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Valar Morghulis

Posted in Characters, Heroes, Plot, The Chained Adept, and The Chained Adept

“All Men Must Die” — The motto of George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones

We're part way through a multi-day marathon of the entire 5 or 6-season run of Game of Thrones on cable, and it's been on non-stop for the last couple of days, downstairs in this small cabin. Periodically I go and get some lunch or dinner, and make sure my husband is still breathing, in front of the TV.

No doubt about it — this is quality programming, and I've seen all the episodes (and read the books). Upstairs at my writing desk, where I can hear snatches of the dialogue, much of the music, and all of the screaming, I'm having no trouble following along with the episodes as they go by.

This is having two effects on my writing…

I am oh-so-glad that George R R Martin is not the god of my personal universe

When novels first became popular in the 16th/17th century, readers felt that they held up a mirror to life. My opinion is: yes, and no.

Yes, in that the characters must emulate real people, or the story they tell has no foundation, no reality, and is nothing but fable, with puppets moved at whim by the author.

No, in that the author is the god of his created world, and it is only a pretense to abdicate that responsibility. It is not fate that kills his characters, or accident, or evil — it is the author's pen, disclaim it how he may. Even when writing a novelized version of historical events, the author cannot help but take sides, offer explanations, create a reality where the events make some sort of fictional sense. It's his story, and he has shaped it as he wants it.

The totemic beasts of the warring rulers in Game of Thrones
The totemic beasts of the warring rulers in Game of Thrones

Though I admire his skill, I have real issues with Martin's godly choices. I am of the old-school opinion that we tell stories to help explain life to each other, to offer models to admire or disdain. It may be that, in real life, admirable behavior is not necessarily rewarded, but we want it to be in stories, because that is the way we want men to live. We want heroes to admire and villains to hate, so that we will learn to act in heroic ways where we can.

It is tragic when good men die and bad men succeed, because that violates the moral model we have about what should happen. A story where that happens is a tragedy. But it is deadly when the good and bad that men do make no difference whatsoever. That violates the concept that there is a meaningful moral model at all.

You can't say, “this is just a story and that's what happened”; as an author you have to admit that this is the model that you are putting forth in your universe of the way life is: pointless, deadly, and futile.

That's not a tragic view of life, it's an anti-moral view of life, an empty guide to moral behavior. Power is everything and your choices are meaningless.

All men must die, perhaps, but their lives should matter anyway

I'm in the middle of writing the final battle scenes in The Chained Adept while massive armies clash downstairs on screen and just about everyone dies.

Now, I feel that I am sometimes too nice to my characters, but I refuse to just slaughter them wholesale for dramatic effect. The Game of Thrones soundtrack keeps urging me to just “kill them all and let GRR Martin sort them out”, and I keep resisting. (I wonder what the High Valyrian is for “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius. — Kill them (all), for the Lord knows which are his own.”)

I believe that heroes should fight for the right, against enemies and the perversity of things-as-they-are. They may fall, but those who never fight for the right should not succeed. It's my universe, and I say so. Behave accordingly.


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  1. Happy Thinker
    Happy Thinker

    Your argument favors truth and meaning; the opposite is nihilism – and the world is full of it today. But those playing that hand are playing a losing hand. Error may make its way twice around the world, while truth is getting on it’s boots. But something always trumps nothing, in the end. I really don’t know why this is true. But an accurate record of history and society says this principle is true. It “works,” and only what works survives.

    December 30, 2015
  2. Acksiom

    If you consider the arc of GRRM’s work over the years, it’s clear that he prefers one metaphysical genre over all others, regardless of other stylistic considerations: existential horror. From Fevre Dream to Armageddon Rag to his own Wild Cards storylines, his works descend ever deeper into the examination of the awfulness of a meaningless existence.

    The Haviland Tuf stories are the shining exception to this trend, and are the reason I kept reading him in the previous century and gave GoT a shot years ago. I never finished the first book. I could tell where it was going, and that there would be no Tuf Adventuring involved. Time has proven me right.

    December 30, 2015
    • Sam L.
      Sam L.

      I knew I’d read him before. I liked the Haviland Tuf stories too. Never bought any novels, though.

      December 30, 2015
  3. –We want heroes to admire and villains to hate, so that we will learn to act in heroic ways where we can. —

    Yes, definitely. *BUT:*

    — Now, I feel that I am sometimes too nice to my characters… —

    Therein lies one of the most seductive traps in fiction. Once you’ve crafted a hero, there’s a terrible tendency to have him triumph over all obstacles, sometimes as if there were nothing in his world that could approach his stature or prowess. It’s as old as fiction; Vergil fell into it, though Homer managed to avoid it.

    Drama only exists when men must suffer for being good — i.e., for being heroes. They must fight for what they believe in, what they value, and what they owe. Should they prevail? Yes. But they must pay a price…and for maximum effect it should be so high as to forestall all notions of celebration.

    The price for a hero’s heroism will be dictated by the evil he fights and the milieu around him. GRRM’s milieu is barbaric beyond comparison; hence, many of his characters suffer terribly (or die) for being good. But there’s also this: some who are not good at the outset become so, in part because of their sufferings and their observation of the sufferings of others. This may not be a model every writer can follow, but it has validity in the brutal world of Westeros and the war for its throne.

    December 30, 2015
  4. Thanks for your insights, they’re particularly helpful for someone who’s never watched Game of Thrones.

    I’d add that even more depressing than G. R. R. Martin’s amoral universe are all the eager fans it has. Enjoying such tales isn’t morally irrelevant. It deprives readers and viewers of their ability to be outraged at the real evil and real victims in our world. And that induced apathy, I suspect, may be one reason for its appeal.

    –Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride: Rescuing her Father from the Ku Klux Klan

    Lily’s Ride is a young adult adaptation of the most influential anti-Klan novel of the nineteenth century, A Fool’s Errand by Albion Tourgee. It’s about a brave teen girl who rides at night over Klan-infested roads to warn her father than he’s about to be murdered. It’s set in 1870s North Carolina.

    December 30, 2015
  5. Yes, absolutely! I quite watching Game of Thrones after the third season because every character I liked and respected was ultimately killed in the most horrific ways. This began with the beheading of Sean Bean’s character at the end of season 1. It became obvious that the series was morally vacuous. I refuse to watch crap like this.

    December 30, 2015
  6. werewife

    I was led here by Sarah Hoyt (taking over the world and ruthlessly leaving you alone!) by way of Instapundit, and I must say, Ms. Myers, your above essay was beautiful, because true. It encapsulated why I passed up the whole Game of Thrones phenomenon in the first place: I read fantasy in order to escape from a world filled with cruelty and injustice, not to double down on it!

    December 30, 2015
  7. There was a wise man who once said “return evil for evil to no one”. It doesn’t make for good TV, but my children prefer it.

    December 30, 2015
  8. I admire GRR Martin for his ability to tell a story and make politics understandable. But I am with you – we need heroes and role models. People die in real life so they die in our stories. Sometimes the death is meaningful, often it is not. However, I feel that GRR Martin goes overboard in killing virtually every virtuous character, teasing us with the possibility of redemption only to have a another character’s heart shown to be hollow. Thanks expressing it so well!

    December 30, 2015

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