These Are the Good Old Days


FAIR WARNING – MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD

(If you haven’t read the A Song of Ice andFire books, or are just starting, you may want to skip this post)

Just some observations. As I’ve been reading through George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (now on book 3, A Storm of Swords) one thing keeps stopping me and pulling me out of the story. This is not a criticism, but it’s such a glaring difference between the type of society depicted in the books and our own modern first-world society that it makes me stop and ponder every time I run across mention of someone’s age.

Many of the characters depicted in the books are children, but you really never see any of them acting like children. Frankly I’m astonished at the adult attitudes, thoughts, and ways of behaving of even the youngest children. At the age of sixteen, Robb is a seasoned battle commander and king, and returns home with a spoil of war: a bride. Strategizing battles, grasping political maneuvers and intrigue, even murder, are not beyond the Stark children. The younger daughter, Arya, has to learn how to live on the streets and hunt small animals and birds to keep herself alive. Even before the tide turns against them and the family is shattered, these kids are paying attention to the manners and mores of the adults, studying their father’s conduct and interactions with lords and knights, and visiting nobles who come to see Ned at Winterfell. There seems to be little time for leisure, and games as entertainment apparently don’t exist. Life is hard for these kids, but they’ve never known anything else. It’s a striking contrast to 21st century USA where the vast majority of kids seem to have nothing more to think about than the latest Wii or XBox, or Nintendo games, getting the latest iPhone or grumbling about school. I’m not making any judgments about it, I certainly don’t wish to live in the world of the books and have to learn to hunt pigeons to feed myself, and I realize there are places in the world where life is far harder. I know we’re quite privileged here and believe me I appreciate all my creature comforts.  One of my high school teachers once remarked (I think he was quoting someone, but I don’t know who) “An extended childhood is the sign of an advanced civilization.” That would be us. Childhood for many here now extends well into middle-age.

Every time I run across these issues in the books, where these kids are put into impossible, unconscionable situations and have to face worst-case scenarios, it’s almost too hard to believe pre-teens and teenagers are able to do what they do when I compare them to modern teens. Nobody gets coddled or shielded from the harsh realities. And these are the privileged ones, the nobility who live in the castles and have servants to light the fires and cook their meals for them.

I really have to wonder how many of us could even survive, let alone thrive, under similar circumstances. Very few, I’d guess. And I suppose that’s good and bad. I’m a child of the 20th century, and I know I would have a rough time adjusting to life without hot and cold running water, electricity, and internal combustion engines. Not to mention mail-order. And the internet. Ok fine, I’d probably just die.

Now excuse me while I try to track down copies of the Foxfire books so I can learn to spin and weave and make my own crossbows and learn how to butcher a hog.

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18 thoughts on “These Are the Good Old Days

  1. This was a wonderful commentary on the differences between children of yesterday and today. While I don’t necessarily want my children to be gutting an animal for food, it certainly wouldn’t be a bad idea if we at least knew how to. Who’s to say when the apocalypse will arrive and we need to fend for ourselves in ways we never had to before? I would love for my children to learn survival skills and things like simple carpentry. It seems to me that these skills should be the foundation of learning. They also build self confidence and strength like nothing else. It’s such a shame our schools only know how to teach book knowledge. Just my two cents.

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  2. Thanks Maria. Well, you know even in ‘the old days’ schools were always about book learning. Other skills like carpentry, hunting, farming, animal husbandry, etc. were learned at home, or when apprenticed to a trade. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to teach all of it! Not everyone needs to be a carpenter, or a baker, or farmer. Everyone can have different skills that all complement eachother, and work together.

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  3. Interesting post and observations. In regards to children rearing, I like to think there can be a healthy balance between the two extremes. It saddens me to think of children growing up too fast (and I know they see unspeakable horrors all around the world today). No one of any age should have to see and experience such things…
    On the other hand, in other countries such as ours, there is often way too much spoiling going on. Some folks seem positively allergic to grounding their kid, when the child really, really needs to be taught that what they did was wrong, and there are consequences to actions.

    And there is also way too much coddling. Just for example, so many of the rides that were in a playground when I was a kid, are no longer there…because oh-my-gawd-a kid might fall and get a boo-boo,

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  4. Exactly! On the one hand, it’s great that our civilization has advanced to the point where children don’t need to make life or death decisions at the age of 10, that we have such a thing as ‘leisure time’ and can devote ourselves to scholasticism and the arts and so on. On the other, it seems to have also spawned a culture where some people NEVER grow up and learn to act responsibly.

    As I read through these books, every time one of the kids makes some completely astute observation about their circumstances, I just about fall out of my chair because I cannot see a modern counterpart being able to think so clearly, and so deeply. I’m sure there are some out there who are not so empty-headed, but even 30-and 40-something men in this country act like children (I was going to say ‘teenagers’ but the teens in this book are grown adults, taking on tremendous burdens), going crazy over gadgets and toys and video games. As you say, it would be nice to find a balance. ‘First world’ problem, I guess 😉

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  5. I haven’t read the Martin books – do they take place in a dystopian future, an alternate present, or a stylized past?
    I think I may have mentioned before that the thing that creeps me out about the way people raise kids in this century is the fact that the culture overextends childhood for years in terms of decision-making, economic support, and general “helicoptering,” yet kids are prematurely sexualized in terms of how they are permitted to behave, what they are permitted (indeed, encouraged!) to wear, and what they are allowed to absorb from the media. All this in the face of an idiotic reluctance to teach these kids about birth control.

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  6. The series is set in a fantasy world, like an alternate Earth with different continents and cities, different history, but essentially a medieval-level of development. Kings, castles, princesses, knights on horseback (with precious little sense of chivalry, these are some bloodthirsty mofos). The fantasy elements include zombies, dragons, magic (which seems to always be presented with a very negative connotation, at least as far as I’ve read).

    You make some great points about extended-yet-sexualized childhood. There was an episode of Sex and the City that depicted sexually active pre-teens who were quite jaded (oddly I was just thinking about that episode today). I bet some of the mothers who are entering their elementary-school-age daughters in beauty pageants are some of the biggest opponents of birth control. I saw a thing on the net the other day (a link on Twitter) to a story about a woman who gave her 7-yr-old daughter a voucher for $10,000 for a boob job when she’s old enough. An extreme example, but who knows how much of this stuff goes on that doesn’t make the papers? I only hope that kid goes through a major rebellion when she hits her teen years.

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  7. If every parent told his/her kid she was beautiful, every day of her life, all the cosmetic surgeons would go out of business.

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  8. “If every parent told his/her kid she was beautiful, every day of her life, all the cosmetic surgeons would go out of business.”

    i have to quote this, Mary. Because it is so true.

    I read the same article DD mentioned, and it was just so sad and pathetic. Those type of people could have a hundred operations and they still would not feel beautiful. There is always something else they think needs to be changed, to be improved on.

    And a shout out thank you to my own parents for instilling self-confidence in my sister and me. It definitely starts at home…

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  9. That’s wonderful Tasha, that you had such wonderful parents.

    It is pathetic that people like that woman are destroying their children’s self-esteem before they’re even old enough to understand what’s going on.

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  10. 13. Dany is 13 when she is sold, married, and consequently “raped” (mostly through lack of her own agency, but it can’t be fun for a 13 yr old to have non consensual sex).

    There are many countries where that is relatively old to “relieve” oneself of a daughter one cannot feed.

    All around, there are child soldiers, In Africa, in Asia, and in North America. Children build barricades, alongside their fathers and mothers.

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  11. Hi Kimmy,

    Yes, there was a great deal of speculation as to how HBO was going to deal with Dany being so young. They chose to age her, which I think is the only decision they could have made. In medieval Europe that was not unusual for girls to be married off at that age. Even Shakespeare’s Juliet was (I believe, correct me if I’m wrong) 13 when her family was ready to marry her off, and when she married Romeo. There’s plenty of precedent for it.

    Kids in the US have no concept how good they have it.

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    1. There’s a new film version of R & J in the works, starring Hailee Steinfeld (the 14 y.o. Oscar nominee from True Grit) as Juliet. There was some mild controversy over how the love scenes were going to handled, but apparently some were scaled down and a few others will be employing an older body double.

      My own grandmother was 15 when her parents, who were too broke to support her after WW1, chose to send her to live in the U.S. with her older brother, rather than marry her off to the first slob who owned a cow or something. Grandma didn’t have an easy life, but I’ve always had warm feelings for my great-g-parents who gave her the opportunity to marry for love, which she did, twice!

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  12. Oh wow, I didn’t know about the new R&J! Looking forward to that. Do you know if it will be an updated version, or set in 16th C. Verona?

    Farming out kids like that was not at all uncommon. Happens all the time in Jane Austen’s books, which of course were accurate portrayals of life in early 19th C. England. Your grandmother was very lucky to have such an opportunity. Life was hard I’m sure, but how much worse would it have been in the home country?

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    1. I’m not sure when/where the new film will be set. There’s an IMDb page, but it had very little info except that Hailee’s playing Juliet and Holly Hunter is playing the nurse. Good potential, so far…

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  13. You think HH is old enough to be the nurse? I always thought the nurse was like a doddering little old lady, more like .. I don’t know, I can’t think of anyone off the top of my head 🙂

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    1. Holly’s 53, which would make sense if she’s been caring for Juliet since she was 40. The nurse is traditionally cast as an old bag (plus when we read it in high school, of course we thought of anybody our parents’ age as ancient) but to be honest, I can’t remember anything in the text that sez she has to be. If they were going to go the more traditional root, I’d pick Frances Sternhagen – I just love her.

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  14. I thought of Frances, too! I loved her as Charlotte’s pretentious mother-in-law in “Sex and the City”, Bunny McDougal. I also thought I need to reread whatever description there is of the nurse in the play, it’s been a million years since I actually read it (high school, probably). Ellen Geer might be good, too.

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  15. I saw Frances off-Broadway as Miss Daisy years ago – she was just perfect. Currently I’m digging on her as Brenda’s mother Willie Rae on “The Closer.”

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