Storytelling is a hugely important activity.  Stories shape the way we think about the world.  When we are growing up it is often the coded messages in stories that imprint on us ideas of good and evil, heroism, what is harmful.  So the greatest storytellers are very influential.  In the past we would sit round fires – as the darkness fell all around – and listen to our grans / uncles or whoever bewitch us by weaving words together and creating images in our mind.  At least then we could interrupt our storytellers – asking them questions – reacting with gasps, groans or laughter to their tales. Nowadays we are much more passive in front of the greatest storyteller of them all – TV and the Cinema .  I sometimes think that this passivity is not necessarily a healthy thing. Being critically engaged with the stories we consume is very important as they can have a tremendous power as we form our opinions, or how we see and understand the world. Storyteller can try and inspire, to build people up,  to give us hope – or they can make us cynical, world-weary, apathetic.  These are tremendous powers.

George Martin – Tolkien for the Jaded Generation?

This is why novelist George R R Martin was voted in Time Magazine as one of the most influential people of the year.  I am currently on the third book of his ‘Song of Fire and Ice‘ series.  It is very enjoyable reading – complex, imaginative,  at times breathtaking, with fantastic character development and constant unseen twists and turns.  Now that HBO is televising it I am sure the books will go stratospheric. However it always worth observing how a book affects you. More precisely – what are the lingering moods  a book leaves you with (a la St Ignatius). And from my – subjective point of view – SoFiA is pretty desolating stuff. Martin’s world is basically cynical, bleak and depressing.  He has been described as Tolkien for the jaded generation.

More and more he is being marketed as the American ‘Tolkien’….  unfairly in my opinion.  Tolkien a committed Catholic would be shocked at the vulgarity of Martins writing and in my opinion the disturbing portrayals of  sex and violence.  Sure it;s different age – but there is a deeper point here.  There is a fascinating, little known, correspondence between Tolkien and English Jesuit Fr Robert Murray.  Fr Murray, a close friend,  was asked to proofread the manuscript of  Lord of the Rings.  His letter reacting to the unpublished manuscript has an intriguing phrase in it – Murray claimed the book left him with a strong sense of a positive compatibility with the order of Grace.

Tolkien in reply said ‘the  Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.’   George R R Martin, a lapsed Catholic, says he is an agnostic or an atheist (make up your mind!) but remains fascinated by spirituality and religion.  He is certainly not anti-Catholic (like Phillip Pulman), neither I think secular like (J.K.Rowling).   There is a quite a bit of religion in the books – but it is not edifying stuff.

Tolkien in 1916, wearing his British Army unif...

Tolkien – Somme Veteran

Lets take the violence for instance – frequently cruel and sadistic in ASOFaI – the violence is less graphic in Tolkien. Yet curiously Tolkien fought in the battle of the Somme.  The closest George Martin (like myself) would have come to battle is through a video game. Tolkien has seen terrible – dehumanising suffering first hand, and like my own grandfather (who fought in Burma) he won’t talk about it. But his work – somehow is redemptive, is noble, it has hope. It is true that Martins female characters are much more realistic than anything in Tolkien…. and as a whole Martin’s characters are more morally complex. But maybe that is less about realism but more about the cynicism of our age.  The sex scenes (missing from Tolkien) are almost all brutal and degrading in ASofaI.  There is something of  ‘the teenage geek in a dark room on a diet of porn’ about the sex scenes. And HBO are rubbing their hands with glee. This isn’t a healthy portrayal of sexuality. The world isn’t like this…..

Is Martin a genius? Yes.

Are his books fantastic ? with reservations Yes.

Is he the American Tolkien – No. In many ways he gets close.  It is clear that he admires him greatly, but there is nothing about the ‘order of grace’ in his books.   Maybe he holds a mirror up to our generation – and parts of what is reflected back should cause us concern.  He doesn’t quite slip into the nihilism of Tarantino – but at times gets very close.

Am I biased?  Obviously!!