What I’ve learned from George R.R. Martin

George R. R. Martin photoI’m not a fan of George R.R. Martin’s style of writing, but I adore the man as a person. He has the courage to say out loud what many people would sweep under the rug.

Recently George R.R.  Martin told journalist Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times that although his books are epic fantasy, they are based on history. He said,  “Rape and sexual violence have been a part of every war ever fought, from the ancient Sumerians to our present day.” 

“To omit them from a narrative centered on war and power would have been fundamentally false and dishonest, and would have undermined one of the themes of the books: that the true horrors of human history derive not from orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves. We are the monsters. (And the heroes too.) Each of us has within himself the capacity for great good, and great evil,” Martin said.

According to Martin, “History is written in blood, and although Westeros – the fictional continent where the series is set – is ‘not the Disneyland Middle Ages,’ it is “no darker nor more depraved than our own world. The atrocities in A Song of Ice and Fire, sexual and otherwise, pale in comparison to what can be found in any good history book,” he said. (End of quoted text.)

George is right, and he is not advocating or glorifying rape, in fact just the opposite. If you want to inject realism into a work of fantasy you must address uncomfortable realities that human history has shown to exist. The worst aspects of human nature are portrayed in our everyday life—things I could never dream up. Society at large is blasé about it—unless it affects one personally, it may as well not exist.  Rape in the military is a fact, friends, not a myth, and that is just within our own forces. Not only does she live in a danger zone while in the military, a  woman soldier also knows she faces rape and torture if she is captured by the enemy—that is the first step in breaking her. Many men also suffer sexual assault and torture for the same reasons, whether we wish to acknowledge their pain or not.

Image courtesy of CBS News, and Getty

Image courtesy of CBS News, and Getty

Consider this disgusting item of current news that only rarely makes it onto the nightly newscast in our town: To be a young girl in Borno, Nigeria is an invitation to be kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery. More than 200 young girls are living this nightmare right now, because an extremist group, Boko Haram, who is against educating women, goes door to door, breaking into their homes and boarding schools and taking the girls from their beds. This is done as a way to maintain political control and  keep their fathers in line. The families of the stolen children are powerless against these brutal thugs.

Do you think these schoolgirls are not being raped and tortured?  If so, you are living in a dream. The leader of these radicals publicly flaunts their intentions to sell or marry all of them, bragging to all the media that they do it because God told them to.  They loudly proclaim that they will sell all of these girls, and believe me, the world is full of buyers just waiting for such an opportunity. So far, 20 lucky girls have escaped their captors.

If I was writing modern literary fiction or political potboilers, I would have tossed out such an unbelievable plot–it would have seemed completely unrealistic–I mean, a religious cult of pedophiles and rapists systematically kidnapping 200 girls, claiming divine privilege, and no one is able to stop them? Come on, get real.

A 19th-century depiction of Galileo before the Holy Office, by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury image courtesy Wikipedia

A 19th-century depiction of Galileo before the Holy Office, by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury image courtesy Wikipedia

I suspect God would prefer we  humans didn’t give him the credit for our evil, thank you very much.

So what have I actually learned from George R.R. Martin? I have learned to be true to reality in my writing or my story will never hold water.  Draw from history, mash it up all you want, but don’t deny the roots and don’t turn away from the ugly truth. Also, we must  never forget that there is as much beauty to draw from as there is pain, for it is that contrast that makes an intense story compelling.

No work of fiction will ever be more horrific or glorious than the true history of our humanity and inhumanity. We authors will only scratch the surface, and if that small scratch makes a reader slightly uncomfortable, the reader can easily retreat to their ivory tower and read bland romance novels written by someone other than me or George R.R. Martin, where everything is rainbow perfect and happy endings are guaranteed.

If you were privileged to be allowed to learn to read, that is.


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10 responses to “What I’ve learned from George R.R. Martin

  1. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. About how we like our fiction neat and tidy and THAT is truly the mark of forgettable fiction. It’s safe, comfortable and does absolutely nothing to push our boundaries and remind us of all the vagueries implicit in the human condition.


  2. Martin is correct about the sex in war throughout history. It’s the same reason that The Dream Land has a fair amount of sex and violence (more in Book II than I and more in Book III than II): because, unfortunately, that sort of thing happens.
    So is it art’s job to depict life as it happens, unfortunate events or not, or to promulgate a kinder, gentler life for the audience to emulate? Said another way, is the job of the Arts to entertain or to teach?


  3. @Stephen–I always learned the most when I was most entertained, and loved those teachers and professors the most. That said, I don’t write my novels with a specific agenda as I don’t believe it is my job to do anything more than tell a good story, but I do sometimes air uncomfortable subjects. A tale of people who never struggled would be quite boring, and that is what makes your own work so entertaining!


    • Few readers seem to like a work of fiction that pushes a particular message. I always [try to] let characters act for themselves, which may include the pushing of an agenda–but that is seldom MY view of how society should be. I am apolitical to a fault.


  4. alexandradavidoff

    George R.R. Martin has a point, and so do you Connie. Fiction that successfully portrays the human condition cannot shy away from tough to read plot material.


  5. Very nicely done, Connie. I DO happen to be a George RR Martin fan (you may have noticed) and while the bad stuff is awful, I love it for the realism of it. I also love that Martin lets bad things happen to good people. That’s how it is–the good guys don’t always win.


  6. Pingback: Game of Thrones Fans Say NO to Rape! | Rachel Tsoumbakos