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. […]
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.
I get really, really tired of the claims that GoT is “more realistic” or “more like the real Middle Ages.” GoT is only more realistic to us, as people in 2014, because its lens and worldview is our own. It shows us a medieval-esque world that is as brutal and nasty as we feel our own is. Tolkien was showing a brutal and desperate world, too — but through the lens of surviving WWI and dealing with WWII and trying to find some meaning in the rise of mechanised, dreadful warfare. But his lens is a century removed from ours, quite nearly. GRRM is a contemporary. So his medieval fantasy feels like something we understand because it reflects a vision of the medieval that we resonate with. And that is what makes it so troubling — not that it’s grim and brutal and incredibly, over the top violent, but that this is what we feel is necessary to make anything set in the past, even a past through a mirror darkly, real. That’s what it has to be to make it resonate. And that’s what it has to be to make modern American audiences feel things were worse then than they are now. Compared with Tolkien’s world, on the heels of the Shoah and the two deadliest wars in modern history, that says a terrifying lot about how we perceive our real world.
——- This is a line of thought I’ve never even considered before. You definitely do hear that George R.R. Martin’s writing is so much more “realistic” than Tolkien’s – heck, even I’ve had those thoughts myself from time to time (even though I don’t fully agree, but that’s another story). But the fact is, it’s probably true that what we decide “realism” is, what lens we see fiction through, is contextual to our time, our society, our experience.
But I actually think there’s more to it than that. I don’t think it’s just the content of stories that matter in determining their realism: it’s their execution, too. JRR and GRR have very different writing styles (even if their names are distractingly similar). Tolkien’s is much more narrative, spacious and plentiful and unhurried. I definitely know people who have never been able to get into Lord of the Rings because his style was too florid and longwinded for them. There’s something old-fashioned to it that you don’t really see in Martin’s writing, with its clipped descriptions, action-driven continuity, and characterization conveyed largely through dialogue. The pace of A Song of Ice and Fire is often as jagged and brutal as its people. Tolkien’s writing is operatic; George R.R. Martin’s is metal.
I feel like this probably contributes to the feeling of modernity and realism in the work. The writing is very much of our time; I feel it resonates with us as much because of its syntax as its brutality. It’s not so much what the characters do as how it’s depicted, that gives us that sense of “realness”. Just think of the LotR movies – there’s definitely parts of those that feel Game-of-Thrones-y, right? All grit and death and lies? In a way, it’s like all Peter Jackson had to do to update the tone of those scenes was to spotlight the action, tease it out from the saga-esque presentation of the original. A lot was added, but I think it can be argued that most of it was already implied. Middle-Earth and Westeros are maybe not as dissimilar as you think. I mean, I certainly wouldn’t want to live in either of them.
What do you think? Is “realism” in fantasy fiction as much a product of writing style as it is of actual story content?