GRR Martin is not JRR Tolkien

Posted on 22 July 2011

They share two initials. That is it. And just as their names are only tangentially analog, so is their writing. So much so that when The New York Times review of A Dance with Dragons compared Martin to “The American Tolkien”, I instantly lost respect for the reviewer. So, in addition to reviewing A Dance with Dragons (ADWD forthwith to save typing and italicizing), I am going to talk about my thoughts on Martin’s work in general and espouse, in semi-rant form, about why the reviewer from the New York Times is a nitwit, at least somewhat.

Oh, and Page Three of Legends is up.

So, I finished ADWD Wednesday in the doldrums of the day. I had a conversation earlier with a friend who had finished it before me that had gotten my hopes up for the end to somewhat justify the silliness that was A Feast For Crows, but sadly they misremembered where my “current spot” was and were actually trying to trump up something I’d already read that didn’t really deliver, in my mind. So I was left with the feeling of “Damn it, Martin did it to me again!” (Swearing needed, this is a review of an A Song and Ice and Fire book.)

So, what was good about the book, because I always like to start on good notes. We get the viewpoints we were missing in Feast. Tyrion, Jon, Dany. About halfway through the book (right on page 500, as it happens, in the hard back), we catch up time-line wise and start getting snippets of the plots from Feast, but in ways that aren’t completely annoying. Cersei’s chapters didn’t actually seem to drag on forever, and there were blessed few of them besides. No Samwell, which kind of disappoints me because at the end of Feast I was suddenly interested in him.

Other annoyances: The Iron Islands stuff, while not as annoying to me as in Feast, was just kind of . . . well . . . there. I get what Martin was doing, but he left it hanging big time for the next book. And what Dornish chapters there are were again not as annoying to me as in Feast, but they still felt like they were just “there”, despite the critical role they end up playing by the end of the book.

But, moreover, Martin seemed dedicated by the end of ADWD to make up for the lack of gritty storytelling in Feast. And this is where I am going to get into my rant.

Aside time. Tolkien was not the best of writers, even in his day. I’ve read some genre contemporaries of Tolkien, and they actually had a better prose, narrative style, and sense of plot and character. So to say someone is a better writer than Tolkien is like saying Swiss Chocolate is better than a Hershey bar.

What Tolkien had was an idea that launched a new style of writing. No, not fantasy, despite some people calling Tolkien the Father of Fantasy. They are missing a word. There was fantasy as a genre before Tolkien. Ever hear of Conan the Barbarian? The character predates Tolkien’s Hobbit by five years, and there were plenty of other pulp writers messing around even before that.

No, Tolkien is better labeled the “Father of High Fantasy,” a subgenre that is bickered about as far as an exact definition, but is typically nutshelled down to the following:

1) The central struggle of the book is one of world proportion. The very way the people of the world live will be changed depending on the outcome of the conflict.
2) There is an objective good and evil. The protagonists are at their core heroic and the protagonists are sinister. There may or may not be actual manifest deities, but there is a clear cut good and evil.

Simple, eh? Well, Martin meets the first, sort of. Yes, all the “Game of Thrones” stuff is going on and is more of a petty squabble between lords with no clear and obvious best choice (at least now that he has been killed off in Book 3), but the White Walkers from beyond the Wall seem pretty well the true villains, even if the vast majority of the world doesn’t know it yet.

Oh, but number two. Westeros is not a world where there is a clear right and wrong. Heroes have murder, rape, and incest in their past, and the only “good” people are actually naïve to the workings of the world and die for it. What we are left with is a snow-slush gray cast where we have a hard time truly rooting for a character. I’ll be honest, aside from Dany, Jon and Tyrion, I don’t really care about the fates of any of the surviving characters, and even those three have been through some morally questionable space.

And that grit that Martin writes with is what makes him almost the antithesis of Tolkien. Perhaps I can grant you that both Tolkien and Martin are trail-blazing and foraging their way into a new idea of writing fantasy, but I feel that I have to quote Robert Jordan here.

The reason for the popularity of fantasy, and the reason science fiction is fading in comparison, is quite simple, really. Increasingly in books and films, including science fiction but also in everything from mysteries to so-called “main stream literary” novels, the lines between right and wrong have become blurred. Good and evil are more and more portrayed as two sides of the same coin. This is called realism. People by and large want to believe that there is a clear cut right and wrong, though, and that good and evil depend on more than how you look in the mirror or whether you’re squinting when you do. In fantasy, you can talk about good and evil, right and wrong, with a straight face and no need to elbow anybody in the ribs to let them know you’re just kidding, you don’t really believe in this childish, simplistic baloney. That seems to be less and less so in other genres.

Now, call me a Jordan Fanboy, but honestly, Jordan is much more of a direct descendant/heir to Tolkien. He, at least, writes High Fantasy with the Good-and-Evil commentary. More-over, it allows the escapism. Because, you know what, that is a lot of what fantasy is. It is an escape from the morally gray world we actually live in and struggle in. Martin does not allow us that escape. Idealists are killed in Westeros, and only the self-serving and corrupt survive. It is gritty, and it is well written, and it even serves to the appetite of the main stream, contrary to Jordan’s expectations, but it is not High Fantasy. Much as Goodkind is the high fantasy author who claimed to not write fantasy, Martin is the author who seems to write high fantasy but doesn’t. Note: I don’t know what Martin’s own opinions of his writing are off hand, but he is getting pigeonholed into High Fantasy.

That being said: I still do enjoy Martin’s books. ADWD is very well written, and while it has a few of the gritty Martin “gotcha’s” in it, I will still recommend his series to my friends to read, and I will buy further books. But, seriously, if you have to compare Martin to someone, Dickens. The NYT got that right at least, after the horrible Tolkien analogy. They are both bitter and bleak examinations about the cruelty of the world and the human condition. Yes, one has dragons and the other doesn’t, but it really doesn’t change the gut feeling. Just saying.

4 comment to GRR Martin is not JRR Tolkien

  • wendy says:

    I agree with you completely. I would also like to add my own small rant. He has made these books so long by being a bit to descriptive. I found myself skimming through some of the pages. Why, oh why does he think that listing every course during a feast is adding to the story? Even surroundings are sometimes overly described. The books could have been several hundred pages shorter if he would just stick to story telling and not as a tourguide.

  • Eugene says:

    “Yes, one has dragons and the other doesn’t, but it really doesn’t change the gut feeling. Just saying.”
    Wow, man, REALLY? Which one doesn’t have dragons? IMHO, this single statement shattered your whole authority to criticize or rant on this topic… High fantasy my ass, mr. no-dragons.

  • Eugene says:

    Wow, nice job deleting my comment which wasn’t to your taste. Critic that can’t stand critics, huh? NOT COOL, man!

    • Richard Fife says:

      Eugene: First, this post was 3 years old as of your comment, and if you hadn’t noticed, my site hasn’t exactly been active for a year. That said, I didn’t “delete” your post, I just hadn’t logged in for a very long time to this otherwise mothballed site.

      Also, if Charles Dickens has dragons in it, then I am sorry, I didn’t realize he wrote in the High Fantasy genre as well. Because that was what I was comparing “one has, the other doesn’t” to in my closing paragraph. Martin has Dragons, Dickens doesn’t. Sorry that wasn’t clear to you. Somehow, I have a feeling your knee-jerk reaction comes from some other larger disagreements with my opinion than assertion over the presence of dragons or not in a particular novel.

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