The last century has been dominated by one fantasy series more than any other. That series, Lord of the Rings, has inspired clones and copycats. Author J.R.R. Tolkien adopted existing folklore and placed his own spin on it,creating his variety of elves, dwarves, and the other fantastical races that inhabited his world of Middle Earth. The Lord of the Rings has gone on to be the second best-selling book in the world, just behind the Bible. The movie trilogy based on the trilogy, meanwhile, remains a critically acclaimed series of movies that, while taking certain liberties, retained much of the spirit of the books. For many people, The Lord of the Rings was equivalent to the Star Wars trilogy, a movie series that had almost unparalleled cultural impact. Even before the movie trilogy made its impact, the books inspired more than just copycat novels. The book series also inspired tabletop games, songs, and cartoon adaptations.
It should be obvious that The Lord of the Rings is almost unparalleled in its influence.
Games of Thrones, meanwhile, inhabits the same fantasy genre and has, over the past decade, become a cultural force of its own. At the dawn of the Golden Age of Television, Game of Thrones hit television screens alongside critically acclaimed shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead. It inherited the HBO mantle of prestige television created by shows like Sopranos and The Wire. Yet Game of Thrones has found popularity that even those shows struggle to match. It’s become water cooler conversation material, with people debating what will happen next and rooting for the different forces inhabiting the lands of Westeros. Even before it took television form, the Game of Thrones series of books was making an impact among readers. Although dabbling in the fantastic, including undead wights and majestic dragons, Game of Thrones focused much more heavily on the political and physical conflicts between the Great Houses of the kingdom. The series is much more grounded in reality, although that should be expected from a series loosely based on the historical War of the Roses.
In short, Game of Thrones has taken on a popularity of its own and dominated the fantasy landscape over the last decade.
Still, even Game of Thrones toils under the shadow of Lord of the Rings. One has to look no further than the endless number of companies fighting to adapt the material. Video game companies hope to make games based on the fighting prowess of human warriors like Aragorn and elven archers like Legolas. There are more audiobook adaptations than one can count. Even the great tech company Amazon has reportedly forced writers on its television adaptation to work under the watch of security guards and use fingerprint identification to access the writing room. Does that make Lord of the Rings ‘better’ than Game of Thrones?
No. No, it does not. In fact, the two approach narrative and storytelling in vastly different ways. Beyond their fantasy trappings, the two are quite different from each other.
Lord of the Rings is closer to a legend or epic while Game of Thrones is closer to historical fiction. The first, for instance, adheres to broad, mythological strokes. The success of kingdoms is often based on the purity of their rulers and the goodness of their hearts. Aragorn, for instance, last of an ancient bloodline of powerful men, restores greatness to a decaying kingdom when the dark lord Sauron is defeated. The idea that good rulers bring greatness to the kingdoms they rule is found in myths and religious stories from throughout history.
Game of Thrones, on the other hand, is almost brutally honest about the realities of ancient kingdoms. Good, honorable rulers die terrible deaths. Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell, is considered a good and honorable man who is generally considered a noble leader of his people. He is also executed at the hands of a sadistic child king, Joffrey Baratheon. In fact, it’s Stark’s honor that create the circumstances that lead to his death. His children, innocent people, are scattered to the winds and face horrible circumstances. Among the greatest tragedies is the brutal slaughter of his widow and eldest son, who are waging a war to avenge him and bring down Joffrey’s family.
In just this one comparison, we can see a more optimistic view present in Lord of the Rings versus Game of Thrones. The two present different types of morality, with Game of Thrones including a much more grey kind of morality. In Lord of the Rings, the heroes are clearly the Fellowship that tries to carry the One Ring to Mordor in order to destroy it and save the world. The heroes struggle in some of their decisions, to be sure. Frodo Baggins starts to become overtaken by the dark influence of the Ring at one point.
However, such decisions pale in comparison to some of the acts that the protagonists of Game of Thrones engage in. Arya Stark, one of Eddard Stark’s daughters, finds herself faced by incredible hardships in her struggle to survive. She kills, and not always in self-defense. She actively prays for the death of others, if she doesn’t kill them herself, while training as an assassin. The Night Watch, pledged to defend the kingdom against the legendary, mystical threats of the north, maintain an alliance with a man who kills his own baby sons while marrying his daughters. This, so they can maintain spies in the north.
Even looking at the villains shows how the to stories handle their morality differently. In Lord of the Rings, Sauron is an ancient, mythical evil will no redeeming qualities. He simply wants to dominate the world. Sauron is much more akin to a mythical threat with little nuance. In Game of Thrones, people like Cersei Lannister do terrible things to their enemies but demonstrate incredible compassion and love toward their own children. It’s afar cry from an uncaring evil that’s found in Sauron.
So, while both stories are fantasy in genre, they are incredibly different in storytelling. Lord of the Rings is a morally clear tale that involves forces of good and evil portrayed in a legendary style. Game of Thrones is a morally gray story that involves complex individuals using war and politics to achieve their goals. In the first, the good guys are bound to win. In the second, it’s a little less clear if that’s the case.
Which is better? In the battle of Lord of the Rings versus Game of Thrones, which is the superior piece of storytelling? Well, neither, really. Lord of the Rings will almost undoubtedly always have wider appeal. It doesn’t involve the sort of violence, rape, and brutality that populates Game of Thrones. It also has clearer, memorable characters that will almost always be found endearing. Gandfalf has become an archetype himself of what the kindly yet stern wizard should be, while the Hobbits, with their bravery and yet childlike wonder, will always have a sentimental place in the hearts of everyone from children to adults. The characters of Game of Thrones will never so easily fit such archetypes so easily. They occupy a world with a much grayer reality and take actions that guarantee fewer young people will ever be exposed to their stories. The Hobbit, the book previous to the Lord of the Rings, never had Bilbo Baggins training to be an assassin, after all.
In the end, each story is better for the individual based on what the indivdiual is looking for. Both are incredible stories. The Lord of the Rings delivers an epic tale full of heroes, ancient powers, and legendary villains. Game of Thrones delivers a complex tale of politics, warfare, and yet heroics in a dark world. You should honestly take the time to enjoy both.
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