Martin versus Tolkien- The Power of Religious Imagery in Story

 

“Tolkien made the wrong choice when he brought Gandalf back. Screw Gandalf. He had a great death and the characters should have had to go on without him.”    – George R. R. Martin.

        

In Tolkien’s account of the War of the Ring, Gandalf was sent back to Middle Earth by the Valar, or Gods of Arda, to complete his task,

and was given a bevvy of super-cool new powers and a new outfit to do it with to boot. Certainly the dark events during the war would

have been far more grim had not Gandalf the White been present- and certainly more of our beloved characters would have died.

 

This counterpoint does more than outline the dichotomy between Martin and Tolkien as authors- it shows us the profound effects the

addition of a pantheon of higher morality can have on a world. Not to say that there are not good and moral characters who worship either the Old Gods or the New in Martin’s world- I would hesitate to get into a geek-fueled discussion on points clearly outlined in the texts. I refer instead to the overarching spirituality that infused Tolkien’s world of Arda from the top down. After all, the mythos begins with the Ainulindalae, which is the account of the making of the gods themselves and is beautifully biblical and homogenous in its symmetry. This mythos of light versus dark echoes down through the interactions of every character, defining their alignment and underwriting their choices. It gives to the Silmarillion (the compilation of Middle Earth’s ancient history and myth) the loftiness of “true myth” as the Financial Times put it. The infusion of higher morality also gives the reader the satisfaction of a truly heroic victory of good over evil as well as the much deserved victory of our beloved characters.

Though spirituality does tint Martin’s world, his work is by all accounts a fable rooted in harsh physical realities. From the seasons that spin so wildly out of control to the undead that have been denied a peaceful return to the earth by gods far less extant than the Valar, Martin’s characters are shackled to their earth by harsh physical realities. How does this affect the reader’s enjoyment of the series? Is it improved for the fraternity of atheistic pragmatism between his world and ours? Is it really more satisfying to the reader to know that “dead is dead”- unless of course the corpse’s hands turn black, in which case our favorite characters from Game of Thrones would really benefit from a lesson or two from Michonne or Daryl from the Walking Dead rather than a rousing speech from Gandalf the White. 

Most of all, when Martin does end his gargantuan tale of the human struggle against the dark from without, will it be as rewardingly heroic and triumphant as Tolkien’s end of the Third Age of Middle Earth? Will it uplift and renew the human spirit to stand tall another day? Will it be a benchmark of anything other than the stoicism of a truly remarkable head count to succeeding generations? And, in the face of recent pop culture phenomena including the incredibly disturbingly bleak zombie programme previously mentioned- will modern audiences prefer the dreadful crescendo of Game of Thrones to the brilliant new day painted by Tolkien?

Discuss.

 

-Tony Stark

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