There are deep nooks and hidden crannies in The Last Bookstore that lead to Other Places, a la the wardrobe that leads to Narnia or a certain Train Platform 9 3/4. One of our Last Spookstore writers, MacKenzie Kiera, was in town the other day for an interview with Stephen Graham Jones, and we decided to kill a little time with a jaunt around one of the choice spots only approachable through these hidden passages.
Well, we got a little more than we bargained for. I’ll leave it to Mackenzie to give you the full story someday, but here’s one small episode we can share with you right now.
After a tramp thru Giant Shroom Forest, avoiding Barrow Field and haunted Thumbwit (obviously), we stopped for a pint at The Green SeaHorse Tavern. The Tavern has outside seating, and with lumpy farm hills on one side and the razor-crested Grey Madame mountain range on the other, there is no reason to sit inside. It’s gorgeous country. Plus, Sparky the Gnome brings his un-tunable harp every Thursday, so there is actually an excellent reason to sit outside, ie Sparky.
We watched a friendly-enough-looking Giant lumber up the road, and as he approached the building, seemingly from out of the earth popped an aggressive-looking Dwarf. Quite a pair, these two, and they got into it.
We’ve probably forgotten as much of their conversation as we’ve remembered, but we scribbled furiously as soon as we got back, racking our memories and comparing notes. Here’s the gist:
Dwarf – Defend yourself, you continental lump! You hyperbole of flesh! You hollow redwood of klutz!
Giant – How’s the weather down there, amidst the pigs and their shit, you half breed. Tell me, are you and hobbits related?
[It got very tense across the (vertical) distance between them, as they seemed to measure and file away each insult. Just when bloody action seemed inevitable… they laughed and shook hands like old friends, which they apparently are.]
Dwarf – Giant!
Giant – Dwarf!
Dwarf – Good to see you, old friend! Listen – I saw your posting on the castle wall, day before last —
Giant – That series of cat drawings with itself stuck in the cereal box? Both hilarious and piteous — Ha Ha!
Dwarf – Uh… no – that’s not what I’m talking about. It was your posting which stated: “LOTR? LMAO! GOT FTW”
Giant – Oh yes! That was a good one – I am fond of both acronyms and mighty George R R Martin’s masterful Game of Thrones books [holds hand out – and very far down – for what would be to Dwarf a high five. Which is pointedly ignored.]
Dwarf – No. Sir, you are of the crappola nigh unto full. I am frowny face all over your quip. J R R Tolkien is The Man, and for equals to The Lord of the Rings there are nix.
[Giant straightened up, thereby blocking most of the sky.]
Giant – Reeeeeeally. Hmm. Well, if that is how you feel, then down we sit here tavern-adjacent, and with bracing drink between us, a-debating we shall go.
Dwarf – My thoughts exactly, thou bottom-heavy knockwood.
Giant – KEEP! A cask of ale for me and a thimbleful for my atom-sized friend! Well? How shall we proceed?
Dwarf – Well, there are many things to discuss with these two bodies of work: the overall artistry, the value for the reader, both in instruction & entertainment –
Giant – As we have on so many adventures together, let us find the beginning, and follow boldly where’er it leads!
Dwarf – Agreed!
[The ale arrived]
“Relation of source material to invention”
Dwarf – Let us speak first of the relation of source material to invention. Tolkien drew on a vast knowledge of myth, literature and language to seed his world, yet still managed to make something entirely his own. Examples: Elf language is based on Finnish. The culture of the Rohirrim is based on that of the Saxons. The land of Middle Earth itself is said to roughly correspond to prehistoric Europe. This and yet – the Valar (that is, Tolkien’s spiritual semi-deities, for lack of a better term) are not intended to be one-to-one correspondents to Greek or Norse deities, but are their own unique selves. Indeed, even the quest of the trilogy, the destruction of the ring, is very unusual – though I’d like to come to that later. So, Tolkien grounded Middle Earth in our world, yet still created something entirely new.
Giant – Yes, but isn’t that everything? All works of literature have something of our world within them. It has to be that way, otherwise, it would have been written by something alien and unfamiliar with our culture, nay, our world. So, I’m sorry, my small but mighty friend but Tolkien and GRRM are NOT that special on this playing field. Now, GRRM’s Westeros is basically “Just Great Britian and an inverted Ireland.” So yes, the countries are grounded in our own world. As for the language, well, GRRM made up about two words for the Dothraki language and seven for Valyrian. In order to have a language that HBO could exploit, they brought in a fan named David Peterson to finish the languages for them.
So, Tolkien can have that one. Middle Earth and Westeros may both be based in our world, but Tolkien is indeed the master of making up languages. But, did you know, something else they do the same? Did you know they World-build in EXACTLY the same fashion? They both write through the character’s eyes. Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t Tolkien dip into his character’s thoughts and spend some time there? Going through their memories, their plans and their ideas? That is what GRRM does, so the world building, you see, is entirely internal.
In GOT, GRRM let’s us know whose eyes we (the readers) are about to see the world through. In other words, he uses the POV method, instead of chapters. Does Tolkien do that? I honestly don’t know.
Good debate topic, Dwarf.
Dwarf – Thank you. Alright then: level playing field, more or less. Moving on. The worlds make these books good, but I wonder, what makes them great?
“What makes Middle Earth and Westeros Great?”
Dwarf – GOT is famous for its relentless cruelty, and though LOTR has much tragedy, it is equally full of hope & light & poetry & beauty: all things we need more of. As a matter of fact, Tolkien coined the term “eucatastrophe”. This is a sudden, unexpected turn for the good, as opposed to its opposite “catastrophe”. He argued, why do we have a word for sudden turns to misfortune, but sneer at the idea that sometimes things abruptly get better? Brilliant and true, I say. So, GOT has darkness, while LOTR has both darkness and light, and therefore greatness.
Giant – God no. No. We need more blood and gore. We need rape and pillaging. This next generation was told as children that they were ALL WINNERS and really, they’re all whiners. If there’s anything the tech age of hipsters needs to get into, it’s GOT because there they will experience something different and exciting. You might call it “reality”. Nothing, nothing in this recession has been a ‘eucatastrophe.’ Have you seen the housing market? The job market? I’ll have time to grow tall and then shrink before either of those will become accessible. Give them the blood, the incest and gore. This generation, my friend, is angry and can’t believe in a ‘eucatastrophe.’ Otherwise, they will continue working as serving wenches.
Dwarf – Whoa whoa whoa – are you saying that things like hope and poetry and light are for whiners?! Or that things sometimes going well (for whatever reason) is somehow anathema to reality? I would say that that is not a technique, but is a world view, one not shared by Tolkien – or myself, for that matter. In fact, it does sound an awful lot like Saruman, the good-turned-evil wizard. Quite literally, he gave up hope for saving the world from darkness, and simply joined the darkness in an attempt to get as much power as he could for himself. Oh, my friend! What has happened to you since the Faerie Queen’s birthday picnic last Summer, when we two together crushed all competition in the three-legged race? Did we not bring cheers and laughter to the crowd? Was it not good?! Wherefore this “blood and gore and rape and pillage = excitement”? Of course, these things will perforce occur in stories, but they are not what make stories great.
Giant – …… That being said, the entire series is based on roughly the same thing most books are: saving the world, revenge, love and regaining a throne. GRRM is cruel to his characters, but, half of the time, it’s to prove that they are getting stronger and smarter. That they deserve to live. I believe this kind of writing and storytelling is made to tug at our hearts and involve us in the story because we, too, come to love the characters.
And GRRM never uses pages upon pages to describe the bloody moss on the rocks or whatever, which, i believe, is a Tolkien trope? Being hideously boring?
Dwarf – Nature! It’s – bahh! You know only the tops of trees and building rooves, so you couldn’t-
Giant – -sorry, rooves?
Dwarf – Dwarf, dwarves. Roof, rooves.
Giant – Ah.
Dwarf – …so, you couldn’t possibly appreciate the satisfyingly contrasty look and feel of moss on rocks, or of cave formations or – can you even see the detail in a flower? Boring, true – to any artless oaf. I should not have brought up poetry – or anything so subtle or refined – it was unfair. Forgive me, my flat-souled, lead-hearted friend.
Giant – If it involves moss, Dwarf, I don’t want it. It reminds me of mist and don’t get me started on mist.
Dwarf – Ah, yes – your poor, bloody, stubbed toes. If you wouldn’t shuffle your feet when you walk, like some schoolboy, you would neither stub your toes nor leave such a trail of shattered fences and unhorsed men.
Giant – [roars with laughter] – It is true, it is true! I am a menace! And you wouldn’t believe what fun I have feigning ignorance, “Oh, pardon me, good sir – I didn’t mean to punt you over that tree!”
[They laughed, blasting ale out their noses. It totally sprayed us, but we pretended not to notice. It was gross.]
“Can we use it? Day to Day?”
Dwarf – Alright, well, we’ve shifted topics a bit to… the authors’ or works’ philosophies of how to live. Which is a good direction. So, continuing, I cannot speak for everyone who knows LOTR, but I have found it very applicable to life. It is very moral, without being white-washy. There are buckets of tragedy, contradiction and human frailty, which is what we experience in life, but it also has sophisticated guiding principles. For example, you mention characters who “deserve to live”- whoa nelly-pie – Gandalf instructs Frodo on the importance of mercy, that it is not to us to determine who lives or dies. I say that that is a difficult morality. Nothing puts one on one’s mettle like the challenge to show mercy or to forgive. Or when Sam and Frodo talk about true heroism being, not the glory of coming home victorious, but perseverance when there is not much chance of coming home at all. This is true and challenging stuff.
Giant – Um. What about that relationship between Sam and Frodo? So sweet I could gag. Bordering on an unrealistic relationship because no one, not even Bert and Ernie, are that in love.
Dwarf – Ah! Do not confuse the films with the books.
Giant – Noted. Look – GOT isn’t just relatable to life, the books themselves mimic growth and death. Dealing with both, I believe is an essential part of life because once you no longer grow, what happens to you?
Dwarf – Well, it dep-
Giant – You die, that’s what! If you are no longer moving forward you are as stationary as the dead. The POV chapters follow each character through their ups and downs, their triumphs and their losses, showing the readers that humans are made to go through trials and tribulations. Growth is essential. And then, after you are invested in a character, after you love them and look forward to their chapters, GRRM kills them. Their chapters cease to exist. He mimics living and you get to live through multiple pairs of eyes, appreciating each person for who they are and what their struggles entail. It, in a way, teaches you how to be the best human you can be by having to put on many different pairs of shoes and walk miles in them. These books, dear Dwarf, they teach you empathy.
Dwarf -Ah – there is profound value in that, I will agree.
Giant – Thank you. (Wipes tears)
Dwarf – Steady. Are you alright?
Giant – Yes. I was just remembering the end of GOT book one. Gets me going every time.
Dwarf – You should absolutely compose a song about it! Very Tolkienian!
[This elicits a soaring eye-roll from Giant.]
“What about the Central Quest?”
Dwarf – Anyway, back to my earlier allusion to the central quest of LOTR, destroying the ring of power. This is significant and unusual in literature. Most, if not all, quests in literature are about gaining some type of power. But here we have an effort towards – not grasping at power – but protecting from its domination, even though that power is potentially already within your grasp. Imagine in that great bard’s tale we know as The Star Wars, if the Rebellion instead of destroying the mighty Star of Death, captured it. Then, instead of using it to attack the Empire, still decided to blow it up, because they recognized the inherit danger of having that much power. It’s that. This is fairly unique, and, I would say, an important way to think about both the abuse of power and humility in self-knowledge.
Giant – Yes, Tolkien and The Great Star Wars are unparalleled. Most, if not all of GRRM’s characters are power hungry in some way shape or form but it’s not just for power in its most literal sense. There are…other reasons. Several want the Iron Throne because they feel it is rightfully theirs. Others have power thrust upon them, and they bear it the best they can. As for everyone fighting the brave fight against evil? That still has yet to come so, I fear, I cannot comment on this as well as I would like. I feel the answers lie in the 6th and 7th book. Winter is coming, dear Dwarf.
Dwarf – Why is everyone saying that? It always sounds like a threat, but I rather enjoy winter. Well, alright, if we cannot talk about that, then maybe we could discuss characters?
Giant – Certainly. Could you be so kind as to clear something up for me? In the end of LOTR, isn’t Frodo special because he’s the only one that the ring doesn’t possess? Not completely, anyway. The character is rare because he has a good heart. Are we only shown the minds of the virtuous or do we also hear from the villains? Are Tolkien fans wrapped up in being good and virtuous?
Dwarf – I’ll be gentle with your ignorance of Frodo’s disposition, as I am myself fairly ignorant of GOT, but no – Frodo is not really special. Certainly he has a certain virtue or honesty and contentment (meaning, he is not power hungry), but in the end the ring does ruin him. He struggles long and hard, and in the end falls prey. He is only saved thru a combination of the efforts of both Sam and all his friends and also by the fact that evil tends to destroy itself. Other characters slide up and down the “virtue scale”. Some are certainly power hungry; some start one way and end another. We learn that Saruman was once a great and very virtuous spirit, but has slowly been corrupted thru both fear and pride. Boromir is a paragon of courage and virtue, but is very quickly distorted by the ring – though this because of his misunderstanding of its nature and his love for his people. There are even wicked Hobbits (the Sackville-Bagginses) and dangerously stupid ones (Pippin). So, there are a wide array of characters with differing moral dynamics. I think this is appropriately sophisticated.
Giant – Indeed it is, sir. Good point. However, I’m wondering how much you see from the POV of the villains? For example, what’s it like to be, say, an Orc?
Dwarf – Well, no – truth be told, you see very little from the POV of the villainous characters. You could maybe, possibly, call that a sort of… well… flaw. Dammit. If one would hope for a sort of moral relativism, that would never happen in Tolkien’s work. As far as sympathy for characters who do very bad things, you do see that in The Silmarillion. Indeed, a few of the protagonists there are frankly villainous, and a few villains are very empathetic. But in LOTR, not so much. If I may press a different point before ceding the floor, yet another shining facet of LOTR is that at the heart of the story is the idea that ordinary – small – people can be great. This is important because most of us are small and ordinary. No, I don’t mean literally small, though yes, I am a Dwarf talking about Hobbits. It’s not that it should instill pride, but it should change our idea of greatness, that it is not found in office or wealth or power, but in something deeper than all of that. This is again a good and true thing found in Tolkien.
Giant – Indeed. After that, I feel like we must talk about storyline.
Dwarf – Yes, I stand ready for your fresh assault, sir.
Giant – At the heart of GOT, I believe the storyline seems to be, ‘the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry’ because none, and I mean none of the storylines are predictable. There are opposing forces and different paths to take at every turn. These books propel you along with ingenious, quick writing, making 700 pages turn to 70 and somehow, you want more. So, in this case, the rise and fall of action is really what tells the story, delivering it to us in choppy waters.
Dwarf – I can’t argue against the truth of “best laid plans… go oft awry”; Robert Burns taught us that with a single poem about a mouse. If it’s taken GRRM thousands of pages to do it, who am I to criticize? But it’s an adult idea. I think more important is the idea in LOTR – which is for both adults and young people – that ordinary folk can do great things, that greatness is sometimes plain, that the humble, the simple, the modest can have incalculable value and strength. Call me old-fashioned, but I think hope, a belief that a better world is not impossible, is a good thing for adults and especially young people. I believe the Tolkien storyline is “There is always hope”.
To your other points, I’m not sure what predictability has to do with it. We read or watch the best stories over and over again, even when we know what happens. If unpredictability is what you’re looking for, you may as well watch sports. Nor do I see any inherent value in page-turn-ability. Sure, not everyone can do it, it is a skill, but so is making cotton candy or a pop song. Nothing wrong with it; it is what it is. And then it’s gone.
Giant – Sir, I must protest. Page turn-ability is essential as is unpredictability. Many authors would say that making those pages turn is a true ability and the mark of a good author. In other words, if you WANT to put the book down, someone isn’t doing their job. So, I wonder, if this is really a difference in time. Look at it this way, dear Dwarf. LOTR was published in the fifties. 1954 to be exact. Is it possible, that these books were written for a different group of people? People who had longer attention spans and who also hadn’t seen many worlds being built? This LOTR book was, I can assume, a tale for its time. Now, here’s the other clue to it being past its heyday. The cast is mostly male. That is another 1950’s attribute because in the 1950s authors assumed women didn’t want to read about hobbits and middle earth. Even though GRRM started writing these books in 1996, he writes them from both male and female perspectives (because, you know, now we know women read) and the pace, the ‘page turn-ability’ is unique for the tech age we’ve entered. The tech age needs something that INSISTS you continue reading. It begs you to not turn on that video game because a book, these GOT books, can keep you just as engaged.
Think about all the classics. War and Peace? Wuthering Heights? Are those books you pick up if you wanted a good, long, action-packed adventure? NO WAY. They were written for a different time, a different group of people.
There is this, though. LOTR, just like the classics, is still around and will absolutely make its way to the shelves of forever, to our version of the Alexandria Library. Why do you think it deserves a spot? What did it DO for its time?
Dwarf – Giant, my friend, these are solid points. Indeed, LOTR was written in different times for a different audience. And yes, there is a shameful dearth of female characters. The ones that are there are solid – Galadriel, Eowyn – but there are precious few.
As to what it does – for its or any other time – I’ve outlined already some of its value in our discussion: providing a connection to older stories and myths, a solid reinforcement of challenging morals, an encouragement that there is always hope and always light, an empowerment of ordinary people that they need not be possessed of worldly power to make a difference – these are good things, I think.
Giant – Indeed, and – Ah – [he pauses, peering into the distance] – ack, Futz it – I must go. A pack of mountain goblins are at my beanstalk again, I can see them from here. But. There is a fact I have left out until now and I feel it must leave it with you for discussion at a later time.
Dwarf – Out with it.
Giant – Well, you see, all authors have a ‘hero’ author, someone they look towards when writing their own work.
Dwarf – True.
Giant – Tolkien was GRRM’s hero author.
Dwarf – [unleashes a string of untranslatable Dwarf curses] You…you… ROLEPLAYER! You have drawn me out into the open and keened my ax blade then fronted with creampies and silly string!
Giant – I’m sorry! But I felt it was necessary to save until now, otherwise we would have been comparing how alike GOT is to LOTR instead of what they are on their own. Here is my thought on that, and then you can call me names or add to it, whatever pleases you…
Dwarf – Speak plainly or I’ll chop your toe off with my ax, I will!
Giant – So, Romeo and Juliet will forever be the main “star-crossed lovers” story. Correct?
Dwarf – Undoubtedly.
Giant – But how many versions of that story are there now?
Dwarf – With or without vampires?
Giant – My point exactly. There are so many. But, I am thinking that once every ten-fifty years or so, we will get an epic fantasy. One that is groundbreaking and lives forever on the shelves of Time and HBO GO. I believe that LOTR fits into that slot previously occupied by, say, the Odyssey.
Dwarf – Ah. Interesting idea. Well, Tolkien himself said that he wanted to create a mythology for Britain. He didn’t want to rewrite the old tales or even replace them – but add to them. That is what he has done, with variations for time and place. So these are both the same tales as old as time, just told differently? Hmm. Yes, but with as much variation as life itself. I maintain that there are sharp differences in outlook, but it has always been so, has it not?
Giant – I believe so.
Dwarf – You could even say that the works of Martin and Tolkien actually represent different moments in the storyline of life itself. There are moments of lavish futility and moments of dangerous hope.
Giant -You’ve got it, my tiny friend. Whichever you connect to best has more to do with you and your life than with the quality of the book – at least when dealing with such superlative works. This is why we are friends: widely divergent viewpoints, yet we keep our bond and find the common ground. Well – I am off to make a few greasy Orc puddles.
Dwarf – Any chance I could lend a hand? You have boiled my blood, and I am in need of venting.
Giant – Huzzah!
[Giant scooped Dwarf onto his shoulder and strode off towards some very unfortunate mountain goblins.]
So there you have it. The LOTR -vs- GOT debate rages inconclusively whereever there are lovers of the written word. Of course, it is not a zero sum game. Pitched battle between the two only highlights the connections and qualities of the work – just as in the way of good friendships, like that between Mr Dwarf and Mr Giant. I hope on other trips thru our secret nooks into strange lands we run into these two again. I also hope we don’t get punted over a building when we do.