War is not Tennis: George RR Martin’s Most Wanted

So. This morning I was feeling less than excellent because the small humanoid for whose care and feeding I am responsible was yowling at 5 AM and I’d been up until 2:30 the night before drinking whiskey and arguing with my friend Colin. To paraphrase the knight from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: we chose poorly. We are sane men.  We had not forgotten the fact that we both have children. But the emotions involved in this debate were just too powerful.

The subject of debate: Who is the best fighter in the George R.R. Martin universe? Stipulations: 1) Characters must be alive at some point in the series, 2) Consider the character as his or her prime, even if it falls outside the scope of the series (e.g. Ser Barristan Selmy), and 3) Only the books are a valid source of evidence (despite that ass-kicking scene with Drogo in the first season of the HBO series).

We came up with a short list easily.  In no particular order:

  1. Jaime Lannister
  2. Robert Baratheon
  3. Strong Belwas
  4. Barristan Selmy
  5. Quorin Halfhand
  6. Loras Tyrell
  7. Brienne of Tarth
  8. Khal Drogo
  9. Oberyn Martell
  10. Gregor Clegane
  11. Sandor Clegane
  12. Syrio Forel
  13. Bron

Then the shouting began. In a nutshell, Colin was arguing for Gregor Clegane and I was arguing for Khal Drogo. Colin’s argument hinged on the following principle: all these people kick ass, and when it comes to an ass-kicking contest, the guy who’s almost eight feet tall and can wield a six foot sword with a single hand has an overwhelming, undeniable advantage. He cited as corroborating evidence the importance of weight in boxing, UFC, and wrestling, pointing out that a featherweight will never beat a heavyweight, and all these guys (and Brienne) are featherweights compared to Gregor.

Our discussion went like this (SPOILERS TO FOLLOW):

Me: The Red Viper almost killed Gregor.

Colin: But he used poison. And he didn’t kill him. And the Red Viper died.

Me: Sandor Clegane seems to think he can kill his brother at will.

Colin: Not fair. Sandor knows Gregor’s weaknesses.

Me: Loras beats Gregor in a joust.

Colin: Loras cheated, and Gregor was still going to chop his head off before Sandor intervened.

Me: But Gregor is stupid.

Colin: So fucking what?

I like to think my argument was more nuanced, hinging, as it did, on the idea that we should be considering first those characters who have fought the most people to the death. Experience trumps. This axiom immediately moved Belwas, Quorin, Drogo, and Bron to the top of my list. Unfortunately, very little is known about Belwas (but he does have all those scars) and Bron (but he does seem very confident that he could kill just about anyone). On Drogo, however, although we only see one fight, we have some very good information: among a warlike people he has been fighting nearly constantly his whole life without ever losing. Colin pointed out that Westerosi knights have done their share of fighting, but I countered that there has been peace in Westeros for a while now, and that a knight like Gregor mostly goes around killing potters and millers and fishermen and such – bad practice for fighting actual fights.

Although the argument kept us up half the night and led to some seriously questionable parenting the following day, the fact that we were able to have an argument at all suggests something important, something that fantasy novelists sometimes forget, but that Martin remembers: war is not tennis. To be sure, the tennis world has its upsets, but it also has a reliable ladder. The leading players tend to sit near the top because they win a hell of a lot more than they lose. If we pitted Federer against a high school tennis player, the high school player would win approximately never.

The business of battle, however, is more complex. While some novels would allow us to compile a ranking of fighters easily, Martin understands that there’s not a ladder, but a morass of shifting and unpredictable variables: personal style, the type of battle, the degree of preparation, the type of weapons and armor, weather, morale, confusion. Philosophers like to elide these variables with the simple phrase, “All other things being equal…” but a novelist of Martin’s stature understands that the exogenous variables are never equal. They are, in fact, what gives the work its richness and texture. The uncertainty is what keeps us guessing and reading. It’s what makes us (only temporarily, I hope) less than ideal fathers.

Ok, great. I said my piece. Now… out of the thirteen characters listed above, who’s the best?

Those Lazy Writers of Fantasy

Writers of fantasy have been seriously slacking. Here we were, thinking they’d been inventing whole new worlds, imagining undiscovered lands, conjuring up hitherto undreamed of vistas and cultures and religions and vegetables and hats when, as it turns out, they’ve just been ripping shit off. These so-called writers have been taking places and people from the real world, from real history, tossing this stuff in their books, giving it new names, and hoping we would never notice!

And I’ll tell you, it doesn’t take much digging to find the real referents here, not when you’re clued in to the trick. Anyone else notice that Khal Drogo’s title sounds a lot like Khan, that the Dothraki are essentially Mongols? Or that Robert Jordan’s Caemlyn looks a lot like England? Or that R. Scott Bakker’s plot (in The Prince of Nothing) draws heavily on the Crusades? Or that N. K. Jemisin’s Gujarreh is modeled on Egypt? Or that Daniel Abraham’s entire map (in The Dragon’s Path) is just Europe scrunched up a little bit? What horseshit!

I’m joking, of course. Not about fantasy writers ripping shit off – we do that all the time – but about the idea that these cultural borrowings are either lazy, secret, or deleterious to the works in question. They are not.

In fact, far from diminishing the effect of these novels, I’d argue that such borrowing and modification, skillfully handled, is a boon for author and reader both. After all, when I sit down to read Jemisin’s The Killing Moon, she tells me right up front in the author’s note that the names and geography are essentially Egyptian. This sweeps aside a whole lot of work for both of us. I’m already imagining deserts and the Nile, monumental architecture and loincloths. She describes these things, of course – the world is well and truly fleshed out – but she doesn’t need to start from the ground up. Instead, she can dig more quickly into plot and character, confident that the reader, clued in to the cultural shorthand, will fill in any missing details more or less correctly. I usually enjoy reading fantasy in which the writer modifies a pre-existing culture because I feel I can focus on the important details instead of pausing every few seconds, muttering, “Wait, they live in straw houses and eat what again?”

There are, however, some dangers here. Most obviously, the writer will want to depart from the historical model in places. This is what makes the book fantasy and not historical fiction. However, the momentum of shared cultural assumptions can obscure these points of departure. If the whole book I’m reading draws heavily on the culture of medieval Japan, it’s going to be more difficult for the writer to steer us out of the relevant assumptions when such steering becomes necessary. The familiarity of the known becomes a sort of prison.

Of course, part of the fun has been to establish what seems to be a familiar cultural paradigm only to subvert it. “Look,” the author says. “This place is just like medieval Arabia. Load it up with your assumptions. Keep piling them on! You’re doing great!” And then, because the book is fantasy and not history, she pulls the carpet out, forcing us to realize that a) this place is not medieval Arabia, but something altogether stranger and more wonderful, and that b) maybe our assumptions about medieval Arabia weren’t all that dialed-in to begin with.

I don’t mean to imply that all writers employ these methods. The shelves are piled with fantasy novels that eschew any obvious borrowings, geographic, linguistic, cultural, or religious. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea is an obvious example, as is Steven Erikson’s Malazan series. I find both worlds fascinating and disorienting at the same time, refreshing for their refusal to draw on any givens, but daunting for the same reason. These are, in a way, the purest fantasies, and I find myself amazed by the ambition and ability of both writers. Still, it’s useful here to remember that the root of “amazed” is “maze,” as in delusion, bewilderment, perhaps drawn from the Norwegian mas, meaning “exhausting labor.” In other words, writers who build their worlds from the bedrock up require a lot more work from their readers. The payoff from Le Guin and Erikson is so great that I don’t hesitate to put in this work, but it’s important to note the costs nonetheless; a lot more people have read The Wheel of Time than The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

I’m curious to hear from other readers and writers. When does the sort of cultural shorthand I’ve been trying to describe work well, and when does it seem lazy or derivative? Would you rather read books with lands that are vaguely familiar, or plunge into something altogether new?