Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

A Game of Thrones: sword & sorcery at its best

I’m not particularly fond of “sword and sorcery” novels, but this is one of the better examples, which I would recommend to fans of the genre, and even to those who aren’t fans, but would like to read something just to see what it’s about. It has all the appeal of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe but with a much more realistic view of practical politics.

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Take current politics, any current politics, remove it to a fictional country in a fictional world, and turn it into a parable, and you have basic plot of A Game of Thrones.

It’s all there: ambition, power seeking, spying, back-stabbing, manipulation, greed and all other staples of practical politics, ancient and modern.

It’s symbolism, not allegory.

If it were allegory it would apply to one particular set of politicians in one particular period, but it doesn’t do that. You can see whatever you want here.

The land of Westeros has seven kingdoms that were unified some four centuries earlier by a conqueror whose dynasty has now been overthrown. You can read that in many ways — seven kingdoms could stand for seven SOEs. Or seven independent homelands. Or seven successor states of the USSR.

The heir apparent to the current reigning monarch, Robert Baratheon, is 12-year-old Joffrey. In the film version he looks like Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series, and in both the book and film versions of A Game of Thrones his character matches. And some might say that he similarly resembles Donald Trump, both physically and in character,

I suppose that the genre of this book is best described as “sword and sorcery”, though in this first book of the series there seems to be more sword than sorcery, at least in the beginning. And I would say it is one of the better examples of the genre. I’ve tried reading others, like The Sword of Shannara, and was not tempted to read any further in that series. Likewise with A Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings.

But in this case I have started reading the second volume of the series A Clash of Kings, mainly to find out what happened to some of the more sympathetically-drawn characters, of whom my favourite was Arya Stark, the nine-year-old daughter of one of the more honest and honourable men in the cauldron of political intrigue, Lord Eddard Stark. But even he finds himself trapped into lying for reasons of state, and it costs him dearly.

I came to read the book by a strange chance, when Twitter showed a list of tweets that were trending in South Africa, and I did not recognise a single word in the list. I asked about it here Being out of touch with pop culture | Notes from underground and discovered that all the unfamiliar words were the names of characters from A Game of Thrones, which was then showing on TV. My son had the first series on DVD, which we started watching, but it made little sense until I found the book in the library and began reading it. I’d heard of the TV series, of course, but had never watched it, and assumed that it was a kind of extended version of Braveheart.

I was rather pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t, and that it was actually worth reading.  I doubt that I’ll read the whole series, though. The first volume is over 700 pages, and there are still another six volumes to go.

View all my reviews

Single Post Navigation

11 thoughts on “A Game of Thrones: sword & sorcery at its best

  1. Photini on said:

    That’s neat that you started reading them. Personally, I found that after the first three books or so the plot bogs down and goes nowhere, and the constant violence gets wearying. If Martin ever finishes the series, I might read about it on Wikipedia.

  2. Oh, Steve. Did you fall in love with Ned Stark?

    Don’t worry, we *all* did. Even after we watched the TV series, and we knew exactly what was going to happen, we read the book, and we fell in love with him all over again. It’s impossible not to. 😀

    There are so many deep, multifaceted characters to root for. Arya’s a fine choice, in my opinion. Personally, the one I was most interested in after the first book was Tyrion. Perhaps because after watching the TV series, I kept seeing Peter Dinklage, and I think the man is an amazing actor.

    But I daresay, Steve, it sounds like you’re hooked. The second book is just as good as the first, in my opinion, and when you’re done with that, you’ll be reading the third, if only because you want to find out what happens to Arya again… or some other character. 😉

    I wouldn’t put A Game of Thrones in the Sword & Sorcery category, though. Maybe it’s just me, but Sword & Sorcery is a term that’s actually often used derogatively to describe overly simplistic, somewhat mindless fantasy, of the Conan the Barbarian vein. The “pulp fiction” of the Fantasy genre, if you will. I think it typically follows a single “hero” as he goes about vanquishing monsters with no serious moral compunctions, and probably implies a world where characters can fling spells around with a flick of the wrist. The Witcher series (of which I just read the first instalment a week ago or so) probably falls into Sword & Sorcery. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because sometimes you just want some mindless entertainment.

    In fact, I started my current WiP because I wanted to write some “mindless” Sword & Sorcery, but as I’m progressing, it’s getting pretty deep.

    No, I would put A Game of Thrones firmly into “straight-up” High Fantasy, with strong elements of Grimdark… although (spoiler alert) the books do tend to get progressively darker as the series progresses, so by the last one, the Grimdark aspect is easily 50%.

    • I’m not sure where you draw the line between “Sword & Sorcery” and “High Fantasy”. I think A Game of Thrones is better than the average S&S novel — the characters are not one-dimensional, and the plot is quite interesting.

      But it holds the same interest as the history of any region of the world that is torn by political intrigue, and so do the characters. Joffrey Baratheon is a kind of composite of Jacob Zuma and Donald Trump.

      Ned Stark is the would-be honest man forced to do things against his conscience — Cryril Ramaphosa in Jacob Zuma’s cabinet, if you will. Actually I like Ned Stark’s children better, especially Arya, but also Bran and Jon Snow. Tyrion is certainly the most likable of the Lannisters.

      And what’s interesting is that all four of those likable characters are social misfits of one kind of another. Arya, the ragamuffin tomboy, scorns the class and gender stereotypes of her society. Tyrion the dwarf and Bran the cripple are excluded from the military careers their birth and upbringing should fit them for, and Jon is a bastard and inherits nothing.

      But all that is prosaic and humdrum and down-to-earth. It doesn’t strike me as “high fantasy”. Yes, there are hints of mysterious threats and evil creatures beyond the wall and across the sea, but in the bits I’ve read so far it’s all practical politics.

      If you’re reading in order to write, I’d suggest something a bit better than S&S — read the rest of C.S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy; read Charles Williams, Alan Garner. There’s real high fantasy for you. I assume you’ve read The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.

      • You make a very good point about the character archetypes: most of the characters that people to report as their favourites from the series tend to be social misfits in some way. You’ll meet other characters like that later on in the series, too. That probably says a lot about the human psyche. 🙂

        By “High Fantasy”, I just mean stories set in a created world (See, so S&S is most often going to be a subset of High Fantasy. Contrast with Low Fantasy, which are stories set in OUR world, but with fantastical elements/magic (Urban Fantasy, Paranormal Fantasy, etc).

        The stories you mentioned all technically fit that definition, I suppose (although the Cosmic trilogy is more properly Science Fiction, and not Fantasy at all, in my subjective opinion).

        I just don’t see A Song of Ice and Fire fitting into Sword and Sorcery specifically, mostly because of the derogatory associations I’ve always had with the genre. But you might be right. It’s definitely Grimdark, though: “High Fantasy that is violent and often dystopian.”

        In answer to your question, I have read the first volume of The Lord of the Rings, but I stopped there because (horror of horrors) I didn’t really enjoy it too much. I found it way too descriptive and rambly. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood at the time. I thought the movies were much better. 🙂

        The rest of the Cosmic trilogy is on my TBR, though!

  3. I have neither read the books nor seen the TV series, despite constant recommendations to do so from my peers. I’ve even muted the phrase “Game of Thrones” on Twitter.

    • I’d be interested in knowing on what grounds your peers recommend them!

      You can find the same stuff on the daily news in newspapers and on TV. I suppose the main difference is that it is told from the point of view of people close to those engaged in the power struggles — parents, brothers, sisters, children etc, rather than that of the protagonists themselves. But, as I said in my response to Graham Downs above, it doesn’t really strike me as fantasy.

      • I think they just thought that I would like it because I love The Lord of the Rings, but as far as I can tell the underlying message of Game of Thrones is “life is nasty, deal with it” which is not a message that I read books for. Whereas the underlying message of LoTR is “the apparently unassuming small individual can make a difference; kindness and friendship matters; and the light of Eru Iluvatar shines in even the darkest places”. That’s a message I want to read about.

  4. Yewtree: Yes, I think you’ve put your finger on the difference. I’ve just been discussing it at our monthly literary coffee klatsch and Prof David Levey (professor of English lit) said that Tolkien, in one of his letters, said that the theme of Lord of the Rings could be summed up as “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

  5. Graham Downs: Was chatting to David Levey, Prof of English lit, and he said “Sword & Sorcery” is not derogatory, just descriptive, like “science fiction”. One of the differences between Lord of the Rings and A Game of Thrones is that the former has myth but no religion, and the latter has religion but no myth.

    • Good point, I suppose. I’ve just been checking the Wikipedia entry:

      “Sword and sorcery (S&S) is a subgenre of fantasy characterized by sword-wielding heroes engaged in exciting and violent adventures. An element of romance is often present, as is an element of magic and the supernatural. Unlike works of high fantasy, the tales, though dramatic, focus mainly on personal battles rather than world-endangering matters. Sword and sorcery commonly overlaps with heroic fantasy.”

      So, I suppose it doesn’t have to be derogatory. But that description DOES imply a much more simplistic plot/storyline, which is still what my gut originally told me.

      And GoT has “exciting and violent” adventures, elements of romance, magic, and the supernatural. But the stakes in GoT are still world-altering more than personal.

      Of course, S&S doesn’t even feature in the link I pointed at in my last comment. Nor does Heroic Fantasy, for that matter (I’d forgotten about that). There are so many genres and subgenres, and so many people have different definitions of what they are.

      I guess what matters the most is not what YOU personally think constitutes a particular genre, but what the majority of READERS think (or at least, what the readers you would like to attract think). 🙂

  6. Pingback: Too much sword, not enough sorcery | Notes from underground

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: