Mailvox: Why GRRM Can’t Finish ASOIAF

A highly literate reader named JC emails a detailed analysis of George RR Martin’s difficulty in finishing A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, and reaches precisely the same conclusion that I have assumed all along, which is that Martin is too devoted to intellectual subversion to accept the true and obvious heroic end to his fantasy saga, which is to say, the triumphant marriage of ice and fire.

To put it rather more concisely: one can no more write an English-style novel and not end it with a wedding than one can write a Japanese-style novel and not end it with a suicide.

I don’t think it’s so much that Martin won’t finish the saga as that he can’t. And principally for one reason (though I imagine there’s a host of ancillary reasons): Jon Snow & Danaerys Targaryan themselves. He didn’t anticipate when he set out to write his story, I suspect, to write one genuinely heroic character, let alone two.

It’s clear that Tyrion, and the Lannister family in general, are his favoured characters, and it’s the Lannisters who set the tone of the series. I think this is so for both internal-structural reasons and for personal reasons. Martin just prefers them and sympathises most with their worldview. Structurally, I believe the Lannisters are the vehicle through which Martin has tried to accomplish his main artistic goal in writing A Song of Ice and Fire: to subvert the Fantasy genre, with its roots in the heroic and the mythical, by introducing an element of cynicism and realist historiography, a literary Real Politik.

To do this he had to build a typical Fantasy setting with mythological elements, in order to deconstruct them from within. What he didn’t anticipate, I suspect, is that the ‘machinery’ of his writing would churn out two more or less heroic characters, there among all the cynics, warlords, cowards, bureaucrats, hypocrites, mercenaries, careerists et al. with which his universe abounds: Jon and Dany — who do fit the classical standards of heroism, despite Martin’s critique of their characters, as their motivations ultimately transcend the merely self-interested, and they are brave in the pursuit. Martin is, at bottom, a good storyteller with a keen sense of character, so it’s very likely he trusted his intuitions in writing these characters and plotting out their stories, without fully realising the overall structural implications for his saga.

Now I think he’s reached a bind in his grand narrative. There are two irresolvably conflicting impulses acting within him as a writer — and it’s this irresolvability that has given him an incurable writer’s block, sapping him of all motivation to conclude his epic: the first impulse is the conscious wish to accomplish his artistic aim of deconstructing the heroic and mythical foundations of Fantasy; and the second impulse is the novelist’s natural need not to betray his own characters, to provide a coherent resolution to their ‘character arc’. The problem is that, unwittingly, Jon and Dany have turned out to be genuine heroes in their own right, and Martin can’t figure out how to give their stories a fittingly heroic ending without succumbing to classical Fantasy standards, the very standards he set out to subvert in the first place. Jon and Dany narratologically deserve an heroic ending, but can Martin bring himself to do justice to their heroism, or even to spoil it with one last act of cynicism?

It’s clear that the ‘Ice’ and ‘Fire’ in A Song of Ice and Fire are Jon and Dany respectively, and that it’s ultimately their tale. I can only imagine that Martin did this unconsciously, and that it’s made him nauseous now that he’s discovered it. What we see in the TV Show — Jon and Dany having a romantic affair and it being discovered to be incestuous — I think is Martin’s intention, and I think this development shows his good writer’s instinct. It’s what comes after (the final season of the TV Show) where everything falls apart, and I think Martin knows it. He knows the notes he provided to the show directors are sloppy, inconsistent, and unfulfilling. I can only imagine that when he now sits to write the final chapters in his story, he feels a debilitating anxiety over the problem the existence of Jon and Dany, and the challenge their unforeseen heroism, transcending the pettiness of their surroundings, has caused for him, leaving out all that enthusiasm he once had for the narrative and its setting, when he was writing the opening volumes.

The thing is, it’s very obvious what Martin should do to conclude the epic: put Jon and Dany on the throne together as King and Queen, probably with Dany as the regnant and Jon as the consort. This would tie together the overarching narrative threads of the story perfectly well. It’s an ending which, if it had premiered on television, would have so satisfied the audience that, despite all the shortcomings of the latter seasons, would have drawn near universal praise. It’s not an arbitrary conclusion, but a narratologically and charactologically natural one. Nor would it have to be a merely ‘sentimental’ or ‘pandering’ throw to the audience: Jon and Dany’s reign might well be brutal and inefficient in many ways, and might involve some horrifying betrayals. Imagine, for example, if Danaerys had ordered the massacre of her loyal Dothraki army, once they had helped her subjugate Westeros; that would have been an actually chilling turn in her character, rather than her ineffectual bout of ‘madness’ as was seen on TV. However the story ends, if it ends with Jon and Danaerys together on the throne, the audience will feel that they had experienced a worthwhile story. Putting Bran on the throne, a hermit mystic rather than an archetypal royal ruler like Jon or Dany, would be a real false step, a sentimental and ultimately incoherent ending.

Martin can’t write the Jon and Dany ending — the right and natural one — because it would disappoint his chief aim in showing the superiority of an atheistic, materialist worldview over the more theological or mythological one which is typical of the Fantasy genre. Martin is the anti-Tolkien, and the proper ending would be too Tolkienian for both Martin’s taste as an artist, and his spirit as a man… Without being too judgemental, I think there’s almost a moral failure at work here, as though Martin stumbled across a more exalted worldview by accident, by tunneling his way through the underground regions of Fantasy, until he burrowed his way back to the light, and now can’t bring himself to abandon his own more petty, narrow-minded worldview as conveyed by the hyper-political Lannisters. It’s dangerous when the greatness of one’s ambitions as an artist exceed one’s abilities as a man.

The Lannisters are the political realists, the “power politicians”, of the setting. They represent the “truth” about our society according to Martin behind the scenery of all our fanciful idealisms; raw power without the blinders of ideology. Littlefinger is the same but by way of excess, the perfect Machiavellian, a caricature and reductio ad absurdum of realism. The Starks — and above all their true champion, the bastard son Jon Snow — represent, by way of analogy and moral feeling, the typical Left of our age, a certain idealism, a certain democratic or progressivist tendency. The Targaryans — who have recently been ousted, with their true heir and champion Danaerys living exiled in the Orient, Essos — represent the traditional Right of our age, the remainder of the myths and dragons, romanticism, blood nobility, even a tendency towards fascism. Stannis is similar to this, but of a false and extremist variety, a pretender to the throne who represents the decadent aspects of religious fundamentalism and sectarianism. The Night King and his White Walkers represent, as zombies typically do in the media, the opposite form of extremism — that of the Left, with the walking undead being a metaphor for a kind of Bolshevik army, a totally materialist species of humanity devoid of life, of spirit.

Navigating through all the threads and subthreads of this great narrative, A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin’s work could be an epochal achievement in the novel if he finds, or if he can bring himself to find, the right ending. The marriage and co-reign of Jon and Dany would not be a false or sentimental conclusion, for two reasons: (1) because, despite all historical expectation, mythical ‘golden ages’ do in fact occur in civilisations now and then, (2) because, like the reign of Elizabeth I, which was undoubtedly a golden age for England, their reign could easily be a somewhat brutal, oppressive, and questionable one, such that historical realism need not be altogether abandoned. This would already be foreshadowed in their marriage being incestuous, and therefore civilly and ecclesiasticaly invalid; besides, since the story is inspired by the War of the Roses to some degree, and that eventually led to the Elizabethan era, it would only be fitting to see a similarly triumphant conclusion. The union of Jon and Dany, the mythological union of ‘Ice’ and ‘Fire’, the climax of the epic ‘Song’, would represent an Hegelian synthesis of the two great political tendencies of our own current civilisation; the promise of a new golden age (Tolkien’s Aragorn, the return of the true king, is another similar promise); the “icy” idealism of Jon (rationalism, equality, democracy) and the “fiery” idealism of Dany (romanticism, nobility, aristocracy); overcoming the spiritually dead and morally bankrupt cynicism of our age, and so many of our own politicians, symbolised by the Lannisters; while avoiding the pitfalls of an all-destructive extremism symbolised separately by the followers of the falsely messianic Stannis and by the soulless Walkers.

This would be an artistically worthy, and potentially even sublime, ending. But it would require Martin to forgo his preference for the Lannisters, abandon his quest to subvert the Fantasy genre, and, most crucially of all, overcome his own Lannisterian worldview enough to see the grander vision, without reeling from it spiritually. But is he capable of this, morally and spiritually speaking, as a man? Or will he never overcome the hobbled, dwarfed worldview he himself seems to have, represented by the petty, but always charming, Tyrion — Martin’s own muse as the anti-Tolkien, whose rural hobbits are the opposite to Martin’s urbane dwarf.

The introduction of aspects of literary and political realism into the Fantasy genre was an artistically worthy goal, and Martin set out to do it with the skill and flair of a writer who knows his setting and understands the disparate motivations of his characters; but to employ realism, and cynicism, as a means to subvert the very foundations of Fantasy, this was the aim of Martin’s hubris, and has potentially been the downfall of his magnum opus and perhaps his overall legacy as a writer.

Martin set out to subvert the Fantasy genre, but, in the end, I suspect the Fantasy genre has subverted him.