Tag Archives: A Dance with Dragons

A Dance with Dragons: Weaselly Meditations on Slavery

Cover of A Dance with Dragons

Title: A Dance with Dragons
Author: George R. R. Martin
Publication Date: 2011
LC Call Number: PS3563 .A7239

Okay, so here’s my attempt at an actual serious post about A Dance with Dragons. I don’t feel like I have a lot to say about it, so, we’ll see.

The book is mostly not about what is going on in Westeros; it’s about the effect that Daenerys has had upon the countries in the east. Most significantly, it’s Daenerys vs. slavery. The ideology here is really difficult to pin down; the book appears to contain a deep ambivalence, if not toward slavery itself, toward the possibility of abolishing it politically.

There will always be problems in these chapters caused by the fact that they are narrated and perceived exclusively by characters from Westeros. Daenerys believes, at least for a while, that she is able to solve the problems of all these cities she knows nothing about just with her own power. This is a narrative we find all the time; privileged people with a Eurocentric (perhaps not the right word here?) viewpoint figure they can fix things for people who have darker skin, live elsewhere, have customs they consider barbaric, etc, and it’s been pointed out by much better writers than I am how a subtle racism can underlie benevolence of this sort. Now, because Martin has so many different viewpoint characters and is so willing to live in their heads that it’s never really clear what is the bias of the characters and what is the tendency of the book. This, by the way, is one of the things that really gets lost in the HBO series, and an important reason that the tv show makes me feel more uneasy about the story as a whole. So you have characters who position themselves like this and it’s sometimes left ambiguous whether this is endorsed. However, the weakness here is that you never have an point of view character who provides a perspective that would help us understand, for instance, what life is like for a freedman in Meereen.

However, we do get a first hand view of slavery. First, Daenerys explicitly reminds us that her crusade against slavery is a product of personal experience, refuting invalid analogies with the simple statement, “I have been sold.” One might think her longing for Drogo at the end of the book (and I’ll admit, I find this bizarre) would weaken this argument a little, but I do think it’s important that she recognizes her suffering as such, remembers that Viserys was not her friend, and knows that what happened to her was wrong. I wrote before about the lack of any solidarity, anywhere in these books–Daenerys is as close as it gets, but notice that this is not real solidarity because she still believes that she is a queen and holds herself above those she has freed. This is what leads her to make compromises with slavers, and it’s basically the Mirri Maz Duur problem all over again. She shares none of the specific circumstances of any of the people she is trying to help, and although some of them end up fairly close to her–Missandei and to a lesser extent, Grey Worm–there’s never a sense of what she can learn from them.

We do get a more–typical?–view of it from Tyrion and Penny. Penny, by the way, is a great character and was sorely needed in this book. She is a second dwarf, so that we can have a different perspective on dwarf-ness than the one that Tyrion provides. She’s a commoner, which alleviates the problem I discussed in my earlier post about the series’s increased focus on the major players, and she is a survivor who does not concern herself with maintaining her dignity. With Penny, we get a sense of the relationship between the common people and the aristocrats in this world. She views the “big folks” as rather dangerous natural forces which she must appease in order to be allowed to continue to live her own life and tend to the things she cares about–her (now deceased) brother, her pets, her own continued existence. She has learned their ways and believes that she mostly understands how to conduct herself around them. She will follow these rules in order to ensure her safety; her plan is to survive rather than to rebel. It is not a particularly heroic nor philosophical worldview, and Tyrion’s thinly-veiled contempt for her is a constant reminder of that. In a way, it leads me to wonder whether we are supposed to look down on her as well, and I worry about how she will be portrayed in the TV series. Still, given her social position, gender, and size, it’s been a pretty smart strategy, it’s led to her surviving this long, it harms no one, and it’s hard to blame her for it. Frankly, if you dislike Penny, I think you are kind of a jerk.

In any case, she and Tyrion are captured and sold as slaves, in the midst of the camp in which everyone is dying of the flux. This gives us a first-hand view of the lives of slaves, although a view that is acknowledged as atypical, and the book really needed that. Tyrion and Penny do almost an Ariel/Caliban thing; Tyrion is resistant and insulting and Penny is compliant and sweet and even a little bit loyal, but curiously, it is Tyrion who tries to find some justification for their situation. He observes at one point that the lot of most slaves, in his opinion, is no worse than the lot of servants in Westeros, and later reflects that being a slave is a choice because those enslaved have not forced their captors to kill them. Both of these thoughts tend to absolve the powerful from responsibility–maybe, instead of expecting slaves to rebel, people shouldn’t go around making others into slaves in the first place? Maybe servants in Westeros shouldn’t be treated like slaves? Maybe the existence of an analogous situation elsewhere doesn’t actually mean slavery is okay? And what does Tyrion know about the lives of servants, anyway? But of course, Tyrion is a displaced aristocrat, if a rebellious one, and while he often appears to take the part of people of lower classes (in this book, he is careful to take the blame for vomiting on the floor so that the slave in the brothel won’t be blamed for it–a jarring gesture when, as far as I can tell, he has just raped her, but that is this book all over) , he still sees all this from a distance and doesn’t really identify with it. He is disgusted with Penny because she does, and she tries to roll with the punches, but although she is naive and has less overall awareness of the situation than he does, she understands that part of it better. But Tyrion is a dangerous character to make these observations, because he is the smartest character in the series, and the most entertaining. When he says this sort of thing, the reader is tempted to agree with him automatically, and I’m not sure that it is really explicitly presented as being part of Tyrion’s development rather than an exposition on What This Book Thinks About Slavery. And yet, at the same time, it gives me the opportunity to read generously and attribute it to Tyrion. I am not sure whether I am being too generous or not, nor how this my affect other readers.

In any case, a lot of page time is given to those who argue that slavery is an economic necessity, and while I am not convinced that we are supposed to buy this, it is enough to make us uneasy about Daenerys and her project. Of course, there are flashes of insight from elsewhere, too. I enjoyed the moment at which it is revealed that the slaves of Volantis are waiting for her to come. In this moment you see that slavery is not sustainable, that getting rid of it isn’t just a whim of Dany’s, and that maybe it isn’t all about her anyway–that slaves have agency. But they are waiting, which is perhaps disappointing. Maybe in Book Six, if it ever comes out, we’ll see independent revolts happening all over the place. That would be fun.

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A Dance with Dragons: Back Again

Cover of A Dance with Dragons

 

Title: A Dance with Dragons (Book 5 of A Song of Ice and Fire)

Author: George R. R. Martin

Publication Date: 2011

LC Call Number: PS3563 .A7239

It probably wasn’t the best possible time to read this book–it put me way behind when I should have been reading Little Women, and then that stressed me out a little, and I think it diminished my enjoyment of the book, do if its assessment suffers here, well, it’s not really fair. But I was behind,so I plowed ahead.

So. A Dance With Dragons is the fifth (fifth!) installment of George. R. R. Martin’s series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Two more to go. It’s a long series of long books, so by now we’ve had the opportunity to become fairly immersed in the world, we can recognize a political configuration that bears almost no resemblance to the one that we first encountered, we are pretty sure about which characters we like and dislike, and we have had plenty of time to pick up on Martin’s irritating habits–both linguistic (say, his use of contemporary colloquialisms and his conviction that “wroth” is a noun)–and plot-based (abandoning interesting plot lines, constantly threatening all female characters with rape–though admittedly there is less of that last in this installment). It’s risky to try to write something so big, and even riskier the way that Martin does it. This series attempts to deromanticize the fantasy genre, so aside from the periodic deaths of characters,* there are plot twists that are meant to be twists because they are realistic and in general an aim for grittiness–sometimes more successfully and sometimes less so. The end result is that it’s rather hostile to the reader, who is assumed to be a fantasy fan, and therefore both able to recognize the things he turns on their heads and sensitive to these criticisms. In that sense, it’s a little surprising that it’s been so popular. In any case, it doesn’t feel as if Martin is negotiating with readers to get them to keep reading–but of course he is. Sometimes I wonder if he remembers that, but this may be intentional.**

This particular volume is the other half of A Feast for Crows; the story is that Martin eventually realized that the prior book was getting too long and decided to split it in half, with some characters appearing in one book and some in the other. Ultimately, this split was a mistake that harmed both books. Here, the first third of the book is distributed among an uncharacteristically small number of characters, so that even if you missed Jon in the prior volume, there’s a feeling of “oh, Jon again?” that I think could have been avoided if the book had been split the other way. The other effect of this decision, of course, is that the plot can’t progress that far beyond where it was at the end of the fourth book because it needs to spend most of its time catching up. The good news is that by the end of this book, the plot finally begins to pick up again, but if there’s one thing that Martin is good at, it’s making it seem as if the next book will be better. A useful skill.

I’ve written before about Martin’s use of more and less powerful characters. In my earlier posts, I noted that I’m not a huge fan of the character type I described as the badass warrior, and that I’d been relieved to find that the book focused mostly on important but less powerful characters, though I was amused that he relied so heavily on making them prisoners. The complexion of the work has changed quite a bit over the course of the last several thousand pages, and it’s gravitated much more toward the major players than earlier, partly because of the introduction of new, more politically significant characters, partly because the original characters have come to cast larger shadows, and partly because the political events are beginning to have more direct effects on people. So, while the Arya plot is still largely about the adventures of one girl, everything else is about the fight over the North or the fight over Daenerys, except for the few glimpses of the infighting at King’s Landing. Somehow, imperceptibly, the series has shifted from one about how extreme political maneuvering affects the people involved in or located near it to one about how the politics themselves work. So you’ve got Jon mostly showing us the relationship between Stannis and the wildlings, rather than asking how Stannis’s army will affect Jon. Even Tyrion seems to be there to set up the Jon Connington plot (which, by the way… How did we decide we need morecontenders for king of Westeros?) and to provide a better view of the camps outside the walls and, of course, the dragon attack. We’ve lost the sense that these are things that happento Tyrion. This may explain the absence of Sansa, even though she was left at a dramatic reveal at the end of the last book.

I’ve sometimes said that it seems as if this series will end when all the characters are dead and zombies lurch freely around the kingdom. I don’t really think that is true, but what seems more likely is this: many characters will die,and the characters who survive will become less and less sympathetic, and by the end we will hate most or all of the survivors, and this will be true almost by definition because characters will only survive by becoming worse. I already kind of hope that nobody will win at the end because seriously, this monarchy thing does not seem to be working out. But there is also the fact that there is really no character I would be happy to see in charge, with the possible exception of Mance Rayder, who may be dead again.

Of course, it’s also possible that I’m simply annoyed that Martin didn’t give me what I wanted, which was Beric Dondarrion, or Sansa learning to scheme, or Sandor Clegane and how he is surviving, or more of that stuff with Davos and Manderly that was set up early in this book, in one of the scenes that keeps me reading. Even Tyrion is less fun when I’m mad at him for murdering Shae (I didn’t like Shae, but I’m not going to forgive him for her murder just because he feels bad about it) and for patronizing a slave brothel (so much for understanding consent!). I did enjoy his chapters, though–maybe it was just the cyvasse. More about that later. Arya is still good. Martin needs to use her chapters as chasers to the stuff he knows we don’t want to read, like the Theon chapters, to a much greater extent than he does.

I’m also a little troubled by the introduction of new challenges that appear much like the old ones. A Clash of Kings had many pretenders showing up, raising armies, and contending for the throne and eventually killing each other off. Now Aegon appears and we’re going to start that all over again? Similarly, the series so far has been haunted by the sense that these factions are spending too much time fighting each other and ignoring the real threat, that is, the zombies. Now, we have the disease grayscale as another, very similar, threat. It feels as if we’ve been here before, and it makes me wonder if this will really get resolved in another two books. After all, it’s taken us five to get here.

Anyway, that’s the fluffy opinion stuff. My real post to come.

*This is the first thing that fans will tell you they like about the series, which strikes me as a little weird. Yes, sometimes it’s necessary and useful to kill characters off, but there is no need to make a virtue of it.

**One interesting deal that he makes is this: he has developed quite a long list of people who had been falsely reported dead. In this book, he brings back Theon and lets him hang out with the thoroughly repulsive Ramsays. Maybe some fan somewhere was happy to see this, but it’s hard to imagine. In return, Martin also gives us back Davos and then Mance. This makes the deal look a little more fair, but ultimately, I’m not sure it was. Close enough, I suppose, to get at least some of the readers to keep going.

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