Monday, September 19, 2011

George RR Martin: American Tolkien?

Quoth Time Magazine's Lev Grossman:
In 2005 I wrote a review of George R.R. Martin's novel A Feast for Crows in which I called him "the American Tolkien." The phrase has stuck to him, as it was meant to. I believed Martin was our age's and our country's answer to the master of epic fantasy. Now it's six years later, and I've read Martin's new novel, A Dance with Dragons, and I'm happy to report that I was totally right.
Well, Mr. Grossman, don't throw your arm out patting yourself on the back.  Proclaiming George RR Martin to be "the American Tolkien" is all well and good (and really rather obvious).  But there's a huge problem:  it also happens to be totally wrong.

Yes, both Tolkien and Martin write about dragons.  Yes, they both have "RR" interposed between their first and last names.  Yes, they are both revered by socially-inept, bookish Dungeons & Dragons players. But that's about as far as the similarities go. Try and stretch the congruity any further than that, and you're spoonin' up some pretty thin gruel.

I'm currently reading the most recent book in the Martin series, A Dance with Dragons and I'm completely enthralled.  Martin is a fantastic story-teller and a great writer.  A Song of Ice and Fire (which is the title of the series) is a complex and intricate web of plots and story lines.  Martin has his world well-populated with interesting and distinct characters.  He has a knack for vivid (sometimes bordering on hallucinogenic) description.  He creates textured scenes full of sounds and smells and tastes. 

But he writes pulp.

For all its entertainment value, A Song of Ice and Fire is raunchy, and often distasteful.  There is no theme; there is no moral.  When reading the Martin books, one catches a strong whiff of making-it-up-as-he-goes each time Martin introduces some new and unlikely wonder in his fantasy world.  (Lady Catelyn the zombie, anyone?)

Martin is good diversion, but don't look too deeply.

Not so, Tolkien.

JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, aside from being a great read, is a work that withstands (indeed, demands!) scrutiny.  Tolkien was a devout Catholic and his faith guided his work.  The tales from Middle Earth offer wisdom and insight into the nature of good and evil.  The Lord of the Rings never for an instant loses its majesty or nobility by descending into tastelessness or crass language.

With The Lord of the Rings and the larger scholastic work from which it is drawn, Tolkien hoped to create a mythos for Britain. He sought to instruct as well as entertain.  And like all great works of literature, his books present subtle truths that readers will recognize.  That recognition is the reward that comes from reading good literature.

Mr. Grossman, there are many, many reasons that your cavalier proclamation of Martin as "the American Tolkien" is absurd.  But I'll end with the most stark:  Martin writes for money.  Tolkien never did.

1 comment:

Dan Binmore said...

Elitist bollocks.  If Martin had written first, and you had read it when you were young instead of Tolkien you'd be saying the same thing in reverse. 
Martin's books have deeper characters, more human characters, an adult understanding of morality, a far greater appreciation of different cultures and history (the sex and violence is uncomfortable because the Middle Ages were uncomfortable), and an adult sensibility. 
Tolkien is far more escapist, pleasantly simple and straight-forward in its ethics (to the point of straight out racism (all orcs are bad, English country folk, I'm sorry, hobbits good)), extraordinarily well-written in a poetically rustic manner, enthralling, and far more coherent.
Tolkien wrote for children and teenagers, and the books are marvelously well written for those audiences.  Martin writes for adults who have read Tolkien and want something more sophisticated than pulp.  Tolkien gets special points for creating the genre, there was nothing like his writing when he wrote it.  Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness gets points for a new sort of book when it was written and is considered a classic of literature, but if it was put out now by a modern author it wouldn't even get published.
Piers Anthony writes pulp.  David Eddings writes pulp.  Martin writes better than most Pulitzer prize winners I have read.  He makes you feel things more than those guys, he has a more complex story than most of those guys, and he gets people to read his books more because of these things.
If I had to compare Martin to a writer it would be Dickens.  Commercially successful but an excellent storyteller that rises above the herd.