We don’t do book reviews too often here at Raked. TV’s mostly our game; sometimes, though, the written word and the small screen intersect: See, for example, Beyond The Wall: Exploring George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. This book is a collection of essays by various folks (like, for example the great and insightful culture blogger Alyssa Rosenberg and Ice and Fire fansite runners Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson), all focused on the world presented in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. As a great fan of both the book series and the excellent HBO adaptation, I was very excited to receive a review copy of this in the mail. I felt that I had to take a look at this book because I’m always looking for new ways to think about and interpret one of my favorite fictional series, especially now that we have about a year until season three of the show back on TV (and who knows how long until the sixth book is ready).
Perhaps my favorite essay was Gary Westfahl’s “Back to the Egg: The Prequels to A Song of Ice and Fire.” After recently reading two of the graphic novel adaptations of Martin’s Dunk & Egg prequel stories, I couldn’t help but think about how these characters fit into the overall mythology of Westeros, and how their stories felt tonally different yet thematically similar to the main series. Westfahl connects the prequel stories to literary critic Northrup Frye’s “theory of myths,” an idea which proposes that literature falls into four typical plots or “mythoi” corresponding to the four seasons. Each “season” flows into the other: The comedy (in a classical sense) of Spring flows into the romance of Summer, which then can flow into the tragedy of Autumn, which finally leads to the experience and satire of Winter, which at last flows back into the Spring of comedy. Westfahl argues that the events from the Song of Ice and Fire novels resemble the “mythos” of Summer, in which stories trend from innocence on the one end towards tragedy on the other end. This seems to fit with the structure of the novels, as things start out well enough but progress quickly to dark places and point (at least, we can assume) toward an overall bittersweet ending of an age at the end of the series. He suggests that the Dunk & Egg stories, which seem a bit lighter than the original novels, are rooted in the Spring season that characterizes the mythos of comedy and innocence. It’s an interesting theory, and one I’m not certain I’m doing justice to because it’s a little complicated in the retelling (although Westfahl explains it well in his essay). Regardless, approaching the world of Ice and Fire from this seasonal myth angle can provide a reader, or a dedicated show watcher, with some interesting thoughts and ideas on where the series might be headed.
On a similar note, I also really enjoyed Garcia and Antonsson’s “The Palace of Love, the Palace of Sorrow: Romanticism in A Song of Ice and Fire.” By romanticism, Garcia and Antonsson mean “an emphasis on emotionality and the individual, a gaze aimed firmly at the past, and a belief in the indomitable human spirit.” I’m glad the essay addresses the idea of romanticism, with its focus on the past, because it touches on something that I think the books and the HBO series do very well. Both present a strong sense of a romanticized, almost mythic recent past, told through the different experiences of people who lived it. Neither the books nor the series rely on flashbacks to show us what happened; flashbacks are too modern, too specific and clinical to allow a sense of romanticism to grow. Instead, stories of the past are simply told by the people who lived them, almost certainly colored by their own biases, and embellished or downplayed by the fog of time as the years have rolled on, and then further mythologized by the reader or viewer’s own mind as he or she interprets the words being read or spoken. In this way, the saga of Rhaegar and Lyanna, or the wrath of King Aerys, come to life in a more dynamic way than if the events were simply shown, and continue to influence the present because of the oversized mythology they’ve acquired from so many retellings.
I also really enjoyed Myke Cole’s essay, “Art Imitates War,” which looks at a number of characters from the series and how they deal with very realistic symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Alyssa Rosenberg’s thoughts on the consequences of rape and how sexual violence echoes across time and space in the world of Westeros in her essay, “Men and Monsters: Rape, Myth-Making, and the Rise and Fall of Nations in A Song of Ice and Fire.”
Overall, Beyond the Wall is a very interesting collection of thoughtful essays that can provide both new and old fans of the book series and TV show with several different ways of looking at and thinking about the world of Westeros. It’s a great way to pass the time until the next season premieres, though since that’s not until next April, you might need to read it twice.