George R.R. Martin and Adventure Fantasy

One of the bestselling practitioners of adventure fantasy today is American fantasist George R.R. Martin, whose lengthy books in his series, A Song of Fire and Ice, are the very definition of epic. An epic is known for its scope and heroic action. The Cambridge University Press notes the “epic” term in modern usage as referring to: “A book or movie that is long and contains a lot of action.”

George R.R. Martin’s books are indeed long and chock-full of action. They are filled with the goings-on of an astoundingly numerous cast of characters, most of whom would be minor in other works, all pursuing their various storylines (unless they are killed off, which Martin is famous for doing, even for major characters). Co-producer of the HBO version, David Benioff, jokingly referred to it with the tagline, “The Sopranos in Middle Earth.”

There are attempts to track the deaths of named characters: One fellow (Rahbin20, on, an online discussion forum for the series) noted the tally for the first three books in the series as: A Game of Thrones, 54 deaths; A Clash of Kings, 72 deaths; A Storm of Swords, 97 deaths.

The result is a massive amount of words, intended to spin out the stories of characters (until they die). As Goodreads notes on its page about the series: “It is intended to be complete in seven volumes, but the author has stated it could go on for longer.”

According to a review by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Duane Dudek, after screening the first 6 of 10 episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones, he “was struck by the way the story expands like a sponge in water.”

This George R.R. Martin series is one of the bodies of work I used in my book A Guide to Fantasy Literature to illustrate the sub-genre of Adventure Fantasy.

Similar in many respects to high fantasy, the adventure version of the genre has a different core philosophy. Unlike high fantasy, which tends to elevate its story to noble Crusade or Quest, the distinguishing characteristic of this second great cluster of fantasy is that it embraces the notion of adventure for its own sake.  (. . .) The episodes in adventure fantasy are shaped mostly by the internal desires of their protagonists, rather than epic struggles between Good and Evil.
. . .
Adventure fantasy is driven by the core desires of its diverse characters and the situations their interactions create. As author John Marco said in an interview about his first fantasy adventure novel, THE JACKAL OF NAR (1999):

“I wanted to tell a multilayered story . . . but also wanted to create a unique world and fill it with diverse people, all of whom had their own sets of goals and problems. . . . I wanted to avoid the archetype of the strong hero and the evil villain. . . .” [quote from a 1999 interview with Claire E. White in The Internet Writing Journal]

Notably, the adventure fantasy genre departs from high fantasy, with its lofty purpose, delving into the muck and mud of lesser heroes and anti-heroes. Martin admits he has a fondness for minor characters and is intrigued by their unique traits, desires, favorite weapons, foods, songs, and such . . . a fondness he follows through hundreds of pages (800+ for the hardcover version of A Game of Thrones).

In a passage from A Feast for Crows (2005), the fourth book in his cycle (which reached the No. 1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list), Martin describes a board game that might be a metaphor for his own adventure stories:

He had left her [Princess Myrcella] in her chambers, bent over a gaming table opposite Prince Trystane, pushing ornate pieces across squares of jade and carnelian and lapis lazuli.

. . . Cyvasse, the game was called. It had come to the Planky Town on a trading galley from Voltanis, and the orphans had spread it up and down the Greenblood. The Dornish court was mad for it.

Ser Arys just found it maddening. There were ten different pieces, each with its own attributes and powers, and the board would change from game to game, depending on how the players arrayed their home squares.

This is perhaps the very point of adventure fantasy . . . its ability to spin out a seemingly never-ending series of escapades, based less on great issues of Good and Evil and more on the machinations of the players in the games. The George R.R. Martin series is a clear example.

The foe in adventure fantasy is not grand Evil personified, but a cousin that operates on a smaller scale: Chaos. In adventure fantasy, the forces of evil (or uncertainty) are everywhere in never-ending supply: dragons, sorcerers, scheming barbarians. Unlike big Evil, which can be defeated once and for all, chaos is fluid and constant. As one gnarly barbarian thug is defeated, another is lurking just beyond the horizon, ready for the sequel.

Instead of seeking to serve a grand, classic story, as Tolkien and high fantasist are wont to do, Martin has stated that his goal as writer of fantasy was to write a work that was more based on reality; “a writer, even a fantasy writer, has an obligation to tell the truth and the truth is, as we say in Game of Thrones, all men must die.”

Adventure fantasy is closely linked to the patterns of comic-book heroes and fantasy gaming. These are genres driven by endless serial possibilities, with a focus on rules of engagement and the quirky, personalized powers of individual characters. This is in sharp contrast to the high fantasy genre, where sides are drawn, leading to a big conclusive battle or resolution. The books may run in a series, like the C.S. Lewis Narnia series, but an end is reached (in the Narnia series, the final book is title The Last Battle). Likewise, the Battle of Hogwarts in the seventh book of the Harry Potter series pretty much wraps up the series, as Lord Voldemort is decisively defeated. But adventure fantasy takes another approach; things are not so clear, lines are fuzzier, results less certain. And the series can, and do, go on and on, ad infinitum.

Accordingly, throughout the fantasy adventure tale runs a distinct 
thread, a basic structure that: a personal moral code. The heroes have an individual compass, a code of honor (or dishonor, in the case of the rogues of adventure fantasy) that guides them, given the limitations of their powerful gifts and rules of the game, on their odysseys of endless engagements on the playing fields of adventure fantasy.

The adventure fantasy genre draws on comic book and pulp-fiction roots, but also goes back to the long epic tales of the Odyssey or the complex cycles of myths, which have less grand purpose and more indulgence in the spinning out of the tale, the interest in violence and sex, greed and thievery, conquest and deceit, the admission that personal whims and passions often steer the course of stories. Where Tolkien and Lewis debated the fine elements of the purpose of fantasy, the adventure fantasists put their appealing, intriguing, often flawed characters out there on the playing fields, and let them follow their noses for action, driven by their codes of conduct.

As a story titled “Sorry, J.R.R. Tolkien is not the father of fantasy” in the Boston Globe explained:

“Tolkien may overshadow other fantasy writers in name recognition, and his high-handed purity and saintly protagonists may define fantasy in the popular imagination. But the real strengths of modern fantasy, what makes the genre increasingly popular, are qualities that come from other sources entirely. Most important is a parallel, overwhelmingly American, tradition of fantasy that has its roots in the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s—and whose surprising influence and foresightedness suggests that sophistication doesn’t always come from the libraries of Oxford.”

There has been a distinct American strain to the adventure fantasy sub-genre, from the Great Plains populism of L. Frank Baum, with his long series of Oz books, to Robert E. Howard, Texas-born creator of Conan the Barbarian, to Chicago intellectual Fritz Leiber, who wrote a series introducing the hulking swordsman Fafhrd and the clever thief the Gray Mouser and gave birth to the “Sword and Sorcery” term for adventure fantasy.

Tolkien, it ain’t.

[Post by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature and The Purpose of Fantasy.]

← Previous post

Next post →

1 Comment

  1. I love this series so much, especially how Martin refuses to shelter readers from complexity. When characters are as amazing as the ones he creates, I’ll gladly take as many as he cares to throw at me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *