This is a post concerning George R.R. Martin's new addition to a Song of Ice and Fire, but I'm going to try to keep it vague and basically free of spoilers. Fair warning all the same.
Martin's series is well known for its gritty realism. I often point to the brutality as a selling point. It's refreshing to read a story where even central characters are vulnerable to death and disfigurement. Aside from grieving for the affected characters, I have been able to breezily read through the gruesomeness of Martin's earlier books. Dashing babies' heads against the wall, ubiquitous rape, dismemberment, plain-old wanton slaughter--all of these things are just par for the course in a Dark Age world, I guess.
But Martin has really kicked it up a notch with a Dance with Dragons, so much so that I was uncomfortable reading some chapters. These chapters are from the perspective of a character whose mind has been shattered by torture. He has been trained to think of himself as a pet of his master. He is not allowed to wash or change clothes from the rags he was given when first captured. He is forced to sleep with dogs and he shares their food. The fact that the reader sees the story unfold from this character's perspective drives home the depth of the psychic damage. He has been given a new name, and the character cannot bring himself to vocalize his birth name, even within his own brain. And of course there was a physical component as well. Part of his training involved the slow amputation of a number of fingers and toes. And he lives in constant fear of losing another finger or toe, as well as feeling once again the flensing knife of one of his master's torturers.
For the first couple chapters of this, I felt it was gratuitous. To follow the story, does the reader really need to be inside the head of this suffering shell of a human being? Do we need the paranoia and pain firsthand? Maybe, maybe not; I'm still not sure. But after my initial misgivings, I remembered that torture is still with us in the modern world, with a recent regime of the world's most powerful hegemon torturing captives and the subsequent regime countenancing that policy by refusing to uphold the rule of law by refusing to investigate war crimes. This may not be an isolated incident, as we are arguably moving backward in the court of public opinion. As I'm pretty sure I've mentioned before, a relatively recent poll found a majority of young people think that torture is sometimes justified. This, when I imagine most of us fifteen years ago just assumed that torture was one of those human evils consigned long ago to the dust bin of history, something we would collectively feel embarrassed about, laughing at the ridiculous, transparent arguments that somehow beguiled our ethically slapstick forebears. Like slavery.
Now that the series is a big hit on HBO, I wonder about how different aspects of the story will play out on the screen. Will viewers be able to distinguish these scenes from the torture porn of movies like the Saw franchise? I think so. By the time a Dance with Dragons is beamed into homes everywhere, viewers will have followed the suddenly dehumanized character for four seasons, through highs and lows. The character is no Ned Stark. He has some nasty sins darkening his conscience, but he does have a conscience. The reader at least sees how he grapples with his misdeeds. There is a wealth of context and nuance in the character before he is tortured into his current state so the reader/viewer remembers his humanity even if the character himself does not.
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