Friday, July 15, 2011

I Still Love Sam Tarly

I'm about 200 pages into A Dance with Dragons, so no spoilers ;) Minor ones for the books and show ahead.

I've been a big fan of the Song of Ice and Fire book series since late high school. For those of you who don't know, that's the series that begins with A Game of Thrones, which recently got an excellent adaptation into an HBO miniseries (that I still haven't seen all of, but what I have seen was excellent). It's a rather gritty high low fantasy concept, focused on character study and worldwide politics. The characters are every single one of them vibrant and well-thought, and varied enough that I can't imagine anyone reading the series without finding someone to root for. There are a few fan favorites, but while everyone seems to have the same top two, the third slot, and fourth and fifth can change around like crazy.

The series actually came up recently in something of a feminist debate, after a New York Times reviewer referred to the HBO show as "boy fiction" dressed up with sex for the ladies. Which, apart from getting the stereotype wrong anyway, is nonsensical when one stops to think of the sheer variety of women presented in the series. Granted, Martin’s universe is patriarchal and cruel to its women, but a good majority of their storylines show how they deal with the lack of power that they have. Catelyn Stark raises her children and tries not to let her sons be lost to her; Cersei Lannister manipulates the men around her until she can become Queen Regent; Daenerys Targaryan is thrust into power that she isn’t prepared for, and attempts to be both a fair Queen and a conqueror.

So there’s a lot that I love about the books. But the thing is, I don’t think I’ve read them through since I got into Fat Acceptance. None of what’s about to follow means that I think the books or bad, or that Martin should be hanged, or that he’s obligated in any way to change the characters, or even that I expect any fantasy author to do so.

But in this world, Fat is a signifier of character flaws. I’m reading the early chapters, and none of the characters can stop from commenting about how termendously fat Illiryo is - so fat that his shirts could double as ships’ sails, so fat that he’s constantly eating and has to be carried in a liter. And I realized that I can think of a grand total of three characters who were overtly described as Fat during the course of the series, all of whom embody particular character flaws that their fatness emphasizes.

Sam Tarly (a favorite of mine since he first showed up) is a very un-manly man, in a manly man’s world. He prefers books to swords, he loves music, he prefers to be inside than out, he’s shy and cowardly. And he’s fat. He’s a little tubby pig of a boy and roundly mocked for it by his peers. Sam’s fatness seems both to show him as someone who can’t be as active as the rest (even though Sam does become a pretty important fighter later on), and as a childish person. He isn’t a man the same way that his same-aged, muscular, non-fat peers are. I also have an image in my head of Tommen Baratheon as being a little bit of a butterball, but I can’t remember if that’s in the book or just in my head - but similarly, Tommen is a very young boy who can’t by any circumstances be considered a man, and is not meant to be taken seriously as a source of authority.

Magister Illiryo is our aforementioned fat man, a rich merchant depicted as both lazy and overindulgent. In his opening scenes in Dance with Dragons, he is almost constantly nibbling on something, and his fat is as much a signifier as his luxurious clothes and palace that he is a man with no drive to ‘control himself’. He might as well be a hedonist for the way he’s portrayed, and he moves people into place for his own gains with a sneaky and untrustworthy skill. Illiryo is a man meant to make people uneasy, and his “grotesque” figure is part of creating that effect.

Robert Baratheon used to be a mighty warrior, but as he has become King and let himself go, he grew fat and lazy. Robert I only think is a partial case of this, but I still can’t help thinking that if the fat weren’t symbolic, it wouldn’t be there on a man with Robert’s history. As he became a worse and worse king, and grew older, he got fatter. Like Tommen after him, Robert can not be taken as a serious source of power in the realm, and like Illiryo, he is shown as being overindulgent in other matters like wine and women.

When I saw Martin talk at a signing for his latest book, someone asked why he had aged the characters up so much for the TV show. Martin replied that although he had done a lot of research and worked to be historically accurate by having very young women married off (engagement at 11, marriage at 13), you obviously couldn’t do that on television with the amount of sex in the show. I wonder, then, whether it ever occurred to Martin that it would also be historically accurate for fatness, especially in women, to be a sign of good health and wealth, and something to be admired as beauty. There’s something telling about what sells in our world, when we can take it as a given that in the past, people valued things differently in regard to adolescence and the place of women  -  yet Cersei, Daenerys, Margery Tyrell, Sansa Stark, all paragons of beauty, are all slim.

Again, this isn’t me berating an author for using stereotypes and markers that society will read and understand. It just struck me all of a sudden on this reading the way that the fat characters do embody stereotypes and markers. If anyone has characters to add to this list, please add them in the comments, because I’d love to see what I forgot.