One of the core parts of a fantasy novel, really honestly like any form of fiction, is tropes. Recently, tropes have gotten a bad rep, and I don’t think that’s particularly fair.
First, I guess I should explain what a trope is. The simplest explanation is this: a trope is a commonly used idea or plot point in fiction.
Think a young, nobody guy that suddenly receives a magical weapon and must now go save the world.
Am I talking about Luke Skywalker? Harry Potter? Literally so many other characters? That’s a trope.
There are plenty of videos on youtube that talk about them but I have an issue with the fact that most of these refer to tropes as “cliches” which, again, I don’t think is fair. Especially if you’re going to automatically say all cliches are bad. They’re not. I promise. Tropes done badly are bad because the writer messed up, not because the device is bad.
Now that I have established what a trope is, I can talk about what I ACTUALLY want to talk about which is the deconstruction of tropes. To understand what it means to subvert, or change, a trope you need to know what they are in the first place which is why I wasted that time up top giving a brief explanation of the concept. Because, I believe to properly deconstruct tropes you need to understand them, maybe even love them.
We could say, easily, that one of the first examples of a deconstruction of a trope is in The Canterbury Tales, though I will add that it’s not REALLY the same because the tropes would not have been…y’know…tropes. At that point. They were characters, ideals, plots, that would later go on to become tropes. The shining knight of “The Knight’s Tale” or the drunken laborer of “The Miler’s Tale.” All of which would become VERY common parts of stories. But, let’s say there are some common character types at the time of Chaucer writing, religious folks mostly or tales of morality such as the play Everyman. Within The Canterbury Tales, there is STILL deconstruction of those ideas.
The first examples come directly from the “General Prologue” of the story, where Chaucer introducers his characters and the reason they’re together. Both of the characters are religious men, a friar, and a monk, and both of them are far from the holy man ideal that would have been overt in many morality plays or texts of the time. The monk is described as being very well dressed, with many horses, and loving hunting. The text goes so far as to say he “gave not a plucked in for that text” (line 13.) So, he’s not exactly a high holy man. Then comes the friar, who is explicitly said to take money from rich people to make himself rich while he ignores the poor people that may actually need his guidance because they cannot pay him. So, that’s great, good things happening here. For sure not at all a HUGE drag on the Catholic Church and indulgences (when priests and others would take money from parishioners and say that money would get them into heaven.)
It would not at all be a leap to see how these two men, men of the church, being corrupt signals something greater. The idea that the Catholic Church is infallible, it isn’t, because it is run by men like these who use that religion to enrich themselves.
This may be common enough for us now, specifically when it comes to organizations such as the church, but what about the less common deconstructions? Or, at least, the ones we are less likely to see as deconstructions? Such as, oh IDK, high fantasy based on a combination of the War of the Roses and climate change?
I mean A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin, obviously. (As a quick note, I won’t talk about the show because I deeply hate it but that’s on me.)
There are some obvious ones about, like, the government in general, but I’m not gonna talk about those I want to talk about CHARACTERS.
Actually, more specifically, two relationships and how they’re deconstruction of class fantasy tropes in the same way that Chaucer was deconstructing morality play tropes with the monk and the friar. Renly/Loras and Jaime/Cersei (Jaime/Brienne too but it’s a different trope) both function as deconstructions of Courtly Romance ideals.
Forbidden love between a royal and a knight is an INCREDIBLY common idea dating all the way back to stories about King Arthur (Guinevere and Lancelot, anyone?) But these two ships have some obvious, uh, differences. One of them is a gay relationship, not something you’re likely to find being explicitly written in a courtly romance. The other is incest and also, just, a really wild relationship in every possible way.
But, honestly, that’s a way different and longer post so I’m not gonna dwell on them just wanted all of you to have to deal with the knowledge that Jaime and Cersei are Lancelot and Guinevere equivalent. Let that live in your brain forever like it lives in mine.
Obviously, the Chaucer tropes and what Martin is using are very different, but my interest lies less in WHAT tropes are deconstructed more in…like…what it means, if that makes sense. It doesn’t but I’ll try and explain. Those ideas, religious men of valor and courtly romances, are fundamental tropes. They have defined much of the stories we use. Despite having nothing in common in form they are similar in impact, is what I mean, I guess. Both stories show romanticized or normalized versions of an idea, religion or love or honor or really so many things, and tear those things down.
Within A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s notable that the primary church of the Seven Kingdom, the Seven, is a corrupt organization, all of the septons (priests) we meet are either using the religion to enrich themselves or using it to enact a violent agenda. The High Septon is, after all, responsible for unleashing the Faith Militant, the people going around fighting and killing for the church (Martin,) and the Silent Sisters are responsible for torture and the Walk of Shame that Cersei must undergo, and she is far from the only one they put through that, just the POV character we read about. That is hardly a great view of the dominate organized religion of the time. Just like Chaucer talking about not the IDEA of god but the domination that the Catholic Church has on religion.
What is the Faith Militant but a version of the Crusades? What about the Silent Sisters? How many horror stories are about nuns? A LOT.
Without Chaucer taking the forms of ideal religious men and smearing dirt just ALLLLLLLL over them would trope deconstruction evolved in a way that allowed Martin to make his version of the church? Obviously, there’s no way to know for sure but I like to think not, that there’s some alternate universe where Chaucer decided to write these men different which meant that the way our literature has developed is completely different.
Or, think of it this way, someone had to pave the way, right? Towards being able to overtly comment on the crimes of the church, or really any organization, and the first steps towards that were unlikely to be explicit. They were going to be hidden, something that requires deeper reading, something like The Canterbury Tales, not something like A Song of Ice and Fire which needed the framework that made subversion of accepted tropes to even work.
Anyway, long story short, read the books because the show sucks and I will fight Benioff & Weiss in hell!
Chaucer, Geoffrey, et al. Reading Chaucer: an Interlinear Translation of Selections in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, 8th Ed. W.W. Norton, 2006.
Martin, George RR. A Feast for Crows. Bantam Books. 2011.