There are certain books I could happily read over and over again. The Lord of the Rings comes to mind. I read it probably two dozen times by the time I reached junior high, and still return to its pages periodically.
A Game of Thrones is not proving to be one of those books. I’ve embarked on the reread I mentioned a while back, and parts of the book are a struggle to get through the second time. The cartoon villainy of Queen Cersei and Prince Joffrey grates, as does Ned Stark’s stiff-necked plan of disaster for his family and Sansa’s medieval mean girl act. So I’m not loving Game as unreservedly as I do Tolkien’s work, although I am deriving enjoyment from the paying renewed attention to the story lines of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, two characters I believe will feature very prominently in the final volumes, as well as the Tyrion Lannister, the Omar Little of this saga.
Speaking of Tolkien and rereads, I can’t remember if I previously linked to this piece by Gene Wolfe on The Lord of the Rings. I was rereading it last week and was moved to track down the name and full text of the C.S. Lewis poem that Wolfe quotes. The name of the poem is Cliché Came Out of its Cage and I think the second part is as apt a summation of the ‘Northern Thing’ as any I’ve come across. I think that though the ‘Northern Thing’ runs like a cold, clear stream through Tolkien’s writing of Middle Earth, it flows closest to the surface in The Silmarillion, which is more akin to the old sagas than to a novel like The Lord of the Rings.
Anyway, here are the lines I’m referring to:
“Think, then, that under heaven-roof the little disc of the earth,
Fortified Midgard, lies encircled by the ravening Worm.
Over its icy bastions faces of giant and troll
Look in, ready to invade it. The Wolf, admittedly, is bound;
But the bond will break, the Beast run free. The weary gods,
Scarred with old wounds the one-eyed Odin, Tyr who has lost a hand,
Will limp to their stations for the Last defence. Make it your hope
To be counted worthy on that day to stand beside them;
For the end of man is to partake of their defeat and die
His second, final death in good company. The stupid, strong
Unteachable monsters are certain to be victorious at last,
And every man of decent blood is on the losing side.
Take as your model the tall women with yellow hair in plaits
Who walked back into burning houses to die with men,
Or him who as the death spear entered into his vitals
Made critical comments on its workmanship and aim.
Are these the Pagans you spoke of? Know your betters and crouch, dogs;
You that have Vichy water in your veins and worship the event
Your goddess History (whom your fathers called the strumpet Fortune).”
By way of comparison, here is an excerpt from The Silmarillion:
“Last of all Hurin stood alone. Then he cast aside his shield, and wielded an axe two-handed; and it is sung that the axe smoked in the black blood of the troll-guard of Gothmog until it withered, and each time that he slew Hurin cried:”Aure entuluva! Day shall come again!” Seventy times he uttered that cry; but they took him at last alive, by the command of Morgoth, for the Orcs grappled him with their hands, which clung to him still though he hewed off their arms…”
Nor, despite Hobbits to mediate between the reader and Tolkien’s world, is the the sentiment missing from The Lord of the Rings. Call to mind Eomer before the walls of Gondor:
“…for he thought to make a great shield-wall at the last, and stand, and fight there on foot till all fell, and do deeds of song on the fields of Pelennor, though no man should be left in the West to remember the last king of the Mark. So he rode to a green hillock and there set his banner, and the White Horse ran rippling in the wind.
Out of doubt, out of dark to the day’s rising
I come singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
To hope’s end I rode and to heart’s breaking:
Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall!
These staves he spoke, yet he laughed as he said them. For once more lust of battle was on him; and he was still unscathed, and he was young, and he was king: the lord of a fell people.”
In case you’re not a giant Tolkien nerd like myself, here’s what the man himself meant by the ‘Northern Thing:
“It is the strength of the northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them Victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage. ‘As a working theory absolutely impregnable.’ So potent is it, that while the older southern imagination has faded for ever into literary ornament, the northern has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our own times.It can work, even as it did work with the goðlauss viking, without gods: martial heroism as its own end. But we may remember that the poet of Beowulf saw clearly: the wages of heroism is death.”
-from Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics