Much of high fantasy literature, which I take to include The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, and the Sword of Truth series, has portrayed the battle between good and evil. There are differences in treatment of course, but in essence, we had the contrast; Frodo and Sauron; Rand and Shaitan; Richard and Darken Rahl. The lines are clearly drawn. The heroes and villains – good and evil – have their clear, assigned roles.
But George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series seems to dispense with this motif altogether. True enough, Game of Thrones sets up the Starks as the good guys, and the Lannisters as the bad. But The Storm of Swords kills off Robb and Catelyn Stark, and then the villains, Geoffrey Baratheon and Tywin Lannister. The novels pit two families – Starks and Lannisters – against each other, only to set them aside. Here, the novel erodes our expectations of the high fantasy genre. It’s not surprising that many people reacted with disgust when the Starks were murdered by Mr. Filch (the actor who plays Lord Walder Frey). It is as though Frodo and Sauron were to be killed before The Return of the King.
That Storm of Swords kills these four people in particular is not, in my opinion, a coincidence. This is a deliberate knockdown of the good-vs-evil theme. The novel wants us to move away from a perspective and acquire a much more nuanced picture of — and rethink our expectations towards — “good” and “evil”. Good guys end up dead, [SPOILER ALERT] as did Ned Stark, while bad guys are not really bad. [SPOILER ALERT] Tyrion Lannister kills his father and behaves nicely to Sansa, as does Sandor Clegane, who abandons the Lannisters and gets to treat Arya decently enough (though admittedly for ransom). Jaimie Lannister first taunts Brienne, but later protects her when they were captured. He even goes out of his way to rescue her, and slaps a man who calls her a freak. In the meantime, Jaime and Cersei have a falling out of sorts.
This is by no means saying that there are no more good people around. Brienne, Bran and Arya fill these roles, as do Jon Snow and perhaps Daenerys Targaryen as well. The Song of Ice and Fire does undermine the good-and-evil motif by showing, not that good guys don’t exist anymore, but that there aren’t any villains around, as least in the likes of Sauron, Shaitan and Voldemort. Or if there are, they are not really evil, only cruel, greedy, manipulative, etc., as we have seen with Jaime and Tyrion Lannister.
So it is by Feast for Crows, it’s become harder to say who the villains and by extension the heroes are. Of course, we still side with and cheer against certain characters, but we do so in a world where there are really no Sauron-like villains. For instance, what do we make of Dany? She’s not exactly evil; on the contrary, I find her likable, and it’s not hard for me to imagine serving her as my khaleesi. What of Stannis Baratheon? He’s not exactly kind, but he’s not evil either. Indeed, it was right for him to claim the throne, since he was Robert’s brother. Asha Greyjoy does not seem to be a bad person as well, as does Aeron Damphair, despite his weird religion. And while [SPOILER ALERT] Petyr Baelish may push Lysa Arryn to her death, an evil act perhaps, he doesn’t exactly come across as demonic as Sauron, Shaitan or Voldemort. Indeed, he has a redeeming quality. We know that after all this time, he still loves Catelyn Stark, a quality that balances his deviousness and cruelty. And what if it came to choosing between Bran and Daenerys? Or Daenerys and Arya? Or Daenerys and Jon?
With the good-and-evil motif out of the window, what we have is nothing but a power struggle. The world of high politics, with the accompanying intrigue, cruelty, manipulation and greed, something that characterizes the world today. In this game of thrones, there are no heroes or villains. Just contenders, and the winners who survive and the losers who die.
In dismantling the good-vs-evil motif, the novels adopt a unique narrative style that contrasts with the cutthroat world it depicts. The narration is quite liberal, tolerant, and sympathetic to each major character, who gets several chapters per book. The novels do not play favorites; it does not allow any character to hog the microphone,as it were. Indeed, by Feast for Crows, it might be fair to say that there is no longer any central character (protagonists or antagonists), no Chosen Ones, Returning Kings, or Dragon Reborns.
Of course, the novels’ judiciousness is such that it can indiscriminately kill off characters. We get a sympathetic portrayal of Arys Oakheart, and [SPOILER ALERT] his love affair with Arianne Martell, only to witness his beheading in the hands of Areo Hotah. The same goes for Davos Seaworth, whom we see rise from smuggler to knight to Hand, only to be decapitated as well, at least as far as the reports go. (If he lives, don’t spoil it, please, even though I suspect he does. I’m still at the halfway point of Feast for Crows).
There is then, a certain postmodernish quality to George Martin’s novels – the multiple perspectives, the deconstruction of binary opposites, the absence of a grand, good-and-evil grand narrative, the disappearance of a center (main character), a world of merely competing interests, and as the title of this review goes, a Nietzchean universe beyond good and evil.
I’ve heard that by Dance with Dragons, the pieces, as they were, will have already been set. Readers will take sides for sure, but not those of good and evil.