6 Nov 14 | Re: A Song and a song | Link-U-Post
Late to the party as always, I’ve been getting some of the Game of Thrones books out of the library. So far I’ve read the three most recent, A Storm of Swords (zoiks!), A Feast for Crows (uurnghh!) and A Dance With Dragons (woooaurgh!). Now I want to write something but there is sooooo much already online (Tumblr: oh my goodness) that I am struggling to find a new angle. Therefore, I now bring you my critical comparison between the A Song Of Ice And Fire series by George RR Martin and I Like To Move It Move It by Reel 2 Real feat. the Mad Stuntman.
On the face of it these two works have a lot in common. While Martin has had a long career writing short stories and science fiction as well as fantasy novels, he seems destined to be remembered as Mr Game Of Thrones. Similarly Eric Morillo, the man behind Reel 2 Real, has had a long and varied career as a producer and house music mastermind but I’m pretty sure I Like To Move It Move It is forever going to stand out as the song that people know and recognise. In both cases that’s partly due to their translation into visual media — the Game Of Thrones TV series and I Like To Move It Move It’s use in the Madagascar films — but equally one could argue that it’s down to the inherent quality of the work, and that it’s that quality that got those works picked up by TV and film in the first place. Here I’m going to treat each work as self-contained (as most consumers will encounter them) rather than in the wider context of the auteur’s career, and look at some of the characteristics that have made them stand out.
Some vague spoilers about A Song Of Ice And Fire probably follow, along with massive spoilers about the lyrics of I Like To Move It Move It.
One of these works can hardly be discussed without some mention of its unusual and disorienting narrative structure. Whereas the chorus of I Like To Move It Move It is all about how the Mad Stuntman likes to dance, the verses are seemingly nothing to do with that: they are a list of compliments paid to a woman. The switch is repeated and abrupt, with no explanatory bridge between the two. Martin uses a similar technique, jumping to a new character at the start of each chapter; the difference is that where the Mad Stuntman pretty neatly wraps up what he is saying at the end of each segment, Martin tends to bring each chapter to a cliffhanger just before the next character comes crashing in. Even where there’s no cliffhanger, there’s often a revelation that throws a different light on the events just witnessed.
At its best, this approach (especially the new-light one rather than the cliffhanger) can make each chapter almost a self-contained short story, which helped to keep up my interest in a very long, multi-stranded narrative which can often move very slowly for pages and pages and pages. At its worst, though, the cliffhangers become annoying: particularly in A Dance With Dragons there are multiple chapters that seem to end with a character’s death, only for him or her to pop up again a few chapters later. This is exciting the first time, but when it keeps happening it gets tiresome — particularly as the number one thing I’d heard about Game Of Thrones that set it apart from other TV and books was that it was thrillingly willing to kill off an important or much-loved character at any moment. I was looking forward to that refreshingly hard-hitting trait ratcheting up the narrative tension, but in the three books I’ve read, it barely happens at all — in A Dance With Dragons I think more characters come back to life than get killed off — and it’s starting to seem like that reputation may stem purely from one important death that I’ve heard comes in the first book.
There isn’t a great deal to analyse in I Like To Move It Move It’s chorus lyrics, but the compliments in the verses are interesting: “woman you’re cute, and you don’t need no make-up,” the Mad Stuntman repeatedly insists. It’s strange how rarely you hear that in pop, as I imagine it would be a quite flattering thing to hear as a woman. If you’re going to compliment someone’s appearance, it may as well be their natural appearance that is inherent to them rather than trappings or artifice that anyone else could replicate given the time and budget. Whether this is intended to be taken as a wider insistence that people should wear less make-up is open to debate; you could possibly take the vocative “woman” as applying to womankind rather than a specific woman but I’m not sure if that’s the intention. I’m inclined to say that the Mad Stuntman is trying to paint a faithful picture of a single situation and leave the listener to draw his or her own conclusions.
Martin doesn’t talk about make-up but some of his characters voice a mistrust of artifice. Sorcery is “a sword without a hilt — there’s no safe way to grasp it,” and while as of the end of A Dance With Dragons those who use it are doing OK, I’m sensing that the servants of the Red God R’hllor (the foremost sorcerers of Westeros) may find it coming to bite them later. Prophecy (for Dante and other Medieval people the leading form of sorcery; remember Westeros is loosely Medieval) certainly causes Cersei more trouble than it’s worth as her regency unfolds and then unravels in A Feast For Crows. But I wouldn’t take that as a caution against real-world sorcery since I don’t suppose Martin believes in it.
You can make a better case for lessons with a real-world bearing in other areas. Not in the traditional sense of “X does something he shouldn’t have and later gets his comeuppance”, since there are few truly honourable characters and even those with good intentions generally get hopelessly compromised by the choices they face. (Is that a problem? Do I have trouble identifying with anyone, or finding someone to root for? Not really, as rooting for a hated character’s downfall can be equally compelling.) The abiding lesson so far, which I think is absolutely intended, is about war, and the effects of war, and how lucky we in Europe and North America are not to have had a war in our countries for a long time.
Early on in the series characters have been very war-happy, starting conflicts in order to win them directly or to create chaos that will advance their cause and power vacuums that they can fill. Once you get to A Feast For Crows, though, fatigue has set in. The war has more or less run out of battles but it still continues as a paralysing grind. One character’s entire narrative sees her trudging around the worst affected areas, the Crownlands and Riverlands, and all she sees are burnt villages, starving people, bodies, bits of bodies, opportunist brigands, smoking ruins, failed or rotting crops, and the dread in the eyes of people who know that winter is coming. She is on a quest that goes nowhere, so it’s clear that her wanderings are primarily there to send a camera drifting around that devastation. The key moment of the Brienne chapters is Septon Meribald’s speech, a rare chance to hear a commoner’s view and one of the best bits in the books I’ve read. If you read that and don’t get much from it, these books probably aren’t for you.
There are also strong parallels between certain events in the books and modern-day Iraq. In A Storm Of Swords, a triumphant conqueror smashes the evil rulers of a far-off land and sets about putting the place to rights. In A Dance With Dragons, she finds that some of the monstrosities she has done away with were in fact load-bearing pillars that were holding up large parts of the society around her, and that while her government is in intent much nobler than the one it’s replaced, it struggles for acceptance and legitimacy. Wholesale, immediate change is a lot trickier than she expected. She gets very bogged down.
I said above that there’s no link between I Like To Move It Move It’s verses and chorus. More accurately, there’s no stated link. On careful analysis, we know that (1) the protagonist has met a woman he finds attractive and (2) he likes dancing, so I’d like to advance the theory that there is an unstated invitation to dance either being made or about to be made.
There’s not much dancing to the Song of Ice and Fire. Even at weddings, music is as likely to signal a filling of the morgue as the dancefloor. On the other hand the most recent book is called A Dance With Dragons so some exploration of what that dance is might be worthwhile. While A Feast For Crows is a static book, where characters stagger and blunder around reeling from the effects of what has happened to them, A Dance With Dragons follows a small handful who escape, independently, and cross continents to join up with Dany Targaryen. The Targaryens are the dragons, the disinherited, somewhat magical rulers of Westeros. The escapees all want to court her, either romantically, for her power, or both. Dany Targaryen also has real dragons: growing dragons who are not the tame pets that they were when they were parrot-sized. So the dance with dragons has a double meaning: the mating dance between Dany and her suitors, and the dangerous dance between Dany and her scaly friends.
Neither goes particularly well, for any of the characters involved or indeed the reader. The suitor/Dany dance ends up being mostly speculative, since Dany gets to the end of 1000 pages without becoming aware that all of them even exist, and the one who does declare his intentions is amusingly doomed. Not only because he is a mediocrity: Dany seems by now to have a small and fading interest in going to Westeros or even hearing about it. It’s as if the poor prince has turned up ready to shake his thing with a bag full of rave tapes, only to find Dany listening to George Ezra, ie with no interest in dancing at all.
If the suitors are playing with fire by wooing a far-off Targaryen, Dany’s own dragon dance is more clearly and presently dangerous. Those dragons are beasts. What started off as a fun dance turns sour, leading her to shun it, until it comes back as serious business with a truly weird ending. Dany spends the whole book agonising over whether to hide the dragon or ride the dragon, whether to be queen or mad stuntwoman; but the substance, success and outcome of her choice are all left unresolved.
I do think that A Dance With Dragons might have benefited from dropping the Dany chapters entirely. I know she’s a much loved character, but isn’t Martin famous for casting aside his readers’ darlings? The book could certainly have done with being a bit shorter, and the various journeys converging on Meereen might have been made more exciting by a lack of information on what they’d find when they got there. While Dany’s doings aren’t without interest, there isn’t a lot of progress there. Perhaps they could have been published separately as a “what Dany did in Meereen” novella. Keeping them out of the book would have made for some jaw-dropping reveals when the travellers arrived at court, making the reader eager for every scrap of information rather than providing too much. And a parsimonious rationing of Dany would have made her big moment in the fighting pit even more impactful.
I’ve seen accusations of misogyny made at Game Of Thrones. Similarly some might find the Mad Stuntman’s motormouth wooing and shouts of “Woman!” a bit crass — similar in fact to Jaime Lannister’s constant addressing of Brienne of Tarth as “Wench”. I tend to agree with others who don’t believe that Martin’s books are incompatible with feminism: while women are often horrendously treated, men are too, and I don’t find any endorsement in how that treatment is depicted. It makes uncomfortable reading, as it should (if included at all — sometimes I wished that certain scenes had been omitted) and will stir the right-thinking reader against those who mete out the punishment. At the same time there is a wide variety of strong and rounded female characters to be found and many events are shown, believably, from women’s points of view. It certainly passes the Bechdel test.
The question is part of a wider one of whether depiction of abominable acts equates to endorsement of them. It’s an uncomfortable truth that some people do like macabre acts to be part of their bedtime reading, and those ghouls won’t be disappointed. But I don’t think the existence of that minority means that authors should shy away if they feel that some scenes of violence or, say, torture are important to their works. The violence certainly isn’t what Game of Thrones is all about, and the violence against women less so — they are a part of the world that Martin has created, and it’s a world that has value, so it can be accepted if not enjoyed in its own right.
I Like To Move It Move It depicts two things: dancing and courting this unseen woman. Clearly it does endorse dancing, since the whole track is very successfully made to dance to. The question of whether it endorses courting, or courting in those terms specifically, is more ambiguous; for one thing, we’re not told whether the Mad Stuntman succeeds: does he end up dancing with the object of his affections, or does he go off and dance on his own? Before we find out the lyrics disappear and we’re left with that manic, minor-key synth riff mocking our curiosity as it fades out. At best, I think we’re supposed to conclude, a romantic overture is fraught with the danger of rejection — just as the dragon dance holds dangers for Martin’s characters.
As to the specific terms in which the Mad Stuntman addresses his lady, the first thing in his defence is that his compliments tend towards the body-positive and even progressive (attractive without make-up, physically fit, energetic) or blandly uncontroversial (nice, sweet). I’m not sure what he means by “big ship on the ocean that a big Titanic” — is she curvaceous? Rocking from side to side? Metaphorically a giant in that she stands out above other women? Certainly the Titanic reference adds to the feeling of foreboding mentioned above: in light of it, I’m fairly certain that the Stuntman’s overtures are doomed, and it’s to his credit that he doesn’t let that dent his enthusiasm for the dancefloor and at the end of the song prefers silence to bitterness or abuse. The most dubious part of it is the shouts of “Woman!”, but note that the conversation is taking place on a dancefloor where it is probably noisy, so there is not much room for subtlety. What might sound like hectoring out of context may actually be a faithful rendering of morally neutral disco conversation.
Now let’s go back into that old Sea of Conjecture favourite, the cauldron. I’m delighted to welcome A Song Of Ice And Fire to join Wuthering Heights, 2666, King Lear and The Kingdom Of This World in the canon of cauldron literature: that is, literature where any perceived narrative gradually recedes amid a dawning realisation that the point of the work lies elsewhere, in the foaming and chaotic depiction of nature (sometimes human nature) at its most callous and majestic.
I haven’t read the first two books, but I get the impression that they are quite focused, at least compared with the later ones. As events roll on, though, characters drift apart and the narrative follows them all to an extent, branching and sub-branching into a great muddy delta where the flow of events slows drastically. In A Feast For Crows there are six main point-of-view characters, of whom only one (Cersei) has an identifiable rise-and-fall narrative arc. The other strands either meander aimlessly, or stop halfway through, or both. This is not a weakness of the book. The reader needs to come through any initial frustration and reach the realisation that the narrative is no longer the point, if it ever was. The point is the characters’ futility as they attempt to construct their own narratives in a world that is not built for them — a world that has indeed been largely wrecked by those attempts.
The Feast for Crows chapters set on the Iron Islands, peripheral to other events, are fine cauldron literature. We see them from three different viewpoints, all somewhat mad, all making plans, all of which are swept away by events entirely out of their control. It’s almost a shame that those characters meet up with the main plot in the next book — I’d have been happy to read “meanwhile on the Iron Islands” vignettes throughout it with only thematic bearing on anything else.
A Dance For Dragons reads a little less cauldron-like for the most part, but the way it ends belies that. A Feast For Crows could neatly be subtitled “Cersei’s Regency”, but there’s no one chain of events that tidily delineates its successor. It ends with everything unresolved, Dany wandering in the wilderness, various armies reported lost in the snow, Jon on a knife-edge (or dagger point). Almost no one has the good grace to die in either book, in contrast to A Storm Of Swords which says goodbye to 80+ named characters.
This is why I’m miffed to read some of these Tumblr theories that various characters are going to turn out to be secret Targaryens and team up and start riding dragons and uniting Westeros in a fight against the evil Others. In a series of books characterised by intrigue and plotting, where’s the intrigue in the rise of a clear messiah who everyone has no choice but to acknowledge? It would be a retreat from whatever the books currently are into more conventional fantasy, and a retreat out of the cauldron into more conventional story.
What about I Like To Move It Move It? Classic cauldron literature as well. Here’s a man asking a woman to dance. Does she say yes? Does she say no? No: the whole endeavour dissolves into a repeating, irresistible eleven-note synth riff, rendering the question redundant. As it should: the dancefloor is itself a cauldron, and it is no place for triteness or simplicity.
Posted by SER POUNCE at 13:49