“A Song of Ice and Fire”, George R. R. Martin, and the Cold War

Between 1947 – the Truman Doctrine speech – and 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States of America and the Soviet Union engaged in the Cold War with periods of lessening tensions and treaties – called détente – in between. The early years of the Cold War were especially fraught as Americans received a series of shocks that removed their victorious complacency that had set in after U.S. victory in World War II: the Soviet Union’s detonation of their own atomic bomb, ending the U.S. monopoly, the “fall” of China to the communists in 1949, and the segregation of Europe in Churchill’s words “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across Europe.” The United States committed itself to “containment”, erected the national security state, and promptly panicked about communist fifth columnists within the United States in both government and private institutions. Senator Joseph McCarthy (R – WI) began a flurry of accusations that resulted in a renewed witch hunt for communists that amounted to a second Red Scare, but now bore his name – McCarthyism. The war turned hot when the communist government of Kim Il Sung in North Korea launched a surprise attack on its southern neighbor, the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Synghman Rhee’s Republic of Korea in 1950. With a UN mandate in hand, the Truman administration embarked on a “limited war” in Korea. American television and radio news programs broadcasted from the peninsula as the total victory begun at Inchon turned into a rout of U.S. forces at the Yalu River with the People’s Republic of China’s sudden entry into the war. The warriors of snow and ice drove back the men of the free kingdoms until an uneasy truce resulted in a wall of barbed wire, guard posts, and mines divided the peninsula.


George R. R. Martin was born into this fraught environment. Popular culture reflected the politics of the time. Besides the westerns that emphasized supposed traditional American values, there was science fiction, horror, and fantasy. Individualistic humans came up against hive-minded, insidious masses that occasionally disguised themselves as humans to infiltrate human society. “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, “The Blob”, and Starship Troopers among others both reflected and commented on Cold War America. In the 1960s a counter-culture took shape that questioned the perceived conformity, harmony, and blind acceptance of the 1950s. Comic books showed the change as the more staid characters of DC gave way to the more complex, flawed denizens of the Marvel universe. Movies, television, and literature exhibited similar transformations. A more questioning society began to wonder about civil rights, the nature of relationships including sexual orientations and monogamy and pre-marital sex, the use of drugs for leisure and experimentation, gender roles and identity, and U.S. involvement in the escalating Vietnam War.


Martin soaked it all in from television to movies to comic books to literature of all kinds. He played as a cowboy, he was a spaceman, and, above all, he created stories about adventures, travel, horror, battles both futuristic and medieval. Though his childhood was circumscribed to his church, his schools, and his neighborhood in Bayonne, New Jersey, his mind roamed far and wide. He excelled at his studies, he headed the school newspaper and chess club, and he observed the Sunday mass and NFL games with his longshoreman father and mother and two sisters. His pet turtles with their castles became the subject of many of his stories as did his space people and aliens. But the hope of JFK’s Camelot turned to the sordid contradictions of LBJ’s Great Society. And Martin had to put aside the playthings of youth and embark on his great journey. In other words, he graduated high school and went to college.


At Northwestern where he majored in journalism and minored in history, Martin became disenchanted with Vietnam and the deception that America’s leaders had apparently practiced on the American people. While poor and brave men fought and died, the politicians played their power games. Given a reprieve from the draft in the form of conscientious objector status from his local draft board, Martin did his term of service in VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) working for a legal aid society, mostly on their newsletter and writing their press releases. After graduating with a master’s in journalism from Northwestern, Martin tried getting a job as a reporter, but failed. However, after many rejections, he did succeed in getting his short stories published in science fiction magazines. Using his journalistic training of a) selling a story and b) recognizing the importance of perspective and/or bias of sources, he specialized in twists and turns with strongly fleshed out characters. After American grandmaster Bobby Fischer defeated Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky in Reykjavik at the World Championship in 1972, there was a brief chess boom in the U.S. Martin spent his weekends earning money running chess tournaments in Chicago. He was also happy in love with Lisa Tuttle, until roughly two years later, when she fell in love with someone else.


While Nixon was going Stannis the Mannis Baratheon on the U.S. and world stages and after the chess boom receded, because the stories could not pay the bills, Martin became a faculty member at a small, Roman Catholic women’s college in Dubuque, Iowa – Clarke College. Its devastating, snow drift infested winters would later inspire large swathes of “A Song of Ice and Fire”. It must have been pretty bad. When his wife, Gale, graduated and decided that she had had enough of Dubuque, they arranged a move to Santa Fe, New Mexico. In his words, “The stress of separation, relocation, and a change in career proved too much for our marriage, though. We broke up during the move, and divorced soon thereafter.” Combined with his earlier break with Tuttle we see the model for the love triangles of doltish, awkward men having lost their loves, who are independent, feminist women.


The disappointing sales of The Armageddon Rag, which featured a combination of rock n’ roll counterculture set up against the doom of universal Armageddon, led Martin to accept a job in Hollywood. Although the show did not get picked up, he managed to land a series of jobs with short-lived shows including a reboot of “The Twilight Zone”, “Beauty and the Beast”, and “Max Headroom”. As a writer and producer, though limited by budgets and network executives’ demands, he indulged in what may be termed counter-culture explorations with a specialty in building suspense. With Ronald Reagan leading a conservative counter-revolution, Martin prospered with much the same sensibilities he developed as a child: medievalism, belief, twists, and the darker side of the emotional register with a little bit of hope at the end.


We see the themes of this biography and context repeated throughout Martin’s work most notably A Song for Lya, Dying of the Light, “Bitterblooms”, “And Seven Times Never Kill Man”, Windhaven, Fevre Dream, and “Guardians”.  Love triangles, lost and unrequited love, the horrors of war, the disjunction between reality and perception or point of view, the unfairness of bigoted and close-minded societies, the grand chess (in “A Song of Ice and Fire” cyvasse) master schemer, the hive minded society versus the rugged individualists, and beauty and the beast pairings are all present in “A Song of Ice and Fire” with some being more obvious than others. (We also see Martin’s affinity for cats, red-haired women, and song/story-telling as more true than official, professional histories.) Make no mistake. The world of ice and fire is as much the Cold War as the War of the Roses. After all, is not the title of the series taken from the Robert Frost poem about the end of the world?


Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.


Note: Most of the aforementioned is taken from Martin’s own autobiographical writings on his website and in Dreamsongs, I, II, as well as interviews.


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