Point of View, Subjectivity, and Otherness in A Song of Ice and Fire

Mar 5, 2011 | Fiction/Lit/Movies

(Note that at the time of writing this post, only four books have been released in what is expected to be a seven-book series. Also note that there are some spoilers towards the end of this post, which I’ve indicated with a rather prominent warning.)

One of the unique things about George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series is its use of what are commonly referred to as “POV chapters.” Every one of the books in the series has a small cast of “POV characters,” and it is through these characters’ perspectives that we see the story unfold. Each chapter presents a single point of view; each chapter is even named after the character whose point of view is being presented. The chapters are not first person narration, but rather third person narration with a large amount of focalization and free indirect discourse.

As we move on to later books in the series, more POV characters are introduced. Often very minor (or even previously non-existent) characters suddenly become POV characters, and this of course increases their seeming importance to us, the reader, since each POV character is, from their own perspective, the most important character in the world. It is also easy to empathize most with the character whose perspective filters the story. We get their view of events, their hopes, their fears, and so on.

This also means that villains who seem very one-dimensional can begin to be much more sympathetic once we get their point of view. If we only get Character A’s perspective of Character B, and Character A hates Character B, then of course Character B will probably seem like a jerk to the reader, too (even if the reader does notice a few cracks and obvious biases in Character A’s reasoning). Character A might even have good reason to hate Character B, since Character A doesn’t know the whole story, and doesn’t understand Character B’s true motivations.

But once we get Character B’s subjective perception of events, things begin to change. We realize that their seemingly completely indefensible actions do, in fact, have a defense. And even if we don’t agree with the logic guiding their actions, we might at least sympathize with them, especially if we discover that they feel guilty about what they’ve done (and, thinking back, we realize we never agreed completely with absolutely everything Character A did, either). We begin to discover that Character B has a complex interior life, a far more complex interior life than Character A initially gave them credit for.

The use of the POV chapter technique switches us between subjectivities. George Eliot’s narrators were really good at this. Jane Austen was also one of the pioneers in her fluid movements of focalization and free indirect speech, switching seamlessly and fluidly from focalized perspective to focalized perspective within the span of a single paragraph. What this heavy use of focalization usually reveals is a more complex inner life than we initially gave a character credit for. The object becomes a subject. In Jane Austen, the more focalization and free indirect speech we get for a character, the more we like that character. (Wow! Elizabeth Bennet has so much interiority! I love her!) If you never have your thoughts reported in free indirect speech in Jane Austen it’s probably because you’re just comedy relief or something.

But back to A Song of Ice and Fire: in Character A’s POV chapters Character B is an object, but Character B is the subject of his own POV chapters. We have to change our opinions once we get Character B’s perspective. It’s kinda like Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book, but in The Ring and the Book, we never really sympathize with Count Guido, even though he gets two monologues and the other characters only get one. He’s a bastard all the way through.

What is unique about GRRM’s series is that as we see watch petty squabbles between these characters who have more in common than it at first seems (in terms of their fears and hopes, the surprising complexity of their inner life, etc.), we also have the threat of a not-so-petty squabble.

To clarify, the “petty” squabble I’m talking about is what characters refer to as “the Game of Thrones” (also the title of the first novel in the series). This is the game in which different POV characters vie for political power in the Seven Kingdoms. (Of course non-POV characters vie for power as well.)

This game of thrones is of course “just a game.” It doesn’t really matter who is actually sitting on the throne: a Mad King is deposed, but he’s replaced by a king who completely ignores the affairs of state. The peasant class continually suffers, regardless who sits the Throne. Nothing changes, really, and outside of the aristocracy, most people don’t really care who has political power. (They also don’t really know what’s going on, since gossip and ignorant superstition always distort the truth to a pretty absurd degree.) But all the different POV character have (mostly) very similar ambitions.

The larger threat, coming from beyond “the Wall,” way up in the North, is certainly more important: an army of “Others” are coming. We do not get the perspective of any single Other. The Others are like empty shells of cold evil, not quite a ghost, but certainly not human. They do not have any subjectivity in the way we understand the concept. They are truly “Other” to every POV character in the book.

The Others are like a force of nature. The motto of House Stark is “Winter is Coming,” and the ominous overtones of this motto obviously foreshadows the coming of the Others, who are associated with winter, ice, cold, and the land outside civil society. (The few humans who are unlucky enough to live beyond the wall are called “wildlings,” but consider themselves “free,” insofar as they are not bound by the same feudal customs.) We do not get the perspective of the Others, just like we will never get the perspective of nature. Characters cannot relate to an Other the way that can relate to another character [1]. Nature and the Others are relentless; they cannot be reasoned with. The Others are not like us. Eventually the various squabbling POV characters will have to unite in order to deal with the much larger outside threat.

—Warning: Spoilers Below—

The opposition between Ice (the cold Others, coming from the wintery and barren North) and Fire (Daenerys with her dragons, and who is not harmed by fire) also plays into this important theme. I am reminded here of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, and more specifically the opposition that Brontë sets up between the cold exterior that Lucy Snowe (snow!) puts on — the cold mask of her exterior — and her more fiery, passionate inner life; passion being associated with burning desire, fire, etc. (Speaking of Charlotte Brontë, ice and fire also constitute important aspects of Jane Eyre’s subjectivity.) But going back to A Song of Ice and Fire, we have human passion, and its associations with heat, up against the icy, cold, empty shells of inhuman Otherness. The Others are like cold corpses, dead things that have been emptied of the heat of human life. (Of course this is similar to vampires and other undead creatures; it’s hardly an uncommon trope in fiction.)

Slightly off-topic, but I am reminded of a quote by John Ruskin, from Modern Painters V:

“all the power of nature depends on subjection to the human soul. Man is the sun of the world; more than the real sun. The fire of his wonderful heart is the only light and heat worth gauge or measure. where he is, are the topics; where he is not, the ice-world” (Pt. IX, ch. 1 “The Dark Mirror”).

Anyways, a couple theories regarding the series and the “song of ice and fire” need to be addressed here. The most important one is in regards to Jon Snow’s parentage (note the name, obviously), but first I should probably mention the theory which claims that the “song of ice and fire” in the series’ title refers to a union between Jon Snow (Ice) and Daenerys Targaryen (Fire). Jon comes from the North, and at the beginning of the first book he finds a snowy white direwolf called “Ghost” (i.e., not-Life, like the Others), just as Daenerys, coming up from the southeast, hatches dragons and is herself immune to fire.

But the common theory now (and there’s a fair bit of evidence for this, as well as a Facebook group) is that the Song of Ice and Fire actually refers to Jon’s parents, who were, in fact, not Ned Stark and an unknown woman, but Rhaegar Targaryen (Fire) and Lyanna Stark (Ice). The Targaryens have always been associated with dragons and heat, and the Starks have always been associated with winter and the north. So Jon is not simply one half of the song of ice and fire (i.e., the “ice” half), rather he is himself the song of both Ice and Fire, the realization of that union.

This theory regarding Rhaegar and Lyanna also negates the above one if the union between Jon and Dany were taken literally, since such a literal union would imply that incest is the solution to the threat of Otherness (if Rheagar is Jon’s father, then Daenerys is his aunt). Although there’s plenty of incest in the series I seriously doubt that the conflicts of the series will be wrapped up with an incestuous union. (Although I guess it could be. That would be… something.)

Thematically, then, Jon represents the overcoming of the alienation between self and other, fire (inner life) and ice (cold exterior). Without sounding too corny, one of the points of the series is that all the characters, with their conflicting points of view and petty squabbles, are going to have to overcome their differences and deal with the larger threat. After all, they all have much in common (they all have a passionate and complex inner life, regardless of what they’ve done), and together they need to deal with that which truly does not have an interior life, that cold force of nature which is truly “other” to any single subjective perspective: the force of nature (the objective world) coming down from up beyond the Wall, the force of nature coming down from “outside” human society, beyond the Wall of civilization, just as the objective world comes down upon the human subject and penetrates into his inner subjective life.

Jon Snow, then, is this union (the song) between Ice and Fire — the acknowledgment that humans have both an objective “shell” and a subjective “core” [2]. In A Clash of Kings Daenerys has a vision of her brother Rhaegar standing over a child bed, saying, “He is the prince that was promised, and his is the song of ice and fire” [3]. Jon is the cold (the exterior object) and, as the characters will come to discover, he is also the fire (the interior subject).

It is significant, too, that Jon chooses to go to the Wall. He exists at the threshold between human society and the forces of nature, the threshold between subject and object, between the subjective person and the objective world outside, between self and absolute Other.

Finally, this theory regarding the series also raises a few ethical questions, since I personally think that all types of “Otherness”-labeling is basically what constitutes evil, even if you want to claim, No really, this time they really ARE Other–they’re totally not like us. They’re the evil ones. I mean, obviously in the series the Others really are evil (probably?), but that is itself a bit problematic, as it implies that there really are things for which it is safe or ethical to label as Other. I don’t think it’s ever okay to do that, even with something like the “awesome forces of Nature” or something. (See, for example, the argument in Timothy Morton’s Ecology Without Nature.)

[1] “An Other” versus “an other.”  The capital-o Other is the absolute Other. The otherness of another human is, by contrast, not absolute.

[2] Or, at least, we have the illusion that we such a core. I think it was Nietzsche who said that subjectivity is just an illusion caused by language and grammar.

[3] From A Clash of Kings, in one of the Daenerys chapters, obviously. The quote that “he is the prince that was promised” also ties in nicely to Lyanna’s dying words, “Promise me, Ned.”