HBO’s Game of Thrones is the Jägerbomb to Tolkien’s ginger beer. How else to describe a fantasy series in which a moment of interrupted incest leads to civil war and the threat of human extinction at the hands of spectral frost monsters? It’s bloody, political and raunchy, populated by a well-drawn cast of sociopaths and misfits. And whilst it pales against the character-driven dramas like Breaking Bad and House of Cards to which we’ve recently been treated, Walter White’s shenanigans never involved dragons and full-frontal nudity.
Season four of the show premieres today. That’s exciting news for aficionados. But another sad milestone for fans of the cycle of novels from which Game of Thrones is adapted – A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin – which remains incomplete after eighteen years of prevarication and delay.
Frank Underwood never ate a raw horse heart. Image: HBO
Here’s the timeline. Game of Thrones (the book) was released in 1996. A Clash of Kings followed in 1999, as did A Storm of Swords a year later. Then things started to go wrong, probably when Martin’s editors stopped speaking truth to power – the man is known to hold a grudge against their tribe. Fans waited five years for A Feast for Crows. Then six years for A Dance with Dragons. Three years on and The Winds of Winter still lacks a publication date. Fragments of the manuscript are occasionally leaked to Martin’s website, but like Chinese water torture this irregular trickle has driven readers to despair. They are desperate to know whether Martin is capable of redeeming himself after Crows and Dragons, which were by most accounts poorly paced and occasionally dull. Don't ask about A Dream of Spring, which will complete the heptalogy in some ineffably distant future.
The more impatient members of Martin’s entourage call themselves “GRRuMblers”. They are an entitled and obnoxious lot, given to venting their frustrations in whinging blog pieces and message board posts. But Martin also has defenders amongst those who argue that buying a book does not create an implicit contract for the delivery of future services. In the words of Neil Gaiman, “George R R Martin is not your bitch”.
Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister. Image: HBO
One assumes that Martin has good reason to avoid a J K Rowling-paced publication schedule. The pressure to satisfy a fan base Vulture calls the most devoted in pop culture must be nerve-shattering. He certainly does not seem hurried by a fear of looming mortality, unlike those readers who like comparing Martin’s age (65) to that of fellow fantasy novelist Robert Jordan (58), who died in 2007 midway through concluding his epic Wheel of Time series. (Why must we be so fearful of Martin shuffling off anyway? Many unfinished works are considerably better than hurriedly completed ones. Compare Kafka’s The Trial to the autobiography of Jade Goody etc.)
Martin's great error was appending a note to the back of A Feast For Crows which assured readers that a sequel would be along the next year. That surely created some kind of obligation. As it happened, A Dance with Dragons took Martin longer to complete than the ministry of Jesus, Magellan’s circumnavigation, Paradise Lost and the Manhattan Project.
Giants and dragons and direwolves, oh my! Image: HBO
Game of Thrones season four will be thrilling. But it will also remind fans of the books they are missing. HBO executives will no doubt push hard for A Song of Ice and Fire to be completed now their series has caught up with Martin’s pen (here's speculation as to what might happen if they fail to crack the whip). For readers who have inhabited the world of Westeros since the first Clinton administration, a long wait for resolution may soon be approaching the beginning of the end.