A Report by Linda Echo-Hawk
December 8 brought a cold late afternoon in Colorado as we gathered at our Hobbit Hole at Barbed Wire Books in Longmont. The Tolkien Reading Circle and the Game of Thrones-Children of the Forest met to ponder the making of fantasy war in Middle-earth and Westeros.
Linda welcomed everyone and Andrea launched the hour by outlining some discussions held by the Game of Thrones book group on this topic. Andrea read an excerpt from a 2014 Rolling Stone interview in which George RR Martin talked about how he became a conscientious objector:
I was, like many kids of my generation, a hawk. I accepted that America was the good guys, we had to be there. When I got into college, the more I learned about our involvement in Vietnam, the more it seemed wrong to me. Of course, the draft was happening, and I decided to ask for the conscientious-objector status. I wasn’t a complete pacifist; I couldn’t claim to be that. I was what they called an objector to a particular war. I would have been glad to fight in World War II. But Vietnam was the only war on the menu. So I applied for conscientious-objector status…
Roger added his experience as a teenager in the 1960s. He and his friends spent a lot of time discussing the Vietnam War and pondering what to do – and they were very interested when they saw the founding of the Vietnam Vets Against the War protest group. Ivan observed that it is common for young men in every culture to take part in military culture, hoping for adventure and glory, and a wish to prove themselves.
The modeling of war as a social project has shaped the evolution of the fantasy genre. Ivan discussed how Martin has developed a major focus on war in his fantasy worldmaking. He has shifted the viewpoint, changing the fantasy genre by emphasizing the gore and grit of warfare and battle, challenging the romantic idealization of war that has defined so much post-Tolkien fantasy literature.
We wondered how Martin’s personal experience during the Vietnam era might be glimpsed in the Game of Thrones world. We discussed the various wars and conflicts in Westeros/Essos and wondered which war Martin would be willing to fight in, following his logic of objecting to Vietnam but not World War II. We thought it might be possible to see warfare in Westeros in terms of a great morally driven cause versus more petty ambitions and struggles for power. We discussed how Martin critiques Tolkien as focused on how a Good Man equals a Good King who rules wisely, as with Aragorn. Ivan pointed out that one of Martin’s major moral points is that power always undermines moral idealism, with example after example of rulers in Westeros who gather power and become oppressive and vicious.
We got into Tolkien’s WWI experience and talked about trench fever, shell shock and PTSD. We touched on the contrast of how Martin shows the intimate brutality of battle while Tolkien has the Rohirrim singing as they slay the servants of Sauron. Ivan suggested that Tolkien was referring to traditional warfare narratives that glorify battle and how he then gives us subhuman orcs to slaughter, while Martin prefers to show the realism of men killing men.
Pondering Martin’s personal status as a conscientious objector, we compared Tolkien’s complex response to his experiences. He turned aspects of his war experiences into Middle-earth stories, and he also saw two of his sons join the military in WWII. But then he went on to make several major characters in The Lord of the Rings into virtual pacifists – Gandalf the White and Frodo do not kill any enemies.
We covered many battlefields in the invented realms of Middle-earth and Westeros. But we ended up thinking about hope and optimism. In fantasy literature we can aspire to transcend the boundaries of history; we can seek a mysterious inner magic that uplifts us all, that expects us to build a better, more humane world for the future. At the meetings of the Tolkien Reading Circle and the Game of Thrones-Children of the Forest we have had a great time discussing literature and life. We all look forward to the coming year – and to happy endings!