One of the central challenges George R. R. Martin always faced as a writer is that he approaches some significant philosophical questions with the mind of a bureaucrat. This Rolling Stone interview with Martin from 2014 is rather enlightening in that regard:
It’s a shockingly brutal story that you tell. The first major jolt comes when the knight Jaime Lannister pushes a child, Bran Stark, through a window because the child witnessed Jaime and Jaime’s sister, Cersei – the wife of Westeros’ King Robert – having sex. That moment grabs you by the throat.
I’ve had a million people tell me that was the moment that hooked them, where they said, “Well, this is just not the same story I read a million times before.” Bran is the first viewpoint character. In the back of their heads, people are thinking Bran is the hero of the story. He’s young King Arthur. We’re going to follow this young boy – and then, boom: You don’t expect something like that to happen to him. So that was successful [laughs].
Both Jaime and Cersei are clearly despicable in those moments. Later, though, we see a more humane side of Jaime when he rescues a woman, who had been an enemy, from rape. All of a sudden we don’t know what to feel about Jaime.
One of the things I wanted to explore with Jaime, and with so many of the characters, is the whole issue of redemption. When can we be redeemed? Is redemption even possible? I don’t have an answer. But when do we forgive people? You see it all around in our society, in constant debates. Should we forgive Michael Vick? I have friends who are dog-lovers who will never forgive Michael Vick. Michael Vick has served years in prison; he’s apologized. Has he apologized sufficiently? Woody Allen: Is Woody Allen someone that we should laud, or someone that we should despise? Or Roman Polanski, Paula Deen. Our society is full of people who have fallen in one way or another, and what do we do with these people? How many good acts make up for a bad act? If you’re a Nazi war criminal and then spend the next 40 years doing good deeds and feeding the hungry, does that make up for being a concentration-camp guard? I don’t know the answer, but these are questions worth thinking about. I want there to be a possibility of redemption for us, because we all do terrible things. We should be able to be forgiven. Because if there is no possibility of redemption, what’s the answer then? [Martin pauses for a moment.] You’ve read the books?
Who kills Joffrey? In the books – and I make no promises, because I have two more books to write, and I may have more surprises to reveal – the conclusion that the careful reader draws is that Joffrey was killed by the Queen of Thorns, using poison from Sansa’s hairnet, so that if anyone did think it was poison, then Sansa would be blamed for it. Sansa had certainly good reason for it.
The reason I bring this up is because that’s an interesting question of redemption. That’s more like killing Hitler. Does the Queen of Thorns need redemption? Did the Queen of Thorns kill Hitler, or did she murder a 13-year-old boy? Or both? She had good reasons to remove Joffrey. Is it a case where the end justifies the means? I don’t know.
The problem, of course, is how do you seek forgiveness without repentance? And how can you repent without an objective moral standard that clearly states: with this act you have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God?
Man cannot find redemption without God, which is why some crazy and godless men make maps of meaning filled with bizarre and imaginary creatures and warnings of nonexistent dragons, while others, less crazy, but still godless, write meandering rapefests addressing the hard questions of tax policy and population demographics.
A major concern in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones is power. Almost everybody – except maybe Daenerys, across the waters with her dragons – wields power badly.
Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?
In real life, real-life kings had real-life problems to deal with. Just being a good guy was not the answer. You had to make hard, hard decisions. Sometimes what seemed to be a good decision turned around and bit you in the ass; it was the law of unintended consequences. I’ve tried to get at some of these in my books. My people who are trying to rule don’t have an easy time of it. Just having good intentions doesn’t make you a wise king.
Some readers have been kind enough to say that my own AODAL falls in between ASOIAF and LOTR in terms of literary quality. But one could, not unreasonably, say that is true of our literary approaches as well.
And yes, I am working on the final edition of A Sea of Skulls. And yes, I expect it will be out, in around 900 pages of print, in time for Christmas. The 40-hour audiobook version of A Throne of Bones should also be available by then. I just finished re-reading it to refresh my memory preparatory to the final push on ASOS.