I’ll give you a second to staunch that aneurysm that no doubt just shot blood through your nose and ears upon reading that title. Go ahead, get a towel. I’ll wait.
Done? Feel better? Cool. Game of Thrones is better than The Lord of the Rings.
Oh shit, wow, that is a lot of blood. No, please, get another towel. I’m not in a rush.
Better? For real? Alright then.
Let me just start trying to salvage whatever nerd cred I may have by saying that I love The Lord of the Rings. Unlike many LotR fans of this generation, I actually did read the books before I saw the excellent movies, and I currently wait with baited breath for The Hobbit 3: Why Is This a Trilogy Again to hit DVD later this year. I love Frodo and Sam and I totally don’t think they’re gay but I totally wouldn’t care if they were. Aragorn is just the ultimate badass, Boromir is every ounce the tragic villain, and Gimli’s awesome. Legolas can eat a bag of dicks.
And yes, before your brain poops blood again, let me be totally clear when I say Game of Thrones (and A Song of Ice and Fire) would not exist if LotR hadn’t blazed the trail. George R.R. Martin knows this and I know this. Tolkien invented fantasy fiction, and we are all richer for his contributions.
But doing something first and doing something best are two very different things.
Let’s first look at the stories from a literary perspective. This one’s really no contest. The Lord of the Rings is terribly written. Tolkien’s wording is clunkier than my car, and much like my car, LotR requires a lot of stopping and starting. Remember the epic old man slap fight between Gandalf and Saruman in the movies? In the books that’s all monologued at you after the fact by Gandalf in Rivendell. No tension, no action. Gandalf’s already sitting there while he explains how he totally escaped from the bad guy last weekend. Because as we all know, great stories have characters explain shit to you constantly.
In case you think I’m being facetious, Tolkien’s literary buddies, the Inklings, positively hated The Lord of the Rings for just these reasons. Hugo Dyson was famously quoted to have said “Oh God, not another elf!” while Tolkien was reading at one of their meetings. Remember, these are the guys who could stomach seven frikkin Narnia books. But three volumes of The Lord of the Rings was too damn much, thank you kindly.
So the characters, plot, and setting are gorgeous, memorable, world-changing achievements of imagination. The actual delivery mechanism that gives them to us, the prose, the actual words on the page, are grade-A crapola.
Game of Thrones, on the other hand, has a character so unique, so real, so devastatingly well-written they filled an airport novel with just his quotes. And that’s just one character. Out of a billion.
So on the readability chart, Game of Thrones beats The Lord of the Rings’s gilded panties.
That’s not even touching on concepts like character yet. LotR has great characters, yes, but they don’t exactly leap off the page. Quick, tell me three of Legolas’s greatest fears. Oh wait, there aren’t any because Legolas is fucking perfect all the time always. Aragorn’s a bit better since he’s grappling with his family’s legacy that’s haunted him his whole life, and Gimli’s at least funny. But do they talk differently? Do they like different foods? Do they have sexy kinks? Of course not. Because as Michael Moorcock once so aptly pointed out, Middle Earth is basically the Hundred Acre Wood.
Game of Thrones characters have flaws. They fail as often as they succeed. You may recognize these as traits actual people have. “Wanting to get home to your strawberries” is a great motivation for a Clifford book, less so for a genre-defining epic.
So I’ve talked down LotR off its pedestal, but why do I get to put GoT up on it?
Well, let’s ignore the mind-blowing complexity of the series’s plot, the depth of its myriad characters and the fantastic vests GRRM wears. Let’s just look at one piece of the series that I think makes GoT essential reading and LotR a cute book for kids. Two words: Moral relativity.
The Lord of the Rings’s morality is as complex as an Oreo cookie. The bad guys are literally subhuman, with sharp teeth and bad skin. There are no good Orcs, such that we’re expected to rejoice when we witness the ground split open and genocide of an entire race of intelligent beings at the end of the third movie. The villain seeks only to cover the world in darkness. Each race has a set of predefined traits instilled in them at birth and impossible to avoid: men are greedy dicks, dwarves are greedy miners, and elves are just always fucking perfect seriously fuck elves. You never see the one elf who’s not so good at archery, or the one dwarf who fucking shaves. Everything is set in nice, easy, racist blacks and whites. Gollum is the series’s only grey character, but that doesn’t last. He still gets tossed in the lava with all the other irredeemable scum of Middle Earth.
Game of Thrones, on the other hand, teaches us that all too often our greatest foes come from within. Sometimes the bad guys win. Sometimes the good guys die screaming. Sometimes our best just isn’t good enough. Sometimes salvation comes from unexpected places.
So it’s derivative of LotR. LotR was basically Norse mythology fan fiction sprinkled with Christian overtones. So it’s adult. Life is adult. So it doesn’t always have happy endings. Neither does life.
Plus, in Game of Thrones, Legolas would get his testicles chopped off by Khal Drogo in five minutes tops. That’s good enough for me.