(Note: this article references sexual assault.)
(Another note: the reference to The Lord of The Rings in this article are about the BOOK, not the films. The films portray characters radically differently.)
I just read an article about why Game of Thrones is now nearly unwatchable. I never found the plots or writing terribly compelling. The show hauled along based on fantastic acting and really great sets and wardrobe. It’s nihilistic eye-candy masquerading as “smart” television. Misery is too often substituted for good storytelling.
The thing is, fantasy stories tend to get hauled down into that muck, because they all loop back to a desire to keep replicating J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic dark medievalist fantasy setting in The Lord of the Rings. The only “innovations” in this template are how many characters get killed, and now that women are involved, how many of them get raped.
The Lord of the Rings is far from a perfect book. It’s slow, overly reliant on exposition, and a host to flat, wooden characters and a lot of ponderous Christian metaphor… that is to say that Christian metaphor is not inherently ponderous, but Aragorn prattling on about Kingsfoil is unnecessarily long.
The problem is that The Lord of the Rings is revered among fantasy writers, so few dare to disrupt its various core formulas to tell a better story. Video games are much better at reassembling the component parts of Tolkien, but that’s thanks to Ed Greenwood’s detour through the Forgotten Realms. Greenwood infused humour, colour, and a pantheon of gods into Tolkien’s staunchly monotheistic fantasy, and it was made more human in the process.
The Forgotten Realms also supported a gamified system that forced narrative cohesion. In other words, because the entire idea is for a group of players to fight monsters together, it sidestepped the other major narrative pitfall that’s rooted in The Lord of the Rings — The “Shattering of the Fellowship” device.
The Fellowship of the Ring ends up splitting into two main groups: the group that stands with Aragorn to fight the war, and the smaller group that goes with Frodo to destroy the ring. Tolkien’s status as the child of a Catholic convert is critical to understanding some of the content of The Lord of the Rings, because of the way Catholicism treats femininity as a passive, hidden power which is often treated as a vessel sacrificed to a male deity.
There are no female members of the Fellowship, and the bearer of the feminine ring symbol is Frodo. The Lord of the Rings is a story of a war won through the resurrection of a masculine symbol — the sword Narsil/Anduril — and the destruction of the feminine symbol, the One Ring. The One Ring’s powers mimic the Western monotheistic view of the sacred feminine: a mysterious negative space which gains the ring bearer hidden knowledge at the expense of his rational faculties. Exposure to the One Ring makes a person more emotional and dependent, which were both qualities associated with femininity in Tolkien’s time. The One Ring is even associated with a hidden member of the Fellowship — Gollum — Gollum is the one who actually destroys the One Ring, sacrificing himself in the process, because Frodo can’t do it himself. Frodo is a biblical passive hero in the tradition of Isaac and Moses. These passive males transfer divinity through them to the people, but they don’t take active steps themselves. Isaac is bound. Moses is given the tablets with the Ten Commandments. But Isaac is such a passive figure that his father’s slave needed to find him a wife, and Moses was such a poor speaker that his brother Aaron did his talking for him. This is symbolized in The Lord of the Rings by Sam and Gollum doing the heavy lifting for Frodo, who, like Moses and Isaac, were weakened by the burden of inherent divinity, just as mothers are said to be.
The actual women of The Lord of The Rings are similarly passive figures gifted with innate power or wisdom… with the exception of one woman, Eowyn, who assumes the role of a man to fight in the war. While many of us see Eowyn as pretty badass, Tolkien himself described Eowyn’s transformation as a tragedy. In fact, he saw it as an inherent tragedy of war that women had to assume male roles.
So how does this impact Game of Thrones, but NOT the Forgotten Realms branch of fantasy that inspired video game RPGs? While Ed Greenwood took the step of making the sacred feminine of Toril an active voice, George R. R. Martin stuck with the theme of war and the destruction of the feminine. Accordingly, there’s a lot less rape in Faerun than there is in Westeros.
In both The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire, Fire is associated with the masculine — men “run hot”, women are a cooler force. The other name for Aragorn’s sword “Anduril” is “The Flame of the West”. This is likely because the Seraphim and the Rider on the White Horse who leads the armies of God in the Bible are flame bearers.
There is no definitive ice queen in The Lord of the Rings, in part because the book is inherently sexless. But in the Game of Thrones, we of course have the icy Cersei Lannister, who is also sexually dysfunctional and cunning — emotionally more “like a man” than the “purer” female characters. She is, of course, eventually subject to her own “slut walk of shame” as a form of politicized “atonement theatre” for her sexual misdeeds.
That sort of thing isn’t normalized in Faerun, because Greenwood and Gary Gygax hard wired gender equality into the game system and game world. Essentially, in Dungeon and Dragons, women are equal participants, not some embodiment of the sacred or profane feminine. In The Lord of the Rings, there is no profane feminine, and in Game of Thrones, nothing is sacred and no woman is inviolate; women are rendered impure even by their own periods. Both of these omissions are weaknesses that The Forgotten Realms do not share.
Because relegating women to passive or perverse forces in fantasy creates weak points, Game of Thrones has fractured now that its characters are scattered. Martin and the show’s writers fractured a Fellowship that never existed. Without the Christian symbolism allowing the narrative to thin out without shattering, Game of Thrones has scattered into a collection of parts with little significance. The Frodo of the show, Tyrion Lannister, isn’t feminized. He’s a “half man”, but still a man — bearded, sexual, and capable of violence. The feminine in Game of Thrones is symbolized by menstruation, manipulations, and rapes, not rings, leaves, light and shadow.
These are legitimate artistic choices on HBO’s part, but it’s left Game of Thrones without symbolism tying the narrative together the way Frodo’s ring and Aragorn’s sword stopped Tolkien’s epic from flying apart. The lack of a yin and yang in Game of Thrones implies that George Martin borrowed the R. R. from J. R. R. Tolkien without really understanding what pulled the masterpiece out of Tolkien’s flaws. Game of Thrones lacks the spark of the divine that allowed The Lord of the Rings to become greater than the sum of its parts.
Don’t freak out, atheists, I’m referring to divinity as a narrative device here, not a literal god. Divinity in fiction is the theme or narrative glue that makes the plot points resonate, and Game of Thrones says little beyond “people, when given power, are terrible to each other”. It’s fictionalized historical treatise, not an allegory of an idea.
Where The Forgotten Realms took Tolkien and added girls and jokes, A Song of Ice and Fire took Tolkien and removed the mythic and sacred. Therefore, there’s nothing left when innocence and people die, because Game of Thrones fails its saving throw against fatalism.
(EDIT: I removed the marijuana joke because it offended some people and I determined it was an unnecessary distraction that had nothing to do with the main point. Typos also corrected.)