"Hey, hey, hey. We're number one." George R. R. Martin boasted on his blog when Game of Thrones became HBO's most popular series ever. "I loved The Sopranos, but I gotta admit, it's good to be the king."
Usurping television's most famous mafiosos is only the latest in a long list of unlikely triumphs for the creator of the blockbuster fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire: 25 million books sold, $50 million to his name, writing and executive production credits for Game of Thrones, legions of fans biting their nails waiting on his next book. The Denver Post has compared Martin favorably to Stephen King, and the parallels are striking. Like King, Martin exceeded the confines of his genre and translated his literary chops into commercial success. And just as King did decades prior, Martin has carved out an enduring place for himself in the annals of American pop culture.
[Spoiler Alert: Some plot lines discussed through book five.]
By Speaking to Our Current Political Environment
Released between the aftermath of 9/11 and the early days of the Iraq invasion, Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy updated J. R. R. Tolkien's moralism for the 21st century, with the forces good and evil clearly defined, compartmentalized and set in opposition. But while bombs dropped over Baghdad and teenage girls tacked up Legolas posters across the country, A Song of Ice and Fire was quietly building a reputation for envisioning a different sort of fantasy realm. In place of elves and orcs, we find political intrigue and backroom dealings. Instead of goodies and baddies, we're introduced to myriad anti-heroes — and woe to the do-gooder characters that garner too much of a reader's sympathy for, as likely as not, they'll be killed off with little to no ceremony. (No one would accuse Martin of sentimentality.)
The brilliance of A Song of Ice and Fire lies in its embrace of the complexity of human emotions and the moral ambiguity that accompanies Martin’s characters on their journeys. By the end of book five, A Dance with Dragons, we see an orphaned preteen girl become a street thief and murderer, an exiled dwarf flee slavery by signing away his family’s wealth to a mercenary army and a disgraced queen betting her chances of revenge on the Frankenstein's monster of her resident mad scientist/torturer.
Intentionally or not, Queen Cersei's penchant for "enhanced interrogations" speak directly to issues facing the United States right now. In July, President Obama admitted in a press conference that "we tortured some folks" after 9/11, while declining to take punitive actions against CIA Director John Brennan for his agency's spying on the Senate Committee responsible for investigating the abuses. Turns out that in Washington, much like in Westeros, the closer you are to the center of power, the more you can sweep under the rug.
By Making the Rich and Powerful Look Cruel, Vain and Ridiculous
"It is being common-born that is dangerous, when the great lords play their game of thrones." – A Feast for Crows
It's a lesson we can learn from any tabloid or a quick visit to TMZ's homepage: tearing the rich and powerful down a notch will always be a hit. And while A Song of Ice and Fire focuses in large part on highborn characters, it's certainly not to the end of glorifying their chivalry or praising their learnedness. Martin's fly-on-the-wall narrative takes us from royal bedchambers to the king's court, exposing his noble subjects as all too human. By the time book four rolls around, the continent of Westeros has turned into a feast for crows, a half-starved realm ravaged by war and want. Through the eyes of vagabond, lowborn travelers, Martin critiques the saber-rattling elites for their indifference to the lower classes who bear the brunt of their conflicts.
By Wielding the Cliffhanger
As a television writer, Martin learned the value of a strong suspenseful moment. This goes along way to explaining the "can't read just one" quality of A Song of Ice and Fire, which has made it so popular with mainstream audiences. I had put down the series for a few years, but picked up A Storm of Swords when I decided to quit smoking a few months ago. I sped through the last three books at a furious pace, seizing on their rich narrative as a distraction from my nicotine cravings. I thought the behemoth books would never end — until they did, leaving me stranded with the other fans waiting for The Winds of Winter.
Martin's tendency to end each chapter with a cliffhanger keeps readers sucked in, needing to know what happens next. And his aforementioned willingness to kill off main characters keeps the suspense up, regardless of how invested he seemed up to the point of their bloody end.
By Including Sex, Violence and Kick-Ass Female Characters
No discussion of A Song of Ice and Fire would be complete without mentioning the gratuitous sex and violence that pervade the series. This may be one of the largest reasons for its success. Martin certainly fits the bill of the dirty old man, and it's obvious he enjoys penning sex scenes or letting the minds of his characters wander into the gutter. (Daenerys, Tyrion: I'm looking at you.)
In addition, the worlds of Westeros and Essos are a gruesome one. Rape, incest, torture and amputation are common here, though it's worth noting that Martin appears to keep a karmic tally of his character's cruelties, meting out doses of poetic justice just when they're needed most.
The relationship of A Song of Ice and Fire to women and patriarchy is also a complicated one. The HBO-ification of the story certainly hasn't helped Martin's reputation in this regard: The television series has abundant stripping down of female actresses and highly questionable decisions like turning consensual sex scenes into rape scenes.
That said, Martin's books feature some truly kick-ass female characters. The young Arya Stark is more inclined to swordplay than playing with dolls, and before menarche, she manages to notch quite a few kills. Daenerys Targaryen begins the series as a scared girl, but by book five she's the most significant power player on two continents, with military victories to her name and a fearsome reputation as a freer of slaves. Westeros, much like our world, is dominated by the patriarchy, but Martin's female leads have an inspiring willpower to resist the constraints their medieval world imposes on them.
By Making It a Long Wait to Winter
Fans holding their breath for a Winds of Winter release date are sure to be disappointed this year, with Martinologists forecasting book six to hit shelves in 2017.
Those with an interest in Game of Thrones, however, have a little more to look forward to, as filming recently began on the fifth season. HBO's cash cow is rapidly catching up to Martin's books, with the latest episodes expected to cover the events of A Feast for Crows and book five, A Dance with Dragons. Disturbingly, the show threatens to become one gigantic spoiler within the next few seasons, as Martin has already spilled the beans on major story arcs to Game of Thrones’ lead producers and writers.
A Dance with Dragons has been noted for its cliff-faced ending, with dozens of narrative threads left dangling at the precipice and begging for resolution. With so much to look forward to and so many ardent fans, I predict we'll see Harry Potter-style midnight release parties (which certainly couldn't hurt the ailing brick-and-mortar booksellers of the world).
Three years is a lifetime in today's pop culture sphere, but Martin is a man unlikely to be rushed by outside forces. (His publisher has recently chided him as "stubborn.") Never one to chase trends, Martin's seen the cultural zeitgeist swirl over his direction, not vice versa. And now that he's got our attention, this 65-year-old trendsetter is going to take his time.
Paul Murufas lives and writes in Long Beach, California. His first poetry chapbook, dystopian’s codependent syndrome, was published with Mess Editions earlier this year, and his second, The Nihilist Romantics, is forthcoming as an e-book from Be About It Press in Oakland. You can get in touch with him on Tumblr or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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