Dragons? Check. Magic? Check. Kings? Epic medieval warfare? Check, check. Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire aka Game of Thrones are often compared for their similarities, leading to the terribly important question: Whose universe is bigger? And perhaps better?
The video above, an imagined rap battle between JRR Tolkien and GRR Martin, tries to make the two authors slug – well, rap – it out. Tolkien mocks Martin, “You and Jon Snow both know nothing,” and Martin retorts, “We don’t need the back story on every fucking tree branch...”
Fans of the genre often compare the two worlds, coming up with questions like Could Martin's Drogon beat Tolkein's Smaug? Lord of the Rings came out in 1954, and the first volume of A Song of Ice and Fire, in 1996. They are separated by almost four decades, but the question of which fantasy is better often comes under discussion.
In a 2014 interview at the launch of World of Ice and Fire, an official history of Westeros, Martin spoke about the influence of Tolkien on modern epic fantasy fiction, saying that readers have now come to expect a “fully realised secondary world”. He then elaborated on Tolkien’s books being incidental to his universe.
“Tolkien was a very unusual writer, he was a linguist and a philosopher…the story was almost secondary to Tolkien...he spent years creating his Silmarillion…never published it in his lifetime and Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit were like stories set in the world he created, but for him the world creation and the creation of languages was almost primary.
"If you look at it like an iceberg, you know they say three quarters of an iceberg is hidden below the surface, that was certainly true with Tolkien. With a lot of fantasists who followed Tolkien though it is a magician's trick, we have some ice on a raft and we want you to think there's this huge edifice underneath, just like with Tolkien but there really isn't... And that was probably true with me in the beginning.”
Martin’s World of Ice and Fire, written in collaboration with two fans of the series, was a consequence of his readers' curiosity. And while well realised, it does not compare to Tolkien’s Silmarillion in detail and expanse. So, if it’s a matter of the universe, the sheer breadth of their respective fantastical worlds, Tolkien definitely trumps Martin.
But some readers argue that Martin’s character development is much stronger than Tolkien’s. While in the Tolkien-verse characters are essentially good or bad, in Martin’s the characters are multi-faceted with shades of grey. Martin has questioned Tolkien’s portrayal of power and treatment of war and his supposed broad brush strokes over these subjects.
Tolkien’s influence on the actual universe though is incomparable. He is the "father" of the modern epic fantasy genre. His influence extends to music too, as referred to in the rap battle, and goes beyond Led Zeppelin. Below, Leonard Nimoy – Spock from Star Trek – chronicles Bilbo Baggins' story:
Reddit and Quora threads offer detailed lists comparing the two works on subjects like plot, character development, realism, religion, history, etc. Tolkien’s world is entirely fantastical, and essentially a battle of good versus evil. While both authors borrow from history, Tolkien is influenced by the Anglo-Saxon fantasy literature of Beowulf and Arthurian legends.
Martin’s work, though, is fantasy grounded in real historical events. His world is a political, Machiavellian one. Honour gets characters killed, and the great game is “scary”, where you either win or you die. While Tolkien's good guys rarely perish, Martin offers no such assurance, known as he is for killing off the most likeable of his characters.
The tweet below, though not from the real Martin, captures what fans of the show have come to anticipate from him.