Analysis / A Song of Ice and Fire
Viewpoint, Power and The Central-Character Equation - by slvstrChung
One of A Song of Ice and Fire
's most notorious aspects is its Switching P.O.V.
and almost absurd preponderance of narrators; A Dance with Dragons
alone has 18, which is just barely short of the number of stars in the credits of Game of Thrones
's first season. (And the credits only got longer after that.) What most of us don't realize is just how author George R. R. Martin uses these facts to transmit information and inform expectations.
Simply put: there is a division in A Song of Ice and Fire
between people with power and people who are narrators, and very
infrequently is a character ever both.
The thing about fiction is that it typically concerns itself with the struggle between Good and Evil, or at least Order Versus Chaos
. This is how we can have good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains, The Cape
against the Complete Monster: one protects others, or at least tries to do no harm, whilst the other advances a personal agenda regardless of others (or even to the direct detriment of others). This ups the ante for our heroic types, who are now involved in a "Save the World" Climax
from the Big Bad
's depredations; but the point is that some characters are sympathetic, and others not.
The thing about Real Life
is that, more often than not, it has nothing to do with good and evil. Sure, we have to decide whether to be selfish or good... but sometimes not even that. Sometimes it's not a choice we make. Sometimes it's a choice someone else makes, which then affects us. The continuum we
live on is not (or at least is less) about Good vs. Evil. It's about Power-To vs Power-Over
. Those are terms borrowed from feminism
, by the way. There is a difference between "power-to", the right to decide what course your life will take, and "power-over", the right to decide what course someone else
's life will take. Most people have power-to, but not everybody has power-over. Stories typically tend to be about those with power-over — they're more dynamic, more interesting, have more plot possibilities to them; plus, everybody wants to be the guy with power(-over). But that, in itself, just underscores the point: people with power-over make good Escapist Characters
most Real Life
people don't have power-over
And this distinction is preserved in A Song of Ice and Fire
Let's just take the first book, since (when this was first written) the audience was most familiar with it. It has eight narrators: Bran
, and Sansa
. As the book start, a few of these people, particularly Ned and Tyrion, have some power-over, but none of them are anywhere near the top of the heap. In the meanwhile, there are other characters who have lots of power-ower and are creating a lot of plot twists: King Robert Baratheon
, his son Crown Prince Joffrey Baratheon
, his wife Cersei Lannister
, and Prince Viserys Targaryen
, with people like Littlefinger
lurking in the wings. These
are the people making the actual decisions, calling the tune to which our narrators dance. As the story progresses, one narrator joins the Popular Crowd: Ned. For this reason, we immediately start assuming that he's a, perhaps the
, Main Character
: in our experience, main characters are not just Good, they also have Power-Over. And that's Ned. He not only shows a moral code, he shows agency; add to this the fact that he's a narrator, and our minds are made up.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I'd like to introduce you to our other
main character: George R. R. Martin, master of the Subverted Trope
First off, Ned is quite obviously not
the main character; being Killed Off for Real
will do that to ya. Second, while he has power-over, he doesn't have much of it (it's basically on loan from the king), he doesn't know how to use it, and a number of other people (particularly Cersei and Littlefinger, but even Sansa
at one point) are able to circumvent the actions he does take. Third: the trope being deconstructed in the first
the idea that main characters have to have Power-Over, that only Power-Over characters can
affect the outcome of the story. All our narrators are the Hero of Another Story
, The Greatest Story Never Told
; the big names are going to be remembered by Westerosi historians, but the real
movers and shakers—our narrators—will be left in the dust.
As the series continues, this line gets blurrier and blurrier—mostly because those with power-over have a tendency to attract fatal attention in Westeros, allowing some Ishmaels to themselves move into the spotlight. But notice that, during The War of Five Kings, not a single one
of those five kings is a narrator. Instead, we always have an Ishmael nearby to watch them. The King in the North? Catelyn. Renly? ...Same narrator, actually. Stannis has the brave Ser Davos to spy on him; Balon Greyjoy his son Theon; and Joffrey, Cersei, Varys, Littlefinger and Lord Tywin are all attended by both Tyrion and Sansa. The pattern continues as the story does: we have no Frey narrator, the Boltons remain inscrutable, Mance Rayder is viewed from the outside; Doran Martell and Euron Greyjoy and Beric Dondarrion and Lady Stoneheart have to be talked about. A Dance with Dragons
gives us someone who seems poisednote
to be a major player in the game of thrones, Aegon VI Targaryen
, but he isn't a narrator either. Whoever turns out to be at the heart of the Oldtown conspiracy to quash magic (if such a thing exists
), I guarantee you he won't narrate; Sam will viewpoint for him. Even Jeor Mormant, the Old Bear who is Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, doesn't narrate.
damning, though, is GRRM's announcement that certain characters will never
be narrators because they know too much about what's going on. I won't tell you who they are, though you can find out yourself if you so desirenote
, but the mere fact that such characters exist
tells you a lot about how Martin plans to tell the story.
What I'm trying to get at is this: you can tell who's going to be important to the story by asking two questions: Who's the narrator?, and who are they Ishmaeling for?
This brings us to some of the few exceptions to the rule. On occasion, we'll have characters who are narrators and
have power-over. One was Ned; obviously, he didn't stay that way for long. Another is Cersei, who comes into the dawn of her regency at the same time she becomes a narrator. The solution there
is that Cersei loses her agency right quick; being a Small Name, Big Ego
will do that to you, and she almost instantly runs her own regency into the ground. But the last two are by far the most questionable, because either they're going to toss our theory on its head or be upended themselves. There are
two people with power-over who are also narrators and have been from the start
. One is the Bastard of Winterfell, the 998th Lord Commander of the Night's Watch: Jon Snow. The other is the Stormborn, the Unburnt, Rightful Queen of Westeros, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons: Daenerys Targaryen.
First off: what's the first thing the fandom did? Elect them as Main Characters. There are a lot of people who believe that, if A Song of Ice and Fire has
a single central character, it's Daenerys; if it has two, the second is Jon. (If there's a third, it gets muddier; my money's on Tyrion, but it could be Sansa or Bran or Arya or, in light of the events of Dance
, the new character, or even Davos.) Second: how does this jive with GRRM's ongoing habit of not
letting us see what's going on in the minds of those with power-over, so as to keep them inscrutable and interesting? Well, part of it is that we (the readership) are expecting Jon and Dany to learn how to wield their power and authority properly, which is basically the one thing every other Power-Over character has not
figured out at this point; Daenerys certainly has that goal in mind, and Jon (who is rocking the boat up north) is taking the long view, and the right view too, though a lot of his Cast Herd
won't admit it. These two Power-Over characters who are learning (or at least trying) to wield their power With Great Responsibility
. These two Power-Over characters are trying to do what Ned did—both have Power-Over and
Third: What if they aren't
movers and shakers? What if they're Decoy Protagonists
just like Ned Stark was?
I have to say that, personally, I don't think so. First off, the readership would murder GRRM in his bed if he did that, and he knows it. Second, it goes against the narrative direction of the story; there's a reason fans have also
accused both Jon and Dany of being Mary Sues
and having the author's favor. Third, there is personal correspondence from GRRM (more So Spake Martin
) that Jon's parentage will come out over the course of the story. Since it hasn't yet, it seems to me that Jon's arc isn't finished. (Though it might be posthumous, as much of other characters' development has.) And fourth: who else would feel The Chains of Commanding
? Because if there's An Aesop
to the series at all, it's this: no one
wins the game of thrones. At least, not in a Crapsack World
like Westeros. That's why the narrator/power-over divide is set up the way it is. Through our Ishmaels, we not only see how the pieces in the game suffer, but how the players
are undone as well; in that sense, Jon and Dany are only the cherries on top, the people who prove it by
winning. But the fact that they are
feeling those chains is the one thing that sets them apart from every other character. The Power-Over characters have power, the narrator characters feel responsibility; only Jon and Dany deal with both. Again, they have both power-over and a moral code. And that's why the fandom, who still can't get past the old ways of doing things—and may not need to—have nominated them as main characters.
As of this writing, there's still two books and/or seasons to go, and my entire analysis may be undone by their events. But that's is my read on the story. This is slvstrChung
, signing off.
The Bear And The Maiden Fair- Arc Song
This song is continually referenced in the series and mirrors a number of plot threads. Spoilers ahead:
Perhaps most obviously, the song parallels Sansa's odd UST with Sandor Glegane, especially since the song has Loving Force
undertones, and Sansa misremembers
her Near-Rape Experience
from Sandor as a romantic kiss. Additionally, while she has no romantic feelings toward him at all, the song is also pretty fitting in terms of her wedding to the ugly but good-hearted Tyrion. It's also worth noting that the song was used to cover up Sansa confessing that despite his handsome appearance, Joffrey was pure evil. This might be stretching it, but the song refers to honey in the maiden's hair, and Sansa unknowingly killed Joffrey with a poison placed in her hairnet.
Another important mirror of the song are in the romantic pursuits of Jorah Mormont, who not coincidentally is known as the Young Bear because of his family's coat of arms. Jorah, who is a somewhat physically unattractive and hairy guy has romances with Lynesse Hightower and Daenerys Targaryen, both of which (unlike the song) end badly. The connection with the song is noted in A Dance With Dragons
, as in a scene where Tyrion is in a performing troupe with Jorah and Penny, and Terry tells the crowd, "This one is part of our act. The bear and the maiden fair. Jorah is the bear, Penny is the maiden, I am the brave knight who rescues her. I dance about and hit him in the balls."
Jaime Lannister can't help but think of the song when he rescues Brienne from a bear pit- and part of the joke is that while she's a maiden, she's hardly fair in appearance.ns While not really connected to the song, there's also probably something in the fact that Arya considered it just when the bear ate Lorch- Lorch had murdered Yoren, who was black and hairy (and reported to Jeor Mormont, the "Old Bear").
Finally, in a humorous gender inversion, Tommond Giantsbane
recounts that he had sex with a she bear, which (drunk and horny) he mistook for a Wildling Woman.
In part, the song relates to the series tending to subvert Beauty Equals Goodness
, but as the examples show, it's a bit more complicated than that.
"What Is Dead May Never Die, But Rises Again, Harder and Stronger: A Possible Link Between the Drowned God and the Others" (By Prakkari)
I was re-reading the series, when I noticed a link. This writing may belong in the WMG section, but I think this has enough credence to it to be in the Analysis Section.
The Ironmen worship the Drowned God. Well and good. Their phrase, or at least an important tenant of their faith, the quote that provides the title for this small, unscholarly amalgamation of thoughts. At first I thought it was just a reference to the Cthulu mythos, but then I was struck by an idea.
With the exception of the Wildlings and the Dothraki, nobody loves killing and plundering more than the Greyjoys and Ironborn as a whole. Its the entirety of their culture. They are easily the most militaristic and (figuratively and literally) Axe Crazy
of all the great houses of the Seven Kingdoms. What if their faith in the Drowned God resurrecting them 'harder and stronger' is a reference, perhaps long forgotten, perhaps not, to the creation of wights? And, even more disturbingly, what if the ironborn of old, during the Long Night, would DELIBERATELY kill themselves via drowning in order to come back as wights? We don't know exactly how wights are made, there is some evidence to suggest that it is simply an area-of-effect sort of thing that comes from dying north of the wall or in proximity to the Others. While the Iron Islands are safely behind the wall in the current time, it bears repeating that the range of the Others was vastly increased during the fabled long night, and is the only thing that makes this theory even workable.
Killing yourself so that you could come back as a nearly unstoppable death machine that can (As has been demonstrated in text) survive decapitation, dismemberment and impalement and who's only substantial weakness seems to be fire, seems like a good deal. Of course there is always that pesky question of free-will, but that doesn't seem like a sticking point that most ironborn would care about...
These are just 2am ramblings, but I am interested in your thoughts on this matter, fellow tropers. Thank you very much for reading!
- The plausibility of this is actually staggering. Especially considering the information Jon Snow receives in a letter during Dance with Dragons: "Dead things in the water."
- Coldhands does seem to be a wight so it seems that there are ways to make free-willed or even controlled wights.
- Very interesting, the way you put it does indeed sound very plausible. Knowing the Ironborn, this wouldn't surprise me; especially if they were desperate and going crazy during The Long Night. Though, it is a bit hard to believe that they would ever willingly submit to something that wasn't them, at least, not as permanently as being made living dead foot soldiers in a zombie horde. Perhaps their devil, The Storm God, is in fact Stannis Baratheon, who is The Storm Lord and arguably The Chosen One, the one who is apparently destined to defeat The Others.
- The Night's King resurrects the dead so they will join his army as wights— they are dead but cannot die, and they themselves are not harder and stronger, but the legions of the Night's King are...Not to mention the Endless Winter's ending being the "death" of white walkers as a threat, and the Night's King's defeat at the Wall seemingly ended in his death. All of them are dead — not just in the physical sense, but they are all thought of as legends. And they are coming back, harder and stronger...
Family Versus Realm
The main conflict in Westeros is between various warring families. The conflict is driven by the desires of the respective heads of households to further the political power and/or political independence of their houses. Family honor is practically an obsession, and the more ambitious lords want to take their families as far as they can (which is the Iron Throne). Everyone is concerned with furthering the ambitions of their families and factions, not what is best for the realm as a whole.
Ironically, however, the two most powerful men in Westeros are the ones that don't
have families. Littlefinger has no family to speak of, and Varys, as a eunuch, is physically incapable of having one. So their primary concern instead becomes the realm. Varys's behind-the-scenes machinations are meant to preserve the country, and to put the best possible ruler on the Iron Throne. In a sense, he sees the realm as his family...and he is just as ruthless in the course of protecting and furthering his family as any noble lord is. Littlefinger, on the other hand, has no ties whatsoever. He's solely in it for himself.
George RR Martin said that he originally planned to write a War of the Roses novel but decided against it because everyone knows how it will turn out and that "the princes in the tower" will not escape.
In history, the two young children of King Edward IV, of the House of York, the Bran and Rickon of their generation if you will, were the heirs of the throne. Upon the King's death, Richard III presented a claim to monarchy citing the illegitimacy of the King's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, since the King had already been secretly married to another before, an action which vindicates his claim. Richard III, then took those children hostage and locked them in the Tower of London, a traditional castle for raising royal children, the Dragonstone if you will. And then the Princes vanished...an action which eroded much support for Richard III, presumed culprit, and placed Henry Tudor as the next best claim to the throne, a Welshman who flew a Dragon Standard on the Battle of Bosworth Field. The mystery of these disappeared Princes is disturbing for many reasons. If Richard III killed those Princes as is generally believed, he brutally violated all norms of decency to claim the throne, showing a ruthless amoral urge for power that completely tramples over all notions of feudal honor and chivalry. If Henry Tudor or his supporters ordered the deaths of the Princes, as some Ricardians believe, than an Usurper maligned and tarnished a worthy and honorable man, framed him for the crime of the deaths of two innocents and rode over their corpses to lay claim on the dynasty that ultimately birthed England's Golden Age. Either way, the implication one gets is that those two children's deaths cleared the path for many men of ambition.
The idea of power, society and culture built over the deaths of children/innocents, is I would argue the
central theme of A Song of Ice and Fire
since the morality of killing children is addressed repeatedly and reacted to by several parties.
Robert Baratheon became King by conquest, by having a distant claim to the Throne through a Targaryen grandmother, Rhaegar even called him cousin to Jaime in his flashbacks. But as Tywin Lannister points out that the only real way to clear his path to the throne is to kill Prince Rhaegar's children since supporters will always rally around their claim. The result of Tywin brutally killing those children via Gregor Clegane is the lifelong disgust of the Starks and other houses of honour, the enmity of the Martells but also 13 years of a fragile peace. This peace is disturbed because Lord Eddard Stark refuses to kill children or allow them to die. Ned Stark informed Cersei because he knew that Robert in his wrath would kill Joffrey, Tommen and Myrcella, bastards of incest. By refusing to kill those children, Ned Stark fulfills the standards of decency that everyone adheres to but in the end, he gets killed by the very boy-king he wanted to spare. Both in the series, by the likes of Littlefinger, and by readers, people lamented Ned Stark's softness in wanting to "spare" the children. The deaths of children is the theme on which certain actions are defined and measured by. Moreover, these actions are framed by the context of society.
Theon Greyjoy presumably killing "Bran and Rickon", two miller's sons, is treated as much lower on the scale than Tywin Lannister killing Rhaenys and Aegon, why? Because Theon Greyjoy is the Turncloak Ironborn Butt Monkey
while Tywin Lannister is The Ace
, a man who does what he has to do, the lord of the wealthiest part of Westeros and who is careful to frame his actions around an acceptable pill of necessity and pragmatism which Theon fails to do. Tywin Lannister has toadies like Pycelle and Kevan making apologies for his actions, indifferent assholes like Robert Baratheon shrugging and accepting the Throne he fought for, while Ned Stark and others sulk in the corner about honor. Ultimately, the theme is society will arbitrarily support and accept as Necessary Evil
the deaths of some children while in other cases, the deaths of Bran and Rickon, even when feigned, is used by Stannis to claim vengeance in North and rally against Roose Bolton and Theon Greyjoy. It's not just what characters are willing to do, but the manner in which their actions are seen and judged by society in the proper context.
House Stark as a De Construction of Classic Heroes
Of all the noble houses, House Stark is the one the fans love most. That is why they die — to pack an emotional punch. But also, they have the most characters that are moral and honorable, like Ned Stark and John Snow. These people are the least likely to resort to underhandedness, although they are not above it. So, if they won, it would be like most fantasies with one good and one evil side — the good guys win. But in real life, this doesn't always happen. And A Song of Ice and Fire
is brutally realistic in this respect. The noble who does not make tons of underhanded plots and is morally grey is outplanned. The honorable noble with no conspiracies dies easily, because he is predictable and it is unlikely he will introduce any new variables. Ned Stark spares the children, and is killed by one of them. Jon Snow realizes that the wildlings are humans and tries to warn everyone about the oncoming threat of a Greater Scope Villain
, only to die because the aforementioned realization brands him a traitor. And the Wall itself deconstructs the concept of "ancient guardians facing a returning evil" — its been so long, they have, in the words or Mormont, forgotten what they were for, and have been reduced to scuffling with wildlings, ignoring the coming doom just over the horizon.