*Spoiler Warning – Take heed*
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 permeated 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 Beowulf, The Volsunga Saga and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Both have built extensive worlds around their central narrative. However, I will argue that 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 the reason 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 quite ubiquitous 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 (we aren’t talking about Eragon, shh). 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 that is the final fight 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 shall we?
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.
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.