Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Part IX (for mortal men…)
Today we’re looking at another quote McGarry and Ravipinto cite with approval: this time one from George R.R. Martin. Specifically:
In many ways, A Song of Ice and Fire is something of a response to The Lord of the Rings. For example, while both series deal with issues of power and leadership, Martin is of the opinion that Tolkien might have gone further: “You see that at the end of the [‘Lord of the Rings’] books, when Sauron has been defeated and Aragorn is king,” Martin told the Advance. “It’s easy to type, ‘he ruled wisely and well,’ but what does that constitute? “What was his tax policy? How did the economy function? What about the class system?”
Now, Martin is by his own admission an enormous fan of Tolkien, and I fully believe him here, but along with the question of Orkish genocide, “Aragorn’s tax policy” seems to be his own personal bugbear with the work. To be honest, I think the root issue is that the things that interest Martin in a secondary world (inter-human politics) differ from what interested Tolkien (language). Martin’s criticisms of Tolkien would be like Tolkien picking up A Song of Ice and Fire and bashing Martin for the sloppy presentation of High Valyrian (which would also, of course, be unfair, since the relevance of language to the story of Westeros is negligible – once one goes down the rabbit hole of asking why Dorne and the Wildings share a common language in a pseudo-medieval setting, it’s only a short step from there to asking why Martin has oak trees growing north of the Wall).
But let’s engage with the above paragraph/quote on its own terms.
For example, while both series deal with issues of power and leadership,
Do they? Martin’s series remains unfinished, but thus far it is certainly an attempted examination of power, its origins (see Varys’ riddle) and uses. Martin also uses the likes of Eddard Stark, Stannis Baratheon, and Tywin Lannister to explore different views of political leadership, the conflict of morality and realpolitik, et cetera. Tolkien, however, is trickier. A key element of The Lord of the Rings – the destruction of the Ring – represents a rejection of power and its temptation. But power in the story is really the domination of others; there is comparatively little focus in the story on leadership as such, beyond the notion that a good leader ought to not impose themselves on their subjects (c.f. Aragorn giving autonomy to The Shire and Fangorn Forest), or get too deeply wedded to abstract notions of state (c.f. Denethor, who sees everything through a political lens). One suspects that Tolkien’s sympathies in Westeros would lie with a Brotherhood Without Banners purged of its vigilante elements:
My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. (Letter – 29th November, 1943).
Tolkien further states, in the same letter:
Anyway the proper study of Man is anything but Man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men.
Basically, leadership in The Lord of the Rings is treated in terms of “who is bossing others and who isn’t” – Aragorn doesn’t do it, whereas Sauron believes he is fully obligated to enslave Middle-earth for its own good. This is a rather different focus from Martin’s approach, which fully runs with the notion that man is a political animal and that everyone is after that ugly iron chair.
Back to the quote though:
“It’s easy to type, ‘he ruled wisely and well,’ but what does that constitute?
Well, for starters, Tolkien did not type it. Given his life experience, Aragorn was likely well-equipped to rule, and all indications are that the Reunited Kingdom prospered under him, but Tolkien did not go and state it. Besides, it would be a violation of Show Don’t Tell.
What was his tax policy?
Martin is correct: we don’t know about Aragorn’s tax policy (if I were being snide, I’d suggest that apart from Tyrion’s tax on prostitution – which strikes me as a recipe for driving it underground – we know comparatively little about Westerosi tax policy either). On the other hand, we know a fair amount about Shire tax policy, from the Scouring, when our actual protagonists dismantle the centralised regime put in place by Saruman. Tolkien goes into some quite substantial detail about how The Shire is put back together again: the re-use of bricks from the ruffians’ buildings, the restoration of Bagshot Row, Sam’s use of Galadriel’s gift, et cetera. Why is Martin more interested in the policies of a supporting character, when there is so much governing detail right there on the page?
How did the economy function?
Trade. We see Erebor and Lake Town trade with each other (and Mirkwood). Lotho Sackville-Baggins sells pipeweed to Isengard, the Elves of Eregion trade with the Dwarves of Khazad-dûm, Bilbo imports things for his birthday party. Caranthir in The Silmarillion gets wealthy from an economic arrangement with the Dwarves. The Prancing Pony is located on the chief East-West trade route. Osgilliath, the original capital of Gondor, was positioned for river trade (Minas Anor was built as a mere fortress). Et cetera. And there is information about Gondorian coinage (four silver tharni to one castar) in the History of Middle-earth series – this was cut from the Rings appendices for space reasons, because as fun as world-building is, story comes first.
Tolkien even goes so far as to explore how Mordor feeds itself – basically agricultural slave-fields in the south-west supply the needs of the industrial part. And again, at the risk of being snide, Martin does not give us much idea about how, for example, the Wildings feed themselves, given multi-year winters (realistically, the Northern settlements would be clustered along the coastline, to take advantage of fish and a milder climate).
What about the class system?
The same issue as before: The Shire provides us with a study of social classes in detail, so why is Martin so fixated on Aragorn? Specifically, The Shire has a true upper class, with land-holdings and titles (the Tooks and the Thain, the Brandybucks and the Master). Then there are the bourgeois middle-class: the Bagginses, Boffinses and their ilk, who are less wealthy than the Tooks, but more respectable (the true aristocrat never cares about what others think of them). And there are the working class like the Gamgees. The elected Mayor is a counterpoint to this system, with long-serving Sam Gamgee coming from the working class. And note too: Bilbo is very generous to the poor, whereas Lobelia is certainly not.
As I have said, I fully accept that Martin adores Tolkien – I just think this fixation with governance details ignores much of what Tolkien did provide, within the scope of a single book no less. I think one of Tolkien’s letters is relevant here:
I am, all the same, primarily a “philologist”. To me far the most absorbing interest is the Elvish tongues (which were made before and independently of this tale), the nomenclature derived from them, and the scripts. So my plans for the “specialist volume” were largely linguistic. The major item was to have been an index of names, with references, & with explanations and etymologies that would have incidentally have provided quite a large Elvish vocabulary. I worked at it for weeks, and indexed Vols i and most of ii—it was the chief cause of the delay of Vol iii. But it eventually became plain that the size and cost would sink the boat; so it had to be postponed. And some other things. Among them the facsimiles of three pages of the Book of Mazarbul, which I had spent some time in forging, burned, tattered, and stained with blood, really necessary as an accompaniment to Ch. 5 of Book Two.
But the problems raised by this extra volume increase. Most people want more (and better) maps; some wish more for geological indications than place-names; many want more specimens of Elvish, with structural and grammatical sketches; others ask for metrics and prosodies, not only of the Elvish, but of the “translations” that are in unfamiliar modes—such as those composed in the strictest forms of Anglo-Saxon verse (e.g. the fragment on the Battle of Pelennor, Book Five, vi, 124). Musicians want tunes and musical notations. Archaeologists enquire about ceramics, metallurgy, tools and architecture. Botanists desire more accurate descriptions of the mallorn+, of elanor, niphredil, alfirin and mallos, and of symbelmynë.
+ I am informed that a new house far away has been called The Mallorns—regrettable: the plural is mellyrn.
Historians require more details about the social and political structure of Gondor, and the contemporary monetary system; and the generally inquisitive wish to be told more about Drúadan, the Wainriders, the Dead Men, Harad, Khand, Dwarvish origins, the Beornings, and especially the missing two wizards (out of five).
It will be a large volume, even if I attend only to the things revealed to my very limited understanding of a complicated world!
(Letter – 20th October, 1955).
Martin is really confusing a hunger for more world-building in the areas that interest him with a fault in the text.