“Life is not a song, sweetling.
Someday you may learn that, to your sorrow.”
Fantasy is a genre that has given people a form of hope an escape for over a century with works such as The Chronicles of Narnia, The Wheel of Time, and The Earthsea Cycle creating expansive worlds full of vast lands, timeless characters, and magical realms that capture and fuel the imagination of readers everywhere. High fantasy has always been seen as a world where things are more exciting and superior to the world we really live, but is it possible that emerging postmodern writers could propose something that subverts this idea of a better world while still staying true to the foundational structure of high fantasy?
High Fantasy is a genre that has been defined as “a sub-genre of fantasy that is at its core about the battle of good vs. evil with high stakes with specific races, civilizations, or even the entire world at risk.”(Sherin) In high fantasy there are at least three major fundamentals that help define the genre. First the threat is painted as being a massive and powerful force whose only motivation is to see the world molded into their image. The next crucial aspect of the genre is the culture found within the genre. The culture is usually defined as being quasi-medieval or reminiscent of the Renaissance. This romanticized version of the high culture of the renaissance pours into everything including but not limited to the architecture, technology, and linguistics of the world being explored. Lastly, quests and magic are an integral part of the plot. This magic can come in many forms whether it exists by way of a macguffin that drives the story or as a force that holds everything in the universe together(Cohen).
The genre has evolved throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but has become popular in its contemporized form primarily by the work of Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Lord of the Rings presents a world in which an ultimate evil seeks to take over the world by devastating everything in a near apocalyptic fashion. In the tale the protagonist Frodo and his band of allies hope to destroy the ultimate evil which is manifested within one ring. The protagonists in the story were very reflective of the modern era as they were all inherently good attempting to defeat evil and avoid corruption. Tolkien’s version of high fantasy is one which demonstrates the philosophy of the post-World War era he was writing in. The evil of Sauron demonstrated no love, but hatred filled with prejudiced. He had massive armies that seemed to impossibly outnumber the divided world of men. If mankind were to succeed they had to put aside differences and work together by having faith that Frodo could finish his journey. The modernist ideology of a post-World War II is not difficult to see in Tolkien’s magnum opus. His understanding of good and evil in the world are essential to the epic tale of Lord of the Rings, but the world has slowly shifted away from a modernist understanding of good and evil. High Fantasy has reflected less and less the values of modernism and has become skeptical of the binaries of good and evil that Tolkien enforces in his series.
Enthusiasts of the genre will claim that high fantasy must include an ultimate evil and heroes with a heart of gold, but writers that have emerged in the post-modern era have written works that present characters as more ambiguous, worlds that are less than beautiful, and a tale that breaks down the discourse between good in evil.
One of the most popular fantasy series to find a high level of success is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series that began publication in 1996 and has remained in the media as new books are being published and a television show is being adapted. Martin’s world is built very much like Tolkien’s with histories, languages, and geography being essential to the narrative and the cultures found with it. Like other forms of high fantasy, A Song of Ice and Fire also presents a culture that is based in a medieval renaissance (Cecire). The story in both series begins right in the middle of the larger meta-narrative or history of the world that each writer has created and tells a tale that will unfold into a much larger set of events. The narrative structures in both The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire have a similar design which ties both of them even closer together within high fantasy.
These two epics may share the fundamentals of high fantasy, but A Song of Ice and Fire presents a postmodern take on high fantasy by removing definitive good and evil. The world of Westeros is a dark reflection of how high fantasy is presented and how Martin believes high fantasy would really work if humans were running it. The world is a dark one because of the brutally graphic wars that are fought, the heroes that are slain, and the villains that are crowned king. Martin crafts a world that exists in its own right, but also displays a world that is meant to subvert the fundamental philosophy of high fantasy as written by post World War II modernist writers. The best example of Martin’s post-modern take on fantasy is the characters he creates to articulate the various philosophies and complexities of the world they live in.
Martin crafts an epic story that is viewed through the lenses of the expansive cast of characters with each having their understanding of the truth and what is transpiring. Each chapter has its own central character and many times what is stated contradicts or disagrees with what has been said in previous chapters because of the differing viewpoints of each character. This writing technique is its own form of postmodernism as it seems to undermine the belief in one grand truth in the world of Westeros. A Song of Ice and Fire does feature a grand narrative with objective events occurring, but this writing technique challenges conventional fantasy by limiting what each character can and cannot see based on their perspectives. Each character has their own motivations, ideas, and philosophies on life, but I am going to pick two characters that I believe Martin uses to illustrate specific points about the problems with modern high fantasy.
The first book of the series, A Game of Thrones, begins from the perspective of Eddard Stark the Lord of Winterfelt who is introduced as the protagonist of the story. The character is quickly painted as the definition of righteous and honorable. In his younger days he was a soldier who did not wish to rule Winterfell, but because of the circumstances he inherited, he decided that he must fill the role because it was the honorable thing to do. Early in the book the character makes this decision to leave his post at the King of Westeros’s request to move to a city called King’s Landing which is the political center of the entire land. Stark quickly learns that things in King’s Landing do not work as they do in Winterfell where he made all of the decisions and held himself responsible for the consequences. He viewed King’s Landing as a city filled with corrupt liars and politicians who were always only looking out for themselves. Stark takes on the responsibility of the King’s right hand man and quickly learns of a plan by the Queen to stage a coup. Eddard does all he can to reveal the plot, but learns that the corruption and politics of the city will not allow him to reveal the truth without a price.
Eddard Stark is a character that represents the ideology of an era that is no longer relevant in a world that is filled with moral ambiguity, greed, and corruption. He believes in a world that runs on an honor system where people live by a code and are working toward the greater good, but he quickly discovers in King’s Landing that the world he lives by is not as simple and easy to define as he believed. His perspective leads him to a dilemma in which he believes he has to die honorably for the truth or live by perpetuating a lie. The character ends up compromising his integrity and pays for it with his life. Eddard is the closest A Song of Ice and Fire gets to a classic protagonist and Martin proceeds to expose the worldview of this hero who believes in honor and justice by placing him in a setting in which morality has become corrupt and made more complicated. This classic sense of morality is painted as noble but impractical in a world that is far more dynamic than the binary separation of good and evil. Martin is taking this archetype of the righteous and noble protagonist to illustrate how this character is no longer relevant which speaks of Martin’s lack of belief in heroes or even the larger idea of fantasy.
Martin also presents the archetype of the king’s knight in a dark fashion with the character of Jaime Lannister. Jaime is a character who is infamous in Westeros for betraying his vow as a knight of the king’s guard by killing one of the past kings who had apparently gone mad. He still serves the King’s guard after the turn of events, but is known amongst the people as an oath breaker that cannot be trusted. Jaime is portrayed as understanding his duty when he claims “They make you swear and swear. Defend the King, obey the King, obey your father, protect the innocent, defend the weak.”, but he also understands the inherent contradictions and complexities of his position when he goes on ask “What if your father despises the King? What if the King massacres the innocent? It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or another.” Jaime Lannister is a dark reflection of the realities of knighthood. Martin is presenting this archetype and is portraying it as a myth that could not truly exist because human beings are too greedy and are ultimately self-serving.
A Song of Fire and Ice presents a version of the archetypes of high fantasy that are meant to subvert the classical versions that are presented by Tolkien and other modern fantasy writers. Martin challenges the meta-narrative of high fantasy by applying more realistic human characteristics to the structure that is already there. High fantasy creates a world that the reader/viewer can escape to in which the stakes are high and the journey is tough for the characters, but in the end good will always triumphs over evil. Martin dispels this narrative by placing characters that are far more human in a fantastical world that is much closer to our own.
The evolution of high fantasy displayed in Martin’s work reflects the philosophy that is present in both the current culture and next generation of writers. Martin grew up during the Tolkien era of fantasy, but has also matured as a writer in a world that has pulled back the curtain on all sorts of meta-narratives including government, religion, and the American dream. While he is telling his own story, he is also pulling back the curtain on high fantasy as the world knows it and is expressing a lack of disbelief in a fantasy in which characters are so pure and binaries are so basic.
High fantasy certainly has not abandoned its roots with A Song of Ice and Fire, but has really taken a critical look at what has been previously established by the likes of Lord of the Rings. This darker take on high fantasy may not provide the escape in which good triumphs over evil, but it does not make it any less an excellent piece of high fantasy that manages to break the mold and set new standards while still staying true to what makes the genre what it is.