Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Time and place in ASOIAF

This post comes out of a new series of writing I do on ASOIAF meta and other topics of popular culture over at the Patreon of the Boiled Leather Audio Hour. If you like to read stuff like this, chime in just 1$ and you get access to everything I write. If you throw in 2$, you even get access to mini-podcasts I'm doing with Sean T. Collins answering questions by listeners of the podcast. Give the Patreon a look! 

George R. R. Martin is a prolific and excellent writer. One of the biggest problems he has to wrestle with are the constraints of time and place. He famously labored for years over the "Meereenese Knot", the question which character would arrive in Meereen at which point on time, the conclusion of which determined the whole solution to "A Dance with Dragons". Given that that solution took the last third of the novel, that is quite a tall order. 
But before we dig deeper into these contraints, let's do a quick recap of the story structure of the whole "A Song of Ice and Fire". 
ASOIAF is told by various personal narrators, whose perpectives (point of view, POV) are bound by their various character flaws, grudges, knowledge limitations ands so forth and are therefore unreliable. The only way for us as readers to experience certain events is through their eyes, which means that if those characters aren't at a certain place at a certain time, we can't be either. 
The limitations of the POV structure also reveal only parts of other characters. We famously learned to know Jaime as a rather generic villain who grew into a much more complex antihero during "A Storm of Swords" and beyond, and the inner lifes of people like Stannis or Robb, Varys or Littlefinger are forever beyond us.  
This forces Martin to do one of two things. Either he introduces new POV characters (which he famously does in "A Feast for Crows" and "A Dance with Dragons") to show us these events, or he brings a character to that place. For example, during "A Clash of Kings", Catelyn moves from Robb's campaign on to Renly's, just in time to show us how Renly dies, only to move back again to witness the Battle of the Fords (and keep Davos as the sole POV of the Stannis side of things). These moves are deliberate, and Martin obscures a lot of what's happening simply by not having a POV present (Robb's Westerland campaign, for example) and tell the story through rumors, flashbacks and reports. 
The other major constraint is time. The POV structure does not lend itself well to time jumps. Where a auctorial narrator can easily do them ("Two weeks later..."), this would be very awkward in the personal viewpoint of POV chapters, to say the least. Therefore, time jumps within a POV chapter mostly occur when time loses its meaning relative for the character. For example, when Tyrion is caught in a storm on the "Stinky Steward" in "A Dance with Dragons", days and even weeks pass because the days lose their meaning to him. Those jumps are the exception, though. Most POV chapters are snap-shots of a certain, pivotal moment in time. Given that this is ASOIAF and not "The Expanse" (whose first novel, "Leviathan Wakes", copies the idea of POV characters but has a grand two of them), Martin has to choose very wisely whether or not to give a character the room at a certain moment. Events are almost exclusively told from one POV and at best recounted by another later. I can think of only one instance where the same event is seen from two different POVs; Sam I AFFC and Jon II ADWD both recount the conversation with Gilly and Jon sending Sam to Oldtown in real time. 
This is quite the challenge for Martin, and I'm writing about this primarily because I think the difficulty and the achievement of it are under-appreciated. While the ASOIAF books are certainly very thick and all, they're still very condensed given the sheer number of POV characters, plot and theme that's hidden in there. All three need to come together in every chapter, and there's no room for doubling down on the same beat, whether thematically or plot-wise. 
I think it's this difficulty that keeps the novels in development for so long. Structuring them like this must be a fiendieshly difficult task that requires constant editing and rewriting. And despite what the detractors say (they're wrong), AFFC and ADWD are far superior works to ACOK and ASOS, who are themselves superior to AGOT, which is...well, better than 99% of fantasy fare out there. Martin is a really exceptional writer, up there with other people writing art - you know, the stuff that's been read at Highschool and analyzed to death. I fear the sheer volume of the saga will prevent if from achieving that particular after-life, but on the other hand, Martin has produced genuinely popular AND great literature, which is something that doesn't happen often. This is one of the reasons why.

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