06 March 2014

The American Tolkien

I've avoided this subject of comparing Tolkien to Martin for a while, largely because it's inconsequential to both works, but my interest in the comparison piqued again for some reason and I felt compelled to write this if only to flesh out my own ideas.

"All men must die."

"Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them?"

This may be the key difference between the two works, and I will get back to them later. Calling Martin the 'American Tolkien' is a seriously loaded statement and the accuracy comes down, I think, not to either man being representative of the culture of his time, but to intent. Tolkien, in fact, went broadly around the artistic trends of his time, rejecting the Lost Generation following World War 1 and focusing on works that, while dark, were largely positive tales of heroism and great deeds. Martin is less representative, I think, of our postmodern worldviews, but more representative of our contemporary obsession with spectacle. 

Tolkien had a lot of massive intentions when he began writing about his strange new world in the trenches of World War I. Many of those intentions he did not believe he would be able to achieve. In the following list I'm going to synopsize; I may go back and provide dissertation-level quotes and citations, but for now just take my word for it.

But, Tolkien wanted to create a mythology for his own country, England, which had lost theirs in the long ago. He wanted to create a world in which the languages he invented could live. He wanted to tell very long stories that emulated elements of Scandinavian mythology. It was very much a mingling of academic and creative desires.

Martin, as far as I know, is a writer who stumbled into writing a fantasy story that became a great series of novels. As I said before, Martin is really about the spectacle. Besides a vague message about the grey nature of morality, there isn't whole lot of philosophical underpinning to the actions of his characters. They are all either self-motivated or motivated to take care of their own. For me, the big twists and endless murders are less about providing a philosophical standpoint or making an artistic statement or expressing one's worldview, they are about the jaw-drop. 

Don't get me wrong, Martin is great storyteller and a very good worldbuilder. I could never juggle so many characters and perspectives and plotlines the way he does. But, it's just that: a good story with some crazy moments that just make you gape and kick the back of the airplane seat in front of you (not a true story). 


The moral ambiguity of Thrones versus the clear cut, good versus evil approach of Rings has been, I think, blown way out of proportion, but that is for another post.

So! Martin does qualify as the American Tolkien in at least one respect: he writes a very (very) long story that (mostly) holds the reader's interest. But, for me, that is where the similarities end. Sure, there's the whole medieval fantasy setting, dragons and swords and kings and other races and things like that, but the core of the works are entirely different. The men are quite different. There weren't professional fantasy fiction writers, as we know them, when Tolkien was growing up. There wasn't the legacy of a certain professor for so many authors to draw upon. Tolkien started Middle-earth as a private hobby that grew over the course of his life into a massive internal history full of strong messages and deep understanding. 

The initial quotes I used point to that core difference: the main characters in Rings talk about fate and mercy and the power of the very small when the wise fail. Most of the characters in Thrones talk about the opposite, including murder and power grabbing. Of course, Gandalf is an angelic spirit and many of the lead characters in Rings are the 'best of the best', cuts above your average, mortal Man (or Hobbit), while Thrones focuses on everyone from prophets to squires to kings and queens, but that's fodder for yet another post.

I'm obviously a Tolkien fanboy and I don't know enough about Martin's personal life to make a fair comparison, but those are things as I see them. 

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