Longsword by David Pilling

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Thoughts on A Song of Ice and Fire 

 By David Pilling 


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Right, then. This is my counter-argument to Martin Bolton’s thoughtful deconstruction of A Song of Ice and Fire, which I’m sure needs little introduction as the best-selling fantasy series by George R.R. Martin. The screen version by HBO, retitled Game of Thrones, is of course a monster hit and about to enter its fifth season.

 For those who haven’t read the books, I would advise looking away now, as it’s impossible to have an argument/debate like this without giving away spoilers.

To anyone who hasn’t yet read Martin’s piece, here is the link again:

Martin's thoughts

Firstly, let me say that Martin Bolton is a decent guy. A solid citizen, goes to work every day, not a bad cook, likes a few ales. Basically harmless. There’s just one tiny problem. He tends to suffer from multiple brainwrongs that lead him to express inaccurate opinions. Without me around to point him onto the true path, he would probably be living up a tree somewhere by now, worshipping rocks.

He’s done it again with A Song of Ice and Fire. Don’t believe all that guff he wrote about not wanting to dissuade anyone from reading the books, or about it being a matter of ‘personal taste’. That’s just a smokescreen. He hates George R.R. Martin and all his works with a terrifying passion, and it’s my Christian duty to word-slap some sense into him.

Martin claims that the books are too rambling, and feature lengthy and unnecessary descriptions of food and clothes. Well, there may be a kernel of truth in that, but what you have to understand is that George - I’m going to refer to the author as George, to avoid talking about Martin and Martin - cares about us. He really does. By taking up a whole five pages describing a meal, or the colour of the flagstones in a back alley, he’s trying to paint a vivid picture of his fantasy universe, and pull us readers out of humdrum reality for a couple of hours.

Also, he likes to make us hungry. Reading about his characters eat - shortly before they get an axe in the head, or engage in lesbian/dwarf/animal coitus - makes me want to eat. Otherwise I would probably forget, and fade away to nothing. So in that sense, I owe George my life. Maybe.

Granted, George could probably do with a good editor or three. If you were to comb all the extraneous detail from the last two books, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, and just keep the essential plot, you would probably end up with a small pamphlet. And you can’t sell pamphlets in hardcover at £25 each, so it’s essential George keeps writing reams and reams of irrelevant pap about comedy Vikings, 16-course buffets and the interesting fauna and flora on a made-up island. Otherwise he might go bankrupt, and I would forget to eat. Do I want that? No.

To be serious for a moment, the first four volumes in the series were, in this one’s humble opinion, riveting, fast-paced, unpredictable fantasy fiction, dark and bloody and harrowing and utterly compulsive. They were the literary equivalent of crack, and deprived me of sleep for weeks on end as I sat up all night, thinking ‘I’ll just read the next chapter and then go to bed...”- before I knew it, the sun was rising and I was only halfway through. Only one other series, the Jack Aubrey novels by Patrick O’Brien, has had that effect on me.

The trouble is, and here I can’t really disagree with Martin’s analysis, George wrote himself into a corner. He grew too fond of killing off likeable characters in various nasty and unexpected ways, a shock tactic that served him well in the first book but just got silly by the time of The Red Wedding. This scene, in which pretty much anyone you could possibly care about in Westeros gets massacred, is one of the most horrifying and darkly powerful passages I’ve ever read. Few authors would have the guts to attempt such a thing, but I was left with the sense that George had shot his bolt. Thereafter the books decline in focus and quality, and many readers are left hanging on solely to find out what happens in the end. Something similar happened with the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, which started off as a compelling read and then got bogged down until the narrative virtually ground to a halt.

George’s initial idea, to create a fantasy tale inspired by the real Middle Ages, specifically the Baron’s Wars and the Wars of the Roses in England, was genius. He was by no means the first to try it, but no other fantasy author (with the exception of Frank Herbert) manages to convey the savage warfare and intrigue between rival Houses with such panache. The Wars of the Roses is his most obvious reference point, though he also draws on the history of various noble families such as the Percies of Northumberland and throws them into the melting pot along with the House of Lancaster (Lannister) and Stark (York). Some of his characters draw cleverly on historical figures in a general sort of way - for instance, the supremely ruthless Tywin Lannister is a blend of several Plantagenet kings, mainly Edward I or Longshanks, the Hammer of the Scots. So George clearly knows his history, and how to effectively weave reality into fiction.

Martin makes the point that there is far too much darkness in the series, and the few chinks of light quickly get smothered in the general mayhem. I would agree to a point, but the slaughter of the ‘good’ characters, while it does become excessive, merely reflects the sadness of reality. The cold, hard fact is that nice guys rarely come out on top, especially when competing for power, which is why our world is governed by Killer Bastards from the Planet Sly. Ned Stark’s demise, while tragic and shocking, could have been avoided if he had laid aside his precious honour and got out of King’s Landing while there was still time. George was making the - entirely valid - point that those who refuse to compromise inevitably come to bad ends.

In a way, Ned Stark’s version of honour is exposed as selfish: by getting himself captured and killed, he left his family to endure the storm that followed. Hence, The Red Wedding was the direct consequence of Ned’s folly in refusing to tell a few lies in order to save his bacon. He left his son Robb to make one mistake after another, ending in the wholesale slaughter of the Starks and their bannermen at the hands of the dreadful Freys.

BUT...George does leave room for hope. Most of Ned’s children are still alive, though scattered, and I confidently expect them to get revenge for their father in due time. Whether there will be anyone left to avenge themselves on - the Lannisters have been going down like ninepins as well - remains to be seen. It could be that the whole cycle of honour and revenge turns out to be a massive waste of time, which is again a valid lesson. You need only glance at history to see that blood-feuds only result in more blood, generation after generation, until someone has the courage to forget about revenge and draw a line under it all.

In the end, I don’t think the series needs to be about ‘balance’, as Martin puts it. There is no balance of light and darkness in the real world, only shades of grey and people trying to get through the day as best they can. This is reflected in Westeros, where knightly virtues of chivalry and honour turn out to be either delusional or sheer hypocrisy.

I can’t disagree too much with Martin’s final comment, that the series lacks a sense of humour. There isn’t much laughter in Westeros, and sometimes you do wonder why anyone bothers to get out of bed, since they only have another weary round of mud and violence and treachery to look forward to. In that sense it doesn’t mirror our reality at all: few of us would care to struggle through life without a joke or two.

There’s always the hot lesbian sex, of course. George is very fond of hot lesbian sex.

So, that’s my take on A Song of Ice and Fire. What do YOU all think? Don’t hold back, now....and remember, points (might) mean prizes...

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

A Game of Opinions

Just for something different - and hopefully spark some healthy debate - my friend and co-author Martin Bolton have decided to host an argument.

The subject? First, the 'Song of Ice and Fire' series by George R.R. Martin, possibly better known these days as Game of Thrones, though we will be discussing the books rather than the HBO screen version. Martin isn't a fan of the series, and has posted a critique at his blog below:

Bolton the Writer

I'll be posting my counter-argument tomorrow - please feel free to weigh in with your own comments/opinions! There's no 'winner' as such, though I may consider some kind of freebie for whoever comes up with the most thoughtful and/or entertaining remarks.

After we've tackled Martin, we'll be having a good old row over the Saxon series by Bernard Cornwell. Hopefully we can keep it civilised, unlike the gentlemen below...


Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Friar Tuck alias Frere Tuk alias...

Trying to identify the inspiration for characters in medieval ballads and legends is usually fairly pointless, albeit a good brain exercise. Some characters, such as Hereward the Wake, Fulk FitzWarin and Eustace the Monk, were based on very real historical figures, while others like Gamelyn, Adam Bell and Robin Hood himself, remain a mystery.

Of all the pantheon of medieval English ballad heroes, Robin Hood has proved the most enduring, and attracts the most research into his origins. From that point of view, the English might have done better to cling onto Hereward instead of dumping him in favour of the Prince of Thieves. The former was very much flesh and blood, and is namechecked in a handful of references in Domesday Book. Jolly Robin, meanwhile, appears in no contemporary source save a few dubious passages in various chronicles, written by monks who were either working from existing ballads or deploying artistic licence i.e. making it up.

There is a good possibility, however, that one of Robin's companions was based on a real person. During the reign of Henry V, while King Hal was gearing up for another crack at the French after his smashing away win at Agincourt, the following entry appears in the court rolls:

Feb 9 1417 Commission to Thomas Camoys,Thomas Ponynges and John Pelham to arrest one assuming the name of Frere Tuk and other evildoers of his retinue who have committed divers murders, homicides, robberies, depredations, felonies, insurrections, trespasses, oppressions, extortions, offences and misprisions in the counties of Surrey and Sussex, and bring them before the king and council... 

From this it seems that the identity of the man 'assuming the name of Frere Tuk' was unknown at this point, and that he was the captain of a band of robbers who rampaged around Surrey and Sussex, committing all manner of horrid crimes. A few months later, possibly after some hasty detective work, a little more info came to light:


 Ho ho ho! The terribly amusing Friar Tuck...

May 22 1417 Commission to William Lasyngby and Robert Hull to enquire into the report that a certain person assuming the unusual name of Frere Tuk and other evildoers have entered parks, warrens and chases of divers lieges of the king in the counties of Surrey and Sussex at divers times,hunted therein and carried off deer,hares,rabbits, pheasants and partridges, burned the houses and lodges for the keeping of the parks, warrens and chases and threatened the keepers... 


...though he was probably more like this guy 

Frere Tuk and his boys were attacking royal forests, assaulting the keepers and trespassing on land held by loyal subjects of the King, before making off with heaps of slaughtered game. The identity of Tuk himself is still a mystery, and the strong arm of the law - not so long or strong in those days, with no standing police force - failed to lay a hand on him or his followers.

Unless they were gentry like the Folvilles and the Coterels, and could rely on calling in a few favours, it was uncommon for outlaws in those days to enjoy long careers. Most ended in a short walk and a long drop, but Frere Tuk seems to have been exceptional. On 12th November 1429 - twelve years after his last appearance in the records - he pops up again:

Nov 12 1429 Robert Stafford, late of Lyndefeld, co. Sussex,chaplain, or Robert Stafford of Lyndefeld, chaplain, alias ' Frere Tuk,' for not appearing before the king to answer Richard Wakehurst touching a plea of trespass; or before Henry V to answer that king touching divers trespasses whereof he, the said Robert,was indicted... 

By this point Tuk's identity had at last been revealed - he was Robert Stafford of Lyndefeld or Lindfield in West Sussex, a chaplain who for some reason had taken to outlawry and assumed the name of Frere Tuk as an alias while carrying out his crimes. The clerks who recorded his misdeeds seem to have been unaware of the name 'Frere Tuk', suggesting they had either never heard a rhyme of Robin Hood, or that the character of Friar Tuck was not yet part of the canon.

The fate of the real Frere Tuk, alias Robert Stafford, is unknown, though he was certainly still alive in 1429: otherwise there would be no need for the court summons. It could be that the long career of this renegade chaplain inspired a verse or two, and that he eventually found his way into the fictionalised greenwood, to live on forever as a rather unfunny sideman with a pie fixation and a drink problem. Glory, eh?