If ever there was a fantasy series ripe for HBO’s plucking, it would have to be George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire,” set to debut April 17 on the cable network as “Game of Thrones.”) The first four volumes of “A Song of Ice and Fire” — (“A Game of Thrones,” “A Clash of Kings,” “A Storm of Swords” and “A Feast for Crows”) overflow with gratuitous sex and violence — just the kind of fare we’ve come to expect from the small-screen boundary-pushers who gave us “Rome,” “Deadwood” and “True Blood.” Brothels, dragons and more decapitations than you can count: What more could a jaded television audience possibly want?
It’s certainly no shocker to note that the fantasy genre has come a long way since “The Lord of the Rings”; the quantity of graphic sex and violence in your typical adult-targeted sword-and-sorcery extravaganza has risen steadily for decades. But Martin’s fantasy saga demands a literary classification almost all its own — call it, for better or worse, realist fantasy.
“A Song of Ice And Fire” is to normal fantasy what “The Wire” was to typical cops-and-robbers drama, packed with grit, complexity and flawed human beings making their way through a corrupt and intimidating world. Heroes die, villains triumph, peasants and slaves suffer horribly and knights are as likely to be plate-metal-encased thugs and hoodlums as they are noble icons of chivalry. Loosely modeled on a medieval-era England ravaged by the Wars of the Roses, Martin’s world does not gloss over the starvation, rape and murder that follow in the wake of war. The class stratification and brute injustice of feudal society screams out of nearly every page. The HBO catchphrase for the series is “Game of Thrones: You Win or You Die,” but the truth is that the vast majority lose when the mighty roll the dice.
Unremitting bleakness would be a turnoff, however, and Martin delivers far more than just pain and porn. His characters — male and female — are among the most fully realized in all fantasy. Heroes may die — major protagonists, even! — but there’s still plenty of heroism. There are also moments of great drama and magic — as well as horror — that require entire volumes to set up, and unload upon the reader with all the power of two tournament mail-clad lancers crashing into each other.
Martin’s plotting is intricate, compelling and full of surprises — and, if you’re not keeping close track, at times it can be completely bewildering. The paperback edition of the fourth volume, “A Feast for Crows,” includes a list of characters that’s 70 pages long! Since, judging by an advance look at the first handful of episodes, HBO’s treatment of the text is scrupulously faithful – and terrifically entertaining in the best HBO high drama tradition — newcomers to the story are likely to have some trouble figuring out just what the heck is going on.
But have no fear, Salon can help! If you’re not afraid of massive spoilers, here’s a quick guide — in the vein of what we’ve done for “Inception,” “The Wire” and “Battlestar Galactica” — to the history, major characters and key plot points of “Game of Thrones.”
The vast majority of action in “A Song of Ice and Fire” takes place on the continent of Westeros, which can be imagined as a loose analogue to Britain, only larger.
For thousands of years, Westeros has been divided up into a handful of small feudal kingdoms constantly warring with each other, except when joining forces to combat a mysterious enemy in the far North known only by the scariest of postmodern constructions: “the Others.“
But the Others have been absent from the scene for millennia. Three hundred years before the present day (that is, when the story line of “Game of Thrones” commences), Westeros is conquered from an entirely different direction. Swooping down from the sky on fire-breathing dragons, Aegon Targaryen the Conqueror and his two sisters, Rhaenys and Visenya, lead an invading army that crushes the indigenous resistance. The new Targaryen dynasty fits neatly on top of the exiting feudal order — think Plantagenets, except with dragons.
To keep “the blood of the dragon pure” the Targaryen royal family follow the Egyptian Pharaonic habit of requiring intermarriage between sister and brother. A couple of centuries later, the inbreeding delivers predictable outbreaks of physical deformity and mental illness. The last ruling Targaryen — “Mad King Aerys” — is so over the top in his Caligula-like insanity that he provokes a successful rebellion led by three of the most prominent families of the pre-Targaryen era — the Baratheons, Starks and Lannisters. (By this point, the family dragons have all died out, which greatly simplifies the uprising process.)
Our story begins about 15 years after the rebellion that overthrew the Targaryens. Robert Baratheon is king, married to Cersei Lannister. His close ally and friend, Ned Stark, resides in the castle of Winterfell in the harsh North, not far from a magnificent Wall carved out of ice many centuries earlier to protect the lower kingdoms from the depredations of the Others. The last surviving members of the Targaryen family, Aerys’ heirs, the none-too-stable Viserys and his blond teenage bombshell sister Daenerys, have been smuggled to another continent, where they seek allies who will help them regain their kingdom from the Baratheon usurper.
Three major plotlines ensue, and ultimately intersect, in multiple confusing ways.
- Robert Baratheon’s hold on the throne is hardly secure — in fact, his death, early in the first volume, plunges Westeros into a wide-ranging civil war that provides the dominant narrative thrust of the entire series — at least through the first four volumes. The feudal kingdoms suppressed by the Targaryens immediately reassert themselves — before long, no less than five separate kings are battling for supremacy.
- Across the sea, Daenerys laboriously raises an army — and three of her own newly hatched dragons! — in preparation for her return to Westeros. Her route is circuitous — first, she’s married off to a barbarian horselord, who is invincible and unstoppable until he suddenly dies, following which she finds herself liberating practically an entire continent of slaves, while fending off assassins and would-be suitors at every juncture. One of the fascinating subthemes of “A Song of Ice and Fire” is that while readers may initially find themselves predisposed to think that the overthrow of the Targaryens was a justifiable case of freedom fighting against incredibly oppressive tyranny, it doesn’t take all that long before you are rooting for Daenerys to return to Westeros and knock some rebellious vassal heads together.
- Finally, to the north of the great Wall, a danger to civilization far worse than dragons, barbarian horselords, or feudal squabbling reemerges from hoary legend. The Others — usually referred to in the HBO series as the “White Walkers” — are back, and Westeros is ill-prepared for the challenge. The Wall is defended by “The Sworn Brothers of the Night’s Watch” — a ragtag band of soldiers committed to celibacy and a policy of noninterference with the political affairs down south. In former times the “Night’s Watch” constituted an impressive army of their own, but at this point in the history of Westeros, they are a shadow of their former strength, barely able to guard a fraction of the northern frontier.
Got that? Evil to the north (along with giants and woolly mammoths), revenge-minded Targaryens (and dragons!) waiting in the wings across the sea, and total chaos in the old kingdom as an anarchically shifting assembly of factions battle each other in a frantic, endlessly destructive struggle to seize and hold power.
[WARNING: MASSIVE PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD]
- King Robert Baratheon: An obese, jolly drunk, Baratheon was once a great battle-hammer swinging warrior, but has turned into a terrible king. He’d rather hunt and drink and whore than govern. As a young man, he was betrothed to Eddard “Ned” Stark’s sister, but her murder by the Targaryens helped precipitate his rebellion. At the opening of “Game of Thrones” he is trapped in an obviously unhappy marriage to one of the great bitch characters of all fantasy literature, Cersei Lannister. Robert has two brothers, Renly and Stannis, both of whom are key players in the wars that follow his death.
- Cersei Lannister: Beautiful, evil, immensely frustrated at the limitations placed upon her gender by a male-dominated feudal society, but fully willing to use her body to manipulate those around her, Cersei is justifiably disgusted by her husband’s oafishness, and takes refuge in the arms of the only true love in her life — her brother, Jaime Lannister. Fantasy literature is packed with evil queens — Cersei deserves a place at the head of the list.
- Jaime Lannister: Almost as beautiful as his sister, Jaime has an interesting history. He was one of an elite order of bodyguards sworn to protect Aerys Targaryen, but, whoops, he ends up killing the king himself as the rebellion spreads. A case can be made that by murdering the man he was pledged to guard he prevented even more bloodshed and horror, but the result is that he is now universally referred to by the epithet Kingslayer, which tends to ruffle his feathers.
- Tyrion Lannister: Jamie and Cersei’s youngest brother, born a dwarf. Tyrion is Martin’s most interesting and compelling creation. Crude, rude, lustful and deformed, he is also brilliant and boasts a moral core more honorable than that of his compatriots — and certainly by comparison to his own family. Despised by nearly everyone, he is nonetheless immensely capable, yet never gets credit for any of his achievements.
The Stark family
Hereditary rulers in the north out of their castle Winterfell, the Starks provide the moral and dramatic center of “A Song of Ice and Fire.”
- Eddard “Ned” Stark, is the feudal lord every vassal always wished he had. Noble to a fault, he’s constantly teaching his children important lessons such as: If you’re going to have a criminal beheaded, do the dirty job yourself. Stark and Robert Baratheon are bosom buddies, so when Robert requests that he move south to the capital to take the job of “Hand of the King” after the current occupant of that office dies, Stark cannot refuse, even though he correctly assumes that leaving Winterfell will be his doom.
- His wife, Catelyn Stark, hails from lands further south, but has adapted well to the harsh north. The Stark family sigil is the dire wolf, and Catelyn is every bit the ferocious den mother, tenaciously defending the interests of her three sons and two daughters. Indeed, her tendency to rash action in defense of her progeny can be blamed for inciting the ruinous civil war.
- Robb Stark, heir to Winterfell, is the obvious choice to be the Big Hero of “Game of Thrones.” After his father falls victim to foul treachery, young Robb rallies the Stark bannermen and rides off to war. He turns out to be a natural at the job, demonstrating great valor and sound strategic sense, winning a series of battles against older, more experienced foes. But he too is doomed. Robb’s narrative arc teaches a harsh lesson to readers: Don’t get overly invested in any major character.
- Sansa Stark, a dazzling beauty, is betrothed to Joffrey Baratheon, the crown prince. At the outset, she comes off as an insufferable airhead, an example of privileged aristocracy at its pampered worst. But life has some surprises in store for her: Watching your father get beheaded in front of you, learning that your fiancé is a craven monster, and discovering that all around you festers a web of lies and treachery has a way of building character.
- Arya Stark is the tomboy of the family, the girl who’d rather be fighting than working with her needlepoint. To say that she constantly gets into trouble would be a rather dramatic understatement. Knocked back and forth across the continent of Westeros like a pinball after her father’s death, she is witness to (and participant in) an unending panorama of horror and slaughter. But she survives.
- Bran Stark provides “Game of Thrones” with the opening moment of tragedy informing viewers that they are not watching a normal fantasy. A child who delights in climbing the walls of Winterfell, he interrupts Jaime and Cersei Lannister in mid-incestuous tryst. Jaime promptly throws Bran out a tower window, sending him into a temporary coma and permanently crippling him. And thus is set in motion a sequence of disasters that enmeshes every inhabitant of Westeros in catastrophe.
- Jon Snow: The bastard son of Ned Stark, Jon Snow has a tough hand to play. Catelyn Stark hates him with a white-hot fury, judging him living proof of her husband’s long-ago infidelity. Raised with the rest of the Stark children, he can never inherit. He heads to the Wall, to join the Night’s Watch, where he rises rapidly in the ranks. While civil war rages in the south, he grapples with the real threat to all of Westeros: the Others
- Daenerys Targaryen: Daughter of Mad King Aerys, smuggled out of Westeros as an infant, Daenerys starts out as a pawn manipulated by multiple schemers. Her irredeemably unlikable brother, Viserys, arranges her marriage to Khal Drogo, the Dothraki horselord, in exchange for a promise from Drogo to invade Westeros and restore him to the throne. Things don’t work out as either man plans, but Daenerys emerges as one of true heroic figures in “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Plus, she has dragons.
How popular is “A Song of Ice and Fire” really? And why?
Bantam, George R. R. Martin’s publisher, reports that 4.5 million copies of the first four volumes are currently in print. Martin noted on his blog last October that the paperback edition of the first volume, “A Game of Thrones,” was in its 34th printing and had surpassed the 1 million mark. Volume 4, “A Feast of Crows,” went directly to the top of the New York Times fiction bestseller list after publication in 2005. Presumably boosted by the publicity associated with the HBO series, “A Game of Thrones” appeared on the paperback fiction bestseller list two weeks ago, and is currently in the 12th position.
The success is all the more remarkable because when the series debuted in 1996, it did so without mass market publicity or any kind of buzz in the fantasy/SF scene. George R. R. Martin earned his following the hard way, by word of mouth, by hooking his characters into the psyche of his readers to an extent that most writers of fantasy only dream of.
Bad things happen in “A Song of Ice and Fire” — but maybe that offers a clue as to why readers seem to care so much. We don’t know what’s going to happen next, which makes us even more desperate to turn the page. As Laura Miller reports in the New Yorker, Martin has taken so long writing the fifth volume, “A Dance of Dragons” (due out this summer), that some of his fans have turned against him, angry at what they see as his breach of authorly duty to their obsessions. Could there be any greater affirmation about how deep a chord Martin has struck?