Lawyers in Westeros

[If] you read some fantasy, the magic is omnipresent. In Harry Potter the magic is omnipresent, a primarily magic universe. They got magic for everything there. Every time you turn around there’s a new magic thing that’s popping up. A magic hat or a magic sword or a spell to solve something. Because magic is so omnipresent, you don’t have to [resort] to mundane ways to…solve a murder mystery. “Who murdered Joe? Well we’ll just give him the truth spell and he’ll tell us who murdered Joe,” or “We’ll just cast this other spell and open the veil of time and we’ll be able to see who murdered Joe.” If those options exist then it’s very difficult to write a traditional John Grisham type novel or a detective novel or anything that depends on evidence and all that because there are all these magical ways of getting it.

An uncomfortable chair in a modern partner's office?

An uncomfortable chair in a modern partner’s office?

This is Part 2 of the interview I did with George R. R. Martin in  2007.  For background and part 1, click here.  For the audio file, click here.

 HOFFMAN: Are there lawyers in your books that are just in the wings off stage that haven’t yet appeared?

MARTIN: That’s an interesting question. I hadn’t really considered that until I started reading those links that you sent me. There are certainly laws but are there special classes of advocates who make their living by interpreting those laws? My inclination is probably not because the laws my books are administered by lords. In some ways it’s government as much for men than law. We like to say our government in the United States is a government of laws not men. In some ways the Seven Kingdoms I think is the reverse. There is basis of a law but also a lot depends on who is interpreting it and who is sitting in the Lord’s seat, who is sitting on the Iron Throne and how they settle these disputes.

HOFFMAN: Well those are ultimate questions but I think in two places one could have imagine lawyers and one of them again will be this church trial because there were church lawyers in the ecclesiastical church system there were lawyers who specialized in canon law. And the second one was at least twice I can think of in the books there’re trials by combat. And I don’t really know what the other alternative would be but I assume would be trial by jury – the path that Tyrion did not choose both times. And I was thinking —

MARTIN: Well he does choose in the first…in the second…second of his two trials, he is being tried – it’s not by jury – it’s by lord. There’s no jury of his peers, no twelve people that are randomly picked but there are three lords sitting on his case and hearing the evidence.

HOFFMAN: Right.

MARTIN: And, you know, the —

HOFFMAN: Tyrell I think is one of them, I don’t remember the other two.

MARTIN: Oberyn Martell, who is the Red Viper is one of them, in order to balance it because they want a semblance of impartiality. It’s a hopeless thing because his father is the presiding judge and the right hand of the king and his sister, who is also the daughter of the same father, is the chief complainant who is accusing him of doing these things. But that does have semblance of a trial where witnesses are being called forth, people are swearing oaths, people are testifying against him and saying what they saw and what they did not saw. Though Tyrion realizes that it’s hopeless, he’s losing that so he exercises an option as a lord to request a trial by combat instead.

HOFFMAN: Which was a bad choice —

MARTIN: When Oberyn stands for him he thinks he has a better chance there. And he has gotten off once before in the preceding trial by combat, he rolled the dice that way and they came out well for him.

HOFFMAN: See, if the books were being written by a law professor that would have been the moment where the lawyer would have stepped in from the wings.

MARTIN: *laughing* Right. And maybe there’s a market there for a brand new hybrid – a series of medieval John Grisham novels.

HOFFMAN: Don’t think there are a lot of law professors who wouldn’t like to be writing that exact thing.

MARTIN: It would be interesting.

MARTIN: A medieval John Grisham novel would be possible if you have a world like mine which is a relatively low magic world.

HOFFMAN: What does that mean, you mentioned that in an email to me, what does “low magic” mean?

MARTIN: Low magic — for fantasy, there has to be some magic in the world. But if you read some fantasy, the magic is omnipresent. Harry Potter the magic is omnipresent, a primarily magic universe. They got magic for everything there. Every time you turn around there’s a new magic thing that’s popping up. A magic hat or a magic sword or a spell to solve something. Because magic is so omnipresent, you don’t have to [resort] to mundane ways to…like solve a murder mystery. “Who murdered Joe? Well we’ll just give him the truth spell and he’ll tell us who murdered Joe,” or “We’ll just cast this other spell and open the veil of time and we’ll be able to see who murdered Joe.” If those options exist then it’s very difficult to write a traditional John Grisham type novel or a detective novel or anything that depends on evidence and all that because there are all these magical ways of getting it.

HOFFMAN: It’d be hard to plot it anyway because they would be —

MARTIN: Well you’d certainly have to work on the limits of magic way before hand, before you put anything down there.

HOFFMAN: But the thing that is amazing about your novels is we have no idea what the limits of magic are. I mean it’s been creeping back into the books on the characters and on us at the same time.

MARTIN: Well yes, magic is increasing in the world, but even at its best it’s never going to approach a Harry Potter kind of level you get in a lot of fantasy. You’re never going to see a situation where one wizard can pronounce a spell and wipe out an entire army or that sort of thing.

HOFFMAN: You’ll just have dragons and the waking dead.

MARTIN: Yes. And dragons are pretty powerful, dragons are the nuclear weapons of my world.

HOFFMAN: Right.

MARTIN: But they’re not omni-powerful. They use flame and burn you to death and set gigantic fires and are very difficult to kill and they fly and they’re pretty potent but this would be nothing in some of the other fantasy worlds that are out there.

HOFFMAN: Right. Well I think, just to sort of draw a distinction, it’s not that the amount of any particular spell wouldn’t be powerful, it’s that the amount of magic in daily life will never be that high. That’s the distinction between low and high that you’re drawing.

MARTIN: Yes.

HOFFMAN: Let me ask you maybe a little bit of a separate question, and this is just a question that matters to me and no one else in the universe, which is how do the traders that are all over these books, how do they enforce their agreements? What do they do if, for example, a deal to trade one of the unsullied, I think is the name, goes wrong? That is, the eunuch soldiers. Is there anything other than violence that enforces contracts in your world?

MARTIN: Is there anything other than violence that enforces contracts in the real world.

HOFFMAN: Well, yes. It’s just that violence is a step or two removed right?

MARTIN: Ultimately the man with the sword is at the back of all our laws.

HOFFMAN: You sound like a famous law professor, famous in the context of law professing, named Robert Cover. Robert Cover wrote an article called “Violence and the Word,” in which he said don’t think that because the defendant goes quietly, it’s because he’s convinced by your interpretation, it’s because the guy behind him got the stick. But at least there’s a judge somewhere in the middle. Is there a place where traders can go in your world or is there not?

MARTIN: They can complain to the lords. I mean the lords are the judges. It’s a medieval system so it’s simpler than ours. It has things in it that we would consider unacceptable because it’s too much power concentrated in one hand or something. But the lord is judge and jury and the king of course is the ultimate judge and jury.

HOFFMAN: How about the guilds?

MARTIN: You can always appeal to the king. Guilds regulate certain things as relates to their trades and all that.

HOFFMAN: And they’re given certain power by the king I assume.

MARTIN: Ultimately, some of those who feel he was wronged by the king or by a guild could go to the lord and someone who feels they were wronged by the lord can go to the king if they can get to them and have the power. Those are class based systems, that’s another thing you have to realize. There’s no concept here of all men are created equal. It’s certainly not all men are created equal. Some men are noble and they have a lot more rights than peasants.

HOFFMAN: Is there an equivalent to the Magna Carta?

MARTIN: There’s not a single document I would give a big name to but when, again in the history of Westeros (and some of this stuff I haven’t fully brought out yet) the first Targaryen king Aegon the Dragon conquered six of the seven kingdoms through violence with dragons and his armies and so forth. Some of them surrendered peacefully and others fought huge battles. He and his two sons, well he had a relatively tranquil reign because he was really a kick-ass warrior and they were recently subdued, but under his two sons revolts and rebellions and defiance started becoming a lot more common. And it was not until his grandson, or the fourth king of the reign [of inaudible], the old king – the conciliator he was called – that’s always been in the back of my mind. He was the one who, not signed the Magna Carta, but he was the one who conciliated the lords and the people of the seven kingdoms to rule as Targaryen. He guaranteed them certain rights. He set certain boundaries, formalized things. He reigned for a very long time too. He, as I said, was called the old king. He was the longest reigning of the Targaryen dynasty and during that time, he was able to reach accommodations and sort of get the system working again.

HOFFMAN: Right. So what while it wouldn’t be quite as formal there’s been some sort of settlement of the lord to lord problems that would’ve arisen otherwise I guess.

MARTIN: Yes, but there’s still problems there.

HOFFMAN: Right.

MARTIN: There’re still problems as there were in actual medieval history. The whole question of the over-mighty subjects, some kings refer to it as. In real history, the kings centralized power over the years. The lords became less and less powerful and the central authority represented by the king and his ministers became progressively more and more powerful. If you look at someone like Louis XIV of France, by the time you get to him, he has these lords who own gigantic lands and are spectacularly wealthy but they don’t spend any time at their castles being sort of a king in their own rights and ruling their domains. They spend all their time in Paris at Louis’s court. He’s reduced these mighty lords whose ancestors were mighty lords to courtiers and now they are competing for who has the right to buckle the king’s shoe.  Oh it’s a great honor, the king let me buckle his shoe.

HOFFMAN: He co-opted them.

MARTIN: Westeros is not at that point. None of my lords would consider it a great honor to buckle anyone’s goddamn shoe.

HOFFMAN: Right. So here’s maybe a little bit of a different question: why is it that almost all fantasy novels are medieval? Within some sort of range.  Is that a Tolkien thing or is it the most natural period of time for magic to have ever existed? Why not, I don’t know, Roman periods?

MARTIN: This is a question that fantasy writers and critics have asked over the years. Not only is it medieval, it’s specifically western medieval. Specifically Western Europe, roughly from the dark ages through the high middle ages. By you start getting into Renaissance, less so, and certainly not much of the later periods. It’s not universal – people have tried to do other things. People have tried to do fantasies that are roughly based on Chinese or Japanese medieval periods and then in that particular flavor, people have done renaissance analogs, even later things where people have blunderbusses and big pistols, three musketeer stuff in a fantasy setting. So all of the stuff has been done and some of it has been done quite well but the one thing, that of course publishers have not failed to notice and writers have not, not noticed either, is none of these other things sell really as well s the medieval period. So it’s the readers who make this determination because of course every writer wants to make great art but he also wants to have many, many, many readers who will be buying his books so he can —

HOFFMAN: You got a theory on why that is?

MARTIN: You know…I don’t. *laughs* I think our middle ages is more interesting to our readership than Chinese or Japanese middle ages simply because it’s our common cultural heritage. We all grow up hearing stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood so we’re more interested in King Arthur than we are in the Samurai on some very primal level. We’re getting stories similar to the stories we heard in our childhood. But then that only explains most things, then we hear stories like the Three Musketeers and the Old west and gunslingers and all that so why don’t we have fantasy westerns kind of thing.

HOFFMAN: Well Stephen King had some series, I think his Dark Materials, no not the Dark Materials, that’s something else entirely, the Dark Tower series.

MARTIN: The Dark Tower, the gunslinger, oh yeah the last gunslinger.

 

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