My son, Christopher, took me to see the movie, Tolkien, for Mothers’ Day. On the way home, we had a conversation about those premier fantasy writers of our time, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and George Raymond Richard Martin, and came to an agreement that although we have read and enjoyed both, GRRM will never be a JRRT. Not even close.
In fact, I would argue, and I think Chris would agree, they don’t even write in the same genre.
Tolkien, to my mind, writes high fantasy, as defined by Lloyd Alexander in a 1971 essay, High Fantasy and Heroic Romance. The heroes of high fantasy very often follow the path of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, in which they eventually rise above their limited selves to become that which they were meant to be.
Martin, on the other hand, writes low fantasy, characterized by being set in the primary or real world, or a rational and familiar fictional world with the inclusion of magical elements. Martin’s heroes are many and flawed, as they are in real life. One might make the case for Jaime Lannister taking the hero’s journey, but he begins that journey with an unforgiveable crime and therefore his redemption is truncated.
Tolkien’s landscape is drawn from the English countryside, as almost any drive down an English country lane will tell you, but its inhabitants are almost solely creatures of the mythic imagination. Hobbits and elves, wizards and dwarves, each one an avatar of humanity: simplicity, beauty, wisdom and cleverness.
Martin’s world is drawn from the history books, specifically the landscape, character and politics of the 15th century Wars of the Roses. Its inhabitants can be found scattered throughout that history, with all the grasping barbarism of its time. It is, one might say, a more fully rounded exposition of humanity within the fantasy world than that of Tolkien, but there is little in it, to my mind, of inspiration.
I have reread A Song of Ice and Fire once, and that was to refresh my memory of what had gone before when a new book came out. I have reread The Lord of the Rings several times, including once aloud to my children, and have always laughed and cried, sorrowed and rejoiced as the Rohirrim ride to Gondor, as Merry wounds the Nazgul, as the Ring falls into the fires of Mount Doom.
In Martin, women become ruthless through the brutality of men, and call that strength. In Tolkien, women find their strength in fighting for those they love, enabling love to endure.
There is little pity in Martin, and when there is, it is usually fatal. The things we love destroy us, every time, lad. Remember that. A Game of Thrones.
In Tolkien, Frodo wishes that Bilbo had killed Gollum:
What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!'
“Pity? [says Gandalf] It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.
Christopher noted that, although The Lord of the Rings was published in 1952, it did not really hit it big here until the 60’s. “That’s when we needed it,” I told him.
I'll watch the last installment of the televised series of Game of Thrones next week. I will buy and read the next volume in the series if GRRM ever gets it out. But I expect nothing more than the usual page-turning excitement of a romantic thriller action movie with dragons. I don’t expect the quiet satisfaction I get every year from rewatching Peter Jackson’s cinematic version of The Lord of the Rings. The inspiration I feel to keep faith with the people I love and to take all the joy I can from the simple things around me. The knowledge that my strength comes from a bright red cardinal at the bird feeder and opening a new jigsaw puzzle box.
I’ll let George R.R. Martin himself make my final argument for me. They can keep their heaven. When I die, I'd sooner go to middle Earth.
― George R.R. Martin