Why George RR Martin is NOT an American Tolkien

And I’m not planning to denigrate George RR Martin at all in this post – I’m just pointing out why he’s not as Tolkienesque as some who like to use broad-brush generalizations may say – see http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1129596,00.html for instance. This article actually points out that Martin is different from Tolkien, but the tag does seem to have stuck somewhat.

Some similarities first:

  • R. R. – something in the initials perhaps suggests the comparison?
  • Masters of Epic Fantasy – although Tolkien really invented the epic fantasy genre, while George RR Martin to some extent reinvents it
  • The pseudo-Medieval setting – see above

And I would say that is about as far as it goes. Why?

  • Tolkien’s morality is more black and white than Martin’s. There are complicated characters in Tolkien – Frodo, Gollum, Boromir, Sam – they all have doubts and flaws, but in Martin’s work there are perhaps rougher characters, such as Tyrion and Jaime, who are villains, yet we end up on their side.
  • Tolkien would have been appalled at the vulgarity of Martin – there’s way too much sex and gore. Tolkien was a strict Catholic and his morality comes through in his writing. Martin sees the reality of life, while Tolkien compartmentalizes evil into more easily distinguishable boxes – orcs and balrogs.
  • Martin can write from a woman’s point of view, while Tolkien’s women are more like ladies from a medieval romance – beautiful and unobtainable, or in the case of Galadriel a powerful yet benevolent sorceress
  • Tolkien wrote for the love of the language and mythology that he created and the writing was a by-product. In fact you could argue that he only wrote LOTR because of the unexpected success of The Hobbit. Martin is a professional writer and his epic fantasy books do not form a continuum with his earlier novels, whereas Tolkien only wrote about the myth and legend of Middle Earth.
  • Although based on the mythology of our own world, Tolkien’s Middle Earth is remarkably original. Sure there are the men of Harad who are like Saracen’s, but otherwise the standard displacement of medieval geography into a fantasy setting is not what Tolkien did. Modern writers tend to take the short-cut though of having wild-men coming from somewhere like Scotland, sophisticated and deceitful men coming from somewhere like the Middle East etc etc. The comparisons with history are often very blunt and hardly fantastical.
  • Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings has, I believe, a more powerful narrative thrust than Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice. The story of The Lord of the Rings is in essence a simple one – to stop Sauron by destroying the Ring. A Song of Fire and Ice is much more complex and is based apparently on Martin’s own reading of the War of the Roses, a less heroic time one could rarely find.
All this begs the question as to whether Tolkien and Martin are actually doing the same thing. Is Epic Fantasy defined by the morality and heroism of its participants or by the scope of its action. Martin’s work certainly has scope and grand scale, but are his characters heroic? I would say yes, and like Tolkien its the “smaller” characters who are the most heroic, such as Arya and Bran, Frodo and Sam.
Not everyone, and very possibly no-one ever again, wants to devote their whole life to a created mythology in the same way as Tolkien did, that is certainly an act of love rather than a way to a writing career. Yet we are lucky to have a master-craftsman such as George RR Martin to prove that Epic Fantasy today can be a mature and well-written genre.
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