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The Two Tolkiens

Epic fantasy is back.  Peter Jackson brought out an unprecedented work of filmmaking with the Lord of the Rings films.  HBO is rolling out Game of Thrones based on the books of George RR Martin, the man dubbed “the American Tolkien” by Time magazine.  The publishing industry is generating a huge number of similar titles by people like Pat Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie, Brandon Sanderson, and – putting too fine a point on it – me, many of which are showing up on the bestseller’s lists.

The faux-Medieval world of dragons and knights seems like an odd genre to have caught our collective attention, but I think you can gauge a cultural moment by its guilty pleasures.  The same way that our huge romance industry tells us something about our fears about love, and urban fantasies like True Blood and Anita Blake tell us something about our discomfort with femininity and power, the knights and orcs that got us laughed at in middle school are attracting literally billions of dollars.  That means something interesting has happened.

We as a culture are anxious about something, and these particular stories comfort us.  They say something that we, the audience are willing to pay a lot of money to hear but from a distance that we can stand to hear it.

In particular, our two Tolkiens are telling us that we’re tired of war.

1st edition cover for The Fellowship of the Ring

The Lord of the Rings was written during the Second World War by a veteran of the first, and it is a story about disarming.  The moral core that gives the books their power is that the tool that would end the war is in the hands of the protagonists from the beginning, but its use would corrupt them.  Evil is at hand, and it is powerful.  It will achieve your short-term goals, but at the cost of your soul.  And in the end, almost everyone who touches that power is scarred by it.  The books are absolutely, unquestionably about war – and even about just war – but they are melancholy.  Tolkien’s vision isn’t triumphalist.  It isn’t celebratory.  And it spoke to us.

A Game of Thrones, the first book in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, wasn’t by any means the first high fantasy to follow Tolkien.  There were generations of book between them by people like Terry Brooks and Stephen R. Donaldson and Raymond Feist.  When it was published, it was greeted with only mild fanfare, and since then it has grown into an industry of its own.  That’s important.  What set Game of Thrones apart wasn’t the brilliant and subtle marketing campaigns around it.  There weren’t any, and what there was didn’t differ much from the support given to a dozen other books.  The drive behind its popularity was the response that readers have to it.

If Lord of the Rings is melancholy, Game of Thrones is bleak.

US Hardcover (2002 Bantam Reissue)

In the world Martin gives us, a terrible threat is growing, ripe with the promise of destroying civilization, and the vast majority of the action isn’t addressing it.  Instead, the struggle and violence – including the slaughters of characters that in most other stories would be sacrosanct – is among the people vying for power in the shadow of apocalypse.  It’s based on the War of the Roses, but the politics and perversity and tragic short-sightedness of the characters recall the worst of any war.  Violence and conflict impinge on almost every page, and they are not made pretty, and readers (and soon, I suspect, viewers) respond to it like Martin is saying something we already knew but hadn’t put in words.  There are dragons and tourneys and knights riding into battle and castles built on mountain cliffs so high they can barely be reached.  It has all the set dressing of a fairy tale, and a moral center that speaks to weariness.

Because epic fantasy isn’t really back.

There are literally hundreds of fantasy novels that are part of this larger conversation.  Not all of them involve war.  Quite a few of them are adventure stories that celebrate violence, or more often treat it as something unreal and without cost.  These aren’t the projects that are reaching outside the usual genre readers to talk to the wider audience.  If there were a market for the celebration of warfare, we’d have any number of options inside epic fantasy.  That isn’t what people are responding to.  We have no appetite for Conan bathing in the blood of his enemies.

When Eddard Stark tells his son that it is the responsibility of a nobleman to face the man he has condemned and swing the sword himself, he’s evoking a leadership of profound personal responsibility that has not existed in my lifetime.  When Sam Gamgee returns to the Shire to find it changed and debased in his absence, he’s echoing the veterans coming back to their homes and families and finding that they no longer fit the way they once did.  And, I have to think, Tolkien’s own experience.

Epic fantasy, with few exceptions, is about war.  And the best epic fantasy offers more than escapism, more than comfort food.  The best is consoling.  The stories of kings restored or fallen, of evil defeated or triumphant, are a place that all of us can sit with our discomfort and our weariness and our wish better world.  Whether we think Iraq was a fiasco or an honest mistake, whether we’ve lost family in Afghanistan or don’t know a single serviceman or woman, the United States remains in the longest war in our history.  Its effect on us as a culture is coming out in our dreams and in the stories we go to for entertainment and escape.

And when I go to the Westeros forums, epicenter of epic fantasy fandom, the book I see most universally praised isn’t Terry Goodkind or Brandon Sanderson.  It’s not one of the classics like Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series or Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.

It’s a book by Karl Marlantes.  Matterhorn:  A Novel of the Vietnam War.

about the author

Daniel Abraham

  1. Paul

    April 7, 2011
    at 11:40 am

    Food for thought. I need to think about this thesis.

  2. kameron hurley

    April 7, 2011
    at 12:32 pm

    Epic fantasy tends far more toward the justifucation of war and soothing our need for it- It says that war is Ok when you are up against a great evil. The Jordan/Sanderson books make this even more clearcut. Martin does well creating a story that ultimately has no bad guys (as does Abercrombie), but that says more, to me, about our collective realization that we may not always be the good guys, and the need to figure out how to live with and justify that.

    These books don’t say “I’m tired of war.” They tend to speak far more to people’s need to hear that though war is horrible, it is necessary.

  3. kameron hurley

    April 7, 2011
    at 12:35 pm

    For the record, I don’t at all believe any of these damn wars were neccessary or justified, but I understand why those who tacitly or implicitly support the wars or who must deal with the human cost have a need for that kind of message.

  4. neth

    April 7, 2011
    at 12:46 pm

    This is a very well written article about the core of epic fantasy. And I can see how these ideas have shaped your vision in The Dragon’s Path.

  5. Paul Jessup

    April 7, 2011
    at 2:48 pm

    I don’t know — what about the pre-80’s epic fantasies that didn’t involve OMG LARGE SCALE WARS? Like Forgotten Beasts of Eld, Riddlemaster, Earthsea books, etc, etc.

    I guess in a way, it’s kind of sad. New Wave took the war out of SciFic, but New Weird kept the war in when it was remaking Epic Fantasy.

    Why not strip away the wars?

  6. Helen Lowe

    April 7, 2011
    at 5:14 pm

    Daniel, I agree that Tolkien’s vision in “The Lord of the Rings” (LoTR) is melancholic and I am sure that in part it was affected by his personal experience of WW1—but LoTR is also deeply imbued (imho) by Tolkien’s immersion in Norse mythology, which is, like LoTR, melancholy and shot through with darkness and regret. Another major vein of melancholic regret in LoTR is the loss of countryside and related values through urbanisation/industrialisation, which Tolkien saw greatly accelerated during his lifetime. And Tolkien himself, I believe, said that the story (besides just being a story) was really about death. And themes of death and loss bring us back again to those Norse mythologies …

    I am also not entirely sure I agree with your assertion, having talked of the bleakness and moral weariness inherent in “A Game of Thrones” (AGoT), that epic fantasy is not back … In my view, what you have described with LoTR and AGoT is exactly what epic fantasy is–drawing on its roots in both the Greek and Norse (in western tradition) mythic epics (the same ones that initially hooked me into reading fantasy.) In those stories, it is the internal conflict within the protagonists—-their struggle between the pressures of self-interest, the socio-political forces in their societies and the codes they hold to be true and right—-that drive the power, drama and tragedy of the narrative.

    The same forces, I believe, are at play in both LoTR and AGoT and that, I can’t help feeling, is what is really speaking to us out of both books, rather than a–perhaps–more simplistic weariness of war (which I am not at all sure that we are weary of.) We live in a world where any values of “right” and “true” that we are hold as individuals are constantly under pressure, being eroded even, by self-interest and self-preservation and by societal forces driving to achieve particular outcomes in terms of (for example) resource use / allocation and to enforce belief systems. I imagine that most of us try to have “bottom lines” and boundaries that we don’t cross—-but we live in a world where boundaries are often blurred and the pressure to push the margins further out, and then just a little further again, is a constant.

    This is exactly the pressure that we see played out, time and again, in “A Game of Thrones”, and which the characters, through the metaphor of the ring, struggle to resist in “The Lord of the Rings.”

    And thank you, by the way, for such a thought-provoking post, which set me to both reflecting and commenting so early in the (NZ) day.:)

  7. mike davis

    April 7, 2011
    at 9:25 pm

    Like any sane human being i have become sick of war. It is time for us to tell our leaders that enough is enough. I do not know what this has to do with A game of thrones and the Tolkien books. I enjoy both of these stories but the Martin stories are infinitely bleaker. There seems to be no end to the bloodshed in the Martin books. Which seems to parallel our times. Maybe a hidden benefit of the government shutdown will be a revolt of our Military because of the pay issues. One can only Hope

  8. Wilf Jones

    April 8, 2011
    at 5:24 am

    War puts humanity in stark relief. Real humanity in all it’s variation. In epic fantasy war gives us the opportunity to explore what is truly bad and what is truly good in mankind. Though the adventures described, the monsters and the villains are undeniably entertaining, good epic fantasy is not a matter of merely revelling in the mayhem. The best fantasies offer the opportunity of redemption, rescue, victory. In the face of foul and appaling deeds by monsters or men they find a way to explain what is amazing about mankind – the altruism, the sacrifice, the common and overriding goodness we all have deep inside. Well most of us anyway.
    The epic fantasy I like challenges the reader. It asks:”What would you do?”
    But it has to be damned exciting too.

  9. Will

    April 8, 2011
    at 6:52 am

    Thanks for this great piece about my 2 favorite fantasy epics. It explains well why LOTR captured my imagination when I was young but it’s TSOI&F that holds my attention now.
    Sci-fi cinema & TV is stuck on portraying war as apocalyptic battles between good & evil. (Even the Galactica remake started with an apocalypse) I’m hoping that TGOT mini-series (and, hopefully, adaptations of the rest of TSOI&F) will provide badly needed balance. WW2, the last apocalyptic war for Americans, ended over 65 years ago.

  10. Daniel Abraham

    Daniel Abraham

    April 8, 2011
    at 2:57 pm

    Kameron: I think there’s a difference between offering comfort by solving a problem (“War is justified”) and offing comfort by acknowledging (even tacitly) that the discomfort exists. (Oh, and congratulations on God’s War.)

    Helen: Now you’ve got me wondering whether the Norse mythologies weren’t serving a similar function to modern genre fictions, at least in the sense of being expressions of where the audiences (and participants) reached for comfort.

    Will: I think there’s a lot about the idea of an apocalyptic war between good and evil that is very comforting. Not the least of which is that the apocalypse is also the end of war. I was listening to the radio this morning, and the program was talking about whether or not the American Civil War ever really ended. I look at the “blue” and “red” states, and I’m afraid there really is a case that it hasn’t.

  11. Scobin

    April 10, 2011
    at 9:15 am


    “[…] the slaughters of characters that in most other stories would be sacrosanct”

    I’ll argue fiercely that the only really important character who dies in the saga is the executed one. As far as I remember, no other recurring POV characters die in the first four novels.

  12. Scobin

    April 10, 2011
    at 9:19 am

    PS. “[…] no other recurring POV characters die” – well, at least not permanently. ;-)

  13. Al Harron

    April 13, 2011
    at 7:07 pm

    “Quite a few of them are adventure stories that celebrate violence, or more often treat it as something unreal and without cost. These aren’t the projects that are reaching outside the usual genre readers to talk to the wider audience. If there were a market for the celebration of warfare, we’d have any number of options inside epic fantasy. That isn’t what people are responding to. We have no appetite for Conan bathing in the blood of his enemies.”

    Perhaps that’s true of the stories by other authors, but the original stories by Howard don’t celebrate violence, so much as renders it as an unavoidable facet of the human condition. It is a cause for sombre reflection, as much as the carnal thrill of fear, energy and exertion could be considered glorification. Conan loves the thrill of battle because it is life at its closest to being lost: it’s the same sort of thing that attracts extreme sports enthusiasts, danger-seekers, and criminals. But at no point does Howard give any impression that war and battle in the Hyborian Age is as loveless, petty, relentless, hollow and miserable as it is in real life, regardless of the fleeting joy the Cimmerian experiences in the moment.

    Nor can one consider the violence in Conan as lacking verisimilitude, or lacking cost. Conan’s scars sting, bleed and ache following every battle; his dead allies are mourned and their loss is palpable. There are plenty of stories where Conan barely gets out alive, and is dripping with blood from a multitude of fresh wounds. Not all the characters survive the story, be they friend or foe, be they deserving or undeserving of death.

    One need not look further than “The Hour of the Dragon” to see the relevance of the Conan stories to the cynical approach to war:

    “Men said the gods were satisfied because the evil king and his spawn were slain, and when his young brother Tarascus was crowned in the great coronation hall, the populace cheered until the towers rocked, acclaiming the monarch on whom the gods smiled.
    Such a wave of enthusiasm and rejoicing as swept the land is frequently the signal for a war of conquest. So no one was surprized when it was announced that King Tarascus had declared the truce made by the late king with their western neighbors void, and was gathering his hosts to invade Aquilonia. His reason was candid; his motives, loudly proclaimed, gilded his actions with something of the glamor of a crusade. He espoused the cause of Valerius, “rightful heir to the throne”; he came, he proclaimed, not as an enemy of Aquilonia, but as a friend, to free the people from the tyranny of a usurper and a foreigner.
    If there were cynical smiles in certain quarters, and whispers concerning the king’s good friend Amalric, whose vast personal wealth seemed to be flowing into the rather depleted royal treasury, they were unheeded in the general wave of fervor and zeal of Tarascus’s popularity. If any shrewd individuals suspected that Amalric was the real ruler of Nemedia, behind the scenes, they were careful not to voice such heresy. And the war went forward with enthusiasm.”
    – “The Hour of the Dragon”

    Not unlike a certain other war in recent memory that people are increasingly cynical towards…

  14. Will

    April 14, 2011
    at 1:17 pm

    I appreciate that epic fantasy is usually, if not overwhelmingly, an escape from reality rather than social commentary. I still find the notion that the solution to the existence of war is a really big war both an inherent contradiction & contrary to history.
    An appendix to LOTR – I forget which – describes Middle Earth as continuing to experience war, only presumably never again on an epic scale, pun intended. That can be interpreted in a number of ways, but it makes sense when LOTR & Silmarillion are viewed as the products of an original aim to create a mythology for the British people.

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