George R. R. Martin’s thoughts on fantasy in the Authors@Google talk

I mentioned in the previous post that I watched a live webcast of George R. R. Martin at Google yesterday and it was fascinating. I’ve written of how Martin made me a fan of epic fantasy with his Song of Ice and Fire series. During the Q&A session yesterday, he said something that I found to be insightful about fantasy that touches tangentially on a dialog that Michael J. Sullivan started and to which John Ginsberg-Stevens responded.

In his post “Fantasy as Fantasy“, Sullivan argues that “the more traditional ‘hero’s quest’ being abandoned for greater ambiguity that critics call depth.” John Ginsberg-Stevens responded with his guest post, “Fantasy, Imagination, and the Hero” which looks more closely at what we mean by a “hero” in fantastic fiction. I had these posts in the back of my mind when I was watching Martin talk yesterday. He was asked at one point about the women in powerful positions in his fiction. As part of his response to this, he talked about his interest in good people and leaders regardless of gender.

He said that the flaw he saw in much fantasy was the fact that a morally good hero was necessarily a good leader. He pointed to Tolkien, for who he has the utmost respect. In The Return of the King, Aragorn is a good man who battles evil and ultimately gains his rightful place as king. There the story ends. What Martin wondered is: despite being a good man, was Aragorn a good king? “What was his tax policy,” Martin mused.  Was he capable of making pragmatic decisions as opposed to strictly morally just ones (not always mutually exclusive, I’ll grant you). We never see this and so we are left with the unspoken premise that morally good men (or women) make good leaders.

Those who have read at least a portion of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series will see that much of what goes on in the series is an attempt to explore this premise. Eddard Stark is a morally good man, ruler of Winterfell, but when he becomes Hand of the King (what Martin equates to Prime Minister), he is almost in over his head and is forced to make some morally ambiguous decisions in that role. It seems to me that he is not the best of rulers on a large scale, despite being a good man. (He points out that while he believes that Jimmy Carter is one of the finest men of modern times, it didn’t make him a particularly good leader.)

Another thing that Martin pointed out is that while much fantasy makes leadership seem both noble and easy, in reality it is not. He wanted to show the difficulties of leadership and statesmanship and I think this comes across very clearly in the series.

I like this approach to epic fantasy and while I couldn’t be as specific as I would have liked in my earlier post on the subject, I think this issue touches on what really turned me on to the genre. The story is based on human motivations that I can related to, not idyllic notions of what a hero should be. Seeing how difficult it is to rule a kingdom, seeing the tough decisions that have to be made, getting into that grittiness helps us better understand ourselves, our leaders and their motivations.

This is not an epic tale of good over evil. This is a fantastic struggle of man in conflict with himself and it makes for some powerful storytelling.


  1. “This is a fantastic struggle of man in conflict with himself and it makes for some powerful storytelling.”

    -It also makes for unsatisfying storytelling. Stories of good verses evil work and satisfy readers because we want to hear that virtue can triumph over corruption. I think Martin’s story is realistic but I think his explorations are taking him to dark areas where some of his readers don’t want to go.

    I also personally disagree with the premise that a moral man is not the best ruler. I think only a moral man can be a great ruler, a pragmatic man can only be an effective ruler. Machiavelli’s the Prince is all about how to be effective. His advice works but only in a moral vacuum. The morality of a leader is intrinsically tied to the satisfaction of the populace. That is where the idea of all power arising from the consent of the governed. The alternative is pure tyranny and this is both difficult to maintain and inefficient.

    Ned Stark’s flaw wasn’t honor, it was assuming honor were there was none.

    There has to be a balance. Trust and verification, if you will. Because it isn’t enough to simply make decisions. Only a moral man can make the right decisions out of an array of choices. It is a terrifying world where efficiency and pragmatism rule. Where would the world of ASOIAF be if the pragmatic decision to kill all the Targaryens had been followed to the end?


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