The New York Times has a really bizarre story up about The Game of Thrones television series, For ‘Game of Thrones,’ Rising Unease Over Rape’s Recurring Role. Here’s a flavor:
But, she added, “At a certain point, you get the feeling that you can’t walk through a chapter without expecting something horrible — almost always to a female character — just to prove that this is indeed a very scary and dark piece of literature.”
Mr. Martin said that his philosophy as a writer is to show and not tell, and doing so requires “vivid sensory detail.”
“When the scene in question is a sex scene, some readers find that intensely uncomfortable,” he said, “and that’s 10 times as true for scenes of sexual violence. But that is as it should be. Certain scenes are meant to be uncomfortable, disturbing, hard to read.”
This was a problem for many with the books when they first came out. Some readers did not appreciate the darkness which made the world that George R. R. Martin created much more gray in a metaphorical sense than traditional high fantasy, which J. R. R. Tolkien established the template for in The Lord of the Rings. But the coarse character of the narrative wasn’t by chance, Martin has explained in detail that he wanted to create a world with more ethical ambiguity, spare of magic, and a verisimilitude which belies the idea that fantasies can become pure escapism. Who would want to escape to the Dark Ages? Even the high and mighty have blood on their hands in Westeros, as they do in this world of ours.
But let us observe that in many ways Martin’s brand of morally complex fantasy which we may find “problematic” probably has much deeper cultural roots that Tolkien’s antiseptic world of immortal elves and unremittingly evil orcs. If you read the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Iliad there are many passages and events which modern sensibilities might find objectionable. For one, the ancients took slavery to be an uncontroversial institution. Their ethical universes were different. In many ways they were more brutal. Even the Germanic mythos which Tolkien drew upon to create Middle Earth was more harsh than the glow he gave to the Men of the West.
For those who wish a more elevated and clean high fantasy where the halls of the good are bright and shiny, and darkness is absolute in its opacity, there’s always Brandon Sanderson. He’s certainly a great writer who can deliver on plot which comes to life, and world-building which is exceedingly rich. But his characters also reflect more classical archetypes of good, and the sexuality is relatively absent, perhaps reflecting his Mormon religious orientation (his protagonists tend not to do the “dirty” unless their relationship has been solemnized somehow). Perhaps it says something about mainstream American culture today that they’d rather HBO produce programs that could pass muster in a Mormon seminary? Fantasy which glorifies the cultural values of someone like Amanda Marcotte or Michele Bachmann probably wouldn’t be too popular, but perhaps like salads on the menu at Wendy’s people just want it to be there to make them feel better about themselves when they indulge.*
P.S. I wonder how the shrinking violets who write for The New York Times would feel about Lord Foul’s Bane?
* I bring up Bachmann because conservative evangelicals have produced their own popular culture, which glorifies their particular values, explicitly to challenge the mainstream. To not put too fine a point on it most of it is crappy schlock, which even many evangelicals are embarrassed by. This isn’t to say that art has to be nihilistic, but there’s a fine line between imparting values in the context of a vivid artistic texture, and putting the moral of the fable before the fable itself.