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Another book in the wall

Another book in the wall

In “Game of Thrones”, a wall is a moral presence – and Robert Macfarlane’s favourite character

In “Game of Thrones”, a wall is a moral presence – and Robert Macfarlane’s favourite character

Robert Macfarlane | January/February 2015
For as long as I can remember I have been north-minded—drawn to high latitudes, and drawn also to those writers for whom northerliness is a set of feelings as well as a set of co-ordinates. To Philip Pullman’s “Northern Lights”, with its armoured snow-bears, or to W.H. Auden’s inter-war poems of cold jetties and island night-sailings, and then—years after everyone else—to George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” fantasy novel-series, the first book of which, “A Game of Thrones”, opens in the bare northlands around Winterfell, seat of the Starks.

I should declare at this point that while I’ve read more than 3,000 pages of Martin’s prose, I’ve not seen a minute of the HBO adaptation. On that basis, my favourite character is not a person but a structure: the Wall. Ice-clad and absolute, the Wall runs—as all good students of the geography of Westeros know—for 300 miles across the north of the kingdom. It is 700ft high, its sides are sheer and ice-clad, and it is so thick at its base that it would take “a hundred men a year to cut through it with picks and axes”. Strung along its length are 19 strongholds, the names of which are memorised in order by children as a chant against danger: the Shadow Tower, Sentinel Stand, Greyguard, Stone Door, Hoarfrost Hill…

The Wall’s task is to make Westeros safe from the enemies that lie beyond. To its north are the Frostfang Mountains and the Haunted Forest, and to their north is the Land of Always Winter, unmapped and uninhabitable. Down from these frozen fastnesses come wildling reavers, dog-sized spiders, zombie-wights and the White Walkers, who strike me—with their skin-tight ice-suits and avant-gardishly gaunt cheeks—as cryogenic David Bowies.

Raised millennia ago by means both magical and mundane, the spells invested in its masonry lend the Wall a personality. To the bastard-born hero of the novels, Jon Snow, it seems at times “almost a living thing, with moods of its own”. He watches the colour of its ice change with shifts of light, from “the dirty white of old snow” to “the deep blue of frozen rivers” in a few seconds.

Like most things in “Game of Thrones”, the Wall is both awesome and really rather camp. In her essay on the camp sensibility, Susan Sontag notes its tendency to “melodramatic absurdities”. Welcome to Westeros—where butch Vikings wear seven-layered golden capes tailored to look like squid tentacles, and eunuch slave-soldiers slaughter puppies to prove their manhood. But another aspect of camp is that, once you’ve accepted its silliness, it can become deadly serious.

Certainly, the Wall is a severe moral presence in the novels, as well as a defensive one. Its upkeep is funded jointly by all the rulers of Westeros, and the men of its garrison, the Night’s Watch, swear to remain independent of any internecine disputes. Other towers and castles collapse, seared by wildfire or shattered by siege, but the Wall stands on, and some of the most honourable characters, among them Qhorin Halfhand and Jon Snow, draw strength from it. Meanwhile, to its south and east, awful men do terrible things to one another in the name of nobility, and deceit seethes beneath honour, like some geo-political version of cricket.

So grim is Martin’s culture of violence and treachery that almost everyone walls themselves in. Knights don their plate-armour and chainmail, villages put up palisades. Out on the Jade Gates stands the city of Qarth, triply encircled by an outer wall of red sandstone, a middle wall of grey granite and an innermost wall of black marble, 40ft high and decorated with fornication scenes of magnificent rudeness. Yes, to survive in the Game of Thrones, one must be immured. Goodness alone is not enough: the well-intentioned but undefended are always wracked and ruined. 

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