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George R.R. Martin: The Rolling Stone Interview

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It's a shockingly brutal story that you tell. The first major jolt comes when the knight Jaime Lannister pushes a child, Bran Stark, through a window because the child witnessed Jaime and Jaime's sister, Cersei – the wife of Westeros' King Robert – having sex. That moment grabs you by the throat. 

I've had a million people tell me that was the moment that hooked them, where they said, "Well, this is just not the same story I read a million times before." Bran is the first viewpoint character. In the back of their heads, people are thinking Bran is the hero of the story. He's young King Arthur. We're going to follow this young boy – and then, boom: You don't expect something like that to happen to him. So that was successful [laughs].

Both Jaime and Cersei are clearly despicable in those moments. Later, though, we see a more humane side of Jaime when he rescues a woman, who had been an enemy, from rape. All of a sudden we don't know what to feel about Jaime.
One of the things I wanted to explore with Jaime, and with so many of the characters, is the whole issue of redemption. When can we be redeemed? Is redemption even possible? I don't have an answer. But when do we forgive people? You see it all around in our society, in constant debates. Should we forgive Michael Vick? I have friends who are dog-lovers who will never forgive Michael Vick. Michael Vick has served years in prison; he's apologized. Has he apologized sufficiently? Woody Allen: Is Woody Allen someone that we should laud, or someone that we should despise? Or Roman Polanski, Paula Deen. Our society is full of people who have fallen in one way or another, and what do we do with these people? How many good acts make up for a bad act? If you're a Nazi war criminal and then spend the next 40 years doing good deeds and feeding the hungry, does that make up for being a concentration-camp guard? I don't know the answer, but these are questions worth thinking about. I want there to be a possibility of redemption for us, because we all do terrible things. We should be able to be forgiven. Because if there is no possibility of redemption, what's the answer then? [Martin pauses for a moment.] You've read the books?

Yes.
Who kills Joffrey?

That killing happens early in this fourth season. The books, of course, are well past the poisoning of King Joffrey.
In the books – and I make no promises, because I have two more books to write, and I may have more surprises to reveal – the conclusion that the careful reader draws is that Joffrey was killed by the Queen of Thorns, using poison from Sansa's hairnet, so that if anyone did think it was poison, then Sansa would be blamed for it. Sansa had certainly good reason for it.

The reason I bring this up is because that's an interesting question of redemption. That's more like killing Hitler. Does the Queen of Thorns need redemption? Did the Queen of Thorns kill Hitler, or did she murder a 13-year-old boy? Or both? She had good reasons to remove Joffrey. Is it a case where the end justifies the means? I don't know. That's what I want the reader or viewer to wrestle with, and to debate.

I don't know if somebody like Jaime or Cersei can be redeemed. Cersei's a great character – she's like Lady Macbeth.
Well, redeemed in whose eyes? She'll never be redeemed in the eyes of some. She's a character who's very protective of her children. You can argue, well, does she genuinely love her children, or does she just love them because they're her children? There's certainly a great level of narcissism in Cersei. She has an almost sociopathic view of the world and civilization. At the same time, what Jaime did is interesting. I don't have any kids myself, but I've talked with other people who have. Remember, Jaime isn't just trying to kill Bran because he's an annoying little kid. Bran has seen something that is basically a death sentence for Jaime, for Cersei, and their children – their three actual children. So I've asked people who do have children, "Well, what would you do in Jaime's situation?" They say, "Well, I'm not a bad guy – I wouldn't kill." Are you sure? Never? If Bran tells King Robert he's going to kill you and your sister-lover, and your three children. . . .

Then many of them hesitate. Probably more people than not would say, "Yeah, I would kill someone else's child to save my own child, even if that other child was innocent." These are the difficult decisions people make, and they're worth examining.

By contrast, when Ned Stark beheads the Night Watchman, and later, when Ned's son Robb beheads another man, those killings take a toll on the two Starks. It's not easy for them to do it. It weighs on them.
As it should, I think. Taking human life should always be a very serious thing. There's something very close up about the Middle Ages. You're taking a sharp piece of steel and hacking at someone's head, and you're getting spattered with his blood, and you're hearing his screams. In some ways maybe it's more brutal that we've insulated ourselves from that. We're setting up mechanisms where we can kill human beings with drones and missiles where you're sitting at a console and pressing the button. We never have to hear their whimpering, or hear them begging for their mother, or dying in horrible realities around us. I don't know if that's necessarily such a good thing. You see this same moral struggle all through history. It's always the question, when you're at war, do you do whatever it takes to win, or do you actually maintain your own moral standard and ideals? Should we be waterboarding people? What if we get valuable information that saves our lives? Well, even so, aren't we compromising ourselves? But if it prevents another 9/11, is torture worth it? I don't know, but it's a question worth asking. Do you commit horrible crimes to stay alive so your side should win?

A major concern in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones is power. Almost everybody – except maybe Daenerys, across the waters with her dragons – wields power badly.
Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it's not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn't ask the question: What was Aragorn's tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren't gone – they're in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?

In real life, real-life kings had real-life problems to deal with. Just being a good guy was not the answer. You had to make hard, hard decisions. Sometimes what seemed to be a good decision turned around and bit you in the ass; it was the law of unintended consequences. I've tried to get at some of these in my books. My people who are trying to rule don't have an easy time of it. Just having good intentions doesn't make you a wise king.

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