The Library Fantastic

Worldbuilding

I’ve been thinking a lot about worldbuilding lately. A few years ago, I decided that adding a Literature degree to my Classical Archaeology degree might make sense given the way things have shaped up with Westeros.org and myself and Elio co-writing The World of Ice and Fire with GRRM. Once I got to the point of doing my Bachelor paper, the broad strokes of the topic came to me quite easily - I wanted to explore worldbuilding academically since it has always been one of the elements of fantasy that holds the most fascination for me. The end result was a paper on the use of history in A Song of Ice and Fire and how it is such an essential part of the worldbuilding.

During LonCon3, I picked out a number of panels related to worldbuilding and in the end I attended five of them. One, the Worldbuilding Masterclass, was absolutely fabulous from a technical and practical perspective, but the more theoretical panels were quite a mixed bag. There were a lot of Agendas and Issues being aired, and there were near Tumblr-level of concerns about certain -isms. I found that some panelists tended to come across as looking down their noses a bit at fantasy writers who weren’t as “enlightened” as they were, where “enlightened” largely seemed to mean “shares and promotes similar opinions on social and political issues”. I would have liked to see more of a variety of opinions rather than so much mutual back-patting, which seemed particularly common on the all-female panels.

I may attempt some more detailed panel commentary once the concrud has left me entirely, but for now this is more of a long-winded introduction to a brief sigh/rant about one of the common complaints raised against GRRM in particular and fantasy in general since the success of Game of Thrones. Every now and then someone will pipe up and snarkily say “oh, so fantasy writers can conceive of dragons and elves but they can’t imagine black/gay/etc characters in their world?” Yes, I recognize that this is a snarky simplification, but too many people take it at face value and do not consider it any further. And it does need to be considered in more detail, because the fact is that worldbuilding is a lot more complex than that.

Creating a fantasy world is in large parts about finding the right balance between the mimetic and the fantastic and ensuring that the two work together. If you look at what Tolkien does in LotR, for example, he inserts a great amount of mimetic detail to “ground” the story; without this approach, the fantastic elements will not be believable because the author will not have created a sufficiently believable world. I cannot see how anyone, especially not an author, can claim that there’s no difference between inserting mimetic details that aren’t necessarily part of your personal experience of the world and inserting fantastic details. It seems self-evident that it is harder to make up convincing mimetic details than it is to make up convincing fantastic details, in part because the latter piggybacks on the mimetic details and in part because there’s no blueprint for what dragons or elves should be like.

So, yes, I think it makes perfect sense that many authors will write what they know and what they are familiar with when it comes to writing mimetic details such as the ethnic makeup of their cast. That does not mean this is all they can do or all they should do, all I am addressing is that particular, snarky comment that equates mimetic and fantastic detail without considering that they are in fact two different facets of worldbuilding.

Brutal Disappointment

It has been a while since I felt a need to write at length about my disappointment with Game of Thrones. By now the show has deviated enough that my expectations have sunk to quite a low level. It still manages to anger me at times—and to thrill me as well; I won’t deny that some scenes still manage to feel wonderfully right (Oberyn’s and Tyrion’s conversation in episode 7 is one such, for example)—but my relation to the show was irrevocably damaged after the House of the Undying travesty. If they could do something like that, I knew nothing was sacred.

But some foolish hopes did still remain for certain iconic scenes to be done right. The duel between Oberyn and Gregor was one such scene. Surely they could not drop the ball on that one?

As you may guess—since I am writing this and all—my answer to that question is “yes, yes they could”. But before I go on to the how’s and why’s of that, let me just dwell for a moment (okay, more than a moment - I ramble!) on my rather…complicated history with that scene.

That Jaime & Cersei Scene…

I thought I was done commenting on the Jaime & Cersei scene in episode 3, but I keep seeing one annoying article after another on the subject.

Now, anyone who knows anything about my feelings regarding Game of Thrones would be aware that I hate unnecessary changes with a fiery passion. So, yes, I am on board with the “why change that scene?” criticism. At least to a point, that is. You see, I found the change to the Dany & Drogo scene in episode 1 of season 1 much, much, much more infuriating from a “purist” point of view. There was absolutely no reason to change the tone of that scene so radically. And yet, at the time there were quite a few fans and reviewers who spoke up in favour of that change, mainly citing that they did not find the scene in the books believable anyway.

In contrast, there are quite a few reasons for why the Jaime & Cersei scene could not play out as it did in the books. GRRM cited the “butterfly effect” on his Livejournal and it is absolutely true that by now, in the fourth season, there are many previous changes that demand further changes (this was not the case in ep 1 of season 1, however!). I very much dislike some of those previous changes—I disagree with the decision to have Jaime back in King’s Landing so early and I most definitely disagree with the decision to make Cersei such a radically different character—but the fact remains that those did limit what they could do with the scene in the sept. It could no longer play out as it did in the books, in part because it was no longer a surprising and very emotional reunion between Jaime & Cersei and in part (or so I would argue, anyway) because the Cersei that Lena Headey plays is a very, very different character from the Cersei of the books. She is much less passionate, much less sexual and, it seems, much more dubious about her relationship with Jaime.

In my mind there’s no doubt that the scene was intended as largely consensual. Yes, Jaime initiates it and does so forcefully. But if we look at the books, we have three examples of this sort of interaction between Jaime and Cersei where he initiates a sexual encounter quite forcefully/insistently and where Cersei initially protests. This is clearly part of the dynamic of their relationship. Keep in mind that they do not exactly have a normal, healthy relationship. Any sex they have carries the risk of discovery and severe punishments, meaning that most of their encounters are carried out with a certain urgency. To imagine that this doesn’t leave a mark on how they interact is impossible. I also believe that Cersei is turned on by Jaime expressing that he has to have her, right now, because it shows her power over him.

Of course, in the books these encounters, although apparently initiated against Cersei’s will, soon turn into clearly consensual activities where Cersei verbally expresses her desire to continue. I have, however, seen plenty of people argue that even this is too much, seeing as Jaime initially pushed on without her consent. I dismiss such complaints as ludicrous - you’re talking about a relationship that has gone one for decades, which has its own rules worked out. But, returning to the scene from episode 3, it differs from the books in that there’s no clear verbal consent from Cersei. There is, however, physical consent. Partway into the scene, she kisses him back, she probably (it is hard to see for sure) helps with his undressing and she wraps her legs around him. Again, in a long-established relationship, physical consent has to be every bit as valid as verbal consent.

A lot of people point to what is said by Cersei as a further problem and further evidence that she does not want this to happen. However, I cannot understand how people can equate her “It isn’t right.” with a “No”. This completely takes it back to her protests in the book, which are all about the risk of the discovery and the time and the place being inappropriate. Cersei keeps repeating this even as she is giving into her desires for Jaime (the hand clenched around the funerary cloth must be meant to indicate this) and I feel that this is where the changed Cersei is shown most clearly: her dubiousness about the incestuous relationship, especially in such a risky situation, is so strong that she feels a need to express her concerns even though (or perhaps because) she actually does desire Jaime and does desire the sex at that moment. It is as if Cersei on the show is ashamed about her own reaction and I strongly feel that her “It isn’t right.” is something she is vocalising to deal with her feelings of shame/guilt rather than a further attempt to discourage Jaime.

Obviously, this was not how many people interpreted scene and I do agree that this was probably not the best way to handle this scene. In particular, even though I feel I understand its purpose, the “It isn’t right.” should not have been there. There should have been something more affirmative to make it plainer that Cersei wanted the sex to continue. But ultimately, this is a problem of intent, execution and interpretation. I do not believe, as some have tried to put forward, that TV (or any other media, like books) have a duty to avoid scenes of ambiguous sexual conduct. They wanted to show a darker, more ambiguous scene between Jaime & Cersei than in the books. This is perfectly acceptable and does not in any way make them rape apologists. The established relationship between the characters (and yes, I do count the background material from the books here as well as I do not view this show as separate from the books) allows for this kind of interaction without it being rape. However, the end result apparently came out too ambigious from the point of view of many watchers. That is a fault of theirs, a fault which could have been avoided even with the changed circumstances and the changed characters, but ultimately it does not change their intent.

Which is why anyone who is expecting this to be “dealt with” in the next episode is fooling themselves. And, in the case of professional reviewers who should know better, fooling their audiences just to be able to act even more outraged next week. The season is in the can. They did not shoot a rape scene, thus there will be no follow-up to a rape scene.

The Red Wedding

Looking back at this blog, I realise that I switched from posting here to posting to Observations partway into last season of Game of Thrones. I probably had a good reason for it at the time. For this season, I haven’t had time to post anything so far, but there are several reasons for why I do want to write a bit about the Red Wedding, in the books and on the screen. And, since it will be talking more about the books, I guess I am putting it here.

Until a couple of weeks ago, I had not actually read the Red Wedding chapter in A Storm of Swords.  In fact, I had not read most of the latter half of A Storm of Swords. When the book was first published, Elio and I started reading it together, passing it back and forth between us. I read ahead on Daenerys’s storyline, given that it was separate from anything else, and that led to Elio reading ahead of me in all the other storylines. As a result, he got to the Red Wedding a bit ahead of me. He didn’t precisely tell me what happened but I was sitting in the same room as he read the chapter and his reactions were…intense. No thrown books (we do not throw books around here ;P), but plenty of gasps.

It rattled me, a lot. I scare really easily and I have a wonderfully vivid imagination for horrible things. So, when I got the book back from Elio, that feeling that something is terribly wrong that the chapters before the actual wedding build up just got to be too much for me. I knew that a horrible car crash was coming up and I knew that if I got to that point, I wouldn’t be able to look away. And I really, really didn’t want those images in my head; there’s a reason why I don’t generally read or watch horror. It didn’t matter that the character’s being killed weren’t any favourites of mine; I probably mourned Grey Wind the most since Robb was something of non-entity for me and unlike Elio I wasn’t a big Catelyn fan, though my recent re-reads have given me a better understanding of her even if I still don’t really like her as a person.

Why didn’t I just skip that chapter and kept reading the rest of the book? At first, I figured I would be able to get back reading soon enough. I did finish all the Daenerys chapters and, I think, the Jaime chapters. But then there was the other big event of A Storm of Swords—the duel, that is. We had already been spoiled before we started reading about how the duel would end. Elio got to that one ahead of me as well—I think he pretty much finished the whole book in one day, staying up until early in the morning—and I got enough of an impression from him to know that I did not want to read that chapter either. In fact, that one made me a lot angrier than the Red Wedding, because GRRM managed to hype Oberyn in just the right way before the book came out that I was sure I had a new favourite character coming on stage. In fact, once he was introduced, he turned out to be even more interesting than we had thought he would be.

And then GRRM killed him. We knew it was coming, but that didn’t help. In fact, overall that upset me more than the Red Wedding (which didn’t really make me sad or angry, just sick to the stomach with the horror of it) because it actually removed a character that I wanted to read more about, a character that I had an emotional (and, alright, hormonal ;P) attachment to. One reason that I was so relieved that GRRM skipped the planned 5-year-gap after A Storm of Swords was that I was really sad that the gap meant that we would not get any immediate reactions to Oberyn’s death. It made it feel more pointless, somehow. That is probably also why “The Captain of the Guards” is my favourite chapter of A Feast for Crows, closely followed by the other Dornish chapters.

So, the Red Wedding stopped me in my tracks as I was reading, but there was more in the second half of the book that I didn’t want to get too involved with. Now I am past the halfway mark, I am in the middle of the next wedding, but I will probably save the rest of the book for closer to the next season, to have it all fresh in my mind. I am not sure if I am hoping that they do a good or a bad job with casting and writing Oberyn; I might not want to get attached to the character on the show, all considered, so perhaps it is better if they botch it. After all, and that’s a long and roundabout way of connecting back to the Red Wedding episode, watching the Red Wedding on TV was actually a lot easier than reading it because they didn’t manage to adapt it as well as they could have. If they had created the same tension on the show that GRRM did in the book, I might have found it hard to sit through the whole episode. But they didn’t, and I watched it without any stronger reaction at all.

This, my completely different reactions to the book and the show—and bear in mind that I was coming to that chapter fully spoiled, so that isn’t where the difference lies— is why I think that it was such a mistake to go for a shock instead of creating that sick feeling in your stomach throughout the whole episode; the true horror of the Red Wedding is as much about the atmosphere as it is about what actually happens. GRRM shifts from fantasy to horror without telling you and starts creating the sort of dread that a horror story would create, the sort of dread that makes you wish for a release, even though you know that the release will be bloody. Here, you start wishing for that release, without realising that you are in for a true horror story ending. That is masterful storytelling and that is damned effective.

Of course, if it had that effective on the show—because, admittedly, the episode has clearly been very effective for a lot of people as it is—it might have broken the Internet.

The End is Here

A Memory of Light, the last Wheel of Time book, is out. It feels really, really strange, and—unfortunately—not in a good way. There’s nothing wrong with endings being bitter sweet, but in this case, I feel a lack of closure.

Before A Song of Ice and Fire took over mine and Elio’s life, the Wheel of Time had a huge place in it. In fact, we would not have met without it. I didn’t actually pick up the series right away when the first book came out in 1990, but I believe I bought the paperback for myself for Christmas 1992 (I know it coincided with the publication of the first book in Swedish, since I actually ended up getting that as a present at the same time) and I was completely hooked right away. When I got on the Internet in 1995, it did not take long for me to find my way to a WoT MUSH called Tales of Ta’veren. From that MUSH, I discovered Elendor, a Tolkien MUSH, and there I met Elio. I got him to start reading WoT in order to join me on Tales. For a number of years, we poured over every word written by RJ, trying to figure out what various prophecies meant, piecing together esoteric details of the One Power and discussing just who was the best Blademaster around. I even wrote a letter with questions to RJ and received a response.

Yes, our interest did soften a bit as the story meandered, but my love for the world stayed strong. In part because we continued to roleplay in it, but the premise of the Wheel of Time is also completely irresistible to me. Myths, legends, time being circular and everything eventually coming back, it was all rather tailor-made for my interests and it was such a thrill every time I caught a reference or had one pointed out to me. That, more than anything else, is at the core of my love for the series. But I do have a weakness for structured magic systems as well and the One Power fascinated me.

Then RJ died. I remember finding out late one night or early one morning and waking up Elio to tell him. It felt very sad and very strange, but I don’t think the real impact actually hit me until the first collaboration with Sanderson came out. I just couldn’t read it. I didn’t know what came from RJ and what came from Sanderson and I simply could not stand constantly feeling “is this the real version?”. So, I have not read any of the books since RJ died. I’ve even had a hard time reading spoilers, because it just constantly brings back what’s been lost.

I do think I will want to read the epilogue of A Memory of Light, since RJ always said he’d had that one written or at least planned out for years. But the rest? I don’t know. Maybe I will try, since RJ did want to see the series completed. But still, I would have preferred to just have his notes published, similar to how Tolkien’s unfinished materials were treated. No matter how big a fan Sanderson is and no matter how much he may have tried to write what RJ would have wanted, he isn’t RJ. He’s not the Creator and his version of the story will always be a certain amount of guess work.

I don’t want his guesses, I just want the “truth”, and today I am feeling really sad that reality cruelly got in the way of the story and kept RJ from finishing his work the way he intended to. There’s closure to the story, as I do imagine it ended much like RJ intended it to end, but on a purely personal level there’s no real closure to my experience of reading the books. Even so, I am very grateful that I did, because my life would look completely different today if it wasn’t for the Wheel of Time.

Something else that struck me when thinking about this was that since 1992, I’ve been engrossed in epic fantasy. Now the Wheel of Time is over and eventually A Song of Ice and Fire will be over. I am not sure there will be anything to take their place; given the complications that both RJ and GRRM have run into, I am not sure epic of this particular scale will be attempted by anyone else. And if it is, I might not be as lucky in it being so very much to my tastes. There’s more to life than reading fantasy, of course, but it will leave a big hole behind.

Utterly Underwhelmed

After seeing the first two episodes of this season of Game of Thrones, I was almost feeling as if I didn’t really want to watch any more. The end of season one was so good, so true to the books, and now I didn’t see that closeness to the books. But we went on to episode three and four and suddenly I felt hopeful again. There would be enough scenes from the books that would get adapted really well.

Then we watched episode five. I was almost in tears afterwards.

Four ended in such an amazing way, with the birth of the shadow, and I knew we’d get a fabulous death scene for Renly. Not to mention that they would be able to actually show Loras’s reaction, described so evocatively by GRRM with just a few lines.

But no. The death scene was thoroughly underwhelming, with the horror elements of GRRM’s writing pretty much lost and the death completely sanitized. There should have been more fear, more blood, more terror. Brienne should have been even more distressed, with Catelyn the one taking charge to get her out of there.

And when we returned to the tent after their escape, we got a scene between Loras, Margaery and Littlefinger that in no way captured what happened in the books. How could they not show Loras going mad with grief, killing his own companions? How could they have him conclude that it wasn’t Brienne, just like that? How could they waste that scene in such a way when they had the opportunity to show on-screen what was only reported in the books as no PoV-characters were present?

I wanted that death to be harrowing, I wanted the reaction from Loras to be a grief-filled rage that you couldn’t help but to be drawn in by. Those scenes were supposed to make me cry and while it is true that they did make me teary-eyed, it was for all the wrong reasons.

There’s nothing wrong with the acting in these scenes, I do want to stress that, but I can’t say the same for the writing of the scenes. They’re passable, if looked at just as television and not an adaptation. But compared to the books they were immense letdowns. I just cannot believe that such a pivotal scene was done in such a weak fashion and that they changed the aftermath so much.

There were good scenes in the episode, even some very good scenes—Tywin with Arya was brilliant, Tyrion with Hallyne was very good despite some botched history—but the way it started and the way it ended was quite shattering.

I already knew Qarth would be significantly changed, but actually seeing it was still painful. It bears only a superficial resemblance to Dany’s actual storyline. Of course, that is more than can be said for Xaro. They’ve changed his appearance, they’ve changed his sexuality, they’ve changed his background. There is nothing left of the character in the books except his name, so why on earth wasn’t it changed? Jeyne’s name was changed to Talisa, after all.

So far, I am also completely underwhelmed by these invented characters, such as Talisa and “Xaro”. They are just not good creations, so what are they doing there? Yes, Talisa is replacing a character that was not very fleshed out, but still, why replace her with a trite cliché? “Xaro” is replacing an interesting character with a completely new, completely uninteresting one. Why?

Last season, we saw the episodes get stronger and stronger. This one took a dive beneath the two opening episodes of the season and a mile below episode three.

On Straying and Staying True

So, there we have episode four, with some real highs and real lows.

Talisa…well, the less said, the better, really. This is of course the scene I wrote about here. I am thrilled they changed the name of the character since they changed her back-story so radically. I am not thrilled with that cliché-filled scene. It just sucked, plain and simple. Not the acting, just the concept of the scene and the words being said.

Qarth…gone is the awe-inspiring, magnificent reception, not to mention the fairy-tale like way that Dany’s meeting with the three wise…well, the two wise men and the wise woman plays out well ahead of her getting to Qarth itself. There’s something very archetypal to Dany’s journey in A Clash of Kings and they have lost those elements entirely. I am also disappointed in Dany’s reaction here. Or rather, it may make sense in this desperate situation, but she just doesn’t get this aggressive in ACoK.  She’s still very much caught between that timid young girl she started out as in the first book and the young woman driven by magic and destiny to follow the red comet. I feel the way they decided to play this out sacrificed the actual storyline for some cheap drama.

Xaro…well, he’s not Xaro, in any way, shape or form. Why didn’t they just change the name of this character as well? He’s every bit as different from book Xaro as Jeyne is from Talisa. His appearance, his background and, most significantly for the rest of the storyline, his personality. He’s a warrior. I am dubious we’ll be seeing him crying at will to persuade Dany. Are they keeping his sexual preferences? I think it would be particularly inappropriate to change that and still keep the character’s name. But even with what we’ve sen so far, they really just should have renamed the character if they absolutely had to cast and write him so completely differently. And they had to go and invent some weird ritual…

The scene, as it is, is well acted. I just wish we got the scenes from the books and the characters from the books. Added scenes from non-PoVs are one thing, completely altered scenes another. I did thoroughly enjoy the performance of the Spice King, however. His correction of Dany’s pronunciation was priceless and I feel he really captured the way the Qartheen see themselves as so superior to everyone else.

This episode also has some wonderful examples of what happens when they really nail adapting scenes from the books. The scene with Tyrion and Lancel is hilarious, with great performances from both actors. You can’t help feeling sorry for Lancel here; he really doesn’t stand a chance, caught between Cersei and Tyrion.  And, of course, the final scene is everything it should be. Yes, they are conflating two events, but I am so relieved they really went for it with the shadow birth.

The Joffrey and Sansa scene is very good, both of them act it really well. I also think the added scene with Joffrey and the prostitutes was a good way of showing what the slightly older Joffrey might get up to; its clear from he way he orders Sansa stripped during the beating that there’s a sexual component to his sadism. I also liked the Harrenhal scenes quite a bit, both the way they handled the torture (even if I couldn’t actually watch that) and the terror and the brief interaction between Tywin and Arya. Again, they are conflating a lot of different scenes, but I think it kept true to the core of those scenes. I guess that is what I ultimately look for: does the adaptation stay true to the spirit of the storyline in the books? For the lows of this episode, I don’t think it does. For the highs, it very much does.

Putting the Cliches Back In?

There’s one scene from the first four episodes—it is at the start of the fourth, following on from the amusing (in a good way!) opening scene—that keeps cropping up in my mind. Unfortunately, not because it is such a good scene.

When I first saw it, I was focused on one particular aspect of the scene—a character that appears to not just have been changed but in fact replaced—and I didn’t really think too much about the character interactions and the dialogue.

But since then, I’ve kept coming back to it and I’ve realized that the character (at least based on that scene)  comes across like a horrible fantasy cliché spouting unsubtle social commentary; on the whole, it feels like something that GRRM would not have written in a million years. In fact, all I can think of now is how well the character would fit into the Wheel of Time…

Alas, they’re not from the Two Rivers.

(Actually, the comparison isn’t necessarily fair to the Wheel of Time, because in that setting the character would have had somewhat more reason to act as they do.)

Season Two Thoughts

Now that Elio and I have seen (and commented on together) the first four episodes of Game of Thrones for the second season, I am starting to get more of a grip on what it is I am troubled by in terms of the adaptation. First of all, I don’t think I can stress enough that I am really only interested in the show as an adaptation. When I know the source material as well as I do in this case, I just cannot see it in any other way. I want to see the characters that I love (or love to hate), I wanted to see the scenes that I love (or dread). In the case of A Song of Ice and Fire, I also do not mind being shown aspects of the story that the strict PoV-structure left out of the book. But I want those additions to fit with what is established, not contradict it.

The first season was, overall, very faithful. With the second season, I think we’re seeing a focus on adapting what the writers and producers feel are the themes of the story rather than, necessarily, the events of the story or the approaches to how the story is told that GRRM uses. Now, as I have said before, some changes are inevitable. Compressions of story are an obvious example of such. Similarily, some aspects of the storytelling in the books cannot be preserved, such as the PoV-structure.

But, I do feel that there’s also a desire to rush the story and the characters, perhaps because they do not have faith in the patience of the TV audience. One major aspect of how GRRM constructs his story is that everything is not what it at first seems to be. Both situations and characters have revealed themselves as being very different from the initial perception. Look at the story of Rhaegar and Lyanna and how it has changed over time. Look at the initial impression of Jaime in the books and the image of Jaime that the reader has after A Storm of Swords.

On the show, we don’t get this. Well, Rhaegar and Lyanna are all but gone, but Jaime is a good example still, being a more complex figure right off. Perhaps it adds something right now, but you lose something in the long run. It feels like a short-term, slightly cheap gain. It also looks as if Margaery is getting a similar treatment, alongside a host of other changes to that character.

In the same vein, I find myself concerned with the desire to insert early pay-offs, such as another look at the Others. Its part of the genius of A Song of Ice and Fire that after the prologue in A Game of Thrones, you get to wait and wait for them to reappear. Similarly, we see the dragons born at the end of the first book and we think they’ll be game changers. We’re not prepared for that not providing an instant pay-off, as so often is the case in other books.

Overall, I don’t think I will enjoy the structure of the second season as much as I enjoyed the first. I know I will enjoy individual scenes where the characters and the dialogue are almost straight from the books, but as a whole I think it will be weaker than it could have been. Some parts will, I fear, be particularly painful to watch as they bear little to no resemblance to the actual story and, in some cases, the actual characters. But I am still hopeful that in terms of individual scenes, the good may come to outweigh the bad. At least, comparing episodes one and two to three and four, things were definitely looking better in the later two episodes in terms of providing more scenes straight from the books.

On “The Song of Achilles”

I really ought to write a proper review, but with everything being so busy right now, I don’t feel as if I can collect my thoughts enough. But I do need to write something.

This Friday, Elio and I picked up the Kindle edition of Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles on a recommendation from a friend. Now, retellings are a sensitive business for me. There’s a couple of stories—or rather, story cycles—that I feel so strongly about that the “wrong” interpretation will, without fail, set my teeth on edge. One such is the Arthurian legends. Another, even more dear to my heart, is the Trojan cycle. These story cycles are among the first stories I remember reading (or having read to me) and they are at the heart of my love for myth and history. If I had not fallen in love with them, I don’t think I would be a reader of fantasy or a student of classical history.

So, perhaps it is not so strange that I have a very strong image in my head of what the “true” versions are like. It’s obviously not completely set in stone, the variability is part of the stories, but there are certain things that are unthinkable for me. For example, I am very fond of—I probably do still love, in fact—Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon. Yes, it does have its issues, but even before reading Bradley my version of the Arthurian legend involved a misunderstood rather than evil Morgana. I was also convinced that Guinevere was a no-good blonde. And Lancelot and Arthur were definitely more than just good friends.

Of course, I also love Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry—perhaps my favourite books of all time—for even though I struggle a bit with Jennifer the relationship between Arthur and Lancelot and the love triangle as a whole is so heartbreakingly beautiful. So, there is absolutely room for variations. But sometimes, it goes horribly wrong. The Arthurian example would be Stephen Lawhead’s increasingly preachy Christian take on the legend—even if I did like the first book and his very Minoan Atlantis—and the Trojan example would, oddly enough, be Bradley’s The Firebrand. Same writer, different legend, and a take on it that outright offended me. As with Mists, she’s coming at the story from a female-centric point of view, but the portrayal of Achilles in The Firebrand as a savage killer just made me furious.

Since then, I have been exposed to a few retellings of the Trojan cycle in various mediums and all too often I see the same trend. Achilles is just a killing machine, no attempt is made to understand him in the context of his setting.

Fortunately, since some years back there’s Eric Shanower’s brilliant and superbly researched Age of Bronze comic. It leaves out the gods but works at getting everything else in there and, most crucially, has to far portrayed Achilles in a wonderful way. It also, thankfully, does not shy away from his relationship with Patroclus. It still has a long way to go before it even reaches the start of the Iliad proper, but I have every confidence in Shanower’s handling of the characters.

And now, now there is another story as well. The Song of Achilles. Given my worries about retellings, I approached the sample that we downloaded with some trepidation, but after reading it I felt both relief and excitement. This was going to be a very good read. So, we bought the whole thing and I dove in.

A few chapters later, I reached the point where I knew that this was perfection. This book would not disappoint. Its a key scene, where Patroclus (who is the narrator of the book) tells Achilles of why he was exiled, of the boy he accidentally killed as the boy tried to take something from him. It leads to the following exchange:

“What would you have done?” I asked.

Achilles tapped a finger against the branch he sat on. “I don’t know. I can’t imagine it. The way the boy spoke to you.” He shrugged. “No one has ever tried to take something from me.”

“Never?” I could not believe it. A life without such things seemed impossible.

“Never.” He was silent a moment, thinking. “I don’t know,” he repeated, finally. “I think I would be angry.” He closed his eyes and rested his head back against a branch. The green oak leaves crowded around his hair, like a crown.

“I think I would be angry.” Oh dear. Oh no. Such heartbreaking tragic irony. “The rage sing, oh goddess, of Achilles the son of Peleus…” I knew at that point that Miller really got the story and got these characters and the rest of the book just confirmed this. Its a wonderful read. The concept of tragic irony, so loved by the Greek playwrights, is employed with consummate skill throughout the book and it builds up towards the inevitable end, making you feel so much more for the characters.

The only thing I could possibly have wished for—but that’s me and my particular love for the hippoi athanaoi—is for more of a presence of Xanthos and Balios. Patroclus, in Miller’s version, is not their charioteer as his presence on the battlefield is limited—the only really significant departure that she makes from the source material—and thus we do not get the poignant scene of the horses grieving for his death as a precursor to Achilles’s own grief. But its a small, small quibble in the grand scheme of things and I can always read Judith Tarr’s “Classical Horses” for my Xanthos and Balios fix.

I am now thinking I will definitely be taking another semester of Literature, perhaps even going straight for a 1-year Masters, just to get the opportunity to write something on this wonderful book. Because I think it will be stuck in my head for a long, long time.

Favourite Added Scenes

On the train back from the filming in Stockholm yesterday, my head was just full of A Song of Ice and Fire & Game of Thrones. I kept coming up with questions I would have loved to discuss, though in most cases the answers would have been too lengthy. One that ended up occupying my mind quite a bit was what my favourite added scenes were during the first season.

Because, yes, I do have quite a few. If a scene truly felt as if it could have been in the book if a character had been a point of view, then I think it really brought something special to the tv show.

First on the list would be anyhing with Harry Lloyd. This is not just because Harry Lloyd is (or was, rather—big sigh) the most beautiful actor on the show, but because he really both became Viserys and extrapolated on Viserys in a wonderful way. I may be a little swayed by the fact that we know he read the books and became quite the fan, but I think it is just as likely that his love for the books is what really allowed him to take the character as written and expand on him without changing him. He is, by far, the best casting choice in the series so far and his performance changed my opinion on Viserys. I no longer seeing him as just a mad villain, I really empathize with his plight. That doesn’t excuse his treatment of Dany (or anyone else), but I can really see where he was coming from.

Next on the list would be the private scene with Loras and Renly. I really wish they hadn’t changed Renly, but I think it was a great choice to show the two characters in private. I think it will make the impact of Renly’s untimely demise that much stronger and I hope they play it so that Loras’s reaction is in part driven by the guilt of having encouraged Renly to aim so high. Again, I am perhaps somewhat swayed by the very thoughtful interpretations of Loras and Renly by Finn Jones and Gethin Anthony.

While I loathe the brothel sexposition scene with Littlefinger as an overly obvious, mustache-twirling villain laying out his plot, I really like the scene between Littlefinger and Varys in the last episode. Conleth Hill’s voice is so perfect that I heard it in my head when reading the last chapter of A Dance with Dragons and I think the way he and Littlefinger dance with each other in this scene is quite fabulous. Its perhaps true that they say more than they would, but I think it works.

Honorable mentions go to the farewell scene between Ned and Jon because they snuck in the “promise” part and to the scene between Jorah and Rakharo.

The Cersei Rewrite

Worst after-effect of the first season? The atrocious portrayal of Cersei has caused the Cersei-apologists to crawl out of the woodwork in full force. Poor girl is apparently just the victim of the men around her.

Sure, it wasn’t easy growing up with Tywin Lannister as a father. Sure, being a twin underscored the inequality between men and women in a particularly strong fashion way for her when Jaime got to do things she wasn’t allowed to do.

The normal reaction to that is still not to sleep with your twin, to hurt your infant dwarf brother or to murder your best friend as a young teenager. Cersei is not normal, there’s something wrong with her. She’s not quite as much of a psychopath/sociopath as Joffrey, but she’s clearly lacking impulse control and ability to empathize and sympathize with others. She is also very self-centered and focused on what is good for herself, with her children and (sometimes) Jaime being viewed as extensions of herself.

The worst disservice of the first season was the scene between Cersei and Robert. Cersei was never truly prepared to give Robert a chance, even before he said Lyanna’s name. If he had not done so, she would still have continued to sleep with Jaime, just as she did on her wedding day. Maybe she would have accepted having a child by Robert, its possible, but she would have happily continued to cheat on her husband without any remorse whatsoever. Sure, Robert would also have been cheating on her, but whatever one thinks of that, the fact remains that Robert’s whoring around would never risk any bastards being passed off as legitimate heirs. But such small considerations aren’t allowed to get in the way of Cersei’s own pleasure.

Was she the only one making the marriage bad? No, Robert did his part too, but I don’t think he would have been coming drunk to her bed if she hadn’t been insisting on demonstrating her disgust with him every time after their wedding night. And they both had a duty to produce heirs, so its not like he could just stop trying. He could have been a good deal more considerate, but ultimately he would have had to sleep with her now and then, even if she insisted on just lying there.

I expect the second season will continue this ridiculous rewrite of Cersei judging by how the trailer has her talking about her sins and sounding remorseful. In the end, I don’t really care that she’s unwatchable on the show, but I do care when people bring it into their discussion of canon-Cersei.

Who is a very unpleasant and, yes, a pretty evil person.

The Little Details

As part of the promotion of season two of Game of Thrones, HBO is using the phrase “The North Remembers”. I am ... disappointed by this, because I feel it loses a lot of impact this way.

If you have read all the books, you’ll know that this phrase does not appear in A Clash of Kings. In fact, a quick check suggests that it is never used before A Dance with Dragons. I do not think this is a coincidence. This phrase shows up at the darkest hour for the North and the Starks. It promises that the wrongs that have been done will be set right or at least that someone will attempt to set them right.

The show is many, many gruesome events away from this darkest hour. The phrase does not have the same resonance when all it really can refer to is the death of Ned. It should have come at a time of true despair for the future of the North and the Starks, that is what made it so very powerful in A Dance with Dragons.

In a way, it represents my core concerns about the show: I get the impression that there’s a desire to provide viewers with faster gratification than the books actually deliver. I am not saying viewers should have to wait as long between each season as the books took to write, but it seems even a season a year isn’t fast enough. There’s got to be more action, Dany’s got to be more assertive right off, her dragons have to be played up as a threat, we have to actually see the Others again, and so on.

I am sure many readers thought that A Game of Thrones promised dragon-fuelled action and invading Others in the very next book, but its part of the uniqueness of the books that this did not happen.

Hoping for 50/50

It seems each Game of Thrones preview just has to alternate between making me go “oh, this might be really good” and “ugh, just ugh”. But oh well, as long as its alternating I suppose I’ll mostly enjoy the season. Brienne’s going to be great, though unfortunately the early scenes with her in Renly’s camp will be spoiled by the horribly miscast Margaery. I suspect she will be every bit as changed, and not for the better, as Cersei.

It really it starting to seem as if they feel more of a need to change up the female characters, just look at Shae for example. And not to mention “Jeyne”, of course, though that change seems largely motivated by wanting Robb around more. Hopefully, if the series goes on beyond the Red Wedding, they don’t feel a need to keep using Jeyne because she’ll just be taking up space at that time. Its true enough that George occasionally brings a very minor character to the forefront in a surprising way, but given the amount of characters he is juggling in the later books I suspect we won’t see much of Jeyne in the real story.

Of course, that likely won’t stop the show from cutting later introductions in favour of already established characters. Just look at the lack of Tullys this season. Will we get more Greyjoys when the time comes to that? Maybe not. Not to mention the Dornish. But maybe that’s just as well, I am dreading what the casting folks will get up to with them as I feel particularly proprietary about my favourite part of Westeros.

On Adaptations

Over the last few days, Elio and I have been working our way through the bonus materials on the Game of Thrones Blu-ray that HBO kindly sent to us. There are some really nifty add-ons that fill in some of the information the show couldn’t convey about the history of Westeros and so on; I just hope they don’t get watched just by those who have read the books anyway. Today, we watched GRRM’s commentary on episode 8, The Pointy End, and since George comments on some of the changes from the books and from his first draft of the script, it led to another discussion (and some more thinking) about the changes between the books and the show.

Obviously, I know there are a lot of people who think having a “purist” outlook on an adaptation is silly. Well, whatever, is what I say to that. Its a perfectly valid stance. In my case, I am much more of a reader than a TV or movie watcher. There are some shows and a few films I love but as a medium I would pick books over TV/movies any day. As such, my interest in Game of Thrones is purely as an adaptation of a series of books that I love. I want to see as much of what is in the books as possible and how well (or not) the show adapts the books is what it stands and falls on for me. Others will obviously have a different viewpoint, but that is mine and it informs everything I say or write about the show.

Of course, it is silly to imagine that an adaptation can be 100% faithful. You are going from one medium to another. As much as I love the inner monologues of certain POVs, they cannot be replicated, except in some cases where voice-over narration might have worked (something which I am actually rather fond of). Budget, of course, is another inescapable reality. I do mourn that the look of the show is so much less grand than the books, but its one where I cannot fault anyone. I wish it looked like the LotR movies where there are scenes of such breathtaking beauty that you really get the sense of Middle-Earth, but obviously that was impossible.

But what I do take issue with are changes that are driven by how things usually are done on TV or changes done because it was a cool idea. In The Pointy End, for example, there’s the fight where Drogo kills Mago. Cool scene? Maybe, I haven’t watched it (too squeamish). But that sort of change is utterly unnecessary and potentially damaging for the story in the long run since the character does reappear. Then there’s the issue of casting, of course. Actors aren’t factory-made robots that look exactly like what is described in the books. But I see no reason not to cast at least someone who is ... in the ballpark in terms of their physical appearance. However, even worse is when a character is radically rewritten such as in the case of Cersei. There is no justification for that sort of change and no way you can argue that it is necessary. I think it is largely an effect of not leaving Cersei and Jaime out as POVs from the start as is the case in the books; suddenly there was a perceived need to flesh Cersei out and it all went straight to hell.

I should add that there are some added scenes that do work for me. When the characters involved feel as if they are the characters from the books and we’re seeing a scene that we can guess did happen off-stage (since the POV structure means some things can never be shown), then I think it can work really well to give some additional depth to a character. But those need to be done in moderation and they shouldn’t take precedence over canon scenes. And when they are utterly out of character, such as Cersei’s and Robert’s talk about their marriage (the most atrocious scene of the first season, despite great acting from Mark Addy), then its a travesty, especially as one considers the pivotal scenes that didn’t make it into the show.

When you praise a book for being unusual, you really shouldn’t pick and choose what aspects of unusual you are going to keep in your adaptation. Jaime and Cersei were left out as POVs to start with for a reason, we weren’t supposed to get their side of the story just yet, just as Robb isn’t supposed to be on stage as much in the second season as it appears he will be. These changes are not necessary for the medium, they are just conventional. A Song of Ice and Fire makes a point of defying conventions, so by caving into them the show is letting the material down.