Thursday, 14 August 2014

"It's pretty much Game of Thones..." :SF, fantasy and English literature's Shakespearian creation myth

An entirely gratuitous picture of a dragon

For a very long time I played, along with other former members of Hull University Wargames Society, a postal game based on the Wars of the Roses. These days, I'm guessing that such a game would be conducted via email and social media but back them we only had post and telephone. For the game, each player controlled one noble family (I was, since you are curious, the de la Pole family led by the Duke of Suffolk - 'twas nice to keep the link to Hull) and issued instructions to the man running the game regarding alliances, marriages, battle orders and so forth. In the manner of these things, the game ended - not with a Tudor victory but with a new dynasty under the Bourchier Dukes of Essex.

So when you start reading A Song of Ice and Fire - or set out watching the marvellous TV adaptation, Game of Thrones - it is quickly clear that part of George R R Martin's inspiration came from that tangled and bloody period of history we call the Wars of the Roses. Indeed this is true and Martin has said as much -although he makes clear there's no direct 'character-to-character' correlation merely that the period cried out for reinterpretation.

So it is not a surprise that Dan Hannan finds a connection with Shakespeare in Game of Thrones - indeed that's where the quotation in my headline comes from:

During the interval of one of the performances, I overheard some Americans discussing the play in the bar. “It’s pretty much Game of Thrones,” was one man’s summary. Indeed it is.
 The chaos that comes after a usurpation, the dynastic ambitions, the moral ambiguity, the sudden betrayals, the unexpected turns of plot – all recall the drama of Westeros.

Hannan is describing the second tetralogy of history plays - Richard II, Henry IV (parts one and two), and Henry V - a period that sits right before those Wars of the Roses that inspired Game of Thrones. The problem is that Hannan, in his love for Shakespeare's matchless words, ascribes too great a power to the Bard's works. And falls into the trap that English Literature sets for us all.

What happens is that Shakespeare's characters become part of a creation myth for English Literature - Hannan says:

...he could hardly avoid echoing Shakespeare’s archetypal characters and plots. Shakespeare’s are, so to speak, the true forms. Everything else is a shadow on the cave wall. I realise that that’s a large claim but, if you’re familiar with the plays, you’ll know what I mean.

Shakespeare really isn't about the plots - he borrowed most of them, as we know - or indeed about the characters as characters. What Shakespeare did was put in the mouths of those characters wonderful, insightful, memorable and incisive words. Words that have not just changed our language but have changed the world too.

Like most SF and fantasy writers, Martin has an audience that wants to know everything. An audience that will fill on-line forums, attend conventions, write blogs and sit in serious huddles discussing the uttermost minutiae of Martin's work. And, as a result, Martin has been asked again and again what his influences are - he says stuff like:

Well, I've already named several in this chat. Jack Vance, JRR Tolkien, Maurice Druon... I think the authors who influence you most are probably the authors that you read and love when you're young, and in my case those would include Robert A Heinlein, HP Lovecraft, Robert E Howard, Fritz Leiber. In historical fiction, Thomas B Costaine, Frank Yerby...I love Bernard Cornwell, Steven Pressfield, F. Scott Fitzgerald, but really I could go on listing names for an hour. There are a lot of great writers out there in all genres that I enjoy and appreciate.

The author who Martin doesn't mention is Shakespeare. And, while Martin has (thanks to a TV adaptation of his series of novels) stepped beyond his genre of fantasy and SF, that is the starting point to understanding his writing. Look at that list above and you'll see the characters that echo in Westeros - Aragorn, Conan the Barbarian, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Liane. These are characters that marry the comic book to ancient legend. Tolkein did not craft his characters from Shakespearian archetypes but from the Kalevala, the poetic and prose Edda and the old legends of England and Wales, from Beowulf and the legend of the Green Knight.

 In the end though, I always think a recommendation tells a lot about where something like Game of Thones starts - here's Martin giving one:

Jack Vance, The Dying Earth. It's not a series in the same sense that mine is. it's four books, largely made up of short stories, and share only a setting with each other, and a character in the case of the middle two; the wonderfully amoral and unscrupulous Kugel the Clever, whose schemes and plots always come back to bite him in the butt. But Vance is the great stylist of sci fi and fantasy, no one writes like him, and The Dying Earth is his finest work. With my friend, I edited a tribute anthology a couple of years ago, when writers wrote stories set in the world of The Dying Earth, including myself, Neil Gaiman, Melissa Shepherd, and on and on...

George R R Martin is a fantasy and SF writer and that is where we must look for the ideas, influences and origins of A Song of Ice and Fire.  Not that Shakespeare isn't important but Martin's nod to the bard isn't about character, plot or even language but is a justification for killing off leading characters!

However, in one important respect Dan Hannan is right. If we can cope with the complexity, depth of character and involvement of Game of Thrones then we can deal with Shakespeare's plays. And if someone's journey takes them from comics through to Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett then to A Song of Ice and Fire before their eyes open to Shakespeare - then making the connection that Hannan makes is brilliant. But it's a two way street - people like me who hated English Literature yet read every SF and fantasy book going arrive at Shakespeare by working backwards.

What doesn't do is to suggest that Shakespeare is the acme of literature - as if everything else by comparison is but a pot-boiler, the doodlings of lesser men. When faced with that argument, us fans of fantasy are wont to throw 'On Fairy Stories' at you or to point at the ancient English story-telling tradition that was the basis for what Shakespeare was doing. And then to stomp off muttering - as Tolkien did - that 'English literature ended with Chaucer'.



No comments: