Even if you’re not an avid fantasy reader, you’ve still undoubtedly heard of J.R.R. Tolkien and his The Lord of the Rings trilogy (LOTR). Although The Fellowship of the Ring was first published in 1954, Gandalf, Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, Gollum, Aragorn, Arwen, and Sauron remain iconic figures within the fantasy genre and literary world. The Lord of the Rings encompasses the very themes that make readers gravitate towards the fantasy genre: good vs. evil, complex characters, magic, non-human characters, and the corruption of power, to name a few.
Tolkien would go on to inspire countless other fantasy writers, one of them being the man who is now regarded as “the American Tolkien”: George R.R. Martin. The author of the A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) series has always been candid about his admiration for Tolkien. Tolkien’s impact on Martin has remained prevalent throughout Martin’s life, beginning when Martin was a teenager. In a clip from the 2018 PBS special The Great American Read, Martin states he first read Tolkien when he was in junior high and at the time believed The Lord of the Rings to be the “greatest book that [he’d] ever read.”
Martin said Tolkien approached The Lord of the Rings “as if he was writing history.” Like Tolkien with LOTR, Martin crafts genealogies stretching back hundreds of years, information regarding “the rise and fall of kingdoms,” and “entire stories in a footnote.” In an article from IGN, Martin said when he first started writing A Game of Thrones, he revisited LOTR and tried to “take lessons” from the series. He admitted he believed epic fantasy often contains “too much” magic, so he decided to embed magic within his fictional world, but keep it subtle and “in the background” (luckily, Daenerys Targaryen’s incredible dragons are definitely an exception to that rule!).
The ways Tolkien structured his story are reflected in ASOIAF. As Martin mentions, both start out small and centralized; LOTR begins in the Shire while ASOIAF begins in Winterfell. Gradually, they both start to grow and grow, introducing more characters and places as the story moves on. Eventually, certain events lead the characters in both series to split up and spread out all over their dynamic fictional worlds. Readers of Tolkien and Martin soon find themselves immersed in these worlds too, traveling from place to place with every chapter. Both writers are well-known for the copious amounts of detail they use when describing scenery, people, food, events, etc.
Martin stated that Tolkien’s greatest invention was the characters who struggle with the temptation over the Ring, characters who are “fighting these battles in their hearts.” Martin’s own characters are not so different. They too constantly fight internal battles (or grapple with the ideas of) over honor, justice, redemption, revenge, societal limitations, corruption, greed, etc. While reading about these characters (from their own point-of-views and from others’) you see their strengths, weaknesses, motives, conflicts, emotions, etc. Quite often, Martin’s characters cannot easily be described as “good guys” or “bad guys,” but rather “morally gray.” Some moments, you’re enthusiastically rooting for them all the way, but in an instant that changes, and you find that those particular characters’ decisions frustrate and anger you.
Speaking of characters, Martin is infamous for his killing off of beloved characters in ASOIAF. If you’re still not over the deaths of your favorites, you can thank Tolkien and his decision to (temporarily) kill off Gandalf for that. Martin said he cannot describe the impact Gandalf’s death had on him at thirteen years old. “You can’t just kill Gandalf…Tolkien broke that rule, and I’ll love him forever for it,” he said in the PBS special.
Martin adds, “The minute you kill Gandalf, the suspense of everything that follows is a thousand times greater, because now anybody could die. Of course, that’s had a profound impact on my own willingness to kill characters off at the drop of a hat.” However, unlike Ned Stark, Robb Stark, Oberyn Martell, or Renly Baratheon, Tolkien brought Gandalf back to life. According to SYFY Wire, in a 2011 interview Martin admitted, “I never liked Gandalf the White as much as Gandalf the Grey, and I never liked him coming back. I think it would have been an even stronger story if Tolkien had left him dead.”
Language is another feature of fantasy, but one where Tolkien and Martin differ in their approaches. According to IGN, Martin once joked, “[Tolkien] invented entire languages. I just fake it.” After Martin sold Game of Thrones to HBO, Martin admitted they came to him and said, “’There are entire scenes here in Dothraki. Can you send us your Dothraki book and syntax and rules?’ Tolkien would have responded promptly with a gigantic thing…whereas I had to say, ‘I invented like eight words.’” Luckily, over the course of eight seasons, viewers of the Game of Thrones show heard the languages of Dothraki, Valyrian, and roughly nine others thanks to linguist David Peterson, the show’s producers, and many others involved with creating Thrones‘ languages and dialects.
Ultimately, I believe it’s safe to say that fantasy, literature, and pop culture would look very different today if not for J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin. In a 2019 article by The Hollywood Reporter, Martin said, “it’s very flattering to be mentioned in the same sentence as Tolkien,” when the two writers are compared. He adds, “For me, it’s like being compared to Dickens or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or any of the great writers of English literature, which I rank Tolkien in that category.”
Let us know what Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings influences you see within Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series!
Want to know more about George R.R. Martin? Check out this article: George R.R. Martin: A Lifelong Storyteller!
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