Books discussed in this essay:

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1), by George R. R. Martin

A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 2), by George R. R. Martin

A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 3), by George R. R. Martin

A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 4), by George R. R. Martin

A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 5), by George R. R. Martin


During the summer of 1991, George R.R. Martin found himself with nothing to do. He had left a job producing the CBS dramatic series Beauty and the Beast and, looking for a new project, decided to return to the genre in which he had forged his reputation: science fiction. He began writing a giant novel, Avalon, that he hoped would turn out to be "War and Peace in space." He worked diligently on the story, but it didn't seem to be going anywhere. Martin has said that there are two types of writers, architects and gardeners: architects plan out their stories far in advance; gardeners meander, cultivate, prune, and till. Martin considers himself a gardener, and Avalon was a seed that failed to sprout.

Then, 30 pages into his sci-fi-meets-Tolstoy project, Martin had a vision "as vivid as a waking dream." He imagined a young boy discovering the carcass of a wolf in the snow. The wolf's neck was pierced with an antler. Mewling near the corpse were six wolf cubs. The boy convinces his father to take the wolflings home, and there the scene comes to an end. Martin didn't know what to do with this piece of writing. But he did know that it was different from science fiction. He put it aside. Before long he was distracted by other television, film, and editing projects. A couple of years later, he returned to the story of the boy and the cubs, which he completed and called Game of Thrones.

The novel, the first of a projected trilogy, was published in 1996. But like a strong oak, the tale kept expanding, its roots spreading, and its branches multiplying. By the time the third book in the series, A Storm of Swords, was published in 2000, Martin was saying that it would take six books to complete his narrative. Then six turned into seven. Judging by the fifth book, A Dance with Dragons, published last summer, one wouldn't be surprised if the planned heptalogy ends up growing into eight volumes or more.

Martin's title for this saga is A Song of Ice and Fire. The story spans over 4,200 pages in hardcover, so far. If any books deserve to be called page-turners, these do, and the series has become a cultural phenomenon, immensely popular around the world. The Ice and Fire books, available in numerous translations, have sold more than 15 million copies worldwide. There are spin-off novellas, comics, card and video games, and an Emmy Award-winning adaptation on HBO. Nor has the series' popularity alienated critics: In 2005, Time magazine columnist Lev Grossman declared Martin "the American Tolkien," and in 2011, the New York Times's Dana Jennings proclaimed "Tolkien is dead. And long live George Martin."

A Tale of Power and Politics

The series owes its success to the power of Martin's storytelling and the richness of his creation. The story is set in a fictional world with continents that resemble our own. The two main landmasses, comparable to North America and Europe, are called Westeros and Essos. By our standards, the level of technology in these lands is primitive. Books are rare. Hardly anyone can read or write. The weapons, buildings, methods of transportation, manners, religious beliefs, and politics of the Westerosi would all fit comfortably in 14th-century Europe. There are knights, priests, sailors, traders, peasants, kings, and queens. There are tournaments, battles, heraldry, and castles. And there is the seat of monarchical power, the Iron Throne, a hulking black mass made of swords. Whoever sits on the Iron Throne is the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.

For almost 300 years, Westeros was run by the Targaryens, an ancient house whose descendants possess "a striking (some say inhuman) beauty, with lilac or indigo or violet eyes and hair of silver-gold or platinum white." About 16 years before the curtain rises on Game of Thrones, the Targaryens were overthrown in a rebellion led by House Baratheon. But it is difficult to reestablish a line of succession once it's been severed. Another of the great houses plots to take the throne from the Baratheons. Across the sea in Essos, an exiled prince and princess marshal armies to restore Targaryen rule. And in the far northern reaches of Westeros, beyond a 70-story wall of ice that stretches across the continent, a supernatural power gathers its strength for a dark and unknown purpose.

Martin relates the three main stories, and others, in brief chapters told from the third-person perspective of individual characters. The format lends itself to a huge canvas and thrilling cliffhangers, with an addictive storyline full of sex, violence, and surprising plot reversals. The reader develops ferocious attachments to Martin's characters as he comes to see the world through their eyes.

But there is another reason the books are so popular. A Song of Ice and Fire is intensely political. Martin asks the most serious questions about the nature of power: Who governs? By what right? To what end? He is fascinated by the subtle effects power can have on ruler and subject alike. "You can have the power to destroy," he told New York magazine's Vulture blog last year, "but it doesn't give you the power to reform, or improve, or build." Quite unexpectedly, Martin has emerged as the Machiavelli of the modern novel. The grit, blood, and passion in his books show human beings as they truly are, as opposed to the idealizations one finds in chivalric romances. A dispassionate analyst of the cruelty of princes, he reveals the unstable ground of absolutist rule. He is exploring, through his characters and situations, whether enlightened despotism is possible in a broken world. This isn't fantasy; it's a crash course in political realism.

Choices and Consequences

Born in 1948 in Bayonne, New Jersey, Martin grew up in government-subsidized housing projects. He loved comic books and cheap paperbacks and, at an early age, began creating imaginary worlds of his own. "The oldest surviving example of my writing," he says in Dreamsongs, a collection of short stories republished in 2007, "which looks like something I might have done in kindergarten or first grade, is an encyclopedia of outer space, block printed in one of those school tablets with the marbled black and white covers." In his encyclopedia, Martin recorded information and histories for each of the planets in our solar system, and for some that he made up himself.

Martin published his first piece of writing, a letter to the editor of Marvel's Fantastic Four comic, when he was 15 years old. In high school he began to write stories for fanzines. The subculture of science fiction and comics fandom was just being built, and he was one of the first to jump in the pool. He went to Northwestern University, where he studied journalism, with the idea that hackwork was a good way to write for a living. But fiction remained his real interest. While working at various odd jobs—teacher, chess tournament official—he submitted his science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories to specialty magazines like AnalogAmazing StoriesAsimov's, and Omni. This early fiction was grim-filled with monstrous aliens, vicious men, doomed loves, madness, and black humor. Fascinated by death, he seemed to have no qualms about killing off his characters. As he said in an interview at Google headquarters in the summer of 2011, "Death is the one universal. It doesn't really matter what religion you're born into, we all die."

Martin, like many great writers, is interested in choice and its consequences on individual character. In the 1981 story "Unsound Variations," the protagonist, a failed novelist named Peter, reflects on death by drawing a parallel between chess moves and free will. "Every move you face choices, and every choice leads to different variations," he says. "It branches and then branches again, and sometimes the variation you pick isn't as good as it looked, isn't sound at all. But you don't know that until your game is over." In another novella from the '80s, "The Monkey Treatment," a grotesquely fat man attempts to lose weight while eating whatever he wants. The results are horrific. And in what is widely considered his finest story, "Sandkings" (1979), a decadent owner of rare and dangerous species mistreats his pets and pays dearly for it.

These themes reappear in Martin's later work. But there is one significant difference: Set primarily in a galactic "alternate history," in which humans play only a minor role, his earlier writing possesses a coldness and exotic flavor that make empathy difficult. Writing screenplays taught him how to reach a wide audience. Writing successfully for television, even genre television, means appealing to many different people at once. Martin's connections with Hollywood go back to the 1980s, when he submitted a script to CBS's new Twilight Zone series on spec. He eventually joined the staff and worked there until 1987. He tried not to get too caught up in Hollywood, returning to his home in Santa Fe on weekends. After Twlight Zone, he went to work for another CBS series, Beauty and the Beast, until it too was canceled in 1990. The money was good, and the coworkers were nice, and writing for television teaches the arts of dialogue and compression. But Martin felt constrained. So he left Hollywood—and went to Westeros.

Grounds of Legitimacy

At first glance, the political teaching of Martin's novels may be difficult to discern. The array of social, political, and religious systems at work in A Song of Ice and Fire is dizzying. Custom and caprice rule these societies; there seem to be no natural standards of right and wrong. Most Westerosi adhere to the divine right of kings and worship a seven-faced god. The denizens of the Iron Islands worship a sea god and have a method for determining leadership through assembly that resembles an Afghan loya jirga. The northern barons who live near the wall of ice pray to animist "old gods." Across the Narrow Sea in Essos are the self-governing merchant city-states modeled on the Venetian Republic. The citizens of the Free Cities bend the knee to a variety of deities; one of the more popular religions is a Manichean system that pits light against darkness. The marauding Dothraki horselords are organized in clans. Still farther East are the slave states in which gilded oligarchies rule over human chattel.

The most important actors in Martin's story are the kings and queens. Who rules, on what grounds, and for what purposes are the central questions of the series. Martin sees the problems inherent in the theory of divine right: without a public declaration from the gods that so-and-so should be king, human beings are left to determine the monarch through bloodlines, a slippery standard. To overturn one line through violent rebellion, as House Baratheon does to House Targaryen, is to undermine the foundations of authority and invite further challenges to the throne.

This dynastic quarrel leads inevitably to skepticism of monarchy. When the grounds for legitimacy are so thin, one ruler seems a lot like another. "Treason…is only a word," says a character in "The Sworn Sword," a novella set in Westeros.

When two princes fight for a chair where only one may sit, great lords and common men alike must choose. And when the battle's done, the victors will be hailed as loyal men and true, whilst those who were defeated will be known forevermore as rebels and traitors.

The world of Ice and Fire is a place of impulsive and arbitrary power, where little stands in the way of a strongman and his desire.

No one embodies the worst aspects of kingship more than the adolescent Prince Joffrey, who assumes the Iron Throne after the death of his father Robert Baratheon. Joffrey is governed by his passions and sees power simply as a means to achieve pleasure. He is tempestuous, sensitive, and vindictive. He orders servants to perform acts of cruelty because he himself lacks the courage. He breaks oaths, issues contrary directives, and draws strength from the pain of others. "His Grace has a unique way of winning the hearts of his subjects," Joffrey's uncle quips at one point in Clash of Kings. Of course, Joffrey is neither feared nor loved—he is only despised.

Absent the rule of law, and with the exception of revolution, only a code of ethics might restrain a potential despot. A sense of personal honor might be able to set the king straight. And yet Martin seems to suggest that morality alone is insufficient to curb evil. The character of Eddard Stark, the viceroy to King Robert Baratheon, is honorable to a fault. Stark serves his king because it is his duty. When he discovers something that could turn Westeros upside down, he faces a serious choice. When most courtiers would accommodate themselves to prevailing circumstances, keeping quiet out of self-interest, Eddard decides to act on the information, and in so doing, he sets in motion a horrible chain of events. "You wear your honor like a suit of armor, Stark," says a more cynical—and successful—character in Game of Thrones. "You think it keeps you safe, but all it does is weigh you down and make it hard for you to move."

Daenerys Targaryen

A good prince, Martin implies, would combine Eddard Stark's righteousness with the flexibility necessary to ward off challenges before they turn deadly. This is the synthesis that the exiled princess Daenerys Targaryen is struggling to achieve. In many ways A Song of Ice and Fire is the biography of Daenarys. The reader encounters her as a young and fearful girl and watches as she develops into a strong and just queen. What makes her so interesting is that she is the sole character in the story to defend the natural equality of man. As she makes her way to Westeros, Daenarys raises an army and conquers the slave cities of the East. She finds the practice of slavery abhorrent and liberates the bondsmen she encounters. A swelling throng of freedmen follows her as she travels westward.

Daenerys finds it difficult to feed, clothe, house, employ, and care for her new subjects. Her advisers say she should abandon the former slaves and concentrate on her primary goal of overthrowing the usurper, but they are more interested in power than morality. But not Daenerys: "‘I will not turn away from them,' she said stubbornly. ‘A queen must know the sufferings of her people.'"

For Martin, man's common nature may be the basis for a theory of government superior to the divine right of kings. The fate of Westeros depends on whether Martin allows Daenerys Targaryen to claim her crown while maintaining her principles. If she fails, perhaps another of the many characters in A Song of Ice and Fire will conclude that kingship is not a right but a "duty, that a king must put his people first, and live and rule for them." The alternative is brute force and a world where human life is nothing but a preparation for, as the title of the fourth book in the series puts it, a "feast for crows."

It is a sad commentary on contemporary American "literary fiction" that the most complex, gripping, and thought provoking exploration of power and legitimacy in prose is a more than a decade old fantasy series that languished in obscurity for years. What Martin's epic teaches is that pride, honor, virtue, and envy are coeval with human life, open to interpretation by authors high and low, and this includes screenwriters. By stripping genre fiction of its clichés, by describing a political culture in shades of gray rather than in black and white, Martin is composing a far more relevant and nuanced work than, say, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom (2010). As Martin understood when he began his tale in 1991:

Stories of the human heart in conflict with itself transcend time, place, and setting. So long as love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice are present, it matters not a whit whether that tall, lean, stranger has a proton pistol or a six-shooter in his hand. Or a sword.