Good news for fans of beards, battle axes and bare chests. Season six of Game Of Thrones will shortly be upon us, bringing sweet relief to those who have spent the past 12 months fretting whether Jon Snow lives (probably), Arya Stark has been permanently blinded (probably not) and if Ser Jorah Sadface is ever going to get it together with Daenerys Targaryen (big fat nope).
But while readers of fantasy fiction are typically as keen on HBO’s small screen blockbuster as anyone, the annual outbreak of Thrones fever does have a downside for devotees of the genre in its literary form. Inevitably in the weeks ahead some expert or other will be trotted out to explain why the Westeros romp and the George RR Martin cycle from which it is adapted represent a category apart from other fantasies, and in particular JRR Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings.
This vogue for Tolkien bashing is easily explained. Game of Thrones is fashionable and, despite the ongoing mainstreaming of “nerd culture”, fantasy novels are not. Ergo George RR Martin’s work must be different – that is to say superior – to the rest of the milieu. Invariably the only other fantasy novel with which mainstream commentators are familiar is Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings. And just like that Middle Earth is in the firing line.
Central to the whispering campaign against Tolkien is the idea that he peddled a reductive world view. While George RR Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire sequence is regarded as mature, complex and reflective of real human life, Lord of The Rings is felt to be fusty, puritanical and cheesily moralistic. Nobody in Game of Thrones is truly good or bad – they are merely grubby strivers getting by in a cruel and heartless world.
In Middle Earth, by contrast, we are led to understand that characters are defined by their morality: Hobbits and elves are predetermined to be “good”, orcs born “evil”. How can the delicious nuance of GoT exist in such a binary universe?
Yet this argument,which you can expect to hear rehashed in the countdown to the return of Game of Thrones on April 29th, flows from several flawed presuppositions. For starters, Tolkien was not the father of modern fantasy but rather an outlier. Swords and sorcery is overwhelmingly an American genre, rooted in the early 20th-century work of Robert E Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian), L Sprague De Camp, Fritz Leiber, Frederik Pohl and others.
It is Howard and his peers that we have to thank for the tropes and cliches upon which later generations of writers and filmmakers would build: the brawny warriors, the hooded magic wielders, the medieval cities teeming with thieves and plotters. Tolkien without question casts a shadow, but more outside fantasy than within. Indeed, a much bigger influence on later swords and sorcery writers was the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game, another American innovation that drew on the “low fantasy” settings of Howard, Leiber and others. (It is no coincidence that George RR Martin played Dungeons and Dragons through the late seventies and early eighties).
Yet, even setting aside the prominence unjustly accorded to Tolkien, Lord of the Rings is nowhere near as black and white as is often claimed, usually by those who surely have not read the book. Indeed there has of late been a tendency to conflate Tolkien’s views on good and evil with the sermonising of CS Lewis, author of the heavily allegorical Narnia novels.
Tolkien and Lewis were friends and contemporaries at Oxford. They were also both Catholic. Nonetheless the moral outlook of their work diverged sharply. The Narnia adventures were often (if not always) enfeebled by sanctimony. Tolkien’s world building, in contrast, had space for nuance and complexity, such as when Boromir, believing the One Ring can be used for good as well as evil, turns on Frodo and tries to wrest it from him by force. A decent man is driven to dark deeds because he believes it will be for the long-term benefit of humanity. There may be a message here but it is hardly pat or didactic.
Lord of the Rings, moreover, concludes with one of the longest, most depressive fade-outs in genre fiction. Destroying Sauron’s One Ring brings peace to Middle Earth yet cannot save the soul of the Ring-bearer Frodo. He returns to the Hobbit homeland of the Shire essentially suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. Tolkien had fought at the Somme, where he learned that certain wounds never heal. What Frodo had suffered cannot be undone, as only someone who had stood at the maw of a very real abyss could appreciate.
The other beef against Tolkien’s trilogy is that it is implicitly misogynistic because of its thin cast of female characters. This too is a charge in general levelled by those unfamiliar with the material. Aside from dark lord Sauron – really a metaphor for evil rather than flesh and blood protagonist – the most powerful presence in the novels is elf queen Galadriel. Moreover, the outstanding battlefield hero is Eowyn of the Riddermark, who defies her superiors and goes to war, slaying Tolkien’s great “Big Bad”, the Witch King of Angmar (fulfilling the prophecy that no “man” could kill him).
Still, to this day Lord of the Rings is condemned on the grounds that it keeps women off stage. Even were that the case, Tolkien at least did not press female characters into service as semi-naked background dressing or use rape as a plot pivot, as Game of Thrones repeatedly has. That Tolkien’s gender politics should be unfavourably compared to the show that brought us last year’s notorious “Black Wedding” – where sexual violence was deployed as a casual framing device – is an irony not even the fires of Mount Doom could melt.