Modern literary critics have begun to question the superiority of Tolkien in the fantasy genre, favoring George R. R. Martin for his more "realistic" approach. But is immersion in corruption and evil really the hallmark of great literature?
"It’s high time we drove a stake through the heart of J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings.” So declared Dana Jennings in 2011 in the New York Times, the most explicit salvo in a literary war which has since spilled out of the by-ways of fantasy fandom and into the popular consciousness.
“Mr Martin [is not] the American Tolkien, as some would have it," Jennings continues, "He’s much better than that." Who commands the authentic voice of modern fantasy: J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin? The battle cry, "Tolkien is dead, long live George Martin," speaks volumes about the state of our culture and the role of fantasy in society.
Martin has been hailed by critics as a new cultural paradigm. As Anne Hobson wrote in The American Spectator, Martin “is pioneering a neo-fantasy genre for millions of readers". Though first published in 1976, Martin has achieved true celebrity in the past decade with the publication of his fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire and its transformation into the phenomenally successful HBO TV series Game of Thrones.
The action is set in Westeros, a mythical realm embroiled in a vicious war. In today’s pop culture, it has become as familiar as Middle Earth. When the Prince of Cambridge, the offspring of Prince Harry and Kate Middleton, was born, Twitter lit up with names like Joffrey and Tyrian, two of Martin's characters who are loathed and loved respectively.
Lines from the books, like Ned Stark's ominous words, "winter is coming", have become as recognisable in the modern lexicon as Gandalf's "You shall not pass". The Iron Throne, the seat of power in Martin's world, has become a symbol of tyranny and ruthlessness, featured in satire and critiques of government in editorials across the world. Game of Thrones is the most downloaded TV series in history, and is now heading into its fourth season, securing Martin an audience of millions.
And he still has not even finished the book series! With an industry behind him and a cult following, Martin is the envy of the literary world.
Though Martin knows how to tell a good story, brilliantly weaving his complex plots with familiar tropes (without falling into kitsch), his appeal depends on more than just skilful prose. Brutal cruelty, sex, and disloyalty are the hallmarks of Martin’s world. This makes him, it is argued, far more realistic than Tolkien. As Lev Grossman, the fantasy author who first dubbed Martin “the American Tolkien”, writes,
“What … distinguishes Martin, and what marks him as a major force for evolution in fantasy, is his refusal to embrace a vision of the world as a Manichean struggle between Good and Evil. Tolkien’s work has enormous imaginative force, but you have to go elsewhere for moral complexity.”
There are no clear “goodies” in Westeros. Characters are honourable or treacherous depending on the day of the week. Good guys finish last and those who cling to noble principles are manipulated and/or beheaded. We sympathize with immoral characters like the incestuous Lannisters, Varys the Eunuch, and an assortment of murderers, rapists, and sadists. Nothing is taboo.
Tolkien’s G-rated narrative, critics argue, has burdened the fantasy genre with a “Disneyland Middle Ages”. Martin is more meaningful because he is morally ambiguous.
Although he is an admirer of Tolkien, Martin notes that “the whole concept of the Dark Lord, and good guys battling ugly guys, Good versus Evil … has become a kind of cartoon.” Fantasy doesn’t need any more Dark Lords or hideous enemies, because “in real life, the hardest aspect of the battle between good and evil is determining which is which”.
"I've always liked grey characters”, Martin said in a 2001 interview, “And as for the gods, I’ve never been satisfied by any of the answers that are given. If there really is a benevolent loving god, why is the world full of rape and torture? Why do we even have pain? … Why is agony a good way to handle [death]?"
The “game of thrones” is a cynical view of politics with its factional back-stabbing, unbridled lust, fickle allies and treacherous families. The anarchic world of Westeros is fundamentally defined by the ladder to power. “Some are given a chance to climb but they cling to the realm or the gods or love – illusions! Only the ladder is real; the climb is all there is”, says the amoral and supremely calculating Lord Baelish.
In this moral fog there is no room for nobility and beauty. “Of all the bright cruel lies they tell you, the crudest is the one called love”, Martin wrote in his 1976 short story “Meathouse”. But the “realist” fantasy is limited to the basest dimensions of human experience. It’s like reading a newspaper which only features articles about Ariel Castro the Cleveland rapist, al-Qaeda suicide bombers and waterboarding at Guantanamo Bay. It is hard to imagine anyone wanting to live eternally in the brutal and sadistic Westeros.
Is Tolkien really less realistic, though?
Tolkien bridled at the idea that his Free Peoples were unequivocally good and flawless: “sloth and stupidity among hobbits, pride … among Elves, grudge and greed in Dwarf-hearts, and folly and wickedness among the ‘kings of men’, and treachery and power-lust even among the ‘wizards’”, as he pointed out.
Nor is victory ever certain. There is a haunting sadness in The Lord of the Rings, which with the fall of Beleriand in the Silmarillion, was misunderstood by critics as being defeatist. In fact, his work does features torture and the brutality, as well as hints of rape and slaughter, especially in his saga The Children of Húrin. I would argue that his depiction of evil ranks amongst the best in fantasy literature, even though it is understated. Buttering your evil with savagery and depravity does not necessarily make it more terrifying, or even more convincing.
Middle Earth sets “beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power”; it covers the whole range of life experience, including nobility, goodness, and loyalty.
Indeed, to call Tolkien's treatment of evil "Manichean" is witless.
Tolkien was deeply concerned with the question of evil and power's corrupting and addictive qualities. “The good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among men. It is man’s part to discern them” says Aragorn, to which Eomer replies, “how shall a man judge what to do in such times?”.
Martin and Tolkien diverge because fantasy is not just a genre of literature, but a view of life. The purpose of literature is to lay bare the secrets of the human heart. Mythical stories help us to understand man’s mortality and limitations. What are Martin’s secrets? That evil is more "realistic" than good? Martin argues that fantasy is “written in the language of dreams” – but what exactly are Martin's dreams?
Tolkien, who lost his best friends in the carnage of the Somme in World War I, understood moral complexity far better than his American counterpart imagines. Unlike Martin, Tolkien can sing the full scale, from bass to soprano. Creating convincing evil takes no more effort than reading the daily papers; creating convincing goodness is far more difficult. Tolkien was able to suffuse his works with transcendental purpose – something that is rare in literature.
Importantly, this longing is not an indulgent post-modern enchantment, but really able to be satisfied. Tolkien’s fantasy is centred on this happy ending, what he termed the "eucatastrophe", the "sudden joyous turn". The Lord of the Rings, as a most prominent example, is driven by hope – a denial of "universal final defeat", giving “a fleeting glimpse of joy, joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief". Martin is a materialist, whose closest acquaintance with war and human depravity is computer games and graphic novels. His plot and characters are complex and full of bloody and sexual twists, but they plod on like a dark and desperate soap opera. But without goodness and beauty, is his world realistic?
All enduring literature is realistic, because it reflects the truth of the human condition for generation after generation. My hunch is that Tolkien, whatever the critics say, will still be sitting on the throne of fantasy in a hundred years’ time while George Martin will be dismissed as the practitioner of an early 21st Century fad for grimy pessimism.