The Question of Simplistic Morals in Epic Fantasy

What’s one of the key differences between J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire?

Nope, I don’t mean the treatment of dragons. I’m not thinking of dwarves. And no, I’m not referring to uses of the word “fucking.” I think the key difference between these two giants of the genre is their treatment of morals.

The Lord of the Rings has clearly defined sides: The Fellowship is good. Sauron is evil. Though some characters switch sides (most notably Saruman), it’s mostly obvious who you should root for and against. A Song of Ice and Fire is far less clear. The series was more or less written in response to LOTR, and one can see how: The characters in this series are morally dynamic, all of them ending up somewhere in the middle.

I’ve heard a lot of readers suggest George R.R. Martin’s approach is the better one. ASOIAF is more realistic, making Tolkien’s LOTR simplistic by comparison.

Yes, I agree. Lord of the Rings’s morals are simplistic. But I don’t think simplistic morals make for a worse story. Quite the opposite, actually.

Listen, I love both of these series. I ranked them in the top two of my fantasy power rankings. But I think there’s something to be said for Tolkien’s clearly-defined good and evil.

First of all, fiction is often about wish fulfillment. One of the most satisfying elements of a story is seeing an event reconcile itself within a truncated timeframe. Oftentimes, these are huge problems which realistically can’t be solved, at least not in the way presented. For example: a character reconciles the death of a loved one. Though this process would likely take years, fiction allows us to view this process within a few hundred pages. Wish granted.

Let’s bring this conversation back to Lord of the Rings. The wish fulfilled by the end of the novel is that all evil is vanquished. The One Ring melts into the lava, and boom. World saved. That’s a wish everyone can get behind.

Of course, we’ll likely never see a reality without evil. But fiction need not reflect the possible. Rather, it’s satisfying because it shows the impossible coming to life.

While I love A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s all too often a reminder of the world’s nastiness. If that’s what you’re into, I can see why you love it. I love it, too. But since the world is already a place filled with atrocities and death and violence, sometimes it’s nice to get away from all that in a book, rather than be reminded of it.

Sometimes the very best fiction is transportive rather than reflective. When we step into Middle-Earth, we can’t help but feel that we are elsewhere. We’re in a world where there are good people who fight for justice, where the seemingly insignificant become heroes. We get a little bit of that in Westeros, but mostly we get Red Weddings. Listen, I’m getting married soon. I don’t want to read about Red Weddings right now.

So yes, The Lord of the Rings is kind of simplistic. But sometimes, that’s what we need most.


Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living somewhere in upstate New York with his fiancee and their two cats. His stories have appeared in numerous online magazines, including Allegory, Chantwood, and Dark Fire Fiction. To stay current with Kyle’s work, subscribe to his email newsletter. He promises not to spam you.

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One thought on “The Question of Simplistic Morals in Epic Fantasy

  1. Perhaps the good vs. evil thing in LOTR is simplistic, but lurking behind that story is Tolkien’s long and troubled history of Middle Earth and the fate of the elves (which is brought out in the Silmarillion, where some of the stories are quite dark and murky). That subtext is all about how everything changes in Middle Earth, and how “fair things” pass away. Think of the Ents and the Entwives. Think of the deaths of Aragorn and Arwen (in one of the appendices to The Return of the King). And even though Sauron’s evil is ended, something like it might rise again, if those on the side of good become complacent.
    And I haven’t read Mr. Martin, I admit, so have no opinion on his works, but I agree that sometimes reading a book is an escape from harsh reality.

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