With the end of the third season of Game of Thrones in sight (June 9th), a global audience of over 5 million is debating whether or not George R.R. Martin is the rightful “American Tolkien.” I argue that while The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones have striking similarities, Martin is actually pioneering a distinct genre—a new kind of fantasy novel informed by historical fiction and politics.
Martin admits that he was influenced a great deal by Tolkien, and mirrored the structure of his novels off of Tolkien’s work:
“Tolkien begins his story in the Shire with one group of inhabitants, hobbits, but eventually expands the tale in ever-widening orbits to cover many races and huge tracts of land. That’s what I wanted to do too. I wanted to start with a tight focus on a few characters and one place in the world, and as the story is told, the world will continue to get bigger and bigger and more people get drawn into the conflict,” Martin told the Detroit Free Press.
Martin’s Game of Thrones takes place in “the known world,” consisting of three discovered continents. It is important to note that Martin’s series is unfinished pending the release of two more books. Because Martin’s legendarium isn’t complete, only speculative maps of “the known world” exist online.
Though Martin’s novels gave the illusion of a multi-lingual world, he never actually created the languages. The Dothraki and High Valyrian that you hear in the HBO series were crafted by a group of linguists in the Language Creation Society. Throughout the course of the books, the maps and languages are revealed to the reader in sections on a need-to-know basis as the characters traverse an increasing percentage of the world.
Tolkien’s creation displays a sense of depth yet unrivaled in the fantasy genre. In this way, Lord of the Rings is to Game of Thrones as the Atlantic Ocean is to Lake Michigan. In contrast to the invention of Martin’s world, which is secondary to his plotline, Tolkien built his reality from the ground up starting with languages. A famed Oxford philologist, Tolkien created more than twenty unique languages. For Tolkien, language was the building blocks that made up the fabric of his mythology:
What I think is a primary ‘fact’ about my work, that it is all of a piece, and fundamentally linguistic in inspiration […] The invention of languages is the foundation. The ‘stories’ wee made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows.
Like Martin’s “known world,” Arda has three continents, with most of the action occurring in Middle-earth. Tolkien’s influence is also evident in Martin’s mythology. Both tales include dragons, giants, wizards, men, skinchangers, and undead terrors. Martin’s White Walkers rival Tolkien’s Black Riders as harbingers of fear.
Nevertheless, Game of Thrones occupies a distinct genre from Tolkien. Martin considers his novels historical fiction mixed with magic. Medieval class distinctions, the struggles of feudal society, mythology, and politics all play a part in the social fabric of Game of Thrones.
Martin is also uniquely skilled at portraying the reality of politics—the art of influence, the fickle inter-personal relationships between main characters, and the fragile alliances between individuals, families, and factions. And he does a better job at depicting the grey area between right and wrong:
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.
Tolkien’s characters are depicted as either purely good or purely evil with the notable distinction being individuals corrupted by power of the “one ring.” Sauron, the Nazgul, Boromir, Gollum, Bilbo, Frodo, and even noble Galadriel have felt its nefarious power. Tolkien’s portrayal of morality seems to mirror a belief consistent with his Catholic religion: Humans are inherently good and yet vulnerable to corruption by outside forces and temptations.
On the other hand, Martin seems to be saying that morality is relative: Humans are neither innately good nor evil, but rather frighteningly capable of being both. Characters in Game of Thrones exhibit both honor and treachery. His prowess in conveying this dichotomy is evident in his ability to make readers sympathize with immoral characters—such as Cersei, Theon, Varys, and Jaime. It is suspected that Martin’s emphasis on violence, sexuality, betrayal, and deceit are a criticism of what he sees as Tolkien-inspired moral simplicity of good versus evil.
While Tolkien’s influence on Martin is undeniable, comparing the two masterpieces is in many ways “as useless as nipples on a breastplate,” as Tyrion Lannister would say. Though Martin can never be the second coming of “the father of modern fantasy literature,” Martin is the “American Tolkien” in that he is pioneering a neo-fantasy genre for millions of readers.