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Before the Thrones

James Cary


You were brave, but you got on anyway. And you went round and round really fast. Or at least it seemed so. The tea cup ride was amazing. Until you tried the rollercoaster.

It's a bit like that with Game of Thrones. Once you've seen it, Lord of the Rings seems a bit, well, tame.

Game of Thrones, the most pirated show on the internet, is back for a fourth series. More nudity than is justifiable; more violence than is necessary; more old English actors than an RSC reunion dinner. And more characters than it is possible for one human being to remember, even the author. I'm told the books have over a thousand named characters, to the point where George RR Martin had to rely on a die-hard fan to keep track of everyone. He is not short of such fans. They even, after all, pointed out to him that a specific horse in one book is a different gender than the previous book.

I discovered all this when I first came across George RR Martin's work, just before the first TV series. The New Yorker ran an article about the show, but also about the fans, many of whom were furious that they'd been waiting since 2005 for the sequel to A Feast for Crows. (Terrible dialogue. Cracking titles.) But what's the appeal?

Clearly George RR Martin owes a debt to JRR Tolkein. After all, Lord of the Rings is still brilliant. Its epic story of good versus evil is compelling and well told - as long as you skip over the idiotic Tom Bombadil and fast forward the dreary Council of Elrond. At its heart, it's a story about bravery and friendship, not good and evil. There is a theme about being tempted by the power of the ring, but this must be resisted. Elves could resist a dozen rings a day, but weak humans would be slipping a ring on and off three times before breakfast given half a chance.

In Tolkien's work, there's an overall sense that good and evil are separate. Given his Christian faith, this is not a surprise. Christians believe that God is holy and can tolerate no sin, that the devil, the source of all lies and evil, has been defeated by Christ and will be thrown downon the last day. And this comes across in Middle Earth. Evil is external, rather than internal. Men are weak, but the goblins and orcs are evil, ruled by evil Saruman and the extremely evil Dark Lord Sauron. The forces of evil attack in large set-piece battles and then obligingly disappear when you stab them in the heel or throw their ring into a volcano. In a sense, some of these moments are no more satisfactory than throwing a bucket of water on the Wicked Witch of the West.

But Martin's work is much more ambigious. It's not rooted in the realms of fantasy, but inspired by medieval history. A number of historians have been making much of this in order to publicise their books about the Wars of the Roses or The Plantagenets. The stories of ambitious men and women in this era struggling to take and retain power are indeed eye-watering.

But there is another similarity which is more striking. I noticed it as I was listening to an audio version of 1 Samuel as the stories were read about Eli and his wicked sons, the Ark of the Covenant, the gold tumours and rats, Saul, Goliath, David and the Witch of Endor summoning Samuel from the dead. I got the same sense reading the intrigue and power struggle surrounding Daniel in Babylon, how he survived the lions' den, and how his enemies were thrown to the lions along with the women and children. It's very much in the spirit of Game of Thrones where ruthless kings say things like 'Kill them. Kill them all,' before walking off with a concubine.

What Game of Thrones really shows us is that evil is not external, confined to a few evil races and subspecies. It is in the heart of every man and woman, raging for domination. That's why the stand-out character in Middle Earth is Gollum. In Martin's Westeros, the struggle for power and the cycle of violence is endless. What JRR Tolkein understood is that an end to that vicious circle requires divine intervention and the destruction of evil itself, which one day will surely come from a man who is God.