If you could not tell from the title, readers mine, I’m attempting another essay today. I should clarify that I don’t believe this will be comprehensive; it cannot. I suspect it shall nonetheless run rather long! You see, today I offer my candid perspectives about several pivotal fantasy authors: three definitively high and the other high fantasy by lore, yet low indeed by themes. How low? I shall be comparing him directly with Morgoth. I must confess I find the notion that this might irritate the old salt an enticing one.
And yes, dear readers, were it not rendered crystalline by our lead-in, I shall attempt this frail-bloom venture as Gothic North. In truth I attempt everything as Gothic North, but by custom I veil my nocturne soliloquies behind the 21st Century’s rapier prosaics. Today I must throw back the veil, for what has the Gothic genre ever subsisted upon if not the forbidden emotions, ceaseless and turbulent, that writhe within our utmost depths? I can conceive no comelier voice by which to indulge my own deepest desire: to prove that I possess some special insight, supernatural wisdom that transcends all obscurance.
Obviously I do not. I am a hardheaded dreamer, not a narcissist.
Still, I desire to acquire such sight. I always have, and merely feared the scorn I might draw by admitting it. I confess also that I hope writing thusly shall ease my words’ sting. Few ideas cleave so cruelly if we imagine them presented by a demure Gothic maiden, though I suppose it might be seen as frippery and so redouble them instead. If so, dear readers, then please accept my apology for misjudging my approach. Let us act towards the harmony our natures sing; no certainty exists before death takes us, so doubt alone cannot be my reason to halt.
Consider those forbidden emotions I mention. Whether I admit them or not, one must surely wriggle through every pixel of every word I write herein. That caustic stream we so readily admit in love, but not war, that simplest and most common fault in our soul-steel, a poison yet sometimes, too, a spur into our greatest achievements: jealousy.
Yes, dear readers, I confess myself scoured by jealousy towards all four writers I shall reference throughout this piece. I am jealous of their monetary success, their permanence, and the literary accolades their tales draw. More even than these, I am jealous of them simply because so many read, and treasure, their words. I am no longer so stubborn as to deny the obvious. As I said, jealousy motivates as well as torments us–or more likely, it motivates because it torments us. A prickly topic for a later day; for now, allow me to lay out the chosen four.
You’ve likely heard of them: J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, and the young man of this storied company–a certain Brandon Sanderson.
If perchance any among you have just had a vision of Vergil, at Devil May Cry 3’s end, throwing away his scabbard before facing Mundus–well, what am I to say? I have always reveled in fighting battles far beyond my current power. Let none claim, however, that I lack for motivation!
I must also remind you that, canonically, Vergil only lost that battle because he was very tired from fighting other ones. A weakness, surely, we can all relate to! There; I hope this little silliness clears the air as much as may be. Enough this banter; let us begin in earnest. Before you go any farther, I must warn you that I do make reference to self-harm and suicidal ideation later in this piece. Please, if you have the slightest concern that this might hurt you, then click away without shame or hesitation. It may only be a pair of sentences, but nothing I might have to say matters more than your health, my dear readers.
With that, I believe us prepared as best we may be.
Since Tolkien first published The Lord of the Rings over the course of a single year–1954-1955–I think it fair to say the fantasy genre has never been the same. Generation after generation, author after author, writers have railed implicitly or explicitly against a man they see as the genre’s tyrant. Even those who appreciate his work nonetheless see him as the man to beat. For my part I feel no shame in saying that Tolkien, more than any living author, remains my greatest literary influence.
If that makes me seem outmoded within this brave new fantasy world, well–have I not bequeathed my deepest truth unto thee, readers mine? I would happily keep this mode for every waking moment, unwinding my midnight poetry, if only I lived a hundred and fifty years earlier. I deem it only right that as Tolkien happily used medieval language–or a lingering reflection within its same murky pool, miasmic spellings excluded–for a novel written and published in 1950, I should use the Gothic style for those I publish from 2020 onward.
Except, this whimsical slant bears little weight on my true reason. As I said, the Gothic style thrives on forbidden emotion and the veiled self’s release. That is what drew me to it. You doubtless notice also that I compare myself directly to Tolkien. “So, the haughty vixen thinks to throw down the grandmaster himself!” you may accuse. And… I suppose sometimes I do. Sometimes, I do not. An influence so sweeping as that sprung forth by the Sage of Arda–has he been titled thus before? Either way, I title him thus now–can be difficult to trace. Often we act under its most distant tendrils without ever seeing that they link straight back to the heartwood.
I can say with certainty only that Tolkien’s words, and the tales they convey, remain precious to me. I do not know, nor can I say in truth if I shall ever decide, whether to measure myself by him or not. Perhaps, by my own closing words herein, that dooms me to fall short. If so, I judge it a worthy defeat. I shall embrace it with warmth should the day come. You may notice that I often present my feelings towards other writers as militaristic rattling. Even without meaning to, I speak of battle and victory or defeat. I do not deny the obvious; this hints many truths about the way I feel. Some unconscious; most, painfully self-aware.
In attempting to dethrone Tolkien, and I ask that the reader understand I mention this as framing, not to accuse the other writers listed here of making such attempts, fantasy writers make two key mistakes. Firstly, Tolkien’s rulership must be acknowledged before it may be taken away. Thus, those who set him up as a standard to overthrow–and I admit, this truth reads as obvious now that I phrase it thus–establish that he stands above them. Secondly, they assume that they must confront him in order to change this.
If you truly wish to launch yourself away from Tolkien’s legacy and into the lingual ether, you need only choose not to take inspiration from him. Some battles exist only if you create them for yourself. Advice a certain rambling tale-scrivener might follow, you say? I agree. But, I am often the worst at heeding my own advice.
I wonder what grandfather Tolkien might feel if he learned that, in his own way, he has become for the modern high fantasy genre as Eru Ilúvatar was for The Lord of the Rings; the great creator who commanded the Flame Imperishable. You might point out, and rightly, that Eru never appears by name in the prose of The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit themselves. Yet if you read the Silmarillion, and pore over Tolkien’s letters, you might soon see how Eru’s touch, and the overtly-Christian philosophy it embodies, weaves all the way through The Lord of the Rings.
This puts me on bittersweet terms with Tolkien’s fabled creation; in Christian terms, I am anathema–not merely because I am an ex-Lutheran apostate, but because I openly identify myself with the demons teeming amidst my work. After all, demons have dealt with forbidden emotion and the veiled self as far into time’s seeping sea as ancient Sumeria. They are primordial desire. If souls exist, then I think it fair to say I must in truth be a demon–do I not avow that I feed upon human spirit every time you read my work, supping whatever morsels I may of your energy? What is my writing but a contract, not to own your soul, but simply to partake of its luxuriant emotion, for that briefest flicker when you experience the tales I offer for barter?
I confess that I too desire power, that irresistible essence whereby I may reshape my reality. Thus, I often seek to test myself against those I know stand higher. I deem this the noblest approach; if I succeed, I know both that I earned my victory and that I gained the might I sought. If I fail, I know that I faced foes superior enough that my efforts bring them no harm. My writing makes no exception; I delight in seeing my essence reflected in others’ thoughts, knowing that on some small level, I changed their inmost being.
You see? I am a demoness, brazen and unrepentant. Yet to read my words is to renew our contract with each you view. At any moment you might hurl them aside and never read them again. I feed upon only what you offer me; my words hold no power unless you like their savor, and wish to indulge it more. A demoness, perhaps, but a symbiote rather than parasite.
I thank you for your patience, readers mine, in what must seem a self-indulgent digression.
Allow me to return to the greater song’s harmony. I suppose I might be seen here as a defiant lady of the Ainur, petulant that her role in creation was simply to sing out the themes Eru presented. For a time, I numbered myself among those self-deceiving hellions; even my reverence for Tolkien grew tainted by my desire to cast him down. To acknowledge his creation’s grandeur, you see, was to double my own victory’s sheen should I surpass him. For a time I fell to Melkor’s dissonant allure. Though I repented ere the end, I find now that I cannot go back, nor into the west. Where shall I wander now that Eru’s light is lost to me?
I know not. Let us speak no more, for the moment, about stars fallen and dimmed upon the northern tundra. Let us return to the wider view.
For those who do not already know, the song of the Ainur played a key role in Tolkien’s legendarium. These celestial beings, directly comparable to Christian theology’s angels, devised songs according to the themes Eru presented. They wove creation into being through this collective harmony. Melkor was the strongest of the Ainur, and in that strength he decided that he did not wish simply to play to Eru’s themes: he wished to contend with them, to make himself Eru’s equal or even to overthrow him.
Yet, as Tolkien himself wrote in his legendarium, to do so was to participate in Eru’s creation either way. Even when he attempted to weave his music against the harmony the other Ainur created, Melkor nonetheless participated in it; his counter-melodies added all the more depth and beauty to the whole. This, in turn, only increased Melkor’s spite. So he eventually fell, becoming Morgoth and bringing evil to Arda–the world of which Middle Earth is a part, and in Tolkien’s legendarium, an ancient version of our own Earth.
Eru, in time, withdrew from his creation, as did the Ainur. The powers which succeeded them, good and evil, have forever sought to match the glory of the past.
In three paragraphs more we shall finally come to the other three writers. In this rather grandiose allegory I devise each has his own song to offer. First, I shall digress to address the thought which many among you must form already: “Tolkien wrote that he disliked allegory, didn’t he?” He did. He also admitted, however, that any attempt to explain the meaning or import of fantasy and myth must surely use allegorical language; in this he presupposed that even fantasy and myth should have meaning and import–a belief I likely needn’t tell you that I cherish.
Tolkien disliked allegory, perhaps, but he saw it as inevitable. He understood that a story cannot have depth and vibrance without creating the possibility of interpreted meaning. A writer may rage and dispute this, or sigh, accept that this too is part of the song, and learn to play allegory’s notes as well. This way we shall, at least, know that the interpretations drawn will more likely bring new beauty to the work than cast it into ruin. I suppose in this small way Tolkien, too, railed against his place in the wider harmony. Perhaps we all must do so, a little bit, if we wish our music to carry any of our soul within it.
As with any legendary author who wrote a great deal, Tolkien’s most nuanced ideas were lost to time; nuance does not make for easy remembrance. We always seek that one lancing statement, that single sundering phrase that makes us feel the truth is a simple, and easy, force to command. “I cordially dislike allegory.” I cordially dislike cars, my dear readers. Yet I have much to write and sidewalks fade further into the lost areas of the world with each passing day; sometimes the things we cordially dislike are nonetheless the best way to complete the journeys we desire. Such complexities, spoken and unspoken, lace throughout Tolkien’s writing. If you do not look for them, or determine that you shall not see them–well, then I fear you would not.
This brings us to the other three. Rather than ponder over each in isolation as I did with grandfather Tolkien, let us consider them as a trio–each taking the same tune and turning it to his own tastes. I see Robert Jordan as the most ardent to add to Tolkien’s melody without necessarily changing it. When I was a younger creature, a petty nosferatu desirous of blood on her fangs, forever scorning those who offered it by dint of the very fact that they did so–in such spiteful days I judged Jordan’s writing the least worthy of these three. Now? Well, we shall come to that soon.
What of George R.R. Martin? Despite the shared initials, or perhaps as a direct refutation of them, he seems most determined to avoid the melody Tolkien created. Though he talks around it, he cannot help but reflect on the mistakes he believes Tolkien made. In Martin’s mind these mistakes are not the regretful missteps where, we might argue, Tolkien undermined his own intentions, but those where Tolkien did not write the story the way George R.R. Martin would have written it. Yes, we shall come to that soon as well.
Then, of course, there is Brandon Sanderson. You might deem it unfair that I list him alongside writers with much older and more developed bodies of work, or you might call it a worthy accolade for the man who must, surely, earn his place as the Greatest of All Time. Though less overtly influenced by–or perhaps against–Tolkien, Sanderson may have his own Eru to negotiate with: Robert Jordan, of course. Let us leave that for the moment. Sanderson appears the furthest scion from the hallowed tradition carved by these older names. Yet to what degree this transpires by his conscious design, and which simply by virtue of the far-different perspective his comparative youth dictates–this, I know not. All this, we come to now.
When The Wheel of Time draws from The Lord of the Rings, it’s quite obvious: Shayol Ghul is a single shade away from any number of names from Tolkien’s legendarium, from Minas Morgul to the Nazgûl to Dol Guldur to–er, I believe you receive the message, dear reader. The Dark One is, er, the Dark One, having been distinguished primarily from Sauron in The Lord of the Rings by being more nebulous and rather obviously referencing Satan. “Speak of the Devil, and he shall appear;” in The Wheel of Time, the Dark One is named Shai’tan, but to speak this name is believed to bring misfortune on the speaker. For his part, Sauron was not the Devil of Tolkien’s tales, for that dire accolade falls upon the blackstar shoulders of Morgoth.
We may return to this on a future day, when next I devote another essay purely towards the Sage of Arda. That Tolkien chose to depict simply the last and greatest servant of his universe’s mightiest villain in The Lord of the Rings, rather than that villain himself, points towards the oft-overlooked nuance in his work.
So, with The Wheel of Time so directly adopting ideas from the legendary epic that preceded it, Sanderson inevitably pulls from The Lord of the Rings to some greater or lesser extent whenever he references The Wheel of Time. He does this in various ways, with the servants of Odium inflicted on Roshar inevitably reading as a parallel to the Forsaken in The Wheel of Time who, in turn, read as an elaboration on the Nazgûl. Each is a group of named entities in some way corrupted by a higher, malicious power. Sanderson’s universe again presupposes the existence of a single overarching creator deity, and in this regard drifts towards Tolkien’s mythology in a way that The Wheel of Time’s, er, Wheel of Time, and its resulting Weave, do not.
I do find it a beguiling parallel that Sanderson’s Cosmere references an all-encompassing God who once existed in harmony with Himself and His creation as a whole, but whose fragments inevitably corrupt the mortals who carry them after they destroyed Him. It reads beautifully as allegory for the many writers who came after Tolkien. Namely, those writers who so rabidly appropriate concepts, ideals, and characters without fully comprehending the philosophy, that harmony as gifted by Eru, that bound them together in The Lord of the Rings.
How a mortal contingent might unmake God himself without acquiring power to rival His is an intriguing question. For myself, I must augur that Sanderson shall tell us the Cosmere’s God could not take action to defend Himself because doing so would be to favor some parts of His whole over the others. It might even be that this was the true cause of His destruction; in focusing His attention on those aspects of Himself most tinged towards judgement and ruin, He unbalanced Himself and shattered. Or perhaps it shall be no such thing; The Stormlight Archive is in its early days, after all.
Yet, those ‘early days’ comprise more than double the entire length of The Lord of the Rings, a complete story in itself. I cannot help but wonder: if we quest to advance the fantasy genre, should this truly be our method? Piling words on words, higher and higher, characters and events growing to such staggering quantity that they tower above all that came before–over even labyrinthine historical anthologies that detail events which transpired in our own world? I do not presume to know whether Sanderson himself desires this, nor whether Robert Jordan did. I am sure the notion has occurred to them, mind you! I refuse to believe that any writer can scribe such lingual deluges without asking themselves, “To what end?” Yet, it would be childish to order onslaughts against a writer to punish them for failing at tasks they never set themselves.
Let us put these questions aside, though I may return to them come the end; I never brought you here that I might cast shadow against the light others offered, nor send metallic scrapes cutting across the notes they play. Sanderson and Jordan, in their own ways, have both echoed and innovated upon the melody Tolkien proposed some sixty-six years ago. Ah, and we must acknowledge such an inauspicious pair of digits, mustn’t we? From a writer who deems herself a demoness, no less! I fear I must call the timing appropriate, for surely you wonder.
You must wonder: if Lady North’s allegoric frolic suggests that Jordan and Sanderson were, and are, Ainur continuing to cherish and breathe new notes into Eru’s themes, then what of that other great name she invokes? What about George R.R. Martin?
I fear it must be obvious by now, must it not? Martin is Melkor. Or rather, with time’s onward march, Melkor is become Morgoth. More so than either of the previous writers, Martin defines himself against the ideals that Tolkien’s work presented. Where Tolkien believes that good and evil might exist as forces clear and potent enough to name, Martin strives to rip this notion into swift-burning tatters. Indeed, throughout A Song of Ice and Fire, he does everything possible to annihilate–a word I use with full awareness of its Nietzschean connotations–the very concept that objective morality could exist.
I adored this when I first encountered it. I adored it because I believed that we live in a scything irrationality, a universe too entropic even to call cruel. Cruelty requires conscious intent. Now I cannot help but think–if we word-mangling, text-flaying, self-aggrandizing snits who call ourselves writers serve a single useful purpose, is it not to suggest meaning where none exists? Is not our task to help our readers frame their thoughts? To arm them with ideas that might weather the Void’s embrace? We shall return to this later.
Where Tolkien presented a world in which right action brought right results, Martin presents one where good men fail because they act on mistaken ideals rather than cold reality. Tolkien presents a world where a just and loving God’s creation became tainted by one being’s ambition; Martin, a world where the phrase, “a just and loving God” is an oxymoron. It goes deeper than this, however. I have paid some little attention to Martin’s interviews, those glimpses of his vocalized mind scattered across the Internet. I notice that more than any other tale, at least based upon the ones I witnessed, he refers to The Lord of the Rings. Yet, the version of this tale he speaks about is not, I think, the one that truly exists. Martin speaks about the version that exists in his own mind, and harangues Tolkien for paving different ways on the journey than Martin would have.
I often think, since seeing the excerpt, about Martin complaining that Tolkien should not have resurrected Gandalf. To Martin, the wizard’s death in Moria’s pitiless depths now seems a dirge to lost opportunity: a chance to make the survivors pick their way through a long and bitter world without his aid, with their mentor gone. To this I must ask simply:
I can conceive no benefit to the story Tolkien wished to tell from doing so. Despite being a wizard, and more than this, an angel incarnate upon Middle Earth, Gandalf does not win a single battle by himself. He manifests no dramatic power that solves all ills, and indeed, his continued presence only makes Sauron’s looming shadow all the more pronounced. Gandalf, for all his power, cannot halt the Dark Lord’s march with it. Martin languishes on the idea of a few lost emotional notes, and in so doing, never sees that the change he proposes would undo the entire movement’s theme. To imply that Tolkien did not consider, and at great length, whether Gandalf should return or remain lost–I consider this among the bitterest insults ever leveled by one author against another.
The Lord of the Rings is an epic in the true literary sense of the word. It shows compassion, far more than A Song of Ice and Fire does, for solitary characters and their struggles. Yet at its core it is a fading age’s tale: myth’s final incarnate epoch upon the Earth, ere man and man’s industry burned away whatever grace remained to the world. For this epic’s purposes, Gandalf does far more alive than he would dead. To focus on the fleeting consequences derived from his death while ignoring the broader meanings rendered moot without his return–I can think of no better crystal in which to conjure the difference between Tolkien and Martin.
Tolkien wrote with a grand purpose in mind, questions he desired to answer through his work. Martin considers loss and emptiness ends in themselves; he must, for only by this logic does Gandalf’s permanent death become desirable storytelling. Thus, again, I must ask:
I read The Wheel of Time from end to end, even those books which a then-friend said I might safely skip. I found it a meandering tale, every page carrying signs of a writer perhaps a little too comfortable with the freedom granted by his planned series’ length–or perhaps, one who realized too late the monumental endeavor before him. For all its faults, and I confess its chosen main character the single most grating upon me, I understand why Jordan wrote his tale. He wished to deal with the wounds that war, torture, and long hardship inflict on the spirit, and in this regard I can see how even The Wheel of Time‘s ever-cycling cosmos might reflect on Tolkien’s epic.
Jordan’s writing, for all its sometimes-stumbles and its unnecessary sprawl, contains true insight at many points–though sadly, Jordan never quite mastered his tempo when it came time to meld such vision with the story’s heart, its plot and characters at their most pivotal. Tolkien’s own military service in the First World War cannot have escaped Jordan’s attention, especially not considering that Jordan was a student of history himself. It seems most fair, does it not, to suggest that perhaps Jordan saw much of himself in Tolkien? I cannot help but wonder whether Jordan’s emphasis on cyclical struggles reflected the thoughts he developed on discovering that an earlier fantasy writer, the fantasy writer in many ways, knew the same battlefield woes that he did.
I believe it impossible for anyone who recognizes their own sufferings in another not to feel kinship with them. Yet, I fear it proves equally impossible to predict whether such kinship leads to compassion, or even greater hatred. We seldom show as much ire as we do towards those who meet our definition of failure in the trials where we believe we succeeded.
George R.R. Martin was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War whereas Jordan fought in it. He and Robert Jordan both started writing fantasy in the ’70s and both launched their most famous series in the ’90s. Indeed, Jordan’s The Eye of the World was published in 1990, six years before A Game of Thrones. It would be ridiculous to assume that they were not aware of each other. Perhaps I am missing some fabulous trove of knowledge about their relationship or lack thereof. If so, I apologize. I chose, purely of my own volition, to stampede off without seeking surety through such tome-poring. I shall be justly caught out if I overlooked a shining something.
To continue, then: in Jordan’s writing, fate is arguably immutable. Even a cosmic entity such as the Dark One cannot overcome the Wheel’s chronospheric tapestry. In Martin’s work, despite a relative absence of clear prophecies, we do receive lines about the futility of prophecy in general and the ever-mutable morass of the future. I do recall something about Azor Ahai and the Lord of Light, but we must treat honestly with each other, readers mine. That one prophecy might hold nascent truth-sparks, but if so, this reflects precious little about A Song of Ice and Fire as a whole. Still, even if neither Jordan nor Martin directly wrote against each other’s ideas, they surely encountered each other many times by proxy without sensing it. We must remember that a writer’s ideas do not stay neatly entombed within their manuscripts.
Other writers pry forth this concept or that, sometimes lending it new sheen, other times merely restoring the old. Either way, the more famed a writer, the more this silent influence swells: not proportionate, but exponential. The brighter burns their fame, the hungrier others grow to match it. Thus, a writer who sells thirty thousand copies might inspire a hundred other writers, while one who sells a million copies inspires ten thousand. I am sure that on fronts ranging from combat’s nature, to morality, to sex and love, any two authors as renowned as Jordan and Martin must spar many times.
As far as Martin’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, I champion it wholeheartedly. Yet I say this as someone who, though she never went to war, nonetheless knows pain and death well. I nearly died twice as a child. I became prone to mutilating my pale flesh with newly-sharpened blades as a forlorn teenager, and carried this through into college, then through graduation. I worsened, poisoning myself with litanies of hopelessness, until I nearly opened my belly in my bedroom this past August. I know not whether Martin conceals similar understanding, yet I must doubt it.
I cannot prove this next augury; I can but hope that based upon my prior musings, you understand my logic even if you disagree with it.
George R.R. Martin writes as one who understands that bad things happen, and wishes to prevent them, but who has never quite come to understand why. I can devise no more telling damnation than this simple truth: I believed Martin’s tales to be masterpieces of insight during my life’s deepest period of denial. When I read A Song of Ice and Fire from 2018 to 2019, I adored the books because they assured me that the things I believed were true. Things such as, “life is pointless,” “all meaning is subjective,” “sometimes bad things happen and there is nothing you can do to stop them.”
I know that Martin does not wish these messages to come from his novels, but I fear his desires matter not. He wrote first and foremost to unmake the foundations of the earth as high fantasy knew them. In a genre where meaning and ideals have always served as both brick and mortar for adventure, I fear this could only ever result in destroying meaning. Martin did not set out swiftly enough to replace the meanings he so fanatically expurgated, and so the only clear meaning emergent from his writing is the absence of meaning itself. “There is no inherent value,” “there is no force that will make the world care about you,” “it doesn’t matter how hard you try if you’re not good enough.”
These were the same messages I repeated to myself more and more viciously, like the first distant artillery pieces which herald the grand battery’s discharge, in the days before I nearly ended myself.
From this, I say once more that if fantasy serves a single truly worthy purpose, it is to sing into being a meaning where none exists. Martin sees tales such as Tolkien’s as glorifying war; I see them as an old soldier writing to himself, and his lost comrades: “We shall make something of this, no matter how small it may be–if not for ourselves, then for others.” I see these as words written by someone who needed to create some meaning outside the encroaching Void, lest it consume him entirely.
And I no longer see anything noble about assailing such efforts. If you destroy the attempt to create meaning, and add no further meaning to replace it–well, what have you created except nothing?
I compare Martin to Melkor because, like that mightiest and most fallen of all Ainur, Martin had extraordinary potential. Yet the more he wrote, the more he lost that potential in the writing by which he hoped to realize it. A Song of Ice and Fire, I must confess, never had much to say beyond, “the things said by the writers before me are stupid and wrong.” Martin never defined himself by the new ideas he created. Even now when we discuss the series, be it the ill-fated HBO adaptation or the books themselves, we less often discuss it for its own merits than for the tropes it dismantles. We do not talk about Dany as a person, but as a weapon to destroy the White Savior trope.
Why include Danaerys at all, then? Why not let the savior be a person of color? We do not talk about the Starks in themselves, we talk about how Martin uses them to chortle at the supposed idiocy of conventional heroes. Ironically, The Wheel of Time‘s Rand al’Thor–who, I again confess, remains among the characters I loathe beyond all reason or remorse–often shows far more ruthlessness and willingness to play the political game than any protagonist in Martin’s own work.
Other writers make new points by letting their protagonist take new actions and playing out the consequences; they offer nuance through chasing those moments when the reader says, “Oh, come now, a hero would never do this!’ and responding with a sorrowing question: “What if that was truly the only way?” Throughout A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin attempts to imitate this solely through devastation. Thus, in the end, no matter how many characters he churns forth from the conceptual mire, no matter how many plot twists he weaves out and in again, the stories composing A Song of Ice and Fire leave it only with emptiness. I must wonder whether Martin himself knows and regrets that. I do not know whether it would be the more sorrowful if he sees this, or like Morgoth, denies it even now–his unyielding spite lost amidst the Void’s abyssal howling.
A Song of Ice and Fire adds complexity to high fantasy, but complexity is not depth. He provides us more detail about everything from dragons to armor, but to what purpose? Armor’s sturdiness has yet to play a role in a pivotal confrontation between main characters. Martin may lavish its breaching with more words to establish the hardship faced by warriors who contend against it, yet nonetheless, they breach it; I cannot recall a meaningful moment during the books when he draws emphasis to a major character surviving a key moment due to armor when they would perish without it, or vice versa. I do not claim that no such moment exists, only that if it does, Martin loses it amidst his general crusade to sap all feeling from his world–besides a prevailing weariness of it.
I know that Jorah fought a dothraki warrior over something, and won because of his armor. I also know that I do not believe a warrior equipped with a sickle-like arakh, shaped so fervently for mounted use as to lose most merit when afoot, would defeat a knight equipped with an agile cut-and-thrust sword even if both fought stark naked. Did this moment matter? I cannot recall; I wish to say it involved Danaerys, but I cannot recall and I will not reread the books to remember.
Martin discarded any significance he might have created by this complexity, and many other equally frivolous ones. He discarded this significance in many scenes during which characters acted on turbulent emotions without a clear overarching goal. Each story beat obeys its momentary consequences slavishly, yet they rarely carry forward through the narrative. Characters receive little growth or enlightenment to link these moments. The only emergent theme, over the course of five books, is an ever-heavier sense of futility and bitterness.
Yes, humans often act against their own interests, yes, the world can be a bitter and unfair place, and yes, our own good intentions can tumble into wretched oblivion because we act on a mistaken idea of existence. With every book and every character arc since 1996, Martin has told this same story. The faces change, and the details of the mistakes, but not their nature. New names appear only to flare out, as moths attracted to a flame. Anyone might write such; I recall equal world-weariness among my drafts from my earliest college days. Again, I must ask:
I wonder whether, deep down, Martin fears answering that question. I wonder if, perhaps, the reason he so gamely hurls himself into short stories and prequels and companion novels and collaborative diversions is that, for all his furor, for all his confidence, and for all the skill with which he sheared apart the irrational scaffolds of fantasies past… I wonder whether Martin knows that when the time comes, and he finishes A Song of Ice and Fire, the only way to give his tale any meaning will be to repeat the same answers Tolkien sang forth in 1955. For when his heroes marshal the world’s surviving armies, when they confront the White Walkers, if Martin delivers the bittersweet ending he says that he intends… well, when the series reaches that moment, it shall stop being the thing it became most renowned for. What do I describe, a pivotal battle as the world gathers itself against a relentless ancient evil without regard for past feuds, if not a classic high fantasy climax?
I see no shame in this: not for Tolkien, not for Jordan, and not for Sanderson. Each of the latter pair, in his way, communes with Tolkien’s lingering dreams. He sifts that shining mist with his mind and says, “I think I hear the start of a brand new song.” So what if it echoes the old? Creators have always shared, refined, and contested each other’s ideas. Perhaps there is no Eru, or perhaps we all become our own Eru. We all participate in the same shared melody: through it, we weave our hymn to the birth and rebirth of all things. Though I stand so far outside the unfolding song in so many ways, even I am no longer ashamed to imagine I might have place in it. An irony; I already know my quartet’s ending, and dread writing it. I know the themes I shall introduce to my song, and for what purpose. Never again for spite; yet, I fear, much may sing of regret, and the worlds which might have been.
In high fantasy, even a demoness might wander and wonder until she discovers a home for herself. Her ageless existence may be tempered by remorse for past misjudgments, by abandonment and heartache, by yearning for a new beginning, but she shall find or make a place for herself nonetheless.
What for the writer that defined himself by tearing down the legendary titans who of old forged the mountains, who gave the dragons their wings, who summoned forth the first men and said, “You, too, shall have your place”? Consider this storyteller, who would look upon the mighty Argonath and say, “If you’re so big, then where’s the kingdom you’re guarding? You guys look so stupid,” when what he wishes to say is, “I hope I can do something that’ll earn me a statue like that.” For that writer, to admit that after everything, he will sing the same harmony as those who came before? To admit that our genre’s Eru was right to say that in trying to go against the grander melody, our Melkor only enriches it?
That would be to admit that after everything, after all the pain and emptiness of his tales, Martin carved his way through, burst free from the clawing brambles, and emerged into sunlight–to find that it strokes the cheerful grass swaying along the same well-trod path Tolkien walked so long ago. Then he will no longer be able to deny what he already knows within his soul’s deepest fathom: nothing he does has made this sunlight any different from that which Tolkien walked in from the start. His long sojourn through the darkness brings nothing new to light.
Perhaps Martin may finish A Song of Ice and Fire, and perhaps if he does he shall prove me wrong. Yet, I doubt it. Even if he does, he shall arrive at a worthy goal with thousands of pages in needless shackling which became necessary only because he wrote it thus. Ironically, Martin, a writer who has fought harder than any other to cast human misery as an arbitrary bondage we inflict on each other, has created a series which can only have purpose if its misery does, for misery is nearly the only thing it contains.
As I said: so does the one who simply wished to set himself apart, by slow degrees, fall away from the song. So does Melkor corrupt himself into Morgoth.
What of Jordan and Sanderson? Well, Jordan’s tales are, sadly, done. We cannot know precisely what he intended, or might have achieved, if chance had not ended his days too soon and passed his work to another. I do consider it appropriate in many ways that on one side we see Sanderson, who seems determined to recapture the emotional spirit of fantasies past, and on the other, Martin, as our present era’s most prominent fantasy writers.
I could criticize much about Sanderson’s writing in its own right. It does embody much that Martin seems to dread. In his well-intended desire to show compassion to the downtrodden, to those broken by life, Sanderson does sometimes play into harmful delusions. I have seen his writing’s greatest fans make statements such as, “The Stormlight Archive is about how broken people save the world.” As a broken person, I must beg: please, stop breaking us. The world should never need human sacrifices to save it, only those of effort, money, and perhaps hubris. Let us not pretend that our breaking may, by perverse alchemy, be remade into healing. Does not Martin, in his own backhand way, glorify such suffering as worthy and inevitable?
Yet for whatever fault I might find, Sanderson wishes to add something new. He seeks to offer a melody of his own, from which others in turn might weave theirs. At least as far as A Song of Ice and Fire expresses his wider writing’s totality, Martin’s work is emptiness incarnate. It is the Void, and for all his efforts he cannot create life within it; he chooses to rant that nothing should be something too. If he wishes to create something, why must he enter the Void to weave it? A writer should attempt this only if they find themselves trapped within the Void by that entropic, arbitrary devastation our universe visits; they should attempt this only if they must write in order to create a way out of nothing.
A Song of Ice and Fire shows neither the earnest joy of a writer following in the footsteps of those mentors they loved, nor the fiery zeal of one who looks to the old masters and says, “You do magnificent work. I hope one day to do something even better–but if I don’t, there exists no one to whom I’d more gladly admit defeat.”
Many, even critics whose insight I greatly respect, still place the full blame upon the HBO adaptation. They claim that it alone perverted a masterwork, and betrayed a living legend’s vision, in placing its quest for destruction above his story, his characters. Yet the more I cast my sight into the past, and the more I learn from it, the more I believe this an immutable truth: A Song of Ice and Fire was always defined by the things it was not. Thus, even if it succeeded in tearing them down, it would annihilate itself into the bargain. It would no longer have anything to define its being against: a grimacing specter shattering the mirror that held it. The tale condemned itself to fall apart by its very nature. In the very end, it must always come to nothing.
We talk at great length these days about whose song might truly supplant Tolkien’s. Sanderson’s readers often suggest this shall be his triumph. Again, they show themselves most fond of the phrase, “Greatest of All Time.” Could he be? Of course! Any writer could be. I mentioned when we began this wistful vigil that we always look to Tolkien’s beauteous creation to see how we might best shape our own. I see no sin there.
However, the next writer who truly comes to dominate the genre, the one whose name finally rises past Tolkien’s in longevity, will likely emerge from those who write their tales for their own sakes–neither to spite Tolkien’s song, nor to partake too deeply of its energy ere they find their own voice. They shall write as Tolkien himself did: drawing lessons from the past, but not seeking to replicate it. We too often forget that ancient glory was not ancient to those who wrought it; it was a new thing, and unforeseen. So long as they look to the future without scorning the past, so long as they nurture fantasy’s spirit and grow it by their words rather than seeking to unravel it from spite, any writer might become our next Eru.
As for myself? I am a tired, silly woman carried too long this afternoon on her own words’ current. I must bathe, and eat, and rest. I thank you, readers mine, for tending me this evening. For these last dwindling minutes, I shall not ply you with links or requests to follow my work further; thank you, readers mine, and I hope we shall share many a song with each other in the years to come.