Disenchanted Fantasy

For whatever reason, fantasy isn’t taken seriously as a genre of literature. John Lanchester in the London Review of Books recalls how J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings lost to Lord of the Flies in a retrospective poll for the “1954 Booker Prize”. (Booker Prizes have been awarded since 1969). This anecdote prefaces Lanchester’s review of Game of Thrones.

After its success as an HBO series, Game of Thrones is at least being taken seriously by networks. The fourth season debuts tonight.

George R. R. Martin — does he use the second initial, his confirmation name, in homage to Tolkien? — had “the first numbered ticket to the first Comic Con festival.” Lanchester gives us little reason to think Martin will give fantasy any literary cache, regardless of his Faulknerian inspiration. Martin lacks Tolkien’s erudition, and his vaster world of places and characters lacks the depth of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Martin writes realistic, complex, and powerful female characters. The principal setting of the series, A Song of Ice and Fire, is a Europe-like continent where elites are mostly skeptical of magic.  And the whole saga takes place in expectation of a looming environmental catastrophe — many years of severe winter. Finally, and more importantly, his characters are complex and often Machiavellian — the plots and counter-plots leave no room for an overarching morality play. There are elements of realism in his work, in other words, that might appeal to an audience that otherwise has little love for the fantasy genre. Perhaps a more writerly version of A Song of Ice and Fire could find literary respect.

The contrast between Tolkien and Martin is obvious in their treatment of religion. Tolkien’s world has a God and an entire cosmology of angelic beings. In his LettersTolkien explains why there are no temples, priests, or organized worship in Middle-Earth:

There are no temples or ‘churches’ or fanes in this ‘world’ among ‘good’ peoples. They had little or no ‘religion’ in the sense of worship… [T]his is a primitive age: and these folk may be said to view the Valar as children view their parents or immediate adult superiors, and though they know they are subjects of the King he does not live in their country nor have there any dwelling (Letter 153).

The Elves and Men of Middle-Earth have merely natural religion. Unlike Rousseau’s view in Emile, this childlike faith without understanding is not dangerous.

On the other hand, religion in George R. R. Martin’s world is a deadly technology of power. Here, there are any number of religions, cults, and priestly castes. Religious figures manipulate (and are manipulated in turn) by powerful leaders, especially in the Stannis Baratheon storyline.

Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and Martin is a lapsed one. Accordingly, fantasy epics exude two contrasting views of the Middle Ages. For Tolkien, there is Christendom’s battle with Satan and possessed heathens; for Martin, there is the political chaos that reigned before the state monopolized violence. Martin is not high “High Fantasy”. His Middle Fantasy relocates our disenchanted world — with its amoral conflicts, appalling cruelties, impending environmental disasters, and sex — in a parallel universe of swords and sorcery.

Films can be moral; television can’t be, unless it’s completely episodic. To keep the attention of an audience across many years, TV dramas need twists and turns, and ambiguous characters that contain surprises. That might explain why Lord of the Rings was a cinematic success, while Game of Thrones seems to make good television.

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