A song of S and M

In trying to pin down the fascination of George R.R. Martin’s quasi-medieval fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire , I am reminded of a story I read maybe 30 years ago in an interview with John Irving.

When Irving was a young man in Vienna, he used to amuse himself by dressing up in a particularly nerdy outfit (I think unnecessary glasses were part of it) and going to bars. He would sit in a corner reading a book, waiting for some tough guy to start picking on him, apparently a dependable occurrence in the right kind of bar.  Eventually some drunken lager lout would want to get physical with him, and would swiftly find himself on the floor crying Onkel, since Irving was a varsity college wrestler.  I think the technical term is a takedown with amplitude.  Stories of bullies brought low are almost irresistible, and yet there is a creepout factor here as well; the whole thing is a setup so that one can unleash violence without feeling bad about it. 

The five volumes (so far) of Song of Ice and Fire often work on the same principle, as the evil characters, who are both powerful and annoying, build up so much tension and rage in the reader that we long for release.   The fact that they sometimes triumph, of course, makes the tension all the greater.  I don’t think of myself as a particularly bloody-minded reader, so it is not often that I have taken pleasure in a public beheading, but that is just what happened at the beginning of Book V (A Dance with Dragons); I would not have minded also seeing a massacre of the odious Freys either, and I wonder whether it’s really a good idea to make your readers revel in slaughter (of course Homer thought it was, as you can see from the lovingly-portrayed murder of the suitors in the Odyssey, but he’s dead now).

That Martin exploits our desire for righteous violence is not that unusual, and to his credit, he does not sanitize the world he depicts.  Characters who are obsessed with revenge do tend to turn into forces for pointless brutality, and in general,, the wars of his world leave as much sorrow and destruction in their wake as real wars, as women are raped, crops are burned, innocent peasants tortured and murdered, and both soldiers and civilians are ravaged by plague. 

Martin does have a gift for creating sympathetic outcasts of all kinds, from the bastard John Snow to the dwarf Tyrion Lannister, from the crippled Bran Stark to his sister Arya, who starts as a misfit tomboy and becomes the most plucky and lovable hired assassin since Leon.  Even the arrogant and vile Jaime Lannister grows more appealing after he is maimed (this is an instance of villain decay or Mrs. Coulter Syndrome, the widespread disorder wherein a perfectly good evil genius degenerates into someone we’re supposed to pity or even like).  There are also burn victims, eunuchs, would-be girl knights who are mocked for their aspirations, etc.

If this partial list suggests that Martin

If you are thinking that GRRM seems determined to include every possible type of outcast, you are (to use a pet phrase of his) not wrong.  He possesses to an extraordinary degree what a Renaissance literary critic would have called “copy.” This meant copiousness, the ability to ring the changes exhaustively on whatever topic presents itself, whether a woman’s beauty or a battle or ancient burial customs–it is this ‘virtue’ that makes Renaissance English prose well-nigh unreadable.  When you first encounter food descriptions in Game of Thrones (volume I), they seem kind of cool, as Martin studiously avoids New World items (no tomatoes, potatoes, corn, coffee…), but after a few hundred lamprey pies and aurochs roasts and stewed pears and almond-encrusted trout, it all begins to cloy, and I would bet that most readers just skim over the endless food catalogues in the later books.

It is the same with the people–the panorama of customs and beliefs offers amusement in small doses, but do we really want hundreds of pages about the Ironborn and their Kings-moot and their effing Drowned God (if I hear that one more warrior has gone to feast in the Drowned God’s watery halls…)?  The Ironborn are basically vikings, northern sea-raiders who live to rape, pillage, and bring home treasure and thralls (though unlike real vikings they do not mainly make a living by selling slaves).  They are nasty, brutish, sometimes tall but not that interesting.

And speaking of the Ironborn, the warrior princess Asha Greyjoy provides a good example of Martin’s disturbing view of sex as a continuation of violence by other means.    Here Asha is retrurning to her bedchamber at night:

Qarl followed her up to Galbart Glover’s bedchamber. “Get out,” she told him. “I want to be alone.”

“What you want is me.” He tried to kiss her.

Asha pushed him away. “Touch me again and I’ll-“

“What?” He drew his dagger. “Undress yourself, girl.”

“Fuck yourself, you beardless boy.”

“I’d sooner fuck you.” One quick slash unlaced her jerkin. Asha reached for her axe, but Qarl dropped his knife and caught her wrist, twisting back her arm until the weapon fell from her fingers. He pushed her back onto Glover’s bed, kissed her hand, and tore off her tunic to let her breasts spill out. When she tried to knee him in the groin, he twisted away and forced her legs apart with his knees. “I’ll have you now.”

“Do it,” she spat, “and I’ll kill you in her sleep.”

She was sopping wet when he entered her. “Damn you,” she said. “Damn you damn you damn you.” He sucked her nipples till she cried out half in pain and half in pleasure. Her cunt became the world. Only his hands mattered, only his mouth, only his arms around her, his cock inside her. He fucked her till she screamed, and then again until she wept, before he finally spent his seed inside her womb.

Can I just say, “Yuck!”  I guess that Qarl has been Asha’s lover for years, so the rape thing is perhaps just kinky foreplay, but it still makes you wonder why Martin offers it up with such enthusiasm.  And in a fictional world where the vast majority of sexual encounters are either rape or prostitution (with way too much nipple-torture thrown in), rape-themed role-playing is just not comme il faut.

So who, besides Martin, gets a kick out of this?  Is there a substantial female audience for rape fantasies?  Maybe so–one reader I can imagine enjoying GRRM’s depiction of sex is Edmund White, who comments in My Lives that any mention of rape makes him fantasize about being ravaged by big powerful men.  The lusciously detailed protrait of Khal Drogo in the first book, with his sweaty leather-bound muscles, impressive “manhood” (a.k.a. penis) and air of quiet dominance, made me think how obviously he was White’s Mr. Right.

So I suppose I shouldn’t be so harsh–people are entitled to their fantasies, as long as nobody gets hurt, and these are, after all, fantasy novels.  I do wish, for my own enjoyment, that GRRM’s were more appealing.

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