‘Foreigners’ in A Song of Ice and Fire
By Taylor Marvin
This post contains mild spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire through A Dance with Dragons.
Over at Duck of Minerva Dan Nexon has an interesting piece looking at at George R.R. Martin’s reliance on fantasy tropes in A Song of Ice and Fire:
“Given all of the ways in which Martin breaks with tropes found in the bulk of high fantasy, it can be easy to forget the degree to which his underlaying fantasy architecture is dungeons-and-dragons level pastiche–complete with Dire Wolves, cliché steppe nomads, pseudo-vikings, and other flotsam and jetsam from Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.”
This is certainly true. Throughout ASoIaF the substance of Martin’s world is always less interesting than how he presents it — after a few hours with Tolkien the reader pines for the forests and cities of Middle Earth, while reading Martin makes you desperately happy to be born in the 21st century. There’s certainly an argument to be made, however, that Martin’s subversion of the wish fulfillment of the conventional fantasy genre is made more effective by his use of fantasy tropes, an argument Nexon suggests:
“I suppose we could make a case that its pedestrian fantastical elements enhance the critical dimensions of A Song of Ice and Fire. Perhaps it might turn out that Martin’s subversive instincts extend not only to issues of class, gender, and power, but also to the so-far ambiguous status of the distant history of Westeros.”
This makes sense. To critique the fantasy genre — if that’s indeed what Martin’s doing — he needs to suggest the comparison: without dragons, ice demons, and uncertain prophecy ASoIaF would read more like invented historical fiction than fantasy.
I think a much more biting criticism of ASoIaF’s world building is its depiction of non-Western societies. Martin obviously is very familiar with Western European late medieval history and this knowledge shows in his depiction of European-flavored Westeros. However, Martin appears to be much less familiar with Babylonian or Persian history, and the Slaver’s Bay cultures based on these societies feel much more cliched. While I don’t share all of Ryan Noonan’s frustration with the Essos chapters in A Dance with Dragons — while meandering, Daenerys’ misadventures tell an interesting story about the importance of deplorable institutions contribution to social stability, and the problems of letting teenagers run governments — but these chapters would feel more realized if Slavers’ Bay wasn’t populated by stereotypes. To be fair Martin’s depiction of Westeros’ brutality and epidemic misogyny doesn’t do Western European culture any favors, but the scheming and rotting decadence of Slaver’s Bay is more a lazy appropriation of Orientalist tropes than subversion of them. Unlike Tolkien’s Southrons these depictions aren’t, in my reading, racist, but they do help wreck Daenery’s storyline in A Storm of Swords and Dance — if a setting doesn’t feel real the stakes are necessarily lower.