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This post contains some spoiler from the finale of Game of Thrones and assumes some knowledge on the part of the reader of Games of Thrones and Lord of the Rings
When talking about fantasy series it is a hard thing to talk about which was more realistic. There are a lot of ways to take the “realism” of a fantasy series, having admitted that let us look at the ways that Games of Thrones (GOT) is often said to be more realistic than Lord of the Rings (LOTR) and see which is actually more realistic.
In what follows I will be, mostly, avoiding the Mythic elements in both GOT and LOTR. Since this is a discussion of “realism” the fact that LOTR’s mythic elements are far more consistent and thematic than GOT mishmash of magic, religion, and prophecy doesn’t really come into this discussion. It seems obvious that the authors took radically different approaches to the Mythic in their stories with Tolkien developing a detailed idea of the origins and uses of magic and then applying those rules to the world while Martin seems to take the view that he could just put in what was cool or he thought he needed for his story. At the same time, I won’t get into some of the nits that one can pick about Tolkien’s incredibly fanciful mountain ranges or what it would mean for a world to have 15 “years” of Summer or Winter and what a mess that would be for human life. On most issues like this, I will give both GOT and LOTR a pass. So what criteria are we using to judge?
The arguments I hear the most about GOT being more realistic then LOTR is that GOT draws out a more nuanced portrait of human motivations, actions, and sins while LOTR’s characters are more idealized and in the world of politics LOTR is a fully idealized fantasy and GOT is very nuanced because it is based on the War of the Roses. These are the criteria we will use.
Love, Women, and Sex
One of the strongest cases for GOT being realistic is the story’s portrayal of sex as both a human motivation and a major plot motivator for the main characters. Events in the story are killed off by the murder of Jon Arryn and Bran being pushed from the tower to cover up brother-sister incest. Relationships with women drive much of Tyrion’s motivations throughout the story and Cersi’s abusive marriage and forbidden love of her brother emotionally and mentally handicaps her making her into the incompetent villain in the books and brilliant, murderous villain of the show. There is plenty of sex in the show and the books meant only to titillate and entertain but Martin acknowledges in ways that Tolkien does not how sex, love and lust drives the decisions of the characters in the way that shape the lives of millions. This seems of a point in GOT’s favor that there is fuller portrait of human motivations but then again not so fast.
The nature of Tolkien’s tale is not to look into the dynamics of dynastic politics and forbidden loves. Tolkien bathes his story and history in Romance from Beren and Luthien, to Earendal and Elwing, and then Aragorn and Arwen and Faramir and Eowyn. It is true that Tolkien had a thing for bachelors. Bilbo never marries and adopts an orphan nephew, we know quite a bit about the Gaffer but nothing about Sam’s mother. Frodo’s friends are all bachelors, Gandalf has no known relationships with women, Aragorn and Arwen relationship is very much in the background, Elrond’s wife is dead. It is hard to name any character’s mother that we know is alive in Tolkien’s tale. It is not going too far to point out that Tolkien seems to try and avoid writing about too many women in his story and he streamlined his tale in a way that left some important women on the sidelines of the story.
Tolkien does, however, explore complicated love relationships and how love and duty can be in tension and lead to tragedy as it does with Eowyn and he also explores complicated family relationships with the Stewards of Gondor and how Aragorn has to deal with the tension of his desire and duty in reclaiming his Throne. More importantly though Tolkien’s tale takes place over the course of almost two years, no children are growing up and training to be assassins in Tolkien, and he is telling a tale of a quest undertaken by men and war fought by men there is a not a lot of room in that tale for the role of women behind the scenes. It might have been interesting to see the Prince of Dol Amroth saying farewell to his wife and mother to fight in Gondor and then seeing these two heroic women plot and scheme to protect the city from the Corsairs of Umbar. But did we need to see that? Would that have added to the tale being told by Tolkien? Martin in GOT indulged a ton of background information and needless personal background information that did nothing to move the plot along. Tolkien’s tale is more streamlined but I don’t think it less realistic because of it. Martin at one point devotes many pages to establishing characters around Cersei just to give us an encounter where Cersi wants to “take” another Noblewoman “like a man” to know what “Robert must have felt…”. Is that actually more realistic or just a lot of wasted time?
Let’s move on into the GOT strength politics. Now GOT has a much more complicated set of politics than LOTR because Martin is exploring gigantic realms and cultures across many years of time and he is not streamlining his tale at all while Tolkien obviously did. For instance, would have it been interesting to see the debates at Dale and the Lonely Mountain about fighting the Dark Lord or making peace with him? Would I have been glad for a rousing speech from Dain about doing the right thing and keeping faith with their friends? Sure! Did we need that in the story though? The politics of Rohan, and Saruman’s subtle undermining of that Kingdom and the way that Aragorn cared about his legitimacy in taking his throne was very realistic. Look at how methodical Aragon was in establishing a legitimate rule: freed Rohan to come to Gondor’s aid by fighting for them at Helm’s Deep and then smashed a centuries-old enemy, the Corsairs, in battle and then brought all the armies of Gondor to help the besieged capital. After the battle, he healed the wounded in ways unknown to the healers of Gondor. He did not simply claim the throne by legal right but built a legitimate claim to the throne, methodically. Some of the would-be kings in GOT should have taken notes.
In GOT we have a veneer of sophisticated politics but it breaks down under the lightest scrutiny. Jon Arryn, Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark are all supposed to be highly accomplished soldiers who have won at least two major wars. Yet none of them thought to secure the military in and around Kings Landing? The Gold Cloaks were left up for grabs, the Lannisters were allowed to build a military presence but where were the men of the Vale loyal to Arryn? Where were guards loyal to Robert? Why wasn’t Ned told to bring more loyal soldiers with him? There were no veterans of Robert’s wars that all three men trusted to lead the Gold Cloaks? That alone is practically unbelievable and why were people afraid of Robert finding out that his sons and daughter were not his own? He had no power in his own city. He could call power to him from far away but by the time it got there, he would already be dead. Robert could have survived the boar, found out about his wife’s incest and ordered her arrest and it would have gone down no differently than Ned ordering the arrest.
That part of the story was not very well plotted at all. Martin led us to believe Robert, Ned and Jon are competent and won wars but they turn out to be fools that don’t know the very basics of security. Either winning those wars was blind luck or all three men had become senile. Also, what is the source of Tywin’s power? Tywin is a ruthless tyrant, who is effective and feared but he also moved tens of thousands of men to die for him and we are never given a reason why. Men like Tywin can build loyal followings based on success and money. Tywin having a very effective army makes sense but why are the people of Casterly Rock behind him? He doesn’t care about them and they know that. Once Robb has killed about 50,000 Lannisters and Tywin is losing where is he finding more men? People don’t like dying for a ruthless tyrant that only cares about the glory of his own family. The men he sends to recruit just won’t find men willing to join the Lannister army after so many disasters. Why does it matter to the small farmer, poor knight or common peasant who sits in Casterly Rock? This lock the Lannisters have on their home and the enormous manpower it gives them is never explained or explored because it is unrealistic. Realism would have been to contrast how the entire North mobilizes to follow the Starks, who obviously care about their realm and how the Lannisters have to buy their armies. The contrast would have been the strange loyalty of Stark’s men and the mercenary nature of the Lannister forces. Instead, people betray the Starks and all the Lannister men stay loyal. That is is not realistic.
Now Robb dying because he chose love over political expediency during the war is realistic but at the same time having that decision go so deeply wrong was not all that realistic. The Frey’s could have negotiated for nearly any deal at that point from a proven winner in Robb and most families would have done that. Frey, instead of taking that deal from Robb and retaining his honor and gaining more good will, plots with Tywin and makes his family the most hated and reviled family in the Seven Kingdoms. From a valued ally he moved his family to an object of hate to thousands of people wishing nothing more than to kill them. Tywin is smart in this scenario because he takes an obvious opportunity to help himself but the Frey’s were pretty stupid, how could any of them think they would end up ok after such a terrible, public and infamous betrayal?
As for Tywin and the Frey’s Tolkien has plenty of men out for themselves, blinded by their own ambition and tricked by promises for the power they never should have believed. I don’t see how GOT is more realistic then LOTR, longer and more detailed perhaps, but not more realistic.
Both LOTR and GOT have outright evil in their stories that are very black and purely evil. GOT has the White Walkers and the Army of the Dead which so far as we know is an out of control doomsday weapon meant to wipe out all mankind. Their desire for genocide, in so far as it is a desire, makes them evil but we can’t even be sure the White Walkers have any more agency than a Nuclear bomb has. They are just an army of rolling death and I am not sure if they even want anything. So the White Walkers might not even be evil in any true sense of the word and might only be a threat to our survival like a weapon or giant tidal wave. Evil instead is found only in the hearts of men there is no reason given for that, no fall, no sin or temptation. It is just the way we are. We are not sure what any of the religions offer to cure that evil just that at least some of them ask men and women to be better and act in kindness but we don’t know why. There is a resurrection in GOT but there is no transformation, resurrection makes you less than you in most cases and in the best case keeps you exactly the same. The Lord of Light seems to have compelled Beric Dondarrion to sacrifice his life to resurrect Caitlyn Stark but she turned into a monstrous force of Vengeance and that makes me wonder if he is “good” himself. It does not take a lot of talent to say that many people are stupid and evil and just leave it at that.
In LOTR we have a much more subtle form of evil Sauron, tricks, betrays and beguiles. He makes men, Elves and Dwarves of goodwill distrust each other can make even the Wise fall like Saruman who is a Maia like Sauron himself. Even in places like Lothlorien, only the Lady Galadriel understands fully that the company is good and all the members of the company come against Sauron. Even her husband and many of the Elves of Lothlorien don’t want to accept Gimli or fear the coming of Frodo. Betrayal is at the heart of the tale of men in the Third Age and Aragorn does not know if he can even overcome that in himself and even his efforts to save Gondor are nearly undone by the betrayal of Denethor one of the greatest men of his generation and yet susceptible to the whispering, temptation of Sauron. In LOTR Sauron uses terror but only when his more subtle methods fail. Evil when it uses terror is at its weakest since it rallies people to oppose that terror. When it attacks us at our core and makes us betray those whom we should respect or protect that is when evil is at its strongest. LOTR has a more realistic and subtle portrayal of evil then does GOT.
One Ring or Dragon to Rule Them All
Which brings us to the end of the show. Here Daenerys essentially fully succumbs to the power of the Ring in the form of her dragons. From the beginning, Daenerys calls the Dragons her children and she takes care of them and protects them. Then she turns them into instruments of her will, to gain material power in the world. After she turns them to instruments of her will she pays any price to keep them even if it costs the lives of innocent children and when people try to take them from her she becomes consumed with rage. After losing one dragon to Cersei Daenerys attempts to kill a million people in payment for that crime and succeeds in killing many of them. She does this for good reasons of course and when she first uses her power this way she certainly is killing evil men. Which sounds a lot like this:
Fellowship of the Ring: Frodo has offered the Ring to Galadriel:
“And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lighting! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!”
She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illumined her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! She was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.
“I pass the test,” she said. “I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.
It is hard to say that GOT is more realistic than LOTR when it borrows so strongly from LOTR. But my final point for why LOTR is more realistic then GOT is that Daenerys never knew there was a test and Jon did not know why it was right to stop Daenerys before more people died. Martin managed to depict evil but he never really got around to showing us well; something that Tolkien did very well. When you can only show evil and you can’t really explain the good you lose any right to be called more realistic than a story that shows both in full.
What do you all think?