Game of Thrones Book Club, Parte the Firste

Hello everyone, and welcome to the first installment of the Game of Thrones Book Club. First, apologies for starting late—our respective schedules ended up being a wee bit insane to get the first post up last Monday, but we’re up and running now, so you can look forward to weekly installments for the next four weeks.

Today we are talking about the first 159 pages of A Game of Thrones (the first 133 pages in the trade paperback).

Seeing as how this is all about Nikki finally submerging herself in the novels, why don’t we let her start off …

game-of-thronesNikki: First off, I can now see why so many people were drooling over these books in the first place, and why the fans of the books were so bloody excited to see an adaptation of it coming up on HBO when it was first announced. The writing is superb, fast-paced yet detailed and thoughtful, with the characterizations consistent and the dialogue beautifully handled. I got a sense of each character, who they were, and what made them tick right away. As with any book, what you get in the book that you can’t get in the show (unless it’s the oft-intrusive voiceovers in Dexter) is what they’re actually thinking in the scenes. Instead, to let us know why Catelyn really hates Jon Snow, for example, we need a long exposition scene where she actually explains to another character how it felt to find out her husband had fathered a bastard child. And yet, so many of these scenes actually do have dialogue that discusses the past, as if GRRM somehow knew from the beginning that this might somehow make it onto the big or small screen.

So much can be said about the order in which we consume our popular culture. Just two weeks ago I was on a panel at a Doctor Who convention, and was fascinated to see the different reactions to John Simm’s Master from those who’d watched the Classic Series first, and those who’d watched the New Series first. And the same goes for Game of Thrones. If you read the books first, then you watched the series and said, “Oh, that actor looks nothing like how I pictured _______ in my head.” But if you watch the series first, then you’re dealing with the opposite problem. I have the actors’ faces in my head, and when Joffrey is described as having long flowing curly locks, or Daenerys is 13, I can’t reconcile the actor’s face in my head with this new person being described in the book. And yet, perhaps as a testament to Martin’s descriptive power, in the final part of this section, I’m picture Joffrey with long flowing curly locks . . . even if he does have Jack Gleeson’s magnificently sneering face.

In this section we read the story told from the following points of view: Bran, Catelyn, Daenerys, Eddard, Jon, Arya, Tyrion, and Sansa, some of them more than once. I’d like to talk about each of these voices and what it brings to the characters (and how each perspective shapes the characterization of others), and also look at where the series diverged from the book as well as how closely it stuck to a lot of it.

But let’s start right at the beginning with the prologue. This is almost exactly the same opening as the series back in the pilot episode, right down to the description of the Others, as if casting a pall over the entire story. “You know those little scary stories the children hear before they go to bed? They’re real.” From the very first page, I thought, Whoa. The HBO showrunners really WERE faithful to their subject matter. There are certainly many other changes after that, but fundamentally, their adherence to Martin’s vision is uncanny.

So, Chris, you’re picking up the first book again after reading it so many times. When I first met you in 1996, you were already a fan of this first book, if I recall correctly. What’s it like coming back to it after watching the series?

Chris: It’s not so much coming back to it after seeing the series—I’ve been rereading the novels as we go through their respective seasons—as it is sitting down with A Game of Thrones with a more specifically critical eye. We’re currently looking at it in my graduate seminar on contemporary fantasy, so I’ll definitely pass on the thoughts my students have; but it’s always interesting to approach a novel you have always loved from a different perspective (I’m teaching a course on The Lord of the Rings next term, so that should be even odder).

One of the things I’m noticing most acutely is GRRM’s economy of storytelling—a counterintuitive thing to suggest with an eight-hundred page novel perhaps, but he does a pretty remarkable job of laying out the key characters and conflicts within about sixty or seventy pages. The various stories mushroom exponentially out from here—cribbing Tolkien, GRRM often says that the story “grew in the telling”—to the point where, frankly, it’s starting to get unwieldy. At this point I will follow these novels wherever they go, but A Dance With Dragons was, to quote a friend of mine, something like pulling taffy (narratively speaking). So it’s kind of refreshing to go back to the beginning of things where GRRM isn’t overwriting it all yet.

I also thought, “here’s where we see the predominant reason for the series’ success,” namely the way he creates compelling characters embedded in a vividly imagined and detailed world. I think it goes without saying that one of the reasons fantasy as a genre errs on the side of bloat is because the author is obliged to lay out a believable and interesting alternative world, one we want to return to repeatedly. GRRM is very deft with the details that make his world resonate in the imagination—those elements of tactile reality, from the roughness of the stone to the taste of the food (you can tell he likes his food) that gives life to an imaginary place. To a certain extent, all fiction faces this issue, except that with narratives set in the “real” world (what Tolkien called the “primary reality”), it’s far easier to offer shorthand for everything readers will be familiar with and pay close attention to those elements the author wants to defamiliarize.

What I love most about A Game of Thrones is that what GRRM wants to defamiliarize is fantasy itself—and he’s smart enough to give us many of the conventional tropes (knights, castles, kings and queens, etc.) while at the same time withholding others: magic, chivalry, nobility of behavior, high-flown manners and speech, to say nothing of magical creatures. Of course, you read that preceding sentence and think “Um … direwolves? Dragon eggs? White walkers? And wait, isn’t Ned Stark the epitome of honour?” And yes … too true. But I would suggest that, even in these early pages, there’s a suggestion that not all is fantasyland. For one thing—and I’ll be returning to this theme as our reading goes on—the principal narrative dynamic established is less fantasy and more murder mystery. This, after all, is Ned’s main motivator: was Jon Arryn murdered? Was it in fact the Lannisters? And on a secondary note: will Jaime and Cersei be discovered? These questions set the stage for a novel preoccupied not with magical power but political power. Ned’s predawn ride with Robert provides our first inkling of what he’ll be facing in King’s Landing: a capricious and impulsive king with pet obsessions, but who is easily led; the machinations of the most powerful family in Westeros; and the fact that as Hand he’ll be serving a king indifferent to the minutiae of ruling a kingdom.

Nikki: A murder mystery is exactly what it is. And you’re right; the dragons and white walkers and direwolves aren’t considered magical at all, but larger-than-life aspects of their world. A direwolf is a real animal, just like dragons. The reason they’re so awe-inspiring to the young people in the book is because they’ve both been rendered extinct in one way or the other, and suddenly the direwolves have shown up. They’re not magical; they’re simply something that no longer exists. The white walkers are considered the stuff of legend, like the chubacabra or the Yeti, but not something magical by any means.

The direwolves are the only thing I think the show didn’t quite do justice to, and I think it would have been difficult to have done so. For the past three years, as you and I have been discussing the show, I’ve talked about how much I love the direwolves as pets, while you love them as these gigantic majestic creatures. Yes, they’re made to look larger than wolves on the show, but not the massive beasts they are in the books. They’re omnipresent in the books, and just appear occasionally on the show. I would refer to them as “Arya’s direwolf” or “Sansa’s direwolf” while you referred to them as Nymeria or Lady. I could never remember their names, but that’s all they’re called in the books. I have an entirely new appreciation for the importance of these animals after reading the books.

The ages of the characters was another thing I had to get used to. Daenerys is 13; on the show she appears to be about 19 or 20. Jon and Robb are 14; on the show they’re in their early 20s. Bran is 7; on the show I’d say he’s about 10 or 11. Rickon is 3; the two and a half times he’s been on the show he looks about 7. Ned is 35; on the show he’s probably in his mid-50s. But then again, that works. Bringing it back to what you were saying, Chris, the show seems to be set in some sort of medieval land, with medieval England being the closest comparison point, right down to the relative shape of the country. And in medieval England, life expectancy was probably about age 40. In that case, at 13/14, Jon, Robb, and Daenerys are the equivalent of today’s late 20s/early 30s. Bran, at 7, would the equivalent of today’s 13 or 14. So the casting is quite perfect. (Not to mention, any casting agent knows that if you cast too young, you run into difficulties; just look at the rapid aging they’re trying to hide already with Bran and Arya.) So really, the only thing I had to get used to with the different ages was when I first read them, but the way they acted seems consistent with the ages of the actors.

It’s been a while since we wrote that very first piece about the pilot episode, Chris. Do you remember what your initial reactions were to the casting, based on the book? Were GRRM fans generally happy with the choices?

Chris: I don’t know of many people unhappy with the casting; I was quite pleased, and completely unsurprised at how they’d advanced the characters’ ages. After all, in a novel it’s disturbing and creepy for a thirteen-year-old girl to be married off to a musclebound barbarian, but at least there’s an intellectual and historicist calculation you can do, reminding yourself that child brides have been the norm for the larger proportion of human history (and when, as you say, life expectancy is around 40, it doesn’t seem quite so egregious). That being said, I don’t think even HBO could get away with a literally Lolita-aged Daenerys—for one thing, I think depicting that might actually be technically illegal. On the other hand, I’d forgotten how surprisingly tender the consummation of Drogo and Dany’s marriage is in the book … she’s terrified, but he is gentle with her, whereas in the series it is presented as unequivocal rape.

I read a book this summer called The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer, and I’d recommend it to anyone who needs a reality check about fantasy’s often sentimental or nostalgic depiction of the medieval world. A representative quotation, describing what you can expect as you approach a 14th-century town:

And then you notice the smell. Four hundred yards from the city gate, the muddy road you are following crosses a brook. As you look along the banks you see piles of refuse, broken crockery, animal bones, entrails, human faeces, and rotting meat strewn in and around the bushes. In some places the muddy banks slide into thick quagmires where townsmen have hauled out their refuse and pitched it into the stream. In others, rich green grasses, reeds, and undergrowth spring from the highly fertilized earth. As you watch, two semi-naked men lift another barrel of excrement from the back of a cart and empty it into the water. A small brown pig roots around on the garbage. It is not called Shitbrook for nothing.

There’s no fantasy author I’ve yet encountered who really manages to captures the squalor of medieval life (for that, I maintain, nothing gets it like Monty Python and the Holy Grail), though it does pose the question of just how many people would cheerfully read something that did. For all that, however, GRRM does a reasonable job: though he mostly downplays the dirt, shit, and rampant disease of the medieval world (except for when he highlights it in the slums of King’s Landing), he’s quite unflinching about its matter-of-fact violence and the fact that the common folks’ fortunes and the quality of their civic lives are entirely dependent on whether or not they have a fair and generous lord. The knights of Westeros are not the gallant figures of Arthurian legend, but highly trained killers.

It’s telling that Sansa is the only character who’s allowed to entertain her illusions for any length of time: Jon Snow learns soon enough that his idea of life at the wall is dramatically different from its reality. In fact, as we go forward it might be interesting to map out the degree and scope of characters’ delusions, and how it relates to their station and role. Again, Sansa is the obvious example here, and her delusions persist in part because they are encouraged by her septa and by all the others grooming her to be a proper lady. But at the same time, her father is just as delusional, and he’s in the process of bringing that naivety about honour and right to King’s Landing—which, unless I’m misremembering, Obi-Wan Kenobi called “a hive of scum and villainy.”

Nikki: What a great passage; I’ll have to check out that book. I remember years ago, the first time I went to England I visited Battle and the castle there. The tour guide was explaining that the “indoor toilets” consisted of these holes in the floor that were along the edges of the room, which were built to be set out from the walls below it. So you’d do your business, so to speak, through the open hole, it would slide down this chute that’s positioned on the outside walls and just… land on the grounds there. And I remember thinking, “God, this country must have reeked to high hell in the medieval period.” And with limited baths, soap, dental care, and any sort of personal hygiene, it makes the idea of personal intimacy somewhat revolting.

Yes, I was quite surprised to see the tenderness with which Khal Drogo treats Daenerys in the book, because I vividly remember him bending her over and taking her quite violently on the show. (And you’re right; it would be illegal to show someone as young as her in any sort of sexual way.) But here he’s quite surprisingly tender from the start, and to be honest, that made a little more sense to me. Knowing how he treats Daenerys on the show in the beginning, but then ultimately earns her complete love, devotion, and loyalty, was always a bit uncomfortable, but what does work with that idea on the show is that Daenerys is the one who turns things around, and in so doing earns his respect and love, which then makes her respect and love him just as much. So I’m interested in watching this love bloom and grow a little differently than it did on the show.

Another thing that struck me in the book was just how much Catelyn despises Jon Snow. In season 3, there’s a scene immediately before the Red Wedding where Catelyn is travelling and she’s making a dream catcher, and she recalls in this beautiful scene the time when she wished Jon Snow dead, and then the boy got really sick, and she sat by his bed, made one of these dream catchers for him, and prayed to save him, because she realized he was completely innocent and shouldn’t be blamed for the faults of his father. I remember you saying that scene was entirely fabricated for the show and didn’t exist in the book. Now, reading how much Catelyn hates him, I wonder if that scene seems a little out of place; if she recalls that feeling of sympathy and a small bit of caring for the boy, then why does she show him nothing but contempt and hostility now? On the show it still works, because you can’t read her mind and you don’t know if she hisses at him to get away from her while inside feeling a little sorry for him. But in the book it’s unequivocal hatred, not an ounce of sympathy for him. So it seems reasonable to me now that we never would have had that scene here.

I must say I laughed out loud when Jon Snow mutters to Arya, “Joffrey is truly a little shit.” HAHA! I thought that was just our term for him, and didn’t realize it had actually been coined in the book! Brilliant.

As for Sansa, I’m hoping getting things from her point of view will help us sympathize with her a little more than I did in the first couple of seasons of the show. But so far, even with that one Sansa p.o.v. chapter, I loathed her for taking Joffrey’s side in the Arya/Joffrey debate. I’m looking forward to the next perspective chapter of hers, though.

One character who seemed more complex to me in the books than in the series is Viserys. He’s still horrible, hissing at Daenerys that he doesn’t care if all 40,000 men rape her as long as he gets what he wants, but there’s this moment in the second Daenerys chapter, I think it was, where the narrator explains what Viserys went through during the battle, that he saw his mother die giving birth to Daenerys and that’s why he hated his sister so much, and I suddenly saw him as a little boy, loving his mother and watching her die, then having to take care of this baby as their family was massacred around them. It’s a momentary sympathy, for sure, but more than I ever had for the TV character.

Well, I’m ready to move on to section two! (For those reading along, this will be pp. 160-323 in the mass market; 134-271 in the trade paper, starting with BRAN It seemed as thought he’d been falling for years…” and ending before “TYRION As he stood in the predawn chill…”) I’ll leave the last words to you, Chris.

Chris: Yes, the reality of the personal hygiene in the Middle Ages is a sobering thought, and somewhat amusing when one considers just how sexed-up depictions in fantasy or historical fiction can be. And never mind the smell, we should always remind ourselves when watching GoT that the sheer amount of flawless skin on display during the brothel scenes would have been historically anachronistic—you’d see a lot of boils, rashes, fleabites, and scabs, and I doubt everyone would be shaved, plucked, and primped to such a contemporary standard … even in such a high-end establishment as Littlefinger’s.

Catelyn’s deep antipathy to Jon Snow always struck me as her sole character flaw (or at least the only one really worth mentioning), though it also serves to show just how much she has come to love and respect Ned. Considering that he married her out of duty and she was being used—whether being wed to Ned or his older brother—as a bargaining chip in the sealing of an alliance, they certainly appear to have the most loving and balanced marriage in the book (and, I’ll hazard to say, in the entire series). I suppose Daenerys gets there with Drogo, but we see too much of the early, painful phases with them … Ned and Catelyn come to us after having over the years grown to genuinely love one another. Which is what makes Jon Snow such a sticking point—on one hand, we want her to forgive Ned his ostensible philandering, especially considering it was just the once (and with Ned, we do believe it was just the once); and if she cannot, we want her to not take it out on Jon. On the other hand, it is easy to see how that one nagging transgression, especially considering he refuses to even talk about it, acts as an onion in her ointment.

I actually enjoyed the speech they gave Catelyn in the show: it provided a little more context, and gave us more than just her implacable hatred of her husband’s bastard.

I’m ready for section two as well! So happy we’re finally doing this. We’ll see everyone next week. Meanwhile, stay warm. Winter is coming.


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