Highlights of A Song of Ice and Fire: History

HBO key art for Season 4
In preparation for the fourth season of the HBO TV series Game of Thrones, premiering April 6, I've decided to write a series of posts on A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin's book series the show is based on.

I've written a few times now on this blog about Game of Thrones, launching a popular critique, mapping a fanciful comparison to Alaska, and musing about narrative and historical theory. This time, however, I'll keep things more straightforward: I'm writing about three themes in the books. Two I heartily enjoy, and one I think is worthy of critique.

Besides the obvious joys of plot twists, dynamic characters, and vivid details, there are two huge highlights that I enjoy in A Song of Ice and Fire—the history and the religion. Let's start with the history.

Note: There won't be any plot spoilers here. I promise.

Even Ned Stark reads history books!
A Song of Ice and Fire is filled with history. It's the fictional history of Westeros and its neighboring lands, obviously—not the actual history of Earth, which is usually what I spend my time studying. What's great about this fictional history of Westeros, though, is that it isn't force-fed to the readers by a narrator as necessary background material.

Instead, the history of Westeros is valued and discussed by the characters in the story: They talk about it, read it, record it, and remember it, or forget it as the case may be. They reflect on it, refer back to it, and even analyze it as a guide for their actions. In essence, Westeros is a land filled with historians—people who care about and interpret their past, utilizing it as a tool in the present. When characters forget it, as they often do, the consequences may be disastrous. What better propaganda could a history teacher want?

A Feast For Crows,
fourth book in ASOIAF
Let me give some examples from A Feast For Crows, the book I finished most recently. Jaime Lannister serves as one of the most obvious historians, becoming the keeper of the White Book, the record of the members of the Kingsguard. He struggles with the responsibility, and most of all the thought of how his own life and service will be remembered. Meanwhile, Jaime's twin sister Cersei makes decisions as queen that overturn ancient precedents in Westeros bringing untold ramifications. Characters like Bran and Sansa Stark have history—like the stories of ancestors and heroes past—as something to hold onto when everything else in their lives has fallen apart.

To be sure, many instances of characters thinking about history serve mostly as an expository tool for George R. R. Martin, just like J. K. Rowling's pensieve in the Harry Potter books was a handy way to share detailed scenes from major characters' memories. Martin's exposition never needs magical means, though, or an omniscient narrator, as in prototypical fantasy epics like The Lord of the Rings: The sharing of history between characters feels more raw, and potentially flawed. Instead of going off on detailed tangents like a history professor, (unless it's their occupation), characters share only the stories they love or need to tell, all with doubtful facts or biased perspectives.

For many people, fictional history in fantasy novels must sound like a terribly boring prospect. In my view, however, characters who engage with the history of their universe have the potential to enrich a story immensely. It's one thing to make a story epic by giving it a detailed setting; even more impressive is to show deep, genuine interplay between characters and the backstory of their world, just as we interact with history in our everyday lives. That's what happens in A Song of Ice and Fire.