My sister thought we were a bunch of boring, goody-two-shoes and we needed to diversify our image. She was right. I didn’t drink or watch R-rated movies until I was in seminary. We were four siblings, all women, and our idea of “bad” was howling Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” as we disobeyed the speed limit on our weekly drive home to mom and dad.
To spice things up, she taught us to swear. Then we’d stage-whisper at Sunday drivers, “Get the h_ck out of the way. We’re trying to get to church!” and die laughing at the incongruity.
I know. I know. Bad girls. Ooooo.
At times, I have strayed further from the purity code (Phil 4:8), but the reality is that righteousness is complicated enough without peppering it in profanity. Obedience looks less black and white now than when I was twenty-two.
Martin doesn’t use a whole lot of profanity himself, at least not in the books. Instead he sells with good storytelling, gratuitous sex, and made-for-TV marketing savvy.
Martin honed his television skills at Twilight Zone (CBS) and writes his chapters like TV episodes. With each new chapter, the viewpoint shifts to another character, while building on the larger narrative. And this character-shifting exacts a grudging re-commitment from the reader.
His characters in action then raise questions in the reader’s mind such as, “Which is worse, faithful incest or promiscuous whoring?” And, “Should a minister’s wife with her own MDiv and a recent publication on prayer be reading this sex scene?” Thankfully, those depictions thinned out after the first book sold well.
Bad girl still read it, however, followed by book two. I’m almost done with the third A Storm of Swords, which is roughly the same plot position as the end of HBO’s second season.
Martin’s most vexing quality in Song of Ice and Fire is his tendency to kill off the good guys. To survive as a character, one must be cunning (Tyrion), sexy (Cersei), or rich (Tywin). Some combination of the three gains you a longer life (pick a Lannister). Failing that, sell your soul to the devil (Stannis) or, if you’re a Targaryen, bend the dark arts to your own will (Daenerys).
If you have the misfortune to be a straight-laced character, doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with your gods (Mic 6:8), Martin will remove you. Compromise your principles or be physically compromised through no fault of your own—eunuch, dwarf, bastard—and he’ll string you along.
Only the Good Die Young
In a July 12, 2011 NPR On Point interview, Martin protests: “It’s necessary. . . . [You must] establish very early in the books that you’re playing for real, that anyone can die.” However, up to this point, the righteous viewpoint characters actually die in greater proportion than the compromised ones do.
In Martin’s books, the righteous suffer for the same reason Job does in the Bible. They suffer because they are righteous (Job 1:8–11). There is no satisfying explanation (Eccl 9:1). These characters don’t die as the consequence of immoral behavior (Ps 39:11). Their deaths don’t mature them, spiritually or otherwise (Jas 1:2–4). They don’t even experience the after-glow of glorious death (Heb 11:37–40).
In the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the next plot turn is an evangelistic one. God is sovereign. The viewpoint character humbles himself to God in spite of apparently bad math: character does good = character suffers. Readers witness this faithfulness to Yahweh. Author presents a new equation: if (good) character X remains faithful to (apparently bad) god Y, then Y-god must be more good than X.
Perhaps the reader will re-read in search of this great good. Perhaps she will re-consider the worthiness of Yahweh. For Job’s character, Yahweh God = Redeemer (Job 19:25).
Give You . . . a Reputation
Martin doesn’t have this option because he doesn’t posit such a god. In his world, righteousness isn’t complicated enough to address the nitty-gritty problems of personality, politics, love, war or the undead. “Resurrection” is what happens after The Others take you. Redemption is what you win for yourself.
Righteousness = death. There is no satisfying explanation. There are only good foreshadowing, heightened suspense, three-dimensional characters, and a well-hued world that rings true to conflicts of the human condition.
Anyone can die. If not, the plot is boring. And boring is death to an author.
(I am in Burundi this week, so this is re-posted from last year.)