On the one hand,
A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones are about as high fantasy as you can get. There are knights, hot princesses, and dragons. There are ice zombies. There are of kings, battles, and birthrights, and everything is vaguely European. But, for all of his swords and sorcery, George R.R. Martin has actually broken a lot of the "rules" of the classic high fantasy series. Despite their shared middle initials, Martin is not just a grittier version of Tolkien. Here are a few of the ways in which many discussions A Song of Ice and Fire breaks rules, subverts tropes, and rewrites the fantasy genre.
First, though, let's clarify what the term "high fantasy" means. A high fantasy is set in an alternate, fictional world, with slightly different rules than our own. If your book is about a vampire going to high school in Brooklyn, it's just a plain ol' regular fantasy. But if your book is about a vampire going to apothecary school in Narnia, Middle-Earth, or the wonderful land of Oz, it's a
high fantasy (and I would like to read it, please).
That's the only technical rule of the high fantasy genre, and it's one that George sticks to pretty neatly. But there are a whole slew of unwritten high fantasy rules, tropes, and archetypes that Martin uses his books to subvert:
Chosen one narratives have been done to death, and George R.R. Martin knows it. His characters are anxious to crown an Azor Ahai, the Prince/ss Who Was Promised, who will defeat the Others and bring an end to the Long Night... but they keep choosing wrong. Both Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen fit the qualifications for this mythical leader, which calls the whole "chosen
one" thing into question. Is there really a prophesied hero coming to save us? ...or is the terrifying truth that we'll bend the rules to fit anyone, even Stannis, rather than accept that there's no magical savior on the way?
Good versus evil gets... messy
The TV adaptation seems to be leaning toward the "White Walkers are evil, eeek!" side of things. But in the books, separating good and evil is getting pretty hard. There's no Aslan vs the White Witch, there's no Sauron or Voldemort, there's not even a chief ice zombie dude. Dany's dragons are supposed to be working for the good guys, but Drogon kills and eats a child. The Lannisters aren't all bad, the Starks aren't all good, and even the White Walkers are kind of morally ambiguous for the time being (we don't really know what they want, but Cold Hands seems pretty chill and he's White Walker-ish?).
Monarchy is a social construct
It's all about the Iron Throne, except that monarchy is a social construct and birthright is ultimately meaningless. By having so many point of view characters, each believing that they are the hero of the story, Martin makes it clear why there were so many historical squabbles over lines of succession. From one angle, the Targaryens are the rightful rulers... but from another, Stannis has the best claim. In Dorne, women are allowed to inherit over their brothers, so Myrcella should be crowned before Tommen. It's almost like monarchy is an arbitrary system of government and not mandated by a higher power?
There’s no such thing as a noble war
Forget dying for a noble cause. Forget killing orcs to save all that is good in the world. In Westeros, even the "good" armies kill hundreds and burn their towns. There's pillaging on both sides. War is bloody, veterans have no support system, and
winter lasts for a freaking decade, so burnt crops in fall are a really big deal. Thousands of regular people suffer over royal family drama.
No good deed goes unpunished
Dany tries to free all the slaves out of the goodness of her 14-year-old heart, and ends up wrecking the global economy. Her actions kill half of the people she meant to save, between the plague in Astapor and the terrorism in Meereen. Good intentions are not enough to save you in Martin's world. Ned Stark and Jon Snow are noble to a fault, and both end up dying for it. Just like in real life, politics turns out to be less about having the right magical sword and more about controlling the money and the media.
Romance isn’t always romantic
The Stark kids all dream of romantic futures — questing and fighting and falling in love. But quests and fights and wedding princes turns out to be far, far less romantic in real life. Martin shatters the idea that risking your life to gain magical powers or marrying a man you just met is a grand adventure for children. Instead, as Bran, Sansa, Robb, Arya, and Jon all learn in turn, it involves a lot of grime and pain and emotional abuse. (Rickon, presumably, is totally happy living on Skagos.)
The Middle Ages weren’t that fun
A lot of high fantasy novels are set in a vague approximation of the Middle Ages. Martin takes it a step further, though: his world is as filthy, cruel, and politically complex as
actual medieval Europe. Horses die in brutal ways on the battlefield. Trade relations are hairy. News gets distorted into myth. Everything smells gross. It's less like a medieval theme park, and more like a miserable nation state with pre-modern hygiene.
Religion and politics complicates everything
A lot of fantasy novels certainly have religious undertones (looking at you, Narnia), or their own version of fantasy religions. But Martin's societies have
religions. And no one can create multi-faceted political tension like GRRM. Religion, and the intersection of religious and political interests, drive the plot more than any vague Dark Lord prophecy. All of this talk of chosen ones and a battle between good and evil is being pushed by people with religious or political motives, turning the usual tropes into dangerous methods of propaganda.
There’s no one object to cause/solve all the problems
Magic swords, rings, and elder wands are all well and good, but there's no one quest object in A Song of Ice and Fire. Valyrian swords are rare, sure, and the Horn of Winter seems cool, but there's no way to destroy the one ring or defeat Voldemort and return to the status quo. Ice the mythical Stark sword can be melted down and re-forged like any other lump of metal, and the status quo is never coming back.
Heroes die without dignity
George R.R. Martin is best known for his ruthless slaughter of characters. Most high fantasy stories keep their protagonists alive until the bitter end, or at
least kill them off for a good reason. But in Martin's world, being good or righteous or important to the plot won't protect you. And you won't necessarily die for a noble cause: you might be gored by a boar, or die of disease. You might be burned up by a dragon after crossing half the world. You might spent three chapters painstakingly planning your next military move, only to be murdered at a wedding. His fantasy, just like real life, can be both wondrous and cruel.