"Power resides where men believe it resides," said the teaser for Season 2 of the HBO series A Game of Thrones, which began airing this last Sunday night. "It's a trick, a shadow on the wall": a fitting epigraph for a postmodern fairy tale.
George R. R. Martin has written five books so far in the series on which the TV show is based, the most recent of which, A Dance with Dragons, appeared last summer and immediately topped the bestseller list. Martin's take-no-prisoners realism was evident early on: "When you play a game of thrones you win or you die. There is no middle ground." There is power and there is death, there is king and there is pawn. There is such a thing as honor and valor, but these are secondary, maybe tertiary, to surviving the day. As he writes of one of the heroes of old: "Rhaegar fought valiantly, Rhaegar fought nobly, Rhaegar fought bravely. And Rhaegar died."
Martin has been compared to Tolkien. The depth and richness of his world make that claim plausible. In every narrative nook is another mystery, another layered plot for conspiracy enthusiasts to savor. That, at least, is part of the attraction of the series: its inscrutable narrative density. Yet in many respects, Martin's stories have more in common with Machiavelli's Prince than with Tolkien's tales of Middle Earth. Political realists have been quick to catch on to this affinity—Foreign Policy even ran a feature on Martin's realism and its insights for international politics. When asked if he thought his books were too cynical, Martin simply responded "they are realistic."