The first full novel that I wrote and finished is an Epic Fantasy called The Return of the Free. Since then I have concentrated more on historical fiction and historical fantasy. The Return of the Free was in a way quite an ambitious book for me as I attempted to create a whole world for the characters to live in – the world of Ladmas grew around the book – a world where the fantasy elements are not quite what they seem, and there is a strong conflict between science and the metaphysical. The Return of the Free takes one small chunk of that world but plays with the theme of science vs the metaphysical (i.e. religion/supernatural) in quite a fundamental way–but also its a straightforward tale of a young man growing up and finding out who he should be.
If you like thoughtful Epic Fantasy then I would encourage you to take a further look.
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Out of the steppe came a lone rider. A man of destiny whose prowess would change the world of the Bachyan nomads forever. He was not an enemy come to destroy the Bachyan, but a prodigal son returned to lead them to victory over those who would enslave them.
Taken by Nukush slavers when still a very young man, Jenraey has to learn fast to adapt to the civilisation of his new masters. He finds the ways of the Nukush strange – they worship no gods, but use a magic called science to power their weapons and drive their armies to conquest. Torn between his curiosity in the ways of this great Empire and his desire to return to his own, Jenraey knows that his people can only survive the onslaught of Nukush armies if they can change too.
The time of destiny is at hand and only a leader of legendary powers can prevail.
Will Jenraey be that man?
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.