By Sean Margaret Wagner
I like to equate literary tastes to the human palate, and when I plunk down next to my dear friends’ bookshelves, I hunt through them the same way you’d analyze the shelves of a refrigerator you’ve gotten the go-ahead to ransack. I linger with their fridge door open, hoping to see what foods we may have in common. Who knows- maybe they like my brand of jam, or they store their wheat bread in the crisper, too. The same goes for bookshelves; I constantly want to see what genres and editions we have in common.
But there’s a problem that stares back at me from every bookshelf I admire most. There always seems to be an abundance of Tolkien, Rowling, Ursula K. Leguin and Dianna Wynne Jones. Classics of young-adult fantasy novels that have all the broken spines of books well read. I never got a steady diet of fantasy growing up, and as a result, those literary muscles have atrophied. Blame my years as an impressionable reader spent gobbling horror novels, science fiction, comedy and plays. It’s not that I can’t appreciate Frodo and Samwise’s epic Fodor’s Guide to Middle Earth, but when devotees insist I will love each ‘Rings’ book more than the last, it’s a little disappointing when I can’t drum up the same enthusiasm they’ve had since age eight.
This may be what drew me to Game of Thrones.
The series seemed to be free of all the trappings that frustrated me about beloved fantasy. Complete devotion to the characters was not a prerequisite, in fact, most readers assured I’d come away jaded and heartbroken the moment I started picking favorites. “If they aren’t killed off randomly, they live to suffer in solitude, or become nightmarishly evil,” my circle of GOT readership warned, “nobody wins in the Game of Thrones. Well, wait, there may be an exception or two…”
As I began to read (and watch on generous friends’ cable queues not long after), I took note of the characters that ruthless George RR Martin had spared no suffering or death, but who’s stories we followed quite closely in the absence of a single heroic protagonist. Characters who were notably different from the norm in Martin’s noble populace, physically, mentally and sexually. For all the magic and mythical creatures inhabiting Westeros, human relationships and social standing were still very much grounded in a historic realism we might all recognize. Those born different, suffering disfigurements, disease or bucking social tradition are derided and mocked openly by Martin’s populace, but readers like me can’t help but grow attached. How could we find ourselves in the treacherous political slog without them?
We follow a noble boy, Bran who’s just lost the use of his legs and must rely on a hulking mentally impaired man to keep him safe and mobile. A lady and knight, Brienne who can’t seem to pass a cart on the road without having to announce that yes, she is a woman, though she may not look like it. Royal bodyguard Sandor “The Hound” Clegane allows the burn scars on his face to do the talking and seal his reputation of bloodlust for him, and countless others are blinded, maimed or otherwise rendered broken and unmarriageable in world that rewards the ruthless more than the fair.
Last (and least), there’s our antihero: Tyrion Lannister. You can hardly call him a protagonist, or esteemed; he’s not a fixed friend or enemy to anyone, just a wealthy opportunist with an uncanny ability to stay alive even as more and more people call for his death. In the world of these novels, goodness and righteousness are commonly believed to be expressed physically. If you meet the wealth and attractiveness criteria, your virtues are assumed and your deviant actions are swept under the rug. Alternately, the worst is assumed of Tyrion, by nature of his small stature. Bad omens, demonic traits and murderous deeds are all assigned to him without a second thought. Even more savvy denizens have turned on him, not due any belief in superstition, but because he (along with many of Martin’s differently abled characters) cannot provide for himself in some ways, and they must pick up his slack.
The ruthlessness is even more potent for the differently abled of Westeros, because they must constantly work to have leverage in situations that they must be cared or vouched for by other characters. Shiftless people who may ultimately decide that Tyrion, Bran or Brienne for instance, are more trouble than they are worth. That has led to more than a few bears baited, beheadings and trails by combat.
One thing I’ve come to enjoy is Martin’s lack of sympathy for any character prone to wallowing in misery. I get a little impatient when a heroic fantasy character is allowed the luxury of depression, even if it’s well earned (I’m looking at you, Potters, Everdeens and *Gollum accent* Baggins-es).
Each of the Stark children bemoans their lot in life to Tyrion Lannister and he councils them as they’re forced from the idyllic North into increasingly more difficult lots; bad marriages, wandering the wilderness, war and taking the cloth. He urges them to forget their pride and anything else that they may think they are owed for being noble children. The great ideals they've grown accustomed to will be the first things to crumble away in shifting topography. Eat well, secure yourself anyway you can, and don't let anything petty like honor keep you from staying alive, he says. And with that, he's done more for the kids than their parents, trusted underlings and feckless allies, combined.
So far I’ve been ruined for real-life politics and family dynasties, and I’m not even finished with the fifth book. But, I feel as if I’ve found a profane and sexually explicit fantasy universe that I can cram into my overloaded bookshelf with pride. Westeros allows for complexity in character, refuses to tie up dozens of loose ends, and avoids becoming a dystopia or utopia like many fantasy novels. Instead, we see a world more or less based in our own history… with added dragons and zombies- I mean, white walkers.
Sean Margaret is a Chicago playwright, musical bookwriter/lyricist and storyteller. You can find her on Twitter: @SMargaretWagner
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