Something is wrong in the seven kingdoms. George R.R. Martin’s Westeros has become something of a second home for me and, at times, it feels a little more vital than the real world. But there’s one thing that keeps dragging me back to reality. Westeros is a land in which curiosity is curiously absent.
I have just begun Dance with Dragons and I think I’m getting quite a handle on the history of the place in the broad brush strokes that reflect the characters’ level of education. There are a few ‘facts’ - I’m assuming they’re facts - that have emerged so far.
The Wall, for example, has stood for 8,000 years, keeping the world safe from wildlings and other assorted beasts; and the kings of the Iron Islands have reigned (before the seven kingdoms were united) for at least 2,000 years and maybe as long as 4,000. Swords such as Ice, Longclaw and Heartsbane, forged from Valyrian steel, have been handed down through generations, so we can be sure that there is history beyond living memory.
Now think of the same period in human history. Let’s be conservative and take as our starting point the Targaryan’s history from their relocation to Dragonstone to the fall of the house at the hands of Robert Baratheon. This is 500-ish years of development.
Over the 500-ish years since the War of the Roses, where has curiosity led humanity? Gunpowder, concrete, water filtration, childhood, coffee, movable type, clockwork, universal suffrage, radio, radioactivity, powered flight, plastics, medicine, mass literacy, libraries, law, gas, microelectronics, space travel, sexual equality (a bit), artificial intelligence and nuclear fission. Not forgetting the continual revolutions in art, architecture, agriculture and armed conflict.
This is all missing from the history of the seven kingdoms.
One theory about this lack of development is that, following the age of the dragons and the terrible tragedies this wrought on the land, people became so afeared of change that any innovation was seen as a call for the return of magic. But this would suggest that every mad idea has been suppressed or self-censored for fear of upsetting the status quo, and we know that humans do not work like that.
Another idea suggests that faith has been the brake on progress, but the Enlightenment in Europe happened despite the antipathy of the church and against the wrath of the inquisitors. Midwives didn’t stop delivering children because their sisters were burned as witches, astronomers didn’t stop measuring and asking questions about the motions of the planets because their families and reputations were poisoned. Humans do not work like that.
Someone as ruthless and clever as Tyrion Lannister, or as crazy about fire as the Mad King would be innovating, if only in the development of new ways to kill their enemy while protecting themselves. They would have seen a wildfire explosion - the way it propelled stones or shattered ships through the air - and thought, I wonder if a steel tube could harness and direct that force like a catapult or arrow? That moment of contemplation leads to the cannon, guns, internal combustion, rockets, space travel.
We also know that a nation constantly at war with itself will rapidly develop a new understanding of anatomy, pain management and infection control - new ways to save lives as well as take them - unless they are actively prevented from asking questions, taking chances, and upsetting accepted wisdom.
A Song of Ice and Fire, then, is a warning. An example of a world in which challenges to authority are met with violence, and important questions are answered only with steel and fire and guaranteed misery. It tells us that a population that slavishly follows its leaders from mundane peace into mundane war and never kicks against the pricks is destined to remain with their faces and spirits trampled into the shitty mud.
It tells us that change will never come from deferring to one’s betters. Revolution is driven by curiosity. Curiosity by revolution. Vive la curiosity!