Fantastic Mr Martin
18th June 2012 - 12 Midnight Rachel Darling
The academic study of literature can sometimes make students forget quite why it was that they fell in love with reading in the first place. So Rachel Darling, from our Charing Cross Road branch, is very grateful to George R R Martin for helping her rediscover the simple joys of enthralling storytelling.
I cannot recall how I originally came across the Song of Ice and Fire series, but my teenaged self had already been in a permanent Tolkien-induced hangover for several years. Aged seven, The Hobbit was the first book I ever loved and although it took me several more years to handle The Lord of the Rings, Middle-earth had a profound effect upon me; looking for a patch was natural. I had tried several substitutes already but nothing resonated with me until I discovered A Game of Thrones.
The series, thanks in part to HBO, is now a runaway success and no working day goes past without my selling at least one volume. It was rather harder to get hold of in the late 1990s, the old pulp fantasy fiction covers cowering on the shelves, quite unlike the sleek current editions. I actually hid the books from my parents because the covers made the books look so disreputable, so... trashy, not at all the sort of thing someone who was applying for an English Literature degree should be reading.
Now, more than ten years later, I am half-way through an English Literature PhD which necessarily dictates a strict reading list. It has been years since I read any of the fantasy fiction which my teenaged self thrived on, in fact I do not read any fiction that does not relate to my thesis topic. The last 'indulgence' I can recall was the final Harry Potter book, and that was in 2007. I actually find that I now prefer non-fiction; I recently told my thesis supervisor that I would rather read a biography of Dickens than a Dickens' novel and he looked at me approvingly. But to me it's an almost painful admission because, ironically, the very love of literature which drove me to its study, also forced much of the joy of reading out of me. When I read I now look for and at specific things, I analyse and ultimately am unable to let the simple majesty of great fiction wash take me over. Sentence structure, metaphors, intertext and narrative frameworks occupy my reading brain often to the detriment of my own enjoyment.
The epic nature of Martin's saga means that it's a huge undertaking for the reader, as it is for Martin himself and although the first until the forth book was published. I had just started working in bookselling and chanced upon a damaged copy which I struggled through - the preceding five George-Martin-free years had seen a pronounced change in my reading habits and tastes and I had already begun to think of my MA reading list. So when after a further six years the fifth book, A Dance with Dragons, was finished, although I did find myself buying it, it was for my boyfriend rather than for myself. I had neither the time nor great desire to read it. Besides, by now I could barely remember what had even happened in the first volumes - watching the first season of HBO's adaptation felt less like a grand rediscovery than I might have thought and set me worrying about the dwindling power of my memory.
However a dull longing to recapture the feelings I'd had for the books as a teenager remained and it was this that led me, a month or so ago, to take first part of the new paperback on holiday with me. Published as two volumes in paperback (as book three also was) I thought I might just about make it through the first half, given that the holiday involved a deal of long train journeys. I remembered so little of the preceding book that it was only with a great many prompts and plot reminders from my boyfriend that I got through the book. But I did so in three days. And I started doing something I haven't done for years - I stayed up late, reading in bed. When reading for my thesis became my day job I neglected this habit: reading was work and sadly now I'd rather switch off and watch telly. Or sleep. But not with A Dance with Dragons, for the first time in a long time I was utterly captivated. I had to buy the second volume at the train station (I also still can't believe I bought a book with no Foyles staff discount!). This one I finished in two days. It was liberating to feel so intoxicated once again.
What is it about the series that enthralled me so? I don't know: I'm trying not to think about it too much. However I will say this... comparisons to Tolkien are understandable but, ultimately, incorrect because, for me, the most important factor in Martin's series is the lack of clear definitions of good versus evil. It's a very real, gritty narrative of what drives humanity - mainly power, sex and money - in a way that moralistic tales, like Tolkien's, are not. They are also hilariously witty, in parts, which I find surprising (and delightful) for a fantasy novel. But for me I think it's a comfort issue; a return to an old love and an old way of thinking: that reading shouldn't be a chore and that maybe I should remind myself of that more often. So thank you Mr Martin! Just, er, don't tell my thesis supervisor.
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