A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t need to be more than that
I’m a little late to this but I want to add a few words about a post Henry Farrell wrote in which he disagrees with Alyssa Rosenberg’s claim that the A Song of Ice and Fire series nicely parallels modern international statecraft:
An international system based on dynastic politics works in very different ways from one based on modern sovereign states – most obviously, family dynamics play a much more important role. And Martin never forgets that – family relations – both internal, and external shape the trajectory of the book.
Marriages are the most potent instrument for creating alliances, even if they don’t always work as they should (the most recent book mentions a feud between two families that has gone on for centuries, despite numerous intermarriages which have mingled their blood. Numerous suitors believe that the way to control Daenerys’ dragons is through winning her hand.
But more subtly, intra-familial relationships have profound international consequences. Jealousies between brothers lead to the sundering of realms. Theon Greyjoy – one of the more unpleasant characters in the earlier books – becomes more sympathetic as we realize that his erratic nastiness is in part the result of his having been stranded between two families. Fostered and adopted as a hostage by the Starks after his father’s failed rebellion, he finds himself unable to find a place in his old family, but unable fully to become a member of his new family either. And none of this begins to touch on the political consequences of bastardry, of adultery (which, when committed by the queen, becomes high treason) &c&c. Martin doesn’t force this down our throats – it emerges only as necessary to the plot. But it really does speak to the differences between the mediaeval world and our own (he’s less successful by far at portraying non-Western societies – but that’s a whole different set of questions).
I agree with Farrell here although I think there are plenty of broad and precise parallels between modern day politics and medieval politics to be found in the books —just not more so than any other intricate fantasy book. That’s what makes me wary about a lot of attention George R. R. Martin’s books are getting from the pundit community. It’s true that these books are indeed primarily about politics (which is a big part of the reason I like them) but that doesn’t mean they can or should be used as a study of politics or international relations. Again, that’s part of why I like the series so much, the setting is somewhat familiar but the rules of the world as well as the story itself are rather new and different.
That’s not to say that marriages and family relations don’t play a part in modern day politics but it’s hardly as influential as it is in Westeros. Wars are fought based on who’s marrying who or who’s sleeping with who, and they’re fought directly because of that. That’s pretty different from the causes and motivations of a lot of conflicts today.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with there not being lots of deep political or literary subtext in a fantasy series, at least on the level we’re talking about here. I just don’t see why Robert’s Rebellion should parallel —I don’t know— the Civil War, for example. The story is interesting and politically stimulating in and of itself. I find the politics of Westeros fascinating (because I’m so cool, right?) and have found myself wondering, for example, if Tyrion really was a good Hand or whether any of the Baratheon brothers would have made a good king or if Targaryens were really bad kings (I don’t think so and am anti-Robert’s Rebellion to be honest). That by itself is fun and interesting. I just don’t see why the books have to be made into something more.
League readers, I have fallen off the A Song of Ice and Fire blogging wagon but I’ll be back. I’m rereading the whole series and when I get to A Dance with Dragons I’ll be cranking out posts again. I really miss and look forward to your responses.