"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, and with the greatest, gravest, respect to his skill as a writer and storyteller, 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 calling GRRM the American Tolkien less because he 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 story-wise as anybody who has read The Silmarillion, The Book of Unfinished Tales, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings knows that J.R.R. Tolkien is incalculably superior.
I cannot see how GRRM ensnared me as he did for so long. 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 Professor Tolkien's 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, and am not alone in doing so. To quote the famed historian Howard Zinn, "To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness...What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction...And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand Utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory." A quote which leaves that claim of being more realistic in the dust, for if any class of people can define what is realistic and what is not it is historians.
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. Nor am I saying that grittiness has no place in Fantasy. Mercedes Lackey, author of the Valdemar books, makes a brutal and often graphic point of showing the extremely gritty elements of the world, the key being that she counterbalances them with characters of the highest ideals; characters who ultimately, if not unscarred, prevail (read the entry on Tarma and Kethry on my Females in Fantasy page for more details). GRRM, however, 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.
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 Professor 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, guilty of the Treason of the Intellectuals and Isengard. Yet 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."
|The Kinslaying at Alqualondë|
"Tears unnumbered ye shall shed; and the Valar will fence Valinor against you, and shut you out, so that not even the echo of your lamentation shall pass over the mountains. On the House of Fëanor the wrath of the Valar lieth from the West unto the uttermost East, and upon all that will follow them it shall be laid also. Their Oath shall drive them, and yet betray them, and ever snatch away the very treasures that they have sworn to pursue. To evil end shall all things turn that they begin well; and by treason of kin unto kin, and the fear of treason, shall this come to pass. The Dispossessed shall they be for ever. ..." - The Doom of Mandos (also called the Doom of the Noldor, the Curse of Mandos, and the Prophecy of the North)
|Hill of Slain|
Hence, GRRM, you are correct that real history is not so simple as good vs. evil, and Professor Tolkien knew it; indeed, he was a World War I combat veteran, fighting in the Battle of the Somme. (Look up the Tale of the Children of Hurin if you need more evidence. Look up the history of Gondor and the Lost Kingdom of Arnor – both of which only came about due to the Downfall of Númenor.). 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. Quite frankly, Westeros and lands across the Narrow Sea appears to be a land based off of Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince (a 16th-century political treatise), which states that it is better, safer, for a leader to be feared as opposed to loved. Prince Joffrey seemed to approve of the notion, as does his mother, and Lord Tywin Lannister all but embodies a Machiavellian approach to kingship, Tywin who is more respected than loved in the westerlands. As Ned Stark once famously said, "I would sooner entrust a child to a pit viper than to Lord Tywin."
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 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|
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):
|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|
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.
|Prince Rhaegar Targaryen|
|Lyanna died in a room |
that smelled of "blood and roses"
Recall how GRRM believes that Tolkien should have killed Gandalf permanently because he had such a great death scene in Moria and because the characters should have been made to go on without him? Well, that dependence on Mithrandir was exactly why Professor Tolkien had him fall in Moria and constantly otherwise vanish on some errand or another. In The Hobbit, Gandalf disappears before a certain scene with three hungry trolls and then left Bilbo and Dwarves as they entered Mirkwood to appear again just before the Battle of Five Armies. Then, in The Lord of the Rings, he fails to meet Frodo as he sets out and is thus gone for the better portion of book one (until Rivendell), falls in Moria and does not reappear until Fangorn, and leaves again until after the battle of Battle of Helm's Deep. Being Gandalf he is always doing something of critical import that is usually revealed later, but the point is that the characters are constantly forced to go on without him. Indeed, Frodo and Sam believe him to be dead from Moria to after the Ring is destroyed. The lesson? That Tolkien found an ingenious way to counteract any over-dependence on Gandalf without having to kill him. George R. R. Martin, on the other hand, seems to rely on murder to remove such characters; goodness knows any and all Gandalf-figures in A Song of Ice and Fire are cold and buried or cold in anOther sort of way. Indeed, I have little doubt that GRRM would have found it more fitting if the wizard had come back as Gandalf the Wight.
Speaking of characters and returning proper the topic of the Gimdark, 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.
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.
|Demons made of snow and ice and cold. |
The ancient enemy. The only enemy that matters.
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
It appears that GRRM heavily based his Doom of Valyria and related events upon J.R.R. Tolkien's Downfall of Númenor.
|The Downfall of Numenor|
|The Doom of Valyria|
strongest and proudest of civilizations, ruling a vast overseas empire from their peninsula home, they themselves having distinct physical features that set them apart from other humans (purple eyes and silver-gold hair). Exactly how and why they fell remains a mystery, but before the Doom occurred, the daughter of Lord Aenar Targaryen had visions of a cataclysm that would overcome Valyria. A foresight which came true as the Valyrian Peninsula was flooded and shattered beyond repair. Thus he fled to Westeros, where his descendant Aegon the Conqueror would unite the land under the Iron Throne.
It appears that I have uncovered another leaf that GRRM took from Tolkien's book, a very subtle leaf that only one learned in the lore of Arda (Tolkien's fantasy universe) would spot amongst GRRM's thorns. And spotting, that it clarity of sight, is the exact nature of this discovery, for their is an unmistakable kinship between the Palantír of The Lord of the Rings and the Glass Candles of A Song of Ice and Fire.
The Palantír were made by the Elves of Valinor in the Undying Lands, the acknowledge apex of civilization in Arda. Called the Seven Seeing Stones, they resembled large dark glass spheres with murky depths (but are in truth indestructible dark crystals) and with them those with the skill and will can gaze upon many things across the face of the world. Gaze and communicate with those looking into other, different, Palantír despite the Seeing Stones being scattered across the vast realms of Gondor and Arnor. These magical artifacts burn with a strange inner fire when used and were rescued from the Downfall of Númenor by Lord Elendil and his sons and taken to Middle-Earth where they were set up in various towers across the Realms in Exile.
As to the Glass Candles, they were made in Old Valyria, the acknowledge apex of civilization in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. Like the Palantír
they are dark, though of twisted and razor-sharp obsidian as opposed to
smooth crystal, and it t is claimed that when the glass candles burn
the sorcerers can see across mountains, seas and deserts, give humans
visions and dreams and the ability to communicate with one another half a
world apart. Sound familiar? Well, if not, then I should also say that
these Glass Candles were rescued from the Doom of Valyria and give off
twisted light when they burn. In GRRM's universe their most noted home
is the Citadel, the great tower home and HQ of the Maesters.
Again this is a subtle point, but an unmistakable one, and illustrates well enough that George R.R. Martin may have borrowed more from J.R.R. Tolkien than is commonly believed. (Another example being the giant spiders ridden by the Others. Not that that bit of borrowing was unique to GRRM though. Indeed, as we have yet to see one, I will call him circumspect in that instance; particularly when compared to, say, J.K. Rowling. Aragog has nothing on Shelob in my mind, much less the primordial Ungoliant.)
Now I have mentioned the Azor Ahai prophecies and GRRM's use of winter. But what if I told you that these are not as original, as unique, as they seem? Are you familiar with the name Aemon al Caar al Thorin? No, he is not a member of an offshoot branch of House Targaryen, nor of Valyrian descent at all. And speaking of the Dragonkings Targaryen, Mad King Aerys was far from the first Dragon to go insane and destroy his family through it. What do I mean by all this? That, to avoid redundancy on this blog, you should either read my The Dragon's Madness post or my Rumors of the Wheel page (preferably the latter), for both prove beyond all question that George R. R. Martin drew heavily from the work of the true American Tolkien, from Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time. (The Rumors of the Wheel page also explains, among much else, why I name Jordan the American Tolkien.)