If you’ve been watching the top fantasy series, “Game of Thrones” you’ve been treated to an escapist, yet convincing and human, feast of blood, beheadings, sex, breasts, honest men, strong women, tame wolves, various forms of magic and slimebags everywhere. The series is based on the books by G.R.R. Martin, which track the fight for the “Iron Throne” by at least 5 contenders. As historian Tom Holland pointed out in the Guardian, this is a convincing medieval historical mash-up of the War of the Roses, Hadrian’s Wall, Cromwell, the siege of Constantinople, the Vikings, the Mongols, Rome and … the 100 Years War, Icelandic epics and the Italian Renaissance. Not to mention heavy resonance of Shakespeare.
The obvious comparison is ‘Lord of the Rings’ by J.R.R. Tolkein. LotR was voted the most popular book in the English language for the 20th Century by the Guardian – though I don’t know how the voting was done. Tolkein was a scholar who created a world that had eerie parallels to our own. Tolkein suffered through World War I, and most definitely, LotR is diffused through the lens of that war. To me, the book is a war novel more than anything else.
How do these two compare? Well, GoT is actually longer by several books, though I am told the books after the third go downhill fast. It is really a mostly amoral clash of wills, backed by archaic oaths of allegiance, of various houses – the Starks, the Targaryens, the Lannisters and the Baratheons in the
. All of them, however, are haunted by the
possible advent of an environmental disaster referred to as the ‘long winter’ and presumably also Scotch or Pict barbarians who take the shape of zombie phantoms, or work with them. I
know, I know, cliché #8. For the most
part the series plays the unreal elements down, and that is its strength. The dragons are still tiny and the phantoms
are mostly hidden. land
In watching, you actually begin to pull for some of these characters to succeed. It is the ones that are the least crooked that most people favor. Jon Snow, the bastard son of the head of the Starks; Daenerys Targaryen, the beauty queen with 3 little dragons; pre-teen Arya Stark, who shows more courage than most adults and lastly, Tyrion Lannister, the wise and cracking midget. Individual characters like the hulking lesbian warrior Brienne of Tarth and the versatile “The Hound” startle. The Starks are the house of the most character, and the least crooked. Robb Stark, who inherited its throne, even says, ‘I do not want to be king.”
And here is the link with LofR, which GoT is obviously modeled after. LotR’s whole point was a moral one – a ring of power has to be destroyed by someone who is so pure of heart that they would not use it for so-called ‘good’ or evil. It has made Gollum crazy, and Sauron too. Even Gandalf refuses to touch the ring – as do
and the Elves. Only a man of Gondor, Boromir, attempts
to take it, and quickly dies. The whole
story is about the corruption of uber-kingly power – a somewhat hackneyed idea – but
one that still holds true. Which is why
LotR is still a riveting story. Can they
destroy this menacing source of world-wide, totalitarian control? And they do. Aragon
In the second book of the LotR trilogy, the
the attack of the Ents (tree-herders) plays a role in defeating Saruman, the
ally to the evil Sauron, by flooding his underground workshop with water. Saruman had cut down and destroyed many
trees, and the Ents knew that the whole forest would be cut down
eventually. Merry, a hobbit, finally understands that the Shire is not safe unless Sauron is robbed of the ring - they just cannot go back to the Shire and hide from reality. As anyone who has read the
books knows, Hobbit Town in the Shire represented small town England, which was
being destroyed at that time by, well, quite clearly industrialism. And here we have the link to William
Morris. (“News From Nowhere –
An Epoch of Rest - Being some chapters from a Utopian Romance," by William Morris
(1890), reviewed below.) Morris was a
Marxist in the late 1800s who developed a somewhat unique perspective, combining
scientific Marxism with his own utopian and environmentalist version of
socialism, based on artisanal production and village life. Tolkein liked his view, and probably read “News
From Nowhere” while in school. The
Shire is full of Morris’ socialist village communities. The Ents were defending England's vanishing trees. Two Towers
Tolkein was formed in the crucible of World War I. Morris created his vision out of the English class struggle in the latter part of the century. Martin seems to have been formed in a bordello fantasy next door to a library. Perhaps because of the author's background, at least at this point, Game of Thrones, unlike Lord of the Rings, has no moral center. It may develop one, but odds are it will continue to reflect the brutality and ‘honor’ of medieval
Europe and also perhaps the modern imperial world, where
the ‘game of thrones’ is still being played.
And this puts it at odds with LofR.
Where one tried to make a general point, applicable to a whole society, right
now GoT at best encourages individual people to develop some character in a
world flooded by the sewage of war, wealth and power. And that is it. Will it too, destroy the ring? I am doubtful.
April 4, 2013