Another old essay. Just trying to put up some things to get a sense of my own interests and where I might be going.
A friend of mine recently commented on A Game of Thrones, the HBO television show based on George RR Martin’s unfinished fantasy epic, A Song of Ice and Fire. The comments were mostly concerning the lack of saints in Martin’s universe, springing off a quote from the author saying that the worst horrors in the world come from a man’s heart. They ended with a slightly passive aggressive comment to fellow believers and strivers towards holiness – is this really a good show for you to watch?
I’m a disgruntled fan of the books, having begun my stockholm syndrome to the sprawling narrative in high school. Martin’s a decent writer with a fecund imagination. This isn’t an opinion formed only from his ASOIAF, but also from a perusal of his other writings. He’s also an incredible editor, having put together a number of interesting anthologies with Gardner Dozois and the long-running Superhero collaborative series Wild Cards.
While the conversation has become especially poignant with the rising popularity of the television show, Martin’s books have consistently been discussed not only for their merit as fantasy fiction, but for their moral ambiguity, pervasive violence, and explicit sex. His is one of the works that brought fantasy fiction out of the malaise of sickly-sweet Tolkien ripoffs experienced in the 80s and 90s. Now, some don’t like this shift, but I find something compelling in this Grimdark Fantasy, or at least in the possibilities of such storytelling. Even in the greatest darkness, hope will arise. Still, with it’s hyperviolence and explicit sex, there is something worrisome. My fandom does make me, stealing Ross Douthat’s words “at the very least, morally uneasy.”
On Martin’s Dark Vision
Martin’s world is one of nihilism, at least at this point in the tale. However, it’s not because the “true horrors of human history derive… from ourselves.” That’s just true. The true horror of Good Friday is that it is us who say “Crucify him.” Tolkien shows that the truest horror isn’t the far away evil, but how that far away evil corrupts. Sauron is terrifying in thought, but it’s the Orcs and the effects of the ring which terrify us the most, and they are corruptions of created things. That Martin’s world has no great evil distinctly present besides man isn’t terribly unchristian.
That it has little (or arguably no) good in man is damning.
My friend hit the nail on the head with saying that Martin’s world lacks Saints. Well, it doesn’t really lack them. There are heroes, the shadows of Saints. But each is desecrated in some fashion with no sign of resurrection or transfiguration. They die because they are fools outsmarted and not because they are offering their life in sacrifice. Starting with Ned, any act of goodness, no matter how small, is cut down – Daenerys’ failings to right a city caught up in slavery, Robb’s attempted restoration of the North, Tyrion’s multiple attempts to keep everything together. Martin epitomizes “kill your darlings” to the point where nothing capable of your love is left. If the darling isn’t killed, that probably worst. It’s become almost masochistic watching and reading the noble Jon Snow or the crafty Tyrion or the compassionate Daenerys frustrated at every turn and begin spiraling into despair.
But like I alluded to earlier, I’m five thick books in and the stockholm syndrome has me bad. I’m holding out some hope that maybe Martin can let some light in and bring some redemption to Westeros. There’s still the possibility of Eucatastrophe (there always is).
But my hope is a very human one that, when dashed, will leave me only slightly frustrated. And I do believe I will be frustrated. ASOIAF was originally a trilogy but now is planned to be seven books long with only five written so far. Martin published the first volume of in 1996 and began writing the series in 1991. From 2000-2011, only two volumes were released. He has shied away from it recently, but for long stretches he would comment on his blog about the knots and the tribulations he was facing in writing the story. This has led to comedic songs and Neil Gaiman coining a popular phrase among the science-fiction community: George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.
I outline the above, because I think it has bearing on any possibility of a good resolution to Martin’s story. He seems lost in the malaise of a graceless world. But, funny thing, Martin is a fallen Catholic. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s got that desire for grace working against his “rational” thinking. He can’t find an end to his work, because he can’t find the grace in it. You have to find the grace to find the end, because all stories (or all good stories anyway) are about the reception or rejection of grace. That, really, is the only possible redemption of the whole of the Grimdark genre and Martin in particular.
Morality and Art
I’m leery of the comparison, but one can see something similar in the works of Flannery O’Connor or Walker Percy. They both wrote about worlds on the edge of nihilism, the theme often coming out in violent fashions. However, each saw that grace works even here. Their Catholicity let them move through those waters safely (well, mostly anyway).
I bring up the comparison, because writers like Percy and O’Connor did not write about moral content. Quite the opposite. The content of their tales is about sinners and sin. Read Percy’s The Moviegoer. That’s not a book full of clean saintliness. However, both writer wrote very Catholic stories, even very saintly stories. O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is perhaps the most poignant – no one is a good person in that tale, not the judgmental grandmother or the murderous Misfit, but still grace breaks in. It is grace rejected (at least by the Misfit), but grace is still present at the worst of times.
The morality of Percy and O’Connor’s art comes not from the content, but from the execution. This goes for all art. One can write the story of a man who kills his father and marries his mother unknowingly, only to realize his corruption by his own prideful seeking of truth (Oedipus). Perhaps a poet wants to describe the punishments of the damned in Hell (Inferno). You can also tell the tale of a man who murders his wife in vengeance for perceived infidelity, only to kill himself upon recognizing his error (Othello). Or you spin a yarn about a southern man who, upon finding his whole family is caught up in the perversion of a slimy hollywood exploitation film, blows his house to kingdom come with them in it and talks it over with a priest questioning his faith (Lancelot). The content in any of those is, in themselves, reprehensible. However, they are, I would argue, fundamentally moral works. And it is because they show wickedness and the rejection of grace for what it is
It also requires the reader to be open to such a reading. Most any art can be experienced with only a desire for sensual entertainment. O’Connor and Dante have often been read with little more than fascination with the macabre, their sanctifying elements ignored. Tolkien’s work is often read purely as escapism or, as it was in the 60s, some call to counter-culture. Tolkien’s catholicism is not seen as an influence by such readers. The morality of art, for it to be truly morally effectual, depends on the viewer as much as it depends on the art.
Martin’s work, therefore, I contend, should not be shunned as immoral because of its immoral content. Rather, one needs to ask if it’s a good story, if it is good art. And that’s not something one can be absolutely sure of until the end. There are at least a window of two books for some hope (with the revelation that the show will overtake the books, the show has perhaps a window of maybe three years).
But, well, for all my stockholm syndrome, I’m a naysayer. Martin will probably die before he finishes his books. And if he doesn’t, they probably won’t end well, seeing as they would need to do almost an about-face. A body in motion…
Morality and Danger
While I am withholding (technically) moral condemnation on Martin’s work, I do not withhold a warning. These books, and the show, are dangerous. Percy and O’Connor are also dangerous, though I think to a lesser extent.
Understanding a book is dangerous is distinct from understanding it to be immoral. An immoral work seeks to promote that which is untrue in some fashion. A dangerous work is one which may incite the powers of man toward immorality. All immoral works are dangerous. Not all dangerous works are immoral.
O’Connor, I think, is a good example. You need a good head on your shoulders to really pull from her work the good and beauty she is trying to show. If you read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” superficially, you could be left with a feeling of nihilism – all these people are dead and the bad guy gets away.
There is something to just “experiencing” a work, but even a man’s ability to experience can, and needs, be carefully cultivated. When looking at a Rubens, are you appreciating the art or being incited to passion? When reading the Inferno, are you moved to sober reflections of one’s own sin, or taking macabre delight at the sight of people tortured?
Martin’s books and the television show are dangerous. Content often immediately points to whether a work is dangerous or not. If it is full of explicit violence and sex, it’s dangerous. Martin’s books and the show are full of explicit violence and sex. Martin’s books and the show are dangerous. QED.
I think the distinction between danger and immorality is important. I would be concerned to find a middle school student reading Walker Percy’s Lancelot. It’s too dangerous for them. It requires more maturity. Similarly, I would be concerned with anyone lacking moral maturity in reading Martin’s books. Not because I’m afraid they will take on that immoral behavior, but mostly because they may be left wondering if men are fundamentally horrible and monstrous and evil. I have similar concerns with the immature reading Nietzsche and a slew of other “respectable” authors.
What to do with dangerous books
When it comes to dangerous books, the traditional answer was censorship. The Church recognized the need for a Forbidden Index in ages past. This was not, in itself, a listing of books one would be damned for reading. Instead, this was a list of books the Church declared needed to be read only by the mature. The Index was not a list of books to be destroyed, but of books whose circulation was to be limited and to be removed from the curriculum of schools. In the school, it could be imbibed by the immature student. The aim was to protect the immature from such dangerous works. Many scholars, though, mature enough to separate the wheat from the chaff or find the good in wicked, could and did read these works fruitfully.
Historically, certain books of the bible have been under similar guard. The Song of Songs was often deemed too risque for one not yet deep into their mature life. Yet this is the book which has enjoyed the greatest attention from mystic theologians.
When it came to entertainment, there was a natural kind of censorship in place – literacy and wealth. If you could enjoy idle entertainments, you were most likely literate, and thus educated, and had disposable income, and were thus educated (or the attempt was made, spoiled brats being spoiled brats). Education was not a simple matter of knowledge, though, but a training of the person, including one’s senses. Thus the reader or viewer of art was expected to be his own censor.
We have neither a Forbidden Index or such natural avenues of censorship today. An expanded literacy means far more people are reading material they would never have in prior times. Entertainment through television is a widely enjoyed phenomena no matter one’s wealth or education. With the advent of easy pirating, not even limitation to premium channels acts as censorship. That censorship itself is taboo makes it nigh near impossible to carry out.
The debate about Game of Thrones and whether it can be morally watched (with similar debates able to be raised for shows such as Dexter, Entourage, Archer, and Breaking Bad and books like 50 Shades of Gray) is confused because we don’t have any kind of way to cordon off dangerous material. Instead, we are moved to condemn a show or book as immoral and hopefully shame others into not watching or reading it. If a person admits its dangerous, it is not a surety he will not partake of it. One is quick to believe one is mature enough. Rather, if one “proves” the work is “immoral”, one partakes only at the peril of one’s soul.
The quick answer is we need more censorship. Though I’ll leave that can of worms for another day.