In an interesting essay about fantasy, especially about how teenagers respond to fantasy, Adam Gopnik compares White and Tolkien, saying that the former revels in moral dilemmas while the latter subsumes emotion and choice in the sweep of history, and Christopher Paolini and Stephanie Meyer, the former of whom he says has perfected an epic means of letting his characters level up without requiring them to grow while the latter uses the gloss of fantasy to slightly heighten realistic emotions. Some of the thinking’s a little reductionist, but it’s a good way at posing an important question that has animated a lot of our debates here: does fantasy help us engage with moral questions, or escape them? He writes:
What substitutes for psychology in Tolkien and his followers, and keeps the stories from seeming barrenly external, is what preceded psychology in epic literature: an overwhelming sense of history and, with it, a sense of loss. The constant evocation of lost or fading glory—Númenor has fallen, the elves are leaving Middle-earth—does the emotional work that mixed-up minds do in realist fiction…White, too, modernizes and sweetens his epic story, but he more overtly moralizes it, and he makes it emotionally ambiguous as well: What is right? Who gets to decide? Does duty come before passion? White worries about ambiguity and halftones: the impotence of the idealist King; the beauty and doom of the adulterous lovers; the capacity of good law to make bad judgments—it is Arthur, not Mordred, who has to sentence Guenevere to death…[Twilight is] “My So-Called Life,” with fangs and fur. The genius of the narrative lies in how neatly the familiar experiences are turned into occult ones; the Cullens, for instance, are very much like the non-vampire family in “Endless Love”; even the terrifying Volturi are the Italian family you go and stay with in Europe. The tedious normalcy of the “Twilight” books is what gives them their shiver; this is not so much the life that a teen-age girl would wish to have but the one that she already has, rearranged with heightened symbols…Eragon never really grows from boy to man, as he might have in another kind of book; he mostly just learns how to be a dragon rider and contend with mysterious helpers, half hostile and half friendly, as kids do at school. Kids go to fantasy not for escape but for organization, and a little elevation; since life is like this already, they imagine that it might be still like this but more magical.
This actually strikes me as an explanation for the appeal of A Song of Ice and Fire. The characters are swept up in world-historical events, but they aren’t entirely agents of history. Things happen to them that are out of their control, and they have recognizably human emotions. Robert’s mercy towards Cersei or Arya’s inability to give mercy to the hound are motivated as much by quirks of personality and conceptions of honor as they are by strategic considerations. There are prophecies, but it’s not clear that there is fate. And the way the characters gain skills is directly linked to their emotional growth, if not always in attractive directions. Sansa’s education in political manipulation is directly linked to the sexual abuse that shows her how the system can be manipulated by powerful people. Arya’s education in assassination is directly connected to her giving up her sense of self and the remainders of her innocence. It’s possible for people to regress as well as to grow. And in the midst of all this history, there are discernibly human moments with real-world parallels, be it Jon Snow’s loss of his virginity, Sam making love in the wake of a funeral, or monks at dinner.
This is the thing about life in wartime, in world historical transitions: it goes on. And this is the thing you can’t always keep straight when you’re sixteen: that there are things other than the vampire and the werewolf, that you’ll get distracted from the epic quest of your own existence by a girl or a boy. Growing up isn’t just about your relationship status or the acquisition of new skills: it’s about the ability to balance more than one big conflict at once, and to see how they interact.