Too many of the comparisons between JRRT and GRRM concentrate on the "realism" between the two. Look at this review
of A Game of Thrones
Some people have compared it to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (LOTR). I enjoyed LOTR. However Tolkien minimized the ability of lust and greed to motivate people. For example, when Aragorn arrives to claim his kingdom, the last King had been missing for about ONE THOUSAND YEARS. At the story’s end the Steward eagerly hands over rulership. While such unwavering duty, honor and loyalty was indeed the ideal of the Anglo-Saxon, Finnish, Celtic and Norse myths that inspired Tolkien, real life events were messier. Were Tolkien more realistic, the Stewards would have declared themselves Kings ages ago. If Aragorn showed up, the current King would have arranged a very quick execution for Aragorn and his supporters.
(Wait, Denethor eagerly
handed over rulership? Since freakin' when? Why would the Stewards bother to declare themselves kings when they're functionally rulers of kingdoms in the absence of the original bloodline of kings anyway? As for Denethor quickly executing Aragorn and his supporters - are you saying Denethor's going to execute not just one of the most potent figures of hope and encouragement the kingdom's experienced in centuries, but the vast reinforcements Aragorn brought along at the nick of time that saved his kingdom's bacon from the innumerable hordes of Mordor? Don't be bleeding preposterous.)
Most of all, though, I can't help but laugh at the idea that Tolkien somehow downplayed the ability of greed to motivate people, when greed is practically one of the biggest motivators in the entire saga
. What else but greed was it that motivated nine kings of men to fall to darkness and enter the unwavering service of darkest evil? What else but greed motivated the destruction of the northern kingdom of Arnor? What else but greed got the last king killed in the first place, and is a primary reason for nearly all the bad things that happen to all the kingdoms and characters in the book? I can understand Tolkien not concentrating on lust, but greed
? I mean good grief
That said, sometimes ones come across some genuine food for thought. I came across a rather fascinating essay
today comparing Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings
to Martin's A Game of Thrones
. While I don't agree with everything Janet Potter says, particularly in regards to LotR, she does put forward this very intriguing morsel:
I was a Russian major in college, so I can’t read a 500+ page book without Isaiah Berlin whispering in my ear. Berlin was the author of “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” an essay based on an ancient Greek adage: “the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin divides writers into these two categories. Hedgehogs view the world as a stage for a single, encompassing logic (power corrupts, love conquers all, that kind of thing). Foxes are more fascinated by the infinite variety of the human condition. In Berlin’s signature comparison, Dostoevsky is a hedgehog, and Tolstoy is a fox.
The fantasy genre, although I admit I’m not its most versed reader, is full of hedgehogs. Godfather Tolkien, certainly, is pure hedgehog. What I find most fascinating about Martin is that he’s a fox in a hedgehog genre. While his world looks like fantasy (bastards! dwarves! whores! knights!), and the action revolves around the question of the seven kingdoms’ throne (Will Robert keep it? Are the Lannisters plotting for it? Will the Targaryens reclaim it?), the focus is on the clashing relationships and motivations of the people involved in the struggle.
Her preposterous first paragraph statement aside ("although I'm not an expert on this genre, I can still make authoritative statements on it because I did a Russian major") I think this is a very thoughtful and intriguing way to go. I found the entire original essay here
There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’ Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog’s one defence. But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance –and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.
These last lead lives, perform acts and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal; their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all- embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molie`re, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce are foxes.
Of course, like all over-simple classifications of this type, the dichotomy becomes, if pressed, artiﬁcial, scholastic and ultimately absurd. But if it is not an aid to serious criticism, neither should it be rejected as being merely superﬁcial or frivolous; like all distinctions which embody any degree of truth, it offers a point of view from which to look and compare, a starting-point for genuine investigation.
- Isaiah Berlin, "The Hedgehog and the Fox"
I don't know why I haven't come across this idea before, since I did a little philosophy at college - albeit just the beginner's level - but it sounds like the sort of thing I'd gravitate towards. Of course, it isn't a perfect dichotomy, and the dichotomy isn't necessarily found in either Tolkien's nor Martin's works. There are tons of little things in The Lord of the Rings
, and as Potter later admits, there might be a big in A Game of Thrones
, and I really wonder if it's true that fantasy is full of hedgehogs at all. That said, it got me thinking about other authors, and whether they're hedgehogs or foxes.
Some are fairly clear, to me, at least. Lovecraft strikes me as a quintessential hedgehog: he wrote pretty much exclusively in the realm of horror and weird, his characters mostly cut of the same cloth, and most of them have something to do with the harsh cosmic indifference codified by his Yog-Sothothery. Conan Doyle, then, seems like a fox: he wrote in a wide variety of genres, his characters and settings draw from a wide selection of types and fields, and his themes seem to vary from work to work.
Based on my reading of the essay, I can make a preliminary and no doubt wildly subjective sorting of my favourite authors into these disparate taxons. In my crazy world, Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, C.L. Moore, Isaac Asimov, Ursula le Guin, Michael Moorcock, Lord Dunsany, Charles Saunders, and J.R.R. Tolkien are hedgehogs, while Alexandre Dumas, H.G. Wells, Harlan Ellison, Lloyd Alexander, Theodore Sturgeon, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, A. Merrit, and Olaf Stapledon are foxes. As you can see, while I suspected there would be a correlation with fantasy authors being hedgehogs and SF authors being foxes, there are more fantasy foxes and SF hedgehogs than I expected in my assessment.
Then, there are those who seem to confound me. Clark Ashton Smith, for example, has arguments for both, perhaps making him some sort of bushy-tailed, spiny hedgefox. Another one of these is Robert E. Howard. Do Howard's grand unifying themes about barbarism & civilization, hate, decadence, atavism, and the like make him a hedgehog, or do the multiple exceptions and divergences and work in multiple genres make him a fox?
Then I go on to the ultimate question: am I a hedgehog or a fox, or a fox who believes he's a hedgehog, or a hedgehog under the delusion he's a fox, or one or the other who is one but aspires to be another? Ever the contrarian, I don't think it has to be an either/or situation: I'd like to think there are big things and little things. As Berlin says, the dichotomy isn't concrete, and enforcing it as such would defeat its very purposes. So I'll just say I'm a badger: both the fox and the hedgehog have valid arguments, but it isn't as simple as pluralism or monism.
I don't know whether it's because I'm a bit of a contrarian absurdist at heart, but I get the distinct impression that this is one of those things that might be very subjective, and that whether an author is a pluralist or a monist depends upon the observer as much as the work itself. And, again, Berlin notes this, as he argues that Dostoevsky believed Pushkin to be similar to himself, where Berlin considered the former to be a hedgehog and the latter an "arch-fox." So there's always that little voice in the back of my mind saying "are you sure you aren't just seeing things that aren't there? Is there something you're unconsciously blocking from your view which contradicts your argument?" Such is the nature of a guy who is frequently confounded by the vagaries of philosophy.
The best remedy is debate: what do you fine folks think? Have I gotten some authors completely wrong, or do you think I might have something? Have I completely misinterpreted the argument itself? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the notion.
All this talk of hedgehogs and foxes and badgers has me thinking of The Animals of Farthing Wood, which makes A Game of Thrones look like Winnie the Pooh when it comes to the merciless slaughtering of characters. Maybe that's why I'm so unimpressed by A Game of Thrones: when you've watched sentient animals being killed every other episode of a children's cartoon, deaths in gritty fantasy sagas don't have the same heartwrenching impact.