The rules of song and the rules of myth: playing with dragons and other mythohistorical archetypes (rules of the text 2)

George RR Martin titled A Song of Ice and Fire advisedly, I think, with reference to the bardic traditions of European culture that gave us also the Iliad, the Odyssey, Beowulf, and the Song of Roland among many others. As I’ve demonstrated, those bardic traditions worked like games. That we call them “oral improvisatory traditions” rather than “games” is a historical and semantic accident no more remarkable than the one that has us calling Skyrim (or Mass Effect) a “game” rather than a “tale.”

For the truth is that as the homeric bards played the stories of Achilles and Odysseus, Martin plays the stories of the Starks, the Lannisters, and the Targaryens, and I play Skyrim. And, in each case, our play is bounded by a ruleset that controls the choices we make and the effect those choices have on the state of the performance in which we are currently engaged. Moreover, I want to suggest, those rulesets may be read comparatively in the way they specifically allow the player to play a mythic past.

As I proposed in my last post, I want to go on along this line of inquiry to argue that once these performances produce a more fixed kind of artifact–a recording of a bard’s performance, the text of A Song of Ice and Fire, a gameplay video of Skyrim–those fixed artifacts themselves function like games, as rulesets for performances by the players in their audiences.

The first step, however, is to put the isomorphism among these various kinds of mythic constraints (game-rules, bardic conventions, literary genre) on a solid footing.

The world of A Song of Ice and Fire is a pastiche of medieval Europe; that much is clear from the opening paragraphs of A Game of Thrones, and nothing changes at least as far as the closing paragraphs of A Dance with Dragons, except that over the course of five enormous tomes and/or hundreds of hours of audiobook we move from a world bounded by the limits of a historical reality we recognize (perhaps there used to be dragons, and magic, but there is no evidence of it in the world) to a world bounded by the much wider limits of high-fantasy (queens riding dragons into the sky). Martin, that is, gradually changes the mythic rules on his audience, and to wonderful effect.

That world created by those rules is a performance of the past in which Martin takes events from our world–notably the Norman conquest, figured as the dragon-enabled conquest of Westeros by Aegon–and projects them into the playspace of his imaginative performance, leaving us the record of the text of A Song of Ice and Fire as the rules of our own performance within that world. For comparison’s sake, it’s worth noting that JRR Tolkien did much the same thing in constructing what he called the Quenta–the mythos behind The Lord of the Rings.
And of course all composers of fiction do something similar when they create their fictional worlds, even in realistic fiction like that of Austen or Steinbeck.

But just as there is a continuum of usefulness in talking about games as occasions of narrative (useful for Skyrim and BioShock, less useful for Tetris and Temple Run, though no less true), there is a continuum of usefulness in talking about textual performance as playing with the cultural materials of mythic history (useful for The Lord of the Rings and Ulysses, less useful for Pride and Prejudice and The Grapes of Wrath, though no less true).

The comparison between Skyrim and A Song of Ice and Fire helps because when we read Martin’s saga as a play-performance in which he chooses and transforms the elements of the Norman conquest and chooses and transforms elements of Tolkien, and combines them as a bard combined the themes he had from his professional forebears to create a mythic past, we gain the ability to analyze the affinity between the experience of reading Martin’s work and the experience of playing Skyrim, and, just as importantly, the affinity between the cultural effects of the saga and the game, as demonstrated by such parergic player-performances as A Wiki of Ice and Fire and The Elder Scrolls Wiki.

Compare the Jane Austen Wiki to see what I mean.

In my usual fashion, let me tease you with the contention that despite the appearance of futurity, the same is true of Star Wars (“a long time ago”) and of Battlestar Galactica (“All this has happened before”) and of Mass Effect (“A myth common to several cultures in the galaxy, Reapers were imagined to be space monsters who consumed entire stars”). The advent of reliable records of the past (curse you, written culture!) has gradually robbed us of the ability to imagine dragons and heroes in our past; the homeric bards’ mythic ruleset is therefore no longer playable exactly as they played it, but with the imaginative tweak by which the past of a fictional world becomes our own past while we inhabit that world, we can keep playing by the rules of mythic archetypes and keep fighting dragons whether those dragons have scales or titanium armor.


  1. Love this article and love this site. It’s refreshing to see intertextual connections being made across different mediums, and I think it’s something games writing should be doing more of. Bravo!

    1. Author

      Thanks, Alex! Since I’m replying to this, I thought I might also reply to something that came up on Twitter–my omission to mention Dungeons and Dragons as an important instance of playing with myth. There’s a crucial isomorphism between bardic traditions, writing mythic narrative like A Song of Ice and Fire, and playing single-player RPG’s that doesn’t exist in the same way with D&D: a kind of focalization through an individual link of the Great Chain of Practomime, whereas D&D has a collaborative performance aspect that seems to me to interrupt the chain in a fascinating, and very productive, way. I’ll save that for another post down the road!

  2. And I look forward to that post! Perhaps single-player RPGs are to George Martin as D&D is to theater.

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