Tower of the Hand

The Dead of Winter

Tags: Essay
4/18/2013 2:30:00 PM ET

In addition to a small smattering of Tower of the Hand books that will be announced this weekend (keep your eyes peeled to A Podcast of Ice and Fire), I've been preoccupied as of late by a number of other projects: adapting Hamlet in screenplay format (yes, yet again), prepping an independent production of Waiting for Godot, starting up my own LLC (wait 'til this weekend), and, of course, writing my analysis of Game of Thrones every week for Coming Attractions. It was in the midst of all these time-draining, soul-sucking undertakings that a thought started to creep up on me. It's been bubbling in the back of my mind for quite some time now, truth be told, but it's really begun to crystallize and force itself rather violently in my frontal lobe just within the last few weeks... and it's a thought, inchoate as it may still be, that leaves me feeling rather ambivalent.

georgerrmartin_clean.jpgWhat is the half-life of George Martin's shelf life?

First, some backtracking and fine print are in order. I, obviously, love George Martin's fantasy yarn, and I, also obviously, would sell my seven-month-old to the Russian mafia if it would somehow bestow The Winds of Winter on us all a year early (yes, the sacrifices I make for my fellow fan-nerds). But even at the height of HBO fever, I find my attention drifting to and my heart yearning for Iron Man 3 and the grand kick-off of Marvel's Phase Two franchise, or Samuel Beckett's delightfully lingering existential play, or that next re-read of Lord of the Rings that I somehow keep telling myself is only a few weeks away.

There is a commonality in immersiveness that all these creations so clearly strive for - apart from a constant quest for never-ending details that revolve around food, sex, and family sigils - and they quite plainly attain it, more times than not. They erect palpable worlds, from the warm hearths of Bag End to the sleek contours of Avengers Tower, and populate them with characters that brim not only with abstract narrative potentiality, but also with emotional depth; you want to meet Gandalf or chill with Bruce Banner or help Vladimir find that goddamn Godot. There is, in short, a presence to these disembodied locations that is terribly profound.

Well, okay - The Avengers, and all its attendant antecedents and subsequents, may not belong on this list (yet), but, hey, I have popcorn and 3D glasses on the brain. And though Marvel's movie series doesn't (yet) have the longevity of the Prince of Denmark - nor the sublimeness in artistic composition that graces so many of Shakespeare's works - it does have the seeds of cultural resonance that may yet grow into something, well, more. All of these stories (even Marvel's, if we move from the recent films to the realm of the long-standing comics) endure for a reason, from generation to generation and, in some cases, century to century.

And here, at last, is the crux of the matter: I don't know if A Song of Ice and Fire can pass this timelessness test.

On the one hand, Martin's expansive story is hopelessly addictive and, quite unlike many of these other items on my somewhat wanton list, staggeringly complex, begging - if not flat-out demanding - multiple rereads and necessitating the absorption of supplemental material, such as prequel novellas and map books. It features an ambitiously ambiguous world filled with characters who have more than enough room for dozens of different interpretations and readings, which has long been a hallmark of the literary classic; Tyrion Lannister by himself stands a good chance of being even remotely in the company of Hamlet or, limiting ourselves to a more modern time period and medium both, Tony Soprano.

On the other hand, however, there's very little heart. There is a bleakness and ruthlessness that goes beyond shock-and-awe set pieces or callous narrative veneers; there is a mean-spiritedness that is deeply embedded in the characters, in the places they call home, in the endless political tides that they call history. As intellectually absorbing as these novels are, for all the fascination that post-modern characters like Jaime Lannister engender, Westeros - or Essos or the Lands of Always-winter or, I'm sure, Asshai and Old Valyria - isn't a place that I'd want to be, not like the Starship Enterprise or, even, Naboo. And it seems like more than any other of the various requirements that enduring myths demand, it's this simple, fundamentally human desire to leave our shabby lives behind and step into this other world that is the most important.

Then again, when I take a step back from such meditations and reassess my everyday fanboy life, I can't help but notice that I incessantly listen to the Game of Thrones soundtracks, regularly crack open my Feast of Ice and Fire cookbook (which both my wife and buddies can't seem to get enough of), and continually debate whether it is the board or card game that is next most deserving of my fleeting time. Clearly, George R.R. Martin has struck some sort of rare and precious gold in his rather expansive world-building.

And, at the end of the day, this may say volumes more about the matter at hand than any prattling I may care to randomly scribble down.

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