The Grim, the Dark, and the Light of Middle-earth

Once upon a time, in a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, George R.R. Martin made a few comments about The Lord of the Rings and the flaws he saw therein. While he stated that he is a fan of Tolkien and of The Lord of the Rings, Martin declared that Tolkien had a “medieval philosophy” that didn’t quite cut deep enough for the story to be realistic (or something of the sort), and that the characters never really had to make hard decisions:

“This [the Song of Ice and Fire series] was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles? In real life, real-life kings had real-life problems to deal with. Just being a good guy was not the answer. You had to make hard, hard decisions. Sometimes what seemed to be a good decision turned around and bit you in the ass; it was the law of unintended consequences. I’ve tried to get at some of these in my books. My people who are trying to rule don’t have an easy time of it. Just having good intentions doesn’t make you a wise king.”

– George R.R. Martin, Rolling Stone, April 23, 2014

Let’s overlook all the hard decisions the characters actually made, the fact that Tolkien did mention what happened to the orcs after the War of the Ring, and all the unintended consequences that occurred in The Lord of the Rings that helped our many heroes win the day (but ultimately, in a way, still caused them to lose so much) and focus instead on “reality”.

Or at least what a lot of contemporary authors see as reality when it comes to fantasy novels.

Grimdark stories are fashionable right now. They purport to tell “realistic” stories about morally gray characters going out into the world, doing morally gray things to other morally gray people, and all around them the world gets darker and more violent because people– or at least people in power– are awful and would sell their mothers and stab their fathers in order to gain more power. History often bears out this point of view. For his Song of Ice and Fire series, George R.R. Martin drew upon the English Wars of the Roses (1455-1487), a time when the English crown hopped from one head to another and back again, families turned on each other, and when large-scale conflicts arose they led to some of the bloodiest battles in English history.

History is violent. Reality is dark. But Tolkien knew this. He had experienced it.

J.R.R. Tolkien was orphaned at twelve. World War I broke out when he was at university, and by 1918, all but one of his closest friends were dead and his health was wrecked. And then, less than twenty-five years later, World War II broke out, and his oldest two sons went off to war. Tolkien was well aware of reality and all the terrible things it entailed. But when contemporary authors like Martin say, “well, Tolkien didn’t make The Lord of the Rings very realistic because we don’t know what Aragorn’s tax policy was like”, it tells me that they’re missing the point.

The Lord of the Rings isn’t meant to show us the darkness of grim reality (though it certainly does at points). Nor is it a story of the deeds of kings (though it shows us those, too). What The Lord of the Rings is, is pure escapism, and that is its glory. His intention in writing it wasn’t to tell the story of political machinations in a world in peril (thought he did do that), it was, as he notes in the preface to the second edition, “the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them”.

So you see, gritty realism wasn’t the point. The beauty of Middle-earth, its lands and languages, its melancholy and its joy, its friendships, and the nostalgia the reader feels for a place that never existed– that is the point of The Lord of the Rings.

That Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin– small and ordinary as they are– accomplish great deeds while kings and wizards are looking elsewhere (to paraphrase Elrond) is the point of The Lord of the Rings.

That so many find hope in the face of despair, and that after the great war those who are left come to value life and healing over honor and glory in battle is the point of The Lord of the Rings.

These are the reasons that in times of darkness and sadness, people call upon Tolkien’s works to give them hope. They don’t look to George R.R. Martin for that. As popular as Martin’s works are– and I’ve read them, too– they’re not inspiring or beautiful. They don’t showcase loyalty or friendship the way The Lord of the Rings does. The contain plenty of suspense, spectacle, and grim reality, but at the end of the day that’s not what I want in a book. I don’t want to read about tax policies or princes turning on each other at the drop of a hat. If I wanted that I’d read the newspaper.

I’ve read Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series twice; I doubt I will read the mythical next book if it ever appears. I’ll probably never read anything else by Brent Weeks or Mark Lawrence or Joe Abercrombie or any of the other popular grimdark fantasy writers.

I’ve read The Lord of the Rings some thirty times, and I will probably read it another thirty times before I’m through. I will never get tired of the fellowship’s loyalty to each other, or the love the characters unashamedly show one another, or their hope and courage. Because, in the end, The Lord of the Rings isn’t a story about the deeds of great men. It’s about the deeds of ordinary people fighting to protect their friends and their homes. I can’t relate to a king, but I can relate to a hobbit. It’s their stories– Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin’s adventures that drew me in as an eleven-year old reading a battered library book. The same stories keep me reading still, nearly thirty years later.

Maybe that makes me a nerd or a stick-in-the-mud. But that’s okay. There are plenty of people who agree with me. Our fandom might be old and creaky and as likely to talk about philology as the films’ special effects, but we have fun.

The world is dark. Find yourself some light.

Happy Hobbit Day.

16 thoughts on “The Grim, the Dark, and the Light of Middle-earth

  1. Absolutely beautifully said! I can certainly sympathize with folks who prefer something darker, more gritty, more angry and violent, something with more details about tax policies. And I might also enjoy that from time to time. But like you, I will far more often return to that slightly lighter, more positive, more escapist, fiction that gives me a brief break from all the rest. And in the case of Tolkien, he did such an amazing job infusing his stories with just enough darkness, just enough violence, just enough light, just enough laughter, and such a rich tapestry of history, culture and character, that I always look forward to those brief moments in life when I can return home to Middle-earth.

  2. Thanks, Todd! There is a place for darker stories and stories about tax policies, for sure. But like you, I want stories that give me a break from the present darkness in the news. The beauty and the richness of Tolkien gives me that, without forgetting that there is sadness and loss. That’s why I love it so much.

  3. I just want to print this post out and mail it to GRRM with a big ole THIS THIS THIS stamped across the front. I’ll never forget that interview. I didn’t see it until well after it originally released, but it has forever tarnished the ASOIAF series for me. Granted, I was already up in arms about how the story ended in the show and the fact that he’s taken a decade to release the next book, but to then hold himself up against Tolkien and say that he did it better? LOL BYE. Even before reading what he’s said about Tolkien, I was unlikely to read the last two ASOIAF books, but when I did finally hear? Never again. Honestly, I want to unhaul the series from my shelves.

    And you’re right–it’s so evident that he completely missed the point of LOTR. Does he actually think anyone cares about the tax system in a fantasy? Literally no one. ASOIAF is truly the only book I have ever skimmed because when it came time to break down the sewage system and the history of the coin and all the other menial bullshit that no one actually cares about, but that GRRM thinks he’s “better” for having including, it just makes me want to hurl the book across the room. His superior attitude has made him into an author that I will never read from again, and that I genuinely hope I forget about. ASOIAF has already begun to fade from people’s minds, and yet, we’re still here talking about LOTR, and we probably will be for lifetimes.

    This is such a wonderful post, and it really points out all the amazing things that Tolkien did that people often forgot he did. Because LOTR is a story of hope, and we forget those dark moments because we’re here for the story of light and goodness.

  4. Thanks!

    I mean, there are fantasy novels out there specifically about banking, but that’s because the main character is a banker like the Medicis. So it makes sense. And I would probably find it incredibly boring (I can’t remember what it’s called or who it’s by, unfortunately….).

    I was listening to an episode of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour where they discussed their recent “50 best SFF novels of the past ten years”, and one of the commentators talked how there are so many Tolkien knock-offs that try to replicate the mechanics of the Lord of the Rings, but fail to capture its spirit. She was totally right. That’s part of why I’m leery about reading long fantasy series (especially ones written by white men) these days, as it seems like they’re out to prove that they can out-Medieval Tolkien. Like they’re somehow going to read a couple of books about the Wars of the Roses and outdo the guy who wrote his school notes in Old High Gothic……

    But anyway. Martin had some interesting things going on in the first few books, but– like Robert Jordan– once he got into the weeds of the series, he just started expanding and expanding on things to the detriment of his story. And he’s let his fame to go his head. The fact that he’s gone for so long without finishing the next book in his series is only going to work against him, as the lousy ending of the TV series cements itself into the public consciousness. That’s part of why I think ASoIaF will ultimately go by the wayside, while The Lord of the Rings will carry on being beloved

  5. LOL “outdo the guy who wrote his school notes in Old High Gothic.” Frame that for reasons why I love Tolkien so much. You just literally can’t outdo that level of dedication and passion! I, too, have mostly stopped reading long fantasy series by white men because it is just repetitive while entirely missing the point, and they all just turn out to sound either like GRRM or even worse. It’s not worth it when the original king of fantasy is still just as good as when it first released.

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  9. Love this post and definitely agree. I do love grim dark and Joe Abercrombie is one of my favourite authors but LOTR will always remain the top of my best loved fantasy book list.

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