What’s Really Wrong with ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’
~by Ryan B.
Lots of spoilers for the whole series, up to and including A Dance with Dragons. Reader beware.
Now that we’re past our contretemps of the last few days, maybe it’s time to talk about things that are actually are kind of problematic in A Song of Ice and Fire. Sean T. Collins over at All Leather Must Be Boiled kicks it off:
The main problem with Martin’s depiction of the Dothraki and the other Eastern cultures isn’t that they’re shown to be inherently barbaric or decadent as opposed to the Seven Kingdoms.
I’m not sure if this misses the mark or not. To some extent, the Dothraki are shown to be barbaric in a way the Westerosi aren’t. Rape and pillage are tolerated to some extent in Westeros as the wages of war, but they are never quite sanctioned from above, as they say. In the first book, Ned Stark considers the antics of Gregor Clegane monstrous enough to declare him a traitor and sentence him to death. On the other side of the Narrow Sea, the only person who even bothers to make note that raping the conquered isn’t kosher is Dany, the white lady.
This goes for slavery as well. Jorah Mormont goes into exile rather than die for the crime of enslaving others (a sentence declared, again, by Ned Stark, which raises the possibility that the major difference between Westeros and Essos is… Ned). Again, the only person in Essos who is ever particularly troubled by the existence of slavery is… Dany (notice a pattern?).
Beyond that, Drogo is a pretty quintessential Noble Savage. Of all his people, he is the one who seems to want consent before sex (in the book, at least; the TV show doesn’t even bother). He is the one who accedes to Dany’s demand that Mirri Maz Duur be spared from her rapists. And so on.
Collins addresses two more points quickly at the end of his post as well:
1) I think Dany’s experiences in Slaver’s Bay are riddled with enough mistakes and bad acts that she’s at least as much destroyer as savior; 2) It’s okay to root for a villain now and then, especially one whose villainy is complicated by her obvious, realistically portrayed mental illness.
It’s somewhat difficult for me to put my finger on exactly what is wrong with Dany’s character, but it’s a gigantic thing nonetheless. She is sort of a white savior, as noted above, but she’s also an idiot, in that everything she touches blows up in her face (Mirri Maz Duur, the freeing of the slaves, sticking around in Meereen instead of pushing through to Westeros). There’s nothing wrong with being an idiot, either (in the sense that a lot of characters – *cough* Ned * cough* – are idiots), but she never suffers much for it. Sure, some friends die, but she more or less comes out of it okay, dragons intact, etc. And the entire Daario subplot throughout A Dance with Dragons is just plain squicky. Again, I’m not sure exactly what the issue is, but a feminist icon she ain’t.
Finally, speaking of feminist icons, one of Martin’s biggest misses has to be Cersei. She is quite possibly the only viewpoint character who is completely unsympathetic. Jaime, the Kingslayer, is transformed into a kind of anti-hero, but Cersei – who is pretty well-placed to become an actual feminist icon in the story – is just thoroughly rotten. She claims to love her kids, but she never does much to demonstrate it. She claims to love Jaime, but she clearly doesn’t. She is awful to her other brother, paranoid in the extreme, and clinically insane to boot. I don’t know if it says more about Martin or me that her shaming in ADWD left me completely cold. That would have been wrenching if it were any other female character, but for Cersei? She tried to use the staggeringly unjust law that says a queen can’t be unfaithful to a king, while his infidelity goes completely unpunished, against another woman and was punished when the entire plan blew up in her face. The law and its consequences may be horrible, but the wronged party here is much more Margaery than it is Cersei.
The Problem of Cersei is actually the thing that bothers me the most. Having watched the TV show, I see the ways in which she can be made a real character. Robert was a thoroughgoing bastard, she was essentially forced to marry someone who didn’t love her and didn’t even give her a chance to love him, she is always second fiddle to the men around her, and so on. But this is not necessarily the case in the books. We can infer that her relationship with Robert embittered her, but it’s not clear that she ever made an effort either. We are told repeatedly in her POV chapters that she wouldn’t have as much trouble if she were a man, but it’s never clear how much trouble she has as a woman. She rules the realm for substantial portions of the series, gets her way pretty much all the time, and the subplot with the church is largely her own fault.
These books are great. They hold up a mirror to our own world and invite discussion of its faults. But they aren’t perfect. They also suffer from the faults they are often trying to expose. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as we’re willing to talk about it. I’m hopeful that there are civil ways for us to do this.