Not too long ago I had dinner with friends, and at one point during our inevitable nerd-speak (it must’ve been after the Elder Scrolls Online discussion), the Song of Ice and Fire series, better known as Game of Thrones, happened to come up. My one friend commented that, Tolkien was good, but Game of Thrones is a Game-Changer. “You always knew who would win in Lord of the Rings; you have no freaking clue what’s going to happen in Ice and Fire!”
In one sense, this is an accurate statement. George R. R. Martin, author of the Ice and Fire series, is pretty crazy, in a good way. The plot of each book, let alone the series as a whole, is about as byzantine and convoluted as it gets, and that is not hyperbolic at all. I have to use a concordance each time a new book is published just to remember who’s who and what the heck is happening. Seriously. What’s more amazing though is Martin allegedly has everything already scripted out and he knows precisely what he’s building toward. And yet, the books are so beguiling (and lengthy), he needs an Ice and Fire encyclopedia (which he apparently put together himself – yet another indication of the aforementioned craziness) because he can’t even remember how the dots are all connected in the published volumes. The guy even has a calendar that goes for years in the future within the universe of Westeros (the equivalent of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth) just to map out the weather for each and every day. This is clearly an individual who, like Tolkien, takes pride in his artistry and is serious about his craft, bringing it to levels no author save Tolkien has done. But that doesn’t mean Song of Ice and Fire will stand the test of time as The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and even The Silmarillion has.
Don’t misunderstand me, however: Martin is an exceptional writer. He’s very, very good. And, speaking as a historian, his comprehension of medieval life and society is shockingly evident. Even what I presume are deliberate religious parallels in his books to Christianity, paganism, and the interplay between the two within the broader context of early medieval Europe, is spot-on. I’m ignorant of what sort of academic background Martin has, but he has a surer grasp on history, or at least within some specific spheres of knowledge, than any other non-scholastic writer I can think of.
But Tolkien is still the greater.
Why Ice and Fire can never eclipse the magisterial works of Tolkien is due to the simple fact Tolkien wrote to illustrate universals. More to the point, he wrote to illustrate objective truths (be it goodness, evil, beauty, sacrifice, courage….), and these truths are only acknowledged, properly, by Catholicism. Indeed, Tolkien himself baldly wrote, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion,’ to cults or practices, in the Imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism” (Letter 142 in The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien). To put this differently: Rings could not have been written by anyone who was not A) a practicing Catholic, B) a practicing Catholic who was also cognizant of authentic Catholicism, and C) intellectually mature and intimately familiar with theology, history, and language (Tolkien, being a respected philologist, was ably qualified). Without these three criteria met, there is no Lord of the Rings, or at least one that we are familiar with. But so what? How is this indicative of the superiorness of Tolkien over Martin?
Martin is roundly praised for not just the complexity of his plot (both micro and macro), but also the complexity of his characters: you never know who’s “good” or “bad” because of the perpetually shifting allegiances and the means through which ends are sought by seemingly every character. This is applauded by the majority of Martin’s patrons, as it presents readers with “real” characters who aren’t “good” or “bad” but reveal the ever changing motives and internal back-and-forths that man faces every day. This is valid argument, yet it requires a question first: what is the end of such an endeavor? What is the author attempting to show us, to show humanity, by such characters? Is Martin implying Good and Evil do not exist? That Man cannot obtain either end? What distinguishes Tolkien in this respect is he knew Good and Evil exist and that Man is capable of rising to Good, or plummeting into Evil (having served in the trenches of World War I, Tolkien saw and experienced both). Thus, while critics lampoon Tolkien for his “goody-goody” good guys and “ridiculously evil” bad guys, they miss the point entirely: Tolkien is demonstrating what Man is supposed to strive for and seek out. Alternatively, Tolkien demonstrates the fullness of sin and the affects it has in this life, and what we are to avoid. And yet, there are complex characters of nebulous allegiances and betrayers in Tolkien’s works: look no further than Saruman, or even the elves of Silmarillion (Kinslaying anyone?). Unlike Martin, however, these instances have a specific message: that, in falling, it is possible to be redeemed (whether a particular character is redeemed or not, he/she is still presented with such an opportunity nonetheless). Which brings us to our next area of discussion: death.
Does killing off a character (of which Martin does aplenty) in Game of Thrones have any significance beyond causing further obfuscation of the plot? At this point, at least through the most recent volume, A Dance with Dragons, the answer seems to be “no.” Juxtaposed against Tolkien, such wanton killing seems sadistic.
In Tolkien’s writings, death has meaning. The death of Boromir allowed for penance (defending Merry and Pippin) and redemption from his fall (” ‘Farewell, Aragorn! Go to Minis Tirith and save my people! I have failed.’ [-] ‘No!’ said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. ‘You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace! Minis Tirith shall not fall!’ “) Tolkien’s Catholicism recognized that death served an end, yet wasn’t an end of itself. Whether in Hobbit, Rings, or Silmarillion, death is used to demonstrate: penance, redemption, hope, sorrow (both positive and negative), and the banishment of evil. How is it Martin seems to revel in ending the life of his characters, even important and popular ones, but Tolkien implies a specific message in each and every death? Again we come back to Catholicism and the death and resurrection of Jesus, of which Tolkien was acutely conscious. Tolkien is directing us toward an objective conclusion, the historical reality of Jesus and God’s infinite mercy, while Martin is directing us toward the Red Wedding.
The reason Tolkien remains timeless while Martin will eventually be put aside sometime in the distant future, is Tolkien’s deft testimony of what make us Men (and Women) – the best, and the worst, of us. Against the (disguised) background of Catholicism, Tolkien brings us both to the lowest of lows, literally into Hell, yet also to the bliss of the highest highs that await those who acknowledge Jesus as Savior and Lord. He appeals to our very souls, exhibiting for us that, ultimately, Evil does indeed lose the battle, and, while Evil’s affects will remain in this life, there will be a place where Evil has no affects, and never will. Tolkien validates that, we may err into sin (some of us repeatedly, of which I include myself), there is hope our “evil” actions (or inactions) need not define us – that it is possible to atone and be redeemed from our guilt and the various temporal affects caused by our sin(s). Martin may tell an exceptionally well-crafted story (and I do enjoy reading his books), but he does not lead us to the Great and Good; rather, he keeps us mired in doubt, shame, and unrest. Men and women intrinsically steer toward objective Good, which is why we are spiritual beings as much as we are rational beings. Tolkien aides us in this journey; Martin confounds us in it.