The New Tolkien
OK, something I have been thinking about for a while now … What does it mean to say that George R. R. Martin is the new Tolkien?
I was told this in the autumn, but it goes back a bit further. And it has nothing to do with Martin, not relly, except it kind of does. Before I try to make sense of that, let me quote what a friend of mine, Aidan-Paul Canavan, wrote in The New York Review of Science Fiction:
“George R. R. Martin is single-handedly saving the fantasy genre” – a statement I have heard recently on more than one occasion. I suppose one could have predicted such a sentiment, considering the current HBO adaptation of A Game of Thrones (and the announcement of a second season adapting A Clash of Kings next year) and the expectation associated with the release of A Dance with Dragons. Nevertheless, this bald statement presupposes a) that fantasy needs saving, and b) that Martin is the one doing it.
A. P. raises two interesting points, points which he discusses with his inimitable flair. Personally, I find the implications of point one more than enough for a long discussion without also having to figure out who should do the actual saving. From what does the genre have to be saved? Too many readers or too few? Too much experimenting, or too little? And how does one save a genre from anything like that? Anyway, I had been thinking about things like that for a while, when an even more interesting comment came my way, also involving Martin, except he wasn’t the real point. (Oh, I’m sure he was the point to the person making the comment, but that’s beside my point, at least.)
I am not a fan of GRRM. Life is too short for long series, or at least too short for long series that are unfinished. When I have to wait a year or more for the next book, I forget the plot threads and the characters. So as long as I have a choice, I wait until a series is finished before picking it up, nowadays. (There are exceptions. They are few.) Thus, I also find it difficult with statements regarding the value of a series of books which is still unfinished. Having read A .P.’s piece, however, I was not really surprised to be told that Martin was the new Tolkien. Still, not having read him, I couldn’t quite argue about it. (I did anyway, though, just for the sake of it.) There was one thing that annoyed me, though, and the more I think about it, the less certain am I that I understand what ”the new Tolkien” means.
Tolkien was a good many things, both as a person and as a fantasy author. He was a brilliant academic who revolutionised Beowulf scholarship. He provided a foundation for fantasy theory. He took fifteen years to write a sequel. His great fantasy work (yes, I mean The Lord of the Rings) set a new standard for what writing fantasy was all about, even caused us to see the genre as a genre. And so on and so forth … Now, when we say that someone is the new Tolkien, what in particular do we refer to? All of the above, some of the above … any of the above?
I know widespread popularity is the most obvious answer. Martin, especially with the Game of Thrones TV series so far a success, is widely popular even outside the traditional circles of fantasy readers. But so is J. K. Rowling – perhaps even more than Martin. Still, I haven’t heard her being called ”the new Tolkien”. Is that because Martin, like Tolkien, writes in a secondary world? A writer becomes a ”Tolkien” (that’s what’s implied by someone being the new Tolkien, surely – if we have an old Tolkien and a new Tolkien, there might come even more Tolkiens along, or might even have come along already) by being popular despite writing in a world unlike our own.
But Tolkien became popular by creating something new – or at least present the old in a new way. His popularity came from what was different in his work. I think that’s what I would ask of a new Tolkien: that s/he has come up with something radically new, presented it well, and (thus) become very popular – and through this effected a change in how fantasy works. A new paradigm, if you like. So far, no writer has managed to fulfill all those criteria; not Rowling, not Martin, not anyone. Some how come close, of course. Many writers have wrought great changes, some are excellent presenters, a few are very popular, but I’m still waiting for that paradigmatic change.
Maybe it will never come. Maybe the genre will only change in small steps, one little bit at the time. Maybe there is a resistance to any major changes. Maybe we will never have a new Tolkien, only a number of popular fantasy writers, of which Martin is but one.
Well, I guess I can live with that.