‘A Game of Thrones’ vs. ‘The Lord of the Rings’

It took me a long time to get to it, but I finally read A Game of Thrones after commenters here recommended it.

The first volume of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” epic fantasy series clocks in at nearly 700 large-size, small-print pages. I almost abandoned the novel after a few chapters, because the author kept jumping to so many different characters that it was hard to get absorbed. But I finally did, and found the book really compelling from then on.

Rather than write a straightforward review of A Game of Thrones — which, along with its sequels, inspired the hit TV series — I thought I’d compare it to the other epic fantasy tour de force read by many people (like me) who usually don’t read fantasy. I’m of course referring to J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings, and its prequel The Hobbit.

Overall, Tolkien’s wonderful classic is more of a page-turner — the storytelling is mostly linear, and the quest to destroy that titular ring is riveting. Martin’s most noticeable plot line — various families striving for power — is also exciting but a bit more diffuse. Yet A Game of Thrones (I haven’t read the sequels) surpasses The Lord of the Rings in certain ways.

Both epics have great writing, memorable characters, and excellent humor (though Tolkien is somewhat funnier — at least in The Hobbit). Each also features all kinds of death and war, but Martin’s depiction of violence is much more graphic and realistic. Perhaps partly a product of our current time.

Martin expertly juggles a somewhat larger cast of principal players, and, to his credit, has far more female protagonists in major roles. That might also be partly a product of a later era, but, heck, plenty of novels in Tolkien’s heyday had prominent female characters.

Perhaps most importantly, Martin’s characters are more three-dimensional than the vast majority of those in Tolkien’s cast. Few of the Game of Thrones denizens are all good or all bad — and that kind of moral ambiguity makes things very interesting.

Another interesting difference between the Martin and Tolkien works is that A Game of Thrones is mostly populated by humans, while The Lord of the Rings features a variety of bipeds: humans, hobbits, wizards, elves, orcs, etc.

Also, both series are set in long-ago, pre-modern-technology times. Martin does a better job of depicting the squalor and difficulties of living in such an era; things are more sanitized in The Lord of the Rings.

Will I read more of “A Song of Ice and Fire”? Not sure. A Game of Thrones was a large investment of time (about two weeks), and I’m not a fantasy buff. But I might. The novel ended on a very intriguing note, and I’m curious about what will happen to such characters as Daenerys Targaryen, the timid teen girl who turns into a ruthless dynamo; Arya Stark, the resourceful “tomboy”; Jon Snow, the outcast “bastard” son who makes something of his life; Joffrey Baratheon, the appalling young prince-turned-king; and Tyrion Lannister, the witty/crafty dwarf with perhaps the biggest personality in the book. (Tyrion, as played by Peter Dinklage in the HBO series, is pictured above.)

If you’ve read them, any thoughts on George R.R. Martin’s and J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous creations? (For those counting, that’s four “R” initials you just saw. 🙂 ) What other fantasy works have you enjoyed?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about climate change, a Board of Education resignation, and a school stairway collapse — is here.

Germane to McCain: Fictional Characters We Have Mixed Feelings About

Many people have mixed feelings about America’s late Republican senator John McCain, who died August 25. On the plus side, he displayed incredible bravery as a prisoner of war, occasionally bucked his party’s far-right orthodoxy, despised Donald Trump, etc. On the minus side, he supported U.S. military overreach, opposed the national holiday for civil-rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., backed 2017’s Republican tax legislation for the rich, and so on.

All of which can lead a literature lover to think about characters we have mixed feelings about. Any of those protagonists can be good, bad, and in-between — and their complexity often makes them more interesting than characters who are mostly admirable or mostly not admirable. But their complexity can also be interpreted as inconsistency, which might make reading about them as frustrating as it is interesting. Meanwhile, it’s impressive when an author can skillfully depict a character who’s both likable and unlikable.

One of literature’s most masterfully depicted good/not-good protagonists is Gwendolen Grandcourt (nee Harleth) of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. She is spoiled, selfish, and makes some bad choices, but she’s also smart, capable of emotional growth, and a decent human being at her core. It’s mesmerizing to read the charged interactions between Gwendolen and the admirable Daniel (both pictured atop this blog post, from a screen adaptation of the novel).

There’s also Mr. Stevens, the dignified/hardworking butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s subtle novel The Remains of the Day. He’s stoic, but too stoic. He’s loyal, yet the loyalty is to his Nazi sympathizer/appeaser employer (Lord Darlington). And Stevens is reflective, yet doesn’t think things through enough at the right time to accept the possibility of a romance with a woman (the housekeeper Ms. Kenton) who’s clearly interested in him.

The title character of Toni Morrison’s Sula is adventurous and fiercely independent — especially impressive traits for a woman of her era and an African-American woman of her era (between the two world wars). But she also has a negative side, including betraying her best friend Nel by having an affair with Nel’s husband.

How about Chuck Mumpson of Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs? He’s crude and loud, smokes and drinks too much, and is clearly no intellectual. But he is curious and has a good heart, and the novel’s professor protagonist Virginia Miner develops a strong regard for him after they meet on a trip.

Then there’s Lisbeth Salander of Stieg Larsson’s riveting Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.). She’s angry, unfriendly, and has poor social skills. She’s also brilliant, brave, and loyal — and, given her history of being abused, one can totally understand why there are some negative aspects to her personality.

Last but not least, I’ll mention Severus Snape of J.K. Rowling’s wonderful Harry Potter novels. As many of you know, he comes off as unsympathetic and mean (especially to Harry) during much of the series. But as readers wonder whether he’s an ally of the evil Voldemort or a double agent, positives emerge as well.

I’ve obviously just scratched the surface here. Your favorite characters who you have mixed feelings about?

I won’t be posting a column next Sunday (September 9) because I’ll be in Florida again to deal with my late mother’s estate, but I’ll still reply to comments when I can. New column on September 16!

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which has a start-of-school theme and some thoughts about John McCain similar to those expressed in today’s blog post — is here.