I love Tolkien. Anyone who has read my blog knows that I measure the quality of many other books by his standard. Also, I have come to enjoy the great epos Game of Thrones by Martin. When asked to compare both, I just don’t know how to answer. Both universes are quite unique and totally different. I always wanted to compare both, but at the end this turns out to be a futile effort. I hope to show how futile using this comparison in one element that appears in both worlds: the image warfare.
War is almost essential in most fantasy novels. Specially those dedicated to medieval worlds will, at one point play out the confrontation in a full scale battlefield. In Tolkien we find this specially in the battles for Minas Tirith and Helms deep. In Martin almost everywhere, from the battle in King’s Landing, to the “salves uprising”, all the way through the fight Tyrion has to endure at the end of the first book to impress his father.
This is where the first differences start. The attention to detail is different in each author. Even though Tolkien tends to be very descriptive, some parts of the fight remain very vague. Here, we find the efforts of our heroes, as they charge valiantly into battle and kill orcs to the left and the right. In Martin, however, we find that there are a lot of elements that have a part at the same time: mercenaries, knights and their code of conduct, tortures of both sides, etc. In other words, if we compared the series under the standard of realism, leaving magical creatures aside, we would find a much better scene in Martin’s epic.
This is because most of the influences both received when writing. Tolkien, for starters, is a reader of germanic sagas, in which the focus of the battles centers on the heroes: Siegfried, Beowulf and others. Each hero is there because of its grand powers, the abilities it has and, above all, the destiny they have. After all, the sagas are based on the deeds each protagonist has. Back in the time, the germanic tribes believed that those deeds were what marked a person and what made them noteworthy. No commoner could aspire to achieve the recognition the epic heroes had. In Tolkien, those heroes were very clear: Aragorn, Theodén, even the strong Eowyn.
Martin, on the other hand, is part of a generation in which the epicness is overshadowed by realism. There are no real knights in shining armour, and those who believe they are, are overridden by personal flaws and mistakes. At the end, even the great hero dies in the most dire circumstances, not achieving their ideals as they imagined. We also have to remember that Martin, in an interview with Dragon a few years back, spoke for his love of historical roleplaying, in which the consistency of his characters was more important than them surviving a conflict. The story of his legionary who had to commit suicide to maintain honour is a good example for that. Thus, the common people appear alongside the “terrible” mercenaries and the squires aspiring to get a position in court.
This would bring into question the appearance of the hobbits in the grand scheme of things. For Tolkien, the hobbits were the representation of the common people, who sometimes would be even stronger than an epic hero. But then again, those few who appear tended to be the ones charged with a greater destiny: Frodo carrying the Ring to Mount Doom with Sam as his aid, Merry and Pippin destined to become leaders of their people. The closest moment of common people without a destiny fighting was when the Shire rebelled to the forces of Sharky.
In Martin, instead, we have many times less than inspiring moments of battle, in which the real heroes are not appreciated and the ones who claimed credit end up seizing all recognition. This gritty reality is the one that drives many of the conflicts in the novels, making it sometimes impossible to declare black and white. While in Tolkien we clearly see who is bad and who is good, in Martin it shifts and it depends on the moments and on our own perspective. There are even times in which the most good-hearted guy destroys more than help.
And this basic difference is important. In Tolkien we want to enjoy the heroes, not the reality. This escapism, as the author would define it on his essay on faery tales, is a necessary part to understand his works and his characters. Instead, on Martin, we have a reflection on how conflicts are moved and the author attempts to give a full image of what is happening in a convoluted time. Thus, when we approach him, we can not attempt to grasp a defined line, which makes some situation even more surprising than in epic fantasy.
It is not bad to be somewhat predictable. Sometimes we just enjoy a success story, on other days, we have to face the gritty realities that a person can provoke with unwanted actions. But in general, we enjoy our great authors, depending on our tastes and, above all our moods. In any case, I recommend a back to back reading of those two series, which for me are classics without any doubt.
As a side note, I do recommend anyone interested in real medieval warfare to read George R.R. Martin. It is a pretty accurate description of Europe around the XIII century.
May they smile upon your way!