It took everything I had not to throw my copy of Game of Thrones across the room when I got to the part (quite early in the series’ first book) where King Eddard is beheaded. What the f**k?
I realized right then that this was not your typical sword and sorcery epic. I was in 3rd or 4th grade when I first read The Lord of the Rings, only understanding about half of it. Luckily, I had a friend years older than me who explained things when I got lost. Probably tired of seeing me carry around the worn-out paperback copies of the trilogy I’d checked out over and over again from the school library, my parents bought me the red-leather-bound boxed edition (along with the green-leather-bound boxed edition of The Hobbit) for Christmas when I was in 5th grade – a gorgeous book set that I rarely opened because I was afraid I’d ruin them. I’m glancing over my shoulder in my house now, looking at their still-perfect bindings.
What few people know who have only seen Peter Jackson’s endless CGI-infused series of boring battle scenes is that The Lord of the Rings is really an extended road story. The best parts are when characters are making their way across Middle-earth and falling into adventures, eating lambas on the side of a mountain and talking about gardening back at Hobbiton, not the battle sequences, which author J.R.R. Tolkien usually described in only a handful of pages (Because, really, how do you make a battle interesting in a book? The only thing readers care about is who won and who lost; who lived and who died).
Despite its length (a little over 1,000 pages) The Lord of the Rings is an easy trilogy to get through. Most if not all of the heroes survive to the end, and if they do die (like Gandalf), they magically reappear later in the story. The same cannot be said for Game of Thrones, and that’s what makes it so surprising, somewhat dire, and so very good.
I’m only about 200 pages into A Feast for Crows, the fourth book of the series called “The Song of Fire and Ice” (I may might write fast, but I’m a dreadfully slow reader), so I have no idea who will survive to the end, and neither does anyone else because author George R.R. Martin hasn’t finished it yet and probably won’t for another six or seven years or more.
In fact, considering his age (63) and his rather unhealthily large size, we may never read the ending, though Martin says he’s shared it with someone in case of his unfortunate demise and insists the HBO series will never catch up with him (which I don’t believe).
I’m not going to spoil the story for you, but I will say that the deaths are even more stunning the further you get into the books. Part of the fun has been coming into the office the day after a major character gets offed and asking the guy who’s already read the series, “Did I misread this or did so-and-so really just die? And why have I been reading about him for the past 2,000 pages?“
As we watch the HBO series, which started its second season last Sunday, Teresa often will say something like, “I just love that guy,” referring to what appears to be one of the central characters. I’ll say, quietly, “Well, don’t get too attached to him,” at which point she’ll shoot me a “No!” look. No one is safe in this story, which makes watching the series a different experience for those who’ve read the books. We readers know what’s coming and already have recovered from the shock.
From that standpoint, Game of Thrones is the most realistic fantasy series I’ve read. Because just like in this series, no one is safe in real life. Our favorite characters — the people we know and love, our own heroes — are struck down when we least expect it. The only difference is that instead of with a rush of orchestration, news of their deaths often are preceded by a ringtone. We all know there is no happy ending to the story, but we keep living it anyway not just because we have to, but because we have to know what happens next.
And that’s precisely what kept me from tossing my copy of Game of Thrones against the wall after the axe came down on Eddard’s neck. I had to know what happened next, if the guy who did it would get his in the end and if a hero will emerge from a series of books whose primary thesis seems to be there are no good guys and bad guys. There are only people struggling to get by.
Beyond Lazy-i is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on arts, culture, society and the media. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.