Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Life is not a song

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„Life is not a song, sweetling. Some day you may learn that, to your sorrow.” – Peter Baelish
Littlefinger is right, of course. Life is definitely not a song. However, that statement comes in the Song of Ice and Fire, which makes this into an almost philosophical riddle. Life is not a song, but if you are a character in one and know that, can you use it to your advantage? Fourth-Wall breaking has a long tradition in literature, and Martin is no stranger to the concept. So, if life is a song after all – or, to quote Shakespeare, the world a stage and we all players – then who exactly is cognizant of this fact? 

I propose a branching into four categories. 

First, there are people who think that, actually, life is a song. They are convinced that they know the rules and that everything and everyone will abide by them. Those people are horribly wrong, and most of them die in really bad ways as a result. Examples for this include Quentyn Martell, Sansa Stark for most of “A Game of Thrones”, the Ironborn, the Yunkish and Knights of Summer in Renly’s host. 

Second, there are people who think that life is pretty unfair and you have to make the best of it, songs be damned. They may have illusions about how things will play out, how other people act or how important they are, but those don’t come from songs. Most of our characters fall into this category, from Eddard Stark to Jaime Lannister, from Jon Snow to Daenerys Targaryen, from Areoh Hotah to Theon Greyjoy. 

Third, there are people who know the first category of people exists and is ready to mercilessly exploit them. They will make use of songs and the people who act like they’re in one. One chief example is Petyr Baelish, who exploits Sansa’s preconceptions, or Sansa herself in “The Winds of Winter”, who turns the chivalric clichees of the Vale knights against them. 

Fourth, there are people who are aware that they are in an actual story and hijack it. There are one-and-a-half people in this category. One is Euron Crowseye, the “monster in a pirate-suit” (Emmet Booth), who uses magic rituals and the knowledge of the three-act-structure to worm his way into the story at the mid-way point and set himself up as the new nemesis. And there’s Tyrion, who in “A Dance with Dragons” decides on a whim to short-circuit the song of Aegon and send him to his doom because he sees that Aegon cannot be the center of the story. 

So let’s look at category one. In “A Dance with Dragons”, we have Quentyn and the Yunkish who provide instructional examples. 

Quentyn Martell tries to believe with all his heart (“telling himself”, no?)  that he is in a classical adventure story, that he is the hero, the proverbial frog that will turn out to be a dashing prince. He has self-doubts, of course, and we as readers know that he is most definitely not the hero of the story. The very first sentence already tells us that. “Adventure stank.” Of course Quentyn doesn’t want to understand that. 

Therefore, he wills himself into his own narrative, even though there are flashing warning signs left and right. He chafes under the idea of being the hero, always opting for the smaller roles in the play-act they’re doing (servant, then squire). His story is propelled by his friends much more than himself – it’s Gerris Drinkwater who constantly pushes the narrative, or, when he was alive, Cletus Yronwood. 

But the story doesn’t work out, and it’s obvious. While Quentyn moves into Meereen’s general direction, he does so in the context of quite another story: a descent into hell. First, he witnesses the periphery of the rotten heap that is Volantis. Then he joins a dastardly band of sellswords and slaughters young boys in a hellish, apocalyptic battle before Astapor, before he tries to betray his comrades and then gets rejected by Dany. 

What kills Quentyn is that he thinks he’s the hero of the story. In real life, this wouldn’t really matter all that much. Everyone is the hero of their own story, after all. But this is the Song of Ice and Fire, and Quentyn decidedly is neither. There already are heroes to this song, and everyone who fancies themselves to be that hero themselves – Stannis, Quentyn, Aegon – is doomed. Stannis is not Azor Ahai, and it doesn’t matter what qualities he has. The same is true of Aegon. He is not the Targaryen heir to come back and save the day, Dany is. Sad to say, these guys were fucked by the universe before they even started. 

The Yunkish are another example. Those guys fancy themselves to be the heroes, too, performing the roles they chose for themselves. Unfortunately, reality has a way to destroy fancy ideas like that, be it in the Song of Ice and Fire or real life. Just look at those guys. They train their own themed slave soldiers, for god’s sake. They themselves think they’re the heroes of the “liberation” of Meereen, not realizing that they’re the butt of a joke. 

Just think of them. One is called “the whale”, pisses himself constantly and has a menagerie of grotesques, and that’s the most powerful of them. There’s a girl that essentially is cosplaying “300” (no way Martin didn’t have that image in mind), some geniuses who solve the strategic problem of soldier motivation by essentially denying them any freedom of movement and great strategists who take pains to color-match their uniforms. And that doesn’t even get us to the issue of flowcharts yet.

But enough of the Yunkish. I feel that categories two and three do not require all that much explanation. Littlefinger makes incredibly explicit how he manipulates Sansa; it’s right there in the text, and his cardinal mistake is to assume that Sansa will at the same time learn every lesson and yet not learn any of them. Varys, who approaches this weaponization of stories from the other end, insufficiently prepares for the possibility of the best-laid plans going awry. And the trials and tribulations of far more pragmatic people like Jon or Dany have been tackled in a myriad of other essays. 

But on the other end of the spectrum, we find the people that are actually aware of the narrative structures and intend to hijack it for their own ends. The first is Tyrion. He does this more or less by accident, wallowing in self-pity and nihilism and sharply ascertaining what exactly the band of Aegon and his comrades is about – the encapsulation of the myth of the secret king – and driving a wrench in the gear just because he can. This overlap between his own story, which usually is one of the second or third category, and the one between first-category-band on the Rhoyne is temporary. This is why I put him as a “half” in this category. 

The only one who plants both feet here is Euron Crowseye. He is aware of what is happening, and he uses his knowledge and magical powers to actively carve out a part of the narrative for himself. Euron has no patience for plots, acts and other elements of story structure. He makes use of idiots as he finds them, such as the Iron Islanders, appealing to them in the most shameless exaggeration of the Iron Way of Life as possible, not only promising to make the Iron Islands Great Again (why stop there?) but to take over the whole world. The useful idiots buy it hook, line and sinker.

In reality, Euron is at the same time far more ambitious and more modest. This isn’t about earthly conquest. That’s for mortals. He wants to take over the narrative itself, warp it to his needs and occupy the spot of the top villain (what else?) as a kind of immortal god, a god created out of himself. It’s like Napoleon crowning himself, only on a much, much grander scale. And as we’ve seen in the published sample chapter “The Forsaken”, the useful idiots will serve as one gigantic blood sacrifice to make it happen, because the story they think they’re living is nothing but a tool wielded by a man who has no respect for stories at all. 

Such is the power of myth and story in a mythological story. Creating an in-universe mythology, thereby using intertextual elements that reference a canon you yourself invented, isn’t something that started with Martin, of course. Tolkien did this to great effect as well, but Martin unleashes his revisionist vein here and puts the whole thing on its head. Euron effectively weaponizes intertextuality in a way that no other character ever could. 

It’s unclear as of yet whether he’s aware that his whole plan is running on borrowed time. Euron cannot possibly succeed. I’m unsure if he himself is aware of that (in a larger-than-life version of Roose Bolton in Winterfell, who is just too keenly aware of the imminent failure of his legacy and couldn’t care less). Why can’t Euron succeed? Like Roose, who knows that a curse has him in his grip and his successor is an incompetent lunatic, Euron is going up against a destiny he cannot defeat. 

The Song of Ice and Fire is a song, aye, but it’s one written by George R. R. Martin, and his revisionist vein has a romantic counter-part that’s more than a match for it. In the end, the heroes will triumph (albeit at great cost) and evil will fall. The best Euron can hope for is that Martin never finishes the books, so he can stay in a limbo forever, just shy off ultimate victory. And that makes him the most considerable foe of the whole saga indeed.

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