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PostPosted: Thu Jul 14, 2011 5:53 am 
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Hi,

Yes I am new to these boards, though I have left a note of introduction in the introduction forum. :)

In this review of George RR Martin's latest Song of Ice and Fire installment, the argument is made and developed that Martin's kind of fantasy is representative of our age (and Tolkien's apparently representative of an earlier one). The review isn't a criticism of Tolkien, but it still, I think, misses the mark with Tolkien. Where Martin has a complicated politics, Tolkien is just "Good" vs "Evil". Where Martin's characters are complex, complicated (and various other buzz words) Tolkien's are merely "noble".

A revealing quote from the essay: It’s impossible to know whom to root for. “Many good men have been bad kings,” one character says, “and some bad men have been good kings.” Not even God decides who is wrong or right. Each side has its own gods, and they’ll back whoever prays to them.

This may be true, insofar as Martin's world is concerned. If we apply Tolkien's moral standards to Martin's world, none of the characters, or very few, could be considered virtuous.

What I find interesting is that Martin's text discourages the reader from making moral judgements about any character in particular - I think this is the crux of the difference between Martin (and most fantasy these days) and Tolkien - Where Tolkien offers a limited interpretive space in his text for moral judgement; where, for example, Frodo, Sam and those on the 'good' side are clearly right (in the narrowest ethical sense of the term) due to the 'rightness' of their mission (and despite the flaws they may have), Martin's text regularly repulses the reader, but retreats from asking the reader to make any moral judgement equivalent to the moral judgement a character like Sauron so clearly deserves.

Martin is not the only author to engage in this kind of writing. Moorcock comes to mind, as does Poul Anderson's Broken Sword. In that work, 'Faery' is divided into various mythological species, much like Martin's kingdoms and houses, who fight each other for supremacy. There is no moral reason for them to fight: they are not defending anythin in particular, they are just fighting because that is what they do. Explanations are not forthcoming.

It seems to me that this moral crux is the biggest difference between Tolkien and other fantasy writers. I'm not sure who's got the better idea here either: I suspect that Tolkien's worldview, for all his religiousness, is the more 'humanistic' one in that it depicts a moral world (much like our own) where characters are held responsible for their ethical choices.

In contrast, Martin, Anderson et al. depict worlds of intense (it seems to me) nihilism. I certainly want to differentiate Moorcock from Martin here; where Moorcock is merely nihilistic, Martin's characters display some sense of ethical compass (if less atuned than Gandalf's for example).

Anyway, enough rambling. Here's a link to the review: http://newsretrieval.info/?p=624

Thoughts? queries? Points of debate?

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 14, 2011 12:49 pm 
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It does occur to me that there are clearly stories, characters and moments within JRRT's mythos that are more ambiguous than others. Even The Hobbit has some moral murkiness among otherwise upstanding characters, in the events leading up to the BO5A, say.

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 14, 2011 1:29 pm 
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What a great first post!

I haven't read Martin (or seen the mini-series), but in general I do prefer Tolkien's approach to that of the other authors that you mention. Perhaps it helps feed a longing that I have for a world that does not exist, not that it ever did.

I'll have more to say later.

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 14, 2011 1:50 pm 
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axordil wrote:
It does occur to me that there are clearly stories, characters and moments within JRRT's mythos that are more ambiguous than others. Even The Hobbit has some moral murkiness among otherwise upstanding characters, in the events leading up to the BO5A, say.

Yes, it's interesting that LotR has the most sharply defined morality in Tolkien's legendarium. The Hobbit has a lot of the good guys behaving in rather questionable ways. Aldarion and Erendis's tale of a failed marriage where both parties take some responsibility and the daughter is raised to be a bitter woman is totally different from what one would generally expect Tolkien to write.

And of course there's The Silmarillion. The stories of Túrin and Húrin in particular are as brutal and bleak as anything in Martin's series.


Last edited by kzer_za on Sat Jul 16, 2011 3:20 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 14, 2011 1:53 pm 
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I don't think I'd agree with the characterization of a portrayal of a world of deep moral complexity and ambiguity as nihilistic.

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 14, 2011 7:18 pm 
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It's not just that his world is morally ambiguous. Two of my three favorite authors (you can guess the third) are Fyodor Dostoevsky and Kazuo Ishiguro, and they have plenty of ambiguity.

It's also the way his books seem to revel in graphic gory violence, (basically) softcore porn, and highly detailed descriptions of things like eating rats and urination. Sometimes it seems like the books are saying little more than "life sucks and the only relief is sex." I'm not saying that I think that's Martin's worldview, just that it's the vibe the series gives off at times. Plus, after the fourth book it seemed like his story had spun out of control and could be headed for a perpetual cycle of backstabbing, rape, and murder. Martin's world is not just morally ambiguous, but downright ugly (though not as much in the earlier books).

With that said, Tumlahad and I both agreed we wouldn't quite call it nihilistic. Martin does have some sense of morality in his work in a way that, say, Catch-22 doesn't.


Last edited by kzer_za on Fri Jul 15, 2011 12:21 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 15, 2011 3:13 am 
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yovargas wrote:
I don't think I'd agree with the characterization of a portrayal of a world of deep moral complexity and ambiguity as nihilistic.


I don't quite mean this. Perhaps I have not explained myself clearly. I mean rather that within the frame of the text itself (sorry to sound all English major-like), there is little space for the reader him/herself to make the kinds of moral judgments of Martin's (and Anderson's) characters as there is in Tolkien. Gollum, for example, is a complex personality with "flaws", but never is Gollum's "humanity" invoked as an excuse for his wrong doing. By contrast, a character like Tyrion or Cersei Lannister, similarly flawed, are called "human" and the implication seems to be that they are absolved of their crimes, because "that's what humans are like."

That is not to say that we are not repulsed by their actions, but the very "humanness" of the characters is meant, somehow, to mitigate against our making firm moral judgements of their character.

Contrary to the reviewer's suggestion, Tolkien's world is not one with only "two sides". Certainly, his histories revolve around angelic beings often powerful and malevolent enough to be called "evil", but this does not imply that all those opposing them are united by virtue - clearly they are not.

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 15, 2011 12:44 pm 
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I haven't read Martin, so I can't comment on the moral/ethical judgments there. But I think Tolkien recognized something about the limits of human morals and absolution in Frodo's character. On an absolutist level, Frodo failed to carry out his mission, because no mortal being could succeed in both carrying the Ring as long as he did and then destroying it. Yet there is no indication of anyone thinking less of him for this moral limitation, except himself. Quite the opposite...""Praise them with great praise!"

Is that not absolution for being imperfect, for being "human?"

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 16, 2011 2:13 am 
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Frodo's failure at the Sammath Naur came after an epic psychological struggle against the power of a highly malevolent Ring (see Shippey's enlightening discussion in The Road to Middle-earth). By contrast, characters like Elric in Moorcock's series murder, rape and pillage without the text ever denouncing their actions as immoral. We can acknowledge Frodo's failure, and even make a moral judgement about it; what we are discouraged from doing is making a moral judgement about Elric, because he's an anti-hero, and "that's just awesome".

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 16, 2011 2:27 am 
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I feel like I'll be able to respond more coherently after I read Martin. (I've started A Game of Thrones, which I now own thanks to River, but have set it aside to read The Assassin's Apprentice, which is a library book.) I will admit that I've had some qualms about Martin based upon what others have said here. I do not like depictions of rape and unnecessary violence. Given that, I highly suspect that I will like Tolkien better. Well, I think it's probably guaranteed that I'll like Tolkien better, so I suppose the real question is whether or not I'll like Martin at all.

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 16, 2011 4:49 am 
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Some roughly sketched thoughts before I succumb to jetlag (yes, I feel the need to make excuses)...

Tolkien's works are about good and evil. The lines are drawn and drawn hard because that is the central conflict within the story. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series is unfinished, so it's hard to draw conclusions, but thus far, the good vs. evil conflict really hasn't been a part of the story, but that doesn't mean that the lines aren't there. Moreover, in Martin's world, what's good and what's evil seems to be somewhat decoupled from what is deemed right and wrong according to the prevailing moral code(s) presented in the book. For example...

WARNING! SPOILERISH STUFF IF YOU HAVEN'T MADE IT THROUGH BOOK FOUR!

Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer, is reviled for murdering the king he was sworn to protect and it seems right for the reader to revile him along with the rest of the characters...until the reader learns exactly why Jaime did what he did. And then the reader is left wondering: while it was, according to the rules of that world, morally wrong for Jaime to forswear his oath, was it actually evil?

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 16, 2011 1:36 pm 
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tumhalad wrote:
Frodo's failure at the Sammath Naur came after an epic psychological struggle against the power of a highly malevolent Ring (see Shippey's enlightening discussion in The Road to Middle-earth). By contrast, characters like Elric in Moorcock's series murder, rape and pillage without the text ever denouncing their actions as immoral. We can acknowledge Frodo's failure, and even make a moral judgement about it; what we are discouraged from doing is making a moral judgement about Elric, because he's an anti-hero, and "that's just awesome".


Must it be the job of the text to judge? I read quite a bit of Moorcock in college, after I'd been thoroughly immersed in JRRT, and I walked away with the sense that the vast majority of the characters were wastes of protein. Being left to draw one's own moral judgments is not the same thing as denying they should be there. I never felt discouraged from doing so simply because the society depicted in the stories failed to do so. I merely extended my judgment to the society as well, which was opportunistic and amoral.

Then again, the underlying assumption in Moorcock is that the Greater Powers in the world are at best indifferent to humanity. That's going to leave a mark, so to speak.

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 16, 2011 3:29 pm 
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I was pretty hard on Martin in that previous post, so I should say that while I haven't read them in a long time, I do like his first three books, though in the same sort of grumbling critical way some people here like Peter Jackson's movies. But based on the fourth book and the spoilers and excerpts I've seen from the fifth, it seems like things that were once excesses in Martin's writing that I could overlook are becoming more and more dominant.

But here's another thing to think about - is it really the case that Tolkien wasn't writing "for a jaded age"? He was a survivor of World War I, an event that really disillusioned mankind! And then it was finished and published after World War II had devastated Europe a second time, the depth of Nazism's evil was being discovered, and the Cold War was fully underway.

And while Lord of the Rings is more hopeful than a lot of contemporary literature, Tolkien certainly does not have the naive optimism that some nineteenth-century writers have. Victor Hugo, for example, beats the reader over the head in Les Miserables (at least the unabridged version) with his constant rambling about how humanity is progressing toward the Golden Age and "the twentieth century will perfect what the nineteenth began."

Actually, the 90s/very early 00s in which Martin's first three books were written was a pretty optimistic time, even with grunge music and the like.


Last edited by kzer_za on Sat Jul 16, 2011 6:08 pm, edited 3 times in total.

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 16, 2011 3:48 pm 
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Again, I guess I shouldn't comment until I've read Martin. I know the thing that resonates so much with me about Tolkien is his underlying Christian worldview. He manages to maintain that idealistic worldview without being obvious or obnoxious about it. It's the thread that carries me through the dark times, knowing that, in the end, it will be good and right again. Like kzer_za, I don't think Tolkien was naively optimistic. In fact, I think he perfectly nails the Christian perspective on humanity--flawed but noble, in need of help from higher powers but also remarkably determined and capable of good things.

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 Post subject: Miasma and doubt
PostPosted: Sun Jul 17, 2011 7:55 am 
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Following on from the review proper, which was written by Leve Grossman for TIME, one commentator wrote this:

"I see only confusion and doubt" - This description underlies the world we live in. Martin's characters are trying to change that world, control that world, tame that world, and survive in that world...the same way we are today. THAT is what makes the books so alive...the heroes are real. Real people are flawed and are led to greatness through a miasma of ambiguous circumstances and motivations. The world of Tolkien was black and white...and the world he wrote for was as well. To write a tale that is black and white when the world around us is a billion shades of grey would be childish. Martin has captured the turbulence of our time, translated it into a fictional world, and revealed it through characters as complicated as people that you love and hate in real life. American Tolkien? A tribute but an understatement

This little quote perfectly encapsulates the point of view I'm talking about. Martin's character's are "real", Tolkien's "black and white" (hasn't this person read Shippey), "real people are flawed", because the world is "a billion shades of grey".

The argument seems to run that Martin has captured something of reality where Tolkien was ignorant, he is the superior author. The only problem is that I don't see where Tolkien's "black and white" characters come from. The comment seems to be confusing Tolkien's characters with his firm sense of morality - it is not as though characters in Tolkien are without flaws - surely this is abundantly obvious to anyone who is actually familiar with Tolkien beyond The Lord of the Rings, and even just that.

So where does this "Tolkien is black and white" meme come from, and why is it so prevalent? Once again, it is as though moral polarities do not exist, and everyone is just a "shade of grey". I hear this phrase a lot from Martin fans, but what do they mean by it? That it's okay to murder people because, well, you're just human after all, which seems like a moral cop out. I'm really confused here, what is going on?

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PostPosted: Sun Jul 17, 2011 1:47 pm 
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I think some critics see the orcs and the Black Riders and stop. They say, well, there's the bad guys, here's the good guys, black and white, I'm done.

They're lazy, in other words. They want their moral ambiguity spoon fed to them, so they don't have to think about what else might be going on.

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PostPosted: Sun Jul 17, 2011 2:35 pm 
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Tolkien has whole races painted with a broad brush - noble elves, savage orcs, etc. Martin's characters (except for the dragons) are all human and all deeply flawed. Tolkien's characters reflect his stereotypical views of high and low class people, who cannot go beyond the confines of their class, while Martin has everyone down in the mud. Tolkien's writings brought me a great deal of religious comfort when I re-read them right after several close relatives died. Martin's philosophy is that there is no fairness, meaning, or purpose in the universe, other than what we grab for ourselves. Tolkien did not have his characters supplicating directly to Eru, but the sense of a sentient universe with power to make things "right" was there. (This would, of course, be the Good guy's God, not the orcs or troll's God). Martin's 7-sided god seems more of a metaphor of life (like reading Tolkien for comfort) rather than a specific, all powerful, swayable person.

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 18, 2011 2:05 am 
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Interesting topic, and one that I have been going on about for quite some time on various boards.

Quote:
In this review of George RR Martin's latest Song of Ice and Fire installment, the argument is made and developed that Martin's kind of fantasy is representative of our age (and Tolkien's apparently representative of an earlier one).


This is something that I am totally on board with. I don't know Martin's work at all, but I have always maintained that Tolkien's LOTR (and possibly other works by him) were written in a much more simplistic age, where the need for complex characters wasn't needed, and to be honest, wasn't warranted.

Today's "style" is apparently much more representative of complex characters that are "down to earth", and "real", as according to today's standards, and that makes them "good and bad" and "real" by the aforementioned today"s "standards".

I have maintained, and will always maintain, that the "wooden" and "one-dimensional" characters that Tolkien portrayed were a reflection of the times when complex characters were neither needed nor warranted, to further the story or to make it more interesting or "realistic". They were either essentially good or essentially bad, and that was enough. The story, written in that age didn't need to be more complex than that, and if it were, it would have detracted from that which was true for that day and age. Aragorn was essentially good. Sam was essentially good. Sauron was essentially evil.

Times were far simpler then. Good and bad were easily defined.

That isn't to say that there weren't atrocities committed in those times and that there weren't loads of backwards thinking going on, but some of the endearing qualities of those times seem to have been tossed out with the bath water.

The George Reeves wooden and one dimensional Superman, was righteously good and didn't need character flaws to make him real. He was essentially good. Evil beings were essentially evil.

The complexities of Washington and today's world never necessarily had to enter into Tolkien's world. It was a world that had complexities, but they never had to overshadow the essential characters and their motives to fit a standard. They never had to be adapted to a standard for a time in which it wasn't written.

That, imo, is the crux of where PJ et al failed to transpose Tolkien's world. It wasn't a book to film transposition that ired so many purists. It was that lack of intestinal fortitude to bring a standard 50 years old to today's audience for fear they wouldn't get it, or fear of making big Hollywood bucks.

LOTR transposition from book to film is the essence of a society not willing to accept simplistic views and not willing to accept that there was a lot tossed out with the bath water oh so many years ago.

I haven't read Martin, but maybe his style accurately reflects today's desperate "need" to be complex and bifurcated, whereas Tolkien's style apparently did not.

I believe we are losing it as a society when we cannot accept good at face value and have to instill complexities.

Sam, as a Tolkien Sam in the easily definable 50's never ever would have left Frodo. Ever! Aragorn in Tolkien's easily definable 50's would have never ever been reluctant. Ever. Unassuming? Maybe. Reluctant? Never.

Because of the atrocities that were abundant on the 50's, we tossed out the essential good for the sake of being good, with all of the other ills of that time. That is reflected in the writing and movies today.

In other words the 50's had more going for it that today does. Even with all of its backwards thinking and derogatory ways. We are not better off today than we were then in loads of ways. The movies and books bear that out.

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 18, 2011 2:14 am 
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It pains me no end to disagree with you, Holbytla, but I am going to disagree with you, nonetheless. :(

Tolkien made a conscious decision NOT to write the sort of modern story that was already very common in his day. You may not know, or may have forgotten, that "reality" fiction is not new.

Read John O'Hara, for one. James Joyce, for another.

And whatever you do, don't forget that Tolkien was in the trenches of The Great War. Nothing that has happened to humankind since is more complicated, less simple, less easily designated "good" or "evil" than that war.

He wrote what he said: the kind of story he liked.

I admit I have not read this Martin person. But nothing I have read about his work tempts me to read it. I have never come across any other "fantasy" work that can be set on the same floor as LOTR. It is alone, a work of staggering and heartbreaking perfection.

As a lifelong reader of science fiction, I know there are many ways to skin the cats of Good and Evil. We don't need orcs and elves and dragons. We only need Humans.

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 18, 2011 2:34 am 
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You can take yourself out of the country, but you can't take the country out of you. Tolkien was who he was and when he was. And he was reflective of when he was.
Aragorn is the prototypical 50's hero.
Sauron is the 50's prototypical 50's villain.

Written for an age where the hero did not have to have an affair with his neighbor to appeal to an audience.

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