Before the popular HBO series “Game of Thrones” aired, George R.R. Martin was mostly known to just fantasy book geeks. Despite this esoteric reputation, the literary source of the HBO series – “A Song of Ice and Fire” – inspired Time Magazine to call the series’ Bayonne-native author the “American Tolkien.”
When I first heard this, I put my hand on my forehead, saying, “One does not simply compare an author to the Professor. Its implications are filled with more than just ignorance. The very thought is a pretentious scheme.”
To perceive the most significant differences between “The Lord of the Rings” and “A Song of Ice and Fire,” it helps to have a religious and moral lens because one of the more camouflaged differences is the role of the supernatural.
In Martin’s world, supernatural phenomena are not prevalent, and the religions Martin fabricated for his world all have just a piece of the truth. The many religions in Martin’s epic have instances of the supernatural, such as the “Lord of Light” priestess raising people from the dead and the magic conjured up by the Children of the Forest, but these themes are not as essential to the story as Martin’s main focus of human frailty. Betrayal, corruption, greed, envy and the like are as prevalent as they would be in a newsstand tabloid.
Martin goes out of his way to make his myth realistic. The corrupt characters and syncretistic feel of religion in “A Song of Ice and Fire” reflect this. The very thrill of the story is dependent upon moral ambiguity. These themes are part of the appeal of Martin’s world, an appeal it shares with Middle-earth – even though Tolkien achieves such appeal in a very different way.
In Tolkien’s Middle-earth, the supernatural is intrusively real and present. It is part of understanding life in that world. The Ring itself possesses qualities that transcend the capabilities of natural causes. There are no religions in Tolkien’s world because the supernatural simply exists.
While Martin has received praise and criticism for the relativism in his story, Tolkien has received his share of both as well by making morality an imperative driving force in “The Lord of the Rings.”
It’s important to remember how these two epics are reflective of the times in which they emerged. In Tolkien’s time, the West was immersed in the two greatest wars in history. It was important for there to be a distinct difference between the principles you were fighting for and those you were fighting against. Part of the popularity of “The Lord of the Rings” came from the way it equated the good side with tradition, nature and the dignity of life – and the evil side with conquest, mechanization and lack of concern for life. At the time Tolkien’s homeland, the United Kingdom, was in a battle between similar values.
“A Song of Ice and Fire” is being written during a very different time, a time when it’s easy to forget the confusions inherent in a world at war. With hindsight, we claim we are wiser now, but it is still possible for us to become ensnared by deceptions similar to those which ensnared many good-willed people in the two World Wars. It was not always clear which principles were good and which were evil at that time. The beauty in Tolkien’s epic is in how it thickens moral lines blurred by the fog of war. His critics say “in the real world, the lines between good and evil are not so clearly drawn.” That is why LOTR is so essential. It brings to light eternal truths hidden by the perpetual twilight of reality.
Not only does this make “The Lord of the Rings” different from “A Song of Ice and Fire,” it is what has made Tolkien’s work last. Martin’s work has yet to be proven timeless, and time is not on his side as his readers urge him to finish his epic. Perhaps he perceives the need – and difficulty – in ending his epic on a note that makes it time-proof. If this is true, he shouldn’t continue to diminish the moral imperative.
David Kilby is a freelance writer for The Monitor. He attends St. Isaac Jogues Parish, Marlton, and writes for www.ramblingspirit.com.