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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 13, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

New Messiah, World of Ice & Fire

I've listened to most of the recent recordings of Handel's Messiah in recent years, and I honestly did not think there could be a new take on it. I've heard it with original instruments, with completely new interpretations, and with ensembles large and small. I've heard it down tempo and up tempo, I've sung the tenor, baritone, and bass parts, I've clenched my fists at mistakes and rejoiced at particularly inspired performances.

And yet it is still possible for a conductor, a choir, and an ensemble of soloists to bring something fresh -- even if it is completely traditional.

The Handel and Haydn Society, with Harry Christophers conducting, released a new Handel's Messiah recording on 29 September of 2014. I downloaded it digitally, not because I wasn't content with the recordings I already have, but because I felt as though I might as well keep up.

No, let's be honest. I was also interested to see what they did wrong, so I could snipe at it just a little in this column.

Instead, I found it to be a lively, brisk interpretation, done with a light hand. The instruments are played by virtuosos, but nobody had to overdo it to prove their virtuosity.

The same applies to the vocal soloists, who sing the words clearly and with meaning. Their performance isn't about impressing us, it's about telling the story. Their voices are glorious but their interpretation is filled with lightness and light. Where others overdecorate the notes in order to show us their originality and dexterity, or sing bombastically to overwhelm us with their power, these soloists are almost conversational in the purity of their interpretation -- while never faltering in their technical perfection.

There are other excellent recordings, and if you're happy with those you already have, be content. This recording breaks no new ground. But if you're interested in hearing this most brilliant of all oratorios with vigor and freshness, or if you own no recording of it, I think you could hardly do better than this one by the Handel and Haydn Society.


Many people have come to George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series through the HBO series named for the first volume: A Game of Thrones. This is the best-done adaptation of a fantasy or science fiction novel ever -- despite the dollops of nudity and perversion added just to reward those who subscribe to a premium channel just for the naughty bits.

But many of us began reading the series long ago, when George R.R. Martin made this massive, memorable shift from being one of the better sci-fi writers to being the reinventor of the fantasy genre.

There have been other massive multi-volume series, of course, and some very good ones. Each of them contributes this and that to the genre.

One of the best trends is that erstwhile sci-fi writers -- like Martin, of course -- have brought some of the tools and esthetic and intellectual principles of science fiction to the fantasy genre. Many writers now treat fantasy like magic, giving it definite rules and limitations, which open up vast story potential. This is why the best of today's fantasy novels are astonishingly realistic, even if the stories are infused with supernatural events.

Of course, I'm not speaking of the writers who don't actually invent much of anything. Zombie and vampire and werewolf stories follow a tradition long established and add very little that is new. They are as derivative as the Tolkien imitations that followed close on the heels of the popularity of Lord of the Rings in the 1960s.

Hmmm, yes, walking dead people, deathless bloodsuckers, violent transformations at the full moon. Unless you're already fascinated by such things, what's the point? You're sightseeing at Niagara. Yep. Looks just like the pictures, only colder and damper.

George R.R. Martin has plenty of traditional fantasy motifs. There are dragons. There are corpses that come back to life with murderous intent. There are even -- shades of The Princess Bride -- people who were only mostly dead, who come back to life with vengeance in their hearts.

But if this were all A Song of Ice and Fire had to offer, it would not be the astonishing phenomenon that it is. The HBO series is so faithful that almost nothing is changed, almost nothing is left out -- and yet the story holds up. Martin has little in his big thick books that can be left out -- it's all there for a reason, moving the story forward or rewarding us with insights along the way.

It works so well because most of the story is not about the magic or the supernatural. This series is actually about the ruling families engaged in a bitter struggle for power in the shadow of two coming apocalypses. One is the coming of a particularly dreadful Winter -- a season of cold and famine that will last decades, accompanied by an invasion of terrible creatures from the northern wastes. The other is the return of the recently deposed Targaryen dynasty, once again riding dragons and eager to burn their way back to power in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.

As we read the books, we are given glimpses of past heroes and past crimes, terrible deeds and wonderful sacrifices that gave shape to the lives of the characters whose stories we're reading now. These glimpses are tantalizing, partly because they give layers of meaning to the present events, and partly for their own sake. It is as if these books were only the last few volumes of a much larger work, whose early volumes have been lost.

Well, now we have them, in the form of a relatively slim book called The World of Ice & Fire, by George R.R. Martin, Elio Garcia, and Linda Antonsson. Loaded with maps, artwork, and family trees, it also has a thorough overview of the history of all the lands and kingdoms of Westeros -- and the cities and empires of the old world to the east.

The text takes the form of a history written by a scholar in the Citadel, who has assembled all the available material in order to give an overview of how the world got to where it is right now.

The "right now" is essentially page one of volume one -- A Game of Thrones. So as far as the "writer" of World of Ice & Fire knows, Robert Baratheon now reigns in King's Landing, having been aided in deposing the Mad Targaryen King by his childhood friend Eddard Stark, who is still very much alive.

The scholar supposedly writing World of Ice & Fire is not unaware of current politics -- he certainly says nothing to imply that he thinks there is anything illegitimate about the accession of King Robert, or that he harbors any nostalgia for the Targaryen dynasty. And yet ... he is clearly fascinated by the power of the dragons and holds dragon-riders to be a breed apart.

His attitude is a rebirth of 19th-century historiography, philology, and New Criticism. He repeats old legends but then dismisses them or declares them to be unsupported by evidence. He is quite willing to assume that this or that legendary figure never existed, or that this or that folk belief is merely wishful thinking by simple folk, which educated people have no reason to take seriously.

Remember that until Schliemann discovered Troy, scholars were convinced that stories of the Trojan War were without historical foundation; we hear the same nonsensical dismissing of ancient records and lore when biblical scholars proclaim their certainty that there was no Abraham, because no evidence has been found to corroborate Genesis. Such scholarly pooh-poohing of ancient sources has blown up in their faces so often that now such deniers are usually more circumspect. Like the "writer" of A World of Ice & Fire, they more often state that there is no evidence, not that a certain person definitely never existed.

However, those of us who have already read the entire series (as far as it exists) know quite well that many of the magical things that this writer claims are mere legend or folklore are in fact true, and not just in the distant past. The scholar thinks there may never have been people who could dwell inside wolves or eagles, or that ravens could ever really talk, or that ancient dragon eggs can be brought to life -- but we know that these things are still very much true.

This makes us wonder just how many of the other wonders told in this history might be true. Which ancient peoples might still survive under the sea or in remote forests? What lost lore of civilizations now known only as ruins will be rediscovered, bringing power to those who find it?

There are also hints from more recent passages of history. One mystery has long been the actual parentage of Jon Snow, who was raised as the bastard son of Eddard Stark -- but who could easily be someone else's son. Indeed, he may well be a Targaryen, his identity hidden in order to keep him from being killed like almost all the others of that house -- and if he is, we may look forward to seeing him show an ability to ride and mentally merge with one of the dragons now undergoing their adolescent pangs on another continent.

And since parentage and bloodlines loom large in the series -- as in the fact that all of King Robert's sons by Cirsei Lannister were really fathered by her brother, Jaime -- we are given ample reason to wonder about the parentage of Tyrion Lannister and others, for various dynasties have scattered their seed promiscuously in the past. Indeed, the scholar asserts in some cases that it's hard to imagine that anyone in certain lands doesn't have royal blood, so thorough were some of the kings in deflowering every virgin they could find.

If you haven't been reading A Song of Ice and Fire, or at least watching A Game of Thrones on HBO, I don't imagine that World of Ice & Fire will have much to interest you. It's rather like reading The Silmarillion without first reading Lord of the Rings -- though I have met a very bright student who read The Silmarillion first and loved it.

Not that A World of Ice & Fire is as challenging to read as The Silmarillion. Remember that Tolkien's interest was in philology, and so what mattered to him were the ancient poems and songs that preserved the old lore of Middle Earth. The Silmarillion is in many places like reading the original, fragmentary source material from a lost culture.

A World of Ice & Fire, by contrast, is an edited, summarized, coherent abridgment of those original sources. So it is far, far more readable.

However, it is readable as survey histories are readable, with one key difference -- World of Ice & Fire isn't describing anything that actually existed. It is still fiction, after all. So unless you're invested in the characters from the novel and fascinated to know how the world got into the shape it's in, it's hard to see what would be the point of starting here. Most prologues are kind of tedious, and if you haven't read the novels, then this book would function for you as one massive prologue.

But I have read the books -- twice -- and am fully invested in the story, and I have to salute A World of Ice & Fire as an admirable achievement in its own right. I'm sure George R.R. Martin had help in going back through all the threads of his story and ferreting out every snippet of "ancient lore" that he has invented along the way -- unless he was doing it anyway in order to prepare the final volumes of the series. But even beyond the research involved is the sheer inventiveness required to create this convoluted yet utterly believable history of a magical world.

The rulers from different eras and nations behave in ways that ring true. Martin is clearly either a devoted student of history or has a gift for knowing how people go about acquiring, keeping, and throwing away power over kingdoms and families.

And so well written is the text of this book that it can be listened to as an audiobook.

That's right -- a book that might be viewed as an art book with long captions is, in fact, a literary work that rewards nonvisual performance. The narrators are effective and the histories are fascinating, especially in light of later events that we who have read the books know are coming, while the scholar does not.

Yes, we would all rather that Martin had produced the next volume of fiction; but then again, because of listening to this book (and, soon enough, reading it in print and seeing the maps and illustrations), I am better prepared to make sense of all that is coming and all that has recently happened.

So fans should not feel cheated that Martin has used part of this hiatus between volumes to create this marvelous book of pseudo-secondary literature. It proves that when he provides us with names of dozens of clans and houses and families, he isn't just spraying out names at random -- they really do have histories, many of which help explain attitudes and events in the novels.

I doubt that Martin will write the later volumes in the expectation that everyone will have read World of Ice & Fire, but I also am sure that those who have read it will be rewarded with a quicker and deeper understanding of events yet to come.

And Martin assures us that some of the fan guesses about what is coming in later books are correct. In fact, he has said that at first he was tempted to change the ending in order to confound those who followed the obscure clues in the previous volumes and followed them to the right ending.

But he repented of that and realized: The clues are there, because I put them there in order to prepare for the ending. Just because some readers are sharp enough to have noticed them and understood their implications is no reason for me to deform the story.

Martin is absolutely right: Just as he wouldn't change his story to pander to the wishes of fans, he also shouldn't change the story to confound their guesses. Even a work of fiction has such a thing as "a true ending," one that grows organically out of the tale as told.

And since Martin has released these books as Dickens did, publishing early installments long before the later ones were written, he now faces the same obligation as Dickens -- to be true to what has already been published.

All in all, therefore, I recommend A World of Ice & Fire most highly. It is a towering achievement of fictional world-building, and it will serve as a map into fully comprehending a major and important work of contemporary literature.

Though I have listened to the book in order, it invites a bit-by-bit reading, since it is divided into a history of various different lands and houses. You can skip one and read another, at will, though since the histories of various peoples overlap, you might get a brief reference in one that is fully fleshed out in another.

Even if you only know the story through the television series, and you don't fancy yourself much of a reader, there are still all those lovely pictures and maps. And everybody who is following the series needs the genealogical charts. Without them, watching Game of Thrones is a bit like playing Fantasy Football without any knowledge of the player and team statistics.

Meanwhile, a personal note to George R.R. Martin: Thank you for stepping away from the TV series long enough to write the next book. Nobody lives forever and the last thing you want is for somebody else to have to step in to finish the books, the way Brandon Sanderson had to finish Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time. I hope you're taking time to exercise and stay healthy.

When you begin a Great Work, you are then required to live long enough to finish it. Sorry, but them's the rules. You must have a lifespan to match your ambition. Otherwise, you run the risk of finding yourself in one of the more colorful circles of hell. Check with Dante. Or Virgil, if you want to skip one of the middlemen.

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