George R. R. Martin’s Quest for Realism in A Song of Ice and Fire
Shiloh R. Carroll (Middle Tennessee State University)
Session: Tales after Tolkien: Medievalism and Twenty-First-Century Fantasy Literature I in Kalamazoo
This was my last session of KZOO this year and it was the perfect way to end a great conference. This series was dedicated to examining medievalism in fantasy literature with the dominant topic being George R. R. Martin and Tolkien. Unfortunately, I missed most of the first paper so I will only be covering three of the four papers.This first paper tackled “Disney Medievalism” by examining the way in which authors like George R.R. Martin smash the traditional fantasy genre with “gritty” medieval realism. Martin takes the reader through this process with Sansa Stark, a character who represents this notion of the “idealised medieval” i.e., knights, fair ladies, chivalry and camp merriment at every turn. Martin destroys Sansa and the reader’s fantasy of the medieval through constantly forcing her into real life situations as far from her perceived ideal as possible.
A Song of Ice and Fire has been praised for its “gritty realism” which usually means dark and violent. Martin had problems with typical fantasy – he complained that it was a ‘Ren Faire Middles Ages’, like Disney, and the fantasy authors had no idea of what a real medieval caste system looked like. In The Disney Middle Ages: A Fairy-Tale and Fantasy Past , by Tison Pugh a new “neo-medieval’ world is creating the sense of the medieval rather then actual medieval by simply placing twentieth century characters in a medieval setting. Victorian medievalism, i.e., chivalry, gallantry, fidelty to he crown and to a beloved idealised the Middle Ages, as a “Merry Ol’ England” replete with the nostalgia for olden times, and none of the difficulties that came along with it. However, even in the Victorian period, critics complained about the “cleaned up” version of the Middle Ages – this iconic view of the period as a time of romance and chivalry. “Disney Medievalism” descends from Victorian medievalism. Disney medievalism is for children and Martin’s work breaks from that and is purposely written for adults. Martin sets up situations and characters to show his audience that his books will not be the usual Disney trope common with most fantasy series.
Sansa Stark is an examople of neo-medievalism and Martin shows his reader through her experiences that this pseudo-medieval world doesn’t exist. Sansa’s education comes at Joffrey’s cruel hands and much to her displeasure, her only defenders are not knights in shining armour, or dashing and handsome men, but Tyrion, Sandor Clegane “The Hound” and Dantos. These men are unattractive and not particularly honourable in the traditional sense. Sansa struggles to digest this cruel reality and eventually realises that life is not a song. She finally starts to see that her vision of life is immarture just before the Battle of Blackwater however, she still acts like a lady even if her circumstances aren’t ideal. It’s her way of clinging to a vestige of the idealised world she craves. Conversely, Jamie Lannister begins the series as the King Slayer and the ultimate oathbreaker. He complains that there are so many conflicting oaths, and that Westeroes is not an ideal society, so oaths to protect the king yet protect the innocent come into conflict with one another. Jamie becomes cynical and bitter but through Brienne of Tarth, he sees the good of doing things with little reward. Jamie starts to take actions to help end the war and realises honour comes from within not from the unrealistic expectation of childhood stories.
Martin’s work is often shocking to fans who come from reading traditional fantasy novels. He writes to portray the realities of the human condition, not the idealised Victorian medievalism that is rampant in most fantasy tales. While he is smashing the mould, he still gives the reader hope that virtue is not entirely out of reach for Sansa and Jamie, it comes from within, not from romaticised ideals, songs and fairly tales.
I really loved this paper – it answered a lot of my questions about Sansa’s portrayal in the books and TV show. I’ve often had issues with her character but now I see the purpose behind her actions and what Martin is striving to do through her. The idea of the “Disney Medieval” is fascinating. As someone who grew up loving Disney’s Robin Hood , The Sword in the Stone and Sleeping Beauty – all set in medieval themed environments, this was an eye opener for me on how those versions of the Middle Ages shape our perceptions of what they were really like. This entire series examined the notion of pseudo-medieval and how authors move away from it.