GRRM the Anti-Tolkien

To start, I was once one of George R.R. Martin's most avid fans, calling him – as many did and do the American Tolkien. Below is what I wrote on facebook the day I quit book 5 of his A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Dance with Dragons (NO SPOILERS):

"THAT IS IT!!! I am quitting George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. I have never done this with a book before, least of all one so masterful, but I am tired of reading simply to see vengeance enacted on mad lions and treacherous bannermen.
I am sick and tired of his twisted universe of whores and swords, where honor is as dead as those who loose their heads because of it.
True Fantasy is about love, justice, adventure, and wisdom, all of which is demonstrated through lack of example in Ice and Fire.
Ice is cold and treacherous, fire is hot and ruthless. GOOD RIDDANCE.
"


I henceforth name George R.R. Martin the Anti-Tolkien and his A Song of Ice and Fire series a treachery to the High Fantasy.

Why? J.R.R. Tolkien created a vast world, a history, a legendarium, on a scale that no other author has ever reached. However, I now loathe the term 'American Tolkien' less because GRRM is an inferior storyteller by comparison so much as because GRRM has nothing to offer but blood, porn, and amoral lessons that corrupt the soul. I give GRRM incredible respect for the vast universe he crafted and the astonishingly complex history he gave it, so what I fundamentally reject is the message of the series, which I judge as a treachery to the Fantasy genre. A Song of Ice and Fire strongly implies that it is only great power that can hold evil in check, while The Lord of the Rings stands for the idea that it is the everyday deeds of ordinary folk which keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love.

Did you know that GRRM believes that Tolkien should have killed Gandalf permanently because he had such a great death scene in Moria?


Looking back, I cannot see how anybody can call GRRM the American Tolkien. Anybody who has read The Silmarillion, The Book of Unfinished Tales, The Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit, knows that J.R.R. Tolkien is incalculably superior.
I cannot see how GRRM ensnared me as he did. Every book was endless intrigue and the times was marked simply by who lived and who died in what book. True Fantasy is higher. Time is marked by nations built, growing relationships, and journey of dear friends.

Some call GRRM's books more realistic, more true to the world and real life than Tolkien and what I classify as the High Fantasy (which is defined by the Spirit of Tolkien). They say that GRRM is a lot truer to life because people aren't hero's, and that is one of the many marvels of his books. I utterly reject this notion.
Why can people not be heroes? There have been heroes in the past. Moreover, there are heroes in Ice and Fire (or at least very close to) and they often they end up with a quarrel in the chest or a dagger in the back.

I can handle injustice. I have read the greatest Fantasies of the age and more besides. Fantasy made me who I am. I have seen twisted characters and endured griefs beyond count. I am totally and utterly used to it. GRRM made injustice, those with hearts as cold as their swords, endure while I watched so many dear friends die. I am sick of it. I put my heart into my books. I read to see friends rejoice, not enemies get their throats cut. It was bringing me down, turning me into ice. I have a decades worth (literally) of High Fantasy on my list and thus many old friends to see again and new ones to meet.
GRRM's universe is the only one of the all the ones I have traveled to that I would not want to live in. Indeed, the simple fact is that he has a bad habit of slaying good guys like a butcher does pigs. Our world is not that bad. Yes there are some absolutely abhorrent places, but there are plenty of others that are full of light. Westeros and GRRM's other realms have no such places. Swords and whores dominate them all.

 "There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it--always.” - Mahatma Gandhi

Some say that GRRM writes a different kind of Fantasy that combines politics and dramatic serial type writing with High Fantasy; J.R.R. Tolkien's is the type of fantasy that we would want to visit ourselves and GRRM's is one that we like looking at when we feel in a more vindictive mood but probably wouldn't want to live in.
In part, perhaps, I agree, but political/royal intrigue is by no means a new element to the High Fantasy though Tolkien himself did not employ it. It is the Spirit, the soul, the lesson of the writing that matters.

What I believe to be the guiding principle behind and purpose of the Fantasy Genre at its best is the Spirit of Tolkien the optimistic spirit and integrity which the books try to impart upon the reader. Fantasy teaches selflessness in the face of evil and that virtue can and often will be victorious in the end. It stands for the idea that it is the everyday deeds of ordinary folk which keeps the Dark at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love and a refusal to give in and abandon personal integrity when there is an easy but amoral solution to various kinds of trouble. It is about compassion, courage, curiosity, and a refusal to give up hope even when all seems lost and world is burning up around you.


GRRM's work teaches of opposite, offering a cold and cynical view of humanity coupled with the apparent lesson that the honorable and compassionate usually end with their heads upon a stake. It teaches that treachery is profitable and that morals do not pay and are near powerless to effect the wider world. It humanizes and sympathizes with rapists, oathbreakers, and murderers. I fundamentally reject this message and so name GRRM the Anti-Tolkien and a traitor to the High Fantasy. 

But what I find most ironic, in a darkly amusing manner, is that George R. R. Martin says that he revers The Lord of the Rings. He calls himself a "friendly critic" and acknowledges that Tolkien is the Father of Modern Fantasy, but asks also "What was Aragorn’s tax policy?" He says "Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple."

My response: Yes, ruling is hard but it is a heck of a lot easier when you do not have seven and more bickering Houses constantly trying to stab one another in cruel and bloody bids for power. Moreover, as you should know from the Darkening of Valinor and War of the Jewels from The Silmarillion, the land had many good kings, Elvenkings at that, and did not prosper. Indeed, The War of the Jewels was no less tragic, no less filled with fire and blood, than your War of Five Kings. Just ask Lady Galadriel to tell you her family history, the history of the House of Finwë, and you will hear a tale of bloodshed and treachery to match or exceed that of House Stark. You are correct that real history is not that simple, and Tolkien knew it. (Look up the history of Gondor and the Lost Kingdom of Arnor – both of which only came about due to the Downfall of Númenor if you need more evidence). You say, "In some sense, when I started this saga I was replying to Tolkien." I say that if A Song of Ice and Fire is your reply then, clearly, while you revere Tolkien you obviously got the wrong message. You say, "I wanted to combine the wonder and image of Tolkien fantasy with the gloom of historical fiction." I say: Who ever said that historical fiction is gloomy? Maybe the ones you prefer are, but do not lay such a shadow over the genre as a whole. 
The simple fact, sir, is that you made your universe perverse and gloomy; no one else. Like the Valyrians, you built your world on blood and fire, and thus your story continues to reap that dark legacy. Other authors of most genres, as well as people in general, prefer to sow different seeds.

"The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater." - J.R.R. Tolkien

The illustrator Ted Nasmith once described the wonder and power of Fantasy in but a single sentence: "It opened up in me a dormant love of lost and misty times, myth and legend." 
Naturally, in regards to specifics, the quote refers to when his sister introduced him to The Lord of the Rings.

Minas Tirith at Dawn
To say that Ted Nasmith is a stellar artist is a cosmic understatement, and indeed his justified fame comes from his illustrations of J. R. R. Tolkien's works – The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. As such, I find it bitterly ironic that, after Middle-Earth, the next Fantasy author whose world Nasmith has brought to life should be that George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (i.e. the wretched realm of Westeros and the lands across the narrow sea).

Casterly Rock
I have said, and will again, that I have infinite respect for GRRM’s skill as a storyteller and worldbuilder. Still, it is hard for me to see the artist that so splendidly brought Minas Tirith to life perform the same courtesy to Casterly Rock; to see the topless towers of Old Valyria rendered as skillfully as the shores of Valinor.

Then again, I suppose Nasmith has covered his bases, doing Tolkien and Anti-Tolkien and all. Talking of which, the difference between Valinor and Valyria further exemplifies the difference between the two authors, Tolkien and GRRM, and why I hold the the latter to be a traitor to the High Fantasy. To quote GRRM and then his character Tyrion Lannister (the latter regarding the Doom of Valyria):

"At its apex Valyria was the greatest city in the known world, the center of civilization. Within its shining walls, twoscore rival houses vied for power and glory in court and council, rising and falling in an endless, subtle, oftsavage struggle for dominance."

"An empire built on blood and fire. The Valyrians reaped the seed they had sown."
The Towers of Valyria (originally Old Valyria)

Fire and blood...and slavery for, as I recall, the Valyrian dragonlords were extensive, brutal, and shameless slavers. Thousands captured during wars, thousands bred like cattle during peace, and tens of thousands dying scorching deaths in mines under volcanoes to state the Old Valyria's thirst for gold and silver. To say nothing of the many more brutally slain in the countless and futile slave revolts, nor the fact that these despotic Freeholders oft went to war for no other reason than to acquire slaves for as to keep the these blistering mines full.

So I ask now, why is the empire that committed these unfathomable atrocities viewed judged to be "the greatest city in the known world, the center of civilization"? Telling, is it not, that the majority of GRRM's characters speak of it with grave admiration and respect – as though it was an impossible dream one aspires to.


 White Ships From Valinor
Of course, Valinor is viewed in like fashion by the peoples of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth, the difference being that the realm of the Valar is a place where all find safety and healing, and where war is judged abhorrent by every definition of the word. It the land of the Elves, a realm where bright and beautiful things are made for the joy and wonder of it, and where a select few mortals have peace. Call it not totally idyllic, as the events of the The Silmarillion prove that blood and shadow and jealously do occasionally break through, but even that is not the point.

The point is that Valinor, unlike Valyria, is truly a place worthy of admiration and aspiration, and the fact that GRRM employs the Valyrian Freehold as Tolkien does the Uttermost West proves yet again that their is naught but blood at the heart of A Song of Ice and Fire. Furthermore, the use of such old civilizations is not uncommon in the Fantasy genre, yet Old Valyra is unique in its cruelty.
Hence, understanding all of this, I think Ted Nasmith captured those rather marked differences quite well in his portrayal of the two lands.

"Wickedness often wears fancy clothes, dines on rich food, has money, controls armies, rules nations...but it never seems to know joy. Peace, laughter, trust, ease: these things flee from wickedness like sparrows from the shadow of a hawk." - Sonya Hartnett

I name A Song of Ice and Fire Corrupted Fantasy because nothing of the sort has ever been done before; at least not in a High Fantasy setting. But if GRRM has pioneered a new kind of Fantasy then it is a kind which I will fight tooth and nail against. Indeed, I recently learned that this new style actually has a given name Grimdark Fantasy – and that A Song of Ice and Fire is considered to be its founding book series (insofar as it put Grimdark on the map proper), much as The Lord of the Rings began the High Fantasy.
British academic, critic and novelist Adam Roberts describes Grimdark as a sub-genre "where nobody is honourable and Might is Right," and as "the standard way of referring to fantasies that turn their backs on the more uplifting, visions of idealized medievaliana, and instead stress how nasty, brutish, short and dark life back then 'really' was." He critically notes, however, that grimdark has little to do with re-imagining an actual historic reality and more with conveying the sense that our own world is a "cynical, disillusioned, ultra-violent place," an opinion with which I wholeheartedly agree. After all, Maester Aemon one of the wisest, gentlest, and most beloved of GRRM's characters – once said to Jon Snow: "love is the bane of honor, the death of duty."
Not so wise after all, I guess, as any moral and sane person would passionately state otherwise.

In addition, Tor Fantasy reviewer Liz Bourke characterizes Grimdark, and A Song of Ice and Fire by direct extension, as "a retreat into the valorization of darkness for darkness's sake, into a kind of nihilism that portrays right action (...) as either impossible or futile". This, according to her, has the effect of absolving the protagonists as well as the reader from moral responsibility. Finally, British journalist Damien Walter wrote in The Guardian his own view of GRRM’s Grimdark brand of Fantasy: "bigger swords, more fighting, bloodier blood, more fighting, axes, more fighting," and, he surmised, a "commercial imperative to win adolescent male readers." He sees this trend as being in opposition to "a truly epic and more emotionally nuanced kind of fantasy" that delivered storytelling instead of only blood and porn. In this I also utterly agree, for Fantasy literature is not supposed to revolve around the concept of constantly dodging death. Granted that, in Grimdark books, the possibility of character deaths in far greater and thus the suspense is higher. Mark Lawrence, author of the The Broken Empire Trilogy, attributes his own inspiration from George R. R. Martin. “I was impressed by how ruthless he was with characters we were invested in and how exciting that made reading the series,” Lawrence states. “Because you never felt safe and never knew for sure that things would work out in the end. It felt real and powerful.”
Yet Fantasy – true High Fantasy  is not and has never been about raw survival; it is not the Hunger Games. It is about the journey, about learning things, about attaining a certain level of maturity/understanding about the world and one's place within it; along, of course, with what is truly worth fighting for. Grimdark, however, given its gritty nature, seems to put survival above else and forgives characters usage of frank brutality and heartlessness to achieve it. Well, if this is the new moral standard then all advocates of the Grimdark should carefully weigh the pros and cons of using the One Ring to overthrow Sauron. After all, Gandalf himself said that only through its usage could the forces of good guarantee the downfall of the Lord of the Rings. And that gritty, heartless and self-centered moral standard is one that no book should even indirectly espouse, for it is better to die in battle against heartless brutality than become a tyrant in turn.

"That's the hardest thing of allnever to become cynical, never to lose faith, never to become indifferent." - Sergei Lukyanenko

Now, however, it is only fair that I let George R.R. Martin speak. But before I do, please recall the words of House Stark: Winter is coming.


He sounds wise here, but really there is a appreciable level of hypocrisy. The Others are beyond question an I-am-going-to-cover-the-world-with-darkness kind of evil race, and in a very literal fashion if the Long Night and their necromancy is any indication.
The cold winds are rising, and men go out from their fires
and never come back ...
or if they do, they're not men no more,
but only wights, with blue eyes and cold black hands.
Furthermore, and again, his books espouse the philosophy that one must needs be a hardhearted killer to survive per the fact that most everybody who does otherwise is either dead or in exile. And let us again recall that this is the man who wrote "love is the bane of honor, the death of duty." Anyway, and returning to the current point, GRRM can talk about not liking fell and inhuman races covering the the world in shadow, but in fact he did a better job of it than most fantasy authors creating chill horrors of ice and darkness that make Tolkien's orcs seem tame by comparison.

Demons made of snow and ice and cold.
The ancient enemy. The only enemy that matters.
"The night is dark and full of terrors" as I recall, and I definitely did not imagine the Night's Watch nor the various undead wights that Jon Snow and the rest of them are forced to deal with both at and Beyond the Wall. GRRM may claim his world to be something governed by the whims and social complexities of humanity, but throughout his entire work, from the prologue of book #1 and through all the black intrigue of the rest, he slowly but inextricably builds up the threat of winter and the Others. A trend confirmed not only by the trials of Jon Snow, but also by those of Bran Stark. Lord Commander Jeor Mormont once Samwell Tarly, "The Night's Watch has forgotten its true purpose, Tarly. You don't build a wall seven hundred feet high to keep savages in skins from stealing women. The Wall was made to guard the realms of men ... and not against other men, which is all the wildlings are when you come right down to it. Too many years, Tarly, too many hundreds and thousands of years. We lost sight of the true enemy." Per the above video, it seems to me that GRRM may have forgotten as well, which strikes me as passing odd seeing as they are his most notable and unique creations. Why, he is even utilizing the classic ancient-prophecy-which-foretells-the-coming-of-a-hero-to-deliver the-world-from-darkness trick in the form of the legend/prophecy of Azor Ahai, the prince that was promised: "When the red star bleeds and the darkness gathers, Azor Ahai shall be born again amidst smoke and salt to wake dragons out of stone." A hero who is supposedly destined to fight and forever drive back the Others and the night they bring using the blade unimaginatively named Lightbringer, the Red Sword of Heroes. The issue of course being that his ingenious usage of this old trick coupled with the even older Flaming Sword archetype is marginalized by his ruthless High Lords playing their game of thrones.

I will not lie. When I first began George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire I was utterly hooked. How could I not be? The Prologue beyond the Wall, in the dark and cold of Haunted Forest alongside the members of the Night's Watch, was like nothing I had ever read before. Indeed, I believe that GRRM's great mistake was not putting the Others – the power of ice and cold and night – to proper and epic use; having his series revolve around the words of House Targaryen, Fire and Blood, as opposed to House Stark, Winter is coming. The power of the North, and such terms as King of the North, were and are not uncommon in Fantasy, but GRRM took it to the next and many levels higher. Recall the oath of the Night's Watch:"Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all the nights to come."
In short, if he had stuck with the Others as his tale's principle foe a opposed to the Lannisters then, instead of birthing the Grimdark which amounts to a blood and porn with a nihilism overlay approach to Tolkien-style epic Fantasy GRRM could created one of the finest ever of the High Fantasies just as J.K. Rowling was writing Harry Potter.

So as one can see, I have infinite respect for George R.R. Martin’s skill as a storyteller and worldbuilder; he is truly among the best, comparable to that of J.K. Rowling and even Tolkien himself. Yet his story and his world is a First Class betrayal of the moral high-minded optimistic realism that is the true Spirit of the High Fantasy and of J.R.R. Tolkien who fought in the trenches of World War I  its founder. After all, and again, those characters who do best in Westeros and the lands across the Narrow Sea, those who truly thrive, are employers of a sickening combination of murder, betrayal and often rape all overlaid with a fine golden gilt of heartless cunning. Hence my name for it: Corrupted Fantasy. I was once one of GRRM's most avid fans, but I, of course, saw the error of my ways. Philip Pullman, the author of the His Dark Material trilogy, described C.S. Lewis' work as an anti-inspiration to him, disgusted with the heavy Christian moralizing in the Chronicles of Narnia; a sentiment I understand and agree with. So is George R.R. Martin's work an anti-inspiration to me, and I am the Enemy of the Grimdark (much as Gandalf was the Enemy of Sauron), for I am disgusted by the cold-blooded lack of moral codes its seems to espouse. Does this sound overly dramatic? Well, if so, it is because reading A Song of Ice and Fire became a next of kin to a traumatic experience for me. I loved it, yet it drove me crazy with grief more often than even causing a joyful smile.

Winter is over for me and it ended when I left Westeros. But the words valar morghulis will forever pursue those who remain, for only winter and the bite of Valyrian steel is certain there. Such is the Doom of GRRM: Fire and Blood (and it rules A Song of Ice and Fire just as surely as the Doom still rules in Valyria).



"At its best, fantasy rewards the reader with a sense of wonder about what lies within the heart of the commonplace world. The greatest tales are told over and over, in many ways, through centuries. Fantasy changes with the changing times, and yet it is still the oldest kind of tale in the world, for it began once upon a time, and we haven't heard the end of it yet."
- Patricia A. McKillip


"There's no such thing as 'one, true way'; the only answers worth having are the ones you find for yourself; leave the world better than you found it. Love, freedom, and the chance to do some good they're the things worth living and dying for, and if you aren't willing to die for the things worth living for, you might as well turn in your membership in the human race."
- Mercedes Lackey


"Fairy tale does not deny the existence of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance. It denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat...giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy; Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief."
- J.R.R. Tolkien


"Killing the strong to prove your strength is foolish weakness. Killing fools is easy weakness. Killing the weak is evil weakness. Accomplished your ends without killing, mastering your mind when you want to kill - that is strength!"
- Victoria Hanley


"Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!"
- J.R.R. Tolkien


"They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to Middle Earth."
- George R.R. Martin
 

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