As a long time fan of the fantasy genre, I have always felt a deep fascination for discovering the secret to creating exceptional fantasy and fictional worlds. Though there exist many outstanding works in this genre, two have drawn me most. One is the incomparable Legendarium created by J.R.R. Tolkien, only to be superseded, in my view, by A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin (the series of novels adapted into the popular TV series Game of Thrones). Of course there have been other works that have attained immense popularity and possibly even more commercial success, but they lack the depth and crumble under critique.
What sets the above two works apart? Its the sheer depth of their characters, the complexity of their story lines and the stunning grandeur of the worlds they portray. This is simply lacking in other modern fantasy works which are almost childish or naive, or use an already existing world (ours) as their basis and build a secondary world on top of it. They are parallel worlds and they offer escape but they do not stand alone, independent of ours. One could almost say that therein lies the dividing line between fantasy and ‘epic’ fantasy.
How does a work earn that adjective ‘epic’? Several factors contribute to it. JRR Tolkien invented several of his own languages including their own scripts. No easy feat even for a philologist and a scholar. The backstories and histories that George Martin has created are mind-blowing in the amount of detail they contain; the names of the various civilisations, cities, people, individual characters, religions, the various legends and songs. Very few have done this in the past, namely only the likes of Shakespeare, Homer, Valmiki and Vyasa, the great epic poets.
One could almost say that modern epic or high fantasy derives from ancient epic poetry. In the West that would be the likes of Beowulf, Illiad and the Odyssey and other Norse, Finnish, Germanic myths, fables and legends. Mythology and epic is almost, one could say, the foundation of any epic fantasy. It not only outlines the various broader strokes of the story but even informs the character interactions and determines their core nature and destinies.
This is especially true with the two aforementioned epics. In the case of Tolkien, his story is almost pure fantasy and has an almost entirely otherworldly nature, without much realism. It stays true to the story telling of the old myths and legends. One could almost say Tolkien was trying to reinvent and reinvigorate the old myths in a new light. He had a thorough knowledge of almost all of them and synthesised them beautifully in his epic works. Specific influences of Finnish, Norse, Germanic, Christian and even Greek and Celtic mythology are obvious. He worked on a plane that was, as Sri Aurobindo would say, ‘subtle-physical’ or ‘vital’ and therefore, not of this world. Sri Aurobindo, in his own spiritual retelling of the Savitri legend takes the reader and spiritual aspirant on a journey through the world-stair from the lowest to the highest and deepest. Dante’s Inferno appears almost pale and dull in comparison to this modern epic poetry written from the perspective of Sanatana Dharma of India in the English language, in Greek Hexameter, in blank verse, about the deepest mystic and occult realities and the highest spiritual truths.
On the other hand, George Martin’s world has a greater sense of realism. Almost a bit too real. The realism tends to become ugly, grotesque and even morbid at times. Perhaps even uglier than the real world. Or maybe medieval Europe was such an ugliness which appears to have been his inspiration. However, his story is so complex that this isn’t the sole focus. He has brilliantly integrated so many diverse aspects into his world-building and he skilfully draws attention to each and every one of those aspects. Some of these elements are so different from each other that if not put in the right place, in the right measure, they will seem completely out of place. But that is the genius of the man. He has used Norse and Greek Myth to etch out his core characters and determine their ultimate fates. He has used medieval European and English history as the main field of action, the driver of events and their eventual outcomes. He then introduces elements of fantasy and legend such as dragons and direwolves (maybe not entirely mythical). He mixes them all up in perfect measure and you have a song of ice and fire. Add to this a good dose of a Lovecraftian sense of impending doom from Chthonic forces, reminiscent of the Cthulhu Mythos, and you have the perfect recipe for edge-of-the-seat storytelling.
Now George has been cited, a couple of times, as criticising the almost perfect fairy-tale-like world of Tolkien where people were mostly good, though some inevitably bad and where the good and the bad fight it out with the good always triumphant and so on. To some extent this is true, but I would like to counter this on two fronts.
One is the fact that there is some ‘grey’ in the characters in Tolkien’s world and it’s not all black and white. There are internal conflicts, especially when trying to resist the power of the ring. Where George’s take on the world is the world as it is, with realism taken to the point of pessimism, Tolkien’s world is an idealised one, certainly, and more optimistic from start to finish. However, the latter does have an undercurrent of melancholy; a world slowly degrading, degenerating, falling from grace. The influence of the Christian concept of Eden and the fall of man is unmistakable. Elves representing man before his fall, immortal, eating of the tree of life rather than the tree of knowledge of good and evil. There is also the concept of a heaven forbidden to men as Eden was forbidden once they were banished. The gods themselves are shaped after a strange amalgam of Olympian Gods and the Aesir-Vanir of Norse myth. Though it has a very ethereal feel to it, it is not entirely unreal.
One can understand some of the differences between Tolkein’s and Martin’s works, by comparing the two Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Ramayana is an idealised epic. Though it has politics in it, that is not the focus. Instead the focus is the stark contrast between absolute morality and absolute immorality, civility and anarchy and how these two forces clash against each other when their worlds are brought closer together. Taken from this point of view, Tolkien’s works are very similar to the Ramayana. Both have this clash of opposing forces, mythical beings such as elves and orcs and vanaras and rakshasas, both present an idealised view of civilisation and humanity and how an opposing force outside the pale of civilisation is trying to destroy it and heroes are called upon to defend it. It may not be entirely unreal or fantasy. There may have been a time in the world where a particular culture or people may have been that ‘good’ in the civic and purely moral sense somewhere in the world’s cyclical progression. (Morality, not of mental rules of conduct or higher ethics, rather something straight from the heart, purer, more spontaneous, before morality crystallised and solidified into a rule book of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’. A linear development as proposed by modern science and anthropology does not hold much water. The Hindu Puranas were much closer to the mark with their cyclical theory of progression.)
The Mahabharata is more realistic. It develops very powerful individual characters and provides details of the politics and culture of the day, of war, treachery, revenge, philosophy, morality, high ethics, worldly knowledge and many other things. It covers all human thought. As the Ramayana encompasses all life, human or otherwise, the Mahabharata also has its more fantastic elements but they are in the periphery, not the forefront. Instead, the main story revolves around many larger-than-life personalities and a clash of those personalities, of their peculiar ideas of life, core beliefs and personal agendas. A game of thrones it was indeed, ending with a colossal war on a superhuman scale. However, in many ways, it is very different to Martin’s Game of Thrones.
The Game of Thrones is supposed to be set in a very ‘ancient’ time but the setting is culturally medieval so it seems more relatable due to the close historical proximity of medieval societies. The Mahabharata took place during the latter part of the Heroic Age in India and had a different ‘reality’ altogether. Due to their medieval and feudal setting, the Game of Thrones and the world of Ice & Fire are more akin to the dramatic works of Shakespeare. The dramatic elements in the books are very similar and express the Greek tragedy in a fashion that resembles the works of Shakespeare.
The perfect constitution of ASong of Ice and Fire with its perfect blend of elements of Norse and Greek Myth, medieval British and European history, Shakespearean drama and a good working knowledge of world cultures and traditions with a hint of modern fantasy, makes for a brilliantly crafted world that draws one in and keeps one engrossed. I’m in no way comparing modern high fantasy to the great ancient epics that had a greater purpose than merely providing entertainment or satisfying imaginative fancy. They were subtle works with deep wisdom embedded in them for the initiate. Tolkien’s work does that job to some extent in the modern era. It has several deeper messages, several esoteric undertones and comes close to true mythology. One could almost call it a modern-day epic. Whereas ASong of Ice & Fire is an exemplar of complex story telling.