Contrasting Views of Evil: ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’

The Gospel Coalition | 6/17/2019 | Staff
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The recently concluded HBO series Game of Thrones, during eight acclaimed seasons, captured the zeitgeist and enlarged the enduring popularity of epic fantasy.

Thrones often drew comparisons to the original classic of the genre, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (LOTR). Indeed, the books on which Thrones is based—George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series—are appreciatively indebted to Tolkien.

Similarity - Tolkien - Martin - Manner - Differs

Yet despite their similarity, Tolkien’s and Martin’s manner of storytelling differs, perhaps most notably in their portrayal of the manifestation of evil.

Ross Douthat recently tweeted a brief but insightful comparison of the two fantasy stories that crystallized part of the Christian essence of LOTR—which Thrones de-emphasizes:

Author - George - R - R - Martin

It’s true . . . that many of [author George R. R. Martin’s] villains are more interesting than Sauron. But Tolkien was very effective at dramatizing temptation and corruption among the well-meaning + the good. . . . [W]hat’s interesting isn’t the Big Bad himself, but the effect of evil on people trying to resist it.

Douthat hints at a larger point for which Tolkien has been criticized: an alleged oversimplification of evil. In LOTR, no ambiguity or drama exists in the determination of who is good and bad in Middle-earth; we never learn exactly why Sauron is evil, nor exactly what he did to earn the status of chief antagonist. The intrinsic nature of Sauron’s evil may even strike modern sensibilities as mildly unjust or at least arbitrary. Fantasy writer Michael Moorcock mused that as readers “we are not sure . . . if Sauron and Co. are quite as evil as we’re told.” This is because, as another author, Fritz Leiber, put it, Tolkien “does not explore and even seems uninterested in exploring the mentality and consciousness and inner life of his chief villains.”

Bradley - Birzer - Book

Bradley Birzer observes in his wonderful book,...
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