What Is Game of Thrones’ Legacy in Epic Fantasy?

Photo: HBO

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”
―J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

“The things we love destroy us every time, lad. Remember that.”
―George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

No work of art can be entirely separated from its time.  Whether in its medium, its subject matter, or simply the experience of history available to the artist and audience, the real world seeps into everything.  And works of art that capture the public imagination tend to be even more intimately linked to their time.

We are currently experiencing a media hailstorm leading up to the last season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, the worldwide television hit based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books — a series still unfinished by its author. The split between book and television show is important here because while the first volume of Martin’s story was originally published in 1996 and eventually became extremely popular, its “modern phenomenon” status really came with the huge success of the HBO version, starting in 2012.

Inevitably, any fantasy epic that becomes vastly popular will be compared to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (which had its own moment of modern media attention with the success of Peter Jackson’s film version in the early 2000s). And as the time comes to consider the legacy of Thrones, comparing the two can be an instructive exercise. LOTR and GOT are vastly different stories that speak to entirely different worlds and eras.

When Tolkien produced his masterpiece in 1954, there was no such thing as “epic fantasy” or modern fantasy fiction. It was not a commercial genre, and in fact had existed to that point primarily as a gentleman’s game: Most of the early fantasy authors were inventing worlds as a sort of literary hobby, and very few of those stories had any large effect on popular culture, especially compared to other seminal fantastic works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

During the late Victorian era, William Morris, famous designer and socialist, wrote a series of pastoral, pseudo-medieval fantasies that certainly influenced Tolkien. He also knew and admired the darker fantasy stories of Lord Dunsany. And other writers before Tolkien — Poe, Hawthorne, George MacDonald, Hope Mirrlees, Lucy Clifford, and James Branch Cabell, to name a few — had contributed important writings to what we would now call “fantasy fiction.” But none of their works really deserved the title “epic.” Fantasy fiction before J.R.R.T. was still largely a parlor game, not a war game.

Perhaps the first true epic fantasy published in the modern era was E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, a story about the warring kingdoms of Witchland and Demonland and their various more-or-less-human heroes — larger-than-life figures who would have been comfortable lifting a tankard in Valhalla while waiting for the next day’s never-ending battle to begin. In fact, although George R.R. Martin has talked about how much discovering Tolkien affected him, his GOT world is much more like Eddison’s Worm than it is like Tolkien’s Middle -earth, with contending monarchs, behind-the-scenes allies and enemies, lashings of court intrigue and treachery, and even magic used to attack from a distance. Tolkien was impressed by Eddison and named him “the greatest and most convincing writer of ‘invented worlds’ that I have ever read.”

But it remained for Tolkien himself to single-handedly create the subgenre we now call epic fantasy, with the 1954 release of The Lord of the Rings. It’s probably not coincidental that a work so influenced by the horrors of the first World War and published so soon after two of Tolkien’s sons fought in the second should have become so popular among readers who grew up in the postwar years. Cynicism about the Cold War — a potentially endless geopolitical conflict — replaced the paradigm of the “good war” just won. LOTR helped fuel a counterculture among postwar youth who would eventually unite behind the words peace and love — the very opposite of cynicism.

And although Tolkien was occasionally startled to discover that a later generation of hippies and flower children had made a totem of his life’s work, their love for it is understandable. LOTR combines a belief in the power of small, seemingly unimportant people and the ultimate purpose of humankind with a linked belief in a Creator who — at least subtly — works on humanity’s behalf toward that ultimate purpose. In one of Tolkien’s most famous passages, Gandalf the wizard tells reluctant ring bearer Frodo, “There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides that of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, in which case you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.”

So Tolkien’s great story, as he later made explicit in The Silmarillion, is based on a worldview with humanity at its center and a Creator, at least ultimately, in charge. This made it an almost ideal work for those who no longer trusted an Establishment that had taken the whole world to war twice, and was still sending young soldiers to die for questionable ends in places like Korea, Algeria, and Vietnam. “Frodo Lives!” became a popular piece of graffiti among the counterculture folk, and Tolkien himself was often roused in the middle of the night by calls from stoned fans in the United States who didn’t understand time zones, but really, really, really wanted to talk to the man who invented Middle-earth. The professor might have been annoyed, but the same Zeitgeist that led to those calls helped sell millions of books and make hobbits a worldwide byword for “little people standing up to powerful evil.”

But if we jump forward 50 years from LOTR, the world — and the popular stories that reflect that world — becomes quite different. Because on September 11, 2001, 19 terrorists hijacked four planes and managed to damage the Pentagon and destroy both towers of the World Trade Center, killing thousands of innocents.

This kind of literal and figurative leveling affected people in the U.S. most of all — America’s unspoken belief in its isolation and safety from violent world events was the first casualty.  But people in every nation were stunned by the way a comparatively tiny group of people could cause such destruction, could shock the most powerful country in the world right down to its foundations. (In fact, in many ways, 9/11 could be seen as a nasty perversion of the central idea of LOTR, that the small and “insignificant” peoples of the world could rise up and shake the foundations of the mighty.)  In the aftermath of the attacks, a myth of everybody pulling together for the common good was promulgated, and in some cases was happily true. But a rise in violence and discrimination against Muslims showed that “pulling together” was not the only story.

The novelist Don DeLillo wrote shortly after the attacks that 9/11 would change “the way we think and act, moment to moment, week to week, for unknown weeks and months to come, and steely years.” It’s hard to deny that he was right. Several pop-culture phenomena sprang up in the years after 9/11, HBO’s Game of Thrones being one of the most important, but by no means operating in a vacuum. The runaway popularity of The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games in the 2000s also signaled a different sort of sensibility from Tolkien’s postwar years. The enemies were closer, and sometimes they were even friends — or had been. Nothing was entirely trustworthy, not family, not community, and certainly not the government. The anti-establishment cynicism of the ’60s and ’70s had been replaced by a cynicism about virtually everything, and certainly about all institutions. Priests and teachers were now seen as potential molesters. Presidents were no longer just wrong as far as their opponents were concerned — they were actual criminal enemies. George W. Bush was labeled a murderer and Barack Obama was called a fascist. Political and cultural media were weaponized.

Into this new and more anxious world burst HBO’s Game of Thrones. Interestingly, the showrunners chose to ignore Martin’s series title, A Song of Ice and Fire (which seemed to speak to his long-term plans with the series), and used the name of the first book instead. And indeed the “Game of … ” trope quickly went viral, becoming shorthand for competition and often treachery in innumerable articles and reality television shows’ titles.

A lot of the drama and struggle of GOT came from one of Martin’s inspirations — the War of the Roses, a deadly, often personal struggle for family power in 15th-century England between two branches of the ruling Plantagenet dynasty, the Yorks and the Lancasters. Those who know a little history know that there were no philosophical differences behind this struggle. Neither the Yorks nor the Lancasters wanted to change things in any major way — they were fighting purely for the power of the throne.

With Westeros, Martin similarly portrayed a world where the fiercest conflicts were not for ideals, but for power. The book and its successors became best sellers, but it was the later television show, like most Zeitgeist-hugging phenomena, that plugged into the confusing, troubled tenor of the times — America post–Monica Lewinsky, post-impeachment, post–disputed 2000 election, and especially, post–September 11, 2001.

In the long wake of the 9/11 attacks, America has become a troubled superpower. Bipartisanship, collegiality, and respect seem to have left our political life for good. Half of the people in the country believe the current president is a crook, and possibly a tool of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Before that, a smaller but equally devout percentage believed the previous president was a foreign Manchurian candidate, even a stalking horse for Islamic fundamentalism. Science is now openly subjected to purely political judgment, and the dubious but sturdy idea of an objective news media is long gone. Many people would suggest that America has not been this divided since the years leading up to the Civil War. Europe, awash in its own racial backlashes and economic chaos, is no better off. We’re living in a Game of Thrones world.

J.R.R. Tolkien seemed to believe that if we had courage, faith, and did the right thing without concern for personal cost, God would protect us and humanity would triumph.

G.R.R. Martin, at least in his famous work of fiction (abetted now by the showrunners who are finishing the story for him), has made it very clear that not only is innocence or a good heart no defense, in many cases they are magnets for disaster. The strong will destroy the weak, proclaims the Westeros philosophy, and only cunning and moral flexibility matter. No one can be trusted completely, nor should be. The world is without form except for that which human agency can give it, and power is the only protection, though even that protection can turn out to be insufficient, as various assassinations in Game of Thrones have made all too clear.

Did Martin invent this worldview? No, no more than Tolkien invented the postwar milieu in which his work became so popular.  But both writers spoke to the fears and hopes of their own time, and if Tolkien’s work came to us in a time with more hope than now, that is not Martin’s fault.

Tad Williams writes fantasy and science fiction, including the two Osten Ard book series and the virtual-reality epic Otherland.

What Is Game of Thrones’ Legacy in Epic Fantasy?