Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Martin v. Tolkien

Martin has written more and has Tolkien beaten on sheer size, but he is also a Jets fan, so he loses points on this score.

Time has called Martin the “American Tolkien,” which is an interesting comparison between two great authors. However, they are very different in terms of style and flavor. Tolkien is the master as epic high fantasy, bringing forth noble ideals of good and evil. He writes with a style similar to the sagas of old, and is closer to mythology in terms of content and flow. Martin is writing a fantasy soap opera that specializes in political intrigue and ambiguous morality.

I am almost done with A Feast for Crows, and I suspect that I will be done before the weekend. This will mean that I would have read it in just under 3 weeks, which is pretty good considering it is just shy of 1000 pages. Unfortunately, Dances with Dragons is not out yet, and my bold and fearless prediction is that we will see it next year. While I have no inside knowledge on how the book is coming, I suspect that it is about 80% complete, and that Martin is struggling with completing the final 20% or so. With a work as monstrous as A Song of Ice and Fire, getting the internal consistency right is probably a major under taking, and is easier said than done. It sounds like he worked hard on Dances in the first part of last year, and then slacked off in the second half of the year. I am not sure how he is doing this year, but I have not heard any significant updates, which means that he is still working on it, and it is going slowly. I am hopeful for a 2010 release. As for the final two books, hopefully we will see them before 2020.

I started reading A Game of Thrones about a year ago, and now I finishing up with Feast, which has given me time to reflect over the body of A Song of Ice and Fire. Without a doubt, it is a very ambitious project. In The Lord of the Rings, the scope of Middle Earth is epic, in that the entire history of the work has been laid out, and there are tales within tales of heroes and their triumphs and tragedies. Tolkien’s appendix found at the end of The Lord of the Rings and his companion works, contain exhaustive details on Middle Earth, and contains a very extensive time line of events. This goes to show the amount of detail that Tolkien put into the overall world. There is a depth of history and story contained within their pages. At its root, it is a tale of good and evil, where both are clearly defined, and their struggle is eternal. The theme of corruption is woven throughout the story, and the tragedies are in watching good men fall in with the manifestation of evil.

Martin is completely different. I used the term fantasy soap opera to describe A Song of Ice and Fire, which I think is very accurate. While there are struggles between the various houses, the story is really about the characters. The people in the story are neither good nor evil, but are playing the hands that they are dealt with to further their own person agendas. It feels like the young are innocent (or good), until they fall into their own ambitions of status and power. Once this happens, they fall into the inbetween category that can only be classifed as grey. Even the worst of the characters are not entirely evil, although, some of their actions are extremely vile. It’s this fuzzy nature of the morality of man that holds appeal, and that I think makes the story work. The reader can relate to the characters making mistakes, as there is a reflection of real life woven into the plot.

Martin has a number of strengths as an author, but his ability to turn a line is amazing. He can be funny, witty and sharp all in the same paragraph. His writing has an edge to it that makes it a very enjoyable read. Tolkien’s writing does not seem to have quite the same sharpness that Martin has, but it is still elegant and at times it is very bold in narrative. Tolkien really shines when the main character, representing the force of good, confronts the darkness and calls out the foulness of its being, often with reference to earlier heroes. In this regard, Tolkien is more related to Milton than to other writers of the fantasy genera. There is deepness to his story that is not commonly found in other writers.

With A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin has woven a tale that could easily have been pulled from medieval Europe. There is a certain attraction to the pageantry of the various houses and knights, and I found myself wondering what the jousting tournaments of Europe were like. This element clearly added to the enjoyment of the story.

One of the first 1000+ page novels that I read was Shogun, which checked in at about 1210 pages. To be honest, I read it after seeing the miniseries back in 1980, and I think it took me several months to read the entire thing. Shogun is just a massive literary work. I really enjoyed the political jockeying that was present between the Toranaga and Ishido as they fought for the right to be called Shogun. Now there were other factions present, including the Roman Catholic Church, which exercised considerable power in a non-Christian country, which I found very interesting, but Toranga and Ishido were the major players in the book. In some ways, A Song of Ice and Fire is very similar to Shogun, and one can see a number of common themes between the works.

As a final note, George, just write the book.


Hamlet said...

Very good post.

Just a shill moment here: if you liked the novels, you should pick up the two (soon to be three) shorter works of the Dunk and Egg series. They're a bit lighter in tone and depth, but no less good for all the reasons you mention.

Ragnorakk said...

Reading Song of Ice and Fire was a significant spur to get back into gaming for me. I think the Tolkien comparison only holds so much water, mainly just from a populist view.

Joseph said...

Personally, I'd like to see him write some more Haviland Tuf stories. But that's just me...