On Sunday, while much of the world celebrated Easter, HBO launched the third season of Game of Thrones, based on the best selling fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin. His detailed fantasy world has become a pop-culture phenomenon, complete with toys and comic books. It's also reached pinnacle of pop cultural relevance: the Saturday Night Live skit, in which Andy Sandberg accounted for Thrones' crazy amount of nudity and sex by suggesting it had been directed by a teenage boy.
Martin's tale centers on the struggle for the throne of Westeros, beset by a kingdom-wide civil war that brings wave after wave of massacres, betrayals, and clandestine affairs. Then there are the menacing "White Walkers" who threaten the kingdom from the frozen north—a horde of half-zombie, half-vampire creatures intent on destroying all living beings.
Game of Thrones demonstrates Martin's skill at world-building. Indeed, his talent at creating a world that feels like a medieval history book naturally brings to mind the grandfather of mythological fantasy worlds, J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien's legacy is now in the hands of director Peter Jackson—but Martin, as one of the executive producers of Game of Thrones, has a more direct hand in bringing the world he first described in his books to the screen.
Yet the visually stunning alternative worlds can be a distraction from a deeper issue: the way Martin and Tolkien use their characters to explore the mysteries of what it means to be human.
Martin, a confessed agnostic who nonetheless uses religion as a central plot element throughout his books, asserts he holds a "realistic" view of human beings. For Martin, realistic means his characters are complex, "gray," and morally ambiguous. There are no heroes in Martin's books like there are in The Lord of the Rings. There is no echo of Calvin's description of human beings as "glorious ruins"—broken, but still able to bear the Image of God. Martin's image focuses on the ruin, not the glory.
(Some spoilers ahead for those who haven't read the books.)
Martin paints this grimness in the portrait of Tyrion Lannister. Tyrion is a small and deformed figure born to a powerful and noble family in Westeros. Years of poor treatment and outright abuse leads Tyrion to drink more and more deeply from the corruption around him.
If you've read Lord of the Rings, you can't help but compare Tyrion to Smeagol, the hobbit who becomes Gollum after becoming corrupted by Sauron's ring The difference comes in Frodo's attempt to redeem Gollum. That attempt has no parallel in Martin's world, nor is there anything like Gandalf's admonition to treat Gollum with kindness. Tyrion has no Frodo, and he never will. No one reaches out to him; no one tries to save or redeem him.
Likewise, both Tolkien and Martin deal with war, and both show war for what it is: brutal, hard and sad. Tolkien served in the flesh-grinding trenches of the Great War and lost many close friends. Indeed, a few of those friends are believed to be the inspiration for the four hobbits at the center of The Lord of the Rings.
For Tolkien, the horrors of war happen when people lose their humanity. The Orcs are allegories for sentient beings who become monsters by their love of killing. Martin constructs a different world. He sees brutality as just one more facet of human beings, part of the natural order of the world. Indeed, in Martin's world brutality is often necessary. People who show mercy in Westeros (like Lord Ned Stark, one of the few redeeming characters in the series) end up losing their heads.