A Whole New World

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by Alyssa Rosenberg


Over the course of July, I ripped through the four published books in George R.R. Martin's planned seven-book series, A Song of Fire and Ice. The story of a nation torn apart by civil war after the death of a king who killed the last ruler in a previous dynasty, the books begin tightly focused on a single holdfast and expand out across continents and cultures. The story also begins with one version of history that is gradually, vigorously contested. It's one of the most impressive feats of world-building I've ever read, but while I was discussing this with my friend Amber, she pointed me towards this passage in Kerry Howley's piece on cryonics:

Shortly after they met, Peggy and Robin decided to read each other's favorite works of literature. Peggy asked Robin to read "The Brothers Karamazov," and he asked her to read "The Lord of the Rings." She hated it. "I asked him why he loved it, and he said: 'Because it's so full of detail. This guy has invented this whole world.' He asked me why I hated it, and I said: 'Because it's so full of detail. There was nowhere for the reader to imagine her own interpretation.'"

I think the question of where that middle ground ought to live--particularly in a time where readers do more than imagine their own interpretations, they write them down and expand the universe themselves--is an important and interesting one for fantasy. I think one of the reasons I'm so deeply annoyed by the Twilight books is because the mythology is extremely thin. There's little for a reader to grab onto and spin off, because the sole organizing principal of the universe is Bella and Edward's relationship. Bella may be a Mary Sue, but if we don't identify with her, and even if we do, there's no other interpretive place for us in the universe.
The Harry Potter universe operates more on a middle ground. There are large swaths of the magical universe that J.K. Rowling leaves undeveloped. We know, from a throwaway line describing the scene at the Quidditch World Cup, that magic exists in America. But we have no idea what wizarding culture is like there. And it's relatively clear from the novels that wizarding culture fluctuates at least some with geography: Durmstrang has a different philosophy of magical education than Hogwarts does. And in Britain, the magical world's governance and culture mirror the British political system. That's a lot of ground rules for readers to play with and to use to guide their own understandings of the magical world. 

But there's also only one true version of history in Rowling's alternate universe. Voldemort is, without question, evil and misguided. James Potter may have been something of a teenaged asshole, but he was also a profoundly decent father and genuinely in love with his father. The alternate history we get from Severus Snape is a matter of inflection, not of truth.

To be honest, it's been a long time since I read the Lord of the Rings books, and they never lodged in my brain long enough to compel me back. (That said, I never made it through the Narnia series either, so I don't know what my indifference to the great rivalry of British fantasy says about me.) But I do remember them as operating on such a mythic, authoritative scale, with such enormously developed back-story that trying to fill in the gaps feels a bit like heresy. But I do find myself glued to the television every time TNT airs Peter Jackson's film adaptation of the trilogy, in part because I think Jackson imbued the characters with the kind of warmth particularly suited to a fan fiction age. Give Aragorn self-doubt, amp up Eowyn's role in the Battle of Pelennor Fields and eliminate some of what Tolkien saw as her sternness, and you've got inner lives that viewers feel like they can populate. I can certainly understand why folks who love the books might see this as unwise or heretical, but I can only say for me that it's effective.

George R.R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice novels are set in the same kind of world as Tolkien's: one where magic is possible, dragons live, more than one kind of man walks the earth, where men secure what of the land they can. It's a bit more advanced, and a bit less magical in a number of significant ways. But for me what really distinguishes it is that you have to make choices as you read the series. As we get to know not just the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, but the Free Cities, Slaver's Bay and the rest of Essos, you have to decide which city you like best (for me, it's probably the island kingdom of assassins, Braavos, at least so far), which person you think has the best claim to the throne of Westeros, which version of history you think is true. 

Martin's characters lay out a wide range of perspectives, facts, and experiences. It's not a universe where you can decide to read in a sexual orientation for a major character, for example (although a number of the characters do surprise a bit in that regard). But it is a story where you have to make a choice: is Jamie Lannister a good man or a bad man? Will Dany make a good queen? Was Eddard Stark a good father to Jon Snow? There are no right answers. And to me, that's the most personal kind of imaginative reading an author can set up for his audience. We'll walk away from the books with our own truths.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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