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A Game Of Thrones Can Suck It

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? 

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26 Comments Post a comment
  1. I had this conversation with a coworker the other day. We compared how, in terms of visual imagery. Tolkien can find two pages to describe a tree while George R.R. Martin will only tell you a character’s hair color and whether or not they have scars. Comparing the two, you realize that despite a similar setting they are cut from two very different cloths.

    Liked by 1 person

    July 17, 2014
  2. I feel like this might be one of the only places on the internet where this type of post doesn’t devolve into bickering and ignorant name calling haha. At least let’s hope.

    As you said, comparing the two is foolhardy at best. And to criticize Game of Thrones for not being as linguistically advanced or poetic as LOTR would be to disregard what Martin was trying to do, as well. So this conversation kind of invites hypocrisy. Which is why comparing the two is so difficult.

    Fantasy fans seem to want to compare authors and series much more than other genre fans, it seems, and I don’t know why. Why can’t you love Martin and Tolkien equally? Why does there always have to be a winner? Especially when two series are so fundamentally different. Just because, as was pointed out, they both have swords in them, that doesn’t mean they’re anything alike. At all.

    Can’t they both just be awesome in their own way?

    Like

    July 17, 2014
    • I think so. My guess is Brandon was having a little fun. I think he actually likes Game of Thrones, but is just pointing out that it’s nothing at all like LOTR, and the comparisons have to stop.

      Like

      July 17, 2014
  3. As your co-worker said, Tolkien is about how to tell a beautiful story while Martin is about how to make a character interesting. They are both different. I, on the other hand, enjoy both of them, of course, with a differente amazement. Reading Tolkien is like: “wow” in every single page, is like somebody telling you exactly what you love in the nature and surprising you with every little detail of the environments he described, while Martin is about an epic story of a huge conflict in a land that is full of surprises.

    Like

    July 17, 2014
  4. Susan #

    The guest post was thoughtful and well written; thank you for posting it. It’s disappointing that it was headed by such a needlessly antagonistic and inaccurate title.

    Like

    July 17, 2014
  5. Really good post! I’ve read a share of medieval, old english and norse literature, often it’s not as popular a conversation piece as i’d like so I love it when someone brings it up. The thing that strikes me as typically norse about both LOTR and GOT is the way they name loads of characters, there’s paragraphs in GOT of just names and they use names like ‘Ulf son of Alf’ (not a real example but you take my point) exactly like you’d read in a norse book (translated of course). I think you’re right though about the fundamental differences between them, they’re both epic stories but as Robinson Recalde mentioned above Martin is a lot more interested in characters. I also find GOT a lot easier to read but as you said, Tolkien wasn’t writing for a modern world, he was bringing back an older tradition of writing.

    Like

    July 17, 2014
  6. Kim #

    I liked Cry The Beloved Country way more than Tolkien in terms of beauty of language.

    However, I must admit, Tolkien’s the first author I’ve ever seen do “character development by God”.

    Gollum’s a complex character, an interesting one, in a world of cardboard. He stands out, makes you want to walk around him, study him, learn a little.

    Like

    July 17, 2014
  7. I have never actually compared LOTR with Game of Thrones. In fact, I have never even thought to. For me, they are both completely different stories. Both good in their own way, I would read each for different reasons.

    Like

    July 17, 2014
  8. A game of Ass Clowns

    Like

    July 17, 2014
  9. Word, Brandon. Word.

    Like

    July 17, 2014
  10. itsthelitchick #

    Okay, I agree that LOTR should be revered as a quality piece of literature, but you can’t deny that A Song of Ice and Fire is a great book. They should not be compared just because they have similar elements, they are two completely different novels on two completely different, but incredible planes.

    Like

    July 17, 2014
  11. It’s never occurred to me to compare the books, either, though I’m aware that many have an instinct to do just that. I was talking with a colleague about the finale of the last season of GoT and he mentioned that (um, spoiler alert?) the scene with Bran Stark and the skeletons was a little too “Lord of the Rings/Tolkien” for his tastes. My response was “So…it was a little too awesome for you?”

    Really, though. I’ve enjoyed reading both books (though my enjoyment of Martin’s novels wane a little more with subsequent releases while the opposite is true of the Lord of the Rings books).

    Look. There’s room to enjoy it all. That’s how I feel.

    Like

    July 17, 2014
  12. Reblogged this on I AM PURPLE_JAIE and commented:
    i just don’t get game of thrones

    Like

    July 17, 2014
  13. Seriously this is so large that the sources provided are extensive and by no means exhaustive. I have never tried to see the book comparisons as I have slow speed in comparing motion pictures. Nevertheless, I truly thank you as this will help in focusing on any material or work reviewed for analysis or development as it has truly helped me to perceive Thank you so countlessly for your guest, Brandon Brison, Bruce!

    Like

    July 17, 2014
  14. Reblogged this on Uniqely Mustered and commented:
    To all those who are book and Movie Lovers, Please analyse this!

    Like

    July 17, 2014
  15. Why not just enjoy each for what it is? It’s okay to like both.

    Like

    July 17, 2014
  16. Aside from what you all have mentioned, I want to point out that the two sagas have completely different themes (at least, as far as it’s possible to tell when A Song of Ice and Fire is still unfinished). The Lord of the Rings is about the death of an old civilization and its replacement by a new one. A Song of Ice and Fire is largely about the consequences of fathers trying to achieve immortality through their children, without loving or at least without understanding them. Tolkien wrote a new Norse saga. Martin is rewriting British history as the biblical book of Genesis.

    Like

    July 20, 2014
  17. Those are two totally different types of books. I loved LOTR for what it was, but I am enjoying ASOIAF too. I don’t think they can actually be compared until ASOIAF actually ends and we know where the story is going.

    I do think LOTR story-wise was pretty simplistic, whereas I enjoy the complexity in ASOIAF a lot more, but that’s just me.

    Like

    July 21, 2014
  18. I promise I’m not trying to be offensive here but Tolkien is humorless in his writing, the way I’ve found it to be. But it’s just an opinion. You may believe otherwise. GRRM likes to entertain, create tension and drama that is unparalleled and shock value that is unprecedented.

    Like

    July 22, 2014
  19. I really have to thank you for this post. For English not being my mother tongue reading LOTR in the original really pointed it out to me how beautiful this language can be. Before reading in the last time I read the “Edda” to have some background knowledge and to get deeper into the materia. I also started (only the first book) the read AGOT, but was quite disappointed, because in my opinion it lacked details typically for fantasy literature. I wasn’t able to bring the reason for this into clear words and this post summarizes it perfectly.

    Like

    November 14, 2014
  20. We began light by undertaking BOGO (Purchase One Get One) and buying the Weekend papers, trimming what I knew we’d use, and whatever else I imagined may be much at state,
    a pharmacy.

    Like

    April 29, 2016

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