How the fuck did George R.R. Martin fool the general public into a near crack-addictive obsession with his Song of Ice and Fire?
Fantasy had always been this niche enterprise, an interest in which could get your ass kicked around a schoolyard. Even with the popularity of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, your dedication to the series determined how big of an ugly nerd you’d be judged as: “Oh, you read the books? Us cool kids only saw the movies! And, yeah, and, and we were necking! Ask Gracie if I wasn’t ploughing that neck like some sex god!”
Fantasy was so niche that the other end of the spectrum held similar defense mechanisms if you weren’t into it enough: “Oh, you haven’t even read the Similarion? Nice try, n00b. Me and Gracie were necking while discussing Idril’s lineage, like, twenty minutes ago before you showed up with your Aragorn-loving ass.”
Yet everyone gets into Game of Thrones. My dad’s read the entire series and I’m pretty sure he has a religious allergy to chocolate milk. My friends are fiends for the latest episodes and they all have theories. The nicest, old, old, ladies that ride the bus with me are holding Fire & Blood.
I wanna know why this polarized genre has found such a universal audience. So let’s start with the aforementioned properties that brought fantasy into the mainstream, shall we?
Twenty two years ago, a down-on-her-luck gal named Joanne Murray (JK Rowling to most) published a little book known as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (translated to the Sorcerer’s Stone for dumb American children). I myself read it in fifth grade and had a grand old talking-to with my teacher about the temptation of dark magic and its road to Satanism. Lutheran school. The book, and its subsequent six sequels, became a hit and a filmic phenomenon.
So why did Harry Potter break?
Well, Rowling was able to make the fantastical element of sorcery almost livable, enriching all of the daily elements of being a student, teacher, government employee, etcetera, with the pizazz of mysticism. Her tactic was to bring down magic to the ordinary, the familiar– all of which would seem magical to the focal character who hadn’t experienced anything of the sort, just like the book’s readership. For young readers, going to school then became more exciting with a magical analogue, knowing that chemistry was potion making, soccer was Quidditch, and email was a bajillion electronic owls throwing messages back and forth.
She broke fantasy into a common tongue. While she didn’t invent Urban Fantasy as a genre, she made it accessible for young readers to grab onto in an empathetic way.
In the earlier part of the 20th century, Tolkien managed the same feat. He followed up a fun, happy-go-lucky-go-wrong-go-lucky-again little romp called The Hobbit (ever heard of it?) and then followed it up with the masterwork earned from a life spent in academic research through mythology, Olde English, history, and the horrors he’d witnessed in World War One. And he needed to make it accessible.
Perhaps it’s his skill as an orator– much like the Velvet Underground leading to punk music, his reading of Beowulf apparently sparked a surge of interest into re-investigating the works in the olde tongue. Tolkien put his performative skills to the page knowing that his writing style needed to establish a mythos and lore similar to that of England’s storied history and mythology, while also remaining serviceable to the everyday reader. While he wrote in an archaic format, Tolkien would generally keep his prose fairly modern, allowing the uneducated masses (especially in America, which enabled his success) to finally access that sweet, sweet burgeoning Fantasy genre.
Which brings us back to George Rawr Rawr Martin. How’d he make Fantasy a universal genre? Martin, like Tolkien, was also guided by the possibilities of mythology, European history, and Catholicism (“lapsed” in Martin’s case) and brought the genre once again into the mainstream. Why so popular? Could it have been the more lenient censors? The blood? The violence? The big ole Red Witch titties? Igh…the incest? Sex and violence is nothing new, and while it certainly sells, it’s no guarantee of success. I think the motherfucker had the same instincts Rowling and Tolkien relied upon, updated with a life devoted to pop-cultural nerd shit.
He knew he needed to show us something familiar, whether we realized it or not. Instead of having us draw comparisons between the fantastical and the ordinary, Martin instead draws us into the fantasy by showing us a story we already find exciting:
Game of Thrones doesn’t start off in the Fantasy genre. It begins as Horror. A snowy glen, a doll-like corpse pinned to a tree comes back to life with blue fire in its eyes. It’s after the grisly aftermath of the White Walkers, when the deserter/survivor’s message gets cut short, doth the fantasy begin with a dark promise. The king visits, giving us a personae dramatis for the non-Stark players, and provides a launching pad for several story arcs, each with their own blurred genres. A political thriller foments when the alarming message that John Arryn has been murdered arrives. The forbidden romance between the Lannister twins is discovered. Jon Snow’s hero journey from Bastard to Badass begins by getting hammered. Sansa’s maturation story from a naïve believer in fairy-tales towards a well-versed decoder of deception is well set, as is Arya’s road from misfit to assassin. Tyrion gets his end wet.
All of these threads we are willing to follow. The bulk of the first book, however, is devoted to Ned Stark, who serves as the primary protagonist. And although his character is embroiled in political chaos and familial complexity, his narrative drive is identical to a hardboiled detective’s.
That’s right, bitches. I’m making this about noir. NED DETECTIVE.
Once he reaches King’s Landing, Ned’s arc falls into the classic structure of a steel-jawed man interviewing a sequence of people looking for the truth. His self-appointed charge is to prove that Cersei’s children ain’t his buddy Bobby Baratheon’s. Ned’s story is based in inquisition in search of the truth, for truth’s sake. Hence, he pokes around the government, he pokes around the common folk, pokes Gendry in the shoulder, he pokes around the ledgers. And he uncovers the scandal and confronts the Femme Fatale. Unlike your average noir thriller, the protagonist is beheaded in front of his daughters.
Which serves as the inciting incident for all of the other plot lines, each one a mishmash of genre regardless of the fantasy setting. A broken-man with a soft-spot for protecting naïve children? With a vendetta against his brother who injured him in their youth? Who finds the value of life through working with common, defenseless people? But still likes killing people? Without context, I’d say with 70% certainty, that I was describing a Kurosawa film. You know who I’m referring to.
Genre-smashing isn’t new.
The aforementioned Akira Kurosawa defined a generation of Japanese cinema by imbuing traditional samurai legends with the genre-specific elements of the western. You can follow this thread for awhile: Blade Runner is pure noir slammed into a complete science-fiction setting. True Detective: Season One is noir, sure, but injected with the DNA of a buddy cop film, TV police procedural, and cosmic horror. Robert Brockway’s The Vicious Circuit series mixes punk-rock and some of the vilest horror I’ve ever put in my brain (and you should too). Evil Dead II mixes horror with slapstick comedy, while Slaughterhouse V mixes a horrifying account of World War II with quirky science fiction.
It comes down to the same science of making a good mixtape. The advice that my brother gave me on mixtape compilation: “You want to balance novelty with nostalgia.”
The reason is digestibility. You’re more willing to eat your first oyster if you spritz some lemon on it. The familiar makes the unknown easier to handle. The dark complexity of Blade Runner makes more sense if you’re slumming through the streets along with Rickard. True Detective: The turn from existential pessimism towards existential optimism would be way too heady and pedantic unless you had both Cohle and Hart find their Yellow King. The the reality of war in Slaughterhouse V would burden the reader with too much emotional weight unless it was delivered in a way that let the reader escape and put things in perspective just as the narrator describes the horrific events.
Taking one thing and smashing it into another thing is the basis of innovation. It’s the proverbial “you got my peanut butter in your chocolate.” It’s the reason pizzas are sold on bagels, the reason your fridge has a freezer attached to it. It needs to happen at a certain point and it happens on a near instinctual level– ask anyone who’s ever had to write music reviews of local artists: “They’re like Modest Mouse meets The Ramones– if Joey had range.” Science Fiction, at a certain point, was essentially a bunch of pulp drivel until pioneers such as Phillip K Dick and Stanislaw Lem came along and embedded a deep sense of meaning into it, reflecting our own lives, views, and the philosophies they were enchanted by. Hardboiled pulp detective fiction was wrangled by Hammet and Chandler until Ellroy elevated it to literary standards. Hell, you look at the progression of comic books, a medium nearly entirely written off because of its fringe appeal– and now those characters are currently dominating the box offices. The success and/or legacy of which comes down to the fact that the creators held the format of one thing in one hand and enmeshed it into the social topics of gender roles, race, sexuality, or insecurity– it stays relevant.
Game of Thrones is rooted in the fantasy world specific to Martin’s brain. What Martin has that other fantasy writers lack, is a cool understanding of the genres around him. He’s the über nerd who understands everything under the banner of geekdom, inside and out. It’s so complete that I’d wager you could remove the fantasy element entirely and you’d still be left with a competent and enjoyable series. Which gets close to answering my initial question:
Because there’s something that anyone could recognize as their favorite genre, everybody can get into it.
Pierre Manchot blends Fantasy with Science Fiction and Dystopia in his humorous series The Fish Fox Boys, the third book of which is soon to be published. Get caught up starting with the first novel here
Biographical details lifted from Wizard and the Bruiser episodes of JRR Tolkien and G.RR. Martin: