Meditations on

Monday, April 25, 2016

What is with our modern fascination with grim, violent stories?

I often bristle when I hear George R.R. Martin compared favorably up against my own favorite author, J.R.R. Tolkien.

The latter created Middle-Earth and wrote "The Hobbit," "The Lord of the Rings," and "The Silmarillion" which have been the underpinning of modern fantasy and myth. The former created Westeros and wrote "A Song of Ice and Fire," the series that includes volume one "A game of thrones," and spawned the ultra-popular HBO series based on the series.

George R.R. Martin cites Tolkien as an influence and is typically credited with moving forward the genre. If you're at all familiar with the series you can basically track Western society's development from being Christian to post-Christian by noting the differences in the series.

In Tolkien's stories you know the good guys are going to win, although it's not clear how and there is always suffering and sacrifice involved in seeing a good purpose overcome an evil one. In Martin's stories (as best I can tell) he repeatedly sets up the possibility of likable characters seeing positive ends only to bring it all crashing down in ruin in the most brutal and horrifying fashion imaginable.

The HBO series, of which I've only seen chunks, really takes this to another level with exceptionally graphic depictions of sex and violence that regularly leave viewers shocked. It's customary for people to even make "reaction videos" that track how they respond to whatever appalling ending has come upon the characters of the show in series finales.

This grimness all lauded as being "more realistic and true to human experience" than Tolkien's "escapist fantasy" in which the good guys win. The characters are largely flawed and mixed with varying degrees of nobility to their motivations. The most noble characters usually meet horrifying ends.

I find this assumption supremely arrogant and frustrating. Allow me to explain...

George R.R. Martin was born in 1948, just after WWII had been completed, and the major war that his generation experienced was the conflict in Vietnam. You can probably guess where this is going, no? He went off to Vietnam, saw horrible, horrible things, and has used his writing to express a worldview that looks to capture and depict the cruel nature of modern struggle for power. Right?

Wrong. He avoided the war by applying for conscientious-objector status.

Meanwhile J.R.R. Tolkien was born in 1892 and his generation experienced THE major war, World War I.

World War I essentially destroyed the modern era of the west and launched the post-modern movement that is an often cynical, hurt, and confused deconstruction of the modern era. Everyone's faith in modern institutions and thought was completely shaken by the fact that none of them prevented a war that took 17 million lives without any real positive objective

Tolkien endured public scorn as he finished his degree before enlisting as it was popular in England at this time to use public shaming to drive the young men to enlist. He stuck it out and finished his degree though before heading off to France to experience the unimaginable hells of trench warfare. There he participated in the nightmare of the Battle of the Somme and lost most of his friends.
Somme or Mordor?
So what happened next? He captured the hellish conditions of the Somme in an imaginary place called Mordor and he wrote a work in which human struggle against the all-too real nature of hell results in ultimate victory and good.

So while George R.R. Martin avoided the cruelest realities of human experience and then wrote about them in cynical and unfettered fashion. J.R.R. Tolkien experienced them and looked to help others make sense of them and see the potential for goodness coming as a result.

In our modern experience the vast majority of us Americans are not confronted with a terribly difficult life. We don't have to shiver in the mud while explosions go off around us, we don't have to make sense of a world in which our friends are blown to pieces and both suffering and difficult moral choices are a daily reality.

Thus, it's really easy for us to venture off into a world like "Game of thrones" or any other grim, violent entertainment series. When it's over and we're done thinking through difficult challenges in an abstract fashion we can adjust the temperature in our homes and rest comfortably in our beds.

If you ask me, the idea that this approach to story-telling, this depiction of mankind's struggles, is more advanced and superior to what Tolkien wrought after he wrestled with true grimness and violence is puffed up nonsense.

We'd love to believe that today we are more enlightened than in the past. We like to pretend that we know better, that we know that the world is a grim place and that true happiness or goodness is a mirage.

In reality, we're just comfortable to the point that we can play make-believe like the world is a difficult place without actually having to taste the reality of it like Tolkien did in the trenches at Somme.

Tolkien may have been guilty of helping people to escape brutal nightmares and find peace and meaning with his fantasies, but today we are guilty of trying to escape the fact that we don't live amidst brutal nightmares and yet haven't found that peace and meaning that comforted Tolkien.


  1. Love Tolkien. Like GRRM's Game of Thrones. Like Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time better than both.

    Pretty sure Martin's cited the War of the Roses as being the biggest intellectual influence on the Game of Thrones series. Lots of incidents of incredible brutality to draw from there......

    1. Yeah, there are no shortages of examples from ancient history to draw from either if you want to depict brutality.

      It's the philosophy behind the show that I find disturbing, not the acknowledgement that terrible things happen on this planet of ours.