Culture in “A Song of Ice and Fire” (Part 1 of 4)

[Here Be Dragons and Spoilers]

One of my favorite aspects of George R. R. Martin’s book series, “A Song of Ice and Fire,” is the various cultures he has created.  Many fantasy authors can create a realistic culture or two, but Martin excels at having  the cultures interact with one another in fascinating and believable ways.  Although I can imagine students complaining to a department head about analyzing Martin’s work due to it’s violence and sexuality, I think that it’d be a great series to engage students.  I began this series years ago before I had taken my first sociology class.  (In a humorous turn of events, I discovered this summer in my Hugo reading frenzy that I had read more of the series than I remembered. I suspect now that I read the third book in a graduate-school induced fog back in 2001.)  As far as the Hugo award goes, I feel that “Among Others” was a better choice for the award.  But I love the tapestry that Martin is weaving when it comes to cultures and characters in his world.

As far as the aspects of culture, I particularly enjoy his exploration of different cultural values, norms, and deviance.  This is one of my favorite topics in my intro to sociology course.  According to the textbook, values “are culturally defined standards that people use to assess desirability, goodness, and beauty and that serve as broad guidelines for social living,”  while norms are “rules and expectations by which a society guides the behavior of its members” (Macionis 44).  In the U.S., we broadly values freedom, at least to a point, as well as valuing competition and the individualism.  On the other hand, norms are more specific like the fact that we wash our hands after using the restroom or walking on the right side of the sidewalk.  Deviance occurs when these rules are broken.  Norms, even within a society, can differ inside of different settings.

In “A Song of Ice and Fire,” the series begins with tensions between both norms and values between regions in Westeros.  This expands to many  surrounding nations in later books.  In the first book, I was struck by the differences between Northern and Southern culture due to their geography, weather, and history.  “Winter is coming,” a well known phrase from the books denotes the more pragmatic and pessimistic culture of the North.  Even more striking was the difference between what the characters in Westeros were experiencing versus young Daenerys Targaryen exiled to a different continent and living with the Dothraki, a migratory people.  Throughout the series, conflicts emerge between different ethical systems.  Martin does a delightful job exploring what is right and what is wrong for his characters based on the settings and situations they are in.  Martin’s settings feel as if they could be real, and I believe they’d work well to discuss culture.

In the next two blog posts, I will be exploring gender.  The first will look at violence and gender in “A Song of Ice and Fire.”  The second will relate to characterization and gender.  Finally, I will discuss my thoughts specifically on “Dance with Dragons.”

(1) Do the cultures in “A Song of Ice and Fire” seem realistic to you?

(2) Why do you connect (or not) with Martin’s work?

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1 Comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Sociology

One response to “Culture in “A Song of Ice and Fire” (Part 1 of 4)

  1. Pingback: “The Curse of Chalion” | Jackofallbooks

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