Winter is coming, which means yet another season of Game of Thrones is upon us. On 12 April, we’ll hole ourselves up in our cold flats or flock back to the nests in our hometowns, and escape into Westeros once more. I’m still woefully behind on the show, but I keep up when I can, and whenever I ask people what the appeal is for them, I’m always told it’s because it’s a “realistic fantasy”.
That always felt like a misnomer to me. Hell, it sounds like a betrayal even, from the country that for so long was home to Lord of the Rings. Lukewarm reception to The Hobbit trilogy notwithstanding, we all went to great lengths to make Tolkien’s world real, and we went in droves. But now we’ve crossed the Narrow Sea to grittier shores. In part, this is due to the great adaptational skill of George R.R. Martin, David Benihoff and David Weiss, but at the time I didn’t really get why Thrones had to aim for things we were trying to get away from in the real world: cynicism and moral grayness, rape and misogyny, cruel backhanded politics with far-reaching consequences we’d rather not think about. To my mind, fantasy is meant to be a break from reality, not a cruel reminder of it. But maybe I was looking at it the wrong way. I decided to do some digging into the worlds of Tolkien and Martin, and see where the appeal for “the real” in fantasy lies.
Tolkien lived through both World Wars, serving as a lieutenant in the first and writing throughout the second from his post as a professor of language at Pembroke College in Cambridge. It was there he published The Hobbit and the first two installments of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien would spend his vacations in the English countryside, where he took rest and respite; he came to loathe the rapid industrialisation that was occurring through much of 1940s Britain, turning the dales and rural villages into bustling towns and roads. He made such a point of not getting with the program that never drove or purchased a car, instead opting for a bicycle.
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Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit went on to reflect the values of their time. Tolkien touted the ideal of the rural middle class of England being the-best-society-of-all, as symbolised by the hobbits, and elevated the ideal of quaint domestic life to an idea of bliss, under a stable and tidy monarchy as embodied by Aragorn. Coupled with his experiences during the war, the predominant narrative of his works was that when all was said and fought for, you retired to domestic stability, to home and hearth with family and good company. As much attention is dedicated to feasts and parties and social gatherings as it is to adventuring and fighting against the menace of that industrial upstart Sauron and his evil legions. It was on this point that a friend of mine, who has read the books since childhood, used to complain to me that his main gripe with Tolkien was that the adventuring and derring-do often slows to a crawl for the sake of “another fucking feast”.
But an even bigger criticism of Tolkien’s opus is that Middle-Earth’s history is one written by the victors, defending an idealised England that seemed only to exist in Tolkien’s head. There’s a noticeable lack of moral complexity throughout his works and their adaptations. Tolkien took his scope from the poetic eddas of Anglo-Saxon and Norse mythology, but its values are rooted in old J.R.R.’s Catholicism. The good guys are always good and heroic, and while they doubt themselves, it is through their heroism and good nature that they win the day. The bad guys are all obviously evil, with no defectors or sympathetic characters among their number. The good guys are also always white, while the bad guys are described as “swarthy” outsiders intent on reducing the pretty little country to ash. The women sit and look “fair”, and the eagles fly in and wrap everything up in a neat little bow.
When it comes to film adaptations, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is considered one of the best, but by the time it came around to film The Hobbit, Jackson and his screenwriters realised the dire need for Tolkien’s themes to be updated for a modern audience. The women, for instance, should actually do something, hence the addition of Tauriel and the women of Laketown taking up arms in The Battle of the Five Armies. On that note, it’s the last film in the cinematic Tolkien universe that actually comes close to going against the very anti-war views that Tolkien stood for, turning what was initially written as the inevitable denouement of “what do we do with Erebor now that the dragon’s gone” into an excuse to do a great big CGI battle royale before the rap party in the Shire.
There have been other attempts to retrofit more modern values into the legendarium. Kirill Yeskov, a Russian paleontologist, penned a critical narrative called The Last Ringbearer in 1999. Taking place after the War of the Ring, it completely flips the traditional Tolkien moral perspective on its head. Sauron and his orcs are rational scientists who wish to bring progressive industrialisation to Middle-Earth, which is sorely lacking in innovation due to its stagnant monarchy and medieval technology. The hobbits are non-existent, and Aragorn is a puppet of the elves, who believe that they should be “masters of the world”. They enlist Gandalf, here depicted as a puritanical war-monger intent on bringing “a Final Solution to the Mordorian problem”, and yes, that is a direct quote. While lauded in its native Russia, the Tolkien estate has worked to prevent any English adaptation from reaching England and ruining the purity of the original work.
In contrast to Tolkien, industry was very much part and parcel of what made George R.R. Martin a fantasy writer (other than having two R initials to his name). Martin grew up in Bayonne, a fishing town and industrial hub on the coast of New Jersey. In an interview with New Jersey Monthly Magazine, Martin described his boyhood in the 1950s as alternating between reading and adventure, as he went to explore the junkyards and factories that surrounded his house in the projects.
He could never comprehend how in the books he read, there were just acres and acres of countryside. “I had a hard time picturing that because I would say, well why doesn’t anybody live there? What do you mean, you cross the street and there’s nothing there? You cross the street and it’s the next town. I thought the whole world was one big city,” he says. Martin has been portrayed by fans as a grim reaper killing his darlings, but it’s refreshing to see him as Bran on the rooftops.
While working as a writer for television in the 80s and 90s, he began to pen A Song of Ice and Fire in 1994. The America that Martin lived through was every bit the opposite of Tolkien’s life. The economic scene was one of cutthroat capitalists. Businesses rose and fell on the whims of their rulers, except here the wolves were more Wall Street than House Stark, and the Lannisters never paid their debts. Meanwhile, the burgeoning internet allowed people to connect and better get a look inside each other’s heads, and an increasing awareness for diversity and representation among minorities was taking root.
But what ultimately led Martin to write A Song of Ice and Fire was what he saw in Tolkien, or rather what he didn’t see. Martin has stated that he sees in Tolkien’s work a distinct lack of human perspective, and to address it, he simply looked to reality, taking his cues from the impartial views of historical novels. Some have taken this stance on realism in fantasy in his work to mean bleak moral grayness, but when asked by the Wall Street Journal about whether fiction should reflect reality, Martin clarified to offer a sobering notion of why we engage with these made-up stories.
“I think all fiction needs to reflect reality,” he said. “Fiction is lies, we’re writing about people who never existed and events that never happened when we write fiction… But it has to have a truth at the core of it. You’re still writing about people, you’re writing about the human condition.”
After April 2011, A Song of Ice and Fire became forever better known as Game of Thrones, the big budget television adaptation. Its premiere was met with lukewarm reception, its sets and budgets appreciated, but appearing dry and lifeless upon execution. But when the finale came and showed the execution of Ned Stark, a man so bound to honour he wouldn’t look out of place in Middle Earth, Martin, Benihoff and Weiss’ intentions were clear: this wasn’t your grandfather’s fantasy series.
By that point, it was good enough for viewers of non-fantasy to start watching in great numbers, propelling the show to commercial success while sending the books to the top of the best-selling lists. Dance with Dragons sold 170,000 copies in its first day alone. History may be written by the victors, but in Game of Thrones, the audience knows how they got there.
When I was preparing to write this article, I knew I had to go to a pro to give context to my thoughts. Fortunately, everyone has an opinion on Game of Thrones, so I didn’t even have to leave my flat. When I asked my flatmates what the appeal of Thrones was to them, beyond the immediate response of “boobs” and “sudden twists” (two things that obviously make for great television), they told me that while Tolkien did the admirable feat of building a world from the ground-up, Martin could write characters better.
Which I suppose is where the appeal of Game of Thrones lies. The decisions that transform the world come not from great battles, great men and the legends they inspired, but from the actions or inactions of smaller players all working an angle. Even as he kills or forgets them in equal measure, Martin lovingly built a world in which to fit all his characters, and crafted a narrative wherein every reader got a peek into their heads.
And what a diverse group of heads they are. It may not be perfect—every season seems to get a recap counting the ways in which its female protagonists get screwed over—but at the very least, the show addresses the lack of diversity and perspective in fantasy, which was previously limited to White Anglo-Saxon Tolkienians. If the sheer amount of progressive thinkpieces and fan praise it generates are anything to go by, Game of Thrones is giving context to the very real battles that marginalised groups face in day-to-day life. Gone are the days of the straight white dude as ruler. Now anyone can be king: women, dwarves, bastards and broken things. People who make mistakes and then suffer for them.
“Sometimes what seemed to be a good decision turned around and bit you in the ass; it was the law of unintended consequences,” Martin told Rolling Stone. “I’ve tried to get at some of these in my books. My people who are trying to rule don’t have an easy time of it. Just having good intentions doesn’t make you a wise king.”
Martin may have sacrificed world-building for character interactions, but if his monumental success is anything to go by, it was to his and Game of Thrones’ benefit. You may visit for the world, but you stay for the people.
If you asked me what I liked about Tolkien, on the other hand, it’s always the giant spiders that seem to stick with me. There’s a story that Tolkien was bitten by a “baboon spider” as a child growing up in South Africa, and that this was what led him to create Ungoliant and her evil kin. It seemed an oddity to me that he would elevate such an ordinary creature to supernatural status, and this primal story seemed too good to be true. I later learned the less interesting truth; he wrote them into The Hobbit because his son, Michael, was an arachnophobe. But even if we know the truth, it’s the more visceral story that has already been made legend, which I think says more about how we come to approach fantasy and what we take away from it.
Fantasy is about taking elements from the real world and blowing them up to great proportion, but what we really want, it seems, is the psychological edge that comes with it—one that had been ignored in Tolkien’s day but fully embraced and celebrated in Martin’s books now. Perhaps in time, a new king of fantasy will rise to replace him.
Works can live and die on how they are willing to keep with the times. The social attitudes that influenced Tolkien and Martin alike came to influence their work, and in turn, those who read it. If our society is an organism, with every individual like a cell that produces and consumes, then art is the bile and phlegm that is coughed up to indicate the health of the organism. Your fantasy is more real than you think.