In 2005, Time Magazine’s Lev Grossman—a fantasy author in his own right—called George R. R. Martin “The American Tolkien” and the label stuck. But the comparison only holds true on the surface. The world Martin conceived in his epic series A Song of Ice and Fire unapologetically takes the path of darkness and unremitting violence that Tolkien believed Fantasy must avoid. The characters are motivated by honor and greed, lust and revenge. In some cases they are just trying to survive, just like fallen humanity in the world we know. But in Martin’s Westeros there is no joy to pursue, no beauty to protect. From the outside we can see that it is a world in desperate need of Recovery, but from the inside it is unclear if Recovery is even possible, because if there was no Fall, Recovery would not be necessary. But rather than positing an unfallen world, Martin has proposed a world in which the fallen state we see and know is the natural one. Martin’s world has always been a hostile and unforgiving place. Sorrow and failure have always been either on the horizon or a present reality, but where some of these things sound true of the world as we know it, Martin’s world doesn’t seem to have the room for the eucatastrophic turn that our world does. Universal, final defeat seems inevitable for Westeros. Martin meant it as a mirror-world in the sense that all fantasy mirrors reality to some degree, but the world Martin mirrors is the fallen and broken one we know and long to escape.
As a self-attested lapsed Catholic fascinated by religion, but unconvinced about the existence of a gracious and loving God sovereignly caring for all that he has made, it’s easy to see how Martin’s foundation differs from Tolkien’s. Their worlds bear a passing similarity, but where Tolkien’s is broken and fallen, Martin’s is simply dark. It is not broken, because that implies a state preceding the current darkness. In this case, the different roots cause their trees to produce very different fruit. This is not to say that there is no good in Martin’s series. By setting out to write nuanced, grey characters who reflect humanity’s dual potential to do good and do harm, Martin offers characters who feel real. They are no different from people walking or driving through cities and towns all around us. By making the central conflict one between people who are equally capable of cruelty and benevolence rather than between good and evil on the macro level, Martin’s world resembles ours today. It takes into account the reality that two sides may be at war, but that doesn’t necessarily make either side wholly good or wholly bad. Tolkien has been unfairly criticized in recent years for writing a struggle that is too black and white, but this criticism mistakes Tolkien’s roots for Martin’s. It is expecting Tolkien’s world to mirror ours in the way Martin’s does, but that is missing the heart of Middle Earth. Middle Earth is a sub-creation both as a secondary world conceived by Tolkien and as a primary world within the story itself where it was sung into existence by the Ainur as they play their part in the great symphony propounded by Eru, the One. But in the context of the story itself, it is also primary creation. Eru proposed the music. He conceived it. The Ainur participated in the making, but the concept belonged to Eru alone. Martin’s Westeros is not primary creation. In the context of the story, it is not creation at all.
This is of the utmost importance. Middle Earth’s mirroring of our world as a primary creation means that it too contains the possibility of Escape, Consolation, and Recovery—of eucatastrophe—that our world does. But Martin’s does not. Martin’s offers superficial escape—to a land of dragons and magic, but not a world that hints at the redemption of the primary world. It offers no consolation because there is no hope that things will ever truly change. If people are people in the way Martin imagines, darkness and violence will never end, which means there can be no recovery because there is nothing to be regained. No goodness has been lost; no beauty can be reclaimed; and truth is dark and grim. This is clearly illustrated in Martin’s belief that Tolkien took a wrong step when Gandalf came back to life. According to Martin, Gandalf should have stayed dead. Where Gandalf came back, no longer as Gandalf the Grey but as Gandalf the White, Lady Catelyn Stark comes back as the cold and ruthless Stoneheart, living in her physical body but dead in her soul. Both experience a resurrection of sorts, but the kind Martin imagines is unlike the kind Tolkien provides in The Lord of the Rings and the kind Jesus offers in the primary world. Gandalf comes back as he does because Tolkien’s world mirrors one in which “the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe” has actually occurred: our world. Martin’s world mirrors one that is lost and hopeless: it is what ours would be if Christ not only had never come, but did not even exist. And that is a truly grim world to consider.