Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, May 02, 2014

George RR Martin critiques Tolkien on War

Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin gave a lengthy Rolling Stone interview recently, in which, among other things, he had a few things to say about Tolkien's writing. I suppose if you're a fabulously best-selling fantasy author with double R middle initials,you can't help imagining that you need to address the comparison, but the particular distinctions which Martin tried to draw struck me as kind of interesting.

Martin's books focus heavily on war, power and violence, and he describes the development of his own thinking on the matter:
I was, like many kids of my generation, a hawk. I accepted that America was the good guys, we had to be there. When I got into college, the more I learned about our involvement in Vietnam, the more it seemed wrong to me. Of course, the draft was happening, and I decided to ask for the conscientious-objector status. I wasn't a complete pacifist; I couldn't claim to be that. I was what they called an objector to a particular war. I would have been glad to fight in World War II. But Vietnam was the only war on the menu. So I applied for conscientious-objector status in full belief that I would be rejected, and that I would have a further decision to make: Army, jail or Canada. I don't know what I would've done. Those were desperately hard decisions, and every kid had to make them for himself. To my surprise, they gave me the status. I was later told – I have no way to prove this – that I was granted the status because our conservative draft board felt that anyone who applied for CO status should be granted it, because that would be punishment enough: Then it would be part of their permanent record, and everybody would know that they were a Commie sympathizer, and it would ruin their lives.
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We talked earlier about your unwillingness to fight in Vietnam. The Ice and Fire books are shot through with the horrors of war. As Ygritte says to Jon Snow, "We're just soldiers in their armies, and there's plenty more to carry on if we go down."

It's true in virtually all wars through history. Shakespeare refers to it, in those great scenes in Henry V, where King Hal is walking among the men, before the Battle of Agincourt, and he hears the men complaining. "Well, I hope his cause is just, because a lot of us are going to die to make him king of France." One of the central questions in the book is Varys' riddle: The rich man, the priest and the king give an order to a common sellsword. Each one says kill the other two. So who has the power? Is it the priest, who supposedly speaks for God? The king, who has the power of state? The rich man, who has the gold? Of course, doesn't the swordsman have the power? He's the one with the sword – he could kill all three if he wanted. Or he could listen to anyone. But he's just the average grunt. If he doesn't do what they say, then they each call other swordsmen who will do what they say. But why does anybody do what they say? This is the fundamental mystery of power and leadership and war through all history. Going back to Vietnam, for me the cognitive dissonance came in when I realized that Ho Chi Minh actually wasn't Sauron. Do you remember the poster during that time? WHAT IF THEY GAVE A WAR AND NOBODY CAME? That's one of the fundamental questions here. Why did anybody go to Vietnam? Were the people who went more patriotic? Were they braver? Were they stupider? Why does anybody go? What's all this based on? It's all based on an illusion: You go because you're afraid of what will happen if you don't go, even if you don't believe in it. But where do these systems of obedience come from? Why do we recognize power instead of individual autonomy? These questions are fascinating to me. It's all this strange illusion, isn't it?

You're a congenial man, yet these books are incredibly violent. Does that ever feel at odds with these views about power and war?

The war that Tolkien wrote about was a war for the fate of civilization and the future of humanity, and that's become the template. I'm not sure that it's a good template, though. The Tolkien model led generations of fantasy writers to produce these endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes. But the vast majority of wars throughout history are not like that. World War I is much more typical of the wars of history than World War II – the kind of war you look back afterward and say, "What the hell were we fighting for? Why did all these millions of people have to die? Was it really worth it to get rid of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that we wiped out an entire generation, and tore up half the continent? Was the War of 1812 worth fighting? The Spanish-American War? What the hell were these people fighting for?"

There's only a few wars that are really worth what they cost. I was born three years after the end of World War II. You want to be the hero. You want to stand up, whether you're Spider-Man fighting the Green Goblin, or the American saving the world from the Nazis. It's sad to say, but I do think there are things worth fighting for. Men are still capable of great heroism. But I don't necessarily think there are heroes. That's something that's very much in my books: I believe in great characters. We're all capable of doing great things, and of doing bad things. We have the angels and the demons inside of us, and our lives are a succession of choices. Look at a figure like Woodrow Wilson, one of the most fascinating presidents in American history. He was despicable on racial issues. He was a Southern segregationist of the worst stripe, praising D.W. Griffith and The Birth of a Nation. He effectively was a Ku Klux Klan supporter. But in terms of foreign affairs, and the League of Nations, he had one of the great dreams of our time. The war to end all wars – we make fun of it now, but God, it was an idealistic dream. If he'd been able to achieve it, we'd be building statues of him a hundred feet high, and saying, "This was the greatest man in human history: This was the man who ended war." He was a racist who tried to end war. Now, does one cancel out the other? Well, they don't cancel out the other. You can't make him a hero or a villain. He was both. And we're all both.

A couple things strike me about Martin's comments here.

First of all, he characterizes Tolkien was writing about "a war for the fate of civilization and the future of humanity" and compares that to a rather comic-book-ish view of World War II (you know, that morally black and what war in which we were forced to ally with Stalin to defeat Hitler, and provided support to Mao while working to defeat Japan.) Martin says elsewhere in the interview that he doesn't believe in God, and so perhaps he fails to notice that Tolkien is not writing about a ripped-from-the-pages-of-history kind of war. Tolkien is writing mythology. Mythology is not just about nations, or even about heroes, but about divine forces and the purpose and nature of the world. Sauron is not a ruler from a rival dynasty. He's a fallen Maiar, in the equivalent in Tolkien's world of a fallen angel. So if Sauron's evil seems more unmixed than that of the kind of the players in the sort of human dynastic struggles that Martin writes about, that's because Tolkien is writing about a kind of struggle and a kind of reality which Martin does not believe exists.

We do see, in Tolkien's world, more human conflicts. And those conflicts look a lot more like the analogs from our own history we might pick. The Scouring of the Shire at the end of Return of the King is a much more human conflict (though Saruman, another Maiar who has fallen more recently) is at the back of it.

But while I think it's incorrect to describe the War of the Ring as a struggle of "good against evil", it is certainly a struggle of people against evil, and that's because Tolkien is writing about a world in which an angelic being who is utterly fallen is something which can exist -- while I'm not clear from the interview that Martin is even clear on the difference. It's almost as if he is colorblind to the divine realm. He is thus off-base in arguing that the War of the Ring is not like the majority of historical wars in that it is "a war for the fate of civilization and the future of humanity". The truth is further: The War of the Ring is a conflict unlike any historical war "in our world" in that it is a conflict directly between men (and elves, dwarves and in their small way hobbits) and men and creatures led by what we would in our religious terminology call a demon. It's different not just in degree but in kind from the kind of historical wars that we are familiar with. This is what makes Tolkien's work mythology and fantasy -- not just an imaginary historical account with some imaginary creatures thrown in.
Lt. Tolkien in 1916
The other thing that struck me is a certain disconnection and attendant smugness in how Martin assesses Tolkien's understanding of war and history. Martin sees World War II, which took place before he was born, as a sort of black and while war for the preservation of civilization, and other wars such as World War I and the Vietnam War as being much more composed of shades of gray. Martin thinks he knows a bit about the moral shades relating to the Great War, but of course, Tolkien knew a bit about the Great War himself. He was commissioned Second Lieutenant Tolkien in 1915 and fought in the Battle of the Somme, Britain's bloodiest battle in history. In his preface to Lord of the Rings, responding to suggestions that the novel was an allegory for World War II, Tolkien wrote:
One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.
And of course, Tolkien was also living in Britain during the Battle of Britain during the second world war, and was in close touch with his sons who served in that war.

I'd submit that Tolkien thus knew a good deal more about the realities and ambiguities of both world wars than Martin does. Tolkien and Lewis are sometimes accused of having romanticized or unrealistic ideas about war. I'm not sure exactly how one comes up with that accusation about men who had, as a major formative experience, the surreal hell of the Great War's battlefields.
Filing for conscientious objector status during Vietnam was doubtless a formative experience for Martin as well -- but one can hardly argue that it offered him the harrowing and personal view of war that Tolkien experienced. Sometimes distance and ambiguity are not so much a proof that one has a deeper understanding of a topic as that the subject has a certain theoretical nature to the speaker. I think it's arguably that Tolkien's experiences caused him to think deeply about the struggle of mortals against a more than mortal evil -- while Martin's lack of direct experience makes him more eager to wallow in the cruelties and ambiguities of explicitly portrayed dynastic conflict.

UPDATE: I'm pulling this up from the comments because I think it's so important and I wish that I'd said it explicitly as well. Brandon of Siris says:
One of the things I think is often overlooked about Tolkien's story is that it's entirely about a kind of struggle with evil that victory in war cannot end. There's a sense in which nobody is warring with Sauron, because war with Sauron is a war that only Sauron could win -- and even, should all odds be defied and Sauron beaten, it would just set up a Sauron-substitute and start everything over again. Nothing about the war itself even comes close to unsettling Sauron's position, and everything in the actual wars is really defensive maneuver in the face of aggression from Sauron's pawns. And this is, as you say, because the struggle with Sauron isn't a war in our sense at all: the closest analogue is not any human war but the struggle against evil throughout all human life.
This is very, very key. Sauron is the lord of the rings, not the lord of the orcs or the armies -- though he has orcs and armies in his service -- and the core story of LotR is about the quest to destroy the ring (and avoid being mastered by it.) The war of the ring is very much a side show, even if it does become the center of Peter Jackson's movie adaptations.

9 comments:

Brandon said...

Exactly right. One of the things I think is often overlooked about Tolkien's story is that it's entirely about a kind of struggle with evil that victory in war cannot end. There's a sense in which nobody is warring with Sauron, because war with Sauron is a war that only Sauron could win -- and even, should all odds be defied and Sauron beaten, it would just set up a Sauron-substitute and start everything over again. Nothing about the war itself even comes close to unsettling Sauron's position, and everything in the actual wars is really defensive maneuver in the face of aggression from Sauron's pawns. And this is, as you say, because the struggle with Sauron isn't a war in our sense at all: the closest analogue is not any human war but the struggle against evil throughout all human life.

Jenny said...

"It's sad to say, but I do think there are things worth fighting for."

Why is this sad to say? What kind of world would it be if nothing was worth fighting for?

Caitlin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adam Burch said...

I agree with your post, but I'm not sure that Martin is criticizing Tolkien as strongly as you suggest. He says, regarding the War of the Rings as the template of all fantasy epic wars:

"I'm not sure that it's a good template, though. The Tolkien model led generations of fantasy writers to produce these endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes. But the vast majority of wars throughout history are not like that."

This is all true. Also, it seems to me that some writers adopt this model while still not really believing in the possibility of such a divine struggle. They do not share the same understanding of sin and grace that Tolkien did, leading their stories to seem more shallow (The Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind comes to mind).

All that said, I like The Lord of the Rings much more than a Song of Ice and Fire :).

Donald R. McClarey said...

Tolkien knew war up close and personal. He hated it with an undying passion after his experiences on the Western Front, but he also realized it was sometimes necessary. However, he also understood that War changed the men who fought it, sometimes for the worse, and that it also changed societies, sometimes for the worse.

These hard bought insights helped Tolkien create an endlessly fascinating world where a huge conflict was brining rapid change, just as the Great War did to the world Tolkien was born into.

Darwin said...

"It's sad to say, but I do think there are things worth fighting for."

Why is this sad to say? What kind of world would it be if nothing was worth fighting for?


Yeah, it seems to me like that "it's sad to say" suggests a very large difference in viewpoint.

Darwin said...

Adam,

Fair enough.

It seems to me that Martin is careful not to say that he considers Tolkien a bad writer -- though he is explicitly contrasting what he's doing with what he perceives Tolkien to be doing.

Also, I think you're right that a lot of fantasy writers write about "battles between good and evil" without having Tolkien's implicit theological background.

Sparky said...

"It's sad to say, but I do think there are things worth fighting for."

Why is this sad to say? What kind of world would it be if nothing was worth fighting for?


The Game of Thrones world would be that world where nothing is worth fighting for.

Hence why I don't care for it.

mJm8392 J said...

Couldn't agree more. Tolkien indeed was a myth-maker. War of the Ring I believe is a war of mythic proportions for violence in a strict sense is a cosmogonic theme. The events follow even from the Beginning of the Story. Anyway, it's a war that had to happen and be fought. Sauron was the last personalized mythological (but not human) form of a very concrete particular evil. After his final defeat, he's impotent and can't affect the world any longer. Tolkien relied on the theory of meaning of Owen Barfield, particularly meaning in mythologies, where the original meaning is divided and leads to abstraction. Sauron is reduced to "a shadow, a remembrance of malicious will". The cosmic conditions of Arda in contrast to ours, allow this to happen. Had to happen. The Ring was after all Sauron's investment of his original native power. Placing yourself in an object is dangerous.