In a quote directed toward the work of Tolkien George R.R. Martin, author of the Song of Ice and Fire series, has this to say:
There is always this presumption that if you are a good man, you will be a good king. [Like] Tolkien — in Return of the King, Aragorn comes back and becomes king, and then “he ruled wisely for three hundred years.” Okay, fine. It is easy to write that sentence, “He ruled wisely”.
What does that mean, “He ruled wisely?” What were his tax policies? What did he do when two lords were making war on each other? Or barbarians were coming in from the North? What was his immigration policy? What about equal rights for Orcs? I mean did he just pursue a genocidal policy, “Let’s kill all these fucking Orcs who are still left over”? Or did he try to redeem them? You never actually see the nitty-gritty of ruling.
I guess there is an element of fantasy readers that don’t want to see that. I find that fascinating.
Before moving on to my post proper, I want to query the notion that Aragorn is a good king because he is a good man, or that this is a general tendency in Tolkien. Aragorn is a good king because he is essentially ‘fated’ to be my forces that are impersonal. There is never any question that Aragorn would rule justly and righteously; not because of his character so much as because it is his destiny to do so. But this is a mythic, and not a realistic, trope, and highlights the central problem I have with this stupid and annoying critique. It assumes that Realism is some sort of high water mark for literature, an aesthetic goal which should take precedence over all others. As I argue below, this is seriously misguided.
Martin is highly regarded for the “realism” which his book series supposedly displays, showing forth the highs and lows of the human spirit in all its complexity. If that is something that you’re into, fine. Taste is often difficult to discern or justify, to yourself let alone other people.
But Martin seems to think that his formula should stand as some kind of universal value, a position which I cannot fathom, given the literary pretensions which many of his fans seem to hold. Yes, realism was (and still is) a powerful theme in literature, and has been since the ascendancy of the novel in the 18th Century. Nevertheless, even the 20th Century witnessed a profusion of literary genres which cannot be categorized as straight realism. Fantasy itself of course, but also literary modernism, which sought to instantiate the realm of conscious experience within the pages of a novel. Both fantasy and modernism were, at first, experimental genres to some degree, and although they were (and are) very different, both fantasy and modernism sought to do something new and different. Fantasy is not often thought of in such avant-guard terms, but in harking back to older forms of literary production in the modern age it broke from the acceptable literary genre, particularly the social realism of the 1950s (epitomized by Kingley Amis) when The Lord of the Rings was released.
For Martin to therefore argue that fantasy should return to realism is somewhat strange, considering the history of the genre. Fantasy did not originally seek to reflect some notion of the ‘real world’, and nor did the ancient and medieval texts from which fantasy authors drew inspiration. To turn to Martin’s point, inquiring about Aragorn’s tax policies is as inane as inquiring about the methods of tribute extraction practiced by Beowulf when he is made king. Of course, the nature of early medieval kingship is a very important subject of historical inquiry, but Beowulf is not centrally concerned with it. As Beowulf scholarship has frequently emphasised, both the aspects of ‘realism’ and those of the fantastic are central to the poem. It represents a world with complex political realities, but as Tolkien emphasised, the scholarly focus of the poem should be directed toward the Monsters. Indeed, the early scholarship on the poem fell into Martin’s “realism trap”. It sought to mine Beowulf as though it were a trove of historical information, and in doing so those scholars disregarded the universality of the poem. It is not the ‘realism’ of the politics in Beowulf that makes it universal and therefore readable and incredibly moving today, but the Monsters and what they say about community, death, and ‘the long defeat’. Knowing about the tax policies of Beowulf as king, or Aragorn as king, would tell us precisely nothing about the stories, and would not enhance the literary quality of either.
Neither Beowulf nor The Lord of the Rings aspires to realism in the novelistic sense. Although Tolkien’s work contains novelistic elements, it is explicitly constructed within a frame, which is composed of para-texts which situate the Lord of the Rings within a textual tradition. It does not claim to actually “go there” as Tolkien might have put it. Indeed as Michael Drout argues, this tension between the novelistic sense of immediate access to the characters and their situations, and the concomitant distance generated by various textual devices, helps to create the aesthetic sense most central to the reading experience: nostalgia or ‘heimweh’ in the German. Readers are simultaneously present and absent in the text. Naturally, such arguments are lost on Martin, who seems to think that Realism is some sort of home goal. As Drout wonderfully puts it, The Lord of the Rings is mimetic of the literary traditions of the Middle Ages, not ‘real life’ during those times.
Literature can, and frequently does, aspire to aesthetic criteria other than realism. Were we to take Martin’s stupid argument seriously, any number of classics could be “problematized” (to use the absurd jargon so common in Po-Mo literary ‘studies’) because they fail to show some politically inconvenient reality of the era they are depicting. But the Aeneid remains a startling work of literature, even if we know that the history of Augustus’ reign was preceded by obscene violence. The Iliad is central, even now, to the Western canon and remains deeply moving as a reading experience (I’ve gotten more out of it than most novels I’ve ever read. That must mean something), despite its depiction of terrible warfare and violence. Beowulf retains its potency, though we know next to nothing about the titular character’s tax policies. Moby Dick, to take a more modern example, blends the mythic and the realistic without losing a beat. The notion that realism is the most important standard or aspiration for literature is belied by the texts considered central to the Western canon.
Of course, many of these works have broadly political themes or concerns, but so does Tolkien. More often though, these works share a powerful universalism precisely because they transcend the politics of their eras and speak to human beings in vastly different times and places. Perhaps Martin should read some of them.