Friday, April 22, 2011

George R. R. Martin on Fantasy and Historical Fiction

James Poniewozik of Time blog has a long interview with fantasy novelist George R. R. Martin, whose Game of Thrones is now being made into an HBO show. Martin discusses his view of J. R. R. Tolkien, balancing his respect for him with not slavishly imitating him. He makes the interesting point that when fantasy writers try imitating Tolkien what usually happens is that they simply pick up on the worst elements of his writing. Martin's favorite Tolkien character is Boromir so it is probably not a coincidence that they got Sean Bean, who played Boromir in the movie, for Game of Thrones.  

As a medieval historian I often struggle with political fantasy, finding it implausible. I can easily suspend disbelief when it comes to magic, but your political structure has to be coherent. The problem is that most writers do not understand the inner dynamics of a pre-modern society. Worse, coming to the issue loaded down with modern liberal biases, they either turn to polemics against the pre-modern society they are writing about or try to eliminate the most troublesome elements to the modern mind, without taking into consideration the logical underpinnings of the society.

An example that I often present to my students is that of women's rights. In a militarized society, where the primary issue on everyone's mind is not suffering sudden violent death, and in which women did not actively fight in the same numbers as men (in other words every pre-modern society that has ever existed) not only would women not have equal rights, but the very thought would be absurd. Any woman who complained about her second class position and demanded to be treated as an equal to men would rightfully be laughed at, told to pick up a sword and, until she could do that, to shut her mouth, get back to cooking, cleaning and children and be grateful for having a man to protect her. It would make no sense for a fantasy novel to both maintain a pre-modern militarized society and either equality of the sexes or plucky heroines giving proto-feminist speeches. (See "Toilet Training.")
I was glad therefore to see Martin confront this issue of plausible pre-modern societies

And then there are some things that are just don't square with history. In some sense I'm trying to respond to that. [For example] the arranged marriage, which you see constantly in the historical fiction and television show, almost always when there's an arranged marriage, the girl doesn't want it and rejects it and she runs off with the stable boy instead. This never fucking happened. It just didn't. There were thousands, tens of thousand, perhaps hundreds of thousands of arranged marriages in the nobility through the thousand years of Middle Ages and people went through with them. That's how you did it. It wasn't questioned. Yeah, occasionally you would want someone else, but you wouldn't run off with the stable boy.

And that's another of my pet peeves about fantasies. The bad authors adopt the class structures of the Middle Ages; where you had the royalty and then you had the nobility and you had the merchant class and then you have the peasants and so forth. But they don't' seem to realize what it actually meant. They have scenes where the spunky peasant girl tells off the pretty prince. The pretty prince would have raped the spunky peasant girl. He would have put her in the stocks and then had garbage thrown at her. You know.

I mean, the class structures in places like this had teeth. They had consequences. And people were brought up from their childhood to know their place and to know that duties of their class and the privileges of their class. It was always a source of friction when someone got outside of that thing. And I tried to reflect that.


Chris said...

Great interview. Thanks for linking it.

Clarissa said...

I don't know who this Martin guy is but he sounds like a person who always had to go alone to the prom and couldn't land a date for love or money.

Just sayin'.

Fearsome Fred said...

I am not sure Mr. Martin understands the Middle Ages any better than those he criticizes. How is he so sure what the "pretty prince" would have done? Doesn't it depend on the pretty prince? I have read his works, and he often mistakes cynicism and ugliness for realism.

Anonymous said...

@Fearsome Fred,

Sorry, but you really don't know what you're talking about.

Anonymous said...

He's actually spot the fuck on. Writers who don't understand context of the times and put their own modern understanding and framework over top of reality of the times end up with a nice cliche that we can all curl up safely in our beds with. The idea that it isn't easy to swallow but realistic was bold, but if done in the right context could still have appeal.