‘Forgive me for all I have done and all I must do’: Portrayals of Negative Motherhood in George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords
By Aino Tegelman
Graduate Thesis, University of Tampere, 2013
Introduction: In my pro gradu thesis I am going to study the first three volumes of American author George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series regarding their portrayal of mother characters who employ power on political and private spheres, as well as the negative repercussions therein. By analyzing these three novels, A Game of Thrones (1996), A Clash of Kings (1998) and A Storm of Swords (2000) (from here on to be referred to as GOT, COK and SOS), I will argue that Martin both transgresses traditional high fantasy narratives but also employs other stereotypes found in general literature regarding motherhood and female power, often negative in tone. My thesis will thus serve to demonstrate the complicated nature of motherhood and maternal power not only in fantasy fiction, but popular literature in general.
George R. R. Martin is an award-winning American author of science fiction and fantasy, who has been publishing novels professionally since 1977. His most notable work, A Song of Ice and Fire, is a high fantasy1 saga whose first novel was published in 1996 and its most recent installment in 2011. The series currently totals at five volumes, and was adapted into a successful on-going TV show for HBO in 2011. Although Martin’s work follows in the footsteps of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, his success among readers and critics alike implies a cross-over appeal to those who do not typically favour narratives of this fantasy subgenre. While such fiction has proven popular with readers both young and old, its critical value has often been called into question: for example, upon his review on high fantasy author Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, New York Times reviewer Michael Agger commented that “[p]erhaps a fantasy novel meant for adults can’t help being a strange mess of effects . . . sounds like fun, but aren’t we a little old for this?” This aptly describes the attitude towards high fantasy aimed at adult readers, which expands upon the concerns of editor Frances Sinclair in Fantasy Fiction that not only has fantasy been “regarded as a poor relation to other literature,” but also “dismissed or regarded suspiciously as escapism not needed in a real world.”
However, to simply disregard both fantasy and high fantasy as juvenile or irrelevant is to also overlook its possibilities of generating social commentary. Critics like Anne Cranny-Francis and Christine Mains use a term called ‘secondary world fantasy’, which refers to a form of writing where “the writer textually constructs another world which is implicitly and sometimes explicitly a comment on the writer’s own society”. These elements are clearly present in Martin’s writing: although his work derives from the post-Tolkien tradition abundant with knights, dragons, and magic, it also draws close parallels with our own world, directly borrowing from European history such as the War of the Roses. Moreover, Martin’s work is laden with socio-political themes such as those of power, gender politics, and identity, which make his work ripe for analysis; of these, I have chosen to focus on his representations of motherhood, which encompasses both the private sphere (individual) as well as the public sphere (institutional).
The first three novels revolve around the fictional kingdom of Westeros, which resembles Medieval Europe with competing nations and nobility. What originally begins as the story of one such family, House Stark, soon expands into a multifaceted, complicated plot about political liaisons and treachery. The narrative consists of viewpoint chapters, in which Martin advances the story through various characters. In terms of high fantasy tradition, these feature a surprising combination of unexpected narrators, such as children, mothers, and even characters normally cast as villains. This provides a complex array of conflicting interests and a distortion of the traditional values of good and evil, which are vital for delving into the messy, exhausting political and personal affairs of the rulers of Westeros, most of whom are savagely fighting for power under a civilized pretense. In these battles, both physical and mental, relations of kinship often play a pivotal role; the responsibilities and repercussions of the family unit thus construct the very core of the narrative.