Genre in A Song of Ice and Fire

Fantasy as a genre is a problematic discussion to most critics because of their inability to cooperatively locate a coalesced definition. They oftentimes examine the fantastic in their research in order to understand the nature of the genre from different novels and stories in the fantasy canon. Todorov defines the fantastic as the hesitation created when “there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world” (26). He later argues three conditions that contribute to the fantastic: the hesitation, the identification between the reader and the character experiencing the hesitation, and the rejection of “allegorical as well as ‘poetic’ interpretations;” he adds, “The first and the third constitute the genre; the second may not be fulfilled” (33). Eric S. Rabkin acknowledges but departs from Todorov by claiming the fantastic “occurs when the ground rules of a narrative are forced to make a 180 reversal, when prevailing perspectives are directly contradicted” (12). Though both Todorov and Rabkin provide insight into better ways to detect the fantastical in literature, they suffer from their specificity and non-inclusive assertions. What happens when there is an allegorical or poetic device at play in the world of the story; or rather, what if there are no completely contradictory, 180 perspectives? Furthermore, where does George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga fit when it comes to the genre of fantasy, or the fantastic; and how flexible is the series when it comes to assimilating devices from other genres?

Moving away from the fantastic and into the broader genre of fantasy, Roger C. Schlobin argues that fantasy has suffered from entering into the mainstream literary world because “most modern criticism emphasizes genres and specific literary aspects or tropes. Fantasy, however, is not detectable by such tools as theme, character, style, or structure” (x). Schlobin approves the broader use of the term fantasy so that it “can be found in all types of fiction” (x). Parallel to Schlobin but also in direct response to both Rabkin and Todorov, Kathryn Hume gives her definition of fantasy as being “any departure from consensus reality, an impulse native to literature and manifested in innumerable variations, from monster to metaphor” (21). Though vague in terms of defining the genre, Hume “would like to propose a working definition of fantasy whose aim is to be as inclusive and flexible as possible” (20). Her goal is to correct the exclusive definitions of her contemporaries so to better serve the literary world with a unified definition of fantasy. Following Schlobin and Hume, Jane Mobley finds that “magic is the key informing principle in fantasy and delineates both the focus (subject) and form (treatment) of the genre” (120). Without magic governing the laws of nature for the secondary world created in fantasy texts, the reader would not derive an absolute separation between worlds, therefore compromising the validity of the secondary world existing separate from the primary (real) world. Mobley ends with providing six “provocative, not definite” elements that widely appear in fantasy texts: poetic quality, creation of secondary magical worlds, multidimensionality, essential extravagance, spirit of carnival, and mythic dimension (122-124). These elements are important in the classifying of fantasy texts—with the first two being essential. My overall goal in this essay is to properly relate Ice and Fire to other discourses on the fantasy genre in an effort to locate a suitable definition.


So how do we being to categorize the genre of A Song of Ice and Fire? Do we examine the elements of plot, the humans and nonhumans, the first-person perspectives for eight characters per book, or maybe the larger “quasi-medieval” themes as an allegory to modern life? In a sense, excluding any of these aspects will render a faulty view into the category the series falls. In The Origin of Genres, Todorov explains “genres are therefore units that one can describe from two different points of view, that of empirical observation and that of abstract analysis…a genre, literary or otherwise, is nothing but this codification of discursive properties” (162). If we want to go towards an analysis of Ice and Fire in terms of its genre, it will be relevant to consider all the different codes at play—whether they pertain to fantasy or not. Is it safe to assume that rather than Ice and Fire abandoning fantastic elements, it instead embraces the tradition of furthering the boundaries of fantasy? Jacques Derrida approaches genre in a different fashion by stating, “One owes it to oneself not to get mixed up in mixing genres. Or, more rigorously: genres should not intermix” (57). He finds a great fault in defining works of literature within genres because they are “precisely a principle of contamination, a law of impurity, a parasitical economy” (59). However, he later explains his hypothesis in that “every text participates in one or several genres, there is no genreless text; there is always a genre and genres, yet such participation never amounts to belonging” (65). How are we then to examine Ice and Fire according to the fantasy genre in relation to the countless other genres that result from the series’ makeup?

To lay the foundation for the numerous codes at play within the fantasy genre, Dieter Petzoid offers four ways (relevant to Ice and Fire) that reality and fantastic texts relate with each other according to secondary worlds—parallel to Mobley’s second element. The first instance appears when “a text is related to commonly accepted reality in a subversive way, its secondary world is shaped so that it tends to challenge the reader’s concept of reality and his sense of security based on it” (17). He explains that the author presents a secondary world that is similar to reality, but the former employs supernatural or magical elements to disrupt our feelings of reality. This is evident in Ice and Fire through the disruption of dragons in the history of the realm. Countless folk-stories and songs explain the once great Targaryen families conquering of Westeros with the help of dragons hundreds of years prior. The reader may draw a connection to Genghis Khan and his brutal conquering of our past world—also told through stories; similar to those recalling the Targaryen past. The glaring difference is the dragon; it unsettles the reader to think of a reality in which Khan could use dragons to assume larger, more destructive victories; but in the end, the reader makes a clear distinction between the two worlds. The second instance steps away from the supernatural and focuses on the secondary world as being an “alternative to existing reality…ideally without violating existing laws of nature” (17). This mode is common in science fiction in which the uncanny dominates the laws of the secondary world, and makes it appear as if the secondary world could have existed if history took an alternative course. This is problematic for the world of Ice and Fire because there is no rational explanation in our laws of nature to explain the existence of dragons or direwolves (wolves the size of a horse) to ever exist in our primary world—evolution or not. Other fantasy texts may subscribe to this alternative existing reality, but Ice and Fire clearly does not.


Moving to the third instance, Petzoid finds a combination between the alternative and “desiderative, whose basic attitude is: ‘this (secondary) world is better than our familiar world’ ” (17). A connection to Freud’s wish-fulfillment occurs in this mode because of the texts ability of exploring desires in the secondary world that are near-impossible to achieve in the primary world; the reader is presented a world to live out their fantasies. Such fantasies include: “eternal youth, strength, power, regression to a state of childlike innocence or of uterine security, or for a life in perfect harmony in nature” (18). Not so much eternal youth, but eternal life occurs frequently in Ice and Fire, specifically with Thoros of Myr’s ability of reviving dead or near death victims due his supernatural powers of being a red priest. Strength and power are the major themes in the series using tournaments, wars, and other acts of aggression as signs of worth for knights and their families. One of the seven major houses of the kingdoms, the Starks, find little to no childhood security because of the murder of the father and mother while their children are still relatively young. Throughout the novels, the remaining kids are in one way or another looking for a home again among their displaced lives in the desolate wasteland of Westeros; this creates an emotional connection to the readers who also feel detached from their childhoods and are looking for guidance. Finally, the “life in perfect harmony” is evident in the overall theme of the series. The reader immediately arrives in a world of turmoil and socio-political ruin between different cities and families—not to mention the constant threat of nonhuman figures to the realm. Every chance the story gets to dive further away from perfect harmony, it does, which makes the series hard for readers to feel fulfilled, leading to Martin’s ability of continuously releasing sequels that will not fail to captivate the readers wish for fulfillment.

The fourth and final instance between realistic and fantastic texts is that “such texts are informed by the applicative mode, which implies some kind of correspondence between the primary and the secondary world,” and that fantasy fiction’s “applicability rests in their expressing certain basic human experiences through the very structure of the narrative and the constellation of characters” (18). Petzoid claims this to be broader than other instances because of the ambiguity of the correspondence between “pure allegory” and “deep levels of abstraction.” Ice and Fire takes a neutral position between allegory and abstraction. To begin with the latter, the “grey characters” of the secondary world provide an idea of how humans operate in the real world. In an interview with Guardian, Martin claims to have “always been attracted to grey characters rather than black and white characters. You read about these people who perform a heroic act and then…perform a horrible act.” Nobody in the primary or secondary world is pure good or pure evil. The characters represent the ideas of the internal strife of humans in the face of conflict, multi-spatial relationships, and redemption. They find humanity in Martin’s language; the chapters in the novels cycle from the point-of-view of multiple interchanging characters. In the fifth book of the saga, A Dance with Dragons, Martin writes, “The Wall itself turned red and pink and orange, as waves of color danced across the ice. Is this the power of the king’s blood?” (138). He writes not from a distance, but through the point-of-view of John Snow and uses italics for every bit of inner dialogue. The characters have unique psychologies according to their features (sex, age, family, and land) and personalities (stoic v. feeble, smart v. dull, ambitious v. lazy, etc.), which manifests through the italics of the series. From this web of complex human interaction and point-of-view, the characters become just as familiar and unpredictable as real humans; and by this association, “deep levels of abstraction” surface from the application of the secondary world characters.


One instance (from many) that deals with a more direct allegorical approach is the Wall and its relationship to modern day immigration borders. The people north of the Wall, named wildlings because of their uncivilized lifestyles, represent the lesser of the two forces in a hegemonic relationship. The land they live on is fraught with constant blizzards and threats from various supernatural beats. Humans are generally not supposed to live beyond the Wall in the frozen wasteland, but the people south of the Wall view the wildlings as “other” and therefore subject them to a punishing life. This point of allegory directly contradicts Todorov’s third condition of the fantastic, in which “[the reader] must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text: he will reject allegorical as well as ‘poetic’ interpretations” (33). I, along with Petzoid and Mobley, refute this condition based on the inevitably of the secondary world existing as an allegorical extension to its poetic construction. Mobley argues her first element of fantasy fiction—poetic quality—in that “the incantatory nature of the narrative also works on the reader, seeking to enchant, not merely to suspend disbelief (as any art must do), but to promote new belief” (122). This textual enchantment allows for the secondary world of fantasy to exist under its own laws of nature, separate from reality; and is recognizable due to the allegorization of events from the real world.

In closing Petzoid’s approach to fantasy fiction, he argues it “is the result of a combination of the desiderative and the applicative mode” (19). The desiderative applies in Ice and Fire’s ability to represent certain aspects like eternal life, strength, and power. As for the applicative, the secondary world (with respect to reality) is able to come to life with the unpredictability with the characters. According to Petzoid, it is safe to assume Ice and Fire to be fantasy fiction. Specific to Ice and Fire, Ricarda Schultchen argues that the popularity of the saga is the result between the blending of fantasy and a “modern narrative perspective” where “central fantastic features like magic and mythological creatures are used to thicken the plot rather than as elements of the core narrative, which is shaped by politics, war and diplomacy” (122). She quickly premises that the series is in fact fantasy, but goes on to explore the ways Martin utilizes human conflict in achieving popularity to a modern day audience. The predominant storylines affecting our view of the saga involves the politics of power from a distinctly modernist perspective. The importance of this predomination only comes from the secondary world, which is an illusion created by the text; therefore, the modern politics of the novel becomes an allegorization or abstraction of the politics of today.


Returning to Todorov to conclude this essay, his three-condition approach to the fantastic almost holds true. The first two conditions (hesitation and identification) eventuate in the point-of-view writing style, but the third to “reject allegorical as well as ‘poetic’ interpretations,” does not. From the previous argument with Petzoid, Ice and Fire finds an allegorical approach in displaying the connection between moments in the text to bring together the secondary world and reality. To argue using Todorov against his own condition, he speaks of art and science having evolutionary qualities in which “every work modifies the sum of possible works, each new example alters the species” (6). Let not a few moments of allegory hinder its potential for consideration in the fantasy genre. In a broader sense, although the series takes many basic elements from other genres, it does not alter the fact that Ice and Fire is a fantasy text. Going back to Todorov’s Origin of Genres, he briefly mentions “at the heart of [the fantastic’s] universe an event occurs for which it is difficult to find a natural explanation” (167)—I like this definition for its inclusiveness better than his three conditions for the fantastic. These events include: the children’s folk-tales, the embellished oral history of battles and tournaments, the unpredictable characters, and the myth of the realm’s existence. René Descartes famously stated, “a whole cannot exist without all its parts, its parts can exist apart from each other” (213). Because parts can exist separately, many different texts can be included in the fantasy genre that does not share a rigid structure; the importance of defining fantasy (and genres in general) comes from its flexible nonexclusivity. The definition for fantasy I conclude with is the basic creation and recognition of a secondary world independent from our own. Specifically for Ice and Fire, the allegorization of a secondary world that defies Todorov’s third condition is essential in the creation of the fantastic for the saga and the more general contribution to the genre as a whole. Returning to Derrida, he states, “Genres are not to be mixed” (55). It is not that genres mix in a text to form some hybrid genre, but rather the basic parts of their makeup mix. Genres are concrete categories defined by the sum of their basic parts, but those basic parts do not wholly subscribe to one category. Fantasy is a broad genre in which many works constitute as fantasy texts, and more contribute to the characterization of the genre’s makeup everyday, including Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

Derrida, Jacques. “The Law of Genre.” Critical Inquiry 7.1 (1980): 55-81. The University of Chicago Press. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

Descartes, René. “The Identity of Ideas.” A Companion to Descartes. Singapore: Blackwell, 2008. 230. Print.

Hume, Kathryn. Fantasy and Mimesis. Cambridge: Methuen, 1984. Print.

Martin, George R. R. A Dance with Dragons. New York: Random House, 2011. Print.

—. “Martin Talks about New Series Game of Thrones.” Interview. Guardian. Trinidad and Tobago Guardian Online, 11 June 2011. Web. 30 Apr. 2015. <;.

Mobley, Jane. “Toward a Definition of Fantasy Fiction.” Extrapolation 15 (1974): 117-28. Western Washington University. Web. 7 May 2015.

Petzoid, Dieter. “Fantasy Fiction and Related Genres.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 32.1 (1986): 11-20. John Hopkins University Press. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

Rabkin, Eric S. The Fantastic in Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1976. Print.

Schlobin, Roger C. “Preface.” The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art. Harvester Limited, 1982. Print.

Schultchen, Ricarda. “A Game of Thrones, Indeed: A Lot of Politics and Just a Bit of Magic in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.” Inklings 30 (2012): 122-34. Web. 11 May 2015.

Todorov, Tzvetan. “The Origin of Genres.” New Literary History 8.1 (1976): 159-70. The John Hopkins University Press. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

Todorov, Tzvetan, and Richard Howard. The Fantastic. Press of Case Western Reserve U, 1973. Print.

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