Writing for The Boston Globe shortly after the second The Hobbit movie installment came out, Ed Power claims that seeing J. R. R. Tolkien as the model for the fantasy genre “makes it all too easy for those new to these fantastical worlds to assume Tolkien’s prudishness, his sometimes archaic prose, and his Boy Scout characters are failings not of one man stooped over a desk in postwar Britain, but of all fantasy—for all time.”
George R. R. Martin, author of the saga A Song of Ice and Fire upon which the Game of Thrones series is based, seems to agree with him. Though he admires Tolkien, he doesn’t feel he should be the model for all fantasy. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, he said, “The war that Tolkien wrote about was a war for the fate of civilization and the future of humanity, and that’s become the template. I’m not sure that it’s a good template, though…There’s only a few wars that are really worth what they cost.”
Power states that Tolkien’s characters are “Boy Scout characters,” claiming that “his high-handed purity and saintly protagonists may define fantasy in the popular imagination [but] the real strengths of modern fantasy…are qualities that come from other sources entirely.” He claims that American fantasy magazines (some of which Martin himself read when growing up) are the sources from which today’s fantasy works are most significantly influenced, writing that “The moral ambivalence of those American fantasy magazines—and of the world we actually inhabit—is largely absent [from Tolkien’s fiction].”
I’m not sure why Powers feels that Tolkien’s characters are “saintly” when many of them struggle with what should be done with the Ring of Power, and Boromir ultimately causes the Fellowship to fall apart through his desire to take the ring from Frodo. Martin defends Tolkien in this respect, saying that “There are some people who read and want to believe in a world where the good guys win and the bad guys lose, and at the end they live happily ever after. That’s not the kind of fiction that I write. Tolkien was not that. The scouring of the Shire proved that.” He said the ending was bittersweet, showing the cost of war, but he admits that Tolkien didn’t touch on the difficulties real-life kings face when ruling. Once Aragorn is king, we hear nothing of how he handled taxation, or eliminating the remaining orcs, or any other matter pertaining to his policies as king.
Power says, “There is good and evil in Tolkien and very little between,” and Martin seems to agree with Power that moral ambiguity should be part of fantasy stories. He says, “Men are still capable of great heroism. But I don’t necessarily think there are heroes. That’s something that’s very much in my books: I believe in great characters, because I think we are great characters. We’re all capable of doing great things, and of doing bad things.”
But I think we still need heroes—people who are good and who have such moral convictions that they do the right thing because it is right, even if it costs them…even if they make mistakes while trying to do what’s right. Perhaps we’ve had too many heroes fail us: our sports heroes have failed us by cheating, our political heroes have failed us by lying, our religious heroes have betrayed us by harming the very people they were appointed to serve, and our modern mindset seems to agree with Martin that heroes simply don’t exist. But if we don’t have heroes, how are we to learn to be any better than ourselves?
Heroes are the people we would be proud to know and the people we would like to become. They give us an example, an inspiration, and without them, we are left with only our own moral compass to guide us. Our heroes should not be followed blindly, for they are human and do make mistakes, but their strivings against their own selfishness, their own ambitions, help encourage us to do the same. In The Lord of the Rings, we see Frodo struggle with the temptation of the Ring, succumbing for a moment but ultimately resisting and managing to come back from the brink, quite literally. We see Sam struggle against his weariness and the hopelessness of their task to gain encouragement from above, from the beauty of the stars as they shine down upon him, untouched by Sauron’s evil.
And Tolkien isn’t the only one who has heroes. In her own way, Fanny Price is a hero in Mansfield Park, striving to hide her love for Edmund Bertram and to not hurt him by pointing out the faults of the woman he loves, even though such an action would theoretically help her cause. Elizabeth Bennett is a hero when she has the open-mindedness to realize that she was wrong about Mr. Darcy’s character, and Emma is a hero when she decides to hear what Mr. Knightley has to say to her, even when she is convinced that he is going to tell her of his feelings for Harriet Smith.
To say that these characters are just people who made good choices is to lessen their impact. Villains can make good choices—choices that help people, that save people, that in a specific moment carry them outside themselves—but if those actions don’t permanently touch their hearts, they do not change and do not cease to be villains, just as heroes who falter and make mistakes are not instantly villains.
Heroes are men and women with strong convictions who make doing the right thing and living out those convictions their goal, just as villains are those who have strong ambitions and make achieving those ambitions their goal at any cost. We can be heroes, we can be villains, or we can be ambiguously undecided, fluctuating between the two, but our current lack of heroes—or lack of heroes who choose to keep living heroically in the face of selfishness and greed—doesn’t mean that heroes can no longer exist.
Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren