A Song of Ice and Fire - Themes


The Ice and Fire series is generally praised for its realism and incredibly expansive world. Believing that magic should be used moderately in the epic fantasy genre, George R. R. Martin set out to make the story feel more like historical fiction than contemporary fantasy, with less emphasis on magic and sorcery in favor of battles, political intrigue and the characters. Though the amount of magic has gradually increased throughout the story, the series is still to end with less overt magic than most contemporary fantasies. In Martin's eyes, literary effective magic needs to represent strange and dangerous forces beyond human comprehension, not advanced alien technologies or formulaic spells. As such, the characters understand only the natural aspects of their world, but not the magical elements like the Others.

Since Martin drew on historical sources to build the Ice and Fire world, Damien G. Walter of The Guardian saw a strong resemblance between Westeros and England in the period of the Wars of the Roses. The Atlantic's Adam Serwer regarded A Song of Ice and Fire as "more a story of politics than one of heroism, a story about humanity wrestling with its baser obsessions than fulfilling its glorious potential" where the emergent power struggle stems from the feudal system's repression and not from the fight between good and evil. Martin not only wanted to reflect the frictions of the medieval class structures in the novels, but also explore the consequences of the leaders' decisions, as general goodness does not automatically make competent leaders and vice versa.

A common theme in the fantasy genre is the battle between good and evil, which Martin rejects for not mirroring the real world. Attracted to gray characters instead of orcs and angels, Martin instead endorses Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner's view that only the human heart in conflict with itself was worth writing about. Just like people's capacity for good and for evil in real life, Martin explores the questions of redemption and character change in the Ice and Fire series. The multiple viewpoint structure allows characters to be explored from many sides so that, unlike lots of other fantasies, the supposed villains can provide their viewpoint. The reader may then decide about good and evil through the novels' actions and politics.

Although fantasy comes from an imaginative realm, Martin sees an honest necessity to reflect the real world where people die sometimes ugly deaths, even beloved people. Main characters are killed off so that the reader will not expect the supposed hero to come through unscathed and instead feel the character's fear with each page turn. The novels also reflect the substantial death rates in war. The deaths of supernumerary extras or orcs have no major effect on readers, whereas a friend's death has much more emotional impact. Martin prefers a hero's sacrifice to say something profound about human nature.

The fantasy genre rarely focuses on sex and sexuality as much as the Ice and Fire books do, often, in Martin's eyes, treating sexuality in a juvenile way or neglecting it completely. Martin, however, considers sexuality an important driving force in human life that should not be excluded from the narrative. Providing sensory detail for an immersive experience is more important than plot advancement for Martin, who aims to let the readers experience the novels' sex scenes, "whether it's a great transcendent, exciting, mind blowing sex, or whether it's disturbing, twisted, dark sex, or disappointing perfunctory sex". Martin was fascinated by medieval contrasts where knights venerated their ladies with poems and wore their favors in tournaments while their armies mindlessly raped women in wartime. The inexistent concept of adolescence in the Middle Ages served as a model for Daenerys's sexual activity at the age of 13 in the books. The novels also allude to the incestuous practices in the Ptolemaic dynasty of Ancient Egypt and the European monarchies to keep their bloodlines pure.

Martin provides a variety of female characters to explore some of the ramifications of the novels being set in a patriarchal society. Writing all characters as human beings with the same basic needs, dreams and influences, his female characters are to cover the same wide spectrum of human traits as the males. Martin can identify with all point-of-view characters in the writing process despite significant differences to him, be it gender or age. He does not presume to make feminist statements in either way, although the HBO television adaptation sparked a heated critical response about the series' alleged misogyny, the portrayal of women, and the gender distribution of the readership and viewership.

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