One of many liberations of travel life is that it has given me more time than ever to read books (or e-books, as is mostly the case these days). With such frequent downtime, be it the long journeys, quiet hostel nights or occasional slow mornings, I look forward to opportunities to think, reflect, write, and bury myself in my Kindle.
There are certain books that lend themselves perfectly to travel reading, and none better than those containing some themes of exploration. While we were in Argentina, it was not only bliss getting lost in Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, but also very useful as it gave me some bearings for one of our upcoming backpacking destinations.
A few hours before writing this, I finished Alexandre Dumas’ classic epic adventure of revenge, The Count of Monte Cristo, which had been propping up my to-read list for over a decade. With the unabridged version clocking 1,276 pages, you’ll forgive me for waiting so long to finally tackle it. Warning: some spoilers lie ahead.
Although travel is not a major theme of Monte Cristo, it does have a significant bearing on the plot. Our protagonist, the ebullient young sailor Edmond Dantès, is on the cusp of his dream life; he is about to become captain of a ship and marry his beautiful sweetheart, when he is cast down by jealous enemies who frame him as a Bonapartist traitor. Arrested at his wedding, he is cast into a dungeon where he remains condemned for 14 years.
During this imprisonment, Dantès meets and befriends a scholarly priest who occupies a neighbouring cell. The priest tutors him in languages, sciences and philosophy, and also tells him the location of a hidden vault of treasure on a remote island. When Dantès eventually escapes, he finds the treasure, and then spends ten more years improving himself physically and intellectually before returning to France to exact his revenge on those who wronged him. His foremost means of intellectual improvement is through travel. He spends years exploring Africa, Europe, the Middle East and the Far East, learning about the culture and languages in each different environment.
As the plot firmly focused on the high society of Paris after Dantès’ undercover return as the count, I found myself often being reminded of the books I was reading at the beginning of our travels – George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, now universally known as the source material for HBO’s hit TV series A Game of Thrones. There are numerous common threads between the two works: warring families, political backstabbing, duels to the death, arranged marriages, societal oppression of women, bands of outlaws, murder, betrayal, complex characters – there’s even a hint of incest in Monte Cristo as well.
Travel and exploration is also an important undercurrent of Martin’s work. Several key characters are seasoned trotters of the fictional globe of Planetos, and their worldliness is usually associated with wisdom; take the likes of Oberyn Martell, Euron Greyjoy and Mance Rayder. All are highly intelligent men who apply their experience of their world to their advantage and manipulate those they view as lesser beings; Martell in King’s Landing, Greyjoy on the Iron Islands and Rayder north of the Wall.
Then there is the legendary Lomas Longstrider – a character who does not appear in the on-screen version – a scribe and traveller who charted much of the lands of Essos, and whose works inspired a young Tyrion Lannister.
While British medieval history is perhaps the strongest influence on Martin’s work (for Lannister/Stark read Lancaster/York), it is well known that he derives inspiration from many aspects of European and north African history. Take, for example, Valyrian steel, which is based on Damascus steel, a legendary, resilient sword steel which can not be replicated today as the production methods are lost.
My suspicions that Martin also found some inspiration in Alexandre Dumas’ works were confirmed when I discovered that in 2012, Martin selected Tom Reiss’s The Black Count as his favourite book of the year. This is a book about the real story of Dumas’ father, Alex Dumas, whose adventurous life was the main inspiration for The Count of Monte Cristo.
I began to spot quite a few parallels between characters in Ice and Fire and Monte Cristo. Some of these comparisons are quite general and relate to complex characters, and I am sure that Martin has a multitude of background sources, but I wonder if some of those bright sparks originated in Dumas’ work.
The naïve, trampled-upon hero: young Dantès vs Ned Stark
A recurring theme, or perhaps subliminal lesson, throughout A Song of Ice and Fire is that if you act straightforwardly and honourably while treading the tightropes of high society, you are not likely to survive for long.
This is a consequence shared by the main protagonists of The Count of Monte Cristo and the first book in Martin’s series, A Game of Thrones. In the case of the latter, it is a deadly fate for the unfortunate Ned Stark, who fails to see the web of deceit closing around him until it is far too late.
Our charming sailor in Marseilles, Edmond Dantès, is even more ignorant of the dark clouds gathering. Completely preoccupied with young love and his positive career fortunes, he cheerfully sees the best in everyone and is completely blind to the dangers of the jealousy he is inspiring in others. Even after he is framed and imprisoned, for many years in his confinement he is unable to fathom what had happened; it needed the guidance of his sensei priest friend to open his eyes to the conspiracy against him.
These grim ramifications of naivety appear repeatedly in Martin’s characters, in particular the Stark family. Young Robb and Jon Snow try to emulate Ned in making honourable decisions, and the outcome for both is catastrophic.
The spoilt noble boy: Edward Villefort vs Joffrey Baratheon
The rich-spoilt-brat-we-love-to-hate character is nothing new, but George R. R. Martin perhaps created the ultimate specimen in the cruel boy-king, Joffrey Baratheon. After all, it was he who decapitated our beloved Ned Stark, and he has a notorious penchant for the sadistic. In the books, he kills a pregnant cat and cuts open its belly to see the kittens inside. In the TV show, he uses a prostitute for live crossbow practice.
Through all this unspeakable behaviour, Joffrey is protected – and almost encouraged – by his mother, Cersei. She is almost blind to his terrible faults; he is her son, and so she will do anything to advance his position, even if that means scheming against and killing better people.
In The Count of Monte Cristo we can find a character with close parallels to Joffrey: young Edward de Villefort. Ignored by his father and over-pampered by his mother, the boy is obnoxious, destructive and unconcerned about how his actions affect others. He rips up papers and throws things; his mother thinks it sweet, and refuses to punish or educate him.
When it looks as though young Edward is going to be overlooked for a vast inheritance in favour of his adorable older half-sister, his mother sets to work poisoning people to death in order that the boy can have everything. (Including his half-sister.)
And it is poison that provides the final parallel between our two brats; both Joffrey and Edward meet their doom at the hands of a deadly dose.
The manipulative schemer: Danglars vs Littlefinger
Both The Count of Monte Cristo and A Game of Thrones depict a disastrous chain of events that are set into motion by a scheming villain. The architect of Edmond Dantès’ downfall is Danglars; he is always careful to avoid direct confrontation, and leaves scant opportunity for his crimes to be traced back to him.
Danglars uses other people as the tools to achieve his evil ends, exploiting the deep jealousy of Dantès’ love rival to have the young sailor removed. By twisting others to his will, he is able to rise from small beginnings to great riches, becoming a powerful banker known for his deftness with finances. He is entirely motivated by his own greed and ambition.
A Song of Ice and Fire enthusiasts will spot many similarities here with the master manipulator of Westeros, Littlefinger. He too started life in relative poverty and obscurity, but through plotting and scheming advanced all the way to the king’s small council, becoming master of coin, in charge of the purse of the seven kingdoms. From this position he manipulates the rivalries of the realm to create chaos that can only benefit him. Just as it is Danglars that destroys Dantès, it is Littlefinger that betrays and dooms Ned Stark.
The loveable outlaws: Brotherhood Without Banners vs Luigi Vampa’s banditti
This comparison is a little less obvious, but still caught my attention. In the aftermath of war Westeros is overrun with all sorts of bandit groups, but the one with which we become best acquainted is the Brotherhood Without Banners, with whom Arya travels with for a short time. Unlike the brutal and perverse Brave Companions, these are outlaws we feel some affection for; they rally against Lannister rule, and later become a guerrilla group targeting the treasonous Freys.
In the passages of The Count of Monte Cristo that take place in Rome, we are introduced to a bandit called Luigi Vampa and his squad of outlaws. Although undoubtedly committers of bad acts, we come to rather like the banditti as they are friends of the count, and become complicit in his grand revenge plan.
The warmth we feel towards these bandit tribes is not because they are particularly good people, or even any different to other outlaw groups, but likely because they work against the characters we really hate. The Brotherhood Without Banners fights against the barbarous Gregor Clegane, while it is Dumas’ Italian banditti that inflict the final punishment upon Danglars.
The sacrificed sensei: Abbé Faria vs Syrio Forel
One of the most mysterious characters in Dumas’ epic work is the Abbé Faria – that aged and knowledgeable priest with whom Dantès becomes acquainted in prison. We don’t learn a huge amount about Faria’s background, but he is pivotal to the story and the most important influence in Dantès’ development from naïve sailor to wise and worldly assassin. Unfortunately we only get to spend six chapters with the abbé, as he cruelly meets his fate just before Dantès is able to escape.
Compare this with the swordmaster Syrio Forel in A Game of Thrones, who is hired by Ned to instruct Arya in the art of swordplay. The ‘first sword of Braavos’ spends hours upon hours with the young girl, lessons that reverberate throughout her entire character arc. But while Syrio has such a significant influence, we learn rather little about him. As hell breaks loose in King’s Landing, he is assumedly killed just as Arya escapes.
There are other examples of ‘sensei’ characters in A Song of Ice and Fire who play key roles in the development of central characters, but are themselves cut short: take, for instance, the influence of Jeor Mormont and Aemon Targaryen on Jon Snow. There is perhaps a little bit of the Abbé Faria in each of these.
The deadly revenge arc: old Dantès vs Arya Stark
Now we come to the central theme of The Count of Monte Cristo: revenge. Once liberated from his imprisonment, Dantès has a very simple and unchanging list of people to avenge himself against: Danglars, Fernand and Villefort. You can imagine that he may have spent many long nights in that dungeon repeating those names, before finally being released on his deadly mission.
Revenge also becomes the principal raison d’être for one of our favourite Ice and Fire characters, Arya Stark; and her list, as we know, is a little longer, and rather more flexible. After witnessing the beheading of her father and the destruction of most of the rest of her family at the Red Wedding, her intentions grow ever darker, and she becomes intent on exacting revenge on the perpetrators. Just like Dantès, rather than going straight for the kill, she embarks on a path of training to better equip herself for the task ahead.
Another parallel between the two is the utilisation of disguise. Young Arya learns how to use dead people’s faces to mask her identity, not dissimilar to the way that Dantès cloaks himself as Lord Wilmore or the Abbé Busoni to dupe his adversaries.
It is almost as though Arya’s revenge arc is a mini-Monte-Cristo sub-plot of the Ice and Fire world. However, still waiting for Martin’s sixth book in the series, Winds of Winter, we don’t yet know where it will lead.
Plot device parallels
While there are many similarities in characterisation and story arcs between the two works, there are also several plot devices and societal nuances that are present in The Count of Monte Cristo and utilised by Martin.
Let’s begin with ‘disaster at a wedding’. The event that sets the narrative rolling in Dumas’ work is the arrest of Edmond Dantès as he is about to marry his beloved Mercédès. Needless to say to Ice and Fire fans, Martin’s matrimonial catastrophe is a little more extreme, as an entire family and several main characters are slaughtered at the Red Wedding.
In keeping with the grand wedding catastrophe, both authors like to stage big, plot-turning events at major public gatherings. In Ice and Fire we see more wedding deaths (Joffrey), brawls breaking out at feasts, and tragedy at the Sept of Baelor. In Monte Cristo, the triumphant downfalls of two of Dantès’ three adversaries take place in very public circumstances; one in a parliamentary session, the other at a court hearing.
A societal device that features prominently in both narratives is the use of arranged marriages to build alliances between powerful families and to protect wealth and political interests. The importance placed upon such marriages by the rich families in 19th-century Paris is an integral part of the count’s revenge plan. In Ice and Fire, marriage is used just as readily as war to expand empires and control kingdoms.
Finally, a symbolic device often used by George R. R. Martin is to associate the loss of women’s hair with loss of femininity. Two examples of this are Arya and Cersei. In the first instance, as Arya is broken from her family home, she is at the same time freed from the expectations placed upon her as a high-born girl. In order to make a clean escape, her hair is cut so she can disguise herself as a boy. At the same time, it symbolises a departure from the expectations of her previous place in society.
In Cersei’s case, her sexuality is her agency in manipulating men to advance her interests. Her long, golden hair is a mark of her femininity, and so when it is cut off as she embarks on her ‘walk of shame’, it signifies a loss of power.
There is a comparable instance in The Count of Monte Cristo. After her arranged wedding contract is disrupted, as Mademoiselle Danglars prepares to escape Paris with her friend to embrace a new artist’s life, she cuts off her long locks of hair so that she will not be recognised, and to disguise herself as a man. The symbolic effect is similar to the case of Arya Stark; she is liberated from the expectations of her high-born life.
Some of these correlating themes, devices and character traits are far more pronounced than others; but in conclusion, it is plain that commonalities do exist between these works. Not in a plagiaristic manner, far from it, but it is fascinating to explore how the mythical world of Ice and Fire is firmly rooted in real history, not too far away from us.
Onto the next travel book: I might choose a shorter one this time!