By Matt Kososki

When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground. –Cersei Lannister

Game of Thrones and Lord of the RingsOne of the more recent posts in the Catholic blogosphere somewhere wrote that The Lord of the Rings is best appreciated when read alongside another work, one of considerably darker character, to highlight the sacramental worldview of Tolkien’s mythology. At least one person has recommended that this companion book be something like Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, something completely antithetical to Tolkien’s Roman Catholicism. However I think that ideally such a contrasting book should also be part of the high fantasy genre, though not necessarily a book that apes The Lord of the Rings mythology. Fortunately, we need not wait for such an ideal story, since most of it has already been published; I speak of George R. R. Martin’s epic masterpiece, A Song of Ice and Fire, better known by the much less unwieldy title used for the HBO adaptation, Game of Thrones.

I had first heard of these books several years ago, recommended to me by a friend, long before it became one of the most popular and critically acclaimed televisions shows on HBO. Since I am not an HBO subscriber, I only had the free previews and fragmentary YouTube clips to watch the series. Finally, I decided to travel to the library and borrow the books (Great beastly things they were, some passing the thousand-page mark and including a list of characters FIFTY pages long). I found the books fascinating and incredibly well-written, getting through each of the individual books in a week on average.

With the publicity surrounding the HBO series, other folks have started reading the books as well. These are generally people who do not read fantasy as their main genre of literature, so comparisons inevitable are drawn with J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and it’s not hard to see why. Both are huge, sprawling epics taking place in a constructed world, in vaguely medieval settings like Minas Tirith and King’s Landing, with fantastical creatures like Orcs and White Walkers, and magic. Lord of the Rings, being an older work, already has numerous derivatives, sometimes not that much different in appearance. A Song of Ice and Fire fortunately avoids the clichés of the high fantasy genre inspired by Tolkien and is immediately distinguishable from the classic Lord of the Rings.

But what really sets apart the two works are the moral underpinnings of the two constructed universes, which is why I recommend reading A Song of Ice and Fire alongside Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s Catholicism is sneakily interwoven within the pages of Lord of the Rings, winking suggestively at those of us in on the secret. A Song of Ice and Fire, on the other hand, has cynicism and Machiavellian morality front and center. Mercy is not a virtue when one plays the game of thrones (The idea that human beings are nothing more than a means to an end would horrify Tolkien more than any orc-craft). Those who’ve read Lord of the Rings (Or at least seen the Peter Jackson-directed adaptations) will recall Gandalf and Frodo’s discussion about mercy, culminating with Gandalf’s prophecy that “Gollum may yet have some part to play”. Frodo recalls Gandalf’s words when he and Sam encounter the pitiful Gollum in Emyn Muil. Gollum has been set free by the Dark Lord Sauron, who hopes that Gollum’s desire for the Ring will lead the Dark Lord’s minions to the Ring, and the Ring into the hands of Sauron. In the end, Gollum is responsible for the salvation of Middle-Earth. Sauron, hoping to win back the ring by using Gollum as a means to an end, loses the game and is reduced to a form even less than before.

Several times mercy is shown to other characters in A Song of Ice and Fire, almost always to the downfall of the benefactor. After saving the life of a witch, Daenerys Targaryen asks her to cure her husband, the warlord Khal Drogo, of a gangrenous wound. Unfortunately, Daenerys’s kindness is repaid with the blood of her unborn son and her Sun and Stars is reduced to the level of a vegetable. Had Daenerys left the witch to her fate, not only would she have her son, but she would still have her husband, his horsemen, and the means to retake the lands of Westeros. The only time mercy ever has positive results in the series is when it doesn’t come at a risk or cost to those who play the game of thrones. Tyrion Lannister, although ruthless to his enemies, gives Bran Stark the means to allow him to ride a horse again.

As such, I would not refer to the series as “Lord of the Rings with brothels”, but rather as an anti-Tolkien fantasy. Even some of the characters seem to reinforce this idea of being a refutation of Tolkien. I think this is made most clear with the character of Tyrion Lannister. I don’t think it’s an accident at all that author George R. R. Martin made him a dwarf, of approximate height with Frodo. Both are scions of a respectable family, inheriting wealth and influence. Both are frequently underestimated on account of their size, which they make up for with their ingenuity. However, this is where the similarities end. Frodo remains a bachelor his whole life, whereas Tyrion frequently visits prostitutes. Frodo is surrounded by friends, including the dedicated Samwise Gamgee, who risks life and limb to help Frodo accomplish his task. Tyrion, on the other hand, usually is surrounded by people he happens to run into, such as the sellsword Bron, Shagga of the Stonecrows, and Ser Jorah Mormont, people he can use as means to an end, people whose loyalty is bought.

In contrast, there is a great emphasis in Lord of the Rings on the virtue of friendship, especially in the friendships between the members of the fellowship. So great is the friendship between Gimli and Legolas that the dwarf accompanies the elf across the sea to the Undying Lands, a privilege reserved for elves, wizards, and ringbearers. Friendship—understood as philia, or one of the Four Loves—transforms and perfects us; it is never the means to an end. Very few genuine friendships exist in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, except among Robb Stark and Theon Greyjoy until the two break ranks and fight against each other.

These tendencies towards increasingly dark moods and gritty cynicism are indicative of a larger trend in all forms of our entertainment in popular culture. Too often, this cynicism is treated as superior in and of itself to “lighter” entertainment, the happy ending where the boy gets the girl or the Ring of Power destroyed and all is right in the world. However, it is little more than the pseudo-sophistication one sees all too often, that because children prefer the happy ending, the nitty-gritty, nasty-brutish-but-not-short must be more adult and therefore better. A cursory glance at the “gritty reboots” that have come out seem to argue against such a notion. A story can contain graphic violence, moral nihilism, and unsympathetic characters, but those in and of themselves fail to suffice if the story is poorly constructed, the dialogue clunky, the characters one-dimensional, the plot predictable.

For all its darkness, however, Game of Thrones remains an enjoyable, entertaining view and A Song of Ice and Fire an enjoying, fast read. All the opportunism, mercilessness, and amorality serves to properly highlight the Catholic virtues subtly hidden throughout The Lord of the Rings. However, even without this comparative reading, A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones remains literary and visual works of art in their own right. If art is a mirror that is held up to nature, then Martin’s fantasy is a clear insight into a world, subjected to futility, despair, and death and Tolkien’s fantasy a glimpse at the world to come, where as division and strife are healed.

Matt KosokiMATT KOSOSKI earned his Maester’s Chain from Northern Illinois University.
He is also a Third Order Brother of the Night’s Watch, stationed at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea.

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Comments

10 COMMENTS

  1. A song of ice and fire used too many foul words and has scenes of horrific human suffering that would make it a bad choice for most readers. Maybe Robert Jordans Wheel of Time series would be a better choice with it’s Manichean world and it’s use reincarnation that is a window into the misery that one would have returning to a fallen world for eternity.

    • Thanks for the response, Mike!
      I haven’t actually read any of Robert Jordan’s works, but from what I understand the man was a devout Episcopalian, so one might expect a Christian worldview not too dissimilar to Tolkien’s. My purpose was to pick something completely anti-thetical to Tolkien in order to highlight the sacramentalism in “Lord of the Rings”.

      I understand your concerns about the violence and frank depictions of sex in Martin’s works, but that once again highlights the contrast between the two. Certainly I would not give the books to children or young teenagers, but I don’t think that’s reason enough for mature readers to put off reading the books.

  2. Thanks for this article Matt! I really enjoyed it but I would like to bring up some problems with a few points you wrote about.
    Concerning the scene with the witch, Danny, and Drogo, it must be noted that the witch helped Drogo in good faith after his people slaughtered the whole of her people. But the main point about this situation is the witch truly did show mercy b/c she used healing herbs and wraps (not magic) to try and heal Drogo. Drogo, though, tore them off b/c they hurt and itched too much causing his gangrene which lead to his demise. The witch is then begged by Danny to use her black magic to bring him back to life and the witch goes out of her way to warn Danny of the consequences. While I agree that the witch felt happy about the terrible fortunes that happened it still doesn’t change the fact that she helped and did everything asked of her. I believe the author is actually showing a good aspect of karma in this situation represented by the old saying of “you reap what you sow” in regards to Drogo’s slaughtering of different tribes.
    Now to the points you made about Tyrion. I believe you made an unfair comparison to Frodo and did not look deeply enough into the character of Tyrion. He is a horribly deformed Imp who was born into one of the most prominent families in the 7 kingdoms. His parents showed no love to him and his siblings tried to treat him as if he never excised. His father even paid a whore to pretend that she loved him when he was 13-14 years old then had her killed right before his eyes. Tyrion not becoming a serial murderer or committing suicide is nothing short of a miracle. He will always be severely handicapped by his appearance thus needing whore and sellsword. Tyrion is actually one of the most benevolent and merciful characters despite his horrific life and handicaps.
    Finally I want to address your contentions between righteous story telling and evil story telling. I am a proud Catholic but I also see the world for what it is. Its filled with evil and people who can and are controlled by evil. The song of ice and fire is written from a realist point of view. I say that not only because I believe it true but the story itself has historical context because of the events that did take place in medieval history such as cases of incest. The fact that an author highlights the darker side of humanity such as whore houses, the horrible living conditions or the poor, and the disgusting atrocities caused by war does not make his book evil. Unfortunately I got the feeling that you were hinting that the author purposefully decided to make the books as dark as possible just to be spiteful to books such as lord of the rings and others of that ilk. I contend that it is just a realistic view of the world and how politics work back in old times and today. However I do believe you made your best point of the article in that Lord of the rings represents what is waiting for us in the next life and A Song of Ice and Fire is the world we live in today.

    • Ian, nice job catching my mistake (Mea culpa!). I saw the first season BEFORE reading the books, which influenced how I saw the characters’ actions, but I do remember the part about the Lhazareen witch applying a poultice to Drogo’s wounds. And yes, she did give Daenerys vague warnings that a price would be paid, but she didn’t indicate exactly what she’d be getting out of the deal (Rhaego stillborn, Drogo a vegetable). I don’t consider it karma, but a person using this opportunity to take revenge on Drogo and Daenerys for destroying her village.

      “Unfortunately I got the feeling that you were hinting that the author purposefully decided to make the books as dark as possible just to be spiteful to books such as lord of the rings and others of that ilk.”
      –George R. R. Martin has indicated a number of times that he is also a fan of “Lord of the Rings”, so I don’t think he was trying to spite the work, but offer a counterpoint from his perspective. Not everybody holds to the Catholic sacramental worldview, and there are things in Tolkien that don’t jibe with the post-modern, desacralized worldview, such as the article from Cracked.com pointing out how foolish Frodo’s charity was.

      Perhaps my treatment of Tyrion was a bit rough, but he is not completely vicious and without redeeming qualities. Nevertheless, he is an opportunist and a consequentialist (Like Jaime Lannister), who plays the Game of Thrones very well (Only falling from favor because he has few allies at court because of his arrogance, like in “A Clash of Kings”). It wasn’t my intention to portray him as completely lacking in any positive moral qualities, because completely evil characters don’t exist either in “A Song of Ice and Fire” or in real life. Actually, a few points about Tyrion: his mother died giving birth to him and he and his brother got along well enough. His father blamed Tyrion for his mother’s death and Cersei fears/hates Tyrion because of a prophecy she heard as a girl regarding her younger brother.

      Hope I made my case well.

  3. I wouldn’t recommend the HBO series to anyone. I started watching it and was shocked at how much soft cIore pore it has! I think it panders to the viewers’ lust for sex and blood. Out could easily be more discreet, but where’s the money in that?

    • Jason, I appreciate your concerns about the frank sexuality and graphic violence in the TV adaptation, but to me that doesn’t necessarily mean nobody can watch it. There is a genuinely interesting storyline and emotionally complex characters, so there are legitimate reasons to watch the series (Although this article revolves around the books). I would definitely not recommend parents to let their children or teens to watch the series, but there’s no reason a mature Catholic adult should not watch the TV series or read the books.

      • Matt, it sounds as though you are making excuses and a pile of them to fill your mind and the minds of others with evil. The story line maybe great in your opinion, but if the other scenes one has to watch causes one to commit sin, then there isn’t any reason good enough to watch it. If you can’t sit there and watch it with Jesus or your guardian angel, it isn’t appropriate. If a child can’t watch it, then it usually means we shouldn’t watch it either. Remember where Jesus says, “Let the little children come unto Me for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven,” If it would scandalize a child, then it is causing damage to your soul as well. Do not be deceived.

  4. Fascinating comparison. After reading most of both series, I’ve come to the conclusion that Westeros leads inexorably to nihilism. Who wants to live in the wasteland of constant war and the absence of any true human companionship? No one!

    That said, I found the vulgarity in Martin’s works just too much to handle. For those of us not used to the disgusting phrases and depictions he uses, it can actually be a process of losing pieces of innocence! I would definitely not recommend these works to anyone who wasn’t pretty desensitized about perverted sexuality. (And if that’s ever a worthy goal is a conversation for another day.)

  5. Why all of you want to fill your minds with such meaningless movies is mind blowing. These movies are filled with everything Jesus abhors, witchcraft, demons, violence, and these are just a few things things that stink in His nostrils. One doesn’t fill their mind with evil, then watch another more evil to discern what was less evil in the first one. I mean that logic is demented.Just because it is out there doesn’t make it okay. Wake up from your deception. Whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are kind, whatsoever things are of good report, etc., the Bible says “think on these things.” Fill your minds with beauty. We are all being desensitized to the ugliness of demons and the monstrous violence that comes with them. Everyone is being sucked up into this mindset. Ugly evil is not your friend

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