George Martin has painted a compelling portrait of the human condition in his book and HBO series, The Game of Thrones.
A Machiavellian World:
There’s much to learn from this grand drama about loyalty and deceit, about craven sex and narcissistic manipulation. You learn about Machiavellian tactics, and the limits of decency. Martin’s world takes Frodo and Tolkien to a less idealized and unhappy place. It makes for great dinner table debate. (My wife thinks Lord of the Rings is infinitely better. My kids – excluding those under sixteen years of age - beg to differ.)
Martin tells us lots about sex, prostitutes, incest and medieval marriage where love was a matter of luck. Lords and Ladies married first and foremost to forge alliances and solidify power. In Game of Thrones, men and women find sexual pleasure where they can get it.
Marriage is about power (and honor), not love.
You Can’t Always Get What You Want:
Martin’s universe is not unlike our world; there’s erotic nuance everywhere, but it’s often forbidden. Cercei Lannister - the Queen - is in love with her brother, Jaime. Petyr Baelish, the brothel master, is in love with Catelyn Stark, a highborn woman that he can’t have. Catelyn, in turn learns to love Eddard Stark, but he was not her first choice. Tyrion, the most engaging character in the series has a forbidden love - his prostitute, Shae. Eddard’s oldest son, Rob Stark falls for Jeyne Westerling, a sweet girl from a noble, but poor family; and, a bride he can’t have due to his betrothal to the daughter of a powerful ally - Walder Frey. (He pays a price for this love.) Then there’s Sansa Stark; poor Sansa, looking for love, and continually hurt by that deep wish.
This brings me to a passage that speaks to Martin’s sensitivity to love and lust – but in a soulful way. It’s the story of Jon Snow and Ygritte, the Wildling. This too is a forbidden love because Jon Snow is committed to celibacy. Martin softens on us, and shows how attraction and love can evolve in the strangest places.
Jon Snow & Ygritte:
Jon Snow is the bastard son of Eddard Stark, the Lord of Winterfell - the great Kingdom of the North. During the war for the Iron Throne, Jon is sent to guard the Wall; a structure built thousands of years ago by the First Men. He joins the Nights Watch, a brigade that guards the Seven Kingdoms from intruders beyond the wall, including freemen called Wildlings and other creatures that are far more dangerous. It’s sort of a French Foreign Legion, meets Monastic Life - meets the devil. In it, Jon, the bastard son of a highborn finds a truly compelling Wildling named Ygritte.
At a lord’s court the girl (Ygritte) would never have been considered anything but common, he (Jon) knew. She had a round peasant face, a pug nose and slightly crooked teeth, and her eyes were too far apart…Lately, though he was noticing some other things. When she grinned, the crooked teeth didn’t seem to matter. And maybe her eyes were too far apart, but they were a pretty blue-grey color and lively as any eyes he knew. Sometimes she sang in a low husky that stirred him. And, sometimes by the cook fire when she sat hugging her knees with the flames waking echoes in her red hair, and looked at him, just smiling…well, that stirred some things as well. (A Storm of Swords, p.202)
What I find beautiful here is the way Ygritte’s personality pulls Jon in. He finds her utterly attractive as he gets to know her. And, this rings true in our lives as well.
Many of these characters are repulsive or morally challenged, yet when they love, Martin has them love truly. Whether its Petyr ‘s loyalty to Catelyn, or Tyrion’s soft love for Shae, it feels real. As you can guess, my favorite couple is Ygritte and Jon. (Disclaimer: I’m halfway through Book III, and their relationship is in the toilet. I’m hoping Martin will find a way to get them back on track.)
George Martin is a keen observer of eroticism and love. His world is a harsh one, with deceit and betrayal everywhere; a place where random sex is easy. Yet, his depiction of love is not without beauty. It’s just that in the Seven Kingdoms, true love is almost always transgressional love.
People find love, but not where it’s supposed to be.
Is Martin a cynic?
Is it simply well crafted story telling?
Or, is there something here that we may need to hear?