We put a tremendous amount of stock in endings. The concluding paragraph or a novel, or the final novel in a sequence of a dozen books, can secure an experience in our minds, or taint the hundreds or thousands of pages that came before. The logic is perverse: the longer the series—the more words preceding the last one—the more weight we give to that wrap-up. When Robert Jordan passed just prior to the completion of his then 11-book saga The Wheel of Time, the discussion was overwhelmingly about what would happen next: who would end his story, and how? Terry Brooks is nearing on the chronological conclusion of his decades-long Shannara series, a last volume that will have to support the 30 or so that preceded it.
It takes great courage to bring a series to an end… which brings us to A Song of Ice and Fire.
Out this week is Fire & Blood: 300 Years Before A Game of Thrones, the first of two volumes in George R. R. Martin’s faux-history of the dragonlords of House Targaryen, ancestors to its last survivor, young Queen Daenerys. It begins with Aegon the Conqueror and the forging of the Iron Throne, and carries through subsequent generations, and the family’s battles to keep it. It’s backstory that’s only been glimpsed before, and some of the most intriguing Westeros has to offer, set in the days when dragons ruled the skies.
It’s also a reminder that Martin’s world is a whole lot larger than the events of the book series proper, and that we may be putting too much weight on our desire to see it brought to conclusion. Yes, we’ve all been waiting seven years for book six, let alone the concluding seventh volume.Certainly, we want to know what happens. But does the ending define this particular saga? Does it matter at all who sits the Iron Throne, or whether a Stark rules in Winterfell?
Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings ended with a definitive, world-changing battle, one that drew a clear line between what came before and what would come after for the world, but it’s impossible to imagine a similarly conclusive ending for Westeros and Essos. Martin’s world, not unlike our own, just doesn’t seem to work that way: there’s no grand villain to defeat in order that virtue may reign—the so-called heroes of the series may have better hearts, but each has been tainted by violence and compromise. It’s a world that seems to defy conclusions (certainly the Targaryens thought that their reign was an end to history), but admits only of cycles of war interspersed with intervals of peace. Like seasons.
It’s impossible to know what Martin has in mind for the end of his series, though it’s fun to guess (even if you’ve seen some of it already played out on television). The books take some of their inspiration from the real-life Wars of the Roses, so that conflict might offer clues. The winners there (spoilers for English history), the Tudors, lasted for just over a century before handing power over to the Scottish House of Stuart. A hundred years (and change) isn’t a bad run by any means, and those years were consequential for England, Ireland, and much of the rest of the world, but it’s a mere breathe in the grand scope of human history. The point being: Martin may ultimately craft a brilliant, revelatory ending, but the history of Westeros isn’t much less complex than our own, and we’re seeing more of it all the time—and it’s not hard to imagine more beyond that.
With Fire & Blood, we’re finally getting a full accounting of the deeds of the Targaryen dynasty, all of which has only been alluded to before. And it’s every bit as cool as what we’re reading about in the present-day of the series proper. Martin’s earlier prequel better makes the point, though: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms collects Martin’s three novellas of Dunk and Egg, Dunk being future Lord Commander of the Kingsguard Ser Duncan the Tall, and Egg being future king Aegon V of House Targaryen. The characters have a tangential impact on the events of A Song of Ice and Fire, but their stories make for good reads even without the connection. Martin’s world-class worldbuilding means that there are stories even in the nooks and crannies of Westeros. Who needs an ending when there are so many other tales to be told?
This is all complicated by the existence of the Game of Thrones TV series. Though a relatively straight adaption of the novels initially, the show has increasingly become something of a parallel universe following the bassline of Martin’s novels, but increasingly charting its own course. We’ll be getting an ending there, though only Marin knows how it will track with whatever climactic conclusion he has in mind. And even then, the ending isn’t the end: come summer 2019, HBO will immediately pivot to a still-mysterious prequel series, another grand tale of Westeros.
Martin has also brought epic fantasy to the forefront of pop culture like never before. Much of fantasy over the past decades has been chasing Tolkien, but the popularity of Martin’s series has created a market for new types of fantasy, rife with ambiguity. It has helped pave the way or boost the popularity of fantasy authors present and future, who all seem to be in conversation with Martin in one way or another: the squabbling gods of N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy, the bird’s eye epic of Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty, the dense politics of Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky, the myth-making of Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle (similarly plagued by demands for a conclusion); these are just a few examples of the variety of fantasy worlds that have flourished in recent years. Those books don’t owe their existences to A Game of Thrones, of course, but just as the Lord of the Rings films reminded the mainstream that Elves and Orcs are cool, drawing them back to bookstores for more, so too has the popularity of Martin (on the page and onscreen) encouraged readers to look around for more worlds to explore.
We hunger for endings, but maybe it’s time to rethink our reliance on conclusions. Though we have confidence The Winds of Winter will eventually arrive, in the case of A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin may still ultimately leave us without a choice in that regard. That would be a little heartbreaking, I’ll admit, but will the lands of Westeros and Essos be any less rich if we don’t find out who wins this particular round of jockeying for the throne? That world is getting bigger all the time, and maybe it’s for us to stop demanding to see the ends of it, and see what we can see.
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