Monday, October 2, 2017

Martin Re-read: "The Fortress"



“The Fortress”
Previously unpublished

According to Martin’s between-stories discussion in Dreamsongs, “The Fortress” was his first professional rejection and the bug that bit him and made him want to become a professional writer. It’s the reason he enrolled in a creative writing class in which, as a genre writer, he felt woefully out of place (been there myself). “The Fortress” was, as far as I can tell, never published before making its way into this collection, but it’s still incredibly important for a look at his development as a writer.

Martin wrote “The Fortress” a couple of years after “Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark,” and there’s marked improvement in the writing style. Some of this might be because he’s not trying to live up to the overdone, overwrought comic style of the fanzines, and some might just be because he was a little older and had read more. That doesn’t mean the styles are completely opposed; there’s some of the same atmospheric scene-setting at the beginning of “The Fortress,” and occasional notes of scenery-chewing from the characters, but overall it’s much easier to read.

This (and “And Death His Legacy,” which I won’t be covering here) is a clear marker of his interest in history and why things happen the way they do. He has a clear, laser-focus on the choices people make and why they make them, much like A Song of Ice and Fire. A lot of historical fiction has kind of an inevitability to it; the writer can only do so much creatively because history happens the way (historians say) it happened. Martin shows some real skill, even this early, in being able to avoid that sense of the characters being railroaded.

“The Fortress” is historical fiction about the surrender of Sveaborg during the Finnish War in the early 19th century. Martin manages (unsurprisingly) to pack a lot of politics in here, and while I don’t know how “accurate” any of this is (19th century history isn’t exactly my jam), he does a reasonably good job at conveying all the different ideas and thought processes that (may have) gone into the ultimate surrender of Sveaborg to the Russians. These are conveyed through four very distinct characters: Col. Anttonen, who wants to hold Sveaborg through the siege; Col. Jägerhorn, who wants to surrender; Adm. Cronstedt, who gets to make the ultimate decision; and Capt. Bannersson, who helps Anttonen and delivers history’s verdict to Cronstedt at the end of the story. The immediate conflict in the story is between Jägerhorn, a Finnish nationalist who doesn’t think Swedish rule has been good for Finland and thinks Russia might be better, and Anttonen, who doesn’t trust Russia further than he could throw it. They compete for influence over Cronstedt, though he’s already pretty much made up his mind by the time Anttonen gets to him, mostly because he’s been given a whole lot of Russian propaganda that says they have massive numbers of troops and guns poised to bombard Sveaborg. When Anttonen is unsuccessful in changing Cronstedt’s mind, he attempts a mutiny aimed at taking over the armory to prevent surrender, but Jägerhorn anticipates him and Anttonen is killed in the ensuing fight. Cronstedt surrenders, and twelve years later, Bannersson finds him on his deathbed and confronts him with all the evidence that he was utterly wrong about the situation and Sveaborg could totally have held out against Russia.

Aerial view of Suomenlinna, formerly Sveaborg, from Wikipedia

Martin comes down pretty hard on the side of Sweden here; Anttonen is pretty clearly the hero, even with a mutiny attempt. Jägerhorn, who wants Finnish independence, is shown as deluded for thinking Russia’s going to give it to them. Also, he’s a moustache-twirling villain who may be feeding Cronstedt false information on purpose to manipulate him into surrendering. Most of the remaining over-the-top dialogue in “The Fortress” comes from Jägerhorn, while everyone else is more or less reasonable.

“We figured you’d try something like this, and we’ve been watching every move you made since the armistice was signed. Your mutiny is finished. [. . .] Don’t be a fool. Our men captured the ensign and his squad before they even got near Admiral Cronstedt. You never had a chance.”

I can actually see the seeds of Petyr Baelish and Varys in Jägerhorn, though obviously they’re much more subtle. But the careful dissemination of information aimed at getting a specific reaction from the person in power, the awareness of his opponent’s thought processes that allow him to stop their plans in their tracks, and the occasional dramatic pronouncement (“I did warn you not to trust me,” anyone?) are characteristics that show up in the spymaster and sleazy manipulator of A Song of Ice and Fire. “The Fortress” has a much smaller scope than A Song of Ice and Fire, but it shows Martin building the awareness of politics and “grey” heroes (mutiny isn’t exactly honorable, but we are obviously supposed to sympathize with Anttonen) that shows up in later works (not just A Song of Ice and Fire, but also Hunter’s Run and The Armageddon Rag). I wonder, also, if the structure of Sveaborg was any inspiration for Pyke.

Next week: Martin again disrupts genre conventions in “Exit to San Breta”

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