Today’s post is a guest post from my friend and co-worker Brandon Brison. He’s a copyeditor on our content team, my local Lord of the Rings expert, and he studied medieval literature in a graduate degree program.
I’ve neither read A Game of Thrones nor watched the television show, but I’m interested in hearing what you guys think about Brandon’s take on the comparisons that are made between AGOT and LOTR.
If you’d like to read more from Brandon, you can’t—because he’s not on Facebook, Twitter, and doesn’t have a blog. But he is a real person, I promise.
A common criticism directed against Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings is that Tolkien didn’t (and/or couldn’t) write characters of any great complexity or depth.
Critics who focus solely on Aragorn’s apparent one-dimensionality or Frodo’s uninspired character arc are, in my opinion, missing the bigger picture. Those critics are applying modern tastes to something decidedly and purposefully un-modern.
The Lord of the Rings can properly be considered a mythopoeic, thoroughly medieval epic, in contrast to a modern novel with quasi-medieval elements like George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.
The difference between a truly medieval story and a story with medieval elements is largely one of aesthetics. Modern novels, in a very broad sense, focus on character development and the relationships between characters.
But this concept would have been alien to the medieval reader. Back in ye olde day, people didn’t want to hear made-up stories about people you just invented—they wanted to hear about King Arthur and Sir Gawain and Beowulf.
The skill that was prized, and the skill Tolkien focused on in the book, was innovative and artistic manipulation of language, not character. How the story was told was far more important than how innovative the plot or characters were.
In fact, in his letters, Tolkien said The Lord of the Rings was “largely an essay in ‘linguistic aesthetic’” and his work, like Greek mythology, relies “far more on the marvelous aesthetic of its language [. . .] and less on its content than people realize.”
And just like the medieval bards and authors he spent his life studying, every word Tolkien used was metered and intentional. In a letter that Tolkien wrote to a reader who was critical of Tolkien’s archaic style in The Two Towers, he expands on a single phrase (“Thus shall I sleep better.”) and explains to the reader at length exactly why he chose to use those exact words and that exact syntax.
Ultimately, as he wrote, Tolkien spent far more time meditating on how to tell the story of Middle Earth beautifully than how to showcase Frodo’s character arc. For him, The Lord of the Rings was as much an exercise in the beauty of medieval storytelling as it was a fulfillment of his personal vision to create a national mythology for England.
However you choose to read The Lord of the Rings—as a distinguished scholar or merely a hobbit enthusiast—it’s helpful to understand that, aesthetically speaking, The Lord of the Rings has far more in common with Tristan and Isolde and Beowulf than it does with the A Song of Fire and Ice series.
And comparing the two (though it’s tempting because, like, they both have swords or whatever) is like comparing a beautifully polished apple with a spikey blood orange that kills off a main character every 15 pages—it’s just not accurate.
If you’re interested in reading what smarter people than I have to say about Tolkien’s work, check out books and lectures by Tom Shippey, Verlyn Fleiger and Jane Chance.
(Also, A Song of Fire and Ice is just okay. Also also, “random crap happening” is not the same as character development. Come at me, Martin-ettes.)
What say you, AGOT and LOTR fans?