What’s In a Name?

A Song of Ice and Fire has been popularized under the name of the first book, (A) Game of Thrones. There is a show and about a dozen games under that title. The title refers to the nobles’ struggle for position and power, which is central to the series and a dangerous distraction from the metaplot. Or is that backwards?

The changing fortunes of the nobles and their houses is mostly what you read the series for. Will nobility and honor win? (Probably not.) Just how much of a monster is he? (More than you guessed.) How will this plot play out? (Badly for everyone involved.) It is great drama.

The deconstructive point of the series is that living in a fantasy kingdom would suck, more so with magic. There are several series in that vein these days, like Joe Abercrombie’s First Law and Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. Life for the nobles of Ice and Fire is often nasty, brutish, and suddenly cut short, but George Martin really drives the point home with Brienne’s story, which is often hated but important in bringing us the peasant’s view of the nobles’ war. The main characters barely notice that each big move in the game of thrones leads to (or directly involves) the suffering and death of towns full of people. The world is about to enter a multi-year winter for which it is ill prepared, and instead of laying in stocks, the ostensible leaders are marching armies through farmland and generally laying waste to everything they cannot claim for themselves.

Beyond ignoring the important point that winter is coming, our cast of nobles is also unaware that they are in A Song of Ice and Fire. The metaplot involves the return of magic and an epic clash of elemental or divine powers. While the Lannisters are squabbling over the regency, dragons fly, frozen corpses walk, and a god of shadow and flame is rising. Most people have not realized any of this, and those who do mostly see them as factors in their quests for personal power. Only a few characters recognize these as existential threats or global changes.

If you know the series as A Song of Ice and Fire, you must at least occasionally reflect that these huge forces on the fringes of the story are like glaciers ready to begin an inexorable march on the dinosaurs. The game of thrones is engrossing but a distraction from what matters on a global scale.

If you know the series as Game of Thrones, the game of thrones is the central story and the fringe elements are magical decorations on a political tale. Wights, dragons, shape-shifting assassins? One POV character gets to interact with each, and they are otherwise still at the edges after hundreds of thousands of words. They may someday have exciting effects on the plot, but they are spectacle that distracts from what matters in the story.

: Zubon

4 thoughts on “What’s In a Name?”

  1. It’s funny, I’ve been thinking along similar lines. Most pundits have been playing the “Who will win?” line, and whenever GRRM starts thinking a character looks like they’ll come out on top (King Rob?) he knocks them off.

    I am beginning to suspect that the entire system of monarchy and nobility in Westeros and perhaps all the other lands will come crashing down. (Replaced by Democracy, perhaps!) And there will be no new King of the Iron Throne, or even no Seven Kingdoms. Even the Wall may come crashing down (there have been hints towards this.)

    Will the final moral of the story be, cooperate or perish?

  2. It’ll be interesting to see whether the fans of the series who stayed for the political intrigue will handle well the innevitable wrap-up of dragons versus wildlings, magic and other fantasy stuff. I hope most of them didn’t burn many bridges before that :)

  3. The series title was always the biggest pointer toward what you refer to as a meta-plot, the ‘real’ story that the characters continue to be stubbornly unaware of, but I always found it interesting that the prologues and epilogues of many of the books focus on things on the fringes like the white walkers in the north, or other creepy magic that characters are ignoring (Lady Stoneheart, anyone?). It means that after getting all caught up in the personal struggles and ambitions of characters, I often end a book with an ominous feeling of “and in the end none of that may matter because there are bigger things moving in the world.”
    Definitely, it’s well conveyed that what our perspective characters see as life or death dramas are actually pretty small and petty on the scale of the world. I’ve always found it a REALLY interesting approach to a fantasy story.

  4. ” Only a few characters recognize these as existential threats or global changes.”

    Interesting take on it, and one that resonates with what’s happening in real life. In the US, at least, our two political factions are squabbling, only concerned with their own position and power, while we’re inexorably heating up the globe. GRRM captured humankind well, in all its frailty and glory.

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