The Sopranos meet Lord of the Rings

Game of Thrones
John Lancaster, London Review of Books

When you ask people why they don’t read fantasy fiction, they usually say something along the lines of, ‘because elves don’t exist’. This makes no sense as an objection. Huge swathes of imaginative literature concern things that don’t exist, and as it happens, things that don’t exist feature particularly prominently in the English literary tradition. The fantastic is central not just to the English canon – Spenser, Shakespeare, even Dickens – but also to our amazing parallel tradition of para-literary works, from Carroll to Conan Doyle to Stoker to Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling, Pullman.

Why then does there seem to be an unbridgeable crevasse between the SF/fantasy audience and the wider literate public. People who don’t usually read, say, thrillers or military history or popular science will read, say, Gone Girl or Berlin or Bad Pharma. But people who don’t read fantasy just simply, permanently, 100 per cent don’t read fantasy.

That doesn’t stop some of these books finding many millions of readers. The works that do so, though, are almost always crossovers from the category of teen, or as the industry calls it, ‘young adult’, fiction. Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, and the Twilight novels are all in this category, and they’re also not individual works but series. When they found a wider readership they didn’t do so in a merely big way but in an apocalyptically huge one.

Which brings us to G.R. Martin. He has for decades been an immensely prolific and successful writer of fantasy. His five-novel cycle, A Song of Fire and Ice, developed a cult following. When it was adapted for TV by HBO and called Game of Thrones, Martin’s following multiplied to the power of ten; or maybe a thousand?

On the eve of Series’ 3 release, read the full critique of Game of Thrones by John Lancaster at the London Review of Books …