It’s become almost cliché how fantasy stories are presented. Dark Lords of evil, armies of races that are always evil, farm boys who are secretly heirs to the king, and all of that are so commonplace now as to make most fantasy series completely interchangeable. J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin reinvented the fantasy genre in their own ways. Both took what came before and created an environment where fantasy could present rich storytelling possibilities.
It’s easy for one to forget how influential Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings really is at this point. The book (it was always intended to be one novel rather than a trilogy) was not original, per se. Rather it was a synthesis of Tolkien’s love for European mythology and Anglo-Saxon history. Tolkien was a professor at Oxford of Anglo-Saxon and deeply loved the epic poems of Finland and Germania. He was considered the foremost expert on Beowulf. The Lord of the Rings was also greatly influenced by Tolkien’s experiences in the World War I. Tying a bow around all of this was Tolkien’s deeply-held Catholic beliefs. An example would be when Frodo and Sam journey across Gorgoroth in Mordor to reach Mount Doom and destroy the One Ring. An argument could be made that it bears the hallmarks of Christ on the path to Golgotha for crucifixion. What’s missing from Lord of the Rings is the sense of predestination that later fantasy writers would use a lazy storytelling device to propel the story. Destiny does play a factor for Aragorn, the last king of Gondor.
The importance of destiny for Aragorn is a return to order to a lawless, fallen world. He is what is best in men and in a way another biblical alliteration. With his marriage to Arwen (the elves of Middle-Earth being immortal and semi-divine in nature), he serves to complete the long history of separation in Middle-Earth between humans and the divine. Thus, he serves as a version of Joseph, with Arwen as his Mary. There is little doubt about his rightful place on the throne. Tolkien does give Aragorn enough self-doubt to be uncertain how he would perform during the quest. For Tolkien, destiny is an aspect of the story rather than the crux of the story.
From Tolkien’s Middle-Earth have sprung up thousands of carbon copies, some more impressive than others. What many fantasy authors ending up doing is taking the skeleton (sometimes the whole body) of Lord of the Rings and then started changing names in order to tell the same story. Writers like Ed Greenwood, R.A. Salvatore, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, and David Eddings used Tolkien as inspiration to create fantasy worlds of incredible depth, with colorful characters like Garion, Elminster, Raistlin, Fizban, and Drizzt. Unfortunately the fantasy genre never moved away from the staunch black-and-white morality established by Tolkien. Whether this was for convenience sake or because the audience expected such is a different debate. While the characters mentioned above are both interesting and beloved, and their worlds are filled with wonder and terrors aplenty, the lines between good and evil are almost always clearly delineated.
The Song of Ice and Fire has helped to reinvent the fantasy genre Tolkien himself reinvented decades ago. While Martin is not a perfect writer (neither was Tolkien for that matter), George Martin made a number of fundamental changes and subversions to the genre that breathed new life into the fantasy genre. First change was the world of Westeros as a setting. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is meant as a pre-history Earth, specifically England and Europe. It was a distinctly magical realm, with magic artifacts and weaponry receiving center stage. Westeros is grounded in the muck of a “real world” fantasy setting, taking a page from historical fiction. Life and death are visceral experiences in Westeros, devoid of the epic heroism of Boromir or Eowyn.
Morality is another key factor that marks the difference between the two authors. Tolkien was a devout Catholic and Middle-Earth has the hallmarks of that idealized morality. The nature of the epic poems Tolkien adored allowed for great heroes and nefarious monsters. Martin presents a world with a grey and gray morality scheme. Westeros is filled with petty tyrants, noble warriors, and manipulative nobility. While there are complete monsters (Joffrey and Ramsey spring to mind), there are no great evil lords that must be defeated. Characters like Arya and Tyrion, who possess arguably the most positive moral compasses, are not above killing and contemplating premeditated murder. Most of the characters possess both good and evil characteristics, with the balance wavering back and forth depending on the events surrounding them.
Death is also handled differently by the two authors. Despite the obvious peril the Fellowship is cast into, there’s not much doubt that Frodo and the others will complete their quest. Tolkien’s gift as a writer was stacking the odds in such a way that the reader was able to amplify the remaining doubt. As has become apparent to fans of the Game of Thrones TV show, Martin has no qualms killing off seemingly invulnerable characters. The death of Robb Stark is a wonderful example. The righteous son on a quest to avenge his murdered father and depose the despotic king is a classic fantasy trope. Martin subverts the trope and in the process changes both the dynamic of his world’s political landscape and the expectations of his readers as to what kind of story they’re experiencing. When Gandalf falls in Moria fighting the Balrog, he returns with greater power. When a character like Beric Dondarrion comes back from the dead, he is diminished in many ways. In the case of Lady Stoneheart (just wait for that on the TV show), the dead don’t come back with their right mind. Death is a constant companion in A Song of Ice and Fire, raising the stakes for the reader as to what kind of resolution will be reached.
Tolkien took the romanticized myths and legends of the Old World and crafted a romantic fantasy epic. Every fantasy author for the last six decades (and beyond) owes a tremendous debt to him and is inspired by him. Martin took the Ur-myth Tolkien envisioned and used real history as a grounding point to make fantasy as dirty and realistic as possible while still retaining the magic and wonder first described in Middle-Earth. Both writers reinvented the genre as it existed at that time. In the process, they will both serve as inspirations for the next writer who reinvents the genre in the coming decades.