Defending George R.R. Martin: A Reply to Reading Tolkien

The good people at the Reading Tolkien podcast have put out a new piece, which spends some time comparing the underlying moral positions of George R.R. Martin and J.R.R. Tolkien:

(The relevant discussion starts about twenty-seven minutes in. It’s a long podcast).

In the interests of fairness, I feel the need to step in and defend George R.R. Martin here. While I do agree that Martin and Game of Thrones benefited from a particular Zeitgeist, I do think the podcast misrepresents Martin by tying his work too closely to the pop-cultural representation of Game of Thrones.

Essentially, Martin is presented as serving up and celebrating raw political cynicism, where to imagine that anyone in power might have moral motives is profoundly naïve. Indeed, Reading Tolkien goes a step further, and decries Martin’s lack of implicit moral positioning – A Song of Ice and Fire supposedly treats all humans as a grey and messy morass, which makes it difficult to take a stance, since the baddies are really just a different manifestation of “us”. Reading Tolkien suggests Martin is so caught up in the celebration of amoral Machiavellian scheming, he is not prepared to properly condemn that which ought to be condemned.

Now, there is a fair bit to unpack here. First things first, a key point is the need to distinguish Martin’s text from what Game of Thrones became. The books – still unfinished – operate on a quite different level from their television adaptation, and whereas the show degenerated into a cynical orgy of “might makes right”, incoherence, torture, and sex, Martin at least tries to make a reasonably nuanced exploration of political power. If anything, Martin’s major error in his own Tolkien commentary is to think that the other author was engaged in a similar project.

Martin’s thematic point might be summarised as “the effective exercise of political power and commitment to conventional morality are fundamentally at odds.” A good politician will get his hands dirty, while moral purity is the domain of the political eunuch. Now, there is nothing particularly original about this point. Shakespeare indeed did it earlier, and the 4000 lines of Hamlet are a more sophisticated musing on such things than anything in Martin. But Martin not only suggests that fusing moral power and political power is a futile endeavour… he also makes the point that political squabbling is a waste of time when humanity is confronted by a genuinely existential threat. The Game of Thrones is an irrelevancy when ice-zombies are invading, and the real battle is defeating the Others, not in claiming the Iron Throne. Stannis Baratheon (book version) says as much, when he realises that he should save the realm to get the throne and not get the throne to save the kingdom.

(The show, of course, utterly mangles this theme in its final season. But we’re not holding Martin responsible for that).

Let us now turn to Reading Tolkien’s more accurate point. Namely that Martin’s characters are all fundamentally human, with all the messiness that comes from that. It is an accurate point in that most – but not all – of Martin’s characters are presented as having their own positive and negative qualities. Certainly, there is no good in Gregor Clegane or Ramsay Bolton or Joffrey Baratheon, but there are positive qualities in Tywin Lannister, Cersei Lannister or even Roose Bolton. Similarly, Ned Stark and Robb Stark have their weak points, and loveable little Tyrion is a walking mess of psychological issues.

To this I would make three points:

(1) Presenting a character as having redeeming qualities does not mean the text is incapable of judging them. Tywin Lannister is the embodiment of Machiavelli’s Prince, and Martin is not shy about emphasising his political skill. But the text of A Song of Ice and Fire also emphasises the moral vacuum that Tywin has become, together with his fundamental failures as a father. Consider your reaction when Tyrion crossbowed Tywin on the toilet – was it sorrow, horror, or schadenfreude? Most readers, one suspects, reacted with “good riddance to bad rubbish”, which is not a reaction one would expect if Tywin had been presented in a neutral light.

(2) Following on from (1), I would suggest that the very existence of Gregor Clegane or Joffrey Baratheon puts pay to the notion that Martin engages in pure moral relativism. There are quite clearly implicit moral judgements in A Song of Ice and Fire, beyond the mere question of wanting a particular team to win or lose. Littlefinger is, after all, a villain, not someone to be emulated.

(3) Tolkien himself does much the same as Martin. Certainly, Tolkien has a different ethical system from Martin*, but a cornerstone of his literary work is that we are all capable of falling into darkness and temptation. Unless one is J.K. Rowling, where implicit Calvinism is baked-in to the various Hogwarts Houses, I would suggest that most fantasy authors conceive of morality as “what one does” rather than “what one is”… and while Tolkien presents us with a clear-cut moral division in the form of Gondor versus Mordor, he is a good deal murkier in his presentation of other conflicts. The Second Age struggle between Imperial Númenor and Mordor? Great Power cruelty and nonsense in action. The Sons of Feanor versus Doriath? Thorin Oakenshield versus Thranduil? Plenty of moral greyness to be found there, with the textual emphasis being more on the tragedy of the conflict than the righteousness of the sides.

If Martin encourages us to see the world through the eyes of the incestuous Jaime Lannister or the child-murdering Theon Greyjoy, that is not an attempt to condone incest or child-murder, much less an attempt to say that nothing really matters, or that it is all systematic. Jaime and Theon are rounded, dynamic characters in a way that Gregor Clegane and Joffrey are not. Martin’s choice of character Point of Views – indeed the fact that he is interested in redemption arcs at all – suggest that there is copious moral judgement at work. His work is an exploration of the flaws of humanity, and the potential for character growth and change.

Because people do change (except in Harry Potter, where a quarter of eleven year-olds are irredeemably evil). Tolkien himself places great emphasis on the notion of pity and mercy – without it, the One Ring would not have been destroyed – and that only makes sense in a setting where we ought to be aware of our own failings and our own capacity for evil. Saruman gets multiple second chances, from characters such as Frodo who have learned better. Sauron himself was not evil in the beginning, and even at the very end was not “absolute evil” – because Tolkien followed the Augustinian/Neoplatonist notion that evil is an absence and as such pure evil cannot exist.

Recall that Tolkien has his greatest literary character – Feanor – achieve pinnacles of sub-creative art, only to fall into tragic villainy. In a Fallen World like Arda Marred, the division between ourselves and Feanor is only a matter of potential. We could be Feanor, just as Feanor inadvertently winds up imitating Melkor. And as such, yes, we do have it in us to be Jaime Lannisters or Theon Greyjoys, but like them, we all have the capacity for change. None of this says we ought to shrug our shoulders at monstrous actions – and I do feel Reading Tolkien is engaging in some misrepresentation here.

*To clarify, Tolkien follows intentionalist ethics, whereas Martin is a consequentialist. Tolkien judges the morality of an action by whether the intentions were Good in themselves or in accordance with virtue (often they aren’t. But being good is damned hard). Martin judges the morality of an action by whether it results in something good. Saruman is Tolkien’s comment on consequentialism. Ned Stark is Martin’s comment on intentionalism.

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