‘Human beings, in point of fact, are lonely by nature, and one should feel sorry for them and love them and mourn with them. It is certain that people would understand one another better and love one another more if they would admit to one another how lonely they were, how sad they were in their tormented, anxious longings and feeble hopes’.
– Halldór Laxness
Having never read any Icelandic fiction, I decided (with trepidation) to order a copy of ‘Independent People’ by Halldór Laxness on the recommendation of a friend. Originally published in two volumes in 1934 and 1935 respectively, Laxness’s epic novel centres around Bjartur of Summerhouses, an Icelandic farmer doggedly determined to acquire one thing in life: Independence. Set against the backdrop of early-twentieth century Rural Iceland, the novel effortlessly blends social realism with fiction in a way that acts as both an indictment of Capitalist materialism as well as highlighting the true cost of pursuing stoic self-reliance.
As Bjartur aggravatingly pursues his quest for independence at all costs in an environment where interdependence is key, the reader is taken on an epic journey that shows the cross-generational consequences Bjartur’s obsession has on his immediate family, friends and neighbours. Yet within the brutal climate and harsh Winter’s endured by all those on the Summerhouse homestead, it is the beauty of fractured family relationships that remain the most lasting and haunting part of Laxness’s story. It is moments of vulnerability between Bjartur and his daughter Ásta Sóllilja that the beauty of the prose is perhaps most striking in its raw intensity:
‘“This was the first time that he has ever looked into the labyrinth of the human soul. He was very far from understanding what he saw. But what was of more value, he felt and suffered with her. In years that were yet to come, he relived this memory in song, in the most beautiful song this world has known. For the understanding of the soul’s defencelessness, of the conflict between the two poles, is not the source of the greatest song. The source of the greatest song is sympathy’.
-Halldór Laxness, Independent People
It is, quite simply, one of those very rare novels that consumes you; it is dark, gritty and yet full of sardonic humour. Only recently reprinted in paperback form after being out of print in the United Kingdom for over 50 years, it is clear to see how this novel contributed to Laxness winning the Nobel Prize in 1955 for his contribution to literature. I failed to put this novel down.
‘Orientalism depends for its strategy on this flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand.’
–Edward W. Said, Orientalism, (London: Penguin, 1995)
Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism suggests that the West imagines, emphasises and distorts cultures of the East. Even though his book was published nearly 40 years ago, the idea of the East being portrayed in this way can still be seen in popular culture today, more precisely in the popular book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, written by George R. R. Martin and the TV adaption Game of Thrones, created by David Beinoff and D. B. Weiss. To summarise Orientalism, Said suggests there are three definitions to the word. The first being a term for anyone who teaches or writes about the Orient in an academic sense. Secondly, he views it as a way of thinking based on the distinction between the Orient and the Occident. Thirdly, it is a way of the West gaining control and authority over the Orient. These concepts and portrayals of the East are a man-made concept, according to Said, that have been cemented over time. Game of Thrones covers these definitions in different ways.
Landscapes In the series A Song of Ice and Fire, there are two main lands: Essos and Westeros. Although these names can be easily associated with the East and West, the TV adaption provides visual representations of the contrast between the continents. The architecture used in different cities and towns is inspired by certain parts of the world which provides viewers with associations of places they know.
In the north of Westeros, the House of Stark reside in Winterfell. The dark, stone buildings are similar to English and Scottish castles, making the connection between Westeros and Western Europe. In the novel, A Game of Thrones, Daenerys pictures the land she is from, whilst she is living in the East: ‘somewhere beyond the sunset, across the narrow sea, are a land of green hills and flowered plains and great rushing rivers, where towers of dark stone rose amidst magnificent blue-grey mountains’ (Game of Thrones, p. 26.) Daenerys captures the essence of Winterfell and portrays it as a place similar to English country sides and Western Europe.
The landscape in Essos demonstrates Said’s theory most clearly. Firstly, the city of Qarth is full of wealth and detailed architecture. With inspiration from the Middle East, such as Morocco, and focuses on arches, walkways, marble stone and detailed mosaic it illustrates a landscape associated with the Other, in contrast to the West. The architecture allows Qarth to be a place of magic and mystery for Western viewers and readers, due to its associations with the East. Here, Daenerys must tread carefully as many characters are suspicious and untrustworthy. Characters such as the Warlocks, who practise magic, live in Qarth which is unsurprising as the East is often portrayed as being magical and mysterious, which links to the exoticism. These are cultural norms different to ones seen in Westeros. On the other hand, the rest of
Essos portrays the other aspect of the Orient, where the East is depicted as being caught in the past and a fragment of its former glory. Said describes the Orient as a place of ‘romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences’ (Orientalism, p. 1). This relates to Daenerys’ experience of travelling through Essos as the landscapes are ‘haunting’ due to their contrast to the West. The East often shocks Daenerys. For example, when she experiences the fighting for pleasure at her wedding to Khal Drogo she is ‘frightened’ (Game of Thrones, p. 97) Said’s use of the word ‘exotic’ also reinforces the differences between lands in Westeros and Essos; the people and land in the continents differ so greatly that the East appears exotic to the West.
The Dothraki are portrayed as savage and barbaric with limited character development, apart from Daenerys’ husband Khal Drogo. The rest of the tribe do not receive the same development that characters in Westeros do. David J. Peterson suggests: ‘Martin’s Dothraki are portrayed as violent, warlike people. They steal what they will and rape who they will, and do so often, in the course of the history.’(1) Peterson highlights their aggressive nature and how they are grouped together. Katherine Tullmann comments on how ‘the further away some cultural practises are from our own, the less likely we are to condone them. This would suggest that moral practises vary by
culture – and who are we to say they’re wrong?’ (2) Tullmann’s views link to Orientalism as the Dothraki are seen in this negative way due to having a contrasting culture to those in the West. However, although it is a different culture and way of living, yet Game of Thrones shuns it, suggesting it is wrong as we see it through the eyes of a Westerner. David J. Peterson observes the lack of voice the East have: ‘we never see the Dothraki through the eyes of the Dothraki. Though Daenerys comes to admire and respect the Dothraki, what right has she to pass judgement on them at all – as if she were explaining the ways of God to men?’ (3) This links to Orientalism as we only view the Eastern places and characters through a Western perspective. The East is only visible through the language and perspective of the West and primarily through Daenerys.
Even nearly 40 years on from when Said published Orientalism, his ideas can still be seen in modern pop culture and Game of Thrones is no exception. The power dynamic between Westeros and Essos is displayed in many aspects of the books and TV series, such as the landscape and how the different locations inspired Essos and Westeros. Also, the contrast in characterisation and how characters in Westeros are fully developed with complex personalities, but those in the East such as the Dothraki receive basic descriptions further shows Orientalism.
Image 4: ‘Winter is Coming’, Game of Thrones. Season 1, episode 1. (HBO, 2012)
Primary Sources: 1, George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire: Game of Thrones, (London: Harper Voyager, 2014)
2, David J. Peterson, ‘The Languages of Ice and Fire’ in Mastering the Game of thrones: essays on George R.R. Martin’s a song of ice and fire, edited by Jes Batis and Susan Johnston, (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2015) pp. 15-35, p. 20.
3, Katherine Tullmann, ‘Dany’s Encounter with the wild: cultural relativism in a Game of Thrones’ in Game of Thrones and philosophy, edited by Henry Jacoby (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2012) pp. 194-204, p. 195.