly intrigues me, and you make me want to pick this up and spend some time with it.

Having said that, I'm not sure how we could EVER try to understand ANYTHING but with modern terms that we as modern people understand. I'd be curious to hear how you'd suggest otherwise. Whether we get the translation perfectly or not, I think humans comprehend by analogy.

Liviu said...

I have nothing against using modern terms per se, the problem when we use such that are attached to purely modern ideologies. Most of the essays steer clear of that and basically take the books at "face value" and discuss various aspects in the book terms.

I agree it is a balancing act and everyone has some scale about what they think appropriate or not (I remember a very disputed review somewhere that among other things objected to misuse of old English, stuff I could not care less about in fantasy but others like the reviewer in cause cared a lot, while I care about misuse of modern loaded terms...)

neal call said...

I'd suggest, though, that we can't escape using values and methods that are shaped by modern ideologies. Even if we don't know we are using them, even if we don't use buzz words that make people realize it, there's no "blank slate" way to look at any object, no way to view an object from outside of culture or ideology. The tools we use are the ones we get from our environment, and we live in the modern world.

Liviu said...

100% agree with that - this is why here for example I prefer the essays that try and discuss the books on their own terms (of course said terms being after all written by GRRM who is our contemporary etc) rather than adding extra layers of modern stuff.

On the other hand I think that including such a variation of pov's this book broadens its appeal and to be honest I was surprised by how interesting it was on the whole.

Small Blonde Hippy said...

Hmmm, I'm always a bit wary of these kinds of books. However, this one sounds like it might be worth reading. I think I'll check it out. Thanks!


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