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“Those who had changed their allegiance during the battle needed only to swear fealty to Joffrey, but the ones who had fought for Stannis until the bitter end were compelled to speak. Their words decided their fate. If they begged forgiveness for their treasons and promised to serve loyally henceforth, Joffrey welcomed them back into the king’s peace and restored them to all their lands and rights. A handful remained defiant, however.

“Do not imagine this is done, boy,” warned one, the bastard son of some Florent or other. “The Lord of Light protects King Stannis, now and always. All your swords and all your scheming shall not save you when his hour comes.”

“Your hour is come right now.” Joffrey beckoned to Ser Ilyn Payne to take the man out and strike his head off. But no sooner had that one been dragged away than a knight of solemn mien with a fiery heart on his surcoat shouted out,

“Stannis is the true king! A monster sits the Iron Throne, an abomination born of incest!”

“Be silent,” Ser Kevan Lannister bellowed.

The knight raised his voice instead. “Joffrey is the black worm eating the heart of the realm! Darkness was his father, and death his mother! Destroy him before he corrupts you all! Destroy them all, queen whore and king worm, vile dwarf and whispering spider, the false flowers. Save yourselves!”

One of the gold cloaks knocked the man off his feet, but he continued to shout.

“The scouring fire will come! King Stannis will return!”

Joffrey lurched to his feet. “I’m king! Kill him! Kill him now! I command it.” He chopped down with his hand, a furious, angry gesture …and screeched in pain when his arm brushed against one of the sharp metal fangs that surrounded him. The bright crimson samite of his sleeve turned a darker shade of red as his blood soaked through it.

“Mother!” he wailed.

With every eye on the king, somehow the man on the floor wrested a spear away from one of the gold cloaks, and used it to push himself back to his feet.

“The throne denies him!” he cried. “He is no king!”

Cersei was running toward the throne, but Lord Tywin remained still as stone. He had only to raise a finger, and Ser Meryn Trant moved forward with drawn sword. The end was quick and brutal. The gold cloaks seized the knight by the arms.

“No king!” he cried again as Ser Meryn drove the point of his longsword through his chest.

She wondered how badly Joffrey had cut himself. They say the Iron Throne can be perilous cruel to those who were not meant to sit it.”

– George R. R. Martin, “Sansa VIII,” A Clash of Kings. Bantam, 1997.

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“There is a famous dictum by Alfred Korzybski: the map is not the territory. Medieval maps look only vaguely like what we can see in satellite imagery today. But fantasy fiction deliberately acts like there is no difference. In Game of Thrones, the opening swoop is not across the territory of Westeros, but over its map. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers — the second movie in Peter Jackson’s original trilogy — similarly features a moment in which the characters peruse a map of their own world. It is recognizably the very same map that comes with the novel, just a bit more crumpled, and covered with some prop-department soot. The map is that rare totem that is identical in their world and ours. When you look at the map, you meet the characters eye to eye.

For centuries, fantasy didn’t require maps. Sure, some speculative works included them — think of the map of Utopia that furnishes the frontispiece for Thomas More’s fictional travelogue. Usually, when an invented map showed up in a novel, it served as an attempt at realism. From Anthony Troloppe’s Barsettshire, via Sherwood Anderson’s map of Winesburg, Ohio, to William Faulkner’s schematic of Yoknapatawpha County, these maps were supposed to convince you that, though the specific place the novel described was fictional, it had its place in your world. You didn’t armchair-travel from Varner’s Corner to Sutpen’s Hundred. You wouldn’t want to be a tourist in Yoknapatawpha, even of the armchair variety.

Nothing like this was required in what would become fantasy literature set in “secondary worlds.” William Morris’s mock epics The Wood Beyond the World (1894) and The Well at the World’s End (1896) were sumptuously designed and illustrated, much like the collections of real-world myths of their day — but that design omitted any maps of the fictional world. Edgar Rice Burroughs published 11 volumes of fiction around John Carter and the invented Barsoom. He’d come up with Martian measurements and jotted down a rudimentary map, but never bothered to include either in any of his books. Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, Robert E. Howard’s Hyboria, Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea: maps exist for all of these, but at the time no one thought readers needed to see them.

Part of this could be due to the fact that early pulp fantasy appeared in publications that were ill-equipped to reproduce a full-page map before each installment of the story. A hardcover children’s fiction like The Hobbit had a much better reason to get fancy with its design. children’s books traditionally came illustrated anyway, while pulps, at least initially, did not. The map entered fantasy literature as one illustration among many; it attained its status as the most important (and often, only) illustration in the book later on.

It’s equally possible that until Tolkien, fantasy authors just didn’t feel like they neededmaps. Tolkien did. For the Oxford professor, maps were a natural part of the faux-scholarly apparatus he prepared to keep control of his fictional world. Tolkien himself said that he “started with a map, and made the story fit (generally with meticulous care for distances).” Through map design Tolkien could telegraph some of the complicated culture he had dreamed up for Middle Earth: the maps for The Hobbit were full of Runic inscriptions and historical notes, to the point that several scholarly books have devoted chapters to a detailed reading of these maps alone.

Tolkien was fine withholding the massive background mythology, most of it wasn’t available until his children decided to cash in on it after the author’s death. But he felt it was necessary to share these maps with readers. “Look at the map at the beginning of this book,” Tolkien’s narrator advises in The Hobbit, “and you will see there the runes in red.” Tolkien began experimenting with what would become Middle Earth in the 1920s, after the Great War had transformed people’s relationship to tracing the outlines of other people’s paths across unfamiliar terrain. During the war, Tolkien had sent his wife, Edith, coded messages in his letters, messages she could keep track of on a map at home. I’ve come to wonder whether her anxiety following her husband across the map of Flanders became a forerunner to the anxiety with which later readers would track Frodo’s frustratingly slow approach to Mount Doom.

There is a scene in The Lord of the Rings where Frodo and Sam reach the Black Gate to Mordor, but are forced to turn around and try a different route. If you’ve seen the movies, you encountered it as one way station among many on their quest. But I can still recall that scene from my first reading of the book. Glued as I was to the map, I experienced the scene as a visual gut punch: barely an inch lay between the characters and their goal, and I could feel the visceral frustration as they suddenly and decisively had to move map-inch by map-inch away from it again. Perhaps mapping progress was for J. R. R., as it had been for Edith Tolkien, about managing wartime anxieties.

But anxiety is only part of the story. For every moment when we take in glumly how far our heroes still have to travel, there are ten moments of the opposite: of luxuriating in how much world is yet out there for our heroes to traverse, a burning desire to see the lines and shadings filled in with people and story. This, too, is part of Tolkien’s maps. Between the world wars, the British Isles were seized by a hiking craze. Maps, organized tours, and walking guides proliferated during the years Tolkien began charting Bilbo’s great hike towards the Lonely Mountain. Thror’s Map, which Tolkien himself drew and which his characters use as a guide to get into the Mountain, may look like the map of Treasure Island that Robert Louis Stevenson included as a frontispiece in his 1883 novel. But the paths and pointers, the famous sight at the center, and the reams of text and historic markers make it feel like a hiking map.

To some extent that’s been true ever since. While cartographers have developed so many ways to present geographic information, the maps that accompany fantasy novels don’t vary a lot in terms of the information they display. They are about location, distance, and terrain for characters to hike through and for us to follow along. They are rarely political maps. They focus on geography over borders and on movement over status. The scholar Stefan Ekman suggests one reason why that may be: a lot of the borders and boundaries around fantasy realms are dictated by natural or supernatural features and have to do with states of being rather than simple movement in space. The kinds of borders we are familiar with — the result of historic processes or Gertrude Bell-style whim — are mostly banished. Concepts that we have grown distrustful of in our world — border, nation, identity — are magically appropriate in describing elf kingdoms, misty isles, or corsair ports.

Fantasy maps suggest that history and habitation follow much more cleanly from geography than they do in our world. And their geography is not the result of blind physical processes. In a recent essay, geologist Alex Acks called the map of Middle Earth a “geographical car wreck”: Tolkien’s mountain ranges meet in right angles, but, as he points out, “mountains don’t do corners.” Middle Earth’s geography suggests another kind of history than the one we see reflected in our landscapes. And why not: Tolkien came up with the map as part of Middle Earth’s mythology. Frodo and Gandalf’s moment isn’t some random point along millions of years of geologic time; the very continent they traverse has evolved along with the story in which they play a part.

4.

All that is required for a good fantasy map are some evocative names distributed over vaguely geographic-looking splotches of grayscale shading or color. The novelist Ursula K. Le Guin acknowledged many parts of her Earthsea-series map “were, when I wrote them, merely words — ‘empty’ nouns. I knew that if my story took me to them, I would find out who and what they were.” In the same way, she adds, “I drew the map of Earthsea at the very beginning, but I didn’t know anything about each island till I ‘went to’ it.”

It’s strange, then, that we can detect clear conventions and preferences when it comes to how kingdoms, oceans, islands, and mountains are distributed on these maps. Authors who are free to use their imagination any way they choose somehow seem to imagine along the same stringent lines. Le Guin writes that fantasy “has rules,” that it “asserts a universe that, in some way, makes sense.” Fantasy maps make sense in a highly specific, and for that reason highly interesting, way.

Think of the ubiquitous great western oceans: Diana Wynne Jones’s satirical travel guide from 1996, The Tough Guide To Fantasyland, points out that most fantasy worlds have one, “but it is out of bounds for the Tour.” No one knows what’s beyond it, “and the Cartographer felt free to doodle in the space.” Fantasy that wants to unsettle the Western-Europe-with-elves-and-dragons mode — Le Guin’s Earthsea, Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty series, N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, for instance — also resists giving totemic significance to east and west, north and south, or to having a forbidding ocean on the left side of the map. I recall a profound sense of disappointment when, as a young teen, I first cracked open one of the Earthsea novels: It’s just a bunch of islands, I remember thinking. I didn’t know where to focus; I was looking at a picture without being able to say what it was a picture of. I recall a feeling of vertigo at the fact that I couldn’t tell whether the edges of the map were perhaps also the ends of the world. The atoll could’ve been surrounded by endless ocean, or just by more islands. I couldn’t say which possibility frightened me more.

Was the anxiety I felt, in a comparatively small nation on the western shore of a large landmass, that of not seeing myself mirrored in a small nation on the western shore of a large landmass? In most fantasy novels this is where the smaller nations cluster and where the story takes place. Perhaps generations of map designers simply had Tolkien in mind when they emulated his geography, the haunting mystery of Frodo’s final voyage to the hazy west. Or perhaps they felt the same sense of anxiety I did. Perhaps the two are not even distinct. Middle Earth has a western neighbor, but it doesn’t have to be penciled in: going there means that the story is over. Meanwhile, venturing into the sketchy east and figuring out what it looks like is the story. There is an Englishman’s moral geography overlaid onto a continent that Tolkien positions as an oblique ancestor to Europe: the Shire, too sensible to take much interest in the dark east or the shining west, occupies a quintessentially English position.

Its middle-ness, its immunity to the charms of east and west alike, is both a necessary condition for adventure (both Bilbo and Frodo venture forth from this middle position against their will), and an assurance that the adventure can at some point come to an end: The Hobbit is subtitled “there and back again,” after all. It’s a place that launches you into adventure, but also promises a safe harbor once all the questing is done. Perhaps this is why the middle position between an ethereal west and an ominous east has proved so irresistible to fantasy mapmakers.

Still, it’s hard to detach that middle position from its obvious Eurocentrism. The fantasy genre, cribbing as it does from our imaginary version of medieval Europe, seems wedded to an Atlantic Ocean setting firm limits to human curiosity to the west. There are clear remnants here of a colonialist mental geography. Think of all the maps of fantastic continents you know where the eastern lands are bigger, more savage, more mysterious. On every foldout map of Middle Earth there is a place called Rhûn (which is the word for “east” in Tolkien’s Elvish) on the eastern margin: the circumflex alone already signals that we’re far removed from the familiarity of the Shire. We learn nothing of it, other than that the people who live there are “Easterlings” in league with Sauron. As we get to the right-hand edge of fantasy maps, things get rather hazy, and not a little racist.

George R. R. Martin’s Westeros is a surprisingly navigable space — Littlefinger, Varys, and Euron Greyjoy pop about at astonishing speed in the show, and Catelyn Stark does likewise in the books. Meanwhile in Essos, Daenerys Targaryen spends five books roaming about in endless steppes, deserts, and seas. Her travels are a trip into something far more mysterious and otherworldly than anything the reader encounters in Westeros. But her travels also represent a trip back in time: with its abandoned cities, shadowbinders, and an upstart queen conquering foreign cities, Martin is riffing on early fantasy literature — above all the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard. At least one of the city names in Essos, the Eastern continent Daenerys traverses, has direct antecedents in Howard’s novels.

The west coast of fantasy continents is differentiated and densely textured. In countless continents invented for D&D, the east usually contained mysterious, massive kingdoms stretching into the unknown. Khanates, hordes, red wizards, warlords, and dragons populated them, and they were off-limits for all but the most advanced player characters. East is where Daenerys Targaryen can play white savior and practice being queen, but her destination lies to the west.”

– Adrian Daub, “Here at the End of All Things,” Longreads. August 2017.

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“I stood last vigil for him myself,” Ser Barristan Selmy said as they looked down at the
body in the back of the cart. “He had no one else. A mother in the Vale, I am told.” 

In the pale dawn light, the young knight looked as though he were sleeping. He had not
been handsome, but death had smoothed his rough-hewn features and the silent sisters
had dressed him in his best velvet tunic, with a high collar to cover the ruin the lance
had made of his throat. Eddard Stark looked at his face, and wondered if it had been for
his sake that the boy had died. Slain by a Lannister bannerman before Ned could speak
to him; could that be mere happenstance? He supposed he would never know.

“Hugh was Jon Arryn’s squire for four years,” Selmy went on. “The king knighted him
before he rode north, in Jon’s memory. The lad wanted it desperately, yet I fear he was
not ready.” 

Ned had slept badly last night and he felt tired beyond his years. “None of us is ever
ready,” he said. 

“For knighthood?” 

“For death.” Gently Ned covered the boy with his cloak, a bloodstained bit of blue
bordered in crescent moons. When his mother asked why her son was dead, he reflected
bitterly, they would tell her he had fought to honor the King’s Hand, Eddard Stark. “This
was needless. War should not be a game.” Ned turned to the woman beside the cart,
shrouded in grey, face hidden but for her eyes. The silent sisters prepared men for the
grave, and it was ill fortune to look on the face of death. “Send his armor home to the
Vale. The mother will want to have it.” 

“It is worth a fair piece of silver,” Ser Barristan said. “The boy had it forged special for
the tourney. Plain work, but good. I do not know if he had finished paying the smith.” 

“He paid yesterday, my lord, and he paid dearly,” Ned replied. And to the silent sister he
said, “Send the mother the armor. I will deal with this smith.” She bowed her head.” 

– G. R. R. Martin, “Eddard VII,” A Game of Thrones. 1996.

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godsgrief:

sun king

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Arya looked at him warily, remembering all the tales told of him Harrenhal. Lord Beric seemed to sense her fear.  He turned his head, and beckoned her closer. 

“Do I frighten you, child?”

“No.” She chewed her lip. “Only…well…I thought the Hound had killed you, but….”

“A wound,” said Lem Lemoncloak. “A grievous wound, aye, but Thoros healed it.  There’s never been no better healer.”

Lord Beric gazed at Lem with a queer look in his good eye and no look at all in the other, only scars and dried blood.  “No better healer,” he agreed wearily. “Lem, past time to change the watch, I’d think.  See to it, if you’d be so good.”

“Aye, m’lord.” Lem’s big yellow cloak swirled behind him as he strode out into the windy night.

“Even brave men blind themselves sometimes, when they are afraid to see,” Lord Beric said when Lem was gone. “Thoros, how many times have you brought me back now?”

The red priest bowed his head. “It is R’hllor who brings you back, my lord.  The Lord of Light. I am only his instrument.”

“How many times?” Lord Beric insisted.

“Six,” Thoros said reluctantly. “And each time is harder.  You have grown reckless, my lord.  Is death so very sweet?”

“Sweet? No, my friend.  Not sweet.”

“Then do not court it so.  Lord Tywin leads from the rear.  Lord Stannis as well.  You would be wise to do the same.  A seventh death might mean the end of both of us.”

Lord Beric touched the spot above his left ear where his temple was caved in. “Here is where Ser Burton Crakehall broke helm and head with a blow from his mace.” He unwound his scarf, exposing the black bruise that encircled his neck. “Here the mark the manticore made at Rushing Falls.  He seized a poor beekeeper and his wife, thinking they were mine, and let it be known far and wide that he would hang them both unless I gave myself up to him.  When I did he hanged them anyway, and me on the gibbet between them.”  He lifted a finger to the raw red pit of his eye.  “Here is where the Mountain thrust his dirk through my visor.” A weary smile brushed his lips.  “That’s thrice I have died at the hands of House Clegane.  You would think that I might have learned…”

It was a jest, Arya knew, but Thoros did not laugh.  He put a hand on Lord Beric’s shoulder.  “Best not to dwell on it.”

“Can I dwell on what I scarce remember? I held a castle on the Marches once, and there was a woman I was pledged to marry, but I could not find that castle today, nor tell you the color of that woman’s hair. Who knighted me, old friend? What were my favorite foods? It all fades. Sometimes I think I was born on the bloody grass in that grove of ash, with the taste of fire in my mouth and a hole in my chest. Are you my mother, Thoros?”

Arya stared at the Myrish priest, all shaggy hair and pink rags and bits of old armor.  Grey stubble covered his cheeks and the sagging skin beneath his chin.  He did not look much like the wizards in Old Nan’s stories, but even so…

“Could you bring back a man without a head?” Arya asked. “Just the once, not six times. Could you?”

– Arya VII, A Storm of Swords. Bantam Edition: New York, 2013 (orig. 2000). pp. 443-444

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