Stop bashing Tolkien. April 9, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: Game of Thrones, George RR Martin, JRR Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit
Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are fans of the HBO hit series “Game of Thrones.” We don’t get HBO, so we’ll have to wait a year to see Season 4, but we own the other three seasons and have been re-watching them as Season 4 takes hold of the popular imagination.
We’ve also tried to keep up with the new season vicariously by reading press releases, interviews, reviews, and plot summaries. My favorite characters are Tyrion Lannister and the Hound, with Tywin Lannister a close third; Silence favors Lord Eddard Stark, Stannis Baratheon and Mance Rayder. (But then, she loves Sean Bean, Stephen Dillane and Ciaran Hinds, so I’m not sure what this is really saying.)
But I digress. Point being that we’ve noticed a really ugly trend in the reviews: Tolkien-bashing. It seems as if reviewers can only say good things about “Game of Thrones” if they say bad things about “The Lord of the Rings.” This is like comparing James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans to Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mystery series, or, as Silence points out, Gulliver’s Travels to Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations.”
Think “A Song of Ice and Fire” author George R.R. Martin, on whose novels “Game of Thrones” is based, decided to see how J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic of Middle Earth would play out in real time? Fine. There are plenty of interesting parallels. What’s not fine is to gleefully shriek “A stake has finally been driven through Tolkien’s heart!” or “Tolkien is dead; long live Martin!” as we’ve seen in recent reviews.
As we’re sure many of you have, Silence and I grew up with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I used to read the whole cycle once a year, until it finally dawned on me that the characters in LoTR were so wooden and, unlike The Hobbit, there was no humor in it. But Professor Tolkien wasn’t trying to become famous or rich by writing a hit series. He was trying to make his life’s work—the study and translation of early to mediaeval Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and Celtic myth and literature—relevant to his generation.
He included heroes and monsters, trolls, elves, dwarves, goblins, dragons, and wizards as well as humans in his series because they were all in the lore and legends of the cultures he studied. For those peoples of the North, as for the Starks in Westeros, winter was always coming, and it was always long, dark, and brutal. And he wove the great mediaeval myth of chivalry, the noble knight, Sir Gawain, Sir Lancelot, into his epic as well, that honor will triumph, that weakness will be defeated. Aragorn and Gandalf win. Saruman and the Nazgul lose. Does anyone actually like Aragorn, or Gandalf, for that matter? To me, the only likeable characters in LoTR were Gimli son of Gloin, Samwise Gamgee, and Pippin. The rest were place-holders for a myth JRR Tolkien chose to weave and populate.
George Martin chose to bring this mythical world kicking and screaming into our modern age, sort of a bastard child of Tolkien and “Rome” and “The Tudors.” He has no education in the original works, unlike Tolkien. He also sets his action in a mediaeval world, and peoples it with mythical characters (giants, white walkers, dragons, witches—think Melisandre, the Red Witch—warlocks and wizards, as well as those like Bran and Rickon who are “wargs,” able to see through the eyes of others). But he brings the myth to the present with clever spins, from making the mythical dwarves of Tolkien into an actual physical dwarf, Lord Tyrion, to turning chivalric heroes into brutal sadistic monsters like Ser Gregor Clegane.
All this, and the ambivalence that pervades “Game of Thrones,” that makes a character like “The Spider,” Lord Varys, a hero, and a hero like Lord Eddard Stark a loser, is great plotting, great writing. But it is no excuse for reviewers to bash the books of someone long dead, someone who had a very different agenda: to make the past come alive for a new generation. True, there was no sex, there was no nudity, there was no sexual ambiguousness or titillation in Tolkien’s books. There was no gratuitous torture or violence. That’s because in his heart, Tolkien was a knight.
He lived what he wrote, all of his life. At 17, he fell in love with a 19-year-old girl at his boarding house and wished to marry her. The priest in charge of him (Tolkien had been long orphaned by then), afraid he would waste his brilliance, demanded that he leave his sweetheart without a word of explanation and not dare to approach her or any other woman until he reached his majority at 21. Tolkien felt honor-bound to agree. The day he turned 21, he rushed to London to propose to his true love, and they remained married and passionately in love until her death. He based one of his most astonishing stories on their love, and had the names of the characters he created for them carved into their tombstones.
Is this the world of “Game of Thrones,” where sisters and brothers have sex and murder anyone who might have found out their secret? Where scenes in whorehouses are as common as scenes on the battlefield? Hardly. Yet, George Martin has benefited from JRR Tolkien’s world, if only to use it as a ball to bounce off of. For reviewers to rush up to take pot shots at Tolkien now is despicable. Let “Game of Thrones” be “Game of Thrones,” and Tolkien be Tolkien.