Tolkien and Martin: Myth-Making and History-Making

Fantasy has been enjoying a fourteen- or fifteen-year-long renaissance, starting I suppose with Peter Jackson’s Fellowship. Maybe renaissance is the wrong word. Maybe it’s too grand. But something has been happening, and I can’t help thinking that it is the best thing that has happened to literature and popular culture in a while. Fantasy (of all kinds) deserves a lot of credit for getting people interested in story and getting people thinking about meaning, about beauty, about truth, about evil, and about the good.

So it always makes me happy to see one of the great fantasy writers today, George R.R. Martin, express his admiration of Tolkien, one of the progenitors of modern fantasy (and still the greatest of its practitioners, in my opinion). And Martin has said on a number of occasions that he admires Tolkien and his work.

Yet Martin also faults Tolkien for having a too-simplistic view of good and evil, and Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is his answer, not necessarily to Tolkien himself, but to the fantasy trope that Tolkien started: the forces of light battling it out with the dark Enemy and his minions.

In last year’s Rolling Stone interview, for example, he said,

The war that Tolkien wrote about was a war for the fate of civilization and the future of humanity, and that’s become the template. I’m not sure that it’s a good template, though. The Tolkien model led generations of fantasy writers to produce these endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes. But the vast majority of wars throughout history are not like that.

And in several other places, Martin has emphasized his belief that his approach to good and evil is more realistic than Tolkien’s: in his characters, one sees the good and evil at war inside every human heart.

In fact, Martin’s novels do emphasize the complicated nature of the human heart, and this is probably what those books do best. Martin’s insistence that good and evil reside inside every human being has given us some truly great characters. Tyrion Lannister, for example, is a masterpiece–not quite Falstaff, but he’s damn close. And he perfectly illustrates the murky nature of the human soul.

But I wonder about the conclusion that a comparison between Martin and Tolkien invites. A casual internet search will turn up plenty of heated disagreement about these two giants of fantasy, and many people will argue that A Song of Ice and Fire is superior to The Lord of The Rings because Martin understands that the battle between good and evil is waged in the human heart, while Tolkien still clings to older and more simplistic notions. It seems to me that such a comparison is unfair and does a disservice to both writers because Martin is doing something very different than Tolkien is doing: Martin is writing history (albeit a made-up one), and Tolkien is writing myth.

The distinction is important to emphasize because before we can judge a thing, we have to know what it is. In Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis writes,

The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is––what it was intended to do and how it is mean to be used. After that has been discovered the temperance reformer may decide that the corkscrew was made for a bad purpose, and the communist may think the same about the cathedral. But such questions come later. The first thing is to understand the object before you: as long as you think the corkscrew was meant for opening tins or the cathedral for entertaining tourists you can say nothing to the purpose about them.

Lewis’s point is that if we do not know what kind of thing a “piece of workmanship” is––whether we’re talking about a corkscrew, a cathedral, or a work of literature––then we will not be able to rightly judge it. If we don’t understand what sonnets are, we cannot understand Shakespeare’s sonnets. If we don’t understand what makes a play a tragedy, we cannot fully understand Oedipus Rex.

It seems to me that event though they’re both fantasy writers, judging Tolkien by comparing him to Martin is about as misleading as judging Arthur Miller by comparing him to Aristophanes. The similarities between Tolkien and Martin are obvious and plenty, but the differences of purpose outweigh any similarities: Tolkien famously wrote his Middle-Earth legendarium as a way of restoring to England the mythology that he believed it never had a chance to develop because of the Norman Conquest. Martin’s work, on the other hand, is largely inspired by history, the Wars of the Roses in particular.

When we compare Tolkien and Martin–particularly in terms of “realism”–we run the risk of thinking that “the corkscrew was meant for opening tins.” If we think that we should expect the same sort of “realism” from Tolkien that we find in Martin, then we have misunderstood what Tolkien is doing (and perhaps what Martin is doing, as well). Unlike Martin, Tolkien is not a modernist, and he never claimed to accept the modernist understanding of “realism” that characterizes Martin’s fiction. Instead, Tolkien offers us myths, stories that encode and dramatize the beliefs, values, hopes, fears, and aspirations of a culture. It might be true that real people in power can’t be as good as Aragorn, but they ought to be, and they certainly ought to aspire to that kind of goodness.