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'The Lord Of The Rings' Versus 'Game Of Thrones': The Ultimate Showdown

J.R.R. Tolkien and G.R.R. Martin have millions of devoted followers who swear that one of them is better than the other. I'm a fan of both of these great storytellers, but I believe that Middle-earth will be held up as an exemplar of fantasy (and literature) long after Westeros has faded away.
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J.R.R. Tolkien and G.R.R. Martin have the most initials of any two fantasy authors in history. They also have millions of devoted followers who swear that one of them is better than the other. I'm a fan of both of these great storytellers, but I believe that Middle-earth will be held up as an exemplar of fantasy (and literature) long after Westeros has faded away (though don't tell that to the guy who built the entire city of King's Landing out of Minecraft blocks). In honor of Tolkien's 122nd birthday, here's a comparison of the relative merits of the fantasy creations The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones (aka LOTR and GOT) from J.R.R. and G.R.R, IMO.

Game of Dragons: Smaug vs. Daenerys's Egg-babies

While there is no denying that just-hatched baby dragons are cute as heck, Smaug is one of the scariest monsters in the history of literature. This clever and wicked beast could crush the Khaleesi's trio of winged squirts like Cadbury Creme Eggs. And Smaug is a punk compared to the fell beast that preceded him: the magical and vicious Glaurung of Tolkien's The Silmarillion. That creature was the general of an orc army who could breathe fire and weave spells of forgetfulness. Snarks and grumpkins, but that's a badass dragon!

Edge: J.R.R. Tolkien

Short Guy Jokes: Hobbit Humor vs. the Wit of Tyrion Lannister

There's no easy way to say this: the Hobbits in Tolkien's books aren't as funny as we think they are. Sure they're likable, playful and wise, but I defy any Tolkien fan to quote a Shire bon mot that doesn't have to do with gardening or the smoking of pipe weed. Tyrion Lannister, however, is one funny dude. He's witty, ribald and provides enough gallows humor for his creator to have produced a book (albeit a very slim one) titled The Wit and Wisdom of Tyrion Lannister. I'd still rather go on an inn-crawl across the Shire and Buckland with Merry and Pippin, though. Tyrion would just get you knifed in a bar fight.

Edge: G.R.R. Martin

The Supreme Bean: Boromir vs. Ned Stark

Actor Sean Bean is the most obvious link between the film adaptations of Tolkien and Martin. His portrayal of Boromir in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings brought the necessary gravitas to a brave yet conflicted character. And his brave yet conflicted Ned Stark has become an iconic TV role, despite the fact that he looked just like Boromir only in a bigger, furrier cloak. The joke on the Internet is: How long will it take any Sean Bean character in a movie to get killed off? Always too soon, in my opinion. I can't get enough of his brave yet conflicted performances. And I can't decide if Boromir or Ned Stark is better, because they're almost exactly the same!

Edge: It's a tie

To Finis or Not To Finis: A Tale That Ends vs. a Never-ending Story

Game of Thrones is a projected seven-book-series. But after all is said and done, will Martin's story really have a sense of closure? Call me old-fashioned, but the fact that The Lord of the Rings takes place in a relatively short amount of time, and has a definitive ending (and a happy ending at that) help make it a classic. Tolkien lived long enough after the publication of LOTR to have toyed with the idea of creating a sequel set in a Minas Tirith that had degenerated from the glory days of King Elessar (aka Aragorn) and had become filled with rebellious Men and "satanic worshippers." But he found the notion too "depressing" and "sinister"--kind of like GOT.

Edge: J.R.R. Tolkien

Sex In The Citadel: Victorian Social Mores vs. Masters and Johnson

Let's face it. Tolkien was a product of the Victorian world. The closest thing that you get to sex in LOTR is Faramir kissing Éowyn's brow on the porch in the Houses of Healing (and that's not a euphemism for something dirty). And Arwen and Aragorn have the longest engagement in the history of literature (he falls in love with her at the age of twenty and marries her sixty-seven years later). Martin, on the other hand, does not shy away from the reality of human sexuality in his series: incest, unbridled lust, homosexuality, prostitution, dwarf-sutra, eunuchs and even Targaryen-on-horselord action! For pure titillation factor GOT wins hands down. But for examples of abiding love, Tolkien is the master. (And you can't read GOT out loud to your little kids.)

Edge: It's a tie

Lord of the Maps: Middle-earth vs. Westeros

Tolkien's descriptions of the landscape of Middle-earth are so detailed that the place seems like an alternate reality. If a reader were dropped into the Shire via a magic portal, you'd be able to find your way to Rivendell without a map simply by following the landmarks (and there's also a big-ass road that goes straight there). Martin's world has a detailed topography as well, but many of the features in his fantasy land seem conveniently fabricated merely to be cool or dramatic. I'm thinking of a 300-mile-long, 700-foot-tall wall constructed out of solid ice that's meant to keep ice creatures at bay. Wouldn't the White Walkers look at a wall of snow and say, "Hey! Look! Ice wall! We love ice!" and just climb right over it? And while I'm on the subject, shouldn't the men of the Night's Watch wear white instead of black? One word, Lord Commander: camouflage.

Edge: J.R.R. Tolkien

Fantasy Femmes: Tolkien's Ladies vs. Martin's Women

LOTR and GOT are chock full of ladies: Lady Galadriel, Lady Catelyn, Lady Éowyn, Lady Jeyne, Lady Arwen, etc. But Tolkien's tale is dominated by men with all but one of the women (Éowyn the shieldmaiden) playing their parts on the periphery of the story. In Martin's world, however, women get equal page time. And they're just as heroic, scheming, power-hungry, ruthless, visionary and fascinating as their male counterparts. Even little girls like Arya Stark are fully realized characters. Tolkien's The Hobbit, by the way, might be one of the only classics that does not have a single female character (humanoid or animal). But couldn't Peter Jackson & Co. have come up with a better female character for the film adaptation than Tauriel the Dwarf-pining Elf? (They should have asked Martin for help.)

Edge: G.R.R. Martin

Thank Ilúvatar: A Mythopoeia vs. a Poor Man's Mythology

The making of myths is called mythopoeia, and Tolkien was a mythmaker extraordinaire. His The Silmarillion (published posthumously) chronicles the origin of his fantasy world in glorious detail, starting in the dim recesses of time when Middle-earth was sung into creation by the god Ilúvatar and his angelic creations, and subsequently spans the thousands of years of history that unfold before the start of The Hobbit. Who was Sauron? Where did the orcs come from? What was Galadriel's lineage? When was Minas Tirith founded? There are answers to all of these questions--either in The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, LOTR or its Appendices--as well as coherent explanations for nearly every person, place and thing in Tolkien's tales. The history of Martin's world, however, is sketchy, and rather than feeling like a real place it comes across as a sort of funky alternate reality Medieval England with the addition of zombies and baby dragons. Does calling someone "Ser" instead of "Sir" really make Westeros seem otherworldly? And what's up with the White Walkers? Where did they come from? And what caused the Long Night? Methinks Ser Martin is just making this stuff up!

Edge: J.R.R. Tolkien

The Villain With a Thousand Faces: Hopefulness vs. Nihilism

In the end it all comes down to what kind of story you want to get wrapped up in. Martin has been described as one of the cruelest authors in history: a fiendish plotter who toys with his poor readers. Never have so many beloved literary characters been put on the chopping block, or subjected to such heinous tortures. There are so few surviving good guys in GOT, and yet so many villains that you actually start rooting for your favorite scoundrels (think Jaime Lannister). When Martin slays Lady Stark she doesn't even have the good fortune to stay dead. Instead she's resurrected as a disgusting walking corpse that kills without mercy. Tolkien had much more sympathy for his characters and his audience. His heroes suffer greatly in their quest to destroy the One Ring, but in the end they pass through the fire and come out the other side as better people. And when Tolkien did kill off a beloved character--like Gandalf in the Mines of Moria--he had the decency to reincarnate him in the next book.

Edge: J.R.R. Tolkien

Total Points: J.R.R. Tolkien (5) G.R.R Martin (2) Tie (2)

The lord of this game is John Ronald Reuel Tolkien!

Noble Smith is the author of The Wisdom of the Shire and Sons of Zeus, both from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press. Follow him on Twitter @shirewisdom.

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