Certainly there are days, or weeks, or months, when we feel very much like Tyrion Lannister at his lowest (seriously, has Tyrion ever had a good day?), or Frodo crawling up the slope of Mount Doom. But Tyrion’s seemingly endless and senseless torment is no more realistic than Frodo’s triumphant, though costly, sacrifice. In fact, I think there’s good reason to argue that it’s less so.
I’m not saying this to disparage him, much less to glorify warfare, but consider: George R.R. Martin, who has written so much about violence and brutality, has never served in combat. In fact he escaped the Vietnam draft by becoming a conscientious objector, which certainly fits with his view that war is hell, but also means that he has no personal experience of it. Whereas Tolkien, who describes the hideous vapours and blighted landscape of Mordor so vividly, was actually reliving his own experience as a soldier in the trenches of WWI, a battle that killed and maimed over 37 million people and left millions more shattered by the effects of shell-shock, or what we now call PTSD.
If anyone knew the hellishness of war it was Tolkien, which is why he could write so vividly about the physical and emotional torment Frodo experiences on his way to destroy the Ring, and how it haunts him afterward. “I am wounded,” he says near the end of the book, “it will never really heal.” But in the trenches Tolkien also witnessed extraordinary acts of human bravery and compassion, and the powerful friendships that formed between certain officers and enlisted men. Which is why we have not only Frodo but Sam, the most unflaggingly loyal, loving and courageous Hobbit of them all. From a grimdark viewpoint Sam might seem like a naïve fantasy cut from wishful-thinking cloth. But in reality he was based on Tolkien’s firsthand observations during one of the deadliest wars in human history. Sometimes the things that seem too good to be true are truer than we ever imagined.
So which story is more realistic in the end, Martin’s or Tolkien’s? Yes, winter is coming. But spring is coming, too.
–R.J. Anderson on springbright reality.
This is from Anderson’s GoH speech at Continuum 11. If you weren’t lucky enough to see it live, then I encourage you to go read the transcript.