Did Thorslev change his mind? – The Byronic Hero According to Peter L. Thorslev

Peter L. Thorslev (1929-2011) was an English Romantics Nineteenth-Century Literature scholar and a pioneer in teaching the genre of Homosexual Literature. He spent most of his career at UCLA and is most well-known for literally writing the book on the Byronic Hero.

In The Byronic Hero, Thorslev considers Lord George Byron’s influence on ‘heroic’ characters, to do so he looks backward to trace the development of different types of heroic figures. He begins in the Eighteenth-Century, works his way through the Romantic period and finally, considers Byron’s own heroes as the culmination and evolution of previous heroic types. Ultimately, Thorslev argues that ‘heroes’ no longer necessarily comply with the tropes and traditions of classical or traditional epics.

Thorslev believed that embarking on such an ambitious task was justified by more than Byron’s remarkable literary and cultural influence. He argues in his introduction that a study of the origins and development of the Byronic Hero would throw more light on Romanticism as a whole.

Due to the fascinating and often distracting nature of Byron’s life, and the tendency of scholars to focus on the Byronic hero’s representation in other texts and arenas (e.g. Frankenstein, the poetry of Pushkin, French Romanticism etc.) until Thorslev there existed no definitive or in-depth study of the Byronic Hero’s ancestors, or of the Byronic Hero itself. Thorslev himself notes Bertrand Evans’ Gothic Drama from Walpole to Shelley and Eino Railo’s The Haunted Castle for their discussion of the development of the villain-hero and its connection to Byron. Thorslev also criticises Mario Praz’s Romantic Agony for “reducing Romanticism to a perverted sensibility” (7). After acknowledging that there is considerable evidence supporting the belief that Byron’s heroes (particularly the Giour and Lara) were (as a consequence of Byron’s apparent introspective limitations) fashioned by Byron as representative of himself, Thorslev suggests that the best approach to the Byronic figure is an objective one.

Thorslev sets out to examine the heroes of an age he believed to be characterised by “passion and fiery energy, all moral, intellectual, and political rebellion” (16). An age which Thorslev believes to have come to think of hubris as a “cardinal virtue” more than a cardinal sin.

Thorslev moves through the heroes of the Eighteenth-Century:

The Child of Nature

The Hero of Sensibility: Man of Feeling or Gloomy Egoist

The Gothic Villain

To Romantic Hero types:

The Noble Outlaw


Cain and Ahasuerus

Satan and Prometheus

Before discussing Byronic Heroes:

Childe Harold

Four Turkish Tales

Two Metaphysical Dramas

and finishes by contemplating the “Byronic Hero and Heroic Tradition” as a whole.

Thorslev concludes that Byron is “our natural contact with this last great heroic tradition in our literature” (185) and defines the Byronic Hero in light of his own study as embodying the following characteristics:

  • “bigger than life.”
  • “above the common level.”
  • Possessing “greater powers, greater dignity and a greater soul” than the common human.
  • Simultaneously possessing the qualities of “ordinary mortals” so that we can “see ourselves in him.”
  • An idealization.
  • “a man whose capacities have been multiplied and enlarged so as to make him a giant among men.”
  • In spite of his tragic flaw, he must also be “better” and “more virtuous” than the average man.

He notes these attributes as features that entitle them to a place in the broader tradition of heroic literature. However, Thorslev also suggests that they have distinguishable characteristics that make them distinctive, the most important of these he suggests are “sensibility” and “Satanism” (188).

“Sensibility” because:

  • of their affinity and appreciation of natural beauty.
  • “they long for some kind of absorption in the universe around them.”
  • they have “almost infinite capacities for feeling.”
  • and that these attributes together often make them egocentric.

“Satanism” because of:

  • the influence of John Milton Paradise Lost.
  • the eighteenth-century pietistic movement.
  • and because the Romantic period was one of “rebellion in the name of individualism” (189) wherein a dichotomy was drawn between aggressive “humanism, self-reliance and Satanism” and “God-reliance, total commitment to absolutes, and consequent self-immolation” (189).

Obviously, in such a brief summary I am avoiding many important tangential arguments, but this last point is the crux of Thorslev’s thesis, that the tradition of the Byronic hero was one founded on rebellion.

Since Thorslev, there has not been a similarly successful overview of the Byronic hero, its origins, or its relationship with literature as a whole. However, Thorslev wrote The Byronic Hero in 1965 and it appears to be only the second of a long list of works written on this subject and the greater Romantic period. My question is, did Thorslev change his mind or develop any important parts of his discussion further as he progressed in his career?

The fact that he never in any way retracted The Byronic Hero or published any form of emphatic re-working of his ideas is a testament that his main argument remained unchanged. A large number of citations of the text also supports the notion that Thorslev did not revise his argument. However, an examination of Thorslev’s work suggests that he did extend it and alter some elements despite the reality that they often went unnoticed, overshadowed as there were by Thorslev’s original work.

Below is a list of Thorslev’s published work throughout his academic career. I have listed them chronologically, not alphabetically and have included his non-academic writing, but none of his numerous book reviews. The articles and book relevant to the Byronic Hero have been highlighted.

Thorslev, Peter L. “The Romantic Mind Is Its Own Place.” Comparative Literature 15 (1963): 250-68.

———. The Byronic Hero. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1965.

———. “Incest as Romantic Symbol.” Comparative Literature Studies 2, no. 1 (1965): 41-58.

———. “Freedom and Destiny: Romantic Contraries.” The Bucknell Review 14, no. 2 (1966): 38-45.

———. “Wordsworth’s “Borderers” and the Romantic Villain-Hero.” Studies in Romanticism 5, no. 2 (1966): 84-103.

Thorslev, Peter L. “Blake’s Experience.” The New York Review of Books. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1966/02/03/blakes-experience/ (29/02/18) – Published 1966.

Thorslev, Peter L. “Politics and Morality.” The New York Review of Books. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1967/10/26/politics-and-morality-2/ (29/02/18). – Published 1967.

———. “Romantic Writers and the Now Generation.” The Wordsworth Circle 2, no. 2 (1971): 42-45.

———. “Romanticism and the Literary Consciousness.” Journal of the History of Ideas 36, no. 3 (1975): 563-72.

Thorslev, Peter L. “Daring to Speak its Name.” The New York Review of Books. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1981/04/02/daring-to-speak-its-name-2/ (29/02/18). – Published 1981.

———. Romantic Contraries: Freedom Versus Destiny. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.

———. “Post-Waterloo Liberalism: The Second Generation.” Studies in Romanticism (1989): 437-61.

———. “Recent Studies in the Nineteenth Century.” Studies in English Literature (1989).

What quickly becomes apparent, is that the topic of the Byronic Hero was of concern to Thorslev early in his career. Later, he seems to have become preoccupied with other areas of research in the Romantic Period. He certainly remained interested in gothic themes and Byron but seems to have considered the Byronic Hero to have been ‘dealt with.’ The subject does arise in some of his book reviews when he corrects the authors’ general use (and often misuse) of terms like ‘Byronic Hero’ and ‘gothic heroes.’

‘The Romantic Mind in its Own Place’ was published before The Byronic Hero and is the first time Thorslev presents the idea of categorising or providing a chronological list reflective of the evident change in the nature of the heroes that began in the Romantic period. Thorslev also suggests that such a study could/should include earlier heroes that did not conform to traditional heroic expectations.

In this article, Thorslev first notes the gap in the scholarship surrounding problematic hero types, almost foreshadowing his forthcoming book:

There is no complete study of romantic Satanism in this more philosophical sense, and of course, such a topic is far beyond the measure of the present essay. Such a study could well begin with the Satan of Paradise Lost, however, not only because this is Satan’s most heroic portrait, but also because this image of Satan was so influential in the romantic movement, both in England and in Germany. Satan underwent a long metamorphosis in the eighteenth century, largely under the benign influence of various concepts of the heroic and the sublime in literature and, when he re-emerged in no longer the (larval) serpent of the later books of Paradise Lost, but had reassumed his archangelic wings and had become intimately associated with romantic rebellion in the name of the new humanist self-assertion-particularly in association with his brother rebel against God, Prometheus (251).

He continues by suggesting that a starting point for the study of Romantic Satanism would benefit from the following method:

take[ing] a key passage in the characterization of Satan in Paradise Lost, classify the Satanic characteristics implicit in a thorough exegesis of the passage, and then follow these themes briefly through the romantic mind and see how they are transmuted one poet emphasizing one characteristic, another a second, and often with unmistakable echoes of the locus classicus in Paradise Lost.

Thorslev then uses this technique on the following passage from Paradise Lost:

One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than hee
Whom Thunder hath made greater?
Here at least We shall be free… (I. 251-59)

He focuses particularly on the idea of “the mind in its own place” and continues by examining the quote from the perspective of psychological, stoic, epistemological/creationist and existential points of view. Though not quite chronological, Thorslev is able to trace perceptions of one example of Satan’s many contentious heroic qualities and illustrate the development of one aspect of Romantic Satanism.

Either Thorslev was already working on The Byronic Hero, or he was at least beginning to think about it. Either way, Thorslev would change his approach, probably because it would be an ambitious task to analyse in such detail every contentious line related to Satan in Paradise Lost. Instead, he would focus on the development of heroic types. He is still able to acknowledge different philosophical and theological responses to alternative heroic characters, and this broader approach also allows him to consider Satan in comparison to his forebears and descendants.

Later, in ‘Romantic Contraries’ an article that would eventually become a book, Thorslev spends some time defining Byronic and Gothic heroes (although he often refers to them more generally as “this type of hero”) in relation to the landscape the author has situated them in. He acknowledges the struggle the Romantics faced, in often being forced to find an alternative “imaginative landscape” in which to place their heroes due to a world that was becoming increasingly dominated by science. Thorslev discusses the various attributes that become associated with alternative heroic types that are placed in what he defines as the “organic universe,” the “demonic universe,” and the “open” universe. While this article returns to Thorslev’s discussion of heroic types and prototypes it diverges from essential debates. Thorslev does not revise any of his initial points of discussion of heroes, but rather extends it.

The last relevant piece of scholarship published by Thorslev is ‘Wordsworth’s “Borderers” and the Romantic Villain-Hero.’ Thorslev does not dedicate much time to Wordsworth in The Byronic Hero. Compared to his contemporaries, Wordsworth was far less preoccupied with complex heroes. However, by summarising his main arguments in The Byronic Hero Thorslev argues that the character of Oswald is an example of the Romantic Villain-Hero:

This Romantic hero has his origins in a revived Renaissance “mortal god” (the Stoic sapiens, or the Faustian or Machiavellian super man), and in a reinterpreted Satan from Paradise Lost; he appears first in the eighteenth century in the German Sturm und Drang, in the person of Schiller’s Karl Moor or of Goethe’s Gotz, and in a myriad of Fausts, Prometheuses, and even titanic Wandering Jews. In England he makes his first appearance as the villain in the proliferation of Gothic novels and dramas in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Having received a strong infusion from the German, and from the traditional outlaw-hero, he reaches full maturity in the verse romances of Scott and Byron, and later in Byron’s dramas, particularly Manfred and Cain. Then, gone into eclipse in England except for the novels of Disraeli or the Brontes, he reappears in American Melville’s Captain Ahab, for instance. Finally, as Vaclav Cerny has pointed out, he reaches his apotheosis in Nietzsche’s superman, or his nemesis in the novels of Dostoevsky (91-2).

Thorslev takes this opportunity to define the Romantic Hero-Villain as:

dark, reserved, and inclined to be morose, often with a past of mystery and secret sin, and yet he has an attraction and a personal magnetism immediately obvious, even to the casual observer, and exercising its power especially over the small band of outlaws of which he is often the leader…His more philosophical characteristics or attitudes are perhaps not so obvious, but they are even more important. He aims above all at freedom, and for this reason he seeks first the power and self-sufficiency which make this freedom possible. This endeavor usually leads him to place the head above the heart…Above all, he is a rebel, first against the family and community, then against the state and the church, and finally, on the precedent of his Satanic forebear, against God himself. His motives in rebellion are his inability to conceive of or to tolerate limits to his freedom: he wills the ultimate freedom and its concomitant power. He wills to be God. Finally, in spite of his close association with Prometheus, this hero is not always or even frequently a philanthropist; he is more of a metaphysical rebel (93).

Following this, Thorslev examines Oswald’s exhibition of these characteristics. Examining only one character in such detail makes it possible for Thorslev to be more thorough in his analysis. He is also able to apply his own (now well established and cited) work to a character to judge not only their validity as a Romantic Hero-Villain but also their place in the scope of the Romantic Hero-Villain tradition as a whole. Again, Thorslev emphasises the Hero-Villain’s affinity with Satan and their preoccupation with the philosophy of rebellion. He also introduces what appears to be a new aspect of the Hero-Villain’s characteristics. He discusses Oswald as transcending ‘good and evil’ values by establishing himself (through his rebellion) as separate to the values of society:

In ridding himself of his regret for the past and of respect for the regard of his fellows, he has denied the authority both of conscience and of social pressure, those twin enforcers, from within and without, of all traditional moral codes (95).

Far from changing his mind, Thorslev is merely developing his definition. One could argue that making the list of defining features longer and longer to incorporate more characters defeats the purpose of defining the character in the first place. However, I argue that rather than lengthening the list, Thorslev is providing clarification by discussing earlier defined characteristics in more depth. Discussing the examples of Villain-Heroes outside his original scope allows Thorslev to substantiate his original thesis further. It also allows him to consider his argument in light of new academic research and a developing understanding of the importance Romantic heroes types in relation to contemporary literature. That Thorslev’s ‘Borderers’ article was the last he wrote on this topic despite the list of publications by Thorslev that followed, does not suggest that he changed his mind, or had nothing left to contribute to the topic. Perhaps that was the case, perhaps he grew tired of the topic for one reason or another, or perhaps he simply moved to other areas of study. It is unlikely and probably unimportant that we ever find out. The reality we should concern ourselves with is that Thorslev remains relatively unmatched in his work on the Byronic Hero (and the Romantic Villain-Hero more generally) and that while he expanded and explored it, Thorslev did not change his definition and it appears, did not change his mind.












Drunk on Magic – Lev Grossman’s Magicians are the symptom, not the antidote

When Lev Grossman began writing The Magicians series the Harry Potter phenomenon was only beginning to develop momentum. Nonetheless, Grossman’s series has been lauded as ‘Harry Potter for grown-ups’ and the answer to our nostalgic longing for more of Rowling’s world. The series has since been adapted for TV and whilst many pedantic readers might be frustrated with the changes made for the plot, the adaptation brings the books into the present world and blends magic if college life typical of 2017 in a gritty, sexy and hilarious cocktail.
the magicians magic GIF by SYFY

Grossman’s series is purposefully derivative of Narnia, Harry Potter (to some extent), and the greater fantasy genre. The series follows Campbell’s ‘Hero’s journey,’ there are epic contests and quests, there is love, betrayal and sacrifice. There are magical lands, mysterious beasts and monsters. There is an established magical system underpinning the world and there are characters readers can relate to, applaud and commiserate with.


Despite its fantastic elements, it is evident that Grossman set out to write some sort of modernist, or perhaps even post-modernist text. The text, like the characters themselves, is uncomfortably – and often self-consciously – self-aware of its preoccupation with fantasy. The protagonist, Quentin Coldwater is obsessed with the books he read in childhood. The books provided a means of escapism for his dreary, melodramatic existence into what he perceives as a superior world. Quentin does not outgrow his obsession, he carries it through adolescence and into adulthood. It is because of this obsession with Fillory that Quentin is characterized as an oddball and an outcast. However, what is most remarkable, is that for the most part, the other characters indulge him. They mock him and laugh at him, but most importantly they know exactly what he’s talking about, no one ever asks ‘what’s Fillory?’ Everyone knows what Fillory is, everyone is cradling the remnants of a childhood obsession, nobody is confused by the subject of Quentin’s rambling. They would just rather he shut up. Everyone shares Quentin’s obsession to some extent. The only variant is whether they still believe in Fillory, or have given it up for reality.

the magicians hug GIF by SYFY

The text and the characters within in it, are aware that they are obsessed with the idea of something that is fundamentally ‘more’ than the reality they exist in. Many readers of Grossman’s series long for a world in which magic exists. In the series, the characters discover that magic exists but continue to long for a world that is bigger and better and has more magic. When they discover that such a world also exists, not only is it in a political and magical shambles but the characters within it in turn long for something more than their own reality. In some cases, the subject of this longing is simply a dependable and functioning political system, and in others, characters long for adventures in Fillory’s lesser-known lands.


Grossman is aware that like our nostalgia for Harry Potter, their longing cannot be sated. That longing for magic is part of the magic. That when the imagined becomes reality, it is often underwhelming or disappointing. Grossman has written a fantasy series that is preoccupied with modernist sentiments. Grossman himself is interested in the modern, the postmodern and the distinction (if any) between the two. As a writer for Time Grossman has written a number of articles on the father of postmodernism, David Foster Wallace. In his 2006 article reviewing Wallace’s magnum opus Infinite Jest ten years after its publication, Grossman suggests that the size of the book accounts for the way ‘we fill up our loneliness with obsessions–notably tennis and movies–and addictions–notably drugs–and how those obsessions and addictions leave us only lonelier still.’ Grossman’s characters are likewise addicted to (among the usual suspects) their love of magic. Their hubris is their unappeasable and intrinsic desire for more magic.

the magicians magic GIF by SYFY

The Magicians adheres to other postmodernist mores. There are countless allusions to other fantasy texts, philosophical thinkers, modernist and postmodernist works. These references are mixed with pop-culture and other science fiction and fantasy fandoms and are blended together into a nerdy pastiche. There are multiple character perspectives that often give contradictory experiences of the plot. The progression of time is often non-linear and reflexive. The characters’ experience of jumping between worlds is reflective of their inability to settle either physically or mentally into any type of reality or lifestyle. Their experience of their childhood colours every aspect of their adult life, often unconsciously. The end of the series does not have the finality typical of a fantasy novel but remains open-ended. The romantic plot thread is frustrating, disappointing and leaves a bitter taste. There is no clear distinction between good and evil. The villain is easy to dislike but complicated, if not completely mimetic of Quentin. All this is to say that despite parading as a fantasy – a genre often categorised as low brow – Grossman’s series has many qualities of the postmodern novel, which is typically high brow but also known for combining the two.


One of the ways Grossman blends modernist and postmodernists concerns with fantasy tropes is through his treatment of the relationship between religion as an institutional part of society, and religion as understood and experienced by the individual. Nietzsche’s announcement that ‘God is dead’ and that ‘we have killed him,’ has resonated powerfully with thinkers and writers ever since the late nineteenth century. This new outlook on religion has certainly influenced the world building of fantasy writers. Grossman has notably critiqued Rowling for her lack of a religious model in Harry Potter, suggesting it was unrealistic to have a world completely devoid of religion. For Rowling, God and religion may no longer be essential to existence. For Grossman, God and Gods are simply a part of reality. His model is paganist, there are multiple Gods of differing levels of power with differing responsibilities and interests. Some of them are innately benevolent, others downright evil in nature. The characters are for the most part not religious, but they do encounter Gods in various ways. The Gods in Grossman’s world are worshipped and revered by some as religious entities. However, for the most part, they are seen as simply part of the greater machinations of the magical world. They are revered because they are powerful more than anything else. As the characters encounter magic and find it underwhelming, so do they meet literal Gods and find them disappointing or unworthy.

the magicians ember GIF by SYFY

The combination allows Grossman to reject many fantasy tropes and push the boundaries of the genre. More importantly, it allows him to engage with an audience who’s childhood was built on fantasy, but who grew up to the sound of the fathers (and mothers) of postmodernism. The Harry Potter generation may not have been Grossman’s initial target audience, but that is what it has become. This readership is one that dreamed of dragons and castles and went through school being taught philosophy and Shakespeare. It stumbled into adulthood and like Quentin encountered a world that often failed to live up to expectations. Where none of us are the ‘chosen one’ where there is not one big battle, but hundreds of smaller ones. Where love is less romantic than it is eclectic. Where dragons certainly exist but swords are no match for them. Where it is not enough to simply hope for the existence of magic. We must instead actively search it out. Because we are all Quentin, or Eliot, or Alice, or Penny. When can see ourselves reflected in the turmoil these characters experience more than many of us related to being kept in a cupboard under the stairs (literally or emotionally).

the magicians magic GIF by SYFY
The Magicians explores the reality that human desire is powerful because the emotions produced by desire are themselves are powerful. The denouement of this emotional longing is very rarely satisfying, often it is fundamentally dissatisfying. The desire for fantasy and fantastic worlds is one Grossman’s characters and readers share. When that desire is achieved the characters lives don’t improve, they just become more complicated and increasingly desirous of more. The Magicians starts with a seventeen-year-old character, the same age as Harry Potter when we last left him (ignoring the epilogue). However, Grossman is not indulging the Harry Potter generation, he is answering it.


Imagine Dragons: The Battle of the R.R.s

*Spoiler Warning*

Episode 6 of season 7 of Game of Thrones aired a couple of days ago (unless you watched the leaked version, cheeky scoundrel), and I feel we should send the neighbors an apology for the amount of screaming that no doubt bled into the quiet street that evening.

Turns out the Night King is quite the athlete, capable of skewering a dragon’s scales from an impressive distance with what must be a pretty ace quality ice javelin. As one of Dany’s children fell screaming from the sky and into the ice, George Martin’s ‘fire and ice’ metaphor truly came into its own, and the true threat of the White Walker army became apparent. If they can take down a dragon, then the North won’t be much of a tussle. Next stop King’s Landing.

I thought it a pertinent time to discuss one of my main problems with Martin’s world and briefly consider his looming impact on the fantasy genre.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was published in 1937, and his Lord of the Rings Trilogy would follow in 1954. Tolkien would become a worldwide phenomenon, unlike any other of its kind, it was a publishing anomaly, at least until the publication of the first Harry Potter book in 1997. As Rowling’s world gained momentum, it seemed a happy coincidence that these two fantasy series’ had inspired such a ubiquitous and obsessive following. However, in 2011 the first episode of the Song of Ice and Fire TV adaptation, Game of Thrones aired, and slowly, the series, the first book of which was published in 1991, long before Rowling’s debut, gained a steady following. Today, the series and its adaptation is a worldwide phenomenon. When people refer to other works of fantasy they have a three-pillared model they can use to situate it. ‘Oh it’s like Game of Thrones because of the violence, but more of an adventure like Frodo’s.’ Or, ‘It’s like Harry Potter but don’t give it to your kids because it’s got crazy sex in it.’ (I am blissfully avoiding any mention of Twilight in discussion of these pillars of fantasy, but that’s a rant for another time).

Obviously, Martin has more in common with Tolkien than with Rowling (that’s not to say Rowling doesn’t have a lot of these elements as well). Both base their world’s loosely on Anglo-Saxon and British history, both take inspiration from traditional epics such as BeowulfThe Volsunga Saga and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Both have built extensive worlds around their central narrative. However,  Tolkien was primarily a linguist, a medieval scholar, and a philsopher; an Oxford Don who created his narrative to support the vast histories and languages he had created. Whilst Martin created the latter to support his narrative. Both spend what readers often argue to be an abominable amount of time narrating minute details, Tolkien about the trees, the wind, the sun, and every. Single. Meal. They. Eat. Martin, about battles many readers don’t care about, the intricate workmanship of a sword, and the taste of every type of wine sampled by characters. Both discuss the complexity of the human condition and the dangerous belief in a dichotomy between good and evil. Both consider the power of love and the atrocities of war. Both have rich characters readers grow to love.

Martin certainly turns up the dial of the sex, drugs and rock and roll, whilst Tolkien goes off wandering with some Elves in a forest somewhere, but it is clear to see how Martin was influenced by Tolkien. Although, I concede he brought some new cards to the table by creating so many intertwined and parallel plots, and convincing readers to enjoy the storylines of all the characters (ok maybe not Sansa), to the extent that we often aren’t sure who we’re gunning for and who we want to burst into flames (RIP Dikon).

Critics, writers, readers, and viewers, often say that Martin is the new Tolkien, the new father of fantasy. I can see how they come to this conclusion. I love both their collective works. I used to have to hide to read Tolkien, because my Mum deemed it too scary for me (it was), but I read it over and over. I used to write short stories and comics where Gandalf met Dumbledore and they played chess and talked about bringing the Hobbits to Hogwarts. Martin I came to later in life, but I reread the books every year before the latest season came out up until last year and I viciously fact check my friends’ plebian knowledge of the Game of Thrones history every Monday night.

So, I’m a fan. Of both. Now let’s cut to the chase.

The thing that irks me most about Martin’s world, and one the many reasons I think he in no way usurps the greatness of Tolkien is that his dragons are rubbish. I’ll admit they aren’t the most rubbish type of dragon going around. Dragons have become common in the last thirty years of fantasy writing, and with the development of CGI. Pete’s Dragon‘s Dragon was a bit of a joke. Rowling’s dragons were ok, but small-time, and Anne McCaffery’s are pretty cool. The dragons of Christopher Paolini’s series remain divisive, but I argue they were pretty dull. But no dragon can beat Smaug, particularly not Martin’s dragons, in fact, I’d expect better from Martin, I’m disappointed.

Tolkien’s dragons are inspired by the combination of the dreadful beast in Beowulf and of Fafnir, the greedy brother who was turned into the dragon for committing fratricide, in the Norse Mythology of The Volsunga Saga.

Martin’s dragons are…well they’re big and they breathe fire.

Let’s set up the playing field:

Smaug is enormous, he is powerful and monstrous, the mention of his name evokes fear. He is deeply rooted in the old magic and traditions of Tolkien’s world. He is also extremely wise and intelligent, a sublime creature with identity and self-agency, a master of himself, he takes what he wants, belongs to no one and you better be a pretty good thief to get at his treasure.

Martin’s dragons (and here I mean mostly in the books, but let’s also consider the show as canon here) are winged cats that breathe fire. Given, Balerion was one giant badass who probably could have beaten Smaug up, but Dany’s children are little more than just that, children.

Image result for Balerion

They are magnificent creatures, powerful, monstrous, beautiful. But they are not wise or intelligent, they are the product of magic, but do not seem to be aware of it. They have no self-agency (except Drogon’s brief teenage rebellion), and are entirely at Dany’s bidding. She uses them as war machines, hacking and slashing at anything in her path. Their only saving grace, according to my cousin at least, is that they are elemental forces, they put the ‘fire’ in ‘fire and ice,’ and symbolise the great elemental battle that Martin is depicting.


Tolkien recognised that dragons are so stunningly magnificent because they are wondrous, sentient creatures beyond the realms of human control and domination. They are truly free beings, in tune with the magic of the world. To humans, this makes them monsters, no other being comes close to being so powerful that they are basically immortal. Tolkien understood this, and his imagining of the dragon respects them. Martin uses them like flying cavalry, to spook an enemy, and get the edge in a battle. Dragons deserve more reverence and respect than this. Let’s see how the Night King treats his new charge.

They are fire, they are death, fear them.