Sunday, June 23, 2024

GRRM’s And Death His Legacy is uncomfortably contemporary

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Part of the GRRM Reading Project

For the next step in our exploration of the works of George R. R. Martin (GRRM), we’ll take a look at And Death His Legacy. Martin wrote this short story for his creative writing class in 1968, but it took until Dreamsongs (2003) for it to be finally published. It’s the last sample of GRRM’s amateur writing in Dreamsongs, so it will be the last of his amateur stories for us.

GRRM defines And Death His Legacy as a “mainstream story with a political slant.” According to him, the main character grew from his enthusiasm with James Bond stories:

Maximilian de Laurier was intended to be an ‘elegant assassin,’ who would jaunt about the world killing evil dictators in exotic locations. His big gimmick would be a pipe that doubled as a blowgun. By the time I got around to putting him on paper, only the name remained. My politics had changed, and assassination no longer seemed so sexy after 1968.

So let’s see how that turned out.

The Prophet and the Dead Man

And Death his Legacy is very short, and follows two distinct figures. On one side, we see the political rise of a presidential candidate known as “the Prophet” (no, not Aeron Greyjoy). His real name is Norvel Arlington Beauregard, and:

The Prophet came out of the South with a flag in his right hand and an axe handle in his left, to preach the creed of Americanism. He spoke to the poor and the angry, to the confused and to the fearful, and in them he woke a new determination. For his words were like a fire in the land, and wherever he stopped to speak, there the multitudes arose to march behind him.

We get a few glimpses of the Prophet’s beliefs, which I’m sure will sound familiar for modern audiences:

“You and me had to work for what we had, so why should they get pampered by the government? Why should you good folks have to pay taxes to support a bunch of lazy, ignorant bums who don’t want to work anyway?”

There’s more where that came from. Much more, in fact: though that isn’t made explicit in his speeches, the Prophet is often compared to a nazi. His opposers certainly think so, and the narrative supports this in subtle hints:

And all the people cheered and cheered, and the noise all but drowned out the faint echo of jackboots in the distance.

The other character we follow closely is Maximilian de Laurier, one of the Prophet’s opposers. An English millionaire dying of cancer, Maximilian is concerned that even with all his money, position, and influence, he didn’t accomplish anything “to show that Maxim de Laurier has lived”. So he has an idea.

Motivated by the horrors that may be averted if the Prophet stops now, de Laurier decides to finish him. He vanishes, fake-his-death style, and rents a hotel room near one of the Prophet’s rallies. De Laurier shoots the Prophet, killing him mid-speech.

De Laurier escapes, but his plan backfired: the Prophet’s vice-presidential candidate says they’ll continue his fight and the Prophet becomes some sort of martyr for his followers. It’s implied that Maximilian de Laurier will continue to gun down his successors.

On Morality and Conflicts

There’s a lot to unpack here. Despite being written in the 1968, a series of unfortunate circumstances make And Death His Legacy quite contemporary.

The Prophet’s speeches could have easily come from several politicians and world leaders still active today. The moniker ‘Prophet’ is an interesting choice, that tells us a lot about the position he occupies for his followers. Dealing with nazis rising in power is sadly contemporary too, though I wonder if GRRM would have expected that to be accurate fifty years later.

Unfortunately, a white man renting a hotel room to shoot people from the window is also quite contemporary. Especially over the past few weeks. This made And Death His Legacy difficult to read. When I announced this would be our next story, I had no idea what real-life events would take place and how much they would affect my reading. Yet they did, and I can’t ignore that.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for opposing nazis and I can’t feel sorry for the Prophet or his followers. Killing nazis has been a classic in fiction and for quite obvious reasons. In fact, if GRRM wanted to deconstruct the James Bond perspective of ‘assassination is cool’, he should have picked a different antagonist. Any attempt to explore the morality of killing the Prophet is severely hindered by constantly comparing him to a nazi.

Still, killing nazis is probably Maximilian de Laurier’s only quality. He’s quite a flat character, often unlikable, and if his enemy were different I wouldn’t find anything relatable about him. Given current events, it bothers me deeply to be asked to empathize with a guy that shoots people from a hotel window, as much as I appreciate his intentions.

There’s an attempt to create an internal conflict for Maximilian, but it just doesn’t work for me. I mean, this is how he articulates it:

“So sick,” he whispered hoarsely to himself, “so very, very sick. But do I have the right? If he is what they want, can I have the right, alone, to overrule them in the name of sanity?”

Excuse me, what? There are many possible moral conflicts surrounding the decision of taking another person’s life, but that is your concern? That you don’t want to violate people’s freedom of choosing genocide? What nonsense is that? Dude, just shut up and shoot the nazi already.

I don’t know what to make of And Death his Legacy. Or rather I don’t know what the story is trying to tell me. GRRM clearly doesn’t want to glorify Maximilian’s actions or present them as effective, but then why use somebody as obviously evil as nazis for antagonists? The story implies a certain futility in Maximilian’s actions, since they’re not accomplishing anything, but he’s still fighting nazis so I guess he gets points for at least trying? It’s confusing. Maybe this was an early attempt at the grey morality GRRM is so fond of exploring, but nazis are pitch black morality so anyone in comparison is a good guy.

On Legacies

And Death his Legacy makes me wonder how we should approach potentially problematic content, particularly content that wasn’t produced in our time.

I know very little of GRRM’s influences when he wrote this story, or how elements like a possibly-nazi presidential candidate or a white shooter from a hotel would be read back then. But I know how I read those elements now.

This is a frequent question when analysing media—how do we approach older material? Should we judge them by today’s standards? Even though the writer was a product of their time and operating under a different mentality? Even though the writer couldn’t have predicted how their story would be read nearly half a century later? Even though their intentions were possibly different, but the meaning of the elements in the story changed?

Katie touched a similar issue in her recent analysis on Tolkien and a “higher race” (because of course you’re following her amazing Lord of the Rings re-read), so I’m afraid this happens often in older stories. Ultimately, I don’t think we can hold writers responsible for implications they probably couldn’t have foreseen. Yet, as modern audiences, we can’t divorce our analysis from our own influences and how those elements are perceived today.

To be clear, I don’t think GRRM glorified shooting people from hotels and I can’t hold him responsible for how this can be read today, particularly at the time I read and analysed this story. Perhaps in another moment I could have simply enjoyed the nazi-killing ride and this aspect wouldn’t stand out this much. And perhaps if nazis weren’t rising again I could afford to question the morality of killing some. But those are not the circumstances under which I read this story.

Situations like this remind me why I can’t agree with the “it’s just a story” crowd. Stories have the power to touch people, even long after they’re produced. The takeaway changes as the circumstances change, but they’re never devoid of meaning. They’re never devoid of implications, whether or not the writer controls them. And even the same person reading a story under different circumstances could feel differently.

From a writer’s perspective, I find this effect disturbing and fascinating. The story remains the same, but the wallpaper around it changes in ways we can’t predict. We can’t hold the writer accountable for that, I think, but we also can’t ignore the new meanings and interpretations around a story. 

Closing Thoughts

Implications aside, or as much as we can distance ourselves from them, I feel the story doesn’t work for me on a storytelling level. So, as we close GRRM’s amateur phase, two conclusions come to mind.

One, that if I have to be honest the stories this far weren’t as interesting as I expected them to be. I admire GRRM for his complex worldbuilding, his well-crafted dialogue, and especially for his characters. In his earlier writing, those elements are flawed or absent. 

Of course I don’t demand from a short story the level of complexity that A Song of Ice and Fire has, but size definitely doesn’t matter when it comes to storytelling. Short stories have a lot of potential, and GRRM himself would come to write one of my favorite short stories ever just five years after he wrote And Death His Legacy. So I know the problem is not the medium, but that the writer is still learning his craft.

Fortunately, we know he’ll improve a lot. That’s the second conclusion, and the benefit of approaching his bibliography in chronological order: to see how GRRM started with ordinary and unremarkable stories and made his way into more interesting and relevant ones. We can already see the seeds.

Next time: GRRM’s writing career effectively starts and we’ll be looking at “The Hero”, his first professionally published story.


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