The other day I saw a post on Mythic Scribes that asks whether black and white fantasy is dead. As usual, I read the article and came away thinking along entirely different lines than the topic intended.* The essay examines the popularity of morally gray fantasy, centered on the tremendous success of A Song of Ice and Fire, and wonders what this means for old fashioned good-versus-evil fantasy stories.
Instead of pondering these questions, I realized something else: A Song of Ice and Fire is about what happens after the Happily Ever After. Think about the events of some seventeen years prior to the series:
• There’s a mad and indisputably evil monarch on the throne who enjoys burning people alive with wildfire.
• The evil tyrant goes too far one day, burning alive the betrothed of a handsome knight, a powerful warrior. Worse, this woman is the sister of the knight’s unfailingly loyal and honorable best friend (read sidekick).
• The handsome knight rallies the good people of the kingdom to war and marches on the evil tyrant.
• The evil tyrant hatches a plot to burn down the city around him so he can be reborn as a dragon.
• The evil tyrant’s bodyguard, himself a handsome and mighty knight, saves the lives of the city (and his father, and his father’s army) by killing the tyrant and foiling the plot.
• Good conquers evil. The handsome knight becomes king. Though he mourns the passing of his would-be-bride, he weds the richest and most beautiful lady in the land.
The setup for the series is practically a fairy tale, with Robert Baretheon as the Hero and Eddard Stark as his Loyal Sidekick. The difference is that where the original storyteller might have ended with “and they lived happily ever after,” George R. R. Martin said, “what if this isn’t where everything comes together in harmony, but where everything starts to fall apart? What would that look like?”
This has been done before, of course. I think the most famous example in modern storytelling is The Princess Bride. The tagline on the back of the book says it all: “What happens when the most beautiful girl in the world marries the handsomest prince in the world – and he turns out to be a son of a bitch?” The fairy tale setup is the beginning, not the end.
People love to retell the classic fairy tales, and for good reason. But I think it’s interesting how many more stories can be generated by taking their happily ever afters and saying, “what next?”
What other stories can you think of that start where an unrelated story left off?
(Hmm. I’ve been yakking about A Song of Ice and Fire a lot lately. Probably because I watch Game of Thrones, and we’re mid-season. Perhaps I’ll throw in more variety if I start watching Defiance. I hear it’s gotten better since the first episode. I’ve also started reading The Conqueror’s Shadow by Ari Marmell, so maybe that will help too. Of course, I also just read Doublesight by Terry Persun, so maybe I should say something about shapeshifting…)
*This is one reason I enjoy reading writing craft books. Not only do I get to keep learning about writing, but I always come up with story ideas and twists that have only tenuous links to what I’m reading, at best.