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Building the “World of Ice and Fire”


As you might have noticed, there’s a new book by George R.R Martin out today…and it’s not The Winds of Winter (the eagerly anticipated next book in the Song of Ice and Fire series). Instead, it’s the “World of Ice and Fire,” a fictional history and travelogue of Westeros and lands beyond. For the hardest of hardcore fans, this is methadone until the sixth book actually arrives; for causal viewers of the TV show, this is a good opportunity to figure out exactly who everyone is and how they’re all related, and who’s the third bearded guy in that one scene. But it’s also a great opportunity to talk about the intersection between genre fiction and academics…

Make no mistake, George R.R Martin is a genre fiction writer down to the bone – his first published writing was in the fan letters column of the Fantastic Four when he was a kid, he was involved in the first sci-fi cons back when they were being held in people’s living rooms instead of overflowing the biggest convention centers our metropolises have to offer, and his route to pop culture phenomenon came after a long career of winning Hugos for short stories, and heading to Hollywood to write for the Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast. But, as I’ve argued many times over on my other blog, he’s also a genre writer who’s deeply immersed himself the historical discipline from an auto-didact perspective, mining and remixing the past to give his fantasy world a realist edge that instantly set it apart from the reigning High Fantasy style of the David Eddingses who ruled the genre in the 90s.

So it’s no surprise that his world-building book is, on a meta level, all about academic history versus genre fiction. Start from the fact that the book’s fictional authors, Maesters Yandel (GRRM’s co-authors) and Gyldane (GRRM himself), quarrel all the time over whether the more fantastical (and fun) aspects of the past should be interpreted through a skeptical, neo-Beardsian lens that reduces metaphysical conflicts between light and darkness into more mundane conflicts between different tribes over land and resources, or whether the lurid, the supernatural, and the dramatic have their place in history. Then you move on to the citations, where maesters from ages past debate conflicting accounts of how old the world is and when various peoples migrated between continents, trying to square written records against archaeological evidence, comparing mythology and legend from different cultures just like classic anthropologists, and whether the loyalties of maesters both past and present to one royal dynasty or another have skewed the historical record.

The academic focus is actually quite appropriate, given the origins of world-building. J.R.R Tolkien was, after all, an Oxford don rather than a pulp scribbler. Not only did the inspirations for his work pour forth from his academic studies of Middle English, Arthurian and Scandinavian myth, and not a little bit of Wagner, but he went about writing his stories as only a philologist would. Start from the language, build it up from the bones, think hard about how structure reveals culture, establish the history and genealogy – and then work on plot and character.  It’s not a coincidence that the Lord of the Rings came with academic appendices, even before Tolkien went to work on the Silmarrillion; real history or imagined, Tolkien was going to do a proper job of it.

As Martin has pointed out, he’s not an Oxford don. But he is clearly someone who’s thought a lot about both the reality of human history – the often petty squabbles that under-gird supposedly grand conflicts, the inconsistencies in primary sources, the way in which academics’ own biases color supposedly objective recounting of past events – and the fantasy of it. In interviews about the book, Martin’s repeatedly cited the line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance that “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend” and how much he prefers the more exciting narratives of your Herodotuses and Procopiuses than the dry caution of modern academics. Notably, Maester Gyldane is the voice always arguing for the more dramatic, the more fantastical interpretation of history.

And that’s because Martin is, for all of his world’s attention to the grim realities of medieval society, a romantic. (For more on this topic, see my various chapter-by-chapter essays, or buy my book) And because it’s his world-book, he gets to subtly champion his genre’s romantic impulses against all comers. Because in a world which really has dragons, it’s the sober scientific-minded maesters who want to reduce science to a history who are the crackpots, clinging to their telescopes and their theories in denial of what’s happening all around them, whereas the storytellers, dreamers, and occultists have their finger on the pulse. Archmaester Fomas, in his Lies of the Ancients, might insist that legends of the Others are simply rationalizations of tribal conflicts and demonization of the “other” to legitimize the theft of land, but people who’ve watched the show or read the books know that there really are undead massing in the wilderness and that winter really is coming. The entire order of maesters might insist that magic doesn’t exist, but we get the secret thrill of having seen people brought back from the dead and dragons birthed from fossilized eggs.

At the same time though, as both a historian and a fan of the books, I have to say that I’m impressed by Martin’s world-building. He may not be an Oxford don, but the details hang together.  As I delve into the details, bringing to bear the historian’s art of close reading of source materials, I’m not finding much in the way of holes. Rather, the information is revealing a remarkably coherent world: a small factoid about the title used for Valyrian governors fits with the modern political institutions of the Free Cities of Essos, explaining why some cities are ruled by merchant councils and others by elected executives. Not only do the kings and queens act like real people, as opposed to impeccably moral heroes and consistently evil villains, but the smallfolk also have agency and can shake the world around them. At moments of contingency, historical figures have reshaped the future of entire dynasties, and the relationships between elites can be deeply important, but you can see larger cultural, social, and political forces at work beneath the surface.

So…treat this as an open thread for people who want to discuss the book.

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