Visual media has a way of permeating and changing us subliminally, like any of the arts and letters, but on a more extreme level. Visual narratives naturally pair with music and philosophy and help audiences bond with characters that inspire dreams and ideas.
What entertains us changes us and, if we allow it, it shifts and gradually defines our character. As the film director Igmar Bergman said,
Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.
Game of Thrones (2011-) has been on my mind a lot this past week. Not in the way many people would think. Its ideas, themes, and culturally impact really interest me.
I don’t watch serialized television, so I had no idea it existed until two years ago when a college friend told me about it. When I learned about its grotesquely dark story, I told them I wasn’t interested. Recently, however, I realized how popular this show really is. It has high ratings among critics and fans and is the highest-grossing television show of all time.
My interest in studying the show itself came to fully developed after reading a critical comparison between it and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955). Critics heavily criticized how Tolkien, arguably the father of the modern fantasy genre, used “unrealistic themes” and characters in light of George R.R. Martin‘s universe.
The idea of anyone criticizing Tolkien’s work baffled me. But on further inspection, I discovered many other reviewers, even from its first publication, who criticized Tolkien’s Christian-based views as unrealistic and foolish. The vast majority of these criticisms came from professional writers and theorists.
In his speech entitled “The Return of the King” given at Brigham Young University, Larry Y. Wilson observed,
They (professional critics) accused Lewis and Tolkien of hearkening after virtues of a world long past. The disillusioned men and women of the postwar generations were turning to other things—newer gods that promised to save mankind where the Christian and Hebrew gods had seemingly failed.
Martin first published his book Game of Thrones in 1996 as the first book in his ongoing series named A Song of Ice and Fire. He received outstanding critical acclaim, earning him prestigious rewards like the Locust Award, Nebula Award, The World Fantasy Award, and even a Hugo award.
The series itself takes place in a fantasy world where houses of Westeros, the Wall, and the Targaryens compete for power in a medieval-like setting. Sprinkled with magic, steeped in war and violence, it leaves readers, and later viewers, with a seemingly never-ending quest to know who will finally win the mighty power struggle.
With five completed novels and seven seasons on television, Martin has established himself as a prestigious author in the professional world. If I did not know of this series content, I might be curious enough to read or watch it. His books seem like a unique perspective on human behavior and motive as well as politics and history.
On closer inspection, his story is not what it seems. Reviewing Martin’s work without becoming too deeply immersed in its themes, I concluded he wished to create a world rooted in realism. He created gray characters, as flawed as they were intriguing. The outlining theme for each book seemed very clear. Take power and become unconquerable, lest a stronger candidate eliminates you. Martin made it clear that virtue is not akin to power, or ingenuity. Intelligence and wit keep one alive. Alliances or relationships seem ridden with danger and foreboding, and trust even within family seems impossible to find.
I won’t explain in detail his story and its complexities. Honestly, I don’t want to understand it. I have no desire to revel in the nefarious evil human beings are capable of doing. If I did, I would forever wait in vain for a peaceful ending. But I think even if peace does come in his story, the cost will be too high to be counted.
Adam Serwer from The Atlantic stated that Game of Thrones is,
…more a story of politics than one of heroism, a story about humanity wrestling with its baser obsessions than fulfilling its glorious potential.
This story, especially in the T.V. show, horrifies me. To think people casually accept and are entertained by blatant pornography, sexual violence, murder, abuse, and other unmentionable crimes against humanity chills me.
There is incredible danger in being immersed so long in the ugliness of the world. We become disconnected from the violence by a screen or book page, and the horrors we see become commonplace. In the end, we become desensitized to evil and accept it. Moral ambiguity, which is so common now in artistic and political circles, is a fancy way of saying there is no good and evil or right and wrong.
I have no doubt Martin is a brilliant author. He would not have received the acclaim he has if he wasn’t. I also don’t doubt the show is brilliant. But I have to wonder if perhaps, in all Martin’s intelligence, his stories lack the lasting quality of Tolkien’s works.
In Martin’s world, there lacks the hope and love which permeates Tolkien’s world. But then again, comparing their stories is foolish because their styles are completely different. Each embraces a different perspective on human nature and history. If anything, Tolkien believed in a brighter future, that there is good in this world. In contrast, Martin decided to focus on how human beings have corrupted and established themselves as rulers in their conquest for power.
Ironically, in reading through various quotes and interviews, I noticed how Martin wished to create the world he believed Tolkien could not. In an interview with Rolling Stones magazine he stated,
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. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?
Martin stated his inspiration for writing his characters came from William Faulkner’s observation, “all of us have the capacity in us for great good and for great evil, for love but also for hate.” As such, he delves deep into every character, no matter how flawed. Those who are virtuous have their weaknesses sharply voiced to discredit any illusion of perfection. Whereas villains have great empathetic moments, sometimes linked to incredible things they suffered.
Martin’s view on characters and people has merit. People are never a simple shade of black or white, at least not at the beginning of their lives. People do have a choice whether to foster their capacity for good or evil. Martin fails to assert man’s duty to choose good over evil through his characters’ examples. In his world, many who don’t succumb to evil die, sometimes brutally. Apparently, fate does not reward the foolish no matter how good they are.
Here is my question. If a man is capable of great love, why does Martin not show it? He well showcases its cruel opposite lust, but where are the fruits of love? They are lost in the sea of capricious greed, power, and hatred he creates.
Martin also does not answer the question as to the purpose of the suffering his characters endure. In one of his novels, Martin stated,
What is honor compared to a woman’s love? What is duty against the feel of a newborn son in your arms . . . or the memory of a brother’s smile? Wind and words. Wind and words. We are only human, and the gods have fashioned us for love. That is our great glory, and our great tragedy.
His statement begs the question, “Why are we designed to love and be loved if it only leads to suffering and death? It is as though humans are destined to fail because of their tragic circumstances. I recently read holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning (1963). He suffered so much loss that he, like many others, became emotionally detached, dutifully surviving as a shadow of himself. But amid his suffering, he discovered something invaluable. He surmised,
For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.
It is hard to believe a man who suffered so much could feel such love. How did he not lose himself? It is even more remarkable to realize he discovered this truth in a setting that could have destroyed any man and caused him to hate. At the beginning of our lives, I believe our ability to love is greater than our ability to hate. We have a choice to foster it. The greatest tragedy in life is not our ability to love but if we squander and destroy this love within ourselves. Love is not our downfall. It is our saving grace.
In the film series for Lord of the Rings, there are two powerful scenes that I love. One is in The Two Towers (2002) when Sam and Frodo face enemy forces outside of Gondor. This moment serves as a witness endurance is more than suffering. In it, Frodo is caught in a moment of despair, faced with the worst part of himself when he nearly succumbs to the ring and almost kills Sam. His conversation with Sam is one of the most inspiring put to film.
Frodo: I can’t do this, Sam.
Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.
Tolkien was well acquainted with war and the despair it brings, having himself fought in World War I. Men and women didn’t understand why they were fighting. There was death, but to what end? There was an enemy, but were they really the enemy? In World War II, people witnessed the bitter fruits of the wanton violence planted during The Great War. World War II stands as a testament humans must fight the evil within themselves and others.
Both these world wars brought out the worst in humanity but also the best. And the darkness does and did, as Sam said, pass as a shadow. This is what is missing in Game of Thrones. Though Faulkner’s observation of the war within the human heart reached Martin intellectually, he chose to let the shadow win. Thankfully, this is not reality.
But what of suffering and death? Is there no end to them? The answer lies in another conversation between Pippin and Gandalf at the seige of Gondor in The Return of the King (2003).
Pippin: I didn’t think it would end this way.
Gandalf: End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path… One that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass… And then you see it.
Pippin: What? Gandalf?… See what?
Gandalf: White shores… and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.
Pippin: [smiling] Well, that isn’t so bad.
Gandalf: [softly] No… No it isn’t.
I said before that I could never feel peace reading or watching Martin’s story. It is because the suffering in his story serves no eternal purpose. Death is cruelly portrayed through a mortal perspective. Good does not seem to prevail because Martin allows evil to rampage in his characters. As an author, he lets his characters spiritually die. And therein lies the madness.
Martin also failed to mention something else Faulkner wrote. Faulkner proclaimed in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949,
I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this.
I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.
The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
Did Martin accomplish this in his writing? No, he did not. Does the television series strive to show this? No, it does not. We cannot trust the characters, and I dare say Martin himself as their creator. In the end, I think all keep watching or reading Game of Thrones because they long for a good ending, one which shows good triumph over evil. But I doubt such a finale will come.
If Tolkien fails to answer a simple question like Aragorn’s take on tax policy, then he triumphs in answering questions essential for our human existence. These questions of the soul include the why of the war his characters fought. Their war was as ancient as memory. It begged the question, “Will we allow the evil around and within us to triumph?” His story remains treasured even today because of its message of love, courage, and peace.
Harry Wilson also stated,
And yet what has made it the most popular book in the twentieth century, second only to the Bible, is not its fantasy but its realism. It is not just about brave hobbits fighting the armies of Mordor but about the universal heroism of all of us—seemingly little people—who must fight against the evil of our own day in whatever way we can, calling on an inner strength we didn’t know we had as we do our part in the great struggle that is always going on between ultimate good and ultimate evil.
What many fail to understand is that Lord of the Rings is the conclusion waited for, for thousands of years. Kings had fallen to ruin, the people of Middle Earth had fought many wars, and peace came but never lasted. Lord of the Rings doesn’t mention the stories of men like Hurin who watched his children destroy themselves or the slow decay of the Númenóreans to pride and war, ancestors of those from Gondor.
Studying Tolkien’s characters, I don’t believe their transparency as evil or virtuous is flawed. In some cases, like Gollum or Lord Denethor, the distinction between these two sides is not so clear. Rather, each of his characters are products of their choices.
Sauron himself was not initially evil. As Elrond from the book states, “Nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II, Chapter 2: ‘The Council of Elrond’) On closer inspection, it is clear Sauron’s fall was rooted in his pride, specifically his love of order and his narcissism. As Humphrey Carpenter stated, “Because of his admiration of Strength he had become a follower of Morgoth and fell with him down into the depths of evil.” ( The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, (1981) )
Other villains from these stories also follow this path. In analyzing the dragon Smaug, I stated in my review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,
Smaug has intrigued me the most since I watched the second movie and read the book. He represents evil, of course, and is possibly the embodiment of the evil that is born from greed. To me though, he shows the true nature of evil. Evil isn’t stupid. It is conniving, intelligent, malicious, and well aware of its nature. That is something that I have come to appreciate in Tolkien’s works. Not only does he show the true nature of evil embodied by creatures who have become consumed and controlled by its power but also that good men can change by willingly choosing to follow it.
Another example is the Nazgul, the nine wraths who followed Sauron. All were once great kings. All incredibly wise and good. But in their greed and pride they fell to their rings, and lost all semblance of their old selves.
What of the “real” world Martin wrote of? I cannot deny that within human history there have been periods of darkness, war, and great evil. From the monstrous Mongol invasions, the inhumane massacres issued by Ivan the Terrible, Hitler‘s holocaust, and Stalin‘s communist enslavement of his people, there is no doubt in my mind there have been horrors the like of which we have never seen.
Medieval times in Europe were likewise unpredictable and dark. But I have one question. Has man not risen above each of these dark times? In the end, light always conquers darkness no matter how dense it is. As Dark Lord Snoke from Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) surmised “Darkness rises and light to meet it.”
Martin writes of a “realistic” world that has lost its focus on the purpose of the war of life. In all its politics, wars, and “real life problems,” it fails to hearken to the deeper battleground within every human soul, though that was his original objective. It fails because it leads its audience to believe fate always rewards good with punishment.
Game of Thrones has swept off many viewers with its magic, and I am somewhat ashamed there are so many caught in its spell. Honestly, the vast majority of viewers don’t watch it for its brilliant screenplay and story. I remember a teacher once remarked how the line between pornography and character development is very narrow. He stated the defining difference is if those scenes serve a “purpose” to a concrete story.
There really is no difference. Those scenes still arouse the same feelings and are just as addicting. They serve no real purpose except to keep an audience involved longer. These jarring scenes will be what people remember most. In my mind, that is incredibly superficial. And short-lived.
I know Game of Thrones is popular. But it’s messages and despairing outlook on mankind will pass in time and be forgotten. No matter how remarkably written or portrayed on television, it’s value is only as deep as its intentions. Shock value is by nature incredibly fleeting no matter how cleverly portrayed or layered by intelligent thinking.
I commend Martin for being a clever craftsman. But I do not value his books and do not respect the results of his work.
One of my favorite stories is Life of Pi (2001) by Yann Martel. In it, an Indian man recounts his fantastic survival at sea with a dangerous tiger Richard Parker to an aspiring author. Against all odds, he escapes death and experiences things hard to believe. He meets a fellow man at sea, finds a carnivorous island and retains his sanity and virtue despite his challenges.
But when he tells his story, people don’t believe him. They tell him it is too hard to believe. Too fantastic. To the first doubters he says,
I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality.
And he did tell them a story. It was cruel, jarring, and without hope or love. The fantastic miracles of his journey are replaced by cruel facts. Pi doesn’t retain himself and find God in his suffering. He succumbs to hatred and is devoured by the beast inside himself.
But, as told from the movie, after recounting these two stories he asks the author a very simple question and waits for an answer.
Adult Pi Patil: I’ve told you two stories about what happened out on the ocean. Neither explains what caused the sinking of the ship, and no one can prove which story is true and which is not. In both stories, the ship sinks, my family dies, and I suffer.
Adult Pi Patel: So which story do you prefer?
[the writer pauses for a moment]
Writer: The one with the tiger. That’s the better story.
Adult Pi Patel: Thank you. And so it goes with God.
Tolkien once said in regards to writing,
Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world.
Tolkien is by no means a perfect author. There really is no such thing. But there are many times when I have been deeply moved by his stories. I have great respect for him as an author and as a man because he still believed and encouraged us to believe, despite having lived in a time of skepticism and disillusionment, in God and the happy ending which awaits us. His is truly the better, truer story.
I end with one last quote from Tolkien.
Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I have found that it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love.
I pray we as a people seek light more than darkness. We are all fighting and choosing to become something. In the end, it is our decision to abandon hope in mankind and ourselves. May we choose to value stories which give us hope in others and ourselves.