By the time I gave up on finishing The Lord of the Rings, I like to think that I had outlasted a good portion of those who try.
It was early on in The Return of the King, the third book of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy series, when the cumulative weight of the sheer number of pages, the chapters full of elf poetry, and the walking—God, the endless walking—finally beat me down. My middle-school-aged brain, prompted by nothing in particular, told me that I was done.
This was unexpected. I had cruised through The Hobbit, a compact fairy tale that was divided into neat little easily digestible episodes. It was fast-paced, exciting and, though ostensibly a children’s book, contained hints of darkness that remain chilling. Though mostly tame in its contents, it was not a sanitized story. It had the fearsome attraction of a movie that I wasn’t old enough to watch, telling me things that I wasn’t supposed to hear. It was the work of an author who understood children and, what’s more, thought highly of them.
The Lord of the Rings held all the ingredients of something I would love. It had wizards, a dark lord bent on domination, and his army of minions. But it seemed in no hurry to get where it was going. The author took the characters on detours, placing them in halls listening to songs or otherwise paused in their progress, seemingly without concern for keeping me entertained. The world of The Hobbit had grown into something stately and mysterious that existed on its own terms, and it was a mountain I was not ready to climb.
I tried Tolkien again circa 1996, around the time that A Game of Thrones was published. Its author, George R.R. Martin, was an American, and the series that the book kicked off was to be the most resounding entry into the modern fantasy genre that our nation has produced and is ever likely to. Called A Song of Ice and Fire, the series is one that I haven’t read but the sheer immensity of which is impressive on its own. With multiple years passing between new volumes, the series’ ever-growing complexity, cast of characters, and word count—A Song of Ice and Fire is several times longer than The Lord of the Rings and still growing—must make writing it a monumental task. It amazes me not that Martin takes so long to finish new entries in the series but that he manages it at all.
Times change. While the grimness and violence of Martin’s series helped to turn the fantasy genre in a more sobering, less escapist direction, my second reading of Tolkien’s trilogy was the right book at the right time. Rereading The Lord of the Rings may have been, in retrospect, if not one of the demonstrably best decisions of my life, at least one of my favorite decisions. Now in ninth grade, I mostly understood it, and while some sections were still a slog, I had the distinct sensation that I was reading something special. I became infected with Tolkien’s world, his love of trees, and his reverence for the truth as he saw it. The series grew in my mind over time, and kept growing. Now, I can open any of the three books to any page, put my finger on any paragraph, and feel happier for having read it. To this day, I have read the series all the way through only once.
As times change, so do our expectations—our collective expectations in particular. Tolkien’s work was stubbornly archaic even for its time. Take The Great Gatsby, for example: published in 1925, it predates the publication (if not the writing) of The Lord of the Rings by nearly thirty years but seems more modern in every way, with characters whose struggles don’t extend beyond the boundaries of their own small world and who, despite their extravagant lifestyles, are doomed in a way that is hauntingly familiar.
The rules of novel writing have also changed. Books, even the long ones, are sleeker, faster, and must at all costs sustain momentum. This is mostly a good thing, though it sometimes leaves less-hurried works faced with a readership that is conditioned to expect sharp and immediate excitement.
It’s not just novels, though. Stories have changed. The past few centuries have seen the rise of realism: fiction the goal of which is to accurately mimic the real world and real people. We expect to see ourselves in characters, and to see settings that look and operate like the ones that we see each day. What might have been a relative oddity earlier in history is now the norm.
Enter the works of George R.R. Martin. A Song of Ice and Fire has been widely praised for its complex, fascinating characters and warts-and-all perspective on the medieval European societies that have—largely as a result of Tolkien—long been a fixture in Western fantasy literature. The books spun off into a television show called Game of Thrones that has, by all accounts, been true to their spirit while making the kind of changes to plots and characters that are, I imagine, unavoidable.
The show is compulsively watchable, jumping around among the members of an ever-expanding cast, even the most monstrous of whom are given depth and humanity. No one is dismissed, and all are held accountable for their actions—even those who get away with them. Foolish choices, even those made for noble reasons, lead to bad ends. Love does not conquer all, or much of anything, really.
It is an unsparing portrait of a feudal society in turmoil and all of the horrors such times bring. Those horrors, the show reminds us, are many and varied. Widespread starvation is apparent, as well as bands of soldiers and other opportunists who take advantage of the chaos to rape, pillage, and murder.
Nor are those in power much better. We are repeatedly shown the process and aftermath of physical torture, most of which seems to occur for the simple joy of cruelty. As compelling as the characters are, and as much suspense I feel in hoping that the nicer ones will escape some awful fate, the show is ruthless in dashing those hopes. It’s almost too rigorously pessimistic to be enjoyable.
Some former viewers have already passed their threshold of discomfort. After an episode in which a character is raped, one of multiple sexual assaults on the show, writer Joanna Robinson voiced her discomfort on Vanity Fair’s website: “It’s right in line with the Game of Thrones approach to storytelling that [the character] would have the rug pulled out from under her… But did it really have to be rape that brought her low? Is that really the only horror Game of Thrones can imagine visiting on its female characters?”
Martin himself, though he is not the showrunner, has been quite thoughtful in his responses to these criticisms. Speaking on the issue of sexual violence, he told Entertainment Weekly: “I’m writing about war, which what almost all epic fantasy is about. But if you’re going to write about war, and you just want to include all the cool battles and heroes killing a lot of orcs and things like that and you don’t portray [sexual violence], then there’s something fundamentally dishonest about that. Rape, unfortunately, is still a part of war today. It’s not a strong testament to the human race, but I don’t think we should pretend it doesn’t exist.”
It’s hard to disagree, as unpleasant as some of that historical honesty is. The sorry state of the land of Westeros in Game of Thrones is surely the exception rather than the rule in human history—even in the European middle ages, most people lived in peace most of the time. But doesn’t the tendency of modern storytelling to shield us from the ugly consequences of human nature trivialize those consequences?
When I watch a shoot-out on television, how often do I see what follows? The paramedics rushing to save the dying and wounded, the operation to remove the bullet shards from amidst the shredded organs, the months of physical therapy to restore the patient to a semblance of his or her former self? And those are the lucky ones.
When I see a swordfight onscreen, how many times have I gotten a good look at the wounds, seen the flies and maggots set in, or watched the victim succumb to an infection that they could not identify or understand?
I’m talking about a lot of shows and stories that I love. Action, science fiction, horror—these are genres that trade frequently in threats to the human body and spirit (by definition, in the case of action). Here, as in all forms of fiction, things are glossed over, trivialized, or glamorized for the sake of entertainment and escape.
And entertainment and escape are very important things. We all view the world from different perspectives, and to some, the piling-on of gore and misery in their storytelling—which, after all, must still manage to be enjoyable to watch—will do no good at all. To someone who lives comparatively close to the specter of violence or abuse, who has suffered it already (I didn’t even touch, above, on the realities of rape), or who feels they can imagine these things all too well, viewing imagined violence may do nothing but add to the weight that they carry through life.
But, to those who choose it, a show like Game of Thrones (or, by extension, the books on which it is based) can be an antidote to the collective warping of our perceptions brought about by a thousand other shows, books, and movies. After all, the series is by no means immoral or nihilistic—on the contrary, it is keenly aware of the ways in which its characters are good or evil, how those traits can exist in the same person, and the consequences of their being acting out upon the world.
So, where does that leave Tolkien? Here is an author whose portrayal of conflict is one of good versus evil, in which outnumbered heroes take on the hordes of the dark lord. It is a world in which beauty is everywhere and in which the presence of evil seems to desolate even the environment itself. It is set among societies distinctly resembling those of medieval Europe, like much of Western fantasy since—a geographical and temporal limitation that seems to be loosening, and which may someday embrace the vast and diverse lore of the larger world.
Martin is a fan. “I revere Lord of the Rings,” he said in a speech at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. “I reread it every few years, it had an enormous effect on me as a kid. In some sense, when I started this saga I was replying to Tolkien, but even more to his modern imitators.”
Said imitators were making, in Martin’s opinion, a lesser version of the original: “The audience were being sold degraded goods. I thought: ‘This is not how it should be done.’ Writers would take the structure of medieval times—castles, princesses, etc.—but writing it from a 20th-century point of view. [In writing A Song of Ice and Fire], I wanted to combine the wonder and image of Tolkien fantasy with the gloom of historical fiction.”
The “wonder and image” part is key, I think. Tolkien served as an infantryman in the First World War and was present at the Somme, an infamous battle in which more than a million men were, in one way or another, lost. He was intimately experienced with war, referring to his time in the trenches as “animal horror.” But while some of his generation saw, in the craters and barbed wire, the collapse of the order and structures that had governed the world—or proof that they had been an illusion to begin with—Tolkien perceived the consequences of what modern technology, and the modern world in general, had wrought. Rather than embrace the nihilism that was in vogue, he and a few others planted their feet in the preindustrial world and dug in their heels. Right or wrong in his opposition to the rise of machines—depending on where you are sitting, I suppose the jury is still out—it is undeniable that his work tapped into something. A want, maybe, an illogical and irresponsible need, for the apparent freedom of a world before.
Dr. Corey Olsen, in the January 19, 2010 episode of his wonderful podcast The Tolkien Professor (from which most of the coherent thoughts that I have about Tolkien are taken or inspired, including many in this article), stated that ultimately Tolkien’s fiction “establishes a mythology for the modern world. A mythology for a world that’s tried to forget mythology but which can’t entirely drive the need for mythology out of its mind and out of its heart… that, I think, is what resonates with people most about The Lord of the Rings.”
It is doubtful that the lack of intimately described horror in Tolkien’s works was due to a lack of honesty. Aside from the decorum of his times—how many people would have been willing to read, let alone publish, A Song of Ice and Fire back then?—he lived in a society that had seen a “war to end all wars,” a depression, and then another war even bigger. If they wanted more gore or suffering to accompany their entertainment, they needed go no further than their own memories and nightmares.
Tolkien was coming from another place entirely. His books certainly contain darkness: even The Hobbit touches upon the devastation of a city and the subsequent deaths of many of its people in the winter that follows. But nods to realism aside, he thought that a fairy tale—a term that he used unapologetically and which he considered both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to be—ought to serve a much different purpose. As he noted in his essay On Fairy Stories regarding the uses of fantasy literature:
“The magic of Faerie is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operations: among these are the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depths of space and time. Another is… to hold communion with other living things. A story may thus deal with the satisfaction of these desires… and in proportion as it succeeds it will approach the quality and have the flavour of fairy-story.”
Tolkien thought that fantastical tales, when done well, fulfill each reader’s deep-seated wish for transcendence. Their goal is “the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder” and a rejection of “universal final defeat”—of an ultimate, encompassing pessimism—however dark such stories might become in the process.
This was the purpose of his vividly realized lands of elves, dragons, and kingdoms that need only a noble, good leader to weather any storm and flourish. Despite the indelible melancholy and wistfulness that marks his world of Middle Earth, a land in creeping decline from a greater, more magical past, Tolkien simply didn’t think that what we call “escapism” was anything to be ashamed of. Indeed, he thought it was necessary for us to find periodic respite from the sickness of the world: to “escape, not indeed from life, but from our present time and self-made misery.” To those who find this notion irresponsible, he replies that they “confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter.”
Author Lev Grossman has called Martin “the American Tolkien,” but in his use of fantasy to illuminate the darker side of human nature—his refusal to bat an eye at the bloodshed—Martin could scarcely be more different from his predecessor. In a Time review of Martin’s A Dance of Dragons, Grossman insightfully called Martin “our age’s and our country’s answer to the master of epic fantasy.”
I and many others agree, though I wonder if the differences between Tolkien and Martin aren’t a more direct result of their times than their homelands. The writings of both of these tremendous artists have attracted imitators, and both have the potential to endure in the long term—in Tolkien’s case, they are already doing so. But Martin’s stories are a product of our current state, when so many of us are sheltered from violence but immersed in distorted images of it, and when, often, the betrayals and failures of our leaders and of the ways we see ourselves evoke little more than a numb shrug.
For the fortunate among us, the weight of human brutality and depravity is an abstract thing, as is the suffering they bring into being. For us, Game of Thrones and similar works can give us perspective on our good fortune in being born in a favorable time and place. They can also, in an indirect way, connect us to those who don’t have the luxury of abstraction.
Could it be that violence and danger, our heritage from history and evolution, excite a part of us that was accustomed to them and, perversely, wonders where they have gone? If so, than perhaps those like Tolkien—who fought in the first war in which machines and technology, the signifiers of progress, ground up a generation of men—may have seen all they needed or wanted to see. For them, and perhaps someday for us, stories like The Lord of the Rings, which offer escape from the world of our birth, may be a necessity as well as a pleasure.
This is the first installment of ToM’s 2015 Dog Days Classics series, in which contributors reflect on, revisit, and reevaluate works that made an influence on them during the Summer. Past stories can be found here.