or how to read George R. R. Martin’s staggering, cumbersome epic without getting traumatized by the torture, rape, incest, and murder, thwarted by the medieval language, lost in his vast, invented world of strangely named cities and surrounding geography, muddled by the epic history and mythology, confused by the excessive cast of characters, or bored by the details of custom and culture.
CAUTION: There are some minor spoilers below, but they are worth it if I can get you to visit these books. Besides, you’ll forget about them as soon as you get into it.
HOW TO READ GAME OF THRONES
I have a confession to make: I never finished reading The Lord of the Rings. I tried it a few times, and somewhere amidst The Two Towers I just couldn’t sit through another meeting where old songs and myths were discussed or ancient languages were dissected. I wanted to get back to the orcs and the goblins, the wizards and the elves — the adventuring! (To be fair, I was only twelve when I gave it my best effort. I might have the patience for it now, thirty years later.) What I really needed was an interactive guide (like the ambitious LotrProject) — detailed journey maps, cultural histories, character synopses, fleshed-out family trees, pictures! — to keep me grounded in the story instead of feeling distracted and overwhelmed. Or perhaps there just wasn’t enough raping and beheading in Middle Earth.
Which brings us to the epic A Song of Ice and Fire, something akin to fantasy but not altogether unreal. George R.R. Martin (GRRM) is equal parts mediaeval historian, amateur cartographer, cultural anthropologist, royal genealogist, relational psychoanalyst, and vengeful god. His work is at times brutal and violent — hence the raping and beheadings reference— but at other times rich and sublime. I recently completed books 4 and 5 of the series and felt an almost visceral sense of loss, of being extricated from a real place, like the feeling at the end of an unforgettable trip abroad: even before you leave, you want to go back.