“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!