On A Song of Ice and Fire

The Brutal Cost of Redemption in Westeros

Or, What Moral Ambiguity?

By Susan Vaught

In his essay “Epic Pooh,” Michael Moorcock postulates that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy barely rises above nursery-room prose that “tells you comforting lies.” Moorcock describes the epic as an anti-romance, laced with the author’s Christian belief system to the point that faith is substituted for artistic rigor. Tolkien’s peasants serve as a “bulwark against Chaos [. . .]. They don’t ask any questions of white men in grey clothing who somehow have a handle on what’s best for us.” James L. Sutter furthers this idea in his November 2011 guest essay at Suvudu entitled “The Gray Zone: Moral Ambiguity in Fantasy,” noting that The Lord of the Rings has a fairy-tale simplicity, drawing on good and evil archetypes so stark that all the characters can easily be sorted into the boring categories of obviously “good” or irrefutably “bad.”

Sutter raises George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire as a contrast, proclaiming that Martin demonstrates one antidote to the boring good/evil clarity of Tolkien, which is to “remove the boundaries altogether [. . .]. Few of his characters are unimpeachably good or irredeemably evil.” This description is right in line with those offered by other commentators. Heather Havrilesky, in her 2011 New York Times review of the HBO adaptation of Martin’s epic, terms the tale “hedonistic and bleak,” and hints that it embodies a nihilistic worldview. Sutter goes even further. He notes that the series has a “lack of moralistic signposts.” Like many readers and critics, he  …

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