Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. The Knightly Ideal

 

Knight1-500x330Some time ago, in a discussion about books on a different forum, I mentioned that one thing I didn’t care for in George R. R. Martin’s works was the denigration of the concept of knighthood. For this comment, I got a severe dressing down from all his fans. His books were well researched; his portrayal of knights is far more accurate than the idealized images we see in Romanticism. (Also included were, if I recall, a few comments about my poor character based on my criticisms of great fantasy literature. It wasn’t made on Ricochet, you see.) However, I remain undaunted. For the most part, it’s not the portrayal of actual knights that caused me to be troubled, but rather the view of knights as expressed in the “more worldly” of Martin’s characters: a view that the ideal of knighthood is a lustrous fiction with no basis in reality. Martin presents the ideal of chivalry as false and even deadly. Holding fast to honor can get one killed and make one an object of ridicule. Having no honor can certainly be deadly as well, but there appears to be no merit in restraining oneself. If either path leads to the same destination, why take the difficult one?

Here we find postmodern progressive nihilism. The perfect is the enemy of the good. If we cannot meet an impossible standard, we should abandon that standard — even if we have no alternative save dissipation. Those who try and fail short are examples of the ideal’s failure.

I look to another great author of fantasy fiction, however: Gene Wolfe. I like how he explores this concept in his work, The Wizard Knight. In the first part, The Knight, the protagonist meets Sir Ravd. Sir Ravd is an honorable knight. It is in witnessing Sir Ravd’s deeds and integrity that the protagonist becomes inspired to take up arms and become a knight as well. The knight instructs our hero,”It is honor, Able. A knight is a man who lives honorably and dies honorably, because he cares more for his honor than for his life.”

Wolfe does not harbor illusions, however. In Able’s journey, he meets several individuals who fail to achieve that level of honor. This does not dissuade him, however, and he clings to the ideal in spite of the poor examples that follow Sir Ravd’s. For Wolfe, the ideal of chivalry can be just as deadly, but one’s sacrifice serves as an example to others — a banner to hold up as inspiration. One’s loss is felt with just as much pain, but it also calls out to others to take up the same ideals.

This, to me, is the sticking point. The failure of men to meet the ideals of chivalry do not mean the ideal concept of a knight is invalid. It is a given that men will fail to meet a standard. It is a mistake to always attribute the failure of individuals to the failure of the standard.

The ideal of a chivalric knight is compelling. He is a man (and, in some cases, a woman) of arms who wields strength to serve justice and defends those weaker than himself. He he seeks honor above his own desires — and is thus accorded it. When we discourage such ideals, I believe we lose something. The bar is impossibly high, yes, but should we seek that standard we will do well indeed. Constantly readjusting that standard — or worse, removing it altogether — leaves us unwilling to discipline our hearts and minds, accepting where we are as good enough and failing to seek a higher purpose.

Should I ever have boys of my own (or girls who are of similar mind) I would encourage them to look to the idealized knights for inspiration without hesitation. A man of honor and righteousness can be a beacon to others. I would rather others speak of how they (and maybe even I) sought honor and goodness for its own sake and not for their own glory. I would hope they would inspire by their deeds.

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  1. Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker Moderator

    C. U. Douglas: The view of knight as expressed the “more worldly” of Martin’s characters: the ideal of Knighthood is a pretty fiction with no basis on reality.

    I will offer this defense of A Song of Ice and Fire — Martin is retelling his version of the War of the Roses. Real knights were brutal, nasty men who didn’t die protect the weak against the strong.

    The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
    Desire the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters,
    Your fathers taken by the silver beards
    And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls,
    Your naked infants spitted upon pikes
    Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
    Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
    At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen.

    (and I should point out that Shakespeare is describing what our *heroes* are about to do, not the villains)

    Celebrate the ideal of chivalry, sure. But recognize that it’s an ideal that rarely, if ever, actually existed.

    • #1
    • May 16, 2014, at 12:30 PM PDT
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  2. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron MillerJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Well said. 

    It’s ironic that very people who embrace idealism in politics reject it in fiction.

    • #2
    • May 16, 2014, at 12:36 PM PDT
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  3. C. U. Douglas Thatcher
    C. U. DouglasJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Amy Schley:

    I will offer this defense of A Song of Ice and Fire — Martin is retelling his version of the War of the Roses. Real knights were brutal, nasty men who didn’t die protect the weak against the strong.

    The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
    Desire the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters,
    Your fathers taken by the silver beards
    And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls,
    Your naked infants spitted upon pikes
    Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
    Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
    At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen.

    (and I should point out that Shakespeare is describing what our *heroes* are about to do, not the villains)

    Celebrate the ideal of chivalry, sure. But recognize that it’s an ideal that rarely, if ever, actually existed.

    The question I find: do we abandon this ideal because some reached the lowest depths, or do we look to it to raise us from these depths? We understand that men will commit the worst crimes while crediting themselves honors. Do we say it is the fault of ideal and honor or the fault of those men? Or do we discard this ideal readily?

    • #3
    • May 16, 2014, at 1:35 PM PDT
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  4. Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker Moderator

    C. U. Douglas: The question I find: do we abandon this ideal because some reached the lowest depths, or do we look to it to raise us from these depths?

     We don’t abandon it. I see the standard of chivalry as being like the standard of Christian living; we will all fall short but we should still strive for it. It is good to read inspirational tales of the heroes to help us aspire to be that kind of person.

    At the same time, we live in a fallen world. The story of history, just like ASOIAF, is a story of people giving lip service to Christian and chivalrous ideals while doing whatever it takes to hold onto power. We must recognize that our reward for living our ideals comes in the next life, not this one, and we will rarely if ever find inspiration heroes by looking in history books at men in armor.

    • #4
    • May 16, 2014, at 2:08 PM PDT
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  5. Edward Smith Inactive

    George RR Martin is depressing.

    At my friend’s father’s funeral and the lunch afterwards, I did not point out that he was mostly an unwitting stooge for an international terrorist organization, the IRA. I won’t say that to her now. He succeeded in raising a good, intelligent and generous daughter.

    Sometimes the last thing that needs to be said is the truth. Sometimes the truth is Lucifer’s best weapon. No doubt Lucifer recounted to Jesus the full litany of humanity’s depravity during those 40 days and 40 nights of temptation. Jesus chose to see what we can be rather than what we have been.

    No wonder George RR Martin eschews shaving. He probably doesn’t trust himself around a razor. He is wise not to, given what he writes about, and how he writes about it.

    • #5
    • May 16, 2014, at 2:12 PM PDT
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  6. Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker Moderator

    All this is not to say I think ASOIAF is somehow better than other fantasy or that one is a better person for reading it. It’s a dark, ugly story, and I would no more suggest people read it for pleasure than I would them read a Holocaust narrative for pleasure. There is nothing wrong with reading to escape the ugliness of the world instead of being confronted by it.

    I just feel that complaining about the dark, cynical tone in a novel that tries to be a retelling of a bloody civil war is like complaining about getting mauled in a bear wrestling contest — it’s what you signed up for. :)

    • #6
    • May 16, 2014, at 2:19 PM PDT
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  7. C. U. Douglas Thatcher
    C. U. DouglasJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Amy Schley:

    All this is not to say I think ASOIAF is somehow better than other fantasy or that one is a better person for reading it. It’s a dark, ugly story, and I would no more suggest people read it for pleasure than I would them read a Holocaust narrative for pleasure. There is nothing wrong with reading to escape the ugliness of the world instead of being confronted by it.

    I just feel that complaining about the dark, cynical tone in a novel that tries to be a retelling of a bloody civil war is like complaining about getting mauled in a bear wrestling contest — it’s what you signed up for. :)

     Aw, I was pretty sure I had even odds against that bear.

    • #7
    • May 16, 2014, at 2:24 PM PDT
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  8. C. U. Douglas Thatcher
    C. U. DouglasJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    My complaint, I would hope, is not that there is brutality in Martin’s books. I realize that. It’s that the brutality is ultimately nihilist. The ideals are stripped away to leave a world without meaning. Violence will rise in a world with meaning and a world without, but to be without meaning can lead us to hopelessness or depravity or both.

    George R. R. Martin is a talented writer and his work is well-researched. But I’ve also read that ASOIAF is meant to be a portrayal of the horror of war. Retelling the War of the Roses is a useful tool for that. Perhaps that is why he must turn willfully or no to a nihilistic view of the world. When war and violence is perceived in a world without meaning, what is left?

    • #8
    • May 16, 2014, at 2:49 PM PDT
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  9. Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker Moderator

    C. U. Douglas: Perhaps that is why he must turn willfully or no to a nihilistic view of the world. When war and violence is perceived in a world without meaning, what is left?

     Well, do keep in mind we haven’t gotten to the end of the story yet. (Though thanks to the show, we will find out by the end of season 8, whether Martin has finished those books or not.) So we don’t know if the final message will be the ultimate hopelessness of war (if the White Walkers/Others win), the importance of moral certitude (Stannis Baratheon wins), the treasure of being loved by one’s followers (Daenerys Targaryon wins), or the value of being amoral and ruthless (Cersei Lannister wins).

    History is written by the victors, but Martin is showing quite clearly that there is both blood and nobility on almost all the major players’ hands. How do you construct a narrative of the war before you know who wins?

    • #9
    • May 16, 2014, at 3:14 PM PDT
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  10. Sabrdance Member

    In addition to CU Douglas’s complaints, I would add that Martin’s vision is excessively dark. The ideals of Chivalry may have been honored more in the breach than in the observance -high standard et cetera -but the real War of the Roses -if we follow Shakespeare’s timeline, wasn’t as brutal as Martin makes it out to be. (And if we follow the historical timeline, which narrows it down to Henry VI, Edward IV, Richard III, and Henry VII, it’s even less brutal on account of being shorter). The conflict was sporadic, there were lengthy periods of peace, Henry V is noted for his chivalry -incident with the knights at Agincourt aside, and that was provoked by the French attack on the baggage train. The battles were far from population centers, and relatively small -a grand total of 1100 people died at Bosworth Field, compared to 10,000 at Agincourt. Henry VII is even noted as being a pretty good king and an honorable man who rebuilt England despite fighting something like 3 Yorkist rebellions during his early reign.

    It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t the Game of Thrones, either.

    • #10
    • May 16, 2014, at 8:51 PM PDT
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  11. Sabrdance Member

    I wouldn’t use it as history, but having read some of each, and having researched the era for my own hobbies, I think Phillipa Gregory has done a far better job of showing the reality of chivalry and politics in 16th Century England. One particularly notable thing is that whenever the knights have to do something dishonorable, they 1.) feel bad about it because they all believe in chivalry, and 2.) do it in secret because everyone else cares about chivalry, too.

    In real 16th Century England, Littlefinger would have been executed shortly after Ned Stark on grounds of being unreliable, so flagrant is he in his lack of honor. And Joffrey wouldn’t have lasted very long either. He’s worse than Henry’s propaganda about Richard -and Richard was betrayed by his own army in part because it looked like Henry was going to win, and in part because Richard was also starting to wear his own lack of honor openly -for example, threatening the Stanley’s with the murder of their son and the revocation of their lands just because it would be politically convenient, even though Edward had already settled the issue.

    • #11
    • May 16, 2014, at 9:01 PM PDT
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  12. Percival Thatcher
    PercivalJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I’m not a big fan of the books, or rather the fraction of the first book that I read before realizing that I didn’t like any of the characters enough to want to find out what happened to them. Realism in fantasy is like sobriety at a bacchanal: if you are not going to do it right, go home.

    And as far as chivalry being an unattainable ideal – well of course it is. If it were easily attainable, it would be time to set the ideal a little higher. We are talking honor, glory, and fame here. Participation trophies are for Little League.

    • #12
    • May 16, 2014, at 9:25 PM PDT
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  13. Sisyphus Coolidge
    SisyphusJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Martin is no more historical than Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and reads rather like something you would expect from Tolkien’s men of the East. The first book actively repelled me, I take solace in the fact that it was a freebie. I am clearly not the intended audience.

    • #13
    • May 16, 2014, at 9:57 PM PDT
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  14. Al Sparks Thatcher

    I’ve read Martin’s books and enjoyed them, though so far I’ve skipped the television portrayals.

    I actually got a cynical view of knights, and chivalry in general at a young age by reading “The Once and Future King” an Arthurian fantasy by T..H. White. He does portray characters that strive but fail.

    But he also shows the hypocrisy of the nobility versus the commoners. The nobility didn’t think that commoners were capable of chivalry, if they thought about it at all.

    That chivalry is associated with a nobility with all the paternalisms that go with it, makes it an imperfect ideology as a force for good.

    • #14
    • May 16, 2014, at 11:38 PM PDT
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  15. Valiuth Member
    ValiuthJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Honor. Bah! What use do we have for flawed pagan virtues. Chivalry is just the Medieval worlds attempt to reconcile Christian virtues with a warrior culture. In the end though the two are irreconcilable. It is impossible to be a virtuous warrior in a world without actual dragons to slay. So long as another human is at the end of your sword your soul is in mortal danger.

    • #15
    • May 17, 2014, at 6:14 AM PDT
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  16. jzdro Member

    What’s the painting up there, please? Who is the artist?

    • #16
    • May 17, 2014, at 6:46 AM PDT
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  17. Fredösphere Member
    FredösphereJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Based on your description, it sounds like GRRM hasn’t noticed a fatal contradiction in his own thinking.
    So GRRM rejects a code that promotes honest, forthright dealing. . .because rejecting honesty is more honest? If a bracing, clear-minded cynicism is the true way, why not promote the chivalric code to the rubes, if that gives you, the cynic, an advantage. . .why not?

    • #17
    • May 17, 2014, at 6:59 AM PDT
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  18. Fredösphere Member
    FredösphereJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Valiuth:

    Honor. Bah! What use do we have for flawed pagan virtues. Chivalry is just the Medieval worlds attempt to reconcile Christian virtues with a warrior culture. In the end though the two are irreconcilable. It is impossible to be a virtuous warrior in a world without actual dragons to slay. So long as another human is at the end of your sword your soul is in mortal danger.

     Are you saying you don’t see the dragons?
    “So long as another human is at the end of your sword your soul is in mortal danger.” True. Also, when another human is not at the end of your sword, your soul is in mortal danger.

    • #18
    • May 17, 2014, at 7:01 AM PDT
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  19. Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker Moderator

    Sabrdance: In real 16th Century England, Littlefinger would have been executed shortly after Ned Stark on grounds of being unreliable, so flagrant is he in his lack of honor.

     Re: Littlefinger. Why would he be executed for being unreliable? Seen from the general populace’s POV, his actions were those of an informer against a man plotting to usurp the king. Sure, the king isn’t the rightful king, but all those who know that fact also think a civil war would be a bad idea. And, in fact, civil war was terrible for the kingdom, given the threat of ice zombies in the north, dragons in the east, and several years of no harvest because of the winter.

    He’s also the Master of Coin who’s been able to come up with the necessary money for profligate spending without onerous taxation. He’s far too useful to execute just because he double-crossed a threat to the crown.

    • #19
    • May 17, 2014, at 7:57 AM PDT
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  20. James Of England Moderator
    James Of EnglandJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Amy Schley:

    I will offer this defense of A Song of Ice and Fire — Martin is retelling his version of the War of the Roses. Real knights were brutal, nasty men who didn’t die protect the weak against the strong.

    …….

    (and I should point out that Shakespeare is describing what our *heroes* are about to do, not the villains)

    Celebrate the ideal of chivalry, sure. But recognize that it’s an ideal that rarely, if ever, actually existed.

    Shakespeare is describing what Henry V will do, and Henry is not an unambiguous hero. Branagh and Olivier make him one by removing his murder of all of his POWs and generally cleaning him up, but he’s king only by virtue of his father’s sacrilegious usurpation and a hoodlum unused to even pretending to be responsible. 
    The throne is restored to the rightful line by the Wars of the Roses, and those plays (Henry VI pts. 2 and 3, Richard III) focus far more on discussions of mercy and chivalry. Some characters (eg. Clifford, Richard III) fail to meet those standards, but they are strongly condemned for it, and either suffer or die as a result. 

    • #20
    • May 17, 2014, at 8:01 AM PDT
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  21. Percival Thatcher
    PercivalJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Fredösphere:

    Valiuth:

    Honor. Bah! What use do we have for flawed pagan virtues. Chivalry is just the Medieval worlds attempt to reconcile Christian virtues with a warrior culture. In the end though the two are irreconcilable. It is impossible to be a virtuous warrior in a world without actual dragons to slay. So long as another human is at the end of your sword your soul is in mortal danger.

    Are you saying you don’t see the dragons? “So long as another human is at the end of your sword your soul is in mortal danger.” True. Also, when another human is not at the end of your sword, your soul is in mortal danger.

     There be dragons. Some of them go on two legs.

    • #21
    • May 17, 2014, at 8:01 AM PDT
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  22. Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker Moderator

    Sabrdance: And Joffrey wouldn’t have lasted very long either. He’s worse than Henry’s propaganda about Richard

     It’s worth noting that Joffrey’s reign [spoiler] was about as long as Richard’s — two years in the books and 26 episodes of the show, a number of which show him hated by the populace.

    If you’re looking for honor in A Song of Ice And Fire, I’d look to Stannis. A proven warrior, kind to his daughter, guilty about infidelity to his wife, and most notably, his treatment of Davos. Davos was a smuggler, so Stannis chopped the last digit of his right hand fingers off; but the food Davos smuggled in saved the lives of those under seige, so he was made a knight. Punish the guilty, reward the virtuous, even when they’re the same man.

    And unlike Ned Stark, he doesn’t assume that a woman who passes her incestuous bastards off as royal heirs is going to be persuaded to step away from the throne just because someone else has a better claim to it.

    • #22
    • May 17, 2014, at 8:09 AM PDT
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  23. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron MillerJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Amy Schley: He’s also the Master of Coin who’s been able to come up with the necessary money for profligate spending without onerous taxation. He’s far too useful to execute just because he double-crossed a threat to the crown.

     Exactly. The general theme of Martin’s story is the interplay of powers militarily and politically. It’s largely about the “the devil you know” — needing despicable people, and using the currency of power to persuade them. 

    It’s an ideal story for a time in American politics when the good guys have forgotten that authority must be secured by power (even in a democratic republic). 

    • #23
    • May 17, 2014, at 8:10 AM PDT
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  24. Percival Thatcher
    PercivalJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Even in Ivanhoe, there is Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, a Templar in good standing despite being a Lothario, a liar, and a lout. Standards are not responsible for those who fail to live up to them.

    • #24
    • May 17, 2014, at 8:11 AM PDT
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  25. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan HansonJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I’m not sure about the premise of the article. Brienne of Tarth is a very sympathetic character who upholds exactly the code of honor and chivalry the author is talking about. Barristan Selmy is a very honorable knight. You could argue that Jaime Lannister’s flaws are the result of his breaking his honor and killing his king, and the guilt and social approbation that followed. Even though he did it to prevent a mass slaughter of innocents, it’s still such a violation of the code that everyone knows him as ‘Kingslayer’ – not as the person who saved a city from a madman.

    Stannis Baratheon certainly lives by a code of honor, as did Ned Stark. And you could argue that the really bad events of the books/movies stem from a breaking of those codes – the Red Wedding is the direct result of Robb Stark refusing to honor his word to marry a Frey daughter. So it’s not like the dishonorable are getting away with it.

    As for Littlefinger – he never had any honor to begin with, and doesn’t care. He no doubt finds the concept amusing. Like Varys, he exists outside the system.

    • #25
    • May 17, 2014, at 9:28 AM PDT
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  26. SParker Member

    jzdro:

    What’s the painting up there, please? Who is the artist?

     Alphonse Mucha. Heraldic Chivalry.

    • #26
    • May 17, 2014, at 10:10 AM PDT
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  27. Daniel Sattelberger Inactive

    James Of England

    Some characters (eg. Clifford, Richard III) fail to meet those standards, but they are strongly condemned for it, and either suffer or die as a result.

     In that line of discussion it’s worth pointing out that a lot of the worst offenders among the knights/soldiers do meet horrible ends: Amory Lorch is killed in Vargo Hoat’s bear pits, and Hoat himself is torn apart by Gregor Clegane, who dies slowly in agony from Oberyn Martell’s manticore venom. The Hound dies after (partially) redeeming himself. Nothing bad has yet happened to Ramsay Bolton, but he’s certainly in sort of a precarious position.

    Jaime redeems himself. Tywin, Cersei, Varys, Littlefinger, Walder Frey, and Roose Bolton aren’t knights.

    • #27
    • May 17, 2014, at 11:15 AM PDT
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  28. Barbara Kidder Inactive

    Amy Schley:

    All this is not to say I think ASOIAF is somehow better than other fantasy or that one is a better person for reading it. It’s a dark, ugly story, and I would no more suggest people read it for pleasure than I would them read a Holocaust narrative for pleasure. There is nothing wrong with reading to escape the ugliness of the world instead of being confronted by it.

    I just feel that complaining about the dark, cynical tone in a novel that tries to be a retelling of a bloody civil war is like complaining about getting mauled in a bear wrestling contest — it’s what you signed up for. :)

    How does your reasoning play out when applied to a person’s choice of, and feelings when, reading the Bible?
    Depending on what passages in the Bible a person reads, their experience could be quite different, but don’t we need to be willing to consider the uplifting and the damning?
    Surely, there is something salutary in learning about the consequences of choosing “the ugliness of the world”, that makes us want to follow the ‘Truth and the Light’? 

    • #28
    • May 17, 2014, at 11:30 AM PDT
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  29. Jim Lion Inactive

    In “Game of Thrones”, George R R Martin has given us a picture of Medieval Europe without Christianity, which built Medieval Europe. It’s an empty vision.

    • #29
    • May 17, 2014, at 11:45 AM PDT
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  30. Salvatore Padula Inactive

    James Of England:

     

    Shakespeare is describing what Henry V will do, and Henry is not an unambiguous hero. Branagh and Olivier make him one by removing his murder of all of his POWs and generally cleaning him up, but he’s king only by virtue of his father’s sacrilegious usurpation and a hoodlum unused to even pretending to be responsible. The throne is restored to the rightful line by the Wars of the Roses, and those plays (Henry VI pts. 2 and 3, Richard III) focus far more on discussions of mercy and chivalry. Some characters (eg. Clifford, Richard III) fail to meet those standards, but they are strongly condemned for it, and either suffer or die as a result.

    Have you seen the moot court war crimes trial of Henry V for the slaughter of French prisoners? It’s entertaining.

    • #30
    • May 17, 2014, at 1:37 PM PDT
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