Speaking Volumes: An epic wait

(Published in the Business Standard, July 18, 2011)

“Spent a morning writing and we are now in sight of Minas Morghul,” JRR Tolkien wrote cheerfully to his son Christopher in 1944. He was happily occupied, despite the tendency of the book to grow almost of its own volition, and believed he would finish soon.

It would take a full nine years before Tolkien was writing to his publisher to finalise the titles of the book: should it be The Return of the Shadow, or would The Fellowship of the Ring fit better?

Readers of JRR Tolkien’s epic fantasy were fortunate. The three books that made up The Lord of the Rings were published between 1954 and 1955. There was little gap between reading about the hobbits of the Shire, and the siege of Minas Tirith–the relatively small delay was caused by the post-war paper shortage in Britain.

Reading the two great epic fantasies of our time—George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books–has been a process closer to reading in the days of serialization, when you had to wait for the next month to find out what had happened to your favourite character. Fantasy fans will complain that I’m leaving out Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and several other epic-length works, including Terry Pratchett’s beguiling Discworld saga. This is true, but one could argue that these two modern sagas have made the most impact on the public imagination.

Rowling’s world defined the imagination of an entire generation, and perhaps the luckiest were the readers who were pre-teens when Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone came out in 1995. They grew up along with Potter, Hermione, Ron Weasley and company, and that is a rare, truly magical experience for any reader.

But it’s the Game of Thrones series, created by George RR Martin, that is likely to be far more influential in its impact than the Potter books. The forces of evil and good in Harry Potter’s world are predictable, and despite the deaths of beloved characters, there is still something childish and safe about a saga set chiefly in boarding school.

George RR Martin’s books are like a bloody history of a world and a set of countries you know intimately and believe in implicitly—despite the fact that the kingdom of Westeros exists only in his mind. For fans of the Song of Ice and Fire series, the wait between each Game of Thrones novel has tested their patience. Perhaps no other modern author has had such an intense relationship with his audience, with many fans becoming upset, almost abusive, at the long delays.

The first volume in the Song of Ice and Fire series came out in 1996, and immediately drew readers in. Martin’s tale of warring kingdoms in Westeros and Essos includes some classic fantasy elements—dragons and direwolves—but the appeal of the books to adult readers stems from the fact that they work in the same way that a history of the Mughal Empire or the Tudors works. From the first book, A Game of Thrones, to the recently released A Dance With Dragons, Martin has held his readers in thrall through a 15-year period.

The rewards and frustrations of reading a saga through that length of time are unlike any other reading experience. I caught up with Martin just after book two, A Clash of Kings, came out in 1998 and only had to wait two years for book three, A Storm of Swords. It took five years till book four, A Feast for Crows, came out, and another six before I and a million other fans could get our hot little hands on A Dance With Dragons.

Why didn’t we abandon the books, given that there are so many great historical sagas and fantasies out there that have the merit of being already published, in complete sets? Part of it has to do with Martin’s storytelling, and the complex, utterly gripping world he’s created, where the unlikely hero in a series that has few heroes may be a manipulative, scarred, amoral dwarf called Tyrion Lannister. But part of it has to do with understanding that the slow, often frustrating process of following an author from one book to another makes us, witnesses to publishing history.

Tolkien’s readers were lucky that they didn’t have to wait for nine years while he worked out the kinks in his saga. But in a way, all those readers who kept faith with Martin over 15 years are lucky, to have watched the evolution of one of the greatest modern epics of all time. Martin’s legion of fans will have to console themselves with that thought for the two, or five, or six, years it will take before the next book, The Winds of Winter, comes out.





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