The Narrative Value of Dreams

There are a lot of dreams in ASOIAF, and another critic could fill pages unpacking them. But I’m a terrible reader of tea leaves, and pretty dense when it comes to foreshadowing. So let’s consider the topic from a writer’s perspective, not a critic’s.

Sigmund Freud called dreams the royal road to the unconscious. You could say the same thing of literature without contradiction – dreams and narratives being the same thing. Both are sequences of events that have occurred in no reality, expressing the impressions of a subject by means of an encoding process beyond the reader’s control, yet meaningless until experienced and interpreted by that reader.

(Books let us choose our dreams, a dubious luxury. If we could pick our dreams like we picked our books, would we call some guilty pleasures? What would we make of someone who chose to have no nightmares? Blindered, escapist, logical?)

So when we experience a dream in fiction, it is not qualitatively different from the rest of the text. Until the writer mentions it, readers cannot even know that it is a dream. That’s why the St. Elsewhere “it was all a dream!” feels like such a betrayal – without access to a litmus test of their own, the readers were forced to put themselves into the hands of the writer. (Which writers love, obviously.)

A dream scene also grants a temporary Class A cryptic fantasy license, which some enjoy; even more exciting is the potential to enter directly into the narrative. You can suspend suspension of disbelief and that nuisance causality. You can speak directly to a character’s psyche – providing a concrete, embodied view of the mind – or show an image from the story’s future.

Martin has prophecies for showing the future, but he does like using dreams to reveal psychology. This is rudimentary stuff: Jaime has mother issues, and a sad mother figure appears in his dream. A little more unusual is how Martin uses dreams as plot instigators. Jaime has a dream that compels him to save Brienne, Dany’s dragon dream saves her from the despair of being stranded amongst the Dothraki.

Of course nobody actually has their worldview rocked by a dream, but it’s a shortcut, a way for Martin to change a character’s mind any time he wants.

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