Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Shaggydog Theory: Why George R. R. Martin Doesn't Want to Finish his Song of Ice and Fire Series

Seven years ago, the last update to the legendary A Song of Ice and Fire series came available, the fifth book A Dance with Dragons.  This book was somewhat disappointing to fans of the series.  The books failed to have any of the juicy details readers actually wanted, being not-so-affectionately labeled "Traveling Places and Administrative Tasks: The Book".  The book was also a major disappointment because it came out over five years after the previous book, A Feast For Crows, released in 2005, despite the promise of Martin that the fifth book would be released speedily since he had already written most of it when he divided the upcoming fourth novel into two separate novels.

And then the fourth book came out five years after the book before it, and was also something of a disappointment.  While the third book had betrayals and kingdom-spanning adventures for the future of the continent, the Feast was much slower-paced and almost seems a tangent compared to the promise of the original three books. Almost none of the plot lines were picked up, meaning it was over a decade, when Dragons was released, that fans got to go back to the characters they last read about in 2000 when A Storm of Swords was released.

In the intervening years, Ol' Georgie has been quite busy.... just not busy with anything to do with the book series that has sold millions of copies and was made into the most-pirated television series in history.  Martin has been instead going on tours and writing all kinds of other stories.  Some are tangentially related to the world of Westeros, others not so much.

In 2018, almost two decades since the end of the third book with all of its promise, with Martin writing stories about gambling dragons in casinos or whatever, I think it is pretty patently obvious to everyone: George Martin does not want to finish writing his series of books.

I repeat: George Martin does not want to finish writing A Song of Ice and Fire.

He told the ending to the HBO series producers and is, apparently, content to let them have the final word on his story.

While it's obvious from his behavior and publication history that Martin doesn't want to finish the series, it's probably baffling to fans why an author who has been catapulted to fame and riches by a book series would just abandon it, especially right before the central plot struggles.

I have a theory as to why.  I call it the Shaggydog Theory.  The theory is most simply stated:

The name of Rickon's wolf is foreshadowing.

Rickon's wolf is named Shaggydog,  For those unaware, a Shaggy Dog Story is a kind of anti-joke, whose humor is in the subversion of the usual comedy format.  In a shaggy dog joke, the teller relates a very long account, assumed by the listener to be a build-up to an eventual punchline.  As the build-up stretches on and on and on, the listener expects a better and better delivery.  Until, at the end, the joke ends in some sort of stupid pun, or worse, a quick and unhumorous resolution.  The listener is left confused, only able to ask "Wait, what?  That's it?"  To those in on the joke, the confused and aggravated response of the mark is the joke.

One popular example of a shaggy dog joke is about a young man who gets insulted by a rodeo clown and made to look like a fool.  To seek revenge, he decides to go to college and studies literature, hoping to learn enough wit to retaliate the next time he's publicly embarrassed.  The story goes on with the young man studying witty retorts in graduate school, earning a PhD in the subject, becoming a world expert on witty retorts, even going on a book tour on late night TV.  Properly told, the build-up can stretch on for almost half-an-hour.  A skilled teller will even insert extra padding, about the expert having martial problems or going on a trip to the pyramids to find papyri or his father contracting cancer -- anything to waste more time and magnify expectations for the supposed payoff.  Then at last, at the end, the expert in witicisms returns to the same circus and gets insulted by the same rodeo clown, and the whole stadium goes deathly silent, waiting to hear how the world's expert will respond.  The real life listeners are also waiting to hear how the various elements of the long buildup are going to connect into some sort of magnificent punchline.  So the man stands up, points at his insulter, and says "F you, clown."

I think A Song of Ice and Fire is a shaggy dog story.

I think Martin knows the ending, and has had it planned since the beginning.  The ending to the series is something intentionally and infuriatingly anticlimactic.  Such as: the Others simply invade and kill everyone, despite all the efforts of the protagonists over seven books.  Something equally as anticlimactic as that.  As originally intended, the ending was supposed to thwart reader expectations about what an epic fantasy was, thinking the epic size would lead to an epic payoff.  Now that the series has become internationally famous, he doesn't want to write the ending he had planned, and he doesn't know how else to end the series.  Martin is intentionally stalling to avoid the backlash the true ending will  get, and he's not going to finish the books. in his lifetie

So that's the theory.  But what's the evidence for it?

Firstly, Martin's own testimony that A Song of Ice and Fire is inspired by and based on the other series, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, by Tad Williams.  Anyone who has read MST knows this already, but it might surprise fans of the HBO series, or readers less into fantasy, to know that the world of Westeros is almost entirely borrowed from Osten Ard of MST.  The history, the characters, the central conflict of the world, the in-fighting between brothers for the kingdom, the exiled elven-like creatures who live in the northern woods -- all of it is from Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.

If so much of ASOIAF is borrowed from MST, including the central conflict between humanity to the south and the Others to the north, it stands to reason that the resolution of the conflict is also borrowed.

Now, MST does not have an anticlimactic ending.  But it has an ending that throws a wrench into the usual expectations of epic fantasy.  (I'm being deliberately vague because I won't want to spoil the series -- if you read the books, then you will understand where I'm going)

I think Martin intended an ending similar, but different, to the ending of MST.  An ending that subverts our expectations, but does so by dashing all of our hopes to pieces.  I think ASOIAF has the ending that Williams would have given to his series if he had been more willing to enrage his audience.

But what about textual evidence?  Is there anything in the series that would lead us to suspect that Martin intends to build up our hopes and then dash them to pieces?

I don't even really need to ask that, do I?

But here are a few examples:

1. Ned Stark, who we are led to believe is the main protagonist, dying almost halfway through the first book.

2. Robb Stark, who we are led to believe is the new main protagonist out to avenge his father, dying almost halfway through the third book.

3. Renly Baratheon, out to avenge his own brother, raising an army to usurp the mad boy-king Joffrey, only to be unceremoniously killed in his tent.

4. Bran Stark, who overheard the plot of Cersei and Jaime in the tower, forgetting everything and never remembering any of it, ever.  Not even suddenly recalling the plans just in the nick of time.

5. The Viper, fully channeling Inigo Montoya, suddenly being crushed to death at the very end of his fight against the Mountain, technically losing and thereby condemning Tyrion to death.

6. Arya Stark, losing her dire wolf but hearing hints of it in the countryside, and then never, ever finding it again.

7. The Brotherhood without Banners, the only noble, decent people on the entire continent,  fighting with the spirit of Robin Hood to right the wrongs of the world, becoming just a bunch of thugs who go around killing people for no reason.

I could go on.  So many of the threads in the story are clearly echoing tropes, playing on expectations.  We almost fill-in the stories ourselves before they're over, then suddenly they go nowhere and are all abruptly cut short by reality.

This all is Martin preparing us for the ending.

Do you remember where you were when you read the Red Wedding?

I do.  I was in my old room in my parents' old home.  And I was furious.  I threw the book across the room.  I cursed.  I questioned why I was even reading it.  I almost just gave up on the series.

But it was a small detail that suddenly crept into my memory that made me continue going.  The little hint Danaerys sees in the House of the Undying.  Martin was planning the Red Wedding since at least the second book.  It was set up.  He had primed his audience to expect it, and had left little hints in the text that it was going to happen.

All of these dead-end plot threads and frustrations and dead characters and losing heroes are all training, so that at the end of the story, when we read the anticlimactic ending with Dany and Jon simply dying and the Others overrunning the continent in eternal winter, we will close the book and not be able to say that we weren't warned about it.  "Of course it ended that way," we'll eventually say.  It will still hurt, and we'll still be pissed we wasted 20 years following these stupid books and rereading them every five years when new ones come out, but we won't be able to say we had any right to expect anything other than what we got.  And in a book series filled with epic stories and quests that ultimately fail and lead nowhere, we'll look back and see it, right in front of our faces the whole time, the name of Rickon's wolf: shaggy dog.

Except that the series became extremely popular.  Martin's reimagining of fantasy was his first foray into the genre, and he probably wasn't expecting the reception he got.  His books became an international bestseller, falling into the fantasy canon alongside Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Earthsea, Harry Potter, Lovecraft, Conan the Barbarian, or Wheel of Time.

Writing the planned ending will, possibly, destroy the esteemed position of his book.

This is why he is willing to let someone else finish his grande opus: because it is not really his grande opus.  It is instead his attempt to readapt a different series to have a  grittier, more subversive ending that will definitely piss off all of his readers.  Best leave it to Hollywood to jam a traditional, boring, happy ending into it.

I think Martin's plan is to compile notes and wait until he dies so that someone else can pick up the story and finish it the way he originally intended, without Martin having to live through the backlash that will come from it.  The readers will be disappointed by this ending.  For most, though, the ending of the TV series will be the only ending to the series, and I expect that ending to be much more upbeat and typical.

So that's my theory.  The books are a shaggy dog story, and Rickon's wolf is there as foreshadowing of it.