Author’s Note: This post is excerpts of an essay I wrote for Fare Forward. I highly recommend you visit that site, like the publication on Facebook, and even become a subscriber. It’s a collection of people much smarter and much better at writing than me, discussing all topics you could imagine through a deeply intellectual Christian worldview. I’m humbled to have written for them previously and for them to have been kind enough to invite me back to write again. They’re far too kind to me. I’ve tricked them into thinking I’m a legitimate writer. Please don’t destroy this illusion. But do support Fare Forward. It’s amazing what they’re doing.
This post contains excerpts of my essay entitled, “Fantasy Worldviews: From Middle Earth to Westeros.” Whether you’re a fan of Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Martin’s Game of Thrones universe, I think you’ll enjoy my reflections on what Martin borrows from Tolkien and what each fantasy epic tells us about ourselves and our time.
“The battle of good and evil is a great subject for any book and certainly for a fantasy book, but I think ultimately the battle between good and evil is weighed within the individual human heart and not necessarily between an army of people dressed in white and an army of people dressed in black. When I look at the world, I see that most real living breathing human beings are grey.” —George R.R. Martin
Many more qualified authors have debated the relationship between J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin. TIME has called A Song of Ice and Fire the great fantasy epic of our time, a tale for a “more profane, more jaded, more ambivalent age than the one Tolkien lived in.” To the casual observer, confronted by the series’s similar investment in local customs and family trees, Game of Thronesdoes seem like the more violent, much more sexually explicit, TV version of The Lord of the Rings. Well, as the ambiguous Mr. Martin might say: Yes—and no.
When Game of Thrones premiered on HBO in April 2011, 2.2 million tuned in. Some of them had read the books Martin had been writing and publishing over the past two decades. But many, including myself, tuned in because we wanted to see if a big budget fantasy series could work on TV: Did it have mainstream appeal? Would the epic content adapt to the episodic content? Could HBO find a consistent audience to justify their extravagant production costs?
The answer to every question was a resounding yes, surpassing even the most optimistic fanboy’s expectations. Halfway through Season 3, the series’s 25th episode continued the show’s steady ratings climb with 5.3 million tuning in to the first airing and another 6.7 million across two airings. The average number of viewers per episode for the third season at that point was 13.2 million, once all airings and DVR playbacks were accounted for. The show is close to becoming HBO’s highest-rated show. By all accounts, Game of Thrones has been both a critical and commercial success, a surprising addition to the pop culture pantheon.
So what is it about this story and these characters that appeals to mass audiences? After all, many of my friends are fans despite taking issue with the grotesque scenes of torture and every other kind of violence. Many justifiably criticize the gratuitous depictions of sex that verge on the pornographic. So why the appeal and ever-growing audience among both Christians and non-believers? […]
Martin’s Game of Thrones may be a fantasy epic to match our time, but it owes much to the fundamental categories of good and evil developed by Tolkien. […]
Many critics and fans are tempted to compare and contrast Martin’s epic with Tolkien’s. The comparison does a grave disservice to both. While both worlds are equally complex and compelling, Martin’s focus can only exist in a world where Tolkien has already thoroughly conceptualized good versus evil. In the midst of the torture, rape, and murder-laden paths to power and freedom onGame of Thrones lies a fundamental emptiness in each character. Constant war, uneasy alliances, and unstable truces make no one comfortable. Mercy leads to murder. Revenge consumes children’s hearts. Misery reigns supreme. […]
Every character in Westeros similarly wrestles with good and evil. And while the worldviews, content, and endings may be different, Tolkien’s unlikely protagonist ultimately faced the same question. Frodo, standing at the Cracks of Doom, gives in to the temptation to claim the Ring of Power for his own. Gollum’s all-consuming lust is all that saves Frodo from himself and Middle Earth from domination by Sauron.
The ending of Martin’s tale has not been revealed. But for ten Sunday nights each year, millions tune in to the Seven Kingdoms for glimpses of the Gospel and gritty depictions of the selfish and selfless human heart. There are fewer happy endings than in Middle Earth, but hope yet resides with the grace-giving Mother of Dragons, who may be leading us to some higher station than the Iron Throne.