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