I’ll admit that I wasn’t an early adopter when it came to George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy novels, The Song of Ice and Fire series, turned wildly successful HBO TV series, Game of Thrones. Not even close. The first book in the series (titled A Game of Thrones) was published in 1996, when I was 14 years old. Even if I had been aware that this series of books existed, I’m pretty sure they would’ve fallen into the category “Books for Boys Only” which is where I placed The Lord of the Rings during that same era. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always loved fantasy books, movies, and TV shows, but at age 14 and a long time after, I was not yet interested in reading stories about less than pretty people, misfits like hobbits, dwarves, etc. Give me a beautiful princess and a handsome prince, and show me how they overcome all odds to fall in love and live happily ever after. That was my favorite kind of story, and luckily our culture produces no lack of tales to satisfy that appetite. The next several books in the Ice and Fire series all came out while I was entering my 20s–in 1999, 2000, and finally 2005. They remained beneath my radar. Thankfully, during those years, I began learning to see the world of misfits in a new way. The story that began to intrigue me the most was the human story–where the attractive mingle with the not-so-attractive, where underneath beauty lies something hollow or treacherous, where pain and ugliness is the crucible for forming (and deforming) character, and where winter and death threaten to overtake us all in the end.
This is the world of Ice and Fire. I spent last summer reading all five books in the series at once, from cover to cover, in a marathon that lasted me two and half months. I’m not even sure why I began, only that once I started I almost literally couldn’t put the series down. I’ll come right out and say that my favorite characters are Tyrion and Daenerys, the character I identify with most is Sansa, the character I most admire is Arya, and the character I’m most afraid to lose (after Tyrion and Dany) is Jon Snow. And losing a character is a very real possibility in this world–Martin is particularly ruthless when it comes to killing off characters (and sometimes resurrecting them in surprising ways). When I closed the fifth book (Dance with Dragons), and finished the series (thus far, a whopping 5,016 pages in total) I felt a true sense of loss that I would no longer be passing my time in the world Martin created. I suddenly understood why Martin has a group of angry “fans” who badger him endlessly to finish the series–we really do need to know the fates that await our friends in Westeros and across the Narrow Sea.
I didn’t watch the TV series at all until this spring, and when I began, it felt like a reunion with several characters who’ve died in the books (no spoilers here, of course) as well as those I’ve just been missing since last summer. And watching it with my husband, who is halfway through the first book, has been like introducing him to a bunch of old friends. He’s often less-than thrilled with my inability to keep from alluding to how their plot lines may progress. The TV series, for the most part, is excellent, but watching, rather than reading it, comes with one drawback. The reason I came to love, or at least sympathize with, almost every character in the vast pantheon of Ice and Fire, is because I heard the stories from their lips first. The possibility of empathy for and identification with each character comes with the way the novels are written–which Wikipedia tells me is “chapters in the third person limited through the eyes of a point of view character.” Which enabled (I’ll say forced) me to see the story from the perspective of all those characters who aren’t the pretty princess and handsome prince, and to see the complexity that lies beneath the surface of each person, the ways their motives and emotions intersect, and to witness firsthand their transformations from monsters to heroes and everything in between. And we still see it all on TV, but as we watched the show I had to explain to my husband at the outset why I love the character Tyrion Lannister, instead of it just being obvious because we’ve both spent time in his skin.
Game of Thrones just wrapped up the second season with a third on the way, and we await the sixth book, The Winds of Winter. I am amazed at the beauty, horror and intricacy of the tale Martin aims to tell. There is nothing better than reading a book where the author so obviously loves his characters and has thought so deeply about each one. The screenwriters for Game of Thrones, while faced with the unenviable task of adapting an “unproduceable” body of literature, nonetheless get the privilege to bring to life Martin’s already full-blooded cast. While I watch the events of Books three through five unfold on the screen, I will do it knowing that nothing captures the inner life like the written word, and it is that inner life that illuminates Ice and Fire and makes this story a thing of wonder.