What does a "realistic" fantasy look like?

A Game of Thrones was first a fantasy novel by American writer George R.R. Martin, published in 1996 as the first book in the series A Song of Ice and Fire. Five of a projected seven titles have appeared, the last being Dances with Dragons in 2011. It was last year as well that Game of Thrones became an HBO television series based on the books. The second season, which began on April 1, continues to follow the feuds of the seven or so great houses of Westeros, hostilities that are distracting them from greater, supernatural threats emerging in the north and east.
The drama includes hundreds of speaking characters, plotlines that twist and fray, and a point of view that varies from chapter to chapter. Only in a handful of literary precursors, Chinese classics and Old Norse–Icelandic family sagas among them, can one find casts of characters whose popularity matched their ponderousness.
Even though Martin’s fantasy epic has fewer people, his postmodern narrative countervails, generating dimensions of perspective and relativism whose complexity has clearly absorbed audiences.
For A Song of Ice and Fire, complexity is both a hallmark and a buzzword. In an interview on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s flagship daily interview program Q recently, Martin endorsed the description of HBO’s Game of Thrones as “The Sopranoes in Middle-earth,” and that his intention with A Song of Ice and Fire is “to take epic fantasy, which I love, and combine it with some of the gritty realism and ambiguous morality of, I think, the best historical fiction, with layers of complexity, and real human characters, sexuality, violence, all of that good stuff.”
The obvious implication is that fantasy lacks such depth and complexity, which much of it might. The launching pad for the discussion, however, was a specific brand of fantasy—that of J.R.R. Tolkien, a writer whom the Q fill-in host, Brent Bambury, suggested that Martin might indeed outstrip. Bambury repeated the claim of Time magazine, that Martin is the American Tolkien. But made it even more provocative: “Many feel it’s an accurate comparison. Others say no, it’s not accurate, because he [Martin]’s better.” Though Martin went on to spend a good deal of time recalling his reading of The Lord of the Rings as a young man, maintaining that “the books had a profound effect on me,” he did not demur.
Juxtaposition with Tolkien is unavoidable with fantasy. With a genre that all but reckons history based on the publication of the three Lord of the Rings books from 1954-55, even authors whose works predate those of Tolkien—William Morris, E.R. Eddison, and Robert E. Howard, for example—are compared to him. The shadow of the Oxford professor stretches from horizon to horizon; trying to present a brand of fantasy outside his standard is like trying to conceive of an undiscovered color, much to the frustration of some. British novelist China Miéville, for example, once called Tolkien “a wen on the arse of fantasy literature.”
With Martin’s Game of Thrones, however, the tone of the comparison has become much more confident than usual, due perhaps to the television adaptation and its wide audience.
For many fans, Game of Thrones is more appealing than The Lord of the Rings because it is more realistic. What this means in posthumanist modern-speak is that its moral shades are gray. Principles wither in the face of politics. Great men are secretly weak, small men are secretly great, and every face is, to borrow a line from poet Ted Hughes, “slightly filthy with erotic mystery”.
When asked why this ambiguity and complexity are important to his moral universe, Martin answered, “I think it’s real. […] If you read the biographies of great men […], you will see they’re all gray.” Tolkien’s stories of Middle-earth, with their clear dichotomy of good and evil, are increasingly considered to be at best Christian fantasy; at worst, the very sort of stock fantasy to which they are kernel and root. More realistic, really? The idea that one fantasy fiction can be deemed more realistic—essentially, more non-fictional—than the other, deserves contemplation. With science fiction, at least, we have the categories of hard and soft, depending on the sort of technology at the heart of the story. Consider, for example, elements in Martin’s Game of Thrones which Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings lacks. A Game of Thrones begins with a slaughter, followed by a beheading scene. The Lord of the Rings begins with plans for a birthday party, followed by the birthday party itself. Beheading, in fact, constitutes the single most gruesome detail of Tolkien’s many scenes of war, when the forces of Sauron use a catapult to throw the heads of Gondorian soldiers over the walls of Minas Tirith. In A Game of Thrones, atrocity is unflinching; even dead children are shown in all their red ruin.
And then there is the other matter of the flesh. The only sexual innuendo to speak of in The Lord of the Rings lies in Gandalf’s accusation—easily missed—that the Rohirrim turncoat Gríma Wormtongue wished to have the maiden Éowyn for himself. That’s it.
Meanwhile, sexuality in A Game of Thrones is so graphic and unsettling, that it is difficult to give examples without breaching decorum. The television series -- far is even spicier than the novels -- seems to be competing with Starz Entertainment’s Spartacus series, essentially portraying hardcore pornography using softcore acting protocols.
In one scene of Game of Thrones, the bride of an arranged marriage recruits the help of—and practices on—a female prostitute in an endeavor to convince her barbarian husband to actually face her during their frequent (and largely unwanted) intercourse. The girl, Daenerys Targaryen, is played in the television series by a 24-year-old actress. We know from the novel, however, that she is supposed to be thirteen years old.
A poetic comparison furnishes another commentary on the claim of realism: in Game of Thrones, British actor Sean Bean’s noble character Eddard Stark dies in an effort to save himself by lying publicly. Despite violating his honor to preserve the image of the incestuous ruling family, he is executed by them. In The Lord of the Rings films, Sean Bean’s noble character Boromir dies in an effort to redeem himself after having tried to steal the One Ring to save his people.
Finally, there’s the fact that The Lord of the Rings has a conclusion. A Song of Ice and Fire, as yet, does not, and if series like J.J. Abrams’s Lost have taught viewers anything, it is that their expectations for a continuing story can be gauged and manipulated by writers and producers as shrewdly as by political campaigners. An open ending may be more like reality, but there’s no such thing as a book without an end. Even Michael Ende’s Neverending Story had to contradict itself eventually.
There can be no doubt that Martin and Tolkien provide different experiences. The more modern publication delves much deeper into the personal psychology of its characters, while the other provides much more historical depth. To claim, however, that one imaginary world is more realistic than the other is to beg a standard that simply cannot assert itself. As Northrop Frye considered in his Anatomy of Criticism, as inhabitants of the real world, everything we imagine ourselves to understand—whether fiction or nonfiction—must have some basis in our own experience. Something entirely apart from that experience would be incomprehensible to us—untranslatable, as it were.
In deciding matters of realism, then, we must ask ourselves how deeply our experience goes with the criteria we invoke, and from there decide whether our decision is valid. Some may realize, for example, that they have attended more birthday parties than beheadings in their lifetime.
With Game of Thrones, as with a great many current television programs and films whose realism is measured by their grittiness, the spotlights are constantly on the shadows. It should come as no surprise that cockroaches scatter. To claim, however, that their matters of murder, deceit, rape, and worse somehow impart greater credibility to a fantasy world than do their existing moral counterparts—this makes Game of Thrones not just theater, but a thermometer. Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar living in Ottawa, Canada. He can be reached on his website at www.harleyjsims.webs.com


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