The first in a coming series of essays on A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin
(Spoilers ahoy for all ASOIAF books and GOT episodes available as of February 14th, 2016, as well as speculation for future directions in which the story may go)
The title question may seem a little ridiculous to many fans of the ground-breaking novel and television series, but there is a theory gaining more and more traction online that the universe of Ice and Fire is one of science fiction and not fantasy. Preston Jacobs, my favorite A Song of Ice and Fire YouTube theorist (who despite being called crack-pot and tin-foil by others in the community quotes text in support of his arguments more than most out there), sums up this fan theory in his "The Minds of Wolves and Robins pt. 7" video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FejBRJPqBkM&list=PLCsx_OFEYH6vAkHO0gakDrZ8Kuteu-nUn&index=7): "There are no gods in the World of Ice and Fire. And there is no prophecy. And there is no magic." A bold statement, due to all the supernatural phenomenon going on in this world, but he does a decent job advancing this by ascribing all these occurrences to the scifi abilities of telepathy and telekinesis that are passed down genetically. It is noted that "teke" and communities of creatures with communal consciousnesses are common in Martin's other work. However, although he starts off by questioning if ASOIAF is fantasy at all, he later concedes that he understands "that telepathy isn't real and this is a fantasy novel."
Huh? I am not so quick to dismiss the possibility of the existence of mental powers
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qw_O9Qiwqew), but that aside, this admission to me shows that Mr. Jacobs' definition of magic makes his argument irrelevant. Magic to me is largely a matter of perspective. This "teke" ability, even if it is the sole force responsible for all these anomalous events (although some instances of magic like the disembodied voice Varys hears during his castration and the use of glass candles-- magic as ancient technology-- by Marwyn, seemingly a normal man with no special blood, are harder to explain), appears to be magic to us the readers, and to most of the population of Westeros as well, because there is little frame of reference in our experience for it and no understanding of how it works. Once the method and the forces behind it can be explained, or at least there is a belief that there can be a non-fantastic explanation, the same phenomenon ceases to be magic.
His definition of magic, shared by many today, includes all superstitious beliefs about extraordinary powers claimed throughout history that have since been debunked. This "magic" is dismissed offhand as impossible, but there are individuals out there today pushing the limits of what we think a human can (or should be able to) do. One example is Wim Hof, the Iceman (https://www.vice.com/en_se/video/iceman). He has provided scientific proof that he can manipulate his body temperature and consciously direct the release of hormones in his body to withstand extreme conditions and virulent injections. Similar claims have been long made by Daoist monks in China (Melisandre in the World of Ice and Fire also is not affected by cold even at the Wall), among others. Can we dismiss all these stories now as magic hooey now that one such ability has been demonstrated? Where do we draw the line between magic and science here?
Any type of magic, whether sympathetic, Natural, the Law of Attraction, illusion, practical magic, glamouring, dark magic, light magic, blood magic, sacrifice, summoning spirits, predicting the future, or necromancy, operates off its own system based on particular theories about the nature of the universe, even if they are rejected by the mainstream community. So, whether something is magic or scientific speculation, from Jacobs' view, depends not on if it has no explanation, but whether the explanation exceeds the limit of acceptable silliness that the hearer can tolerate. This is why I say magic is largely a matter of one's point of view, and the line between science fiction and fantasy is often a blurry one, as it is in this case.
Let's take a look at one of the most extreme examples that Mr. Jacobs explains away with this not-magic psi power: the killing of Renly Baratheon. He argues that the red witch Melisandre is mostly a charlatan with no real power, and that she used a combination of glamouring Davos and guiding the disembodied consciousness (a phenomenon Jacobs equates to a person's memories in this video) of Stannis to slay his brother with his teke power while the King was sleeping, all in order to produce the illusion that she birthed a shadow assassin that seemingly did the deed. These are the absurd lengths people go to in the attempt to eliminate anything of the supernatural so that they can fit their favorite books in with their own world-view. Melisandre does tell us that these shadow babies are sons of Stannis, so it is possible that through sexual intercourse (another supposed source of magical power in our world) Red Mel captured part of the essence or mental power of Stannis which she carried inside of her womb. However, following the logic of the universe, she would still need Davos to smuggle her inside the perimeter of the castle to release this power, as one would assume that the enchanted walls of Storm's End would presumably block this teke force if it is indeed the source of all magic in Planetos. Otherwise, why would she even expose herself to the risk of this dangerous farce of smuggling herself under the walls? So, the transported psi-child was birthed technically inside the stronghold in order to reach his target. Now, even if we can come up with a semi-rational explanation for this event, does it mean necessarily that it is not then magic, or supernatural from the point of view of the reader or other characters?
I have the same problem with the argument of Jacobs and others that there is no afterlife, and thus no souls or significance to consciousness beyond biological processes, in the World of Ice and Fire. This is advanced despite the fact that we see multiple examples of afterlives (lit. life after death) in the series: the Children of the Forest living on in the Weirwoods, wargs inhabiting the bodies of animals and other people after their physical body has perished (and maintaining a distinct consciousness when moving between bodies, which would seem to contradict the idea that consciousness is only a collection of one's memories rooted in the physical body), and the wight zombies raised by the Others. Missing among these examples are the resurrections of Lord Beric Dondarrion and his Brotherhood Without Banners. These are explained as the reanimation of the corpses through teke power, but this seems unsatisfying to me. This is also the explanation used for the raising of wights out of the dead by the White Walkers, but the difference is that Lord Beric, and later Lady Stoneheart, retain not only their memories and identities of their past lives (although these seem to deteriorate along with their bodies), but also their autonomy. They seem to be guided still by their own logic, and motivations, and goals rather than being the puppets of some outside force, as with the wights (with the notable exception of Cold Hands who looks like a wight, but seems to maintain control and a distinct identity). Also used in support of this theory of the absence of afterlife is Dondarrion's answer to Melisandre suggesting to him that he has seen the other side. "There is no other side. I have been to the darkness," he replies. This is used to argue that there is no survival of the self after death, but does his quote not imply a continuance of experience, a point of perspective to 'have been' somewhere that was still him? My point is that just because an afterlife can be explained through some system of science fiction theories does not mean that it ceases to be an afterlife, which again, literally means life after physical death.
But, you counter, did not GRRM confirm that none of these gods would be showing up in the storyline, and that he wasn't sure any of these gods or their religions are real or true. Doesn't that mean that all these beliefs are false? The problem with this is that we have many examples of their magic working. Thoros does not believe at first that he can bring Beric back, but he says the words and the Red God works through him. He does not seem to be the mastermind type, and similarly the other red priests we meet, Melisandre and Moqorro, seem to not be directing the powers they invoke, but only vessels to a greater power. So, if we accept there is no R'hllor in the story, then who or what is guiding these psi energies to influence the course of events? Can we say for sure that there are no gods in the story when there are forces at work beyond the understanding of both the reader and majority of the characters, such as the Children of the Forest and the Great Other, along with the religion of the Red God. Martin's epic is often held up in contrast to the more orthodox fantasy realm of Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, but God (with a capital 'G') is not an active presence in the Tolkein novels either, nor does any deus ex machina appear to save the day in that series. The end result of the tale is still decided by the human (or humanish) inhabitants of that world, and they are the ones that decide its ultimate fate. Elven magic powers could also be ascribed to the adaptations of a different, older race beyond what can be understood by normal men. Because we know Tolkein was a religious man, do we assume there is a greater spiritual reality present in his books even if it does not appear directly, while we conclude the opposite in Martin's based on the same evidence?
Furthermore, the fact that the magic of many different religions can be effective suggests that it all comes from the same source, like the teke Jacobs proposes. That does not mean that these religions are all false; it could mean that they are valid to some degree, drawing from the same power, but that no single one is completely right in its details. The priests of R'hllor, the Children of the Forest, the Faceless Men, Bloodraven, Marwyn: each understands some secret of tapping into this power, whether you think it is spiritual or scientific in nature. What's the difference between a speaking about a spiritual realm or another parallel dimension? Collective, or global, or universal consciousness, the idea that we are part of a unity above our own awareness, was a spiritual idea long before it was adopted by science fiction. Now that a semi-scientific reasoning can be imagined for this phenomenon, it does not mean that it ceases to be spiritual. I have long felt that this is where science and spirit will finally meet.
The practitioners of magic throughout history and to the modern day have sought to manipulate mysterious forces not widely understood to produce desired results. Whether they are successful or not does not matter as much as the fact that magic is based on a system, whether one agrees with that system or not. Mr. Jacobs notes in his video that the confidence in the ability a character has seems to mirror the degree of his or her power. This does not mean these powers are merely a deception, but that in the subjective experience of the wielder, it is necessary to believe something is real and possible in order to make it so. Under the reasoning that none of this is actually magic, but science fiction, the difference is not that magic has no explanation, but that its explanations have been rejected by the person observing or hearing about it. Again, once something can be rationalized, it is no longer magic.
The magic in ASOIAF and the desire by some readers to explain it in this way reminds me of the 3rd Law of science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable form magic." If Martin's ultimate role and source of magic ends up being outside of what can be entertained from the atheist view, these readers will probably go back to labeling these events as magic, the series fantasy, and mocking the author they presently idolize so. To me, the distinction means little. There are characters in this world (and even in our own) that have powers beyond the scope of what we consider possible. To us, as to the common people of Westeros, this is magic. As we learn the well it springs from and methods the characters use to employ it, the story moves farther away from fantasy and toward science fiction. Often, once ideas have been around in science fiction for a while, they become science fact. So fantasy and myth can represent the beginning of a process of asking questions that leads to discovering new knowledge. I can see a supporting theme of the series as a process of self-discovery moving away from superstition and toward the truth, but a truth beyond what science or religion alone can explain.
Regardless of what side you fall on here, there is one definition of magic that no one can deny suits Martin's characters and the world they inhabit: "extraordinary or mystical influence, charm, power, etc." The hold this story has over its readers and the way it sparks them to think about and debate where it is going is nothing short of sorcery. Once the series is complete and the conclusion aired, this magic will persist in those that find these works for generations to come. The ideas, and characters, and theories will continue to live in the hearts, minds, and yes, souls of those that carry them within.
I would like to close by saying thank you to Mr. Martin for these amazing books and for showing that magic and immortality are possible through the wonders of great literature. I wish you health, luck, and godspeed in your continued pursuit of weaving this tale we all love so. Tune out all the negative voices and tell the story you were meant to tell at whatever pace suits you. Have fun and do it for you. Don't change the story or compromise your process to satisfy people that are more concerned with money than the integrity of the world you created. I say this not because I think I am in any position to give you advice, but just because I love your works and, yes, you too, so much, and I want you to write the books exactly how you want to. I want to read the conclusion to the series exactly as you imagined and intended it, no matter how many years I have to wait for that. I want you to know that you have fans out there that will respect and support you unconditionally. Take care, George.
Light and Love,