- I propose that ASOIAF is constantly and pervasively dissembling, playing surreptitious word games that exploit readers’ deeply and unconsciously held expectations regarding narratives that “look like this”.
- Moreover, ASOIAF pretty much tells us it dissembles, and even showcases examples of how it does so. The core of this essay consists in looking at instances of this phenomenon.
- Despite ASOIAF’s “admission of guilt”, its narrative style and structure generally work to suggest it’s never really “saying” anything at all to us, but merely recording/representing what’s “apparent” to its POVs.
- This dissembling — “lies” is catchier; dissembling more accurate — and the suggestion that there’s “nothing more to see here” help ASOIAF produce “obvious”, facile readings (and concomitant “understandings”) which work as powerful Evidence against most any meta/subtextual theory one can adduce.
- They also shroud inverse, alternate interpretations that the text hints at but “denies”, keeping them off casual readers’ radars entirely and beyond conclusive proof (given only in-world-evidence/analysis).
- Given ASOIAF’s “admission”, good analysis should treat suspicious word play not simply as “interesting to think about” but as substantive evidence.
- ASOIAF may ultimately enact this dissembling in part to facilitate a supercool deconstructive critique of a problematic genre (i.e. Fantasy; I’ve previously posted about this), but I allow that perhaps its project isn’t necessarily critical/political, and that regardless it’s doing hella cool things on a “technical” level.
- It’s important to suss that ASOIAF is bullshitting you in certain respects, even if you disagree that it’s working as a politically-charged literary project.
6 Places ASOIAF Talks to its Reader
I want to begin with six passages. (I’ll bring in another after some discussion.) I think the first passage (AGOT Eddard XIII) is possibly the most important in ASOIAF, and not for the reason generally given.
“Take care of my children for me.”
The words twisted in Ned’s belly like a knife. For a moment he was at a loss. He could not bring himself to lie. Then he remembered the bastards: little Barra at her mother’s breast, Mya in the Vale, Gendry at his forge, and all the others. “I shall… guard your children as if they were my own,” he said slowly. (AGOT Ned XIII)
“Tell me, Theon, how many men did Mors Umber have with him at Winterfell?” [Stannis asked.]
“None. No men.” He grinned at his own wit. “He had boys.” (TWOW Theon I)
“Bronze Yohn knows me,” [Sansa] reminded [Petyr]. “He was a guest at Winterfell when his son rode north to take the black.”… “And that was not the only time. Lord Royce saw… Sansa Stark again at King’s Landing, during the Hand’s tourney.”
Petyr put a finger under her chin. “That Royce glimpsed this pretty face I do not doubt, but it was one face in a thousand. A man fighting in a tourney has more to concern him than some child in the crowd. And at Winterfell, Sansa was a little girl with auburn hair. My daughter is a maiden tall and fair, and her hair is chestnut. Men see what they expect to see, Alayne.” (AFFC Alayne I)
The eunuch took a cloak from a peg…. When he swept it over Tyrion’s shoulders it enveloped him head to heel, with a cowl that could be pulled forward to drown his face in shadows. ” Men see what they expect to see,” Varys said as he fussed and pulled. “Dwarfs are not so common a sight as children, so a child is what they will see. A boy in an old cloak on his father’s horse, going about his father’s business.” (ACOK Tyrion III)
“The glamor, aye.” In the black iron fetter about [Mance’s] wrist, the ruby seemed to pulse. He tapped it with the edge of his blade. The steel made a faint click against the stone. “I feel it when I sleep. Warm against my skin, even through the iron. Soft as a woman’s kiss. Your kiss. But sometimes in my dreams it starts to burn, and your lips turn into teeth. Every day I think how easy it would be to pry it out, and every day I don’t. Must I wear the bloody bones as well?”
“The spell is made of shadow and suggestion. Men see what they expect to see. The bones are part of that.” (ADWD Melisandre I)
For Robert, those [rapey] nights never happened. Come morning he remembered nothing, or so he would have had her believe. Once, during the first year of their marriage, Cersei had voiced her displeasure the next day. “You hurt me,” she complained. He had the grace to look ashamed. “It was not me, my lady,” he said in a sulky sullen tone, like a child caught stealing apple cakes from the kitchen. “It was the wine. I drink too much wine.” To wash down his admission, he reached for his horn of ale. As he raised it to his mouth, she smashed her own horn in his face, so hard she chipped a tooth. Years later at a feast, she heard him telling a serving wench how he’d cracked the tooth in a mêlée. Well, our marriage was a mêlée, she reflected, so he did not lie. (Cersei VII)
A Metatextual Interpretation of In-World Narrative & Dialog
These passages form part of an ongoing dialog I believe ASOIAF is having with its readers.
They serve as metatextual signposts informing those looking beyond a straight-forward, facile, “in-world” interpretation (i.e. “I’m reading a novel, this is what these characters are saying/thinking/doing, the end.”) inter alia that:
- Misdirection, duplicity, and dissembling in a narrative — including ASOIAF itself — stand more ably on thin reeds of truth than thin air, and frequently assume and depend on the unwitting complicity of the recipient/observer.
- The slipperiness of language is a powerful ally to employ to these ends.
- Truth “from a certain point of view” is truth, nevertheless.
- Thus so long as something like a thin reed of truth is present: All’s Fair in a Good Game of Turning A Phrase, which ASOIAF is abso-freakin’-lutely playing.
At risk of sounding glib: ASOIAF’s obsession with in-world deceit, prevarication and dissembling isn’t just telling us how the in-world “game of thrones” is played by the characters, it’s also telling us how the books beginning with A Game of Thrones are playing us.
Before looking at each quotation, I recognize that many will object along these lines: the passages cited are “of course” just about in-world events, that there is no “evidence” that they are about (what I believe to be the overdetermined) text of ASOIAF or how it should be read.
- I freely grant that ASOIAF seems to steer readers towards an exclusively “in-world” analysis, with literary “clues” being consigned to the “fun to think about” bin.
- After I discuss these passages, I’ll discuss how and why this steering takes place, positing that it’s inherent to ASOIAF’s POV Structure and Style, but for now I beg you to suspend any disbelief and grant that ASOIAF talking to its readers might be A Thing.
The 6 Quotations
Let’s look at the quotations and consider more specifically what they imply regarding how we ought to look for evidence/truth/solutions in ASOIAF.
Ned promising his dying best friend Robert that he will take care of Robert’s children, knowing full well he means the bastards — could be the most important paragraph in ASOIAF.
- Many believe Ned’s words (save for “child” not “children”) in fact constitute his promise to Lyanna.
- They may well. This could be an instance of basic metatextuality: the text is telling us something (“hey! you know that promise I’ve been going on about…?”) that the character doesn’t intend.
But I think ASOIAF is “looking you in the eye” here far more directly than this interpretation (alone) allows.
- Eddard Stark is a character of unimpeachable honor.
- Torn between his duty to The Truth and not wanting to hurt his dying best friend, he falters… until he seizes on a “technicality”!
- He knows Robert will never begin to comprehend the intent or meaning “behind” the words he chooses.
- He chooses them for precisely that reason; an imprecise phrase, your children, conceals his actual meaning… if there can be an “actual” meaning in this situation.
- But he isn’t really lying [cough], since he really “means” that he will protect those lovable Bobby B Bastards.
- AGOT thus says, in effect: A statement is substantially truthful if there exists an interpretation, even/especially one based on knowledge the recipient does not have, under which its verbiage, however vague, however allusional, however conventionally understood, is in alignment with the truth.
If Honest Abe Stark can willfully suggest to Robert as part of a deathbed oath an impression that is wholly inaccurate while claiming technical honesty because he knows something his “reader” (Bobby B) doesn’t, you’re damn skippy ASOIAF can do the same thing to you and not dishonor itself.
- ASOIAF tells you: think hard about every pronoun, every general noun, every verb with a figurative meaning, etc., because they won’t necessarily mean what you think they mean given their “obvious” context.
- ASOIAF may thereby deceive you, but it will be able to claim it told the Truth all along. It was just “talking about the Bastards” while you were fixated on Joffrey. So to speak.
The second quotation consists of Theon (jokingly) showing how far awry textual interpretation can easily go.
- Stannis does say “men”.
- One sense of “men” not only does not include boys, it exists in a mutually conditioning dichotomy with “boys”: men are males who are not boys; boys are males who are not men.
- So Theon is being maddeningly literal, ignoring the “obvious” meaning of Stannis’s question, right? Of course.
But imagine Stannis was just having a conversation in which he made the distinction Theon made, speaking of men on the one hand and boys on the other.
- Theon’s answer would “now” be straightforward, accurate, and unblinking. His explanation would simply be emphasis.
The point is, ASOIAF is drawing attention to the slipperiness of language, to the notion that, with an alternate context or set of assumptions, a “text” can acquire a meaning wholly at odds to that which now appears “obvious”.
When ASOIAF is complete there will be shocking amounts of text that we’re all going to understand very differently upon re-reading.
The third passage sees Sansa worried that her “true” identity will be discovered by Bronze Yohn, and Littlefinger reassuring her that Alayne looks sufficiently different from Sansa that — particularly when viewed in the “context” (har) of a gaggle of folks who reflexively “know” that she’s Alayne — her fears are unfounded.
In-world, LF is supremely confident in the disguise:
– While Sansa fears the “text” of her face and memories and consciousness may be “legible” to Royce, LF understands that people universally “fill in the blanks” based on unconscious assumptions arising from context and expectation.
– He knows, in short, that minds leap to the “obvious” conclusion, so long as it’s presented with a reasonable shellac of authenticity.
ASOIAF is shouting at us:
I’m every bit the dissembler Littlefinger is. Read me as I “seem” at your peril. I am using every trick to ensure you don’t even know where to look to figure out what you don’t know, let alone to find my Truth.
Varys is aware of the same thing.
- Dwarfs are rare; children are not
- Unless their attention is drawn, why should a man realize a cloaked dwarf is not a child?
Varys could as well be saying to us: If in a particular sentence the word “them” seems to refer to noun X, consider that in some cases it might instead refer noun Y, notwithstanding what a short person in a cloak usually is. Har.
Melisandre’s exchange with Mance Rayder doubtless has important in-world implications, explicating glamors and foreshadowing their future use.
And that’s pretty cool. (*cough* Mors Umber=”Roger Ryswell”=Hooded Man; Mance gonna glamor as Ramsay, book it. *cough*)
But as with Ned’s dissembling “oath”, a critical memo to the reader is tucked away behind a bit of business that absolutely stands tall on its own two narrative legs and thereby hardly suggests any ulterior (metatextual) motive.
- Recall that in the first 4 passages, there are obviously hooks and/or “thin reeds of Truth” present, upon which Ned’s, Littlefinger’s and Varys’s deceptions and Theon’s bad jape are anchored.
- With Mel ‘n’ Mance, ASOIAF really pounds its hammer to the nail those passages presented.
- Mel spells it out slowly: ASOIAF is saying things like other genre novels do, and can perforce be easily interpreted on a similar level, but the “bones” of this “seeming” will often conceal and misrepresent thanks to your unwitting complicity.
- Alayne’s brown hair might be analogous to an in-world question a character answers. If their response is overdetermined, but only viewed in light of said “brown hair”/question, then Sansa Stark, i.e. some metatextual truth in the response, remains secret, and only Alayne “answers”. So to speak.
- “Rattleshirt’s bones” might be the relentless foregrounding of one issue regarding a character’s identity, with the “shadow and suggestion” thereby created leading readers to fail to even consider more fundamental questions about the same subject. (e.g. Aegon can indeed be Elia’s son, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s Rhaegar’s, does it?)
Finally we have Cersei, who hates Robert as much as any character hates any other, nevertheless seeing and granting the figurative “truth” in Robert’s utterly false pickup line.
- She is comically broad-minded, indulging the elasticity of Bobby B.’s words and their relationship with what they might justifiably be claimed to represent.
- What he claimed happened didn’t. There is no way the wench might reasonably realize this, yet Cersei allows that he didn’t truly lie because his words could — albeit only by someone else, in another context — be interpreted metaphorically and contain truth.
ASOIAF is repeating the Ned lesson. And it’s telling us that when it represents seemingly straightforward events in a seemingly straightforward way, it may be couching a Greater Truth from view (including that of the characters).
It’s notable that this imagined metaphorical “truth” would be far more profound, if understood, than the banal details of Bobby B’s BS war story.
- Perhaps examining shit like metaphor, metatext and the overdetermination of ever-so-vague terms like “mêlée” (har!) is a more useful praxis than erecting shrines to Occam’s Razor.
It can easily be said:
But there’s no evidence that ASOIAF is actually “saying” any of this. You don’t know that. Cersei’s just a liar who like most liars looks for ways to not really be lying, so her seeing the “truth” in Robert’s words is unremarkable and wholly explicable in-world.
And that is where the genius of what I’ll call ASOIAF’s “inaccessible” metatext lies:
- The metatext is about the very rules of engagement with ASOIAF, but ASOIAF knows well that readers unconsciously grok the conventional rules of engagement with texts “like this” and will reflexively expect they will apply.
- These conventional rules don’t tell us to look for “new” rules.
- They tell us to read what characters do or say in-world as informative only in-world (or as classically ironic).
- They tell us the text presumes an unbroken 4th wall until and unless it’s being obviously “pointed to”, a la ironic meta-fiction.
Thus we instinctually “know” ASOIAF isn’t referring to itself here and admitting its verbiage will mislead.
Without already grokking that metatextual interpretation is legitimate, we can’t “read” the metatextual “evidence” that it’s legitimate.
Following conventional rules: “Of course” Cersei is just a liar sympathizing with another liar.
There is a fault line in the armor: the very efficiency with which the POVs’ stylistic structure handwaves meta-analysis suggests its complicity, its “guilt”.
So let’s discuss in general ASOIAF’s structuring device: its rotating/roving Points Of View.
ASOIAF’S POV Structure/Style
The POV structure is, of course, the key anchor for ASOIAF’s Multifarious Multiplying Mysteries.
- How so?
The POVs create “blind spots” that condition the existence of countless mysteries for the reader. This is mostly obvious:
- If a character doesn’t know, hear or see something, they naturally “can’t” relate that information to the reader.
Readers are structurally “invited” to use the various POVs to fill in one another’s obvious blanks:
- Diligent synthesis of the Fragmented Whole is implicitly held out as The Key to ASOIAF.
I think that this inherent “suggestion” insidiously serves to limit our domain of legitimate inquiry:
- We don’t notice the limit because rather than being told “Don’t look there!”, we’re “massaged” towards “Looking Here” and then amply rewarded for doing so, while “there” isn’t even acknowledged.
There’s a less obvious way the POV structure might create blind spots that do not call attention to themselves as such.
- Passive blind spots centered on what POV characters know very well — unconsciously assume, presuppose, are acculturated to, etc. — can camouflage that there is even a question to be asked of something, let alone an unknown answer.
- It’s tough to know when and where to look for a “passive blind spot” due to the specific nature of ASOIAF’s POV style…
So let’s talk about the style of ASOIAF’s POVs:
ASOIAF positions the reader in the heads of rotating “narrators” who don’t actually narrate as such.
Instead, we receive a kind of naive stream of consciousness:
- There isn’t anything like a “conversation” with the reader.
- There’s no self-consciousness and no awareness of being watched/listened to.
- There’s no analogue to a prototypical hard-boiled detective’s running commentary on the events as they narrate them, often from an implied temporal distance.
In short, the specific manner of ASOIAF’s POVs contains no hint that a story is actively being told, instead positioning the reader inside an “Innocent Witness” to events as they unfold.
Because we’re not being told a Story but merely empathetically witnessing Stuff, because facts, details and observations we receive are not represented as being “selected” but rather as “apparent” (and hence comprehensive of the “visible” in the POV), the POVs implicitly “claim” to present All The Facts Available to the POV Character to us.
- We’re invited to doubt only that which the POV doubts or which we see contradicted (or otherwise foregrounded as dubious).
- The impression is created that an absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence.
The POV characters’ interpretations ubiquitously present us with in-world solutions to potential mysteries, the existence of which can suggest contradictory theories are Tinfoil (pejoratively understood).
The very verbiage that seemingly innocently “records” a POV invites us to trust it as “just so”, just as we reflexively “know” we can trust most such text in popular fiction.
Thus pointing out over-determined verbiage and suggesting alternate in-world readings makes you look like you’re wearing Tinfoil.
e.g. Suggesting “only two” refers to “of seven”, not all ten present (and “they” to “seven” as well) — in this passage:
They had been seven against three, yet only two had lived to ride away; Eddard Stark himself and the little crannogman, Howland Reed.
There’s another related consequence of ASOIAF’s POV structure and style — of The Innocent Witness-Narrator just outlined — which bears directly on the main thesis I’m advancing.
I believe ASOIAF’s structure and style exploit the reflexive assumptions most readers make when they encounter narration as straight-forward as this, thereby shrouding ASOIAF’s inherent textuality — the fact that texts are always-already “addressing” readers regardless of perception — and thereby further encouraging a facile, exclusively in-world interpretation/analysis.
- Given that popular fiction usually doesn’t willfully “say” much if anything to its readers without calling attention to the act, most readers will reflexively “recognize” ASOIAF as a text which can simply be “absorbed” for the information it contains.
- They won’t ask, “What is ASOIAF saying to me?” since the text is “clearly” not addressing itself to them in the first place.
- Specifically, “Pay attention, ‘I’, ASOIAF, am BS-ing you, the reader” passages like those I’ve quoted are hidden by the stylistic/structural suggestion that there is no metatext.
If we assume ASOIAF is sufficiently akin to a Mystery Genre Piece that its Solutions are immanent in the text, what better place to hide them than in a reading of the text which the text’s structure seems to deny exists?
At the same time, however, the most fundamental and seemingly obvious element of the structure of the POVs — the fact that there are multiple POVs and that the movement between them is clearly a huge part of why we are unaware of countless things — actually “contradicts” the functioning just discussed: it demonstrates that this text is artifice after all.
As ever, it’s in such contradictions that understanding grows.
Aside: the same “fundamental” element of ASOIAF’s structure actually “says” something in itself:
- The leaping between various benighted viewpoints reinforces a theme running throughout the in-world narrative: the tragic poverty of and damage caused by limited perspective.
- This seems in a way to be THE major theme of TWOIAF and its in-world Maester’s Work conceit: it’s brimming with the tacit suggestion that we don’t know shit about Planetos beyond the 7 Kingdoms.
In a way this whole scheme is diabolically circular, offering no “access point” to the metatext:
- To “see” the quoted passages’ supposed metatextual signposts telling us how we ought to read ASOIAF, you have to first accept that ASOIAF is operating metatextually and speaking directly to its readers despite a style which suggests anything but.
- And in order to believe that ASOIAF might be operating metatextually, you need a reason it can’t be trusted to be “as it seems”.
- That is, you need what the metatextual signposts you can’t yet “see” provide.
Delicious! Without a leap of faith, there is no way “inside” the text’s “seeming”.
I gotta say, if you want to fool readers in a day and age of hyper-awareness of genre form, you damn well better pull something like this.
Having remarked on the initial passages and discussed how structure and style avert our analysis, let’s look at one more passage to help tie things together.
It smacks us in the face with a user’s manual for navigating ASOIAF’s dissembling:
Lord Hoster’s eyes opened. “Tansy,” he husked in a voice thick with pain.
He does not know me. Catelyn had grown accustomed to him taking her for her mother or her sister Lysa, but Tansy was a name strange to her. “It’s Catelyn,” she said. “It’s Cat, Father.”
“Forgive me… the blood… oh, please… Tansy…”
Could there have been another woman in her father’s life? Some village maiden he had wronged when he was young, perhaps? Could he have found comfort in some serving wench’s arms after Mother died? It was a queer thought, unsettling. Suddenly she felt as though she had not known her father at all. “Who is Tansy, my lord? Do you want me to send for her, Father? Where would I find the woman? Does she still live?” (ASOS Catelyn I)
The first thing that strikes us is the jarring — almost laughable — in-world foregrounding of this Mystery.
- Most of the Multifarious Multiplying Mysteries in ASOIAF are raised implicitly, often existing only for readers, nor characters.
- Thus it feels like we’re being forced to look.
And to what end? The “Tansy” jag is quickly solved, self-contained and minimally consequential. Suspiciously so:
- It is a sort of Red Herring, distracting attention from Big Fish hiding in the text’s lily pads.
(And there are countless bigger fish: ASOIAF withholds as much as it can about as many different things as possible for as long as possible.)
But it’s hugely striking that “Tansy Who?” hangs on Cat’s “misreading” Tansy as a Woman’s name rather than the herb from which said name derives.
- As in the 6 quotations, the slipperiness of language is foregrounded in LETTERS TEN FEET TALL.
- By showing us a character being misled by her presumption regarding an imprecise (verbal) text, ASOIAF’s metatext crackles to life:
“Don’t be like Catelyn. Don’t assume an overdetermined word’s or phrase’s referent is what it ‘obviously’ is.”
Coupled with all the previously discussed Signposts reading “I am misleading you,” the implications are massive.
- When ASOIAF poses questions, answers may hide in plain sight, in simple but overdetermined verbiage. Just as they did for Catelyn and T/tansy.
I’ve already outlined how ASOIAF’s POV structure and style dissuades us from metatextual interpretation, discussed how that dissuasion helps obfuscate what I believe is a crucial layer of clues revealed when we no longer “trust” the text, and suggested a leap of faith might be necessary due to the circularity of these things.
Now I want to assay a second “answer” to objections like, “No, the Tansy jag was just a neat little one-book story about a secret. You can’t KNOW it’s metatext.” Let’s come at the matter from the opposite direction — not from how the text hides things and how the manner and efficacy of hiding might hint that there’s something to see, but from the fact that things in ASOIAF are obviously, always, and everywhere Hidden.
Ultimately this will lead to a discussion of what ASOIAF is “about”, and how what it’s about suggests, in turn, that it surely wants to use unusal tools to hide its secrets.
Nobody Knows What The Fuck Is Going On.
Another approach to the argument that ASOIAF is, in the passages I’ve discussed and many more like them, “consciously” begging readers to distrust its words proceeds from the simple fact that countless seemingly impenetrable levels of What The Fuck Is Going On remain. There’s been so much analysis by so many people, yet ASOIAF remains maddeningly opaque, and in the end even Occam’s Razor-wielding anti-Tinfoilers’ “sane” beliefs remain mostly unprovable.
- Given our persistent pervasive ignorance, is it plausible that ASOIAF doesn’t always “work” like its form and most analyses suggest?
- Might answers be hidden in plain sight, in peculiarities of putatively Innocent Witnesses’ Narratives?
Let’s detour for a moment and talk about whether ASOIAF is a Mystery, a Fantasy, or what.
- A typical Mystery Genre Piece (MGP) works to elicit surprise and disbelief when the Unknown (a Rumsfeldian “known unknown,” consciously investigated by a protagonist) is ultimately Revealed in its climax.
- This revelation produces psychological sutures where fissure and disruption existed, both “in-world” (justice is served) and structurally, for the reader.
- The immanence of the solution in the text — the theoretical solvability of the “case” — helps provide this closure for the reader, this source of familiar, expected pleasure and/or satisfaction.
ASOIAF certainly seems to traffic in these pleasures, while most of the time not actually identifying its “known unknowns” or positing detective-protagonists.
- Even with much “unsolved” it provides analogous suturing pleasures in the near-infinite connections that can be drawn between disparate characters/plot strands/events/etc.
- Paradoxically, there are pleasures (suture anticipation?) each time new, implicit “blank spots” (new known unknowns/fissures) emerge.
ASOIAF even playfully foregrounds the MGP:
- It begins with events instantly recognizable as a “case”: Jon Arryn’s death.
- It presents instantly recognizable reader-proxies wanting to know Whodunnit and Why.
Like a good MGP, ASOIAF doesn’t resort to textual nihilism in order to present a solution:
- That is, GRRM hasn’t pulled anything completely out of his ass, and (esp. in retrospect) always offers hints, clues and allusions, however subtle and unnoticed they may generally be.
But unlike the MGP-esque in-world quality of Arryn’s murder-mystery or Tansy Who?, the vast majority of Mysteries over which we ruminate are posed implicitly, by the gaps in ASOIAF’s POVs.
Sooo.. ASOIAF’s not a normal Mystery. Wait, isn’t it Fantasy? There’s Dragons, so…
Prototypical Fantasy Genre Pieces (FGPs) are characterized by:
- a relatively Manichean struggle between Good and Evil
- clearly identified protagonists (traitors aside) posited as reader-surrogates
- a great Task set forth
- a series of variegated Struggles culminating in a Final Conflict
- Victory, generally with a patina of “complication”, e.g. Frodo’s inability to re-integrate into the world he’d fought to save in LOTR.
Aside: I believe these putative “nuances” are only a veneer, and that their ubiquity betrays the FGP’s self-awareness as conservative or at least adolescent art.
The recognizable structure of FGPs facilitates simple pleasures and (dangerously) simple thinking: vicarious thrills and ego-identification with The Good as against an unproblematically identifiable and Existing Evil with no real world analogues.
- That is, we kinda know how FGPs are gonna go and get to “enjoy the ride”.
In ASOIAF the conventions of FGP plot structures are obliterated from the start, most famously when Ned Stark is killed in AGOT.
The avoidance of generic FGP plotting and character development continues in innumerable ways, e.g.:
- “Our heroine” Catelyn’s desire for revenge — a desire ASOIAF works to instill in its readers — is thrown back in the face of reader as the destructive force it actually is in the real world.
- The members of erstwhile “Team Villain” — Tyrion, Jaime, Cersei, Kevan and in TWOIAF even Tywin– are gradually humanized, while the imperfections of “our heroes” metastasize.
Immediately and non-controversially, then, this doesn’t seem like a FGP.
And while not a MGP, the Unknown is all-pervasive: there is no omniscent narrator nor sage/guru figure spewing expository dialog, and in fact ASOIAF goes far further than a MGP does in establishing Known Unknowns.
- The nature of everything — geography, metaphysics, history, characters’ goals and identities — is kept obscure.
Fundamentals remain opaque:
- Irregular ice ages?
- A round planet? How big? What’s on the other side?
- How does magic work? Is it related to religion?
- Are the gods real? Are they mutually compatible?
- Why is history “stalled”? Who are the Others? Etc. Etc.
- And these don’t even touch on the Multifarious Multiplying Mysteries in its story.
Whereas FGPs have a core simplicity, ASOIAF is a work of byzantine complexity, with layer upon layer of depth even on a superficial, in-world-only level:
- Hundreds of characters and events are interwoven and interrelated.
- The most prominent plot strands reveal dozens of vectors of conflict between disparate actors (Houses, individuals and institutions) possessed of internally inconsistent and contradictory motives and characters.
In this light, the FGP appears passe: Tolkien wrote in light of WWI as a romantic, conservative Roman Catholic, fer chrissake.
The ineluctable conclusion is that while ASOIAF presents itself as Fantasy, it’s far less a Fantasy than a fragmented, post-modern riff on Mystery garbed in the accoutrements of Fantasy, worn in a style somewhere between pastiche and wholesale deconstruction.
It’s not a simple mash-up.
- Its hyper-amplification of the unknown and use of multiple, fragmentary, limited perspectives reflect key aspects of post-modernity. (…whole ‘other essay…)
Now, let’s tie this back into where we noted that we don’t know jack shit, really:
- If ASOIAF isn’t a standard Genre Piece, might it not follow that it isn’t necessarily playing by conventional narrative rules either?
- In other words, given that this is po-mo Mystery riff and given the persistent, pervasive opacity of its mysteries to conventional analyses (e.g. synthesis of the fragmented POVs), might it be that unseen clues are hidden in unconventional ways/places?
- Might it be that there are important things besides in-world Stuff for us to “read” here, and that the failure to do so limits the “knowable”.
I think so.
So if we don’t wish to be passive spectators waiting for feeding tubes, we must needs rip the text’s veil and assume it’s treating us like adults and is, like other contemporary media, perfectly capable of winking at the camera.
A Kind of Mystery, Regardless
Perhaps you still don’t buy that ASOIAF is “actually” saying “I’m lying” to its readers and see nothing here but in-world text.
Even so, I hope you nevertheless allow that it is a fragmented, post-modern Mystery riff, given the density of our ignorance, the foregrounding of straight-forward Mystery (e.g. Arryn, Tansy, The Gravedigger, Jon’s parentage), the POV structure’s constant production of “gaps”, etc.
And if it is, then ASOIAF doesn’t want you to know what’s going on, right?
- No Mystery does.
Consequently, why wouldn’t the text lie to you as much as it can while being able to claim, in retrospect, that it did not?
It follows that my analysis of the quoted passages is a practical guide to interpreting ASOIAF, even if the passages cited are not “intended” as a metatextual user’s manual.
In conclusion I want to restate some things I’ve posted about previously that tie in with the points made here.
First, a truism:
If a Mystery (riff) wants to be great Mystery (riff) and elicit real surprise and disbelief from most readers when its Unknowns are ultimately Revealed and shown to have somehow been immanent all along, as great Mysteries do, it simply can’t afford obvious, easy, banal Solutions.
Nor can great Mysteries have solutions that, if not obvious to everyone, are somehow readily sussed out by 95% of Serious Readers, sometimes after book 1 of 7.
Otherwise: “Oh. That’s it?”
- And if all the seeming dissembling and obfuscation is merely a vast school of Red Herrings and ASOIAF is mostly telling the Truth all along whenever it “obviously” tells us, in-world, about something important, what’s its point?
“Check out how ‘interesting’ it is when the Reveal after 7000 pages is that there are no dramatic reversals of expectation, supposed profundity of R+L+J aside”?
- I don’t think so.
Occam’s Razor may suggest simple, “obvious” or “self-evident” in-world explanations.
Aside: Note that the Razor is a real-world problem solving heuristic. Were dramatic fiction to hew to the solutions it — or at least the version of it plied by some Occam’s Razor didacts — presents, the Mystery Genre would be an awfully barren place, and drama itself might well be endangered.
- Yes, in a classic Holmes-ian deduction Mystery O.R. might be said to apply since we’re given All The Facts We Need, but this isn’t how it’s typically thrown around in an anti-Tinfoil sense with regard to po-mo media.
- Indeed, in Whodunnits there’s often some pretty crazy shit behind The Mystery and, at first, way simpler shit that could explain The Initial Facts. It’s only once clues are gathered that the simple shit gets (magically) eliminated and the classic truism of “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth” rears its sexy head.
But Occam’s Razor doesn’t account for what a good Mystery needs — i.e. truly elusive answers — nor does it account for what may be the nature of GRRM’s ASOIAF endeavor.
It is very possible that ASOIAF is just a fragmented, post-modern Mystery riff dressed up like Fantasy.
- That is, the fantasy plot could be resolved in a fairly conventional fashion co-terminously with the Mystery.
- If this is the case, GRRM deserves due credit for crafting one helluva whopper of a neo-“Mystery”: he’s assuredly a technical genius.
But recall that ASOIAF’s complexity, humanized “antagonists”, compromised “protagonists”, dead reader-proxies, etc., made it profoundly anti-FGP from the start.
Given its defiance of genre, I think it’s likely that “Po-Mo Mystery” is not all GRRM is up to.
- Rather I think ASOIAF may ultimately subvert every expectation FGP fans have, presumably because GRRM sees those as bound up with real-world ideologies that are harmful to the Smallfolk of Earth.
The Mystery draped over the Fantasy constitutes a huge part of this:
- The Terms of Conflict — normally apparent very quickly in a FGP — remain opaque after 5 books.
- To the extent we can identify or guess at what for any “protagonist(s)” smells like a standard FGP Journey/Struggle, it’s mostly unclear whether said Struggle is even being consciously waged:
Certainly characters have goals, but the sense that there is a forest being missed for some serious Game Of Thrones Trees is palpable.
- Accordingly, the prospect of typical FGP pleasure wtih regard to the Journey/Struggle is fraught: what is the goal, and does anyone (including the reader) even recognize it? How is progress even measured?
What about an FGP climax, Final Conflict, and Bittersweet Victory?
- If, when the Truth of characters, institutions, supernatural forces, conflicts, etc. is finally Revealed and the Mystery falls away, ASOIAF maintains its nuance, complexity, polyvalent conflicts, critique of parochial perspective, etc., that’s going to create some seriously impactful dissonance and anxiety for many folks.
- The efficacy of such an anti-genre conclusion (a Final Conflict-that-isn’t without a clear protagonist or “win condition,” with no clearly Evil entity to be destroyed, fought by actors not fully aware of their roles nor “enemies’ natures/etc.?) will be heightened if there is no bracing for impact, if the promise that Someday It Will All Make Sense In A Rainbows & Targ Royal Family Victory FGP Way lingers sweetly until it is dashed at the last.
- Maintaining readers’ ignorance of their Fantasy Getaway’s “destination” is in this scenario the end game of ASOIAF-as-Mystery.
Thus to best succeed as a FGP-subversion (or if you prefer — and this cannot be overstated — simply as a po-mo Mystery riff), ASOIAF’s clusterfuck of Truth must remain hidden from most readers until the climax, and this means serious dissembling and obfuscation. I.e. Really Tough Mysteries.
We come full circle when we ask, “How best to craft Really Tough Mysteries?”
Certainly a deluge of details, some worthless, some invaluable, strewn thickly across fractured POVs is ASOIAF’s most obvious ploy, and it is ingenius.
But if ASOIAF wants to truly baffle, whether to demolish genre or just to be a Hella-Cool Po-Mo Mystery-Riff/Quasi-Fantasy that “plays fair” inasmuch as its solution is covertly immanent in the text — as it surely does — it must play with metatextuality, slippery language, over-determined verbiage, allusion, metaphor, etc.
It does, and it looks us in the eye and tells us it’s doing so, as hopefully this essay has shown.
The way forward is clear: our heuristic must needs combine diligent in-world synthesis with an awareness of ASOIAF’s “confession”, an awareness that suggests metatext, overdetermination, etc. aren’t just interesting to think about; they’re at the core of teasing out The Hidden in ASOIAF.