The Meaning of Courage: J.R.R. Tolkien vs George R.R. Martin
Today I thought I would do a thematic compare-and-contrast between the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and those of George R.R. Martin, focusing specifically on the portrayal of courage. How do these two authors, coming as they do from radically different backgrounds, and differing so markedly in intent, answer the question “what is bravery?” It turns out that both Tolkien and Martin tackle this theme in their own way, and, no, I am not going to argue that Tolkien’s treatment is inherently superior. It’s a distinction I would personally summarise as one of endurance vs rebellion – though, as we shall see, it’s an imperfect summation.
(i). Tolkien: Bravery as Endurance
If I were to compile a list of the bravest characters in Tolkien, it would be topped by the likes of Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, Húrin, and Fingolfin. Honourable mentions would include Éowyn, Beren, Lúthien, Beregond, Haleth, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins (yes, really), Feanor, and Nerdanel. What to make of such a list?
Well, for a start, the four at the top are characterised by their fundamental determination to keep going in the face of extreme adversity. A quote commonly attributed to Winston Churchill sums this up very well – “if you’re going through hell, keep going,” though whether a Tolkien character actually emerges from this author-inflicted hell depends very much on the individual story.
Looking at each of these four characters in turn, Frodo endures torment both at a physical level (stabbings, stings, and the Orcs of Cirith Ungol) and a psychological level (the Ring) – with the latter ultimately being more serious:
“I can’t recall the taste of food, nor the sound of water, nor the touch of grass. I’m naked in the dark. There’s nothing–no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I can see him with my waking eyes.”
The courage of Frodo is internal willpower – we see this initially with the Morgul Blade, but once in Mordor, Frodo’s awareness of the world reduces to himself and the Ring, locked in a struggle for mastery. In the end the Ring wins, as it inevitably must, but Frodo’s efforts get him close enough to allow for the intervention and fall of Gollum. Frodo’s courage is one person’s attempt to resist the impossible for as long as he can, and while he fails, there is a eucatastrophe waiting for Middle-earth, if not for Frodo himself.
Sam never endures the same level of internal suffering – his brand of courage primarily involves confronting and overcoming external obstacles. Shelob, the Silent Watchers, the Orcs of Cirith Ungol, managing food and water, carrying Frodo up the slopes of Mount Doom: Sam Gamgee is committed utterly to his friend, and the practical necessities of getting to the Mountain. Even after the Ring’s destruction (where he knows they both are doomed by the volcanic eruption), it is Sam who suggests going back outside, at least – a last gesture of defiance against the inevitable. In the event, Sam is also the only one of the four characters I have identified who fully emerges from his literary hell, the only one who lives to enjoy the fruits of his bravery.
Turning from The Lord of the Rings to the bleaker world of The Silmarillion, we encounter the immense – and ultimately futile – bravery of Húrin Thalion (‘the Steadfast’). Húrin first fights on in a doomed cause at the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, then after capture, he resists Morgoth for twenty-seven years. At first, the struggle is physical: Morgoth tries to torture him into revealing the location of Gondolin. Later, the struggle becomes psychological, with Húrin trapped in a chair upon Thangorodrim, watching helplessly as his family destroy themselves.
While Húrin – like Frodo – endures primarily mental torment (far more terrifying than the mere physical), unlike Frodo, Húrin is not subjected to a temptation of power, but rather a temptation of despair. Part of this is difference in Dark Lord modus operandi: Sauron (via the Ring) tries to seduce his victims, whereas Morgoth tries to break them via raw, destructive power. Húrin’s choice is basically whether to co-operate, or not, with his captor – and Húrin, being extraordinarily brave, opts for defiance. In the end, defiance is all he has – it is truly a hopeless situation, but in the style of the Northern Theory of Courage, he does not take this as refutation. He will not give Morgoth a victory.
It is not, however, a battle Húrin can win, except insofar as he never surrenders to Morgoth. He finally emerges from Angband a bitter old man, whose bitterness is accentuated by the misinformation spread about him. On release, he accidentally assists in the destruction of Gondolin and Doriath, and eventually throws himself into the Sea, broken at last by suffering. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, Húrin’s tale lacks final eucatastrophe – his is a bleak, defiant, courage that is admirable all the more because dawn never comes. Moreover, whereas I think Tolkien’s narrative encourages the reader to identify with the courage of Frodo and Sam, Húrin’s is treated more distantly – we are in awe of this character’s bravery, of his endurance for twenty-seven years, but we can only regard it as remote observers. Even thinking about the mechanics (did he need to eat and sleep while in the chair?) is to ponder out-of-place questions.
The fourth of Tolkien’s courageous figures, Fingolfin, is a misleading proposition. Fingolfin’s courage is generally associated with his duel with Morgoth – we are talking a character who basically rides to the gates of Hell, challenges the Devil himself to single combat, and wounds the Devil seven times before dying. How is this not immeasurably brave? Well, I think in terms of Tolkien’s story, Fingolfin’s bravery – however epic and glamorous – is the wrong sort of bravery. Fingolfin’s deeds (like Éowyn’s from The Lord of the Rings) are simply despair, dressed up as something greater – suicide by Dark Lord, if you will. Had the High King of the Noldor not snapped, had he bided his time rather than surrendering to despair, it is entirely possible that the sort of animosities that undermined Maedhros at the Nirnaeth may have been avoided. As it is, Fingolfin’s death is the cherry atop the disastrous cake of the Dagor Bragollach.
In my opinion, Fingolfin’s best qualification for the list is not his challenge to Morgoth Bauglir, but rather his crossing of the Helcaraxe, after he and his people have been abandoned by Feanor:
Then Fingolfin seeing that Feanor had left him to perish in Araman or return in shame to Valinor was filled with bitterness; but he desired now as never before to come by some way to Middle-earth, and meet Feanor again. And he and his host wandered long in misery, but their valour and endurance grew with hardship; for they were a mighty people, the elder children undying of Eru Iluvatar, but new-come from the Blessed Realm, and not yet weary with the weariness of Earth. The fire of their hearts was young, and led by Fingolfin and his sons, and by Finrod and Galadriel, they dared to pass into the bitterest North; and finding no other way they endured at last the terror of the Helcaraxe and the cruel hills of ice.
According to the timeline in the History of Middle-earth, this crossing took some twenty-seven years – in perpetual darkness, beneath the stars. Whereas Húrin’s courage is that of Frodo (internal), Fingolfin’s courage is that of Sam (confronting and overcoming external obstacles), and like Sam, he had others to care for along the way. As with Húrin, however, we are dealing with a much more mythological and remote treatment of bravery, as befits the nature of The Silmarillion.
(That his journey takes as long as Húrin’s confinement is a coincidence I find interesting. Twenty-seven is three to the power of three. Recall also that Melkor was imprisoned for three ages).
(ii). Martin: Bravery as Rebellion
Switching authors, if I were compiling a list of brave characters from A Song of Ice and Fire, it would be topped by Qarlton Chelsted, Theon Greyjoy (hear me out), Davos Seaworth, and Samwell Tarly (again, hear me out). Honourable mentions to Waymar Royce, Bowen Marsh (yes, really), Maester Cressen, Syrio Forel, Jaime Lannister, and Tyrion Lannister. What to make of this list?
Well, if Tolkien’s characters exhibit bravery by enduring suffering in the face of doom, Martin’s characters exhibit bravery by challenging unjust power. It might be a futile challenge – but it is a challenge nonetheless. It might be disruptive or detrimental to wider concerns, but, well, fiat justitia ruat cælum. Let justice be done, though the heavens fall – or, in this case, let justice be done, though Tywin Lannister’s favourite son jump into a bear pit to rescue a woman.
Lord Chelsted, I think, is the purest example of this spiritual rebellion. His refusal to go along with Aerys Targaryen’s plan to blow up King’s Landing – a completely futile action – is arguably the bravest moment for any character in Martin’s series. Chelsted does not act in expectation that Aerys will listen to him – he has already tried reason at this point, unsuccessfully. Rather, Chelsted stands before the Mad King, daring to say “no”, and knowing what the consequences will be. The point is that there are some things even the threat of being burned alive cannot force a man to accept.
Chelsted’s example also represents a thematic variant of what TV Tropes terms What Are You In the Dark? – the idea that it is easy to do the right thing when someone is watching, and if there are very real benefits to doing it. It is much harder to do the right thing if there are no benefits to doing it, and if no-one is going to call you up on not doing it. In Chelsted’s case, we have already established that the Mad King was not about to listen to reason, so challenging him was pointless – but I would also point out that Chelsted did not have to confront his monarch at all. He was not in on Aerys’ plan, and only noticed it later – turning a blind eye would have been perfectly acceptable in the circumstances. If he feared for his own life, he could have found some excuse to get himself out of the city. But he didn’t – he made a moral stand, and was cooked for it.
Theon Greyjoy – not a character who previously endears himself to most readers, but then Martinian bravery comes from unlikely sources – serves as an interesting contrast between Tolkien and Martin. Theon, more than any other character in A Song of Ice and Fire, is subjected to brutal torment at both the psychological and physical level: while in the books the nature of this torment is unspecified (unlike the TV version, it is unclear if book Theon has been castrated), we certainly do see the end result, with Theon reduced to a contemptible Reek figure.
However, whereas Tolkien would have written a character who does not break under torture, who resists everything the captor can throw at him – a Húrin, who remains staunch in his righteous martyrdom – Martin takes a different course. Theon’s courage is not in withstanding Ramsay’s torture (he doesn’t withstand it, nor can he), but rather his decision in A Dance With Dragons to help rescue Jeyne Poole. It is a simple, small-scale choice, without grandeur or wider implications – but for Theon, to rebel against Ramsay in this manner, to defy the man he fears more than death itself, who has reduced him to a quivering wreck – it is pure, unadulterated bravery.
Chelsted and Theon rebel against the injustice of villains. Davos Seaworth rebels against the injustice of a man he serves with all his heart. I refer to his rescue of Edric Storm.
Recall that Melisandre believes that burning Edric will grant Stannis victory. Is this belief accurate? Neither the reader, nor Davos, nor Stannis himself has any idea. Davos, however, is adamant that killing a child is wrong, even if it saves the world – so he smuggles Edric out before Stannis can burn him. Philosophically, Davos is taking a Kantian view against Melisandre’s utilitarianism, but for the purposes of Stannis, the Onion Knight is straight-out defying him – indeed, it is arguably treason. The bravery here is that Davos risks his own neck, the war-effort, and the potential fate of the world in the name of not crossing a moral line, the murder of a single child. As with Chelsted, it would have been easier and safer to look the other way, but Davos, like Chelsted is made of sterner stuff.
(For his part, Stannis is actually very understanding of his friend’s decision. One can only speculate on what Tywin Lannister would have done in this situation… and, well, we know what Aerys Targaryen does).
The fourth character in Martin’s list, Samwell Tarly, does not fit tidily into my thesis. His endurance during the flight from the Fist of the First Men is an achievement unto itself, and as such is more Tolkien than Martin, while his killing of the Other represents the sort of overcoming of obstacles one sees with his namesake, Sam Gamgee (c.f. Tolkien’s Sam wounding Shelob). However, on balance, I would still argue a case can be made for Samwell’s bravery being a rebellion of sorts.
Specifically, Samwell’s entire life has been spent in an abusive environment – from his earliest days, his father drills into him a truly disturbing notion of masculinity, while at the Wall, he is nicknamed Ser Piggy, and suffers accordingly. Apart from Jon Snow, Samwell has never heard a supportive voice, only the voice of people hell-bent on undermining his self-worth in the name of his “own good”. Samwell’s endurance, and his desperate struggle with the Other is not simply the overcoming of physical obstacles, but also an overcoming of the way he has been treated. It is an assertion of self-worth against his father, and every other bully in his life – as much a spiritual defiance of them as Theon defies Ramsay for Jeyne Poole.
In any case, Samwell does represent one specifically Martin idea of courage – Ned Stark’s assertion that one can only be brave when one is afraid. Samwell Tarly, who cries at the death of a chicken, but who ends up killing an Other, is by that standard the bravest character in the series. One does not see this emphasis on overcoming fear so much in Tolkien, where fear is but one part of the cocktail of adversity.
I mentioned earlier that the distinction between Tolkien and Martin on the subject of courage is fuzzy, and that my suggestion of endurance vs rebellion is an oversimplification. We have already seen this with the example of Samwell Tarly, who in some ways is closer to his Tolkienian namesake than the sort of rebellious interfering do-gooder one sees in Martin. Martin is also capable of exploring the endurance and survival of Sansa Stark under the reign of Joffrey, albeit that I do not think A Song of Ice and Fire necessarily equates Sansa’s endurance with conventional bravery (the situation is a bit different in the TV version).
For his part, Tolkien can portray rebellion as a potentially heroic act, after the manner of Martin. Beregond the Guard, who defies Denethor in order to save Faramir, is presented within the narrative as a hero. It is, of course, still rebellion against lawful authority, as Aragorn later notes, but it was done for the best of reasons – as Aragorn also notes. Meanwhile, Isildur rescuing a fruit from Nimloth the White Tree, is in a sense a justified rebellion against an unjustified one. The one hundred year-old Lobelia Sackville-Baggins attacks a Shire Ruffian twice her size with an umbrella.
An interesting case is where Tolkien combines bravery and rebellion with moral reprehensibility – I am thinking of Feanor’s reply to Mandos, during the Revolt of the Noldor:
“We have sworn, and not lightly. This oath we will keep. We are threatened with many evils, and treason not least; but one thing is not said: that we shall suffer from cowardice, from cravens or the fear of cravens. Therefore I say that we will go on, and this doom I add: the deeds that we shall do shall be the matter of song until the last days of Arda.”
Feanor is exhibiting genuine bravery here, and not merely in the Fingolfin/Morgoth despairing sense. He is defying Mandos, in the name of doing the right thing – but, of course, he is horribly wrong about that, just as he is wrong about many things. Which potentially raises an interesting counterpoint to the notion of bravery being a rebellion against injustice – who gets to determine whether something is unjust? To draw comparisons with Martin’s text, it is all very well to suggest Syrio Forel is brave for his protection of Arya (I do), but what of Maester Cressen, who tries to poison Melisandre, or Bowen Marsh, who stabs Jon Snow? Are these brave acts? I personally think they are, and not simply because of my distaste for Jon Snow – but we are getting into murky waters, unless one runs with the idea that bravery is not inherently admirable in its own right.
Do Martin and Tolkien treat bravery as inherently admirable? A tricky question, not least because there is a distinct ambiguity in the word “admire” – one can admire something without necessarily promoting it as a moral positive.
Tolkien is already cautious enough to distinguish, for example, the quiet struggle of Frodo Baggins from the death-seeking heroics of Éowyn – indeed, as discussed earlier, we see this very distinction within the single character of Fingolfin. Húrin goes through immense suffering, but an unanswered question is – was it worth it? We can certainly recognise Húrin’s defiant actions as worthy of admiration, but are they to be emulated? Certainly, asking Morgoth for mercy would have achieved nothing – but then defying him achieves little either, save for only a cold and grim satisfaction as Húrin’s world collapses around him. Meanwhile, bravery shorn of morality (Feanor) can be awe-inspiring in one sense, even as we recognise the vanity and tragedy lurking behind it.
By contrast, Martin does seem to treat the overcoming of fear (Ned Stark’s interpretation) as something inherently positive, on the basis that those who fear are likely to be vulnerable to start with. We are obviously supposed to cheer for Samwell. If we broaden the discussion to the idea of whether rebellion against unjust power is inherently positive, we can obviously cheer Chelsted, Theon, and Davos (or at least judge them sympathetically), but I do think we are forced to make… interesting assessments about Bowen Marsh and Maester Cressen. Basically, we run into the very Martinian notion that everyone is the hero of their own story, and bravery from a character we like will be interpreted differently than bravery from a character we hate. Morality also depends heavily on context, and incomplete information (c.f. Jaime killing Aerys).
Generally speaking, J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin are concerned with different themes and ideas – one has produced an epic, the other a series of novels – but they both consider the meaning and nature of courage. Tolkien, as I have illustrated, takes great interest in brave characters who suffer, who resist the savage machinations of Arda Marred through innate strength of character. Such characters generally do not have happy endings, of course, but the point is that they tried – the potential flipside being grand despair that some might wrongly mistake for bravery. Martin, I think, tends to portray brave characters who are not willing to tolerate the unfairness of the world, and who want to do something about it, if only at the micro-level; for such characters, the flipside is not despair, but rather a shrugging acceptance of unfairness (it’s too hard!). This is not a hard and fast line, however – both authors explore characters who stray into the other side of the endurance/rebellion divide, and both feature courageous acts from characters of questionable morality. Such is one of the perennial themes of fantasy.