Blood lineage: A Song of Ice and Fire vs The Lord of the Rings

My post last month on “privileged” fantasy vs “egalitarian” science-fiction has got me thinking. It is an common feature of literary criticism that Tolkienian fantasy embodies a conservative, agrarian view of the world (McGarry and Ravipinto). Certainly, it is widely accepted that The Lord of the Rings is the product of tweed jackets and pipe-smoke, whereas George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire – or at least its TV adaptation – is considered a much closer fit with how twenty-first century western society perceives itself. Unlike Rings, Song has on-screen sex and swearing, and garners praise for its moral complexity (again, see McGarry and Ravipinto).

Yet, I would argue that Song contains social ideas far more “out of time” than anything in Rings, and more to the point, treats them decidedly uncritically. Glorification of blood lineage – supposedly a sin of Tolkien – is there in spades in Martin. Whereas Tolkien’s world is saved by the likes of Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, middle-class and working-class respectively, Martin’s protagonists are almost entirely nobles (those who aren’t, like Davos, are in the story because they hang around nobles). Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly may have complaints about their stepmother and father respectively, but they were both born with silver spoons lodged firmly in their mouths. And Jon may or may not be a secret Targaryen Heir.

But it is deeper than that. The root cause of the War of the Ring is about tyranny vs opposition to tyranny – the main focus is not on a throne, but a ring. The root cause of the War of the Five Kings is about who is the rightful ruler of Westeros, a question that hinges on very non-progressive views of genetics.

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Take, for instance, Eddard Stark. From the moment we see him executing a man with his own blade, the narrative clearly intends us to like Ned. He believes in honour and decency, in treating his peasants well, in opposing the murder of innocent children (a tragic flaw that proves his downfall). Ned, it seems, has ideals we can relate to. So when Ned finds out about Jaime and Cersei, our immediate thought is to go along with his notion that Joffrey is an illegitimate monarch, and that Stannis is the true heir. Yay for Ned! Joffrey is an arsehole anyway.

Until you realise that Ned’s reasons for opposing Joffrey’s rule aren’t ours. Ned doesn’t oppose Joffrey because he’s unfit to rule (though he is); Ned opposes Joffrey because Joffrey lacks the right DNA: Joffrey was the product of one man having sex with Cersei Lannister, rather than another. If Joffrey were Robert’s, Ned would be right behind him, so long as he didn’t pull an Aerys and started chopping off Stark heads. In other words, Ned is a believer that one’s right to rule hinges entirely on one’s birth – not their character or ability, and Martin’s narrative (by presenting Ned so sympathetically and his enemies so unsympathetically) tacitly encourages us to accept that particular ideological framework.

While a feudal nobility and birth-right are inherently intertwined, in this case I reject arguments based on “historical accuracy” (a term I hate when applied to fantasy fiction). The handling of the situation is Martin’s own narrative choice. After all, Ned’s “modern” notions are what encourage the reader to initially sympathise with him: it is the sugar-coated covering for reactionary ideas.

Furthermore, Martin chooses to dress up a conflict over birth-right as a war about morality.  Suppose Joffrey were kind and competent, a less doormat-like version of Tommen. Would that change anything? Well, it might make the reader question whether Ned is doing the right thing. It might make us feel some sympathy for Joffrey and his mother – he has no choice in his paternity, and she was shoe-horned into marriage with a violent, alcoholic oaf. But Song does not want us to sympathise with Joffrey and Cersei; the text wants us hate them, because they are “wrong” in terms of Ned’s lineage-centred worldview. Even when Cersei does get her own viewpoint, it only serves to make her more repellent – as though Martin doesn’t trust us to come to our own conclusions about the character.

But wait, you say, The Lord of the Rings has Aragorn, Isildur’s Heir. He too is claiming the throne based on lineage. He too is supported by the ‘good guys’ (Gandalf), and opposed by someone (Denethor) whom we are supposed to consider wrong. How is this different from the situation of Ned and Joffrey/Cersei?

Leaving aside my perennial point that Rings is not really about the throne of Gondor, whereas Song is emphatically about the throne of Westeros, I would suggest two reasons. Firstly, the dispute between Aragorn and Denethor is a dynastic dispute with valid points on both sides – it is a modern rehash of an argument over a thousand years old, and, if anything, precedent is actually on Denethor’s side: Minas Tirith has explicitly rejected Isildur’s line in the past. This sort of legalistic dispute is thus actually more akin to Martin’s Dance of the Dragons conflict than Ned and Joffrey/Cersei, where one side is unquestionably right (within the blood-dependent system) and one is unquestionably wrong.

Secondly, Tolkien’s portrayal of the characters, in contrast to Martin, is not white vs black, but white vs grey (you have no idea how much I enjoyed writing that sentence). Tolkien’s Denethor is no Joffrey or Cersei – he’s highly intelligent and competent, and is ultimately a tragic figure who gives into despair. The text may encourage us to cheer for Aragorn over him, but it does not encourage us to hate him – Denethor is to be pitied, not scorned. As for Aragorn, while Tolkien’s text clearly favours his side, he has to base his claim on more than just blood. He has to earn the throne first via decades in the wilderness, followed by the War of the Ring, before explicitly running his claim past the people of Minas Tirith (imagine Ned asking the people of King’s Landing if they prefer Joffrey or Stannis!). If being the Heir of Isildur were enough in itself, any one of Aragorn’s ancestors could have claimed the throne beforehand – but they don’t.

In other words, for all that Tolkien gets bashed for his old-fashioned views, his handling of the dynastic situation is actually pretty nuanced. As with Martin, we are still being invited to buy into the notion of someone having the rightful claim to the throne, but we don’t have such a clear divide between right and wrong, and even then the “wrong” side certainly isn’t demonised. Aragorn also has an element of merit behind his claim, rather than justification on birth alone. If Miéville criticises Tolkien for being about “good Kings vs bad Kings, rather than about Kings,” then at least the underlying conflict in Rings isn’t about our protagonist heroically disputing a monarch’s genetics. Which one is the twenty-first century writer again?

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