A Song of Fantasy Traditions: How A Song of Ice and Fire Subverts Traditions of Women in Tolkienesque Fantasy
By Mark Buchanan
Undergraduate Essay, University of British Colombia, 2014
Introduction: George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire consists of a planned seven books, of which five have been published, A Game of Thrones (AGoT), A Clash of Kings (ACoK), A Storm of Swords (ASoS), A Feast for Crows (AFfC), and A Dance with Dragons (ADwD). Women have often been pushed to the margins in the fantasy genre. J. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy stands as the foundation for a particular subgenre of fantasy, and a tradition of focussing almost exclusively on male characters begins with Tolkien as well. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series continues the fantasy genre in the mode of Tolkien and retains many of the same qualities, but differs in its portrayal of women. Martin has not only included female characters in his novels, but has made them integral to the plot, major protagonists, and dynamic characters.
By examining three pairs of characters through the lens of feminist philosopher Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity, it is possible to evaluate Martin’s subversion of the Tolkienesque genre. The first pair is Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth. These two characters form the primary examples of the traditional trope of the chivalric knight. Martin presents Jaime as the stereotypical knight in appearance, but not behaviour, while Brienne juxtaposes with Jaime as a proper knight in behaviour but not title, appearance, or gender. The second pair consists of the two queens, Cersei Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen. Both of these queens gain power through a patriarchal society, but subvert the system to their benefit despite obstruction from those around them. The final pair is Arya and Sansa Stark, two sisters who each undergo a traumatic event but react very differently. They both respond with an outward performance of gender, but while Arya outwardly performs as a male, Sansa takes her performance of her own gender to a level that borders on parody.
Through analysis of these three pairs of characters I will show how Martin is working against the tradition of marginalized female characters in the fantasy genre. Current scholarship on the fantasy genre is more focussed on defining the genre than on discussion of female characters. Therefore, it is important to analyse the way that the traditions of the genre are changing. Although traditionally in the fantasy genre women are frequently marginalized, Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series subverts the traditions of the genre by giving his female characters integral roles in the plot, and coupling this with an awareness of the complex rules that govern gender.