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GRRM Interview Part 2: Fantasy and History

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I interviewed George R. R. Martin, author of the A Song of Ice and Fire novels on which HBO’s Game of Thrones is based, in Santa Fe last month. Part one of the interview posted here Friday. Below, GRRM talks about what he loves (and hates) about fantasy and historical fiction, how he sought to combine the two in his books and how he tries to be realistic about the mores and class structure of Westeros, even if it offends modern sensibilities:

When I think of HBO dramas, I think of them taking a genre that’s been done a lot, maybe romanticized, like Deadwood or Rome, and sort of dirtying it up. Were there specific things in the history of the fantasy genre that you were responding to, or trying to avoid certain clichés?

Yeah, definitely. I mean, I’m a huge fan of Tolkien. I read those books when I was in junior high school and high school and they had a profound affect on me. I’d read other fantasy before, but none of them that I loved like Tolkien. And I, indeed, was not alone in that. The success that the Tolkien books had redefined modern fantasy.

But most of publishing regarded Tolkien as a freak: okay, this is one of those weird little books that comes along once in a while and it’s a bestseller for reasons nobody can comprehend, but no one will ever do another book like this.  And it was [Lester and Judy-Lynn] del Rey at Ballantine Books, which later became Del Rey Books, who really finally challenged that assumption in the late-‘70’s, when they published the Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara, which were the first real attempts to follow in Tolkien’s footsteps…  both with success. And that led to a lot more Tolkien imitators.

And as a Tolkien fan, I sampled a lot of it. And hated a lot of it. It just seemed to me that they were imitating Tolkien without understanding Tolkien and they were imitating the worst things of Tolkien. I mean, I loved Tolkien but I don’t think he was perfect. So I did want to do something that replied not only to Tolkien, but to all of the Tolkien successors who had followed that. And essentially made it a branch of, I don’t know, YA or something like that.

I was also reading a lot of historical fiction. And the contrast between that and a lot of the fantasy at the time was dramatic because a lot of the fantasy of Tolkien imitators has a quasi-medieval setting, but it’s like the Disneyland Middle Ages. You know, they’ve got tassels and they’ve got lords and stuff like that, but they don’t really seem to grasp what it was like in the Middle Ages. And then you’d read the historical fiction which was much grittier and more realistic and really give you a sense of what it was like to live in castles or to be in a battle with swords and things like that. And I said what I want to do is combine some of the realism of historical fiction with some of the appeal of fantasy, the magic and the wonder that the best fantasy has.

As much as I love historical fiction, my problem with historical fiction is that you always know what’s going to happen. You know, if you’re reading about the War of the Roses, say, you know that the little princes are not going to come out of that tower. Fantasy, of course, doesn’t have that constraint. You can still have that driving force, which I think is one of the things that people read books for, what’s gonna happen next? I love this character, but god, is he gonna live, is he gonna die? I wanted that kind of suspense.

There’s also the more complicated morality of the characters and situations in your book. It’s not just that people who seem bad might turn out to be better than they seemed, but that also there’s sometimes this theme that honor can be kind of a handicap.

Yeah, I’ve always been attracted to grey characters. I’ve always taken it as a code William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech from the early ‘50’s, where he said that the human heart in conflict with the self was the only thing worth writing about. And I think that’s true.

The battle between good and evil is a theme of much of fantasy. But I think the battle between good and evil is thought largely within the individual human heart, by the decisions that we make. It’s not like evil dresses up in black clothing and you know, they’re really ugly. These are some of the things that Tolkien did; he made them work fabulously, but in the hands of his imitators, they become total clichés. I mean the orc-like creatures who always do dress in black and … they’re really ugly and they’ve got facial deformities or something. You can tell that if somebody’s ugly, he must be evil. And then Tolkien’s heroes are all very attractive people and all that, of course, again this become cliché in the hands of the Tolkien imitators.

You know what I’m saying, I love Tolkien. I want to stress that here because I don’t want to come across like I’m slamming him. But I am responding to him. One of my favorite characters in Lord of the Ring is Boromir. Boromir is a traditional hero in many ways. He’s the Prince, he’s the heir to the great kingdom he’s very brave, he’s a great warrior and all of that, but ultimately he succumbs to the temptation of the ring. But then he dies heroically, protecting innocents. He has that wonderful sense of greatness about him.

Saruman is another interesting character the White Wizard whose been on the side of good literally hundreds, if not thousands of years, as the wizards are not men, they’re Maiar, they’re very long-lived. And yet he too, at the end you know succumbs. These are two characters where the human heart is in conflict.

Boromir basically wants the ring because he wants to do what he sees is the right thing.

He wants to take this thing and use it, yeah. So you know, that kind of stuff has always interested me. But I also want to respond—I’ve read a lot of history about feudal history and Roman history and so forth, about politics in those days. I follow contemporary politics. And you know, what strikes me is that these issues are horrid. And a lot of fantasy makes it seem simply: a good man will be a good king. Well, a good man is not always a good king. And a bad man is not always a bad king. You know, it’s much more complicated than that. It’s you know, I look at in my lifetime, I think probably the best man to serve as President in my lifetime was Jimmy Carter. As a human being, the best human being, but he was not a good President. He was not. General goodness did not automatically make flowers bloom.

And then you look at what I think are bad men, like Richard Nixon. Nixon was a bad President too in some ways, but in other ways, he was a very effective President doing things like opening China and things like that. [Spoilery discussion redacted, about two of his characters who encounter difficulties in ruling.] I wanted to show what decisions they made and the possible consequences of those decisions and how thing worked or how things failed to work. So that sort of stuff has always interested me.

As you say, you’re writing fantasy, you could give this story any sort of history that you wanted. Is there something that you gain from borrowing from the template of something we’ve seen in the real world, in our actual history, and using that in this world?

I think you gain a level of, I don’t know, realism. You’re not going to be careful in fantasy because it can easily pull apart. Magic is a particular — I mean, my fantasy is quite low magic compared to the majority of it out there. And in that sense, I was following Tolkien’s footsteps because if you actually look at Lord of the Rings as I did when I was writing this, [Middle Earth is] a very magical world in a sense, it’s a world of wonders and marvels and so forth, but there’s very little onstage magic. You know? You never see Gandalf doing a spell or, or creating throwing fireballs. You know, if there’s a fight, he draws a sword. You know? He does fireworks… his staff will glow. Minor stuff. Even the magic rings, I mean, the big powerful one ring, all we ever see it do is make people invisible.

You know, it’s not you know, it’s supposed to have these great powers for domination, but it’s not like Frodo can put it on and tell the Nazgul what to do. You know it doesn’t work that simply. It’s unknowable, it’s mysterious. And that kind of magic I think is good. One mistake I see over time in bad fantasy is they go for the high magic world. They have really powerful wizards and witches and warlocks who can destroy entire armies–and they still have entire armies! No, you got that A equals B here. If you’ve got one guy who can go, booga-booga, and your 10,000 men army is all dead, you’re not going to get together 10,000 men!

But people don’t think through the consequences. They have these very powerful wizards but yet they still have kings and lords who are… why wouldn’t the wizards rule the world? I mean, power gravitates to it, you know.

And then there are some things that are just don’t square with history. In some sense I’m trying to respond to that. [For example] the arranged marriage, which you see constantly in the historical fiction and television show, almost always when there’s an arranged marriage, the girl doesn’t want it and rejects it and she runs off with the stable boy instead. This never fucking happened. It just didn’t. There were thousands, tens of thousand, perhaps hundreds of thousands of arranged marriages in the nobility through the thousand years of Middle Ages and people went through with them. That’s how you did it. It wasn’t questioned. Yeah, occasionally you would want someone else, but you wouldn’t run off with the stable boy.

And that’s another of my pet peeves about fantasies. The bad authors adopt the class structures of the Middle Ages; where you had the royalty and then you had the nobility and you had the merchant class and then you have the peasants and so forth. But they don’t’ seem to realize what it actually meant. They have scenes where the spunky peasant girl tells off the pretty prince. The pretty prince would have raped the spunky peasant girl. He would have put her in the stocks and then had garbage thrown at her. You know.

I mean, the class structures in places like this had teeth. They had consequences. And people were brought up from their childhood to know their place and to know that duties of their class and the privileges of their class. It was always a source of friction when someone got outside of that thing. And I tried to reflect that.