MTWR 12:20-2:20 PM
The course will approach George R. R. Martin’s wide-ranging A Song of Ice and Fire from the standpoint of character and imagination. Much has been made of the sex and violence in the series. Critics note how different the series is from the work of J. K. Rowling and J. R. R. Tolkien. Interestingly, most of these points of comparison refer to stories we usually categorize as Young Adult Fantasy, a category which at first blush would seem wholly inappropriate for any discussion of A Game of Thrones and subsequent volumes in the series. But the mention of Tolkien and Rowling by the critics and reviewers is perhaps more natural than we might assume if we stop and consider that Martin’s imaginative world features an epistemology, or set of ground rules, similar to the more familiar fantasy titles.
The word epistemology refers to our sense of what is possible and not possible—the assumptions underlying what we consider rationally true or not true. If I toss a pencil in the air, what direction will it fall? Down or Up? When we roll our eyes at that question we are like the characters at the beginning of A Song of Ice and Fire. We assume certain things are possible and certain things most assuredly are not possible. Martin ultimately takes us on a quest that gradually expands and deepens not only the epistemology of the fantasy universe but perhaps also our own.
Ultimately, fantasy literature privileges the world of the imagination over the world of empirical Newtonian science. Novels by authors like Rowling, Meyer, Pullman, Lewis, Tolkien, Barrie, and Baum, even if aimed at a younger audience than Martin’s, have the same mission as Martin: we are gradually introduced to an unfolding mystery where we have to expand our sense of what the word nature or human means, not to mention reality.
Especially important to A Song of Ice and Fire is the opportunity fantasy literature has to give us perspective on cultural history and the legacy of the past. Across Martin’s epic series we take stock of what western culture has done with class, gender, family, love, and spirituality. Fantasy literature (e.g., Spenser’s The Faerie Queene in Shakespeare’s time) has tended to allegorize the present but it does so (as Martin demonstrates) with a command of, and concern for, how we arrived at where we are. Fantasy literature may seem obsessed with magic (not to mention heroic types), but it is keenly alert to race, violence, war, religion, and sexuality—with powerful cautionary implications for the thoughtful reader.
Not unlike its classic and recent forbears (from Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and Peter Pan to The Hunger Games and Ender’s Game), A Song of Ice and Fire is especially memorable for its portraits of certain classic types of character: children or young adolescents (usually at a cusp point in their development), parents (usually unable to cope with their children), teachers (including their educational institutions), heroes (sometimes unlikely), misfits (characters who may be adults but who are left out the way children feel in an adult world), monsters (friendly or violent or both, lovable or horrific or both), and villains (usually more like bullies than ideological adversaries). We follow the youngsters as they come of age which has something to do with accepting and navigating the moral complexity of a world where right and wrong are meaningful distinctions, but people wrestle with the implications of making a moral decision. Knowing a friend from an enemy is especially complex.
Accordingly, children are not able to stay children. They must grow up in regard to taking responsibility. They have to master skills and accumulate knowledge. The learning curve of young people is an important part of fantasy literature. The other categories (parents, teachers, monsters, misfits, and bullies) become blurred as parents struggle—and fail—to do the right thing because they are human, misfits struggle to fit in (or to thrive without fitting in), and bullies struggle when the shoe is on the other foot and they too become victims. These perennial categories, so to speak, are just as important in Martin’s fantasy universe as they might be in J. K. Rowling or C. S. Lewis.
The special challenge of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series is that we are drawn into a world more dangerous than most of the fantasy constructs we usually encounter. The maiming, killing, and sacrifice on the part of Martin’s characters are motifs that set his magical realm apart from even that of Collins’s The Hunger Games, Card’s Ender’s Game, Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, or Pullman’s His Dark Materials. The young people in A Song of Ice and Fire are confronted with the horror and tragic finality of decisions which are truly life-and-death. Moreover, sex is not hinted at here as it might be in Philip Pullman, Stephanie Meyer, or Suzanne Collins. The topography of human sexuality in Martin’s series is raw, explicit, and gratuitous. Adults, in fact, would know better than youngsters the line some of the characters cross between sensuality and sexual assault. Undeniably, Martin’s series is marked off from the usual realm of imaginative literature precisely to the degree that it has a message best grasped by adults.
Martin may be suggesting that a realistic encounter with a deadly universe doesn’t change a very important lesson—and that lesson is aimed at jaded adults. Even as some parents may keep A Game of Thrones from their children (while allowing even Card, Collins, or Pullman), Martin wants us (the adult readers) to remember something remains the same across the boundaries of imaginative worlds. If we limit our epistemology—our sense of what is possible and not possible—we come of age only to lose that creativity which makes the human experience meaningful.
More to the point, if we feel that real death cancels out imaginative possibility, we have lost the “war” between good and evil (at least as we find those poles in fantasy literature). Fantasy literature celebrates the expanded sense of possibility we associate with the power of story, myth, and legend. As adults, we’re harder nuts to crack than our younger alter egos. They are more easily persuaded that magic remains possible. We (the older readers) have to weigh magic against the worst, most reprehensible tragedies of the human experience. Only on the other side of confronting hard facts will we re-engage a sense of wonder. The realm of super-nature must be earned. Martin gives the “adult” reader that earned experience through which tragedy is a stepping stone to a wider, more intuitive sense of what is possible and not possible.
Checklist for FANTASY Dynamics. Where in A Song of Ice and Fire do we see similar motifs?
Students are required to do the following:
The FOUR grades (three papers and one Blue Book) are averaged together for the final semester grade.
Proper Submission of Student Writing
Dr. Fields reserves the right to ask students to send him the computer files of their essays for archival purposes. He will keep the final Blue Book unless the student arranges to make a copy
Late Penalties and Illness
An assignment is penalized 10 points if submitted after the class period it is due. If late by two class periods, the essay is penalized 20 points. No late work may be submitted after the Final Blue Book exam. A class period is officially over when the instructor dismisses it. All late work must be submitted IN PERSON.
If students are too ill to submit their work personally, they should submit it when they return to class. They may avoid penalty for late submission by obtaining documentation from a relevant professional in a timely fashion (e.g., a doctor or the Dean of Students’ office). Absence for the sake of others requires similar documentation.
Attendance Policy (NO MORE THAN SIX ABSENCES; no absence is considered excused).
Roll is taken right away as soon as class begins. The instructor is not obliged to count people present who arrive late. A student with MORE THAN SIX absences automatically fails the course. The absences may be for illness, court date, school event, child’s illness—it doesn’t matter. ALL absences count towards this policy of no more than six. The purpose of documenting a given absence is only for purposes of avoiding penalty on a late paper.
Plagiarism and Proper Documentation (we use MLA)
Any use of someone else’s phrasing as the student’s own is plagiarism even if part or most of the essay is original. The charge of plagiarism remains operative even if the student changes some of the words to obscure the lack of originality or if the student provides partial documentation (for instance, mention of the source in the bibliography but not in the body of the paper).
Proper attribution and acknowledgement of sources includes in-body citing: identifying the title of the work and the author, using quotation marks or (if more than four typed lines, the passage should be set in an extra 10 spaces all the way down on the left), providing parenthetical page numbers, and otherwise ensuring that the reader clearly sees and knows the difference between material the student came up with and material borrowed from somebody else.
Plagiarism means an F (a “0”/no points) for the assignment and forfeiting of any remaining assignments and tests which now also receive a “0.” The student should NOT return to the course. The attendance policy is operative in this case as well and if the student incurs an F for plagiarism with a remaining six periods or more, those periods are forfeit and considered absences, which means an F for the course. The instructor must report the matter to the department chair, but the file will not go beyond the department unless the student persists in attending further class periods and/or does not accept the sanction. At that point, the instructor is obliged to report the matter to the Dean of Students and the problem becomes subject to university policy.