George R.R. Martin Is Not the American Tolkien

Posted: March 5, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

I haven’t posted a really long, in-depth blog in a while, so I’m going to put up this completely geeky ramble about fantasy writers.

Please note: There will be SPOILERS ahead. Do not read ahead if you do not want to be SPOILED.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m not even fucking kidding.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Turn back now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Okay, fine. Whatever. It’s no skin off my ass if you want to be spoiled.

…What was I talking about, again?

Oh yeah.

George R.R. Martin is not the American Tolkien.

When A Feast for Crows came out, Martin was dubbed “the American Tolkien” by Time magazine. That statement has always bothered me, actually. There are only two similarities between Tolkien and Martin, which are listed below:

  1. Dudes with swords run around and make fightings in both books, and:
  2. There are dragons.

(See what I mean? That second one is a SPOILER if you haven’t read all the way to the end of Game of Thrones! The earth hath become cursed! Blood shall pour down from the heavens in unimaginable quantities! The Darkhawks will fly over the earth, blocking the sun and bringing eternal night! Rick Santorum shall become a Muslim!)

Ahem…

I find the comparison between Tolkien and Martin to be somewhat condescending, actually. It’s the kind of comparison that ignores the substantial differences between the two writers and their works. It’s the sort of “all fantasy is the same” attitude that I see the English majors at my school espousing, the kind of people who wouldn’t be caught dead reading a fantasy novel unless it was called “magical realism” and avoid all contact with the hoi polloi’s massive trilogies for fear of contracting scrofula.

Beneath their superficial similarities, Martin and Tolkien are about as different as two writers can be.

Let’s look at some of the differences, shall we?

 

J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien in 1916, in his military uniform.

  • Born 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa, the son of an English banker. At the time when Tolkien was born, Bloemfontein was the capital of the Orange Free State, and in a lot of ways, was like a town in the American Wild West. It was a rough-and-tumble town on the edge of a great, hot wilderness that had only recently been settled by Europeans. Tolkien didn’t live for very long in Bloemfontein, though: when he was very young, he:
  • Moved to England and grew up in Warwickshire, in the countryside around Birmingham. Both his father and mother died when Tolkien was very young, and so he lived with his younger brother in an orphanage in Birmingham until 1910, when he:
  • Attended Oxford University, where he studied Old and Middle English language and literature. When war broke out in 1914, he:
  • Served in World War I as a lieutenant, and fought in the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in human history. (There are indications– at least, this is my theory– that Tolkien suffered from “shell shock”, or what later became known as post-traumatic stress disorder. If you look at the final chapters of Lord of the Rings, it appears that Frodo was suffering from PTSD, something that Tolkien may have had personal experience with. The reason why Frodo was sent to the Grey Havens, and from there to Eldamar, was to heal from his mental scars.)
  • Became an academic, lecturing at the University of Leeds in Yorkshire, and then Oxford. Tolkien was an incredibly influential academic. He was the first scholar to look at Beowulf as a work of literature rather than a source text for Old English words, and much of what we understand of Beowulf today comes from Tolkien’s writings. In addition, Tolkien also translated the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by one of the most mysterious authors in the history of English literature, an unknown writer only known as the Pearl-poet.
  • In his spare time, Tolkien wrote a vast, unpublishable mythology that would eventually (in 1977, once Tolkienmania had swelled and ebbed) become published as The Silmarillion. (If you think that it’s a little strange that I call The Silmarillion unpublishable when it’s been published: dude, have you even read the goddamn book? There’s no way in hell that it could have been published without Lord of the Rings going internationally popular.)
  • Tolkien was the father of four children, who he wrote stories for. One of these stories, The Hobbit, was eventually published as a children’s book in 1937. The popularity that The Hobbit had among youngsters of pre-war England and America meant that Tolkien had to write a sequel. He did, eventually– after twelve years of writing and six more years of arguing with publishers, the first volume of Lord of the Rings came out in 1954. Tolkien was really an academic primarily, and not a novelist. The success of Lord of the Rings is completely, bizarrely accidental.
  • Tolkien was very conservative, although not in the modern-day teabagger sense. Tolkien believed in the honesty and goodness of the middle class, the beauty and sanctity of nature, and the decentralization of government. He was the kind of conservative that you never see today, in the UK or in the USA. (You can see elements of his political ideas in the portrayal of hobbits and the Shire.) In addition to his conservativism, Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic, and both Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion are incredibly Catholic works.

Now, let’s look at Martin:

 

George R.R. Martin

George R.R. Martin in 1986.

  • Born 1948 in Bayonne, New Jersey. Bayonne is a world away from where Tolkien was born and raised: it’s a Northeastern industrial town near New York City, a working-class town of lower- and lower-middle class folks. Not similar at all to a rough-and-tumble South African frontier town, or the Warwickshire countryside! There’s a significant temporal difference, as well: Tolkien grew up in middle-class Edwardian England, a genteel place that was nothing like postwar New Jersey. (You can get a vivid description of what Bayonne was like in Martin’s teenage years by looking at Martin’s contribution to the first volume of the Wild Cards superhero anthologies.)
  • Martin grew up with different entertainment than Tolkien: comic books, television, and yes, even fantasy novels like Lord of the Rings. A young comics fan, Martin had letters published in the backs of comics like Fantastic Four, and was a part of the embryonic comics fandom that began in the early sixties as part of the Silver Age.
  • Martin attended Northwestern University in Chicago, and saw firsthand many of the political upheavals of the late sixties. (Read his novel The Armageddon Rag if you want to take a look at what Chicago was like while Martin attended Northwestern.)
  • A professional writer early on, Martin wrote science fiction short stories in the 1970s, even winning a few Hugo Awards for his work. Martin became an integral part of SF fandom, attending Worldcon regularly, in stark contrast to the reclusive Tolkien (who had a bit of a love/hate relationship with his fans).
  • In the 1970s and 80s, Martin began publishing novels. In the late 80s, Martin began working with Hollywood, writing scripts for episodes of Beauty and the Beast and The Twilight Zone (as can be seen from his majestic hat in the picture above). After an absence of over a decade, Martin wrote and published A Game of Thrones, the first volume of a fantasy trilogy titled A Song of Ice and Fire that has since ballooned to five books, with no end in sight. (The most recent book in the ASoIaF saga, A Dance with Dragons, was published last year, and a TV series based on the books debuted on HBO.)

Okay. We’ve got two writers, both very different in their backstories. One a middle-class English academic, one a New Jersey-born professional writer. Let’s look at their respective works, in contast with each other:

 

Lord of the Rings

…Okay. Where do we start?

Lord of the Rings is an incredibly dualistic, Manichean book. You are either on the side of the Light or the Shadow. You are one of the Free Peoples or you are the Enemy. The whole plot of Lord of the Rings is essentially a religious struggle, a war of Good and Evil– and yes, I capitalized those words for a reason. There are mostly good people in ASoIaF, like Ned Stark and Jon Snow, and there are mostly evil people, like Roose Bolton and Cersei Lannister. But it’s much more complicated in ASoIaF. Nearly everyone in ASoIaF is a shade of gray.

It’s not that way in LotR. You are either pure, unsullied white, or you are utter, soulless darkness. (Okay, okay, I guess that there is Gollum. Gollum, though, is easily the most interesting character in LotR. In fact, I’m sure he’d fit in great in Westeros.)

The Good versus Evil that exists in LotR makes sense, when you look at it from Tolkien’s perspective. Tolkien was devoutly religious– a Roman Catholic. While Tolkien famously hated allegory, there are elements of Catholic religion in LotR. (One of my favorite stories about Tolkien was about a fan who asked him if Galadriel was based on the Virgin Mary. Tolkien didn’t answer yes to the fan’s question– but he didn’t exactly answer no, either.) And Catholicism is a dualistic religion. You are either one of God’s children, or you’re going to burn in hell. (It’s the same way with all modern Western religions except Judaism. While the concepts of Heaven and Hell are much less overt in the Qu’ran than they are in the Bible, they’re in there. And yes, I consider Islam to be a Western religion.)

And then there’s death…

Death in LotR is seen in two ways. If you’re a main character, you can either die heroically, as a good guy, or as a result of your own pride and sins, like Gollum or Denethor. The Good Guys who die in LotR all die in the defense of others. Gandalf is killed fighting the Balrog, while the rest of the Fellowship escapes to the safety of Lothlórien. Boromir dies protecting Merry and Pippin from a swarming army of Uruk-Hai. Théoden goes down fighting the fucking Witch King of Angmar. When you die in LotR, you go down fighting. There are no daggers in the back. Nobody gets executed, or assassinated, or dies of disease or childbirth. It’s a world where you go down in service of the Light, fighting to your last breath, and then you get a deathbed scene and a beautiful funeral.

Let’s say you don’t die fighting the good fight in LotR. Once Good wins (and Good will win– it’s completely guaranteed), you will be rewarded. Maybe you’ll get to rule over a newly-forged continent-spanning empire, like Aragorn. Maybe you’ll be rewarded with lands for your race, like Legolas and Gimli. Maybe you’ll become king of your people, like Éomer, or find your true love, like Faramir and Éowyn, or go home and be seen as a hero by your people, like Merry and Pippin. Maybe you’ll marry the girl next door and have fourteen babies, like Sam. Or maybe, like Frodo and Gandalf and Elrond and Galadriel, you will pass over the sea, into the Undying Lands, laying down your burdens to rest forever. Whatever you do, if you survive the good fight, you’ll get your reward.

I think this is a perfect time to talk about…

 

A Song of Ice and Fire

I remember, when the LotR movies came out back in 2002, there was a thriving business in merchandising. (I can just hear Yogurt saying… “Merchandising! That’s where the real money in the movie is made! LotR the T-shirt, LotR the lunchbox, LotR the breakfast cereal, LotR the toilet paper, LotR the flamethrower! [The kids love that one.]”) Anyway, one of the pieces of merchandise was chess sets.

These chess sets were gorgeous pieces of art. They had little sculptures of characters rendered in exquisite detail for each piece. You could fight the armies of Sauron with Aragorn as your king and Arwen as your queen, alongside such pieces as Gandalf the bishop, Legolas the knight, Gimli the rook, and eight identical cannon-fodder hobbit-pawns. I lusted for one of these chess sets. Unfortunately, the whole ensemble cost about as much as a PS2, and when my family finally got one (a PS2, not a chess set), I had more fun with that anyway.

So, with Game of Thrones cleaning up in ratings, reviews, and awards, will we see Game of Thrones chess sets?

I’ll be honest. I don’t think we will.

What’s the reason behind this? Well, who would you pick to be the two opposing armies? What characters would we render in lovingly-detailed hand-painted resin? Who would be white; who would be black? Would a Game of Thrones chess set be Starks vs. Lannisters? Night’s Watch vs. Wildlings? Night’s Watch vs. Others? Daenerys vs. Everyone? Or would we go back in time, and make a chess set detailing historical events, such as the invasion of the Targaryens?

That’s the problem. I don’t know. And I don’t think anyone does.

You can’t represent a series like ASoIaF in Manichaean terms. You could say that the Starks are the good guys and the Lannisters are the bad guys– and I’ll admit, there are more seeming “good guys” on Team Stark than Team Lannister. But while Tywin and Cersei are both unrepentant bastards (in the ‘evil motherfucker’ sense, not the Jon Snow sense), is Tyrion a bad guy? Is Jaime?

For that matter, are Sansa and Arya entirely good?

ASoIaF isn’t a “good vs. evil” conflict. You can’t represent a character as complex as Tyrion or Robert or Arya or Viserys by just labeling them “lawful neutral” or “chaotic evil”. It can’t be done.

Which brings me to my second point: death.

I’m going to repeat this one more time: MOTHERFUCKER DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER UNLESS YOU WANT TO GET SPOILED.

Death isn’t noble in ASoIaF like it is in LotR. It’s as horrible and pointless as it is in real life. And the noble aren’t exempt. The two most white-hatted Good Guys in the history of the series, Ned Stark and Jon Snow, are executed and assassinated, respectively. They don’t go out fighting Others or in pitched combat against Lannisters. They are killed in backhanded, dishonorable ways.

And then you have to remember: as deaths go in ASoIaF, Ned Stark’s and Jon Snow’s are almost palatable.

Tywin Lannister is murdered by his own son, shitting his pants in the process. Robb Stark is murdered at his uncle’s wedding. He is then decapitated, and the severed head of his direwolf is sewn onto the bloody stump. Joffrey is poisoned in front of his subjects. Khal Drogo dies an undignified death from an infected wound– not the way a Conan-type character would want to leave the world. Nearly every character who dies in ASoIaF goes out in an ironic, horrible way.

And you know what? Martin tells us this right up front. One of the first scenes in A Game of Thrones serves to tell us that, Toto, we ain’t in Middle-earth anymore.

The scene that I’m talking about is, of course, the scene where Bran Stark spies on Jaime and Cersei Lannister engaged in a bout of incredibly creepy twincest, when all of a sudden, he is spotted by Cersei and hurled out of a window by Jaime, forty feet down onto hard cobblestones. It’s horrifying, and disgusting, and disturbing. It’s not anything like you’d see in Tolkien.

And the worst part of the first scene? Bran lives. He is crippled for life, a paraplegic in a world without handicapped bathroom stalls and wheelchair ramps.

That’s perhaps the worst part of the first scene– Martin doesn’t even grant Bran the comfort of death.

Martin’s world is nothing like Tolkien’s. Instead of the black-and-white morality of Middle-earth, Westeros is a world of gray and red. It’s a place where people suffer. It’s a world where the good guys get fucked and the scum rises to the top. I’d love to live in Middle-earth, but would I like to even visit Westeros?

Hell, no.

 

That’s why I’m irked when people call Martin the American Tolkien. Because Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire are so incredibly different from each other. Sure, they’re similar on the surface, in a “dudes fight with swords oh also there are dragons” way. But this is only the most superficial of examinations. Look below the surface, and the two series are as different as a cat and a cuttlefish. They’re as distinct as Skyrim and Final Fantasy, as similar as two completely dissimilar things in a pod. (Thanks, Richard Curtis and Ben Elton!)

Every time I hear someone call Martin “the American Tolkien” (or indeed, hear any fantasy writer compared to Tolkien), I basically assume that the person who says it is thinking, All fantasy novels are basically Lord of the Rings, with only one or two superficial differences, right?

Um, no. I would never read fantasy if every fantasy novel was a watered-down retread of Tolkien. But the genre is too diverse to dismiss it like that. Perdido Street Station is nothing like Swords of Lankhmar is nothing like A Wrinkle In Time is nothing like The Last Unicorn is nothing like The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Fantasy is too big, and too broad, and too beautiful to be easily defined as “just a bunch of books that are the same as LotR.” Calling Martin “the American Tolkien” is like calling Raymond Chandler “the American Agatha Christie”. It’s like calling John Brunner “the British Robert A. Heinlein”. You’d never hear Chandler or Brunner described like that. The mystery and SF genres are too broad, with a wide variety of influences and a vast diversity of works too easy to categorize and label like that.

So why is it that fantasy is singled out? Why is it that Lord of the Rings is seen as the platonic ideal of “fantasy”, while all other books and authors are judged by their distance from Tolkien? Why is Martin “the American Tolkien”, and not “the male Ursula K. LeGuin”, “the white N.K. Jemisin”, or “the not-quite-as-funny Terry Pratchett”?

Why do even the most diehard fantasy fans underestimate our beloved genre?

 

I’ll leave you with that question. Comments are encouraged.

~ Ian

 

P.S. Oh, and while you’re at it, can you stop calling Lord of the Rings the definitive fantasy work of the sixties? It’s really not. The definitive sixties fantasy is obviously Elric of Melniboné.

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Comments
  1. John says:

    Hmmm. This comment is a bit late, but I will post it anyway.

    I want to point out, first of all, that “fantasy” does not begin in the sixties and that Tolkien is not its progenitor, or even co-progenitor. In fact, many people who have immersed themselves the history of fantasy, including me, see Tolkien as one of the last sparks of a brilliantly rich and diverse tradition of fantastical literature that flourished from about the 19th (if not earlier) to mid-20th century.

    The popularity of Tolkien, combined with the immense impression he made on his contemporaries in the field, caused a twin shift in the world of fantasy literature. The publishing industry gained a preference for more “Tolkienesque” works and, simultaneously, fantasy authors gained a preference for more “Tolkienesque” stories. This facilitated the slew of imitators that produced (and continue to produce) the immense volume of works that that we might together call “epic fantasy.” Epic fantasy, of course, is meant in this sense as a term for a very specific subgenre of fantasy, rather than meaning fantasy that is epic. In our time, epic fantasy has become far and away the most prominent type of fantasy, and what most people automatically associate with fantasy generally. This, I think, is a shame, because in most cases epic fantasy represents the very worst that fantasy has to offer. It has, one might say, set the field back immensely. Even now, the most innovative of authors seem unable to escape from such cliches as pseudo-medieval European societies, Christianity-by-another-name religions, and *shudder* dragons.

    Therefore, I think it is inadvisable to compare authors such as Martin and Tolkien without taking into account the different traditions by which they were surrounded as they grew into their literary “adulthoods.” Tolkien matured in a time in which “fantasy” was hardly distinct from “literature” (they are most certainly distinct today) and in an environment which produced such delicate talents as Lord Dunsany and William Morris. Martin, however, matured in a time in which the slew of Tolkien imitators had saturated the market, and one could hardly find a work by a really thoughtful fantasist of the old school, bar Tolkien, without spending many hours browsing second-hand bookshops (to exaggerate my point). In fact, the problem was not so much that they were difficult to find, but that they had been shoved so far out of the public eye that there was no way for youths such as Martin to become aware of them. Adding to this, the poor quality of most of Tolkien’s imitators hastened what had been a very gradual split of fantasy from respectable literature, and contributed to lower publishing standards for fantasy novels generally. There was a sense, in the years after Tolkien, that if you read fantasy you did not read “real” literature, and vice versa. This contributed to the fantasy genre turning even more intently inwards upon itself, causing most new authors to draw their influence, in the main, from the massive collection of vastly similar literature that now dominated the field in which they worked. This made the works more similar, which widened the literary rift, which caused a greater inward shift, and so on and so forth. The implications of this are vast, and I hardly have the time or inclination to delve into them here, but the important thing is this: as I see it, Martin’s talent was and is hampered by his environment, while Tolkien’s talent was nurtured by his environment.

    This, I think, is how Martin can take an interesting, though hardly original, idea, combine it with dreadful prose and abysmal plotting, and be received as a star by the fantasy community (the author of the Time article praising Martin, as you may or may not be aware, was fantasy author Lev Grossman, whose book received a blurb from Martin and who in turn blurbed Martin’s books).

    I am now brought to my most important point, which is that the principal reason for which Martin is not the American Tolkien is not that their two works are dissimilar, but that their two works are of such different quality. Comparing Tolkien to Martin is a bit like comparing Joseph Conrad to Chuck Palahniuk. To my mind, the main similarity between the two is that they fall in the same relative locations on the axes of quality of their respective periods. But the bar was set higher in Tolkien’s time, and setting the two axes next to each other can only reveal that Tolkien stands high above Martin.

  2. duckchick says:

    Ooo, I can’t really say much since I agree with everything you said. I remmeber reading a book review by a woman who was appalled by the first book. She’d picked it up because he’d been called The American Tolkien, and that’s what she had been expecting; a black and white good vs evil story. I felt sorry for her and realized that praise can be badly mishandled!

  3. duckchick says:

    Also, where is that delicious steak sauce recipe?

  4. HerpDerp says:

    Excellent article. And i’m not even a spam bot!

    Maybe we won’t see an ASoIaF chess set, but maye a sex toy collection? Oh wait a sec, that was shades of grey.

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