Tuesday, May 9, 2017

‘A Game of Thrones’: imaginative but dreary

About ten years ago I went on something of a George R.R. Martin reading spree. I enjoyed his 1982 vampire novel, Fevre Dream, as well as the stories in Dreamsongs, Volumes I &II.

I therefore decided of late to give the whole A Game of Thrones thing a try. 

Why not? Everyone else seemed to be reading the series, after all (or at least watching the HBO adaptation). 

A shrewd reader would have purchased the first book of the series at Half Price books and tried it out. Not me. I purchased the complete series box set from Amazon.com.  

The box set was a great bargain, don’t get me wrong. But I now have 5,216 pages of A Game of Thrones ahead of me, minus the few hundred pages that I’ve already read from the first book. 

Don’t get me wrong: I’m awed by the scope of GRRM’s imagination. The man truly does have entire worlds, no—universes—rolling around inside of his head. 

There is a reasonable amount of action in the narrative. Unlike so many fantasy authors, GRRM doesn't bore the reader to death with page after page of description about how the king’s chalice was fashioned from the gold of a particular band of elves, replete with a full accounting of the last five generations of every faction involved, and blah, blah, blah. GRRM knows that to keep readers turning pages, there must be conflict, and conflict there is galore in A Game of Thrones

The problem, however, is that the books are just so damned dark and depressing. Practically everyone is an irredeemable cutthroat, psychopath, or buggerer-at-large. And everyone else is a forlorn victim of the cutthroats, psychopaths, and buggerers. 

Apparently the all-consuming darkness of A Game of Thrones has started a trend in fantasy, called grimdark

The influence of grimdark can be seen in recent seasons of The Walking Dead, the AMC show that used to be about zombies, but is now mostly about human depravity and sadism.

I’m determined to finish A Game of Thrones (well, the first book in the series, anyway); but I fear that I may need a prescription for Zoloft or Prozac before I’m done. 

I get the rationale for grimdark: Give it to ‘em straight when you write a story. Don’t pull any punches. Show ‘em the world as it is, warts and all. 

Having recently lost people I loved and cared about, I’m the last person to assert that bad things don’t happen, or that fiction shouldn’t portray bad things happening. 

But part of our motivation for reading fiction is to gain the catharsis of good triumphing over evil. And in the realm of fantasy, we want majesty, a glimpse of an enhanced world where characters rise above the filth, venality, and anxieties of everyday life. This is one reason why JRR Tolkien’s comparatively uplifting novels have remained so popular, for so long. 

I should also point out that Tolkien was no pollyanna who led a sheltered existence. Tolkien experienced trench warfare in the Battle of the Somme in WWI, perhaps the most horrific battle in history. Before the battle was over, one million men had been either wounded or killed in four and a half months of fighting in eastern France. 

Tolkien’s experiences in the trenches influenced his stories of Middle-earth. He created a fictional world in which there was, indeed, evil. But that evil was offset by goodness and heroism. 

That was a central aspect in the appeal of Tolkien’s work. The battle between good and evil in which good ultimately triumphs—as quaint and anti-post-modern as that sounds—is cathartic. It is at the core of all heroic literature, across multiple genres. 

But everyone who is interested in Tolkien’s creations has already read them, and Tolkien isn't going to be writing any more. There will be no more stories of Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf. 

We must content ourselves, therefore, with the cutthroats, psychopaths, and buggerers of this new fantasy literature.