George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is a captivating and harrowing work about human nature under stress dealing with ambition. In the unfinished seven-volume work (the first five books have been published), he chronicles the history of Westeros, a fictional, medieval land of magic and battle, peasants and nobles, and the lust for domination. The royal dynasty of Westeros, the Targaryen family, has been displaced by a rebellion, and the remaining noble families fight for wealth, power, and influence amid the instability of a fractious realm.
The traditional fantasy tropes all apply in Martin’s work: the disinherited, born-out-of-wedlock John Snow slowly becomes the hero of the story, the least becoming the chosen one, à la Frodo Baggins from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or King David from the Bible. The Targaryen family’who had won their dynasty long ago with dragons’musters power to reclaim their throne under the exiled Daenerys Targaryen, who has gratuitously found three dragons that hatched from fossilized eggs. With the birth of the dragons, magic begins to return to a desacralized world that hasn’t seen magic for hundreds of years. Ancient powers reawakening, unexpected heroes’the work fits well into the epic fantasy genre.
And yet Martin’s book differs from previous fantasy, especially from Tolkien, on one critical point. There is little notion of good vs. evil. All of the characters are irretrievably fallen, and it’s notable that the one virtuous character of the series is killed before the first book is over. The Christian description of the fall, of human sinfulness, colors all the inhabitants of Westeros. A Song of Ice and Fire enters the depths of human sinfulness, darker perhaps than even Calvin or Luther, as R. R. Martin has no notion of an imago Dei or its potential restoration.
Dissecting the plot mechanics is difficult, if not impossible, because the books dwell in a world of utter chaos. Think for a moment of the Old Testament’s stories of battle and intrigue, massacre, slavery, escape, deliverance, relapse. But despite the surface-level chaos of these stories, everything is working toward a purpose: Pharaoh’s hardness of heart is bound up in the providential Exodus, the wandering in the desert with the establishment of a nation and, in the New Testament, the murder of the Messiah with the final atonement for sins. Over and over, God arranges the worst of human nature into a bright, beautiful arabesque of providence’hence Rahab’s and Bathsheba’s places in the ancestry of Jesus. But without the eyes of faith, the stories do not cohere as well; they are frequently stories of human failings and chaos.
A Song of Ice and Fire is an experiment in viewing the world with a robust acknowledgement of sinfulness but little possibility of redemption. Without any unifying, restorative purpose, human ambitions vie with each other in what the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes described as a “war of all against all,” which is always rending afresh the fabric of Martin’s world.
Apart from just the families competing for power, two counselors of the king, named Varys and Littlefinger, orchestrate the events of Westeros from behind the scenes. While Varys, the king’s spymaster, claims to be working for “the good of the realm,” Littlefinger realizes that in Martin’s godless world ambition alone must reign. And so Littlefinger is an agent of chaos and subversion, and his speech in the book’s highly acclaimed HBO adaptation pithily expresses the essence of Westeros:
Chaos isn’t a pit; chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb, but they refuse. They cling to the realm or the gods or love—illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.
So if Martin’s work is merely a world of unfettered libido dominandi, why read it? First, because he’s a master storyteller. The epic sweeps its readers away into a larger, encompassing story, and despite the potential for escapism, there’s perhaps something to be said for its massive vision.
But more important, Martin’s work itself does not so much stop at human sinfulness as it does take selfish ambition as its starting point, its assumption. From the bare, selfish immanence of the first book, it takes off into something greater as magic slowly, gradually, breaks in upon the petty politics of Westeros.
As noted, the two most cunning, controlling men of the series are the counselors Varys and Littlefinger. It’s significant that Littlefinger does not believe in the religions of Westeros (there are several vying for supremacy), while Varys hates magic in all its forms. Both figures are ill at ease with the increase in magic and religion that occurs throughout the series, because they worship ambition and control.
Two worldviews are constantly warring in the first three books: the world of power and the world of virtue. To simplify a bit, the virtuous characters tend to die pretty quickly; they lack the worldliness and savvy to hold power for long (Job 21:7 makes a good comparison here). But to complicate matters still further, there’s a force of cosmic retribution called the Others (“White Walkers” for TV viewers), slowly invading the world of Westeros from beyond a huge wall at the distant reaches of the land. The worldly, influential power players are not willing to believe in creatures beyond their control; their selfishness blinds them to the threat of coming judgment. And so the world of ambition and political power is doomed to failure.
Unless, that is, they can be delivered despite their blindness by our protagonists John Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, two candidates for a prophesied “Prince Who was Promised” who will redeem the land and keep the forces of evil at bay. Sound familiar? And yet Martin doesn’t seem to be a Christian; he’s only writing what feels true to him, which incidentally tracks very well with certain Christian themes.
In all truthfulness, the series isn’t worth reading merely for the motifs it may share with the Bible. Instead, it’s the story’s emotional resonances that make it worthwhile and first rate. The blindness of those preoccupied with themselves is both pitiable and reprehensible, and we feel revulsion and deep empathy with the curved-in-on-itself political landscape of Westeros. And perhaps we feel a laudable quickening of the pulse with the advent of magic in the book’as T. S. Eliot says, a “trilling wire in the blood”‘that feels judgment at the exposure of our ambitions as murky and petty, but also elation at the idea of a destiny or providence that holds all things together.
The ever-calcifying world of human ambition is constantly being broken open by surprise, by magic, things beyond the control of armies and intrigues. And yet the advent of providence and prophecy is complicated by the fact that the series remains unfinished; there are so many threads to Martin’s story, that reaching a satisfying conclusion will likely be impossible. If we acknowledge a low anthropology and place limits on human agency, the question remains, what sort of providence is active in the world?
Martin’s spiritual agnosticism may end up weakening his story. With an ambiguous, indeterminate view of the nature of providence, there’s no united purpose to the supernatural elements of the story, and prophecy degenerates into arbitrary fate. Whether the next two novels can provide a satisfactory conclusion depends on Martin’s own struggle with these questions as he completes the series, most notably the question of what’if anything’lies beyond the dead-end of human striving. In its commentary on the merely human world, however, the series is both profound and immensely entertaining’especially for those who understand that while our own efforts often turn to chaos, the only ladder worth mentioning has been climbed already for us.