A Song of Ice & Fire: the maesters lie!

A_Game_of_Thrones_Novel_CoversBelow in my post on The World of Ice & Fire there were two comments which I think are important to keep in mind. First, George R. R. Martin has admitted that accounts of distant lands and ancient times may not be precisely accurate in a modern sense, but rather hew to the sort of scholarship one might have found in the High Medieval period which his world is generally an analog with. Second, one commenter points out that the long lineages asserted in Martin’s books make no sense in light of high rates of elite conflict and attested extinctions and near extinctions. The problem is the same one you see in uniparental DNA lineages (mtDNA and Y) and surnames which come down through one sex. In Augustan Rome the elite families were going extinct, to the consternation of the princeps. But it was basic math. If family lines are perpetuated through males, and a certain proportion of families in each generation do not produce males who live to adulthood to perpetuate the line, then there is going to be a slow extinction of the old lineages. As a stylized example, if a given nuclear family has a 95% chance of having an adult son each generation, a quite high rate, within 15 generations more than half of these lineages would still be extinct. That’s 375 years. The idea that the Starks would be able to maintain the paternal lineage for thousands of years, let alone keep their status as the apex lineage, is simply unbelievable.

Because I’m interested in biology I naturally fixated on the genetic aspects of Martin’s secondary-world which raised my ire, but really they’re minor issues in the grand scheme.* Rather, it’s the broad geographic and historical sweep which leave me skeptical of the world-building. George R. R. Martin’s complex and multi-textured narrative in a world which is recognizably High Medieval, but not exceedingly isomorphic with our own, has reshaped fantasy over the past generation, engendering many imitators. Martin’s protagonists are human in a fully developed fashion which makes them more believable to readers who aren’t 12 year old males, or late/post-Victorian dons. Aragorn would never have had a bastard. The true blood of NĂºmenor was not capable of such things by the nature of his being. By introducing a dark and realistic pre-modern sensibility akin to Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles Martin’s work has won praise for its verisimilitude. A world not just of imagination, but perhaps could just be.

And yet when you take a step back much does not make sense. The First Men arrived ~10,000 years ago. But they all spoke the same language even ~2,000 years ago, when the Andals arrived. Two thousand years after the Andal arrival different peoples on the continent sized Westeros speak with different accents. The dates given for the arrival of the First Men in particular can be thought of as legendary, but they are recorded as being a Bronze Age people. Therefore their arrival must have been long ago. The Andals have a more well attested history, because they are the dominant people of Westeros. The level of cultural diversification simply does not comport with what we know about evolutionary rates of change of societies on the scale of thousands of years. Very little happens on Westeros in comparison to our own world, where the rate of change has been much faster since the emergence of agriculture.

Second, institutions such as the Night’s Watch are totally implausible. Societies which are of High Medieval nature are unlikely to be able to plan for disasters on the order of thousands of years. Nor are the men of the Night’s Watch likely to maintain neutrality as to goings on south of the Wall for so many generations. Humans exhibit group conformity and cohesion around ideals, but these decay over time, and a time of selfishness always breaks free to tear down institutions before they are built back anew. What Martin has constructed in his secondary-world is a landscape which is not nearly as subject to episodic regressions and cycles of cultural efflorescence as our own, despite its peculiar climatic regime which would militate in favor of such a pattern. It is a world of radical cultural stasis and torpidity. In ways they do not resemble modern humans at all, but other groups of hominins.

OK, to take a step back, I’ve really lost it, haven’t I? The reality is no secondary-world replicates the complexity and nuance of the real world in terms of the religions, languages, and peoples, which we see around us. None of them are able to have as much historical background as the real world. In fact if someone attempted to do this they’d not be able to write novels! Secondary-worlds by their nature have to be stripped down. The same problem crops up in far future science fiction. If it is too exotic and changed it is simply not able to be turned into a narrative which we as modern humans could relate to. Authors like George R. R. Martin have to strike a balance between plausible social texture, exoticism which doesn’t leave us incredulous, and simplification which does not render the canvas blank. It’s a tough balancing act. They make different choices, and I respect Martin’s.

* If the Targaryen ability to master the dragons is genetic, then they should have followed the Walder Frey strategy and bred themselves an army.

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