Preliminary: My one book a month is ongoing; I’m keeping up. What I haven’t kept up with is writing about each book. This is my backlog note from my August read.
How do you cure a waiting aching heart? You consume more of the beloved. So here we are, with more Game of Thrones. The book, Beyond the Wall: Exploring GRR Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice was referred to me by Fr. Noel Bava, who has been following my notes on GOT episodes.
The limitation of the book is that the analyses forwarded only covers up to the published ASOFI novels, which have been overtaken by the events in the TV series. The book covers analysis of the ASOFI world including gender, romanticism, moral ambiguity, historicity, and a good deal about facets of power. This book might be challenging for those who have not read the novels, because there are references to events and characters that have not been played up well in the series. But then again, why not learn more about GOT anyway? Just take the plunge and read more.
I am zeroing in on the two essays I appreciated the most among the 15 in the book. Why only two? Because now that it’s been three weeks since I finished the book, as I decide to write about it, these are the two essays that I distinctively remember.
 The Palace of Love, The Palace of Sorrow: Romanticism in A Song of Fire and Ice
The essay analyzes how romanticism shapes GRRM’s treatment of the ‘current’ narrative in ASOFI, as characters always frame their worldview and decisions based on the glory days of Westeros and even beyond – when the gods ruled, when the Wall was created, when the Targaryens united the Seven Kingdoms and ushered peace and prosperity among the houses. I am drawn by the point that the idea of greatness among key characters are always pegged against what they thought were ideals of a world-gone-by. Example, the Night’s Watch used to be greater, grander, in Jon’s eyes, when it is apparent to us all that he might be what the Night’s Watch has always promised to be. Robert vaguely remembers Lyanna but builds his world around his failed romance. And most importantly, the narrative of Rhaegar – the prince that could have been – in Tyrion’s eyes of nobility, in Jaime’s understanding of the Kingsguard, and in Dany’s view of her destiny. The essay explains how GRRM weaves in the “Big Man Theory” that supposes that “the history of the world is largely driven by outstanding individuals initiating world-changing events,” because nobody “feels” the romanticism out of socio-economic trends. That gave me a smile, stirring a little in the sociologist in me. But as a romantic, I agree.
My take away from the essay is that, we tend to romanticize people in points of history whose stories have emotional resonance. Who we like, who we criticize, who we idolize – these are all projections of a piece of our person, whatever deep dark dreams or dreaded delusions we may have. We seek for an ‘ideal’ to anchor on, and we rely on history to give us these archetypes (in the Carl Jung sense). So even in a fantasy world such as ASOFI, to build ‘current’ Big Men, the characters needed their own archetypes and Big Men to anchor on. And that to me makes sense why GRRM and other mind-blowing fantasy worlds need to make elaborate, complex back stories. Even fictional characters have historicity. This historicity makes them human to us. This historicity makes them real to us.
Now just to push the wall a bit further, though no longer in the essay, GRRM has been vocal about using real historical conflicts and characters to inspire and shape his narrative designs. So that’s an amazing overlap of the real and the fantasy, with histories and ‘current’, and characters that behave in similar or different ways. It’s a Big History web that interfaces with JJ Abrams’ alternate universes of Star Trek. And that is AWESOME.
 Peter Baelish and the Mask of Sanity
Littlefinger is a psychopath. That is the point of the entire essay. And that point is sealed in one sentence:
“There’s no universally accepted criteria for identifying psychopathy, but four basic qualities are common to just every definition: a history of engaging in criminal behavior, little to no empathy for victims, the inability to form strong emotional attachments, and a lack of sincere remorse for one’s actions.”
Makes you think about who else matches the description, huh?
But from those four characteristics it is easy to explain how the rest of the essay went about Littlefinger. But the point that strikes me the most is this:
“Littlefinger’s skill at manipulating others might only be bested by Varys. What differentiates Littlefinger from the Spider, though, is motive. Varys acts to preserve the stability of the kingdom. His peers may consider him untrustworthy, and he may well be, but it is because his allegiance is to crown and country rather than any particular individual. Littlefinger’s allegiance is to Littlefinger.”
Every GOT fan would say that Littlefinger versus Varys is the showdown that needs to happen again, because the match between the two is obvious and exciting. But I have never seen their conflict written so elegantly before. Yes, Varys have always been vocal about serving the crown – and this informed his friendship with Tyrion, whom Varys sees as a true servant of ‘crown and country’ as well. And perhaps, only Varys and Tyrion are the only ones who genuinely have a true north about the politics and deviousness of Westeros. [Guess whose side they’re both on now? BOOM!]
Back to Littlefinger and Varys. I kept on thinking, we only know about the motives of these two because we are omniscient spectators rather than players in the Game. But if I were a player, would I be able to distinguish the difference between Varys and Littlefinger? Motive. How do you really tell motive? Tyrion knew eventually that Varys was genuine deep inside (way, way deep inside), but is it a function of Tyrion also being genuine? Do the genuine attract each other?
Take for instance, Sansa, that poor girl. I kept on trying to remember if there was in any way she could have interacted more with Varys, so she did not have to be a pawn in Littlefinger’s game. But I don’t recall any incident that could have changed her affiliation. Is it because genuine Varys could not work with the foolish? So how could have Sansa stood a chance for a proper ally? Her father, Ned, could have done better than to trust Littlefinger. Ned, who was genuine, did not see the motive in Littlefinger. Because he was naïve? Or blinded by his wife’s foolishness? If I follow this train of thought, then the foolish and the naïve cannot play the game with the cunning-but-genuine. But is it not so anyway in this real, equally treacherous jungle of life.
And more importantly, how do you defeat psychopaths? If they use people without remorse, if they dispense of people without guilt, how does a genuine person defeat psychopaths? Here I play the idealist – that there is good and evil in this world, and while most of the world is gray, I would really like to believe that there is light in its pureness. So if the best chance of putting Littlefinger out is Varys, what are the limits to Varys’s means? At this point in the GOT series, Varys’s choice is to put on the Iron Throne someone who has a claim, and who can possibly defeat any other army that Littlefinger can muster. But at the height of war, sacrifices would be made. What and how far would Varys sacrifice in the name of serving crown and country? He’s Machiavellian with a genuine motive. And I suppose, if one is serving a true north, he will not venture into actions that steer him away from it. (Insert here Fr. Dacanay’s lecture: the fundamental versus the categorical.)
While it remains to be seen, my money’s on Varys. While GRRM has successfully created characters who are morally ambiguous, at the very least gray, I deeply hope those as sinister as Littlefinger would find themselves face to face with justice. While justice is elusive in GOT (and everywhere else, I suppose), I choose to believe justice will make its way. Because it should.
This book has helped me ease the pain of waiting for GOT again. Other shows are returning. Other books are lined up for me. Work is insane. So I should be alright. (Or so I tell myself. LOL)