Monthly Archives: October 2012

Culture in “A Song of Ice and Fire:” “A Dance with Dragons” Review (Part 4 of 4)

“Man wants to be the king o’ the rabbits, he best wear a pair of floppy ears” (ADWD 36)

[The worst spoilers you can imagine, in which I discuss the end of “A Dance with Dragons.”  Read at your own risk!!]

To conclude my review of Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, I will be reviewing his most recent tome called “A Dance with Dragons.”  I thoroughly enjoyed all of the Hugo nominees that I read this year.  And I’ve discussed several of them in previous posts.  While I didn’t put “A Dance with Dragons” at the top of my list, it’s a wonderful piece of fantasy literature.   In some ways, it was a difficult read, as well as a rewarding one.  “A Dance with Dragons” and the previous book are actually chronologically concurrent, meaning that Martin split one gigantic book into parts focusing on different characters.  Many people have complained about the pacing of Martin, in terms of “nothing happening” in “A Feast of Crows”  and ADWD.  To be able to enjoy either book, I think it is important to recognize the place of both of these in the overall story arc.

If you think of “A Song of Ice and Fire” as one enormous novel, instead of a series, then I think that we are at (or near) the low point for all of the main characters, in terms of their situations and their psychological states.  He is setting up the proverbial chess pieces for he endgame.  One of the reasons that I really enjoyed “A Dance with Dragons” is that the tension is built nearly as high as it can be for most of the main characters.  Dany, Jon, and Tyrion, have all sunk to various lows in the past two books.  Both Jon and Dany have gotten mired in politics as novices, for example, and while they make some good decisions, they also make terrible ones.  In different ways, both real and metaphorical, these characters struggling with getting knocked to their knees.  The titular characters, the dragons, finally seem to be coming into their own, leading to the main characters’ realization of just how dangerous dragons are.  They aren’t just sweet little pets who you can train to perform tricks.  People who dance with dragons have a way of getting burned.

Although I remain uncertain, I wonder if one of the themes that Martin is exploring is that of the danger of personal loyalty and nepotism.  Our love for others can lead us to participating in heinous acts that we would in no other way participate in.  When I say this, I think of young Arya, murdering a man because of his treatment of her half-brother Jon Snow.  Also, if Ned Stark had actually kept to his values instead of recanting to save his daughters, Sansa and Arya, then would the entire story of ended differently? Similarly, at the end of ADWD, Jon makes a choice that I think was based at least partially on family honor and loyalty to a sibling that leads him to dire straights.  In thinking about the whole story, many characters have died because of feuds between families and over bloodlines.  Especially during this time of war, there is not a system of justice as we would think of it today.  I was already convinced before this book series that vengeance isn’t the right answer; however, in terms of reading the story, there is more than one scene in ADWD in which I find myself actively hoping for vengeance, particularly against Ramsay Snow.  Yet, I don’t think that vengeance is the answer.  Where does the path of vengeance lead?

One of the themes in the book that is the most fascinating to me is that of taking on roles and identity construction.  In sociology, dramaturgical analysis is a method for considering any social setting as if it is a stage play.  This idea comes from Irving Goffman in “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.”  To play our various roles, we have costumes, scripts for behavior, among other stage related terms.  There is a different script and role for me when I’m teaching sociology in the classroom than if I am hanging out a bar with friends.  In “A Dance with Dragons, ” it seems that many of the main characters are playing roles.  A great deal is mentioned about Jon trying to take on his role as Lord Commander, and his discomfort playing this role.  Tyrion is literally play acting role with Penny, as if he is merely an actor in a side show instead of a Lannister.  I think that Dany’s role is the most interesting.  She is trying to fit in as a Meerense, taking the advice of a minor character that stated the intro quote at the beginning of this blog post.  She considers the meaning of wearing the costume, a tokar, many times.  While she considered banning the tokar, she ultimately decided not to alienate the people and began wearing the costume.  This came at the high price of her integrity and identity.  Near the end, she casts off this role including the costume and escapes with one of her dragons.  Arya is also learning to not just play different characters but to “be” different characters for the group of assassins she is training with that revere The Many Faced God.  They are quite literally taking on faces, taking this metaphor even farther than the other examples.  Theon Greyjoy has taken on the role of “Reek” to survive the abuse of Ramsay Snow so long that he has literally become Reek.  Throughout ADWD, he begins to reclaim himself.   This theme extends to many other characters who are taking on roles that do not belong to them.  At what point do you stop pretending and start becoming the character you are playing?  Obviously, this is just as applicable to our world.

To conclude this review of “A Dance with Dragons”, there were some great payoffs in this book and even more cliffhangers.   I have confidence in Martin’s ability to strongly finish the series.  But I hope that it doesn’t take a decade!


1 Comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Sociology

Culture in “A Song of Ice and Fire” (Part 3 of 4)


In many of the fantasy books that I’ve been reading since my teens, I often feel that women are either absent entirely as characters, or they fit into very stereotypical gender roles.  This is a fairly common complaint about the genre in general, although there certainly are exceptions.  Personally, I have put down more than one fantasy series after noticing the sexist portrayal of women, and sometimes men, in the first book.  I began reading “A Song of Ice and Fire” hoping for a portrayal of women as people instead of stereotypes.

I feel that Martin, unlike many fantasy writers, depicts women of many motivations and ability levels.  The women feel like real people with both virtues and vices, similar to the men in the series.  He does not treat women as if we all come off an assembly line with preprogrammed views and reactions to situations.  Even sisters, Arya and Sansa Stark have different personalities and interests.  In the first book, I was a bit concerned about this portrayal of the sisters as “opposites”, which I mentioned to a friend.  One sister is the “tomboy” who likes to be outdoors and play with swords while the other sister is an extremely feminine girl that closely follows the norms expected of her.  As the books progress, both of these characters become much more complex in ways that I find believable.  Their talents and interests allow them to develop different strategies for dealing with the tragedies and unsafe situations that they find themselves in.

The norms for gender roles are different in the various regions of the world.  When Jon travels among the Wildings beyond the wall, he discovers the gender roles are different for them when compared with his own culture.  He experiences culture shock to a certain degree.  And on Bear Island, the women learn to fight due to incursions by the Ironborn.  While this series of posts is about culture in “A Song of Ice and Fire,” the inequality relating to gender is embedded in the structures of the societies, too.  Returning to my original point, this series portrays women’s roles in different societies.  In some, women have more power than in others.  One of the most sociologically interesting ideas to me is that one conflict that emerges is over whether a woman should be in line for the throne or not.  Should her younger brother take the throne before her?  There are different thoughts on succession based on the history of the societies in the books.

Martin does not ignore gender roles in the societies, but he does have women and men grapple with them.  Sam Tarley, is considered “craven” due to the fact that he enjoys more feminine pursuits to the masculine ones that his father expects.  I know that I hope that there will continue to be an opening of gender roles in our society so that individuals may follow their passions when it comes to work and other pursuits instead of ones prescribed to them based on the sex they happened to be born.  And hopefully, characters in Martin’s world will continued to push the boundaries of what is expected of them based on gender.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Sociology