Once upon a time (September 20, 1948, in fact) a baby boy was born to a longshoreman and his wife from the realm of Bayonne, in the land of New Jersey. They named their son George, and the boy was full of stories and songs (well, stories anyway). As a youngster, he sold some of those stories to other children in the neighborhood for pennies. Others, he kept.
In 1977, I graduated from high school in small town Iowa, and left for the grand adventure known as college. I attended Cornell College in beautiful Mount Vernon, Iowa, but for a short time I considered enrolling at Clarke College in Dubuque, Iowa, because it also had a solid reputation academically and the bluffs were dramatic and divine, so unlike my normal experience of dreamy cornfields and expansive vistas. (In-state tuition rates were, and remain, quite advantageous.) Alas, though, Clarke was a Catholic college and I was from a decidedly Protestant background, with my father being a minister and all, so I left behind dreams of the bluffs in favor of perhaps the most gorgeous hilltop campus in the world.
Had I gone to Clarke, however – had I taken that possibly fateful journey 65 miles to the northeast – I would have, in my sophomore and junior years, potentially taken journalism classes from a Professor Martin, George Martin. Yes, the longshoreman’s son who was full of stories grew up to be a writer and a teacher. How might my life have been changed had I studied under the man who has been deemed “the American Tolkien”? How different would my circumstances have been? Probably not much, because I was a music major. But one never knows!
Hey, that might make an interesting speculative fiction story! Or…. not.
Anyway, today is George R.R. Martin‘s birthday; today he turns 65. Best known for his insanely popular series of books, A Song of Ice and Fire (five published thus far, with two more to come, and a prequel), and for their stylish and masterful (and lusty and brutal!) treatment by HBO under the series name “Game of Thrones”, he is nevertheless also well known for many other things. Editing award winning anthologies of science fiction, horror, and fantasy, for one. Having a no-holds-barred attitude towards his writing methods trumping the expectations of his rabid fan base (even while being amazingly accessible to them) ranks pretty high up there. Killing off major characters, another. A big one, in fact, because not many are brave enough to do so.
He defends his refusal to write stereotypical sentimental fantasy thusly:
As a reader or viewer of television or film, I always like unexpected things. I always like the suspense to be real. We have all seen the movies where the hero is in trouble. He is surrounded by 20 people, but you know he is going to get away because he is the hero. You don’t really feel any fear for him. I want my readers and my viewers to be afraid when my characters are in danger. I want them to be afraid to turn the next page because the next character may not survive it.
No matter how beloved they are, or how good or how noble. No matter how fair it is, or unfair, as the case may be. Anyone – everyone – is at risk.
In other words, he wants his worlds, even in fantasy, to reflect the lives you and I live. He wants us to feel akin to his characters, for us to truly be caught up in his tale. He gives us rich, sumptuous detail, he builds worlds where we can taste and touch and smell and see – and feel – everything so very deeply, and in these worlds, life is not black and white/good and evil/just and unjust. His heroes are flawed, his villains can be admirable, very few of his characters can be easily summed up or dismissed as being one aspect of the spectrum or the other, or else they careen back and forth between the two. And yet – and yet – the fantasy is lush, the worlds gripping, the lives unforgettable.
To this avid reader, George R. R. Martin is about as good as it gets. And that’s why I’m gimbling in his wabe today.
If I had any doubts about the heart of the man, his quote about fantasy dispelled any of them. For me, he hit it spot on, and speaks right to the core of what I believe. J.R.R. Tolkien will always be my first and dearest love, but GRRM rides not far behind.
The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real … for a moment at least … that long magic moment before we wake.
Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?
We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.
They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to middle Earth.
We should be so lucky. Thanks, GRRM. Can’t wait for The Winds of Winter. Even if it’s months away; I can be patient because I know it’s going to be spectacular.