I recently watched a fun little snippet of an interview taken from an event at the 92nd Street Y, “George R.R. Martin reveals which inconsistencies in ‘Game of Thrones’ are actually deliberate.”
Martin is the author of the ginormous, multi-volume epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, which is the basis of the hit HBO series Game of Thrones. And, yes, I came across this video while googling around about various theories involving that story and where it’s headed, scratching that itch in between episodes of the addictive show.
But you don’t need to be a GoT fan to appreciate this discussion as the point here applies more generally to any text.
The interviewer, Laura Miller, asks Martin if there’s anything from the early books in his series that he now regrets — that makes him feel like he’d written himself into a corner. Martin responds by admitting that there are “certainly mistakes in the earlier books.” He mentions a horse that he describes inconsistently — sometimes as a stallion, sometimes as a mare, and “some eyes that change color” in his descriptions of some of the story’s massive cast of characters. And he talks about the acrobatic introduction of one character that he later realized was misleading and uncalled for.
But the really interesting thing is not the simple existence of those mistakes, which Martin calls “irritating.” The interesting bit is what he says about the way those mistakes undermine other, deliberate inconsistencies in the text:
These are simple mistakes, but they irritate me because I don’t want to make any mistakes, and also because there are in the books deliberate inconsistencies where I’m using the device of the unreliable narrator or using the point-of-view structure that I do where two people remember something that happened in very different ways and may not be remembering it accurately. And because there are these other mistakes, some readers tend to assume that those things are also mistakes, when they’re not. They’re me being very clever.
So then, in other words, readers of these books will encounter two very different types of inconsistencies or discrepancies in the text. Some of these are “simple mistakes,” but others are deliberate. Some are artless and meaningless, while others are artful and meaningful. And getting those two types of inconsistencies confused can mislead readers in either of two ways. They may, as Martin says above, dismiss and overlook the deliberate, meaningful inconsistencies, wrongly assuming they are simple mistakes. Or, as he goes on to describe, they may mistakenly assume that some of his simple mistakes are meant to be significant and meaningful, and may thus obsessively seek some meaning in them, spinning off into wild and elaborate theories to account for them.
This problem is not unique to George. R.R. Martin and his readers. The same thing happens with any large and ambitious text written and read by mere mortals and fallible humans. Everything that Martin says here about his series is just as true of, say, Joyce’s Ulysses.
That’s unacceptable heresy for a certain type of Joyce-obsessive literature professor, but it’s true all the same. James Joyce was a masterful artist, but he was not perfect or infallible. He wrote some perfect sentences. You could argue that he wrote some short stories that sustained such perfection over several pages. But over the course of hundreds of pages in a big, sprawling epic like Ulysses, even he couldn’t bat 1.000. Most of that masterpiece’s multitude of inconsistencies are deliberate, artful and meaningful. Some of them are not. Some of them are simple mistakes.
And that means that readers of Ulysses face the same danger that readers of A Song of Ice and Fire do — the danger of confusing the two kinds of inconsistency and thus dismissing meaningful discrepancies as meaningless errors or, in the other direction, reading too much into simple errors and fabricating meanings where none was intended.
This is true of any long text written and read by us humans. And, yes, that includes the Bible.
Admitting that about the Bible tends to upset some people. But the people most upset by that suggestion do not tend to be biblical scholars, most of whom will read Martin’s description of the problem and nod, saying, “Aye, there’s the rub.” And this is true not just of “liberal” scholars at divinity schools, but also of most “conservative” evangelical-type biblical scholars. They recognize the reality of this two-pronged problem and studiously work to avoid both potential pitfalls, and they’ve been doing this long enough that they understand it to be a tricky, troubling business.
But while stating this won’t be upsetting to biblical scholars — certainly not as upsetting as the above comments about Ulysses will be to many Joyce scholars — it tends to make other Christians very upset indeed. Our fundamentalist friends at Southern seminary, for example, would adamantly deny that the Bible includes any kind of inconsistency. The suggestion that this text includes any simple errors and mistakes is an idea they find appalling, but they’re nearly as adamantly opposed to the suggestion that the Bible might also include deliberate inconsistencies, disagreements, or differences of perspective that should rightly be read as meaningful.
For these fundie friends, the Bible exists in a separate category from every other large text read by humans because, in their view, the Bible was not written by humans. Or, if they’re feeling particularly expansive, they might say that it wasn’t written only by humans, but by “holy men of God” who “spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” George R. R. Martin and James Joyce may have been fallible humans prone to unfortunate mistakes, but those holy men who wrote/dictated the Bible were micromanaged by the supervising Spirit of God, and thus the Bible is a text without error, without inconsistency, without difference.
That’s a lovely, logical theory that can seem quite compelling right up until one actually opens the Bible and starts reading. Consider, for example, the beginning of the New Testament, which opens with Matthew’s Gospel, followed by three other, different Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are not identical. Some of the differences there — the inconsistencies — are deliberate and by design. Others seem to be actual conflicts of the sort that suggest one or the others, or all four, may be mistaken. This is true at the granular level of particular facts — see, for example, the conflicting genealogies of Matthew and Luke. And it’s true at the larger level of the narrative as a whole, as in the way Matthew and Luke both enlist, adapt and re-purpose whole chunks of Mark.
As that interview with Martin reminds us, this calls for discernment. The New Testament quite deliberately presents us with four different Gospels. This is, as Martin says, “very clever,” and we’re obliged to understand that cleverness and to try to figure out what the differences and discrepancies are intended to mean. But some of these differences may also be unintentional or not deliberately meaningful. They may be something more like “simple mistakes,” and thus we must be careful to avoid constructing elaborate theories based on them in order to find or create meaning where none was intended.
Another example Martin gives from his series is from a scene early in the first book, an account of a gathering at Winterfell with all of the Stark family in attendance. Alas, in writing that scene, Martin simply forgot to include young Bran and so did not mention him. That’s easy enough to explain — Bran could have simply slipped away to climb the walls of the castle, as he loved to do — but Martin says he still gets letters from fans who assume that Bran’s absence was deliberate and charged with meaning.
Even with the horse’s-mouth denial of such meaning, it can be fun to join those fans in their wild speculations.* There’s a puzzle-solving challenge to that that can be exciting and absorbing in the way that every sufficiently imaginative conspiracy theory can be exciting and absorbing.
The thrill of that, I think, accounts for some of the appeal of fundamentalism. Here we have a massive text full of various differences and discrepancies. We could approach that with the dull, grimly responsible work of scholars, probing the meaning of the meaningful inconsistencies while carefully distinguishing them from other, less meaningful accidents and errors. Commit to that path and you’re going to have to learn Greek and Hebrew and maybe even Latin and Aramaic. You’re going to have to immerse yourself in centuries of debate and discussion. You’re going to wind up with student loans wholly disconnected from any professional path that promises to pay them off someday. Who has time for that?**
Far easier — and far more fun — to take the alternative path. Decide and declare that this text contains no actual differences or discrepancies, only apparent ones. Now the task before you becomes strictly one of speculation — of devising theories, no matter how wild or unwieldy, that can force all these disparate pieces of the puzzle to fit together.
Take a look at the massive output of a group like Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis. Their “work” is indistinguishable from the work of a thousand Game of Thrones fan sites, concocting elaborate theories about why Bran wasn’t mentioned in that scene at Winterfell, or why the changing eye color of some tangential character is really the Key to the Whole Thing. Both of those — the Genesis fan site and the TV show fan sites — have stopped treating the text as a story, treating it, instead, as a puzzle to be solved. And for both the cleverness of the story has been eclipsed by the cleverness of the puzzle-solvers. Invested in that cleverness, they mine the text for clues, disregarding the story and its meaning and anything else that can’t be redeployed as a piece of their grand puzzle.
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* This is Bran, after all, the possibly time-traveling and time-altering child who shares a name with figures from mythic history, and who has been, inexplicably so far, the object of great concern for the king of the white walkers. Bran might just be the Tommy Westphall shaping the past and future of all of Westeros, so his absence at an event in the past could mean that he hadn’t yet arrived then. And …
Or maybe Martin just forgot to mention him.
** The good news is that someone else has made time for that. You, personally, do not have to become an expert in everything — whether it be biblical scholarship or quantum physics or climate science. Others are doing all that scholarly work and research and you can read what they have written (or what others have written about them).
You’re not completely off the hook, of course, in that you still need to acquire the essential general skill of discerning which experts to defer to, lest you be misled by crackpottery masquerading as expertise.