“The battle of good and evil is a great subject for any book and certainly for a fantasy book, but I think ultimately the battle between good and evil is weighed within the individual human heart and not necessarily between an army of people dressed in white and an army of people dressed in black. When I look at the world, I see that most real living breathing human beings are grey.” —George R.R. Martin
Many more qualified authors have debated the relationship between J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin. TIME has called A Song of Ice and Fire the great fantasy epic of our time, a tale for a “more profane, more jaded, more ambivalent age than the one Tolkien lived in.” To the casual observer, confronted by the series’s similar investment in local customs and family trees, Game of Thrones does seem like the more violent, much more sexually explicit, TV version of The Lord of the Rings. Well, as the ambiguous Mr. Martin might say: Yes—and no.
When Game of Thrones premiered on HBO in April 2011, 2.2 million tuned in. Some of them had read the books Martin had been writing and publishing over the past two decades. But many, including myself, tuned in because we wanted to see if a big budget fantasy series could work on TV: Did it have mainstream appeal? Would the epic content adapt to the episodic content? Could HBO find a consistent audience to justify their extravagant production costs?
The answer to every question was a resounding yes, surpassing even the most optimistic fanboy’s expectations. Halfway through Season 3, the series’s 25th episode continued the show’s steady ratings climb with 5.3 million tuning in to the first airing and another 6.7 million across two airings. The average number of viewers per episode for the third season at that point was 13.2 million, once all airings and DVR playbacks were accounted for. The show is close to becoming HBO’s highest-rated show. By all accounts, Game of Thrones has been both a critical and commercial success, a surprising addition to the pop culture pantheon.
So what is it about this story and these characters that appeals to mass audiences? After all, many of my friends are fans despite taking issue with the grotesque scenes of torture and every other kind of violence. Many justifiably criticize the gratuitous depictions of sex that verge on the pornographic. So why the appeal and ever-growing audience among both Christians and non-believers?
“The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places. But still there is much that is fair. And though in all lands, love is now mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps, the greater.”—J.R.R. Tolkien
Although there were moments of grief in Middle Earth, nothing in Tolkien’s tale rivals the shocking finale to Martin’s first book or the infamous Red Wedding. But Tolkien seemed to foretell a fantasy world more tragic than his own, where more grieving makes the love all the more powerful. Without the narrative that Middle Earth embodied, the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros would not connect so strongly.
Tolkien conceived The Lord of the Rings in the trenches of World War I, wrote much of the novel during World War II, and published it as the Cold War heated up in the 1950s. These conflicts were defined by clashing moral categories: good vs. evil, freedom vs. tyranny. Those shades of gray that did exist (nuclear warfare, Japanese internment camps) were scrubbed from the narrative.
Martin’s Game of Thrones may be a fantasy epic to match our time, but it owes much to the fundamental categories of good and evil developed by Tolkien.
Tolkien’s adventures, shaped by the definitive victories of the Allies in both World Wars, always had happy endings. Sure, Gandalf disappeared several times and seemed lost forever. Frodo fell to temptation from time to time. Darkness reached the cusp of victory. But his characters always ultimately chose good, which went on to defeat evil.
Tolkien’s world of trolls, dwarves, elves, wizards, hobbits, and more reminds us that despite temptations luring us toward our lesser selves, the humblest of creatures can (and often do) seize the epic moments that determine the ultimate future of the world and everything in it. Will redemption and restoration reign supreme or will the darkness consume the light? For Tolkien, light always eliminates darkness.
But Tolkien’s world is not naïve or without nuance. Sacrifices were made by Eisenhower’s troops seizing Normandy beach on June 6, 1944 and pushing toward Germany to bring Hitler’s Nazi regime crumbling down. Likewise in Tolkien’s world, the Fellowship of the Ring loses one of its great heroes, Boromir, in its journey towards the conclusion of Fellowship. Alliances between the Free West and Communist Russia did not fit the clear, black- and-white narrative of history.
In Martin’s world, no protagonist or fan favorite is safe. In fact, the more you like a character, the more likely they seem to find torture, heartbreak, and death. There are no stable heroes and villains. These are complexly drawn characters, struggling for love, purpose, and power in a cruel world with one guarantee: Winter is coming.
Is “today’s Tolkien” cynical, profane, and perverse for creating a world brimming with skepticism? Not entirely. For every vulgarity, there are selfless and sacrificial acts of love and kindness. In Martin’s world, good and evil coexist in each character, playing their own game of thrones within the human heart. Or, as Tolkien himself might put it, although love is mingled with grief, this makes love all the greater.
As my pastor during college always reminded us, the Gospel can be seen in everything. The fall, redemption, and restoration are all around us. In the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, there are old gods and new ones, each with devotees convinced they represent the “true faith.” When the story begins, magic is all but forgotten and religion exists as either stale tradition or consuming fanaticism, competing with science and cynicism. In far off lands, magic slowly returns to the world as a young princess from a vanquished dynasty is sold into marriage, raped, and discarded by everyone she meets. After becoming the “Mother of Dragons” she begins a long journey towards reclaiming her throne.
Along the way, she visits a slave city to purchase an army of eunuch soldiers known throughout the Seven Kingdoms as the most ruthlessly loyal and tough. In a game-changing moment, she purchases thousands of slaves, uses her dragons and new soldiers to destroy their former owners, and sets the captives free. Turning to her legions, she tells them that they all may go live as free men, but she will gladly lead and pay any of them who wish to fight for her.
The gospel parallel overwhelmed me when I saw one of my favorite scenes from the books play out on screen. Having overcome so much, this woman takes control, sets captives free, and in return for this grace, receives their absolute and freely given obedience. I found myself needing to reread Romans 8.
Many critics and fans are tempted to compare and contrast Martin’s epic with Tolkien’s. The comparison does a grave disservice to both. While both worlds are equally complex and compelling, Martin’s focus can only exist in a world where Tolkien has already thoroughly conceptualized good versus evil. In the midst of the torture, rape, and murder-laden paths to power and freedom on Game of Thrones lies a fundamental emptiness in each character. Constant war, uneasy alliances, and unstable truces make no one comfortable. Mercy leads to murder. Revenge consumes children’s hearts. Misery reigns supreme.
George R.R. Martin achieves in his epic what another Sunday evening TV auteur recently mentioned in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air. Matthew Weiner, the creative genius behind Mad Men, was asked whether the audience is supposed to hate Don Draper, who self-loathingly cheats on his wife, ignores his children, and consumes everyone in his path. Weiner responded that he doesn’t want you to hate Don Draper, but to realize that the darkness driving him exists in us all.
Every character in Westeros similarly wrestles with good and evil. And while the worldviews, content, and endings may be different, Tolkien’s unlikely protagonist ultimately faced the same question. Frodo, standing at the Cracks of Doom, gives in to the temptation to claim the Ring of Power for his own. Gollum’s all-consuming lust is all that saves Frodo from himself and Middle Earth from domination by Sauron.
The ending of Martin’s tale has not been revealed. But for ten Sunday nights each year, millions tune in to the Seven Kingdoms for glimpses of the Gospel and gritty depictions of the selfish and selfless human heart. There are fewer happy endings than in Middle Earth, but hope yet resides with the grace-giving Mother of Dragons, who may be leading us to some higher station than the Iron Throne.