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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 ...
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