It’s obvious at this point that the great fantasy phenomenon of our time will be remembered as George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, known more colloquially by the name of the TV series A Game of Thrones. It’s unusual for a fantasy series to make this much of a cultural impact beyond the bounds of the genre, and the last time this really happened was with the popularization of The Lord of The Rings in the 60s and 70s. Martin’s work draws a lot of comparison to Tolkien, and there are often expressions of surprise that an epic fantasy could be so dark, but that is because it’s not really an epic fantasy.
Comparisons with Tolkien’s work are amusing but ultimately useless, because Martin is not writing epic or “high” fantasy like Tolkien avowedly was. Tolkien was inspired by myth, framed his stories as myth, and wrote them in a mythic style informed by his time and place. Martin is writing Sword & Sorcery, and the whole work has to be looked at in this light.
High Fantasy, often called Epic Fantasy, is a style of fantasy informed by classical myth as well as Biblical ideas. In a high fantasy world, the past is always more important and grander than the present. All power and magic derives from the remnants of a lost Golden Age that came before. The artifacts and echoes of this golden age are the sources of all power. Tolkien spent an entire book detailing this age, and the long declension from it: the Age of the Valar, the fall of Melkor, the War of Wrath, the rise of the Elves, the rise of Numenor and its fall.
In these earlier ages, men lived to be hundreds of years old, weapons were all powerful, wise men knew all secrets and knowledge, and the gods walked among men. If that sounds like the myths of the Trojan War or the early lineages of Genesis, then that is no surprise. Even the greatest figures of Middle-Earth – Gandalf, Aragorn, Elrond, Sauron – are just the tag-ends of the great powers of the former ages. This is the mold of High Fantasy – a detailed and exalted past that defines and empowers the debased and fallen present.
The world of Westeros doesn’t really work that way. The past in this world is kind of a shit show, with randomized seasons and winters that famously last for decades. There’s a giant wall that holds back an ancient inhuman race of monsters who wander down from the north every so often to kill everyone. The great Empire of the Past – Valyria – was decadent and weird and cursed by the gods or some such. It is certainly not remembered as a golden age for humans.
In Martin’s world, the past is a source of power, but it is almost entirely evil power, or at least inhuman power that is dangerous to mankind. Rather than a past where the gods used to show up and help people out or mate with them, the gods of his world remain distant, inscrutable, and maybe imaginary. The world he invented is shown as dangerous and unfriendly, and the people are even worse.
High Fantasy is famously black and white in its morality. Good guys are here, bad guys over there. The bad guys usually wear black and have some kind of skull motif going on. Dark towers, trolls and goblins, volcanoes and undead knights – the bad guys are not hard to spot.
Martin posits a world all in shades of gray. There are almost no unambiguously good people, and those that seem so usually suffer or die for it. The cast exists in a glorious rainbow of moral questionability that would delight the heart of any noir detective. A lot of the famed ‛darkness’ of the books is simply the venal, grasping, cruel behavior of the characters, much of it borrowed from episodes of our own history. While a character like Conan or Elric would seem horribly out of place in Middle Earth, in Westeros they might almost go unnoticed.
George once told me that he expressly wrote A Song of Ice and Fire as a reaction to working in TV for too many years. He was sick of being told his ideas were too long, too complicated, too expensive, and too dark. He wanted to work big again, partly just for the hell of it, and that length has made people mistake his work and The Lord of the Rings as the same kind of beast, when in fact they are very different. Tolkien was inspired by Homer and Mallory, while Martin has drawn on history, and on the dark thread of Sword & Sorcery woven through the landscape of American fantasy.