Friday, July 8, 2011

Book Review: Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

I actually finished this one quite a while ago, but I promised a review that would discuss the morality issues in the book and I've been putting it off because, well, I'm lazy and I know this review will require me to put more thought into what I want to say.  Because SOS is the third in the series and because the series is so complex, I'm not even going to start to summarize.  If you want to read a summary, check out the Goodreads page here.  I'm also going to try to make this post as spoiler-free as possible, because nothing sucks more than spoilers and there are so many good spoilers from SOS (plus I want Luke to read this review and tell me how awesome it is, but he hasn't finished the book yet), but I can't write it without giving a few things away.  I'll post those in white and note them, so highlight over them if you want to see the spoiler I'm referencing.  There ARE spoilers in the comments, and I WILL be discussing them there, so if you haven't finished the book, don't read the comments!

I wanted to use a quote from the author himself about the moral ambiguity in the books and show, but I couldn't find it.  Instead, here's a non-spoilery quote from SOS that really sums up the quote I wanted to use:

"Rheagar fought valiantly, Rheagar fought nobly, Rheagar fought bravely. And Rheagar died."

In this series, we aren't meant to sympathize with the "good" characters, where "goodness" is based on morality.  Characters who put morality or honor first about all else are shown to be weak from the first book.  You may like the character and even care about them, but in the game of thrones, where "you win or your die", they're going to die.  The characters we truly root for are the smart ones.  The ones who are cunning and willing to do dishonorable things, even immoral things, to stay alive and to save those they love.  In the end, you aren't going to stay alive by being an honorable, moral, rule-follower.  You can only stay alive if you are willing to break any rule, any vow, and any limit that's been set before you (Spoiler: Even our most successful "good" character, Jon Snow has broken vows that he believed were sacred to stay alive). 

One of the most interesting aspects of the book to me is how the characters evolve and also the way our feelings about the characters evolve alongside the issue of morality.  In the first book we see Jamie Lannister as evil (Spoiler: In Game of Thrones he pushes a young child out of window in an attempt to kill the child because the child saw him having adulterous sex with the queen, who just so happens to be Jamie's sister - yes, the siblings are having an ongoing sexual affair and have been since childhood.)  However, we are introduced to Jamie as a narrator in Storm of Swords and see what's happening in his mind.  We learn about his relationship with his father, Tyrion, and why family honor is so important to him (Spoiler: In particular, we learn why he earned the title "Kingslayer" and how that has haunted him throughout his life.  We also learn that the decision wasn't made based on his own advancement, but because he was averting the slaughter of innocents.)  By the time he (Spoiler: saves Brienne from Vargo Holt) I was head over heels for him.  But what is interesting about this is that his character hasn't really changed from Game of Thrones.  He isn't sorry for what he did in the first book.  He doesn't have a revelation that he was wrong and try to redeem himself.  In fact, given the opportunity, he would most likely do the exact same thing.  But once you see his motivation he becomes an incredibly sympathetic character.

You can really take almost every sympathetic character in the book and use them as an example of ambivalent morality.  Tyrion, Arya, Jamie, Brienne, Davos, Danaerys, Jorrah Mormont, and even Jon Snow make decisions not based on right and wrong, good or evil, but based on survival and, at times, the good of the nation as opposed to personal integrity or honor.  Children are killed, people are tortured, vows are broken, lies are told, but they are "justified" in each case.  And at times "good" characters make terrible decisions based on personal biases.  We often are led to feel that these decisions, however "wrong" they may be, are acceptable because of what the character has endured or how the character has been treated. (Major end of the book spoiler: A great example of this is how Tyrion kills Shae and his father at the end of the book.  Normally, I'd be pretty quick to condemn someone who kills a prostitute in bed and then murders his own father.  But in this case, I wanted to cheer.)

So, how does this affect us as readers, and in particular, how does it affect me as a Christian reader?  I have to start off by telling you that I believe the Bible is the complete and literal word of God.  I believe that the entire book is God's Word to humanity and that it is the guideline we should live our lives by.  I am a literalist in my interpretation of scripture, which means I have some unpopular ideas (I don't believe in evolution, I believe if the Bible says something is sin, then it is sin, etc).  So when Gurm tells us in an interview that "In real life, the hardest aspect of the battle of good and evil is determining which is which" I have to disagree.  I believe we can know right from wrong and that there are not gray areas in morality.  I believe each person is required by God and will be held accountable for morality on an individual basis.  In any situation I can use the Bible as a guide to determine if my actions are good or evil and should act accordingly.  One example of this is that I do not support the use of fetal stem cells in research.  I strongly oppose abortion and the use of fetal stem cells from aborted embryos is something I cannot ever support, regardless of what benefits the death of that one child may hold for the population as a whole.  In other words, if this were the game of thrones, where "you win or you die", I'd be on the chopping block with Ned Stark.  In this series, the "good guys" don't win - the "smart guys" do - and at any cost.

So as a Christian, am I able to justify reading a series in which moral ambiguity is arguably the greatest theme of the series?  Obviously I say yes.  Now, I want to say up front that the following arguments, while true and applicable, aren't my reason for reading the books.  I'm reading the books because I like them and they are engrossing and I can't put them down and I love them.  But my logic behind this is still true: I'm reading a book about a world where Judeo-Christianity does not exist.  It's a world where there is no Bible and no moral compass other than tradition and law.  Various nations worship various gods, but none of these gods seem to have provided any instruction to the people on how they should be living.  In a sense, I think large portions of the book provide a pretty accurate insight into how our secular world functions today.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that if you're not a Christian, I expect you to be murdering children for your own advantage, but I do think that Gurm is unintentionally revealing where our society, in which moral ambiguity is the norm, is headed.  Society wants us to believe that something (let's say abortion since I already opened that can of worms) can be wrong for me but right for another person.  There is no overall right and wrong, it's all a matter of personal opinion and the individual situation.  The same is true in Westeros and we see the results of that (to an amplified degree) in these books.

I hope you guys will comment and tell me how you interpret and justify the morality (or actually the amorality) of the characters in A Song of Ice and Fire.  And I'd especially like to hear from those of you who don't share my opinions - please feel free to comment with your own point of view!  I like to hear where other people are coming from, even if I disagree.  I'd also love to discuss any ideas or predictions you have about the series.  One thing I'm going to ask is that you keep any comments to discussion of morality in literature or the books.  I know I expressed some unpopular political/moral opinions in this post, but I really would prefer to limit conversation to morality as it exists in the books and the books as a whole, since that's what the post is really about.


  1. I loved this post. I think that you're exactly right about how the world that GRRM has created exhibits more modern ideas of what a person's moral compass should look like. Where the "good of the whole" can eclipse a person's individual moral compass and the idea that what may be right for one person isn't right for another. Moral ambiguity. It's a scary thought.

    What I've noticed in my particular case is that in the books, I tend to find the people who hold hard and fast to their ideas of good (ie; Ned, Brienne) somewhat foolish and naive. While in an ideal world, I would want characters like Ned and Brienne to be the ones on top, that would only be possible in a world where everyone was as honorable as Ned and Brienne. The conflict between the person who will do anything to ensure their own personal survival and success and the person who sticks to the right thing to do almost always ends the same way.

    I find that I most often respect the person who tries to do the right thing, intelligently, and for the characters whose intentions are good. Intentions are everything. They show who you really are.

    For example, Tyrion. His actions are almost never motivated by greed or lust for power - when he was the Hand, he genuinely wanted to make the kingdom a better place. However, when pushed to his absolute limit, he also murdered his father and Shae - and yet, GRRM writes Tyrion so sympathetically, that I simply couldn't blame him. I think the fact that he couldn't contain this burst of rage and vengeance makes him more realistic and human. And I think it's plain to see that this "evil" action was more of an exception to Tyrion's usual behavior than the rule.

    I think, as you mentioned, that Jaime is also incredibly interesting in that in the beginning, we are all poised to hate him for what he did to Bran - and yet, when you read from his perspective and learn what motivated his actions, suddenly he becomes a sympathetic character. I think this is where the real key to whether a character is "good" or "bad" lies. Jaime's actions were motivated by love and loyalty, which are almost universally good and admirable traits.

    I think an interesting thing to do would be to look at all the characters and find out what motivates them - and I believe that in most cases, that would tell you whether that character is inherently good or bad.

  2. "I think an interesting thing to do would be to look at all the characters and find out what motivates them - and I believe that in most cases, that would tell you whether that character is inherently good or bad."

    I agree that this would be the better way to judge them - how true are they to themselves, and their own ideals? I think this is close to what the characters consider "honor" (do they keep their promises, do they stand up for what they believe in? Ned's problem with Jaime isn't that he killed the king, but that he broke his vow to protect him)

    Unfortunately, I think under this rating system Cersei would come up as Good, simply because she's so consistent. Honestly, the only thing redeeming her at this point is if it comes out that she's been slowly poisoned over several years so that she's completely lost her mind. She's self-serving, gluttonous, paranoid, violent, she cheats on Jaime (who Loves her). I think she's the only character I would classify as "Bad". I mean, finding out her backstory has been interesting in that it shows how she got that way, but it hasn't made her sympathetic, like Jaime's has.

    Here's my thing with Jaime. I still don't like him. I think the reasons he did things have become more clear, and in some cases I feel sorry for him. I mean, what was he really supposed to do with the whole mad king situation? He lets the guy live, protects him and upholds his vows - he probably dies during the changeover of power. He kills him - his reputation is ruined for life. I think even holding the king for someone else to judge would have been seen as breaking his vow to protect him.

    However, you were totally correct in that Jaime does not feel any kind of remorse for his attempted murder of Bran. I had high hopes that spending time with Brienne might make him a "better" person, and I did think that maybe he was changing when he risked his own safety to save her. Unfortunately, I'm not sure he's doing it for her. The fact that he started to feel a little bit of guilt about leaving her behind is probably a good sign, but ultimately most of the good things he's done have been for selfish reasons. He didn't save her because it was the right thing to do, or because he cared about her. He did it because of a combination of guilt and the possibility that it could further damage his honor to leave her behind. He does have good qualities - his loyalty to Cersei for most of the books is admirable (no less because she's awful to him), but his arrogance is a huge turn-off.

    Which is kind of funny because I love Tyrion, and he's one of the most arrogant characters around. Somehow I feel like Tyrion's is mostly a front. He talks a big game, but then, as you said, he really wants to make King's Landing a better place. He's the only character actively looking out for the common people. I feel like he's always trying to find a way to make things balance, to make things fair for everyone. At the same time, he's trying to protect himself, and he's not above getting some revenge.

    I respect Ned and Brienne for trying to be "good," but I didn't like Ned. At least when Brienne does stupid things for honor, she's only risking her own life. Ned is putting his family in danger, risking the lives of his people. He's so blinded by doing the right thing, that he doesn't stop to think about the consequences. I'm not sure if it's more admirable or idiotic that he assumes other people will do what is right. He's always so shocked when they don't. I don't think I'd want him in charge. I don't appreciate the black and white view of morality. If everyone received the accepted punishments for the crimes they have committed (moral or legal), he would be ruling a citizenry of two. Who can live up to that kind of absolute?

  3. Hmm BIL is reading this right now...

  4. Hey friend! I wanted to let you know that I just finished book 2 of the Hunger Games series and started book 3 yesterday (a friend loaned them to me) :) I started last Friday ... I'm sure this is a normal book pace for you, but when I finish books this quick it means that I'm LOVING it!! Wish I had followed your advice earlier and read them. I'm having Ben read them and he just finished book 1 :) It took him longer because he has a job and everything ... haha! I'm off again on again about Peeta, sometimes he is amazing and sometimes I hate him and think he's an idiot. I'll let you know what I think at the end. Katniss needs to work on her awareness about boys feelings in general, get a clue sweetie. I don't know enough about Gale I feel like, but he seems pretty cool to me. Those are my thoughts. :) Love you Julie!