Apr 13 2011 6:00pm

A Game of Thrones: Fantasy Romance?

“Romance reader” is such a broad term, and one that is often mistaken and misused. To those not au fait with the many subgenera that exist within the wide and wonderful playground in which we so gleefully spend our time, too often a “romance novel” is considered synonymous with a “trashy novel.”

Category lines like those of Harlequin and its ilk are held up as exemplars of the field, and—if we’re lucky—best-selling tearjerkers from the likes of Nicholas Sparks are considered romance—and are then subsequently dismissed as “mere” romance.

This ignores the rich history of romantic fiction. From myths of Greek heroes to Arthurian legends, from Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron to Anna Karenina, The Scarlet Letter, and almost anything involving the French Revolution, timeless romances have repeatedly played out across the spectrum of Classic Literature. And what was Shakespeare if not a writer of romance? Although they may have been regarded as such as the time, these were certainly not cheap tales of Happily Ever After or Doomed Love; they were not simplistic wish-fulfillments of an average girl becoming a princess, or lust-fuelled accounts of unbearably hot vampires and their destined life mates. (Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that—at all.)

Such old school romance involved the great and the good, the mighty and the corrupt, offered up ruminations on the human condition and often required searing, but life-affirming, sacrifice. These are tales of eternal, elegiacal adoration—Orpheus and Euridyce, Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Isolde—hell, even Rhett and Scarlett—tales that cry out to us through the ages to be treasured and relived, their exquisite tragedies lamented again and again.

Aside from in fictionalized biographical accounts of historical figures (I, Claudius, anything by Philippa Gregory, etc.) and to a lesser extent in the overwrought family sagas of a Catherine Cookson or a Danielle Steele, it is difficult nowadays for the discerning romance reader to really get back to those early, rarefied roots.

Difficult, that is, until you realize there is still one arena of artistic endeavor in which stories that honor the traditions of romantic fiction, in all its terrible, beautiful glory, still exist: epic fantasy. And nowhere in the genre better exemplifies this than George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, the first in his wildly, almost fanatically successful series, A Song of Ice and Fire. First published in 1996, and finding its way to HBO on April 17, this sweeping account of love, honor, duty, envy, mystery and conspiracy—along with an inordinate amount of ill-fated eavesdropping carried out by one particular family of adorable and scapegrace children—hearkens back to the early notions of romance, where you are flung into a world of tenderness and treachery, devotion and deception, and can only hold on tight as you navigate every labyrinthine twist and turn, never quite sure where you’ll end up but breathlessly enjoying every minute of the ride.

Now, some readers hear the word “fantasy” and immediately conjure for themselves visions of wizards in pointy hats, elves, golden rings and long treks to Mordor. (Thank you, Tolkien.) They think sword and sorcery, dragons, or Dungeons and Dragons, and fear the stigma that comes along with being a proponent of such things. But the fact is, many who don’t consider themselves fantasy readers already are: Diana Gabaldon, Lynn Kurland, Nora Roberts, et so very al.

And while A Game of Thrones (and more particularly, its successors: A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords and A Feast of Crows, with a fifth novel, A Dance of Dragons—yes, okay, there are dragons here—due out this July) can certainly be termed sword and sorcery, it is so very much more than that.

On the magical front, it is worth noting that such arcana is barely even mentioned until about halfway through the first book. (And this is not a short book.) As for the swordplay side: sure, it’s here, and is detailed lovingly, but Martin’s prose is lyrical and yet spare, giving us gorgeously rendered battle reports without ever drifting into the overly-technical or getting mired down in his own tactical cleverness. The society in which we largely find ourselves, The Seven Kingdoms, is patriarchal, martial, and medieval. There are great lords and their corresponding serfs; there are young women forced into political marriages and, even more irksome, expected to enjoy ceaseless embroidery. There is a wicked queen and a war bidding fair; there are power mongers and corrupters of innocence; there are those who have been driven insane by grief or manipulation or addiction; there are warnings gone unheeded and frankly idiotic actions undertaken by those who should know better (Eddard and Catelyn: looking at you); and there is vulgarity, effrontery, and stone-cold reality flung at us with not a single care for any reader of more delicate sensibilities.

This is a chronicle of heroism and heartbreak, of valiance and vengeance; it is most assuredly not a Happy Ever After, but in between the intrigue and the incest, the confronting imagery, careless brutality and frustrating misrule, there is a core of decency, of nobility and, yes, of romance. Our characters are multi-faceted and complex, and many of them you will hate, even if they are nominally “good” (note to Sansa: die horribly), but even the irredeemable and venal have within them the capacity for love, whether it be for family, king, country or mate, and it is these depths of feeling that not only drive their frequently tragic actions but also, when it comes right down to it, the many-splendored plot.

A Game of Thrones kicks off A Song of Ice and Fire in soul-rending, heart-stopping form; it is not unalloyed delight but is utterly unforgettable and, like those passionate stories out of myth and legend that have since become part of the popular consciousness, will long endure. This book—and, indeed, series—is not really what one might term romantic fantasy, or even romance at all, in today’s parlance. But when ranged alongside the great, tempestuous epic romances of all time, Martin’s epic fantasy tale is most assuredly one for the ages.

This article and its ensuing discussion originally appeared on our sister site, Heroes & Heartbreakers.

Rachel Hyland is the Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine, cannot wait for April 17, and is pretty sure Sean Bean was born for the role of Lord Eddard.

Rob Munnelly
1. RobMRobM

Lots of good romances but some/most/all? don't end particularly well.
- Brandon and Cat
- Ned and Cat
- Drogo and Dany
- Tyrion and Shae
- Jon and Ygritte
- Sam and Gilly
- Ariane and the Kingsguard guy
- Renly and ?
- Cercei and ?
- Lyanna and ?
- Lysa and ?
- Sansa and ?
- Margaery and ?
- Brienne and ?

Maybe Arya and Gendry will be the ones to make it a go longterm. :-)

Valentin M
2. ValMar
And some smaller SPOILERS

Having listed these relationships RobM2, love ain't conquering all in Westeros and beyond... I can't recall but was Margaery's relationship confirmed not to be with her saddle?

Also, Dany's poster up there seems a bit harsh. Unless they've changed her character for TV, or my memory is failing me again.
Rob Munnelly
4. RobMRobM
@2 - Dany starts out quaky and afraid but showing signs of being a serious bad*ss by the end of Book One. So, while a touch harsh, it fits with her character in GoT and on TV too.

Also, no idea what Margaery has been up to other than getting hitched a lot. I'm inclined to think she's pure but awful unlucky.

@3. This is not the day you get lucky.
5. sixthlight
Sansa shouldn't die horribly! She's a teenage girl brought up on romance - in the sense you describe - who's had to learn very quickly and very nastily that the world usually doesn't work that way. She's done some stupid things, but that's not exactly an uncommon character trait in Martin's world. And she's learning.

And, seriously - in a book series with such charming characters as Gregor Clegane, Qyburn, Cersei Lannister, and Roose Bolton, *Sansa* is the one who comes in for death-wishes? Really?
William Fettes
6. Wolfmage
Interesting post. I will confess I'm one of those people who associates romance novels with a lower order of airport-pulp, and dare-I-say-it housewife-friendly trashy fanservice about muscles, swooning and glistening manhoods.

But if your definition is so broad as to include the Homeric epics, Greek tragedies, Shakespeare and I Claudius, it's pretty hard to see any insult in that company.

But then again, I do wonder whether it's really appropriate to define such varied and compositionally rich works by their romantic elements. After all, most of the great stories in history do involve some kind of romantic elemens due to the simple fact that passion, emotion, and love specifically, are such central features of the human condition.
Robin Bradford
7. RobinBradford
The books themselves aren't romances (defined by a Happily Ever After) but the romantic elements in the books are pretty complex and motivating factors for a lot of character actions. But, then, I like romance. Also not a housewife.
William Fettes
8. Wolfmage
As I said, I think romantic elements are part and parcel many of the best stories ever told. My point was not to denigrate romantic elements, but to question whether it's really meaningful to take extremely varied and multifaceted epic works, bore down on the fact that they contain elements of passion and love, and simply sweep them into the newly-made big tent of the ‘romance genre’.

The OP understandably wants to push back against the low reputation of romance novels. However, I’m uncertain whether you can do this when you make the threshold so low.

That said, I don't want to do a no-true-scottsman fallacy in reverse, and just limit romance, by definition, to weak fanservice. But I would politely suggest you're going to get a firmer footing in the mission to rehabilitate the genre if you start by focusing on works with romantic elements that are sufficiently strong that they plausibly define the work. For example, Georgette Heyer's many, many historical romances are far better than your typical Danielle Steel, so perhaps her books offer better candidates for re-appraising the romance genre.
Irene Gallo
9. Irene
With respect, you’re coming close to one of my pet peeves -- stating, “X isn’t really scifi, it’s good!” It’s a genre, not a measure of quality.

You see it with a lot of Urban Fantasy now. Just because sparkly vampires -- good or bad -- are popular, people want to disassociate what they deem as “real” Urban Fantasy with it’s broader market. Again, it’s not a qualitative issue, just a marketing term. The curse and blessing of popularity means there will be more to love...and more to hate.
William Fettes
10. Wolfmage
Irene @ 9

Let me take a step back to clarify my point, as it’s not my intention to be rigidly policing anything. I actually don’t have any dog in the fight of what counts as a romantic element in literature, film or television. Indeed, as long as you define your terms, I don’t particularly care how broadly you define it - subject to the caveat that you don’t expect others to accept that definition automatically just because you say it.

But when it comes to classifying works as part of a genre, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that whatever counts as an element needs to be sufficiently represented in the work to say the work is genre-based. For example, a thriller movie that happens to contain one or two dialogue-based jokes in the first act is not a comedy. It would be objectively misleading and an abuse of language to say it is a thriller comedy– even though it’s nonetheless true to say the film contains some comedy elements. That issue of proportion was my only point.

I'm not trying to deny oxygen to hybrids in any shape or form. I’m not saying something has to contain anything specific to the exclusion of anything else. I’m just saying it's more apt to speak of whatever those elements are directly, if they are not majorly represented, rather than using categorical classifications with a low threshold for admittance.

So, my point was just a response to what I thought was the OP’s attempt to jump from a completely fair point about the presence of a rich vein of romantic elements running through great works in history, to a more contingent point about their belonging to the romance genre. I say contingent because there’s no doubt that many of Shakespeare’s works contain sufficient elements of romance, conventionally defined, to be so classified. For the other works cited, I’m not so convinced.

Maybe that’s still too rigid for you to accept. But that’s the way I see it. Obviously this schema relies on some arbitary lines in the sand, given how many genre and sub-genre elements intersect and overlap. But the alternative is a mushy dilution of language where everything counts as everything. I think if nomenclature is to retain any real utility whatsoever it has to have some basic structure to it.
11. DarrenJL
I'm with Wolfmage. Adding Lord Byron in there because he was a big R Romantic is like saying that ASoIaF is a big M Modern novel, just because it's recent. It's a deliberate confusion of terms. The critical equivalent of mixing one's metaphors.

Sloppy, in other words.
Marcus W
12. toryx
I actually agree that a lot of Epic Fantasy qualifies as romance. I've long considered myself a reader of romance rather than fantasy because the fantasy I prefer is very much set in a romantic sort of setting, even in the much harsher world that is ASoIaF.

How much of the terrible, awful, despicable things that are done in ASoIaF really done for love? Even Cersai, who seems incapable of comprehending love in any sort of recognizable measure, believes that everything she does is for the protection of her children. The Lannisters are amongst the most disfunctional family of all time yet Tyrion and Jaime actions are almost entirely dictated by love or a desire for love. It was love that shaped Dany into the woman she's become. Ned's love for Robert is part of what ruined him.

Stepping outside of ASoIaF, the Wheel of Time is all about love between friends and partners. Tolkien's characters are all motivated by their love of their homes and families.

All things considered, the best of fantasy tends to be about love on a particularly epic scale and I long ago came to peace with the realization that my appreciation for fantasy is due as much to my romantic nature as anything else.

On a side note: I really appreciate how much coverage A Game of Thrones is getting even if it's all due to a bloody television series. George R.R. Martin deserves all the acclaim he's been getting.
13. HRoarke
I have to agree with Wolfmage. You can't just pick a minor piece of a book, movie, etc. and use that to classify the piece. Most epic fantasy I have read has romance in it and it may be between two major characters, but most of those stories do not spin around the romance. Most of the stories spin around some other support. The romance is just coloring in the story, as are many other events in the story.

The aspiring student in Caddyshack has two love interests, but no one would ever classify Caddyshack as a romance.

While I have no doubt some epic fantasy stories do revolve around the love story, Game of Thrones is not one of them.
Ben Frey
14. BenPatient
(spoilers below, unavoidably)

@13 Really? The entire, overarching threads of Westeros swirl around the (tragic) romance between the Targaryan prince and Ned Stark's sister. That it hasn't been "revealed" or even in any way "confirmed" yet is irrelevant. The story is building toward a reveal that Jon is actually the son of the Targaryan prince, and Ned's sister. The unexpected, apparently passionate romance between those two sets the stage for everything that happens in the story. That's why Robert rebells against the king, not because he's "mad king Aerys." That's just his excuse. So, the products of that relationship: Jon Snow. King Robert, King Stannis, King Jeof, Queen Cersei, the fall of the Stark house, the banishment of the Targaryen survivors, the return of dragons, the freedom of the eastern world's slaves. None of that stuff would have happened without that romance. it was a terribly stupid thing for the prince to do, and it didn't benefit him in any way, except that he was apparently madly in love with the girl. He lost everything on account of his love. The entire world turned on its head. That's pretty much the definition of "revolve around" wouldn't you say?

Now I'll grant you that it isn't presented as the obvious driver of all the action, but it's been hinted at from almost the first pages of the book. The first time we're told that Jon looks more like a Stark than most of his true-born half-siblings, we're being prepped for the reveal. When the old Maester at Castle Black tells Jon of his true identity, it's because he's already worked out who Jon is, and that also probably lets that influence his decision to send Sam on his little 'quest' to make Jon the lord commander of the watch. Jon is almost certainly the Prince of the prophesies, and also part of the 3-headed dragon. It all comes back around to love!
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
15. tnh
Wolfmage, "romance" is an older and bigger word than you think it is, and it definitely encompasses Shakespeare, Cervantes, Tolkien, and other conjurable names. Honest. You can look it up. Paperback tales of pair-bonding are just a tiny fraction of romance literature.

To clarify what it isn't, try looking up "mimetic fiction."
16. b.c.smith
Cool. Analyzing the books over, you really do have a point about the romance elements. And indeed, some of the best fantasy do have romance in it. Its as much a part of fantasy as are the more well-known tropes of the genre.
17. HRoarke

Really. And, no, I wouldn't say.

Two reviews of the book:
"Martin's Seven Kingdoms resemble England during the Wars of the Roses, with the Stark and Lannister families standing in for the Yorks and Lancasters. The story of these two families and their struggle to control the Iron Throne dominates the foreground; in the background is a huge, ancient wall marking the northern border, beyond which barbarians, ice vampires, and direwolves menace the south as years-long winter advances. Abroad, a dragon princess lives among horse nomads and dreams of fiery reconquest."

"In a world where the approaching winter will last four decades, kings and queens, knights and renegades struggle for control of a throne...

...Although the romance of chivalry is central to the culture of the Seven Kingdoms, and tournaments, derring-do and handsome knights abound, these trappings merely give cover to dangerous men and women who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals."

These are obviously part of larger reviews, but they demonstrate what everything in the book spins around...the throne.
Marcus W
18. toryx
I don't think a book, particularly as grand and sweeping as those in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, can possibly be effectively encapsulated by a few paragraphs in a review.
19. HRoarke
Then it definitely can't be encapsulated by one word...romance.
Marcus W
20. toryx
HRoarke @ 19:

Y'know, I look at the OP and the comments by people (such as myself) agreeing with her and I don't see anyone saying that it's encapsulated by one word. People are talking about driving forces throughout the novel(s) many of which are shared in romance fiction.

It sounds to me like you and others sharing your argument just don't like that word. Which is fine, I guess, call it whatever you want.
Ben Frey
21. BenPatient
Who said it was one word? the post uses 2 words. Fantasy Romance.

Like Space Comedy.

Or Dystopian Mystery.

There's more sex in these books than your average hunk-clad paperback, although I'll grant you it's a bit more coarse than typical
23. Lsana
The issue is that word "romance" means so many different things. There is the mideval romance genre, which in modern terms really translates into "fantasy"; there might have been love stories involved, but the presence or absence of a love story wasn't what made a story a romance. Then, there was the Romantic movement of literature which again wasn't related to the modern notion of romance. There are stories about romanitic love, including Romeo and Juliet, etc. Then there is the modern romance genre, which has its own convensions at least as strict as mystery or science-fiction. The discussion seems to be conflating these terms, which I don't think produces any useful insights.

As to whether the Song of Ice and Fire is a romance in either the modern genre or the "its a story about love", color me skeptical. It's a story about relationships, some of which are of the likely-to-lead-to-a-marriage variety. However, I would classify very few of them as truly "romantic." As per @14, Rhaegar and Lyanna MIGHT qualify (though we don't really know what happened there, and its a pet peeve of mine when people state their personal theories as if they were fact), Ned and Catelyn perhaps, maybe Dany and Khal Drogo. Most of the major relationships, though, aren't about romance.
24. blueworld
Adding my voice to the group making a distinction between romantic plot elements, a romantic story, and genre Romance.

Love as a plot driver doesn't even make a small-r romance, much less a Romance Novel. To me, a romance story must be a story of the relationship between the characters (either bringing them together, or their ongoing romantic relationship). Love as a motivation doesn't meet this bar. Basically, a lot of stories in a lot of genres have a romantic "B" plot. Plenty of SF and Fantasy stories have a love story element, either as a character motivation as in ASoIaF or as a "hero gets the girl" ending. But the hero saving the world is primary; getting the girl is a side bonus.

In an actual romance (to use romance in the modern sense; romance used to mean something like adventure story), the romantic relationship is the "A" plot. There may be other things happening, but the resolution of the story centers on the emotional resolution of the relationship.

A genre Romance is not only a romance, it's a romance where the characters don't start out in a relationship. Happy ending is mandatory. A tragic romance is not a Romance Novel.
Ben Frey
25. BenPatient
No, i wouldn't say kissing. Not much kissing. They usually sort of skip that part.
Rob Munnelly
26. RobMRobM
@13 and others - My strong suspicion is that the entire saga will look more like a Romantic Drama by the time the final book is published. The underlying architecture is there, if GRRM brings it to the fore (and I expect he will).

@22 - Princess Bride movie FTW!
27. cheem
One thing that strikes me particularly about A Game of Thrones is how unromantic it is. Justice is not served. Good deeds are often unrewarded. Love matches are few and far between (and often punished) and love is often unrequited or oblivious. Everyone and everything is dirty and smelly. Deaths are often ignominious. As much attention is paid to the nitty-gritty, behind-the-scenes action as is given to the heroics.

While there is mention of romantic elements (in the historical sense) - songs, tales of banditry and chivalry, tournies - we rarely see them cast in a romantic light. When we do see them cast in a romantic light, it's through the eyes of someone who can be fairly described as deluded (and probably not the sharpest tool in the box).

While there are aspects of romance in the series in terms of character relationships, this does not make it genre romance any more than the various horror elements in the novels make this series into genre horror (even if the Great Other eats the world in some appropriately horrific fashion).
William Fettes
28. Wolfmage
Cheem @ 27

With the added caveat that I could no doubt be persuaded to take a broader view about what counts as romantic elements, I agree with many of those points about aGoT.

I am somewhat conscious of my lurking biases, however, so I would be much more reluctant than you to champion this notion that only saccharine-like happy endings count as true expressions of the romance genre. But I do think your central intuition is worth pursuing; that is, to what extent can darkness in a work overwhelm other elements that depend on some minimal degree of lustre? I’ve argued above that you need sufficient genre elements as a proportion of the whole to be meaningfully tagged as part of a genre, but it’s also conceivable that counter-veiling elements can crowd others out, or diminish them in the balance.

Game of Thrones by itself is IMO rather too bleakly deterministic in the way it metes out consequences to its characters, rather too sexually depraved and chivalry-busting, and rather too warty about it’s unflinching depiction of feudal social relations for it to sit comfortably within the romance genre as a standalone work. No doubt there are passions driving many of the characters. Sandor Clegane even has a somewhat Heathcliff-like quality to him I particularly like. But I don't consider that to be sufficient by itself as against the primacy of self-interest and deviancy that is strongly on display throughout.

That said, I’m only up to A Storm of Swords right now, and when you expand your focus from a single work to the series-as-a-whole, it's entirely possible that greater context would cast a slightly warmer light.
29. HRoarke
@ toryx
“Difficult, that is, until you realize there is still one arena of artistic endeavor in which stories that honor the traditions of romantic fiction, in all its terrible, beautiful glory, still exist: epic fantasy. And nowhere in the genre better exemplifies this than George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones”

Actually, the post is suggesting it is encapsulated in two words “romantic fiction.” Except for the last paragraph the entire post is making an argument for calling it “romantic fantasy.” And, I was just using your argument from #18 in my previous post to demonstrate that it wasn’t a great argument.

No, I don’t like the word. Mainly because I see half the SF/F bookshelves filled with books that look very much like what should be included in the Romance section of the book store, not the SF/F section.
Rob Munnelly
30. RobMRobM
Wolf - good point re overall focus of series, and you may well find that any sense of possible warm and fuzzy romantic feel drops perceptibly based on events in Feast for Crows. In many respects, it is even more un-romantic than other books in the series, and that's saying something.

Still, without getting any more spoilerific than above, it is quite possible that the series eventually will be viewed as being all about two tragic love stories - one that sets the events in motion and one that brings them to a close at the end. I'm very curious about the latter and whether my theories will pan out.

31. cheem

I don't mean to imply that romance needs to be happy. I mean, Romeo and Juliet is a romantic tragedy, no one denies that. However, as you said, there has to be a certain purity in a romantic telling, whether it be purity of emotion, purity of intent or purity of character. But we don't get much of that in the series. We see the story told through the eyes of people who are no longer innocent. And when we are shown events through the eyes of one who believes in romance and chivalry, how do we react?

While I am caught up in the story and while one has to admit that a lot of set pieces in the story are emotionally raw and intense, I don't often feel that they are romantically intense.


Even if the story is about two tragic love stories, it still wouldn't be a romance. The tale is in the telling, after all...

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