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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Not All Who Wander Are Lost: George RR Martin and Tolkien as Fellow Travelers

My first introduction to A Song of Ice and Fire was as a deconstruction of fantasy. George RR Martin's epic (now a "daring" and "brave" television series which you can see on HBO if you turn the brightness and contrast on your TV way, way, WAY up!!!) is, I was told, dark fantasy, with lots of shades of grey and violence and sex and so on.

It is, the subtext and sometimes the explicit text ran, not like Lord of the Rings. Or at least not like the traditions of Tolkienesque fantasy. This review of a recent episode of the (brave! genius! award winning!) tv show for example takes umbrage at the fact that the ending of a battle "has replaced that deconstruction with a blatant lift from Tolkien’s book, with the Vale forces riding in to save the day like Gandalf riding in to save Helm’s Deep." The notion of Tolkien and Martin as in some sort of competition or stark (hah) contrast is in the zeitgeist, is what I'm saying.

Having recently read the books, though, and also recently revisited The Lord of the Rings, I can't help but see this as more a product of a very narrow reading of Tolkien, and of Martin.

Some of this reading is possibly derived less from the source texts themselves but from Peter Jackson's adaptation. Look, I'm not gonna pretend that I haven't been deeply frustrated with The Lord of the Rings films since I was like 12. A lot of the stuff that most resonated with me as a kid ended up weirdly flattened, sensationalized, cut apart, or altered beyond recognition. And in the process everything got a lot more simple. I'm personally never going to forgive The Two Towers for introducing some fucking nonsense Aragorn Falls Off A Cliff subplot only to make up for it by hacking huge holes in the plot of Faramir, one of my absolute favorite characters. And others have written about some of the ways that in Jackson's hands characters like Saruman lose their thematic reason-to-be, becoming one note villains rather than complex and tragic figures.

Martin has suffered some of the same problems from the "brave" adaptation of his books, an adaptation I can't claim to have seen much of but which on a basic stylistic level seems to be run by people who don't understand that "dark fantasy" doesn't literally mean that all the sets should be chronically underlit and the characters should all wear the most drab clothing possible. I mean given that in the original text the Others are described basically as evil elves and the show develops them into ice orcs, and given that no one is walking around in the show with dyed-green beards like they commonly do in the book, it's pretty clear that they're more interested their sense of a "grim and gritty" aesthetic than what the text is trying to actually say.

Unfair? Not really. The critically lauded masterminds behind the "adaptation" literally once stated: "Themes are for eighth-grade book reports.” 

My contempt, I'd say, is well earned.

As a result perhaps of these less than stellar adaptations that have overtaken the originals, and as a result no doubt of Tolkien's many far lesser imitators, and probably to some extent as just a result of overexposure and fan discourses sort of overwhelming the original texts, a pretty remarkable fact has become obscured:

Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire are much more a part of the same thematic tradition than in opposition. Basically, on a lot of levels, Tolkien and Martin are interested in the same stuff, and talking about the same things, and traveling on the same paths. And in fact some of their same formal "stumbling blocks"--things that people find particularly infuriating--parallel each other and do similarly important work within their respective narratives.

And to explain just how this makes sense, I want to talk a little bit about a book called The Worm Ouroboros.

HR Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros is a weird novel. It's pre-Tolkien fantasy, and as a narrative it has some pretty bizarre features, like a framing narrative which is used to introduce the setting ("Mercury," no really) and is then immediately dropped, never to be picked up again. It's a story in which Great Men do Great Things. Or well. Not men exactly. The main characters are the Lords of Demonland, though it's not really clear whether that name represents anything other than tribal affiliation. Their enemy is King Gorice of Witchland, again for whatever that is worth. The characters have names ranging from Goldry Bluszco to Lord Juss to Spitfire to La Fireez.

And based on their descriptions most of the characters would be happily at home next to the heroes and villains of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, posing and strutting and flexing their enormous fucking muscles.

I.e these dudes
I mean this is a book whose massive war is kicked off because Gorice demands that the Lords of Demonland declare fealty to him and Lord Goldry Bluszco responds by challenging Gorice to an epic naked wrestling match to determine the fate of their two kingdoms. This book is fucking nuts, and that's not even getting into what the title means...

I bring up this bizarre pre-Tolkien epic, which you can incidentally read via Project Gutenberg and listen to via Librivox because fuck yeah public domain, because The Worm Ouroboros feels to me like what both Tolkien and Martin are reacting against, and I think it helps to clarify the fact that they have a much closer thematic relationship to each other than to Eddison's work. I mean, this is the ultimate in heroic fantasy. It's just huge, stacked dudes beating the shit out of each other and there's no point to the wars they're carrying out other than the glory of the fights themselves. Like not REALLY.

Tolkien and Martin change the stakes here. For both, the BIG wars in their worlds are a response to a real kind of existential threat--from Sauron, or from the Others--and while Martin does introduce a number of petty conflicts, there's an interest in the common people and their suffering in the face of this epic conflict. For The Worm Ouroboros commoners are mooks, barely present at all or thinly noted in a few lines. They exist to be the armies supporting the great heroes who primarily win their victories through singular heroism.

But deeper than that is an interest in a kind of emotional realism you just don't find in Eddison's world. While Eddison's heroes might wail and grieve enormously and rend their garments and so on, they aren't what you'd call traumatized. War for them is a glorious thing!

Can you imagine Frodo or Sam or hell even Aragorn speaking of the joy of battle?

Yeah, me neither.

No, key to Lord of the Rings, despite all that is made of its heroic fantasy narrative, is the suffering and trauma of many of the major characters. Their fear, their weakness, their uncertainty; their scars, their slow and incomplete healing, their desire for peace.

This shouldn't be unfamiliar to a careful reader of Martin. When I first was going through A Storm of Swords, I was very upset about the prospect of Catelyn Stark dying, in quite a horrible way. So much so that I almost didn't make it through the text. See, Catelyn is sort of the heart of the first three books in that, although she is limited in her perspective and fallible in her perspective as all the characters are, she is nevertheless one of the few characters looking at the disasters of war and perceiving correctly what this conflict is doing to Westros. Although fans who relish the blood and guts parts of the books seem to find Catelyn obnoxious, I don't think there can be much really substantive claim that her perception of the events as being a massive tragedy that needs to be averted, even at the cost of her "vengeance," is anything other than 100% fucking correct.

Luckily, while Catelyn dies, in a sense what she's doing for the narrative is distributed after her death to all the other main characters, who in Feastdance are all deeply ambivalent to outright hostile to the ongoing conflict. In particular we have Tyrion dealing with some pretty serious PTSD after killing his own father, Jamie similarly brutally humbled in a number of ways and disillusioned about both the conflict with the Starks and his relationship to his sister Cersei, Brienne wandering through the Riverlands searching for Sansa (and purpose in after the deaths of everyone she swore fealty to) and finding a blasted and disintegrating social order, Theon brutally dismantled on a base personality level through merciless torture, Daenerys discovering that the whole White Savior thing isn't actually working so well, and on and on and on. And that's what makes it so interesting. Things keep happening even though everyone would really rather they stopped from keep happening for a little while, maybe please.

That to me is very significant. I think in that sense Martin and Tolkien are sort of of an accord here. If they're not exactly on the same page I think they're working from a very similar playbook, and if Martin is more suspicious of kings and rightful heirs--it would be absurd to have Jon Snow or Daenerys claim the throne and make everything better forever, given that Martin has done so much to establish the fact that any kind of autocratic rule like what we see in the story is prone to disastrous consequences--that's fine, that's perfectly alright and doesn't fundamentally undermine their shared interest in some very core ideas.

Namely, they're interested in the trauma that people experience in war, the suffering of the common people in war, and the cost of even a "righteous" war.

We can see this idea of lasting trauma made concrete through the Scouring of the Shire. This is one of The Return of the King's maligned "too many endings" and it's a section of the books that, like Tom Bombadil and the Old Forest, or like the entire books A Dance with Dragons and A Feast for Crows apparently according to some segments of the ASOIAF fandom, large numbers of people seem to consider irrelevant and I consider deeply crucial to the deeper themes and resonances at play here.

For those who have only seen the films, let me try to summarize what happens during the Scouring of the Shire.

Basically, the Hobbits go back to the Shire and find that it's been basically taken over by outside forces. The vision that Sam has in the Pool of Galadriel of the Shire's trees pulled down and people being enslaved and so on (remember that from the movie?) has started to come true--the Shire is being turned into this sort of industrialized authoritarian state. The Great Evil has been defeated, but it turns out that, whoops, actually there's more work to be done after all.

And it turns out that the reason for this is because Saruman of all fucking people has retreated to the Shire and basically set up shop there and tried to style himself as the Shire's new lord.

And people don't like this at all. Because it gives the book multiple endings. Rather than the nice clean cut to Aragorn being crowned king and the Hobbits returning home we get this sequence of events where they have to join with the existing resistance forces to kick Saruman and his men out. Which, yeah, this is a strange choice if what you want from your fiction is a straightforward hero's journey narrative. It's a weird sort of introduction of a whole new story arc, practically, after the Big Bad is dead. It's like if during the celebration scene at the end of Return of the Jedi Moff Tarkin showed up and started shooting Ewoks. But I think that it's a good narrative decision despite (or because) it breaks with narrative conventions. It really shapes our understanding of Lord of the Rings from being a Heroic Text to being a text about a struggle not to be overwhelmed by darkness, a struggle with the fact that evil is insidious and no, you can't just destroy the One Ring and have all the works of Sauron suddenly go away.

I think what's really interesting about the Scouring of the Sire is that it presents the idea that things can be damaged and harmed and hurt in a way that lasts beyond the defeat of The Great Evil. It allows him to express trauma through the geography of the Shire--that the innocent landscape that they've fought to protect has also been scarred by war. And this is much more interesting, actually, than the triumphant ending of the book, which is largely boring as fuck. Lots of crowns and speeches and so on, whatever, blah. I've always hated all the coronation drama honestly, much as I love Tolkien otherwise. Whereas the Scouring of the Shire, despite it being this perverse sort of second ending to the text, feels much more relevant to the deeper resonance of the text because it shows the land itself as scarred, as damaged by war.

There is, too, an element of cyclicality here that's worth noting. So much of the later portion of the book after the Scouring of the Shire is a reflection on the way that Sam and Frodo both still stuffer the effects--the physical and psychological pain--resulting from the interaction with objects of deep evil. The ring, Shelob, the Morgul blade--these powers allow Tolkien to make transparent the experience that Frodo and Sam have by creating a kind of weapon that has the magical property that causes Frodo to re-experience sickness on the anniversary of his wounding. This is a fantasy dramatization, a literalizing of the metaphor, of the notion of trauma.

This is something Martin uses expertly as well. Whether it's Arya repeating her litany of people that she plans to kill, or Tyrion's fixation on the phrase "Where do whores go?" and his recurring vision of killing his father Tywin, or Jamie's parallel fixation on Tyrion's revelation about his beloved lover and sister Cersei ("She's fucking Lancell, and Osmund Kettleblack, and Moonboy for all I know!"), repetition is baked into the later books, and it signifies trauma, or information incapable of being assimilated effectively, or a coping mechanism and form of stability in a collapsing world. Trauma is recurrent in ASOIAF just as it is in LotR, perhaps even in the sense that Robb Stark and Jon Snow reiterate the mistakes of Ned Stark, driving themselves towards their father's fate.

And in The Worm Ouroboros the whole narrative loops back on itself, ending where it began.

Seriously. Remember that meaning for the title I mentioned? The Worm Ouroboros is the great snake that eats its own tail, and this is a story that returns at the end to its beginning, infinitely.

But this isn't a reiteration of trauma. Nope, at the end of the book the Lords of Demonland are basically just really upset because now that they've killed their great opponent they have no one left to fight worthy of their greatness.

So they literally beseech the gods to send them back to the start of the damn story.


No, seriously, that's how the book ends, with them going back to the first scene because they want to do all over again.

I don't know that it's honestly possible to draw the contrast between this mode of Heroic Fantasy and what Tolkien and Martin are doing. It's "Conan what is best in life?" taken to its most ridiculous extreme. And don't get me wrong, it's great stuff, but it's not exactly what you'd call brimming with psychological realism.

Now, Tolkien did read The Worm Ouroboros, and my understanding is that he liked its writing. But he found its characters to be detestable. All of them. Because they're fundamentally powerful lords who gave no thought to their people but only to the glory of battle.

The only character Tolkien really digs is a character named Lord Gro. Gro fascinates Tolkien, and it's easy to see why. Gro has a fatal flaw: he's so obsessed with using his quite effective intellect to help the weaker side in any conflict that he finds himself a traitor constantly, perpetually picking the losing side. He uses his abilities long enough to help make the losing side into the winning side, at which point he feels compelled to switch sides again. And ultimately this bizarre flaw gets him killed.

Given characters like Saruman and Gollum, and given what type of hero he focuses on, it's pretty easy to see some parallels to his interest in Lord Gro. Even a character like Faramir is somewhat Gro-like. Faramir is introduced as someone who doesn't love war like Boromir did, who wishes there wasn't a war, who wishes he was home, who wishes his dad wasn't such a prick... and his whole pathos is that he's a capable leader who feels like shit about the fact that there's humans on the other side of the conflict who he has to kill. And his parallel, and his love, Eowyn, is similarly a great warrior driven in part by this horrible death drive, who succeeds in doing what no one else can do but at terrible, traumatic cost. It's fitting, I think, that these two deeply vulnerable people find solace in each other, and I'm thankful that Tolkien responds to the tragedy of their narratives by giving them a happy ending. Lord Gro, after all, gets an ending much more like Saruman or Gollum than Faramir and Eowyn.

Meanwhile, Lord Juss's equivalent is not the somewhat reluctant Strider but none other than Robert Baratheon.

And everyone hates Robert Baratheon.

The only people in the entirety of Westros and some of Essos who don't have some plot against Robert Baratheon are Jon Arryn and Eddard Stark, and Jon Arryn is dead.

His brothers, Renly and Azor Ahai, can't stand him, his vassals can't stand him, his wife hates him, his brother in law hates him, his spymaster hates him, everyone hates him.

Because he is this kind of Lord Juss figure. When we hear about his past, he's clearly this sort of big swaggering powerful hero that goes in to defend the honor of Ned Stark's sister and to get revenge for Murders Most Foul. He's the big action hero. If we had ASOIAF about Robert Baratheon it would've been an absolutely straight heroic fantasy novel. But instead Martin jumps ahead to after the Epic Fantasy Series has ended, after even the novella about the Revolt of the Iron Islands or whatever, and now the story keeps going, and it turns out that a Lord Juss in power kinda sucks for most people because Robert would rather have these big tournaments and spend all his money rather than deal with the frustration of governance. And he's abusive, negligent, he has all these illegitimate children that he's vaguely nice to but he mostly ignores them... on the whole just kind of a shitty person basically.

He is the hero that Eddison would've liked, and he's a disastrous king.

Meanwhile, if we're talking about horrifying deconstructions, Quentyn Martel's narrative is absolutely a horrible deconstruction of the Hero's Journey. I mean we start with Quentyn's friends already dead early in his Quest, and we end with him attempting despite his misgivings to embrace the heroic narrative only to get roasted by a dragon for his trouble. Quentyn despite seeming like the sought-for noble protagonist dies a slow, agonizing death. It's awful! But that's the narrative Martin's working with, he's looking at the hero's journey and going "This is some shit huh?" and then curbstomping any of his characters who get too convinced that they're the Promised Hero.

This isn't new to Martin though. That's key here. This is stuff that is already present in Tolkien's work once you get past the first book. This is what Frodo goes through to an extent on his long covert journey into Mordor, a journey which starts with a tragic betrayal by one of his close companions and almost ends in disaster. He and Sam barely succeed on their own not through any triumph of arms or great wrestling badassery but simply because they rely on each other long enough to get where they need to go. An in the end Frodo does, fundamentally, fail. At the moment that he could cast aside the ring, he fails. It's only through the intercession of Gollum that the ring is destroyed.

For that matter ultimately the great final battle for Middle Earth is just a distraction. It's not for the glory of war and the triumph of good over evil, it's literally just to give Sam and Frodo a little more time.

I mean wow. Talk about dark. And even gritty!

I can't remember who exactly I first saw make the point that Tolkien's story is already, to an extent, a quite literal "history from below" (though I did find the essay linked to earlier in this article which helpfully illustrates how useful the notion is). It's a good pun but it's also pretty meaningful: looking at the Shire and Hobbiton as the core part of the narrative makes this history from below in the literal sense that Hobbits are short but also in the sense that this has an interest in history driven not (solely) by great lofty heroes but by these farmer folk from a peaceful community. And though I don't think, unfortunately, the peasantry are actually going to manage to establish anarcho-communism in Westros, I think there's a parallel in the way he represents the common folk in later books. The Scouring of the Shire and Brienne's journey through the devastated riverlands run in easy parallel and are critical to the narrative in their exploration of the effect of even a righteous war has on common people.

And it's absolutely true, I think, that these sections are not what one would think of as a traditional well plotted narrative, if we're looking at it with an eye for the Rules of Writing. It's sort of like how the ending of Homestuck could be called Bad Writing if you're resistant to its gnostic narrative structure. It's important to me though that the privileging of a kind of top-down rule set of aesthetics and narratology, the imposition of Rules of Writing, not be applied here to the loss of these stories' deep consideration of the issues I've been discussing.

The history of Middle Earth is not just Aragorn retaking the throne of Gondor. It is not just the Elves moving from Middle Earth to the West.

It is also Fatty Bolger sounding the Horn of the Brandybucks as the first wave of wolves attack the Shire.

It's the Sackville-Bagginses standing up to Sharky--the deposed wizard Saruman--refusing to see the Shire turned into an industrialized wasteland.

By the same token, the history of Westros is not merely the contests of Cersei and Eddard and Varys and so on.

It is the history, too, of the priests who take the Hound into their care, or the children who aid the outlaws of Beric Dondarrion, defenders of the peasantry in a world gone mad with war.

It is a history of the Small Folk, those for whom history is a viscerally experienced ongoing disaster, figures who in The Worm Ouroboros barely merit a mention.

And that's why I think those sorts of chapters are important and why I think Martin and Tolkien are less in conflict with each other but rather Martin acts as an elaborator of themes Tolkien was unable to explore as far as perhaps they should have been.

This is incredibly meaningful territory to explore in fantasy, rich ground that the "Dark and Gritty" turn of media consistently fails to address in any real way beyond mere aesthetic gruesomeness and eagerness to shock. But it's also a set of preoccupations that post-Tolkien fantasy has admittedly not taken very much to heart, sometimes straying far closer, despite all the trappings of elves and dwarves and goblins, to the tradition of Eddison and his great Lords of Demonland than to Tolkien.

In essence, then, what I'm hoping this makes clear is that Martin has a major ally in deconstructing post-Tolkien fantasy.

The greatest ally of anti-Tolkien fantasy just might be JRR Tolkien himself.

Storming the Ivory Tower is produced because of the generosity of my patrons. You, too, can become one of these generous patrons by subscribing to my Patreon. For $1 you can read the rough draft of this article, and of the two future ASOIAF articles I have planned; there is no podcast this week as I recorded three articles on ASOIAF in one big chunk but when I finish going through all of that it will be available for $3 backers; I have also uploaded the original Krita file for the illustration for this article which can be downloaded and played with for $2. And don't forget that for $5 you can read my most recent article collection on My Little Pony, Neighquiem for a Dream, and will be supporting my next collection, A Bodiless and Timeless Persona: Essays on Homestuck and Theme
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