On A Song of Ice and Fire
The Palace of Love, the Palace of Sorrow
Romanticism in A Song of Ice and Fire
As with all things, the passing of time brings changes. The modern fantasy genre has seen trends come and go in the last fifteen years, but one of the most lasting of the recent trends began with the growing success of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Just as he followed in the footsteps of J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen R. Donaldson, and more contemporary fantasists such as Robert Jordan and Tad Williams, other authors have been influenced in turn by the traits that Martin’s readers associate with his series of novels. Words such as “realistic,” “gritty,” or “brutal” are terms of reference for many readers when discussing the series, and it can’t be denied that these aspects of the story draw a great deal of attention. However, the strength of the novels is not based on literary realism alone. In fact, the realism stands in contrast to another foundational aspect of the narrative: Martin’s romanticism.
For some, romanticism may conjure the spectre of bodice-rippers and Harlequin romances. Our meaning when we discuss romanticism in relation to Martin’s work is quite specific: an emphasis on emotionality and the individual, a gaze aimed firmly at the past, and a belief in the indomitable human spirit. All of these things were traits of the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century, a movement that Martin has identified himself with in the past. Romanticism has a palpable presence in his award-winning short stories, as well as his novel Dying of the Light and especially the antebellum vampire horror novel Fevre Dream, in which the Romantic poets Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley are overtly referenced. Although Martin has said that he feels his earlier work is more romanticist than his later novels, the influence can still be clearly found in the Song of Ice and Fire series, having a pervasive effect on the presentation of the narrative.
The most prevalent manifestation of romanticism is the view of the past espoused by many characters in the novel. It seems a part of human nature to idealize the past, to suppose things were somehow “better” in days gone by. The same can be said about how characters view the past of Westeros, citing examples of how the realm was once better off and has now declined. As one example, the Night’s Watch has fallen on hard times. Their numbers are depleted and their cause neglected by most of the great lords and kings, compared to the past when, as Yoren describes it in A Clash of Kings, “a man in black was feasted from Dorne to Winterfell, and even high lords called it an honor to shelter him under their roofs.”
How true is this statement from Yoren, an older member of the Watch? There’s probably some truth to it, but at the same time it seems likely to be a simplification–a simplification revealed when Jon Snow considers some of the history his uncle Benjen taught him, of times past when members of the Watch warred against one another, and when the Starks had to forcibly put the Watch in order. More generally, Jon Snow and others hold a kind of romantic image of the noble calling of the Night’s Watch, an image that is swiftly punctured when Tyrion Lannister points out that his brothers will mostly be common thieves and murderers who choose the Wall over death, rather than out of a sense of honor or duty. The Watch has dwindled significantly, with fewer noble-born officers and fewer capable men generally . . . but they certainly were not all high-born paragons even in its earliest days.
The history of the Watch and how it is represented is a subject for an essay all its own, but it makes an easy example. A more central one, however, can be found in the much more recent events of Robert’s rebellion–fifteen years in the past in the novels, a bit longer than that in the television series–that most influence the present narrative. The events of that war, both those that led up to it and those that immediately followed, directly touched the lives of nearly every significant character in the series. The melancholic mythologizing with which many characters recall them provide an interesting vantage from which to consider romanticism in the series, as it combines one of the topics Martin generally depicts most viscerally–the violence of war–with the tendency to elide the horrors in favor of poignant remembrances of things lost.
In brief, the fall of the Targaryen dynasty followed on Prince Rhaegar’s apparent abduction of Lyanna Stark, then betrothed to Robert Baratheon, and the subsequent murders of Lord Stark and his heir Brandon at the command of King Aerys, the Mad King. This launched a bloody civil war that lasted nearly a year, at the end of which Aerys, Rhaegar, and Rhaegar’s wife and children were dead, while the pregnant queen had fled with Aerys’s only surviving son and Lyanna died a lonely death in the red mountains of Dorne. The details are parceled out throughout the series, but the very first and strongest link we have to that last event is in the crypt under Winterfell, revealed in one of the very first extended recountings of those events. There King Robert looks on the effigy of Lyanna Stark at her tomb after a moment of solemn silence, and his first words are: “She was more beautiful than that” (A Game of Thrones). Immediately, Robert’s vision of Lyanna is bound up with the past, with his recollection of her beauty as he remembers it now. Eddard talks of her death, the details of which are vague but bring immediacy by putting the reader in the realm of the senses: a room smelling of “blood and roses”; the whisper of her voice as she pleaded; the clutch of her fingers; the dead, black hue of rose petals that fell from her fingers. The weight of tragedy and loss marking Eddard and Robert is palpable, bound in this shared sense of loss.
But is Robert’s vision of Lyanna the same as Eddard’s? Later in the first novel, Robert claims Lyanna would never have “shamed” him by questioning his decision to fight in a melee. Eddard responds that Robert did not know Lyanna as well as he did, and what Robert saw was “her beauty, but not the iron beneath”(A Game of Thrones). Finding his vision of Lyanna contradicted leads Robert to refocus the conversation on Eddard’s argument against his participation, leaving Lyanna aside. The fragility of Robert’s romantic vision is a trait that dovetails well with Robert’s morose ambivalence to his station and his duties, his failures as a man, a husband, and a king weighing on him. What’s most fascinating is the superficiality of Robert’s romanticizing of his love for Lyanna, as one comes to realize that if, as Martin has indicated, Robert spent almost all of his time at the Vale or Storm’s End, he would have had very few occasions to see Lyanna, much less speak to her. His great passion for her seems to be in direct proportion to his feeling that she was taken from him, allowing him an avenue to imagine a Lyanna that may have had little to do with the actual woman.
Paired with the romantic vision of Lyanna as a tragic figure is the quite contrasting views we receive of Prince Rhaegar, the man said to have started the war with his (alleged) abduction of Lyanna Stark. For Robert, he is a monster who raped Lyanna until she died, who stole away his betrothed, who deserved to die a thousand deaths, and who, in the end, won because he and Lyanna were dead together while Robert lives on as a shadow of himself. And for Eddard? There’s an ambiguity about how Ned views the Targaryen prince. Ned recalls his victory at Harrenhal, in a dream of the year of the false spring, seeing Rhaegar carry the day and then carry the crown for the Queen of Love and Beauty. When he gave the trophy to Lyanna instead of his wife, Princess Elia, “all the smiles died” (A Game of Thrones). Eddard compares Rhaegar to Robert at one point, and readers get a hint that the prince is not seen by Ned the same way as Robert views him: he doubts Rhaegar would have visited prostitutes and fathered illegitimate children, as his dearest friend and brother has done.
If Lyanna is a figure of personal tragedy that marred the lives of Eddard and Robert, Rhaegar is a more generally tragic figure, one often described in distinctly romantic terms outside of Robert’s hearing. Daenerys believes he died for the woman he loved, that he died with her name on his lips. Perhaps more notably, Ser Barristan Selmy offers the following: “He liked to sleep in the ruined hall, beneath the moon and stars, and whenever he came back he would bring a song. When you heard him play his high harp with the silver strings and sing of twilights and tears and the death of kings, you could not but feel that he was singing of himself and those he loved” (A Storm of Swords). Not only a romantic figure, but a supremely romantic one at that, because the character seems to have had a premonition of tragedy and doom. The romantic fascination with ruins and decay comes into play in that description, and some of the most vivid imagery in the series has to do with ruins: the Nightfort, Oldstones, Vaes Tolorro, and most certainly Summerhall, the memory of which so strongly shaped Rhaegar’s life. The effect of these statements and the notions they’ve raised in regard to Rhaegar’s relationship with Lyanna have had a striking impact on readers. When HBO held a focus group session prior to the airing of Game of Thrones, they asked which couples in the show were the “most romantic.” Most of the female participants apparently agreed that Lyanna and Rhaegar were the most romantic pairing in the series–a response that must have caused some consternation, as the two were dead characters whose existence is somewhat minimized in the show’s first season in comparison to their presence in the novel.
Eddard’s own view of Lyanna may be more intimately familiar than it is of Rhaegar, but for him the tragedy of the past is closely tied to the actual tragedy of what befell his family, rather than a self-centered focus on the wrongs done to him. One of the most vivid romantic images in the series, however, directly relates to the events surrounding Lyanna’s death: the deadly encounter at the “tower of joy” between Eddard Stark and his six companions against three of the knights of Aerys’s Kingsguard. This episode, which closes the war against the Targaryen loyalists, is presented through a feverish dream of Eddard’s. The six men who fought beside him–five of whom would not survive–are faceless spectres, despite his efforts to remember them. But the faces of the three knights of the Kingsguard–all famous, and one of them the “splendid” Ser Arthur Dayne, whom Eddard called the “finest knight [he] ever saw” (A Clash of Kings)–are still very clear in his memory. Eddard is haunted by the shadow of the day’s events: the deaths of his friends, his own near-death, and the deaths of those three knights who fought and died to honor the vows they had sworn and oaths they had given. As Eddard recalls the words they spoke to one another, the passage reads like a ritualized call and response, lending mythic overtones to this confrontation.
As the warriors rush together, Eddard remembers his sister’s scream and the fall of rose petals, and then he wakes. Martin has noted in correspondence that as a dream, not all aspects of the sequence need to be taken literally–a sign, perhaps, that the intrusion of Lyanna into Ned’s dream does not represent her literal presence. But the joining of these two romantic images–the tragic, doomed sister and the last Kingsguard, who were a “shining example” to the world–connects these things on a level that touches on the thematic underpinnings of the series.
Despite the fact that the Kingsguard served Aerys, it’s not for that reason that their reputation is in tatters by the time of A Game of Thrones. What chiefly ended the Kingsguard’s place as the epitome of chivalry and honor in Westerosi thought was the murder of Aerys by Jaime Lannister. The Kingsguard swore their lives and honor to defend the king, and Jaime betrayed that in an utterly unequivocal fashion. Of course, as we delve deeper into the story, we learn that things are not always as they seem, that there was more to the events than an arrogant and dishonorable knight advancing his family by betraying the king he’d sworn to serve. Ser Jaime himself becomes a point-of-view character and reveals that a part of his motivation was to prevent Aerys from destroying the whole city, and all the lives within it, out of some mad belief that he’d rise from the ashes in the body of a dragon. Jaime is ostracized, dubbed the Kingslayer, reviled–behind his back, in any case–for this ultimate failure, yet only he knows the whole story.
Moreover, Jaime knows how the Kingsguard themselves responded to Aerys’s madness, when men like the Lord Commander Ser Gerold Hightower and Ser Jonothor Darry told him his place was to never judge the king, to never intervene if he sought to harm someone, including his own wife, unjustly. Yet Jaime keeps these truths bottled up, refusing to share them out of egoism, so no one will dare judge him for having done what he did. This has the effect of making Ser Jaime, still a Kingsguard, still the handsome, gifted, wealthy son of the wealthiest family in the Seven Kingdoms, an outcast in a society that would normally heap honors and praise on him, but which cannot abide his lack of contrition.
This backstory makes Ser Jaime something very romantic indeed: a Byronic hero. Named for the great Romantic poet Lord Byron, whose characters often exemplified the type, the Byronic hero is “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” and there’s a checklist of traits that they often share: cynicism, cunning, disrespect for authority, brilliance, self-destructive behavior, a troubled past, and so on. Once we are in Jaime’s head and see him from his perspective, many of these traits coalesce and make it clear that he is not the stock villain that he might have seemed in the first novel. The romanticism of the misunderstood, brilliant man–though Jaime’s brilliance is more martial than intellectual, admittedly–is certainly well-attested in period literature. It has survived into modern literature and media, too. There is a certain exceptionalism inherent in romanticism, a focus on the individual as a key figure who needs to be understood to be fully appreciated. The sins of the past might be forgiven, or at least reevaluated, when placed in the fuller context of the character’s inner workings.
Jaime’s journey through the later novels of the series can be seen as a recapitulation of the journey that Childe Harold takes in Byron’s poem, as he escapes a literal prison to enter a different one: the prison of his own actions and reputation. He is constantly judged for what he did and not for why he did it. Now crippled, calling into question both his identity as a warrior par exellance and his self-worth, Jaime is led by his decline to reevaluate himself in light of the ideals he once held, the ideals of the youth who wanted to be Ser Arthur Dayne and ended up instead as the outlaw, the Smiling Knight.
Curiously, Jaime’s brother Tyrion is also a Byronic figure. Though he lacks the traditional traits of good looks and sexual attractiveness, in most other particulars he fits the definition of the role very well. His outsider position is driven by his physical deformity, which makes him unappealing and the subject of easy mockery, but his status as an outsider is also informed by his public behavior and the very unhappy family situation within which he exists. In a setting where family means everything, the fact that Tyrion’s father disregards him, belittles him, and probably hates him is as crippling as being a “grotesque.” The result is that Tyrion has become a cynical, jaded figure, incredibly needy for love and attention, but weary of the price he has to pay, sometimes quite literally, to achieve it.
He truly is brilliant, and shows himself capable of enormous feats of ingenuity and command in the course of the novels. And his ultimate reward? Betrayal from his own family, from the woman he thought he loved, from the wife that he tried to love. He’s cast out, made an outlaw under penalty of death, and left to fend for himself in a friendless, alien landscape to the east. Tyrion wins over readers through his sharp wit and innate decency, yet he does some terrible things along the way–and still readers forgive him these actions, which seems very much in line with the way Byronic heroes are regarded by those who read about them.
The romanticism of the Lannister brothers and of Robert’s rebellion, and the tragedies that these events engendered, can all be connected together by the Great Man Theory of history, which held sway in academic circles during at least some of Martin’s college studies. The Great Man Theory is very much a reflection of the Romantic era, in that it supposes the history of the world is largely driven by outstanding individuals initiating world-changing events. This approach to history has fallen out of favor, as Martin himself recounted to a reader when he noted that, during his college days, the “War of the Three Henrys” began to be referred to as the “Wars of Religion,” as socioeconomic historiography came to dominate the academic discourse.
Martin’s affinity to the theory is less academic and more a matter of pragmatics in storytelling. Readers identify with characters, not socioeconomic trends, so it’s natural to position protagonists and antagonists as the primary instigators of events. Social movements take place in the novels–the independent attempt of the “brotherhood without banners” to bring justice to an ugly civil war, the “sparrows” who follow the Seven who gather together to protect one another against the predations of war–but there’s always a central individual to provide a focus, even a motivation, as with the “lightning lord” Beric Dondarrion and the nameless septon who’s raised up by the mob of sparrows to become High Septon. These individuals provide readers a direct window into these movements, and by studying them one can come to conclusions as to the underlying values and righteousness of their respective causes.
However, the very act of focusing on the individual as a prime instigator of action falls within the pattern of romanticism that Martin has established in the series. Characters are quite directly indicated to be great men: Tywin Lannister is called the greatest man to come along in a thousand years; Robert, during the war, is described in larger-than-life terms; Robb Stark is hailed as the Young Wolf personally responsible for the string of military victories. In every single case, tragedy, disaster, or ignominy–sometimes all three–dogs these characters, and they all meet ugly ends; the high hopes of their beginnings turn to ashes as their lives unravel. No matter how much characters in the Seven Kingdoms, and the readers of the novels, might romanticize these “great men,” might romanticize their past and present wars, might find endless virtues to praise, they’re all brought down to the earth: Tywin is killed on the privy, Robert’s gutted by a boar, Robb Stark is betrayed and his corpse desecrated. Tywin may be the outlier, in that his life was not on a clear decline when he met his sorry end, but for Robb and Robert, we can see that their positions falter and they grow weaker as the disasters mount, swinging inexorably into downward trajectories that are a far cry from their romantic beginnings.
What, then, of the romanticism of A Song of Ice and Fire?
Juxtaposing two quotes from Martin may be useful to close this examination of romanticism. Neither directly touches on it, but together they embody his vision of romanticism. In his brief essay “On Fantasy,” Martin explains the purpose of fantasy as he sees it, the reason why he reads it, and why he believes it appeals. At the conclusion, he writes:
We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.
Compare that vision of fantasy to his remarks, in a Time Magazine interview, on the topic of decay in his fiction, as related to his family’s personal history:
And I think it always gave me this, this sense of a lost golden age of, you know, now we were poor and we lived in the projects and we lived in an apartment. We didn’t even have a car, but God we were . . . once we were royalty! It gave me a certain attraction to those kinds of stories of I don’t know, fallen civilizations and lost empires and all of that.
Romanticism captures both aspects of Martin’s views on fantasy and on stories: it fills the work with another layer of “color” and emotional resonances and a sense of wonder, creating visions of tragic love affairs and doomed nobility, and in turn it highlights the decay of the setting into the gritty reality of the present story. Some of the most memorable scenes in the novels are laden with romanticism, but they’re often coupled with an enigma, with the sense that it’s a story that’s romantic in part because it’s not yet been fully told.
Will the tragedy of Lyanna, the doom of Rhaegar, the heroic last stand of the Kingsguard all be revealed as sordid affairs not worth all the paeans and tears? Possibly. Martin has a way of undermining idealizations. But for as long as these romantic visions survive, they enchant readers and facilitate Martin’s exploitation of the tension between a reader’s hopes for good to happen to characters and the same reader’s expectations that nothing good will ever go unspoiled.