As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods.
They kill us for their sport.
— Shakespeare’s King Lear
Sandkings is chock full of potent symbolism that has been reappropriated for A Song of Ice and Fire. First published in Omni in 1979, it tells a rather morbid tale that one would expect to find in a volume of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories: a tale of a man with a strange creature that grows beyond his control whilst driving him to inhuman behaviors.
There are a tremendous number of important elements that Sandkings and ASOIAF share, which provides us great insights into what they might mean for readers.
Simon Kress, a wealthy playboy on the planet Baldur, loves to collect dangerous, exotic animals. When most of his pets die after being left alone during a long business trip, he ventures into the city to find replacements. He is unsatisfied by the offerings in the stores he has patronized in the past, but eventually he comes across a mysterious new establishment called Wo & Shade.
Inside, he meets one of the owners, Jala Wo. She shows him a terrarium filled with four colonies of creatures called sandkings. Each colony consists of a large female called the maw, and numerous insect-like mobiles. The maw is immobile, but controls the mobiles through telepathy. The mobiles hunt, forage, and build, and bring food back to the maw, which digests it and passes tube nutrients on to the mobiles. Each colony has constructed a castle out of sand around the maw, and the creatures fight coordinated wars and battles with one another. Wo also shows Kress how she has beamed a hologram of herself into the tank, and how the sandkings have decorated their castles with her likeness. Kress is mildly intrigued, but disappointed at the small size of the creatures. Wo assures him that they will grow to fill whatever environment they are kept in. Kress then agrees to purchase them. Wo assures him that they are easy to care for, and will eat anything.
Kress observes the installation of his sandkings and watches his four colonies (colored white, black, red, and orange) begin to build their castles. There is little intrigue or fighting, however, so a bored Kress begins to starve them. After that, they consistently war over the food he does provide. He also beams a hologram of his face, and they begin to decorate their castles appropriately.
After a time, Kress invites his friends, including Jala Wo, to view a war fought by his new pets. The guests are suitably impressed, but Jala Wo worries that he is not feeding the sandkings adequately. She assures him that if they are kept comfortable, they will engage in intrigue and wars that are endlessly more entertaining than if they are made to squabble over food. Kress dismisses her complaints and resolves not to invite her any more. Cath m’Lane, a former lover, leaves in disgust.
Kress throws a series of parties and takes bets on the outcome of the sandking battles. At one, a guest brings a dangerous alien creature and suggests pitting it against the sandkings. The sandkings quickly dispatch it. This begins a series of matches: the sandkings emerge victorious in all of them.
Eventually, Kress learns that Cath has reported the sandkings to the animal control authorities. He then films himself feeding a puppy to the sandkings and sends it to her. As he goes to bed, he notices that his face on the castles has become twisted and sinister. Outraged, he pokes a sword into the white maw. He can feel that he has injured it, but it isn’t dead. He then goes to bed.
Cath arrives the next day with a sledgehammer, and tries to smash the sandkings’ terrarium. Trying frantically to stop her, Kress kills her. In dying, she finally breaks the plastic, releasing the sandkings. Kress flees the house in a panic. By the time he returns, the sandkings have taken over: the black and red have built castles in the garden, while the whites have taken over the basement and eaten Cath. He is unable to find the oranges. Freed from their container, the sandkings grow larger. Kress tries to exterminate them himself, then hires blackmarket assassins to assist him, but he is only able to destroy the blacks and the reds, and the whites trap him in the house. Panicking, he empties his pantry to appease the sandkings, then invites several guests and locks them in the basement, where the sandkings devour them.
The next morning, the mobiles are comatose. Kress finally decides to contact Jala Wo, who explains that as the sandkings grow larger, the maw becomes more intelligent, and eventually reaches sentience. At that point, the mobiles evolve into their next stage of evolution, which include opposable thumbs and the ability to manipulate technology. She reveals that her partner, Shade, is an evolved sandking himself. Because of Kress’s mistreatment, however, the white maw is dangerous. Wo tells Kress to flee, and assures him that she will take care of the sandkings.
Kress runs into the wilderness around his estate in a blind panic, trying to follow Wo’s directions for a pickup. After traveling all day, he finally comes across a house, with children playing outside. Thinking he has found salvation, he calls out to them. As he comes closer, however, he realizes that he has reached the castle of the evolved orange sandkings. As they surround him and drag him to the waiting mouth of the maw, he screams: all of them have his face.
- Factions organized by color
The sandkings are sorted into four groups by their colors. We see that the noble houses are also organized by colors. Religious groups as well.
- Carved faces
The sandkings also ‘worship’ their owner after a fashion. They sense the protagonist’s face using a limited psionic sense and carve his likeness into their structures.
- Castles and Maws
The sandking factions each have their own ‘castle’ or home base. Inside each is a maw, the ‘queen’ creature that houses the hivemind for the entire clan and also the central agent who needs to eat in order to sustain the hive. This is not unlike the noble houses and religious factions in Westeros.
- Warring factions
The sandking factions war, make alliances, and engage in constant intrigue.
- Ritual gone askew
The shopkeeper who sells the sandkings warns that they must be allowed to feed and kept to a regulated, balanced system. Despite these cautions the main character upsets the balance by deliberately starving them, providing them with external threats and what not. There are some strong similarities to the external forces acting on the houses and faiths of Westeros, most prominently manifested in the uneven seasons and the Others.
Color as an organizing force
One of the interesting observations connecting Sandkings to A Song of Ice and Fire stems from the use of color as a primary organizing element. This has manifestations on multiple levels in ASOIAF:
Colors and noble houses
Obviously the many houses are all affiliated with colors and symbols. They also build castles and organize much like the sandkings. Despite these and other similarities, I feel like the parallel to the noble houses is much weaker than the other option that exists: faith.
Colors and religion
Given the notion of color as an organizing force, isn’t it peculiar that the major religions in A Song of Ice and Fire are also strongly associated with colors:
Red is strongly associated with R’hllor, with orange and yellow as notable secondary colors.
Green is clearly affiliated with the Old Gods.
Light, both as a pure beam of unbroken sunlight as well as the seven fractured colors of the rainbow, is a symbol of the Faith of the Seven. I like to refer to this as the ‘white’ color.
Although not precisely a religion, the warlocks of the House of the Undying are strongly represented by the colors Blue, Violet and Indigo.
Further, notice that the ‘green’ faith of the old gods has a striking example of the carved faces associated with sandkings… the faces carved in the weirwoods. This makes the association with Sandkings all but explicit. To a lesser extent, we can see this ‘idol worship’ in the form of ‘face sculpting’ with the followers of the Seven as well: the statues of the gods in the great Sept of Baelor and more closely in the small sept Catelyn visits in A Clash of Kings.
What’s most interesting about the parallel between the religions of ASOIAF and the sandkings is the symmetry that it suggests, the questions that possibility raises.
“Do the religions have ‘maws’, the hivemind-queen that sustains the flock while the flock forages for her sustenance?”
Certainly what we’re asking is if the religions need to be ‘fed’ in order to sustain themselves. Certainly for each of the major faiths I’ve identified (aside from the Seven), this seems to be the case.
This seems to be most obviously true in the case of the old gods. It is all but confirmed that Bloodraven (and Bran) sustain themselves of the life’s blood of others. Certainly we know that blood and entrails are considered strong offerings to the old gods. And the cave of the three-eyed crow indeed has a ‘maw’, a gaping open mouth:
They passed another branching, and another, then came into an echoing cavern as large as the great hall of Winterfell, with stone teeth hanging from its ceiling and more poking up through its floor. The child in the leafy cloak wove a path through them.
— BRAN II, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS
We know that the warlocks apparently wanted to ‘consume’ Daenerys when she was at the House of the Undying. Lastly, while the red priests do not appear to build statues or faces to honor R’hllor, there is the suggestion of idol worship in the nightfires that they build. So too, do they sacrifice people to the flames to honor and benefit their red god. Indeed, Beric Dondarrion who is seemingly animated by fire in his blood states that the fire consumes… until there is nothing left.
Science versus mysticism
Although not obviously about color and more about light, there is a tangible conflict in A Song of Ice and Fire between the dry, hermetical knowledge of the Citadel and the dark, mysterious powers of the far east.
Where the Citadel appears to be a university dedicated to the truth and sciences of the world, Asshai appears like a college where many magical traditions mingle and are exchanged.
What is striking is that the Citadel is in Oldtown, a city best symbolized as a beacon of light. Contrast that with Asshai which is forever associated with shadow and darkness, hence its other name, Asshai-By-The-Shadow.
Author and reader as gods
One major observation is that in Sandkings the character of Simon Kress plays ‘god’ to his pets. He was specifically told that the sandkings should always be well-fed and cared for, and in so doing would engage in ‘ritual wars’ and intrigues that would entertain him well enough.
He specifically ignored this advice because he wanted to see drama. He starved them, made them fight poisonous spiders, dogs and worse. He even feeds them human remains.
These acts perverse the sandkings and their worship of him reflects it: the sculptures of his face become increasingly wild and sinister.
Similarly A Song of Ice and Fire has unnatural outside influences that act as pretext for a great deal of turmoil and conflict. The most significant of these are the unpredictable seasons and the periods of feast and famine they engender. Second are the presence of the Others, who like sandkings in their battles with spiders and dogs, the realms of men must unite to defeat.
But who is to blame for this: who is the person opening the lid on the terrarium that is Westeros and arousing all of this chaos? There is no character with this responsibility: ultimately it is George RR Martin’s fault.
This means that he has in some ways recontextualized Sandkings in its incorporation into A Song of Ice and Fire. It suggests that he is the one who regularly topples the predictability and puts characters in jeopardy, merely for amusement. He wants to see artificially induced strife and misery, because waiting for it to happen naturally isn’t interesting enough.
But is he alone responsible? In Sandkings, the protagonist invites his friends over and they gamble over which sandkings will win their wars, whether or not the sandkings can defeat outside predators put into their tank and so on.
Following the established recontextualization, therefore the readers of A Song of Ice and Fire acts as the friends of Simon Kress, also invested in the fates of the characters who are dealing with forces originating from beyond the borders of their world.
The faces of the gods
Given the understanding that the true gods of Westeros are the author and his readers, this changes our understanding of the forms of worship seen in the realms. This is particularly true of the ‘face sculpting’ seen in the north: if Kress is the allegory for Martin as the ‘one true god’ of Westeros, then the carved faces of the weirwoods are modeled after Martin’s own face and reflect his many mercurial moods.
This would also seem to be true of the statues of the Seven in the Sept of Baelor, and moreso the charcoal rubbings of the faces of the Seven that Catelyn finds in the sept near Storm’s End.
The eating of human flesh
Kress disposes of a few human bodies by feeding them to his sandkings. It is at this point that we see the first corruptions manifest in the sculptures of his face.
By some interpretations, it is the eating of human flesh which causes the sandkings to escape their terrarium habitat and eventually imprison and consume their own god, Kress.
We see the consumption of human flesh in ASOIAF as it relates to the identified religions, blood for weirwoods, blood and ‘life-fire’ sacrifice for R’hllor, and breath stolen by the Undying. So too does it appear that these sacrifices are what actually empower their faiths. Specifically we see these sacrifices as necessary for the faiths to combat the Others, the army of alien invaders unleashed by the true gods.
Once again Sandkings shows that Martin has a great concern with the ideas of faith and religion.
Kress appears as a god to his sandkings, but in truth he was a sociopath, proving to be directly harmful to his pets and his peers. Finally his wanton behaviors get the better of him when his sandkings realize he is no longer necessary and eat him.
This strongly suggests that a need for belief and gods is contingent on their beneficence, and that while they may have power much greater than their subjects, they too are mortal and disposable, if they exist at all.
Near the end of Sandkings, the creatures go through a metamorphosis and become much more human-like in nature. Considering that humans are gods to the sandkings, it suggests that the sandkings are approaching godliness themselves.
What’s interesting here is that once outside the confines of their god’s terrarium, the creatures evolve and live peacefully, returning to their simpler ‘ritualized’ behaviors. Although they consume their gods (Kress and his dead associates) they retain his likeness and it appears peace for them is found at last.
It’s a striking condemnation of idol worship and religion in general. It suggests that lasting peace and compassion are only found when the species has evolved enough to know their gods exist at their own behest. That said, even without the gods, the sandkings and the people of Westeros are forever affected by the former presence of their destroyed divinity, the faces of the dead gods evident throughout their worlds and in the spirits of their now emancipated subjects.
There are some basic implications supported by this analysis:
- That the various gods worshiped in Westeros are in fact different manifestations or perceptions of the true gods that are the author and his readers. They are all facets of the same truths.
- These gods frankly enjoy watching their subjects suffer. It’s why we read the books after all. We enjoy engineering unnatural circumstances that force them into hardship and growth.
- All of the faiths demand the sacrifice of living things to sustain them. The living must be fed to the maw in order to sustain the hive.
- While the various factions can occasionally unite to fight a common foe, constant strife will exist as long as the Westerosi are organized by colors, whether that be by feudal allegiances or religious beliefs.
- To those ends, the reemergence of the Sparrows of the faith of the Seven and the riverlands converting to R’hllor suggests newfound bloodshed between ‘tribes’ with no end in sight unless the true gods are toppled or the unnatural seasons and Others exterminated.
The capricious nature of Kress and Martin as gods strongly suggests that Martin has long been concerned with the “problem of evil”, that great classical Epicurean paradox:
- If an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent god exists, then evil does not.
- There is evil in the world.
- Therefore, an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God does not exist.
— from Wikipedia
This is also famously one of the major themes of Homer’s Iliad, and most brilliantly articulated in Shakespeare’s King Lear:
As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods.
They kill us for their sport.