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A Dream of Spring
Martin, Tolkien, Winter, and a Way Through
George RR Martin gets criticized, sometimes rightly so, but he is a brilliant author and A Song of Ice and Fire is a political masterpiece of vision and genius. This old BAP tweet spurred a thought in me, I must share.
“Hijacking institutions to receive short-term benefit from chaos” inspires image of Littlefinger’s “chaos is a ladder” meme, and deserves to be expounded upon.
On its surface, it needs no further analysis. Financiers / oligarchs / elites are going to use chaos to enrich themselves in the short term. But the context of the broader narrative provides a deeper meaning that is relevant and insightful:
“Winter is coming.” The Others represent existential crisis which looms to threaten the entire world if elites can’t get their act together and govern for the common good, and it’s just so hopeless for the protagonists, because the elites don’t stop looting. Their corruption and shortsightedness is just as big of a threat as the Others. Now, the Others and their Winter is an allegory, and you could pick whichever one you like: it’s said Martin sees it as climate change; it could be a Demographic winter; it could be debt crises caused by endless spending; it could be literal migration of life-sucking slaves. Whatever you choose, some force is coming down on this world of ours and elites in their short sighted pursuits fail to see or care — the looting is too good, the chaos is too profitable. Damnit, pull your heads out of the sand!
Well, here’s the silver lining: their short sightedness will kill them, and provide an opening for the “good guys” to emerge as rulers after the winter.
Martin is derided for telling a story where virtue is punished, and cynical abuse of power is rewarded (everything is gray, good guys lose and bad guys win); but this is a brain-dead reading. Yes, it certainly appears that Ned and the Starks are getting punished for their virtue and loyalty at this point in the story, doesn’t it? But the order of the Lannisters — built on gold and backstabbing and plundering and short-sighted application of chaos for profit — is about to be completely liquidated, and all the loyalty that the Starks have accrued is about to pay off to their own benefit in the North (if he can ever finish the damn story).
The title of the last book in the series will be “A Dream of Spring”. It’s setting up for the order that comes after this Winter actually comes. And in this way, it’s a vindication that you can’t escape nature. You can loot in the short term, but in the long run, you can’t outrun the very turning of the world and its seasons.
This relates directly to JRR Tolkien’s Spenglerian political narrative. Sauron—the embodiment of the Industrial Spirit of the Age—eventually collapses on itself, for a reason that Gandalf describes to us in the “White Rider” chapter: this Lord and his Elites cannot possibly imagine that other nobles may seek to govern differently than him. “That we would seek to destroy his ring has not entered into his darkest dreams.” “That which devours all”—this short sighted pursuit of profit—is incapable of seeing that in devouring everything, he himself will be destroyed. Sauron trusts to untrustworthy elites (Saruman), and the elites themselves trust to untrustworthy slaves (orcs). They stab each other in the back as they plunder (Saruman tries to steal the ring, but the orcs then turn on themselves and ruin the plan—treachery upon treachery!). And this spirit—part of their very nature—leads to their eventual collapse, and the birth of a new order.
The Ring is destroyed and Aragorn is crowned as Summer rises in middle earth; the King is wed to his bride on midsummer day. The Winter has passed. The old order has collapsed, and yes it has left destruction in its wake—Gandalf and Elrond know that those cities the Rings of Power have built must necessarily fade because they were tied to the One Ring.
But from death comes life. Young, a small shoot out of plowed earth. But new and noble and good. The sapling of the white tree, whose line goes back to the undying lands.
“Chaos is a ladder” for a time, until the stars turn and it is turned downward and becomes instead a stairway down into an abyss. It’s all for nothing. The Spring comes again. It is up to heroes to determine the Dream, the Ideal, that guides the new season; but their heroism must first be pointed toward preparing to survive the winter (whether it’s demographic winter or global warming or financial collapse or whatever it turns out to be).
And the way you survive the Winter that is Coming, Martin echoes Tolkien again: intense loyalty among a people; virtue; heroism; fellowship; and a shared Dream of Spring.
Oh, and a mystical connection to blood memories and the land of your ancestors. But I have written about that elsewhere…