Fantasy fiction is being feted as never before. As Game of Thrones returns to our TV screens, John Mullan conveys the magic of the genre and explores the alternative universes of Tolkien, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman – and the reigning laureate of fantasy, George RR Martin
Has fantasy fiction, for decades a thriving literary genre, finally taken its place in the literary mainstream? It hardly needs bien pensant “literary” admirers: the most successful fantasy novelists have not only their sales figures to encourage them, but also the host of companion volumes, analytical websites, conferences and online commentaries that characterise fantasy fandom. It is a genre that has always generated critical expertise, and fantasy novelists have long been in a dialogue with their readers that other novelists must envy (witness the attention given to every tweet made by Neil Gaiman to his 2.2 million followers). Fantasy’s devotees must feel rueful as the critics now rush to declare their addiction to HBO’s Game of Thrones – adapted from George RR Martin’s multi-volume fantasy saga A Song of Ice and Fire, and about to enter series five – or record their admiration of Terry Pratchett, as part of the overwhelming response to his recent death. The debt to fantasy fiction of The Buried Giant, the new novel by one of Britain’s leading literary novelists, Kazuo Ishiguro, must seem overdue vindication of the genre.
Ishiguro has spoken in the past few weeks of how the barrier between this once-disdained brand of fiction and “serious” novels is breaking down. If this is true, New Jersey-born George RR Martin has surely led the charge. Martin is the reigning laureate of fantasy fiction. His ongoing sequence of novels A Song of Ice and Fire (the first book of which gives its title to Game of Thrones) began appearing in 1996 and now comprises five long books (with two more promised). He has a host of fans who resent the low status accorded to their favoured genre and some distinguished admirers who rather agree. One proponent of Martin’s merits, accomplished literary novelist John Lanchester, has openly invited literary snobs to cross that apparently “unbridgeable crevasse” between the readership of fantasy and “the wider literate public”. Discussing the delights of Martin’s fantasy roman fleuve, Lanchester has celebrated not only its creation of a richly imagined world, but the prevailing “sense of unsafety and uncertainty” of that world.
Any connoisseur of narrative drive who crosses that divide will surely be caught up by the sheer energy and inventiveness of Martin’s multi-viewpoint story. His is a peculiarly unidealising variant of AU (alternative universe) fiction. In the land of Westeros, a chivalric yet brutal pre-industrial world, warring kinship groups struggle for power. In the adjacent land of Essos – more primitive, even more thoroughly Hobbesian – a young woman descended from the ancient rulers of Westeros plots and struggles to lay claim to the land from which she is exiled. JRR Tolkien, who may not have invented AU fantasy but certainly was its most influential exemplar, gave weight to his imagined world with invented languages, legends, genealogies, poetry. Martin provides some of this, but devotes most of his energies to convincing the reader of the entirely human fears and ambitions of his leading characters. Tolkien gave us hobbits, orcs, elves and dwarves. Martin deals in men and women.
Tolkien himself has not been entirely cold-shouldered by serious critics. There is by now a substantial secondary literature on his fiction that finds shelf space in many a university library. Yet look closer and you will find much of it irritable at the exclusion of their author from the academic canon. The Lord of the Rings is accepted by literary scholars as an important fact of cultural history, rather than a great book. Or it is a spell you fall under for a while, but then wake up from. Yet for many who go on to relish sophisticated literary novels, it is an early, formative experience of fiction’s power to absorb us. No wonder that when the BBC’s The Big Read conducted its poll of the nation’s favourite book in 2003, The Lord of the Rings was the winner. It is the work that schools readers for later experiences of fiction.
For me, this was certainly the case. I vividly remember one day, aged 14, climbing like a pilgrim the worn wooden steps to Tolkien’s room in Merton college, Oxford in the company of his grandson, who was a school friend. I was clutching my battered paperback copy of The Lord of the Rings, much reread. And there was the great man in his beautiful room, crowded bookshelves up to the ceiling, a vision of lawns beyond. He sucked his pipe and chatted benignly. I was encountering the most important writer in the world, as it then seemed, though I was struck by the mismatch of this tweedy English grandfather and his lofty Wagnerian creation. He was telling me of the physical pleasure of writing. “Did I enjoy the sensation of using a really good ink pen?” I could see why he might be asking this when he signed my copy of his magnum opus: runic is the only word for the style of the inscription. Seeing Professor Tolkien in situ suddenly made it obvious how bookish an endeavour it was, this business of creating of an alternative world.
If The Lord of the Rings satisfies the other-world dreams of youth, A Song of Ice and Fire is emphatically fantasy for grownups, and not only because the sex and violence are explicit. Martin’s leading characters mostly act on Machiavellian principles. A Game of Thrones gets its title from a phrase the characters sometimes apply to their amoral power struggles. “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground,” the vicious Queen Cersei tells Eddard Stark, the nearest thing we have to a hero. “Why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?” asks the viperous courtier Varys in mock-distress. No narrative providence protects the good. Indeed, no one is safe. Lanchester rightly revels in what one might call Martin’s narrative audacity – that “sense of instability” that comes when we do not know “who’s going to survive and who’s going to be the next apparently principal character to be killed”. There is a satisfying sense of design, yet you somehow cannot know what is going to happen.
Martin is a reliably cold-eyed writer, immune to sentimentality. Though narrative sympathy is recruited for one of the warring aristocratic families, the gloomy Starks, the struggle itself is political and military, rather than moral. Martin knows his Wars of the Roses (and his Shakespeare history plays) and keeps slipping in fragments of a backstory of usurpation that undermines even the status of the man who is “rightful” monarch at the opening of the sequence. Regal power is just what someone has taken. Fantasy often has some aspect of idyll. Not Martin’s. For the lower orders in all the lands he describes, there is mainly dirt, hunger and fear. For their rulers, the solace of a few material comforts, but always the fear that these will be taken forcibly from them.
Compared to The Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire is morally complex and undecideable. “No character is without moral ambiguity,” observes the critic and Martin admirer Amanda Craig. There are no Aragorns or Gandalfs, with their uncompromised nobility. Even the best of Martin’s characters can be ruthless or vengeful or simply wrong. Tolkien’s Mordor was the home of all evil; orcs embodied mere malice. Martin is more interested in the kinds of viciousness, ambition and vengefulness that we recognise from human history. Human actions are capricious; luck seems to play more of a part than any authorial desire to fashion just conclusions. As in real history, outcomes are not foreordained. Martin has said that he was influenced most in the composition of his saga by Maurice Druon’s Les Rois Maudits, a seven-volume fictional chronicle of the French dynastic wars of the middle ages. Martin could, of course, write ripping historical fiction if he wished, but by escaping real history he denies the reader any privilege of knowing what is destined to take place.
The escape into a world that we are invited to dream up with the novelist’s assistance is, of course, inherent to fantasy. The main assistance is provided by the maps that preface every book in the series. This is how you know you are beginning a work of fantasy fiction: you open the book to find an apparently hand-drawn map of lands unknown to any previous atlas-maker. There are rich materials for a fantasy-fiction quiz night. Who, the devotee might be asked, offers a diagram of the city of Imardin and the land of Kyralia? A country called the Land, featuring the plains of Ra, the forest of Salva Gildenbourne and the Sunbirth sea? The lands of Midkemia and Kelewan? Or a continent containing Arad Doman, Andor and Tarabon, girded by the Aryth ocean? (See the end of this piece for answers.)
These novelistic cartographers are all following Tolkien’s lead. Tolkien (a more talented draughtsman than most of his imitators) provided the beautiful hand-inked maps that folded out of the original three hardback volumes of The Lord of the Rings – made more pleasing still by the place names, inscribed in his own strange, archaic handwriting. He was on to something. How many children have invented worlds by making maps of them? Fantasy should interest us because it enacts in some fundamental way the dream of all fiction: the creation of a new and singular world in the telling of a story. Thus those maps. And thus, too, the extraordinary length of most fantasy novels (which are often sequences). A Song of Ice and Fire dwarfs anything managed by Marcel Proust or Anthony Powell. Does a fan also have time for Robert Jordan’s 14-volume fantasy sequence The Wheel of Time? And Stephen R Donaldson’s 10-book Chronicles of Thomas Covenant? Yes, of course. Copiousness is the desired effect. We are being taken to whole new worlds, and the books and the readers have to stretch to this.
Fantasy is also distinguished by the presence of magic, the ingredient that gets it sent off to a special room in large bookshops, away from normal novels. Yet, since the 1960s, serious literary fiction has supped full from the magic cup. In Gabriel García Márquez, it is animistic brilliance; in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, a way of making an individual’s story into a historical tale. Perhaps the difference is that in fantasy fiction, magic is such serious stuff, and subject to complex rules and rationales. Children schooled on Harry Potter books, with their minute explanations of Patronuses and horcruxes and deathly hallows, are well prepared for the modus operandi of most adult fantasy fiction. In Martin’s novels, magic is much more limited. After a brief, unsettling prologue, which introduces the threat of the undead Others, hanging over all that follows, he holds the supernatural back as long as he can. We are almost 700 pages in before some dubious necromancy seems to bring the mortally wounded husband of one of the protagonists back from the brink of death – and even then we cannot quite be sure that a spell has been cast. Magic is a possibility rather than a fact, necessary simply to mark the difference between the world of these novels and our world.
In children’s fantasy literature, there is invariably a route from our world into a magical one – and then a route back out of it, a way home. The most famous example is that wardrobe in CS Lewis’s first Narnia book (though there would be other access points in his later books). Alan Garner’s brilliant Elidor and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen find magical worlds via modern-day Manchester and Cheshire. Most familiar of all, the Harry Potter books imagine a to and fro between the realm of wizardry and a life more ordinary. The discovery of apertures between our world and some imagined one is the main business of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Its memorable ending is so powerful because it at once gratifies and finally denies that childish fantasy of being able to step into another world.
Neil Gaiman, a leading writer of fantasy for adults, specialises in stories that do not so much take us to other worlds as admit the deities and demons of different mythologies to this one. The AU is in our midst. Neverwhere takes an inhabitant of modern-day London into “London Below”, an alternative world of terrifying trials and magic. In American Gods, the time-honoured narrative of a road trip across the USA (parallel to a journey undertaken by Gaiman himself) is transformed by the active presence of African, Egyptian and Norse deities, but also a trickster god from Algonquin myth and some notably threatening Slavic spirits in human guise. Fantasy is often promiscuous in its blending of mythologies, but Gaiman composes like the TS Eliot of horror-fantasy, patching together stories and personages from incongruous sources, amid a flurry of literary allusions, as if all pagan stories of the supernatural comprised a single compendium of our deepest fears.
Gaiman is a student of mythography; a reader of his fiction, like a reader of The Waste Land, is offered all the pleasures of tracking down his sources. His novels have an encyclopaedic aspect. They also provide adult wit among their frightening tales. In American Gods, the deities are mostly wise-crackers who enjoy complaining about the fast food of this puzzling country. It is no surprise that he should have collaborated with fantasy’s licensed jester, Terry Pratchett, whose career began by recognising and deflating the genre’s habitual solemnity. Pratchett’s first Discworld book, The Colour of Magic, was, in effect, an affectionate, Pythonesque send-up of Tolkien and his progeny. The wizard is a bungler, the gods are silly, and the dialogue is cheerfully cynical. Yet many of Pratchett’s readers must also be readers of fantasy fiction, able to relish the irreverent parody as well as the real thing. Later Discworld novels, even if they are housed on the fantasy shelves, had less and less to do with sending up fantasy conventions and more with satirising the world we know very well. Most are dedicated to the mockery of some field of modern human endeavour: journalism, academia, football. Pratchett’s alternative universe is full of characters we recognise speaking in colloquial English.
In his fiction, Pratchett is a humorous commentator on the allure of fantasy conventions. A more serious commentator is Ishiguro, whose The Buried Giant has led critics to wonder aloud whether elements of the fantasy genre might not be more interesting than they supposed. Ishiguro’s novel is no more echt fantasy fiction than When We Were Orphans was a detective novel or Never Let Me Go a work of science fiction. As in those earlier transformations of genre fiction, it declines to provide much of the superstructure that the genre addict would expect. It is not clear exactly where or when we are (though it is some part of Britain in the dark ages, among Roman ruins and recent memories of King Arthur). The narrative is filtered through the viewpoints and dialogue of characters who seem not to be able to remember the important events of their own lives, let alone to know about any larger history. Yet this is certainly not a historical novel. As its central characters, an elderly couple called Axl and Beatrice, travel on foot to find their lost son, they hear about ogres and fiends; they meet an aged and dilapidated Sir Gawain, who talks of his quest to slay a dragon.
Ishiguro has spoken of the influence on the novel of the wonderful 14th-century narrative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, whose less-than-heroic hero undertakes a lonely and memorable journey across a wintry English landscape to encounter the terrifying Green Knight. One of the many subtleties of the medieval story is its equivocation about the supernatural. When the huge Green Knight appears to survive beheading in King Arthur’s court at Christmas, is it by magic or by dint of a party trick? The reader of The Buried Giant experiences similar uncertainty about the supernatural.
What should Axl and Beatrice fear as they walk? “Every fiend or evil spirit they were likely to encounter was known to target its prey at the rear of a party – in much the way, I suppose, a big cat will stalk an antelope at the back of a herd.” The first-person narrator is a peculiar feature of the novel, occasionally stepping in to distance us from the main characters (who, after all, can know nothing of antelopes). Is this onlooking commentator jesting about supernatural beings? Axl and Beatrice keep meeting people who blame their misadventures on ogres and fiends, but we might think that all the fearful talk is collective fantasy. They take under their wing Edwin, a boy whom his fellow villagers wish to kill because he has been bitten by an ogre. Surely this is just vicious superstition? But then, trying to travel down a river, Axl encounters actual tiny pixies, hordes of them, attacking him and his wife. Later, Edwin glimpses three ogres at the edge of a frozen pond. And near the novel’s conclusion, all the main characters come together to encounter that favourite inhabitant of fantasy fiction, a dragon.
Dragons are the grandest inhabitants of the genre. On the very last page of A Game of Thrones, three dragons are born, as late in the day as the author could manage, but the promise of things to come. “Here be dragons.” Not all fantasy novels have dragons, but many do. CS Lewis and Tolkien had dragons and Ishiguro knows that a dragon is a test of how far he is willing to go down the fantasy road. His superstitious characters talk of the dragon so fearfully that it is a surprise for the reader when we actually find her, near the end of the novel, a matter of reptilean fact. She may be disappointingly undernourished and lethargic (“In fact it took a moment to ascertain this was a dragon at all”), but there she is, coiled amid cindered grass. The characters accept her existence without surprise, as they accept all that is fantastical; they are much less certain about the natural events of their own lives.
Axl and Beatrice, who cannot quite remember whether they have a son, or if they have been unfaithful to each other, or what occupation Axl followed before he became old, do at least perceive their forgetfulness, and they blame it on the breath of the dragon, Querig. Collective amnesia is the novel’s founding conceit, and is fitting for the pre-literate world Ishiguro imagines. Travelling through the highlands of Scotland in the 18th century, Samuel Johnson, that most literate of men, felt he was seeing what the world was like without reading and writing. Prevailing illiteracy, he thought, condemned men and women to live in a kind of permanent present tense, unable to be sure what had happened in the past. They were the prey of rumours and tall tales. He would recognise Ishiguro’s misty Britain.
But perhaps forgetting is what makes living possible. Slowly through the novel we catch hints of terrible events in the not-distant past. Ishiguro is using some of the conventions of fantasy fiction to produce a fable about violence – always at the heart of the genre – and about the capacity of societies to forget the violence of their pasts. Fantasy has enabled him to do this obliquely, daring us to take seriously a kind of narrative that is often called childish. Fantasy sometimes deals evasively with violence. Tolkien, like Walter Scott, specialises in battles that seem almost decorous. Martin’s novels, in contrast, dwell on the details of violence, as if insisting on seeing what some of his fantasy forebears managed to ignore. He particularly likes to insist on the violence done by those characters with whom we might want to sympathise. Almost the first thing we see Eddard Stark do is execute (beheading with a big sword) a soldier who has left his post. Just so that we know there is no turning away, he makes his own young son watch, too. Book one ends with another central character, Daenerys (“Dany” to the reader), lighting the funeral pyre of her recently dead husband. As well as his horse and his sword and other warrior accoutrements, she has decided to add to the blaze a female captive who failed to heal him. She is duly staked and immolated.
The society into which Dany marries is one governed by brute force, where sex and violence are pretty indistinguishable. “It is the right of the strong to take from the weak,” one of her new attendants explains. At her marriage celebration, warriors watch women dance until they are suitably aroused, grab one and “mount her right there, as a stallion mounts a mare”. When two men fancy the same woman, one of them simply kills the other – and the revels continue. Martin insists on the connection between sex and violence. Through Dany’s eyes we see the aftermath of a battle, as her husband’s warriors rape every woman they find and angrily reject her demands that they show mercy. The HBO series, which in its DVD version is rated 18, with warnings of “strong bloody violence, strong sex, sexual violence, very strong language”, is in fact a softened version of the book.
Any character who thinks it is all like a Scott novel is dangerously deluded. Young Sansa Stark looks out at the knights mustering and finds it “all so exciting, a song come to life; the clatter of swords, the flicker of torchlight, banners dancing in the wind, horses snorting and whinnying”. She is doomed to be abused by the young man she is to marry, and to betray her own father. “In life, the monsters win,” she decides. In Martin’s world, you do best to assume that people act from the lowest of motives. It is a tough old world and the weak are more, not less vulnerable. In a frequent narrative pattern, a child or a woman will be saved from violence by one of the leading characters – only to be casually slaughtered a few pages later. Near the end of The Buried Giant, Wistan, the Saxon warrior, explains the novel’s title. “The giant, once well buried, now stirs …” Unacted violence brims. Fantasy fiction has an apocalyptic inclination. The Lord of the Rings foresees, but then improbably staves off, the triumph of darkness. Martin’s still endless epic sees bad things in the future (“Winter is coming,” as everyone keeps saying), but also finds violence entirely ordinary.
Martin employs a shifting of viewpoints that some critics do not expect from the moral and narrative conventions of fantasy writing. When one of the central characters of the first volume is casually executed near its end, the reader is shocked – not just because of the suddenness of the event but because long sections of the book have been narrated from his point of view, and now that centre of consciousness has been extinguished. All the books in Martin’s sequence are divided into unnumbered chapters under the names of the character whose viewpoint – often partial or deluded – is being taken. These include the cunning and amoral Tyrion, scorned misfit son of one of the contenders for power and a witheringly sardonic commentator on the behaviour of his allies as well as his enemies. It is no accident that – in the TV adaptation as well as in the books – he is by far the most interesting character. Sometimes it is as if he is mocking the genre of fiction in which he finds himself.
Yet it is not just a matter of psychological variety; Martin also knows all about creating curiosity and suspense. He keeps shifting the reader’s focus in order to leave him or her, at the end of each chapter, with a puzzle posed, an apprehension activated, or a surprise sprung. He has an ability to manipulate narrative expectation that even Wilkie Collins, the king of cliffhangers, might have admired. Ingeniously, he satisfies a hunger that all novel readers know, whether they are willing to enter the fantasy room or not.
Image: © Bighead Littlehead / HBO (2011 – …)
Written by John Mullan