The women of “A Song of Ice and Fire”

So I’m on book 3 of George R. R. Martin’s series and enjoying it a lot, in a perverse sort of way, and the funny thing is I’m enjoying it despite disliking or outright hating most of the characters. Then I started making a list of the characters I liked–it was a short list–and I realized it consisted entirely of women and girls.

How often does that happen?

This series is medieval-era fantasy, and it is realistic in its treatment of medieval-era women. Life for these women SUCKED. They were bartered and sold in marriage alliances, where they bore children for unloved husbands until childbirth killed them or something else did–and those were the lucky ones, the ones with strong families to protect them, and in peacetime. In wartime, women were the “spoils” of battle and when their side lost, they were commonly raped by the victors. In “A Song of Ice and Fire,” it feels like I can’t go 20 pages without a woman being raped or threatened with rape (actual rapes happen offscreen thus far and are never lingered over; though sexual violence is an ever-present theme of these books, one never gets the impression the author savors it).

There’s a reason none of my fantasy novels are set in the medieval era. See above. Those are the reasons. The medieval era was a wretched time for women, and I’m not interested in writing about it. Similarly, very few romance novels, even historical romances, are set in medieval times.

The short list of characters I like and actively root for (so far):

Arya
Daenerys
Catelyn

And… that’s pretty much it. I guess I could throw Jon Snow in there, as well as half a dozen minor characters. I don’t want to explain why I like them because my answers would be full of spoilers, and I know some of you have not yet read (or watched) this series.

One thing that irritates me about this series but also fascinates me is that it reminds me of something I read that Lois McMaster Bujold wrote about “male romance” vs. “female romance.” And I hope I don’t misrepresent her comments because I don’t have them in front of me and I may be mixing them up with something else, but I think the idea is that when men write romance, they tend to write it as a tragedy. A man falls in love, and disaster results. For the sake of Helen, we had the Trojar War. Love destroys! But when women write romance, well, look at any romance novel. We represent it as positive and healing and good, a healing force rather than a destructive force.

“A Song of Ice and Fire” is a classic example of a male romance. Love destroys. I could name half a dozen examples of love-gone-wrong in this series that resulted in violence and war, beginning with Robert and Cersei, forced into a marriage alliance when each loved someone else. That’s not much of a spoiler since the book opens with that one, but there are more, including a brand new one that just surfaced among the Stark family.

And I think that’s why the series gets my goat so much. I write the opposite of this kind of thing. I write about the positive force of love, not about the destructive force of love. I believe in the positive force of love. So this fantasy series is running entirely counter to my beliefs. And then, you know, there’s all the rape.

On the other hand, it’s so amazingly well done. And though the world itself is misogynistic, the author clearly is not. His female characters, though they are confined to limited roles, are three-dimensional and real. Some are cunning, some are foolish. Some are strong, some are weak. Some are beautiful, some are plain. Yes! George R. R. Martin writes fantasy novels in which there are important female characters who are not young and beautiful. And because it is a time of war and traditional roles fall to pieces when a realm descends into anarchy, some characters are transcending the limited roles once prescribed them. Others use what powers are available to women of the day–their wits, their family alliances, in some cases their sexuality.

Somehow this treatment of women feels more real to me, and even more respectful, than some of the modern novels with their kick-ass, impossibly gorgeous Buffy-style heroines. The Buffy-style heroine is a fantasy, but George R. R. Martin’s fantasy-novel women are real.

Just, no one ever stick me in a time machine send me back to the Middle Ages. K?

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5 Responses to The women of “A Song of Ice and Fire”

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head with these books. I read the first 3 books, before I lost touch with the series many years ago, and still remember the three ladies you mentioned and Jon Snow. I might pick up the series again one day if it comes to a conclusion some time in my life time. LOL.

    • Amy Raby says:

      I know what you mean, I am really hooked on the series now and it’s fine for the time being because there are two more books waiting for me after this one. But what happens when I finish those? Do I have to wait a decade to find out what happens in the end? And it’s not as if the ending doesn’t matter–there are some characters in these books who really need to get their comeuppance, one way or another!

  2. I’m about where you are in A Song of Ice and Fire, and like you, I’m fascinated with the series; though, I acknowledge that it’s got some pretty dark parts.

    I’d never thought of the treatment of women in George R.R. Martin’s books in the terms you put them, but you’ve made a number of insightful points. I’d also say that Martin takes a similar approach with characters with disabilities or deformities like Tyrion.

    Having read parts of Martin’s Dreamsongs anthology, which chronicles his development as an author, I can tell you that he’s never written romance as resulting in something positive. In a way, if you’re okay with tragedy, he does it beautifully. Martin writes that since he found the love of his life, he’s no longer interesting in writing stories about unrequited love. In my opinion, since, he merely uses romance as a means to get a character to do what he needs them to do for the sake of the plot.

    By far, Arya is my favorite character, and I keep hoping that at some point, when she’s a little older, she’ll end up with Gendry. I also like Jon Snow, and I liked Eddard. But you’re right, most of the characters are horrendous; though, Martin has a knack for creating sympathy for them eventually.

    Out of curiosity, what do you think of Sansa, Daenerys, and Brienne?

    • Amy Raby says:

      That’s interesting. I knew nothing about Martin’s personal history and it’s interesting that he no longer wants to write stories about unrequited love. I guess that’s the tough thing about writing a series that takes decades to finish. We all change as we mature, so the person starting to write such a series is not the same as the person who will be ending it!

      My favorite character is Daenerys because of her strength and compassion and sense of justice. Arya is a close second. I would love to see Arya with Gendry, although I doubt Martin will be so kind to her :(. I like Catelyn pretty well, but her decision regarding the Kingslayer made no sense to me.

      Sansa–I didn’t like her at first because of her wrongly siding with Joffrey over her sister, and her general foolishness. But she’s a lot wiser now, and she’s certainly learned the hard way. I am not especially fond of her, but I find her sympathetic because she has suffered to an extent far beyond anything she ever deserved.

      Brienne–I like her a lot, but she’s a fairly new character to me, and I’m not sure she’s considered a major character since we’re never in her POV (so far). It’s likely she will end up being one of my favorites.

      Thanks for your comments!

  3. Brienne isn’t a major character, but I found Martin’s treatment of her as a female character interesting. I really appreciated that he gave some logical reason for her being able to march around in armor and stand a relatively equal chance against male knights, yet there were consequences for that advantage.

    And sadly, I think you’re right. Martin isn’t nice enough to his characters to let Arya and Gendry eventually hook up.

    Look forward to your next post!

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