Pages read: 674 out of 674
The percentage of the population that has not read this book and/or viewed season 1 of the series just got slightly more infinitesimal now that I’ve finished reading it, but if there are still one or two people out there who want to avoid “spoilers,” those individuals should not read this review, which deals frankly with the entire book, including the ending.
I’ve already written three posts on this book (you can read them here, here, and here), so I’m going to keep this one brief and avoid repetition if possible. I am not at all a member of this novel’s target audience, but I liked it quite a lot. Most of the characters are well drawn (see below for an exception), and I like how authoritative George R.R. Martin is about setting up his fantasy world. He releases details about this world very efficiently and only on a need-to-know basis. The appendix at the back and the occasional offhand reference in the text informs me that there is no doubt a tremendous amount of backstory about the nine families that populate this novel, but we are told almost nothing, except for the fact that Jaime Lannister killed the last Targaryen king but that Robert Baratheon fought him afterwards and won the throne for himself. In the chapters about Daenerys – and in one of the chapters about Jon Snow and his brothers in the Night’s Watch – we learn that there are still a couple of Targaryens alive, at least one of whom is actively plotting a return to the throne. In addition, we’re never given much explanation about the fictional world’s unusual climate (in which seasons last for years and years, with winters significantly longer than summers) except that we’re told that this pattern is not originally endemic to this region. Instead, according to the back of my book, “a preternatural event threw the seasons out of balance” a long time ago, and the defensive systems and alliances that have developed over time (namely the presence of the Wall and the institution of the Night’s Watch) reflect the hardships of living in snow and ice for decades at a time. It also appears as if there are magical creatures beyond the wall that become more aggressive and bold during the winter. It’s a little maddening not to know all of these details, but if I knew more I might not be interested in moving on to the next book, and as it stands right now I am definitely interested in moving on. I am hooked on this fictional world and feel invested in it.
Here’s one small gripe, though: I think Robb Stark should have been better developed as a character. Robb is the oldest son of Eddard and Catelyn Stark. When Eddard leaves Winterfell for King’s Landing to serve as the Hand of the king, Robb stays behind in Winterfell to learn the basics of how to be the lord of the manor. His mother and two younger brothers remain behind as well. When the king dies after an unfortunate encounter with a wild boar, the political situation in King’s Landing changes abruptly. When Robb, who is fifteen, learns that his father has been imprisoned and later executed by the new king (Joffrey, who is also an adolescent) in consultation with his mother, Queen Cersei (a member of the Lannister family, which is generally distrusted by the Starks), he leads the knights of Winterfell in an invasion of Lannister territory. Undoubtedly this is what a lord of the manor is supposed to do in situations like these, fifteen or not. But up until the invasion, when the spotlight shines on Robb during the last hundred pages or so, we are given nothing at all about Robb – only that he is the older brother of Sansa, Arya, Bran, and Rickon and trusted half-brother and friend to Jon Snow. The novel is narrated in the third person with the focus on eight characters – Eddard, Catelyn, Jon, Bran, Arya, Sansa, Tyrion Lannister, and Daenerys Targaryen – whose experiences are related in turn. All of these characters are developed beautifully, and even some of characters who never serve as point-of-view characters (King Robert and others) are dynamic and rounded. Robb, however, is a cardboard cutout – benevolent young military commander who never makes mistakes (he actually reminds me a lot of Ender Wiggin) – so when the various lords of Winterfell bow down and lay their swords at Robb’s feet and declare him their king (in spite of the fact that King Joffrey still holds the title of official king of the realm), I was not convinced. Novels are more interesting (and more realistic) when important characters make mistakes, for one thing – and if an army of lords is going to submit to the authority of an untested-yet-preternaturally-wise teenager, there needs to be a great deal more done to persuade the reader of the young commander’s gifts. I have no doubt that Robb will be developed more in the sequels, and that’s great, but Martin missed an important task in the first two-thirds of this novel in not fleshing out his character.
With this one omission, however, the shifting third-person limited point of view works well. The novel I am writing right now also uses this strategy of point of view, and since plotting does not come naturally to me, I am always looking for books in which this technique is done well. I really admired the way Martin uses the shifting narration as a way to tell his story more efficiently. For example, if in an Eddard chapter an event is being prepared for and then in a Catelyn chapter it is being reacted to, there is no need to actually narrate the event itself. I was kind of stunned by how much information I was able to absorb from the white space between chapters. I try to do this in the novel I’m writing, but Martin does it really well, and I will definitely be watching as I read the sequels to see if I can make sense of exactly how he does it.
And now for the connection to The Grapes of Wrath: this novel ends with Daenerys taking the three dragon eggs she received as a wedding present, putting them in the fire, and then watching as all kinds of crazy things happen with flames and wind until finally three baby dragons are “hatched” from the eggs – which is exactly what happens at the end of The Grapes of Wrath (just kidding). After the crazy flames have died down and Daenerys has a moment to think about what to do with the three baby dragons, she decides to breastfeed them. Her own baby died in the womb earlier this same day (Daenerys had a REALLY shitty day) when a healer-woman sacrificed the baby’s life in order to save that of Daenerys’ husband, Khal Drogo, so her breasts are swollen with milk and she seems to have an instinctive sense that the most important thing for her to do right then is to feed them with the milk meant for her own baby. Since the dragon is the sigil of the Targaryens (and since on some level we are supposed to believe that the Targaryens are dragons – I’m not sure yet how literally we are expected to interpret this), the dragons, like Daenerys, are the rightful heirs to the throne, which of course is being disputed by the Starks and Lannisters and their various allies. In The Grapes of Wrath, of course, Rose of Sharon’s baby also dies in the womb, and as the novel ends it is pouring rain and the abandoned railroad cars where the Joad family is staying are being flooded, so the family leaves the cars on foot yet again, still in search of a permanent place to live, work, and regain their dignity. After a day of walking, they spend the night in a barn, where they find a homeless man close to death. Grieving and distraught, Rose of Sharon has an instinctive urge to breastfeed the man, and this is how the novel ends. In both novels, this memorable closing image suggests that the disasters of the moment will give way to new hopes and opportunities, and that these opportunities will come not from some outside benefactor or avenging angel but from inside the self – that both Daenerys and Rose of Sharon already have inside them everything they need in order to resurrect themselves. I am not suggesting that Martin is alluding to The Grapes of Wrath directly, although it’s possible that he is, since most people who read The Grapes of Wrath don’t forget the ending in a hurry. In some ways, though, these parallel scenes become more interesting if Martin didn’t intend the allusion, because in that case the reader might posit that there was some kind of collective unconscious or universal symbolism going on subconsciously in the minds of both of these (male) writers, whose novels are separated in time by 55 years and by endless conventions of genre that make it hard – but not impossible – to imagine that both Steinbeck and Martin might be communicating similar ideas.
And better yet: now if I ever re-read The Grapes of Wrath and write about it on this blog, I can start a new category called “Novels That Are Given Narrative Closure and Symbolic Resonance Via Breastfeeding.” And how cool would THAT be?
*N.B. Yes, the true title of the book is A Game of Thrones. I usually omit the article because thanks to the TV series the book seems to be widely referred to as Game of Thrones (even my copy of the book, which features a character from the show on its cover, leaves out the A, though the A is included on the interior title page). However, when my aim was to show a (probably totally irrelevant) connection to The Grapes of Wrath, it seemed important to leave the article in.