Game of Thrones: Abuse, abuse, and more abuse, oh my!

Game of Thrones: Abuse, abuse, and more abuse, oh my!

I have been pondering off and on about whether I want to read George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series, or not. I'm picky about what I read,  I appreciate a good fantasy, and it seems like he has woven a tale as complex as The Lord of the Rings. In fact, one review on Amazon compared Martin to Tolkien.  Sounds like a good read, right? And it's long! I love long, good books. I postponed reading it until after I graduated because of its long-ness.

But now I'm starting to wonder if I really shouldn't read it.

I'm cautious about books. Sometimes books and movies still trigger me, often unconsciously, until I wonder why I'm crying as if I've been freshly abused. Even if specific memories don't arise, the similarities are enough to set me off. I will read memoirs about people overcoming their past and the abuse. I will read books and articles about abuse. But some ways it's predictable in its unpredictability. Books that are dreadful to read have happy endings. Well-written books often leave the reader unsettled, with a mixed ending. I refuse to waste my time with dreadful books, and I'm skittish about well-written books.

A library school friend posted on Facebook that she was reading the first book in the series, and was struck by just how prevalent and virulent the abuse was against women and children. Sure, Middle-Ages types of stories involve a lot of subjugation of women. However, the women in the books seem so weak. So accepting of the abuse. So co-dependent. This friend shared a small example from the series:

[A newly crowned king to his fiancé (granted, he is portrayed as a BAD king), when she complains about him killing her father]: “‘I hate you,’ she whispered. King Joffrey’s face hardened. ‘My mother tells me that it isn’t fitting that a women should strike his wife. Ser Meryn.’ The knight was on her before she could think, yanking back her hand as she tried to shield her face and backhanding her across the ear with a gloved fist. Sansa did not remember falling, yet the next she knew she was sprawled on one knee amongst the rushes. He head was ringing. Ser Meryn Trant stood over her, with blood on the knuckles of his white silk glove. ‘Will you obey me now, or shall I have him chastise you again?’ Sansa’s ear felt numb. She touched it, and her fingertips came away wet and red. ‘I…as…as you command, my lord.’ ‘Your Grace,’ Joffrey corrected her. ‘I shall look for you in court.’ He turned and left. Ser Meryn and Ser Arys followed him out, but Sandor Clegane lingered long enough to yank her roughly to her feet. ‘Save yourself some pain, girl, and give him what he wants.’ ‘What…what does he want? Please tell me.’ ‘He wants you to smile and smell sweet and be his Lady love,’ the Hound rasped. ‘He wants to hear you recite all your pretty little words the way the septa [governess] taught you. He wants you to lover him…and fear him.’ After he was gone, Sansa sank back onto the rushes, staring at the wall until two of her bed maids crept timidly into the chamber. ‘I will need hot water for my bath, please,’ she told them, ‘and perfume, and some powder to hide this bruise.’ The right side of her face was swollen and beginning to ache, but she knew Joffrey would want her to be beautiful.” (p. 744) Quotes from Martin, George R. R. (2011). “A Game of Thrones”. Bantam Books, New York.

The message here is to subject to the abuse to avoid future abuse. I cannot stand that. I just can't. "Keep the peace," as my mom used to say. It means to just let dad have his way in order to (hopefully) mitigate the future anger. It never works, though. Angry, abusive people will find an excuse. Even if you are perfect, they'll find a reason to have a violent outburst, whether in words, deeds, or hands.

The other thing here that I can't stand: "Keep a good face to the public." Don't let others know that the home life is turbulent. Pretend everything is hunky dory. Lie, if necessary, even to yourself.

I know it's a story. I don't know how it ends. Apparently GRRM plans on having a good ending (not a happy ending necessarily, but a satisfactory ending) like Tolkien had for the LOTR series. (If you read the ending to LOTR, it sort of sucks.)

However, where are the people who recognize abuse for what it is? Where are the the ones standing up for, or striving for what is right?

Many of the female characters, as I read the wikis online, indicate that the women are sexually, psychologically, and physically abused in a variety of ways, and when they are not abused, they are threatened with abuse. They're coerced to keep sweet, as the creeper FLDS guy, Warren Jeffs, puts it.

On one hand, the Wikipedia articles makes the story sound intriguing. On the other hand, I have a feeling that I might get sick of relentless abuse only a few pages into the story, judging from some of the fan wikis. And such relentlessness of the abuse could very easily trigger survivors.

Hell, the relatively brief scenes of the "stepmother" in Tangled was hella triggering. Talk about borderline and narcissistic personality disorders! Survivors of psychological abuse passed around warnings about that online, but I decided to see the movie anyway. Disney can't be that bad, can it? Well, I ended up in a snot-filled cry-fest, feeling all of the pain at once, afterwards.

So, as a librarian (to be), it sounds like a fantastic read. The sex, abuse, and violence doesn't sound (too) gratuitous; it all seems to drive the story to some extent.

However, as a survivor, I'm issuing a trigger alert on this series. Maybe I'll read it someday, but not now.

Have you read the Song of Fire and Ice series? What do you think about the abuse, and can you offer any advice? Please add your thoughts in the comments below, I would appreciate it!

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    Hi, Holly. I've read all five books and they are amazing. The story is great, but it's a story about peoples lives, and as in real life there are very ugly parts. Sansa is literally the weakest female character at the point referenced in the above excerpt, and Joffrey is an abusive king to say the least. But, there are several very strong female leads in the books. One of my favorites is Sansa's younger sister. I won't say anything else for risk of spoiling anything but, it is set in the middle-ages. Women were disregarded, and men were cruel. I consider myself a manly man, and there were scenes that made me uncomfortable. I've never been abused, but I am repulsed by suffering. But I pushed through those parts and am now anxiously awaiting the sixth book. I hope this helps.

  • Holly,

    I agree with Issac. George RR Martin's series is amazingly well written, but not easy to read. That real life news from chaotic countries is much the same, does little to make these books easier to read. The violence and abuse never felt exploitative in his books, but he does not shy away from in-character cruelty. The Sansa Stark scene you quote is much tamer than the worst cases of abuse in the series.

    I loved the books, but, based on your reaction to this piece, I strongly recommend that you do not read them.

  • In reply to Laros:

    Thank you to you and Issac for commenting, I really appreciate it. I really want to read the books because, as you both said, they're really well written. I can stand a little bit sprinkled here and there (think Harry Potter, LOTR, the Amber books by Zelazny), and so long as it's in-character and not just for shock and gore. But it does seems a bit intense for now. Maybe in a couple of years...or once he finishes the last book :)

  • I am a survivor of sexual abuse, not physical though. I have really, really enjoyed Game of Thrones. I have read all five books. Twice. And watched the series.

    It is a brutal culture, in every way imaginable. Life is cruel for everyone -- women and men. And while there is rape and physical abuse I would not say that GRRM writes in a way that condones it. He has successfully created an entire universe with complex characters, situations, and very long story arcs. No one 100% bad -- life is just not that clean. (Well maybe Joffrey is the exception!) No one is 100% good

    In the scene above, Joffrey is clearly a bad guy. He gets his just desserts in the end -- several books later though. Sansa represents one way one woman responds to abuse. But she is only one of several female characters. There are as many ways that the women respond to the brutality around them as there are women. Some stand up and fight, some run away, some just take it, some get their revenge in manipulative ways. And the same character might not react the same way every time. The characters do evolve.

    The interesting thing about that scene is that the character who tells her to just be sweet and give Joffrey what he wants (the man they call The Hound) is actually the one who really loves Sansa. He is trying to save her life in the only way possible for her at that moment.

    Anyway, the violence in the series is quite gruesome -- way beyond Harry Potter. LOTR is equally violent in that there's a lot of fighting and battles and wild animals gnawing on people. There's a lot of more sexual violence and intimate partner violence in GoT though -- possibly because there are virtually no female characters in LOTR.

    I have had 20 years of therapy post-abuse so I'm not easily triggered these days. If you are, might be better to wait. It's such a wonderful adventure that I would hate for your enjoyment of it to be ruined by bad memories.

  • In reply to Christine Whitley:

    Thanks, Christine--your assessment of GoT helps so much, and I'm glad to hear more about the background of that scene...and I'm really glad to hear Joffrey gets his comeuppance. Eventually.

    I WANT to read the books. I love a good, well-written adventure. But I think I'll wait a little while longer before I delve into it. I'm not as easily triggered as I used to be, but I think I need a little more time. Maybe when the next book comes out? Or maybe I won't be able to wait that long, heh.

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