Finding A New Realm To Explore

Almost three years ago, I wrote about my fascination during my adolescence and young adult years with The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien’s massive fantasy saga. I didn’t say then, as I might have, that no other piece of fantasy fiction had ever come close to filling the hole in my reading appetite that was left when I finished the trilogy the first time.

I tried to fill that hole, as I wrote (in a post that is available at Echoes In The Wind Archives), with regular browsing in Tolkien’s work and annual re-readings of the entire trilogy. That frequent browsing ended sometime in the mid-1970s, probably around the time I left college and entered the working world. The annual readings stopped sometimes in the 1990s, I’m guessing. (Most of the 1990s blur in my memory, primarily because not much happened.) But even as I was browsing through Tolkien’s appendices or re-reading his account of, say, Gollum’s treachery at Cirith Ungol, I was still looking for a book or series of books of fantasy fiction that could compare to Tolkien’s work.

It took years to find that rarity. During college, browsing in the St. Cloud State library and in the college bookstore, I tried first one and then another fantasy epic, but saw in all of them nothing more than pale imitations of Tolkien. In search of a fantasy fix as the years went on, I dug lightly into Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion and the various volumes titled The History of Middle-earth compiled and edited by Tolkien’s son, Christopher. But those left me dissatisfied.

One set that came close was the Majipoor series of novels and stories by Robert Silverberg, which I discovered during graduate school in the early 1980s. The series begins with the 1981 novel, Lord Valentine’s Castle and now continues through nine more assorted novels, novellas and story collections, according to Wikipedia. I read the first novel avidly and the next two with mild interest, and when nothing more appeared for some time, I didn’t care. I see from Wikipedia that Silverberg re-threaded the needle in 1995, but by then, my fiction menu was pretty much drawn from historical, legal and detective novels. Will I go back to Majipoor? I think it’s unlikely.

But I have found that rare series of books that can rival Tolkien, and it’s thanks to HBO. I’ve enjoyed over the last few years the various historical series that HBO and the other premium cable networks have been airing: Rome, Deadwood, The Tudors, Mad Men and a few others. And in late winter, I began seeing promotional spots for HBO’s Game of Thrones. Intrigued, I watched the first episode of the series and was hooked. I watched it again with the Texas Gal, and she was hooked. The series became one of our few must-watch hours.

And of course, we learned that the HBO show was based on the first of five novels – with more to come – by George R.R. Martin, novels collectively called A Song of Ice and Fire. As the first season of Game of Thrones came to an end, the Texas Gal and I wondered if the quality of the writing in the books matched the quality of the story being told. So we tentatively bought the first of the five volumes, A Game of Thrones. It came to my table first, and I made short work of its nearly seven hundred pages, and as I passed the book along to the Texas Gal, I ordered the next volume, A Clash of Kings. And then, in quick succession, we ordered the next three.

As you might guess, we find Martin’s work remarkable. The world he’s created for his tales has – like Tolkien’s – a deep and rich set of histories for each of its cultures. The long game of thrones in which his characters and their cultures are engaged is enthralling, drawing me deep into the tales and keeping me there. As I read further into the books – I’m about midway through the fourth of the five, A Feast for Crows – I find my attention drawn away from other pastimes: I’m about three weeks behind on my reading of Newsweek, Time and Sports Illustrated, and a pile of about two dozen CDs sits on my desk awaiting logging into the database.

I think I was likely as engrossed in Tolkien’s work the first time I read it so many years ago, taking any spare moment available to move forward another few pages. But there are major differences. First of all, Martin writes much better than Tolkien did. Part of that, I imagine, is the era, with Tolkien’s work coming from the years that bracketed World War II, and part of it, I would guess, is because Tolkien – an academic whose real career was the study of languages and myth – came to write The Lord of the Rings at least partly as a result of his experiments in creating languages. Martin came to write A Song of Ice and Fire because he’s a writer.

And that leads to two of the other major differences I find between the two works. First, Tolkien’s work was set out in stark black or white; nearly all the characters – the notable exceptions being Boromir and Gollum – were either good or evil. There were no real enduring shades of grey in Middle-earth. In Martin’s Westeros and the surrounding lands, shades of grey are the norm. There is evil and there is good, there are evil characters and there are characters that are mostly good. But I cannot think of a character in Martin’s work who is so unfailingly and purely and unrealistically good as was Tolkien’s Aragorn. And that’s fine with me. People are flawed.

And the last of the major differences I find as a reader comes about because flawed characters are more realistic than are perfect characters. I care about Martin’s characters in a way that I never cared about Tolkien’s. Oh, I worried as I read years ago about the hobbits Frodo and Sam, anxious to know not so much if they would finish their quest – that seemed foreordained – but whether they would survive and, if so, would they remain whole? (As we know, they were both altered fundamentally by their quest, a very human fact that – as I look at it from the age of fifty-seven – is one of the more real things about Tolkien’s work.) But I also realize as I look back that I cared very little about anyone else in The Lord of the Rings. Part of that was being fourteen, but part of it was the one-dimensional nature of most of Tolkien’s characters.

Martin’s world, however, with its shades of grey and its very human characters, has made me care about nearly all the major characters I’ve met so far. I don’t like all of them; there are some I detest wholly. But I see them as human, not as the archetypes that peopled Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

So I turn the pages, anxious to know who thrives and who doesn’t. And as I do, the quality of the writing, the complexity of the tale and its characters, and my wishes and worries for those people I’ve come to know in those pages are making A Song of Ice and Fire one of the great reading experiences of my life.

To close, as always, with music, here is the opening sequence to HBO’s Game of Thrones. The main theme is by Ramin Djawadi, and it’s won the affection of the soundtrack geek who loved his time in Middle-earth and is now thrilled and terrified as he wanders through Westeros and its surrounding lands.


2 Responses to “Finding A New Realm To Explore”

  1. Randolph says:

    If your stuck on Tolkien, time you visited the master

  2. whiteray says:

    Hey, Randolph. Thanks for the comment and suggestion. I tried “The Worm Ouroboros” long ago and should maybe take another look at it. The point of the piece, however, was that I’m no longer stuck on Tolkien.

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