George R.R. Martin explains what he borrowed from J.R.R. Tolkien


A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin has always been up front about the debt his work owes to the hugely influential The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R .Tolkien. Martin recently talked that connection after a screening of a new biopic about Tolkien’s life, called…TolkienIGN was there to cover it.

First up, Martin discusses the nature of magic in both stories:

"When I started writing Game of Thrones, one of the things I did was to look at Lord of the Rings and see what Tolkien did and tried to take some lessons from it. A big lesson was his handling of magic. You know, I think a lot of epic fantasy has too much magic. But Middle-earth is suffused with a sense of magic, it’s always on the peripheral and it’s used to set the stage. Gandalf is a wizard, but when Orcs attack, he draws a sword and fights them. He doesn’t just magically disappear them away, like what happens in so many other stories."

Indeed, in Martin’s work, even obviously magical characters like Melisandre can’t just wave their hands and kill their enemies. “I knew I wanted magic in Westeros but to keep it in the background,” Martin continued. “Keep it low-key and mysterious. It’s not like a fake science where you mix so much batwing and so much virgin blood and you get something magic, it’s not a cookbook. It’s knowledge.”

Martin also says that he was influenced by the way Tolkien framed the narrative structure of his trilogy:

"The structure was very influential on Game of Thrones. If you look at the structure of Lord of the Rings, it all begins in the Shire and it’s very small. And then it gets bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. The Fellowship starts together with the four Hobbits and then they pick up Strider — Aragorn — and then they get to Rivendell where they pick up more people. And for awhile they’re together, but then later in the books they split apart, they separate from the two groups. Now if you look at Game of Thrones, everybody except Dany starts out in Winterfell, then certain things drive them apart, and then they’re scattered all over the world."

In his books, the characters are still largely apart. On TV, most of them have long since come together.

Of course, Martin and Tolkien are different authors with different strengths and weaknesses. “Language is one of the defining characteristics of his work, and he (Tolkien) set a very high bar for all of us other fantasists,” Martin said.

"He invented entire languages, I just fake it. When I sold Game of Thrones to HBO, they said, ‘There are entire scenes here in Dothraki. Can you send us your Dothraki book and syntax and rules?’ Tolkien would have responded promptly with a gigantic thing…whereas I had to say, ‘I invented like eight words.’"

Happily, conlanger David J. Peterson was on hand to pick up the slack for HBO.

The other big difference at the moment: Tolkien finished his sprawling trilogy, while Martin is still working towards the end of his story, with five books under his belt. He didn’t shine much light on his planned writing schedule, saying only that he is “working on one.”

Did Martin learn anything from Tolkien about completing a huge story? “We’ll have to see,” Martin said. “Though the show is finishing, my books are not finishing… yet! But hopefully they will, and hopefully people will like how they finish.”


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