George R.R. Martin On 'The Lord Of The Rings', Whether Tolkien Would Have Liked His Work, And One Big Regret [Interview]

Last night in Los Angeles, A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin moderated a Q&A after a special screening of Tolkien, the biopic about the author behind The Lord of the Rings. You can watch that entire Q&A here if you're interested, but before the film began, I had the opportunity to speak with Martin about reading Tolkien's work, how Tolkien impacted his own writing, and one of Martin's big regrets.

/Film doesn't typically participate in red carpet interviews, but we gladly made an exception for the chance to speak with one of the most successful fantasists of all time. Here's the transcription of our brief conversation:

I know that Gandalf's surprise death in The Lord of the Rings had a really big impact on you as a storyteller.

It did.

Can you talk a little bit about that, and if there are any other specific things from Tolkien's body of work that influenced you?

Yeah, a number of things. First of all, he really created the genre that we call fantasy today. Of course, fantasy goes back hundreds of years. You can go back to Greek myths and things like that, and certainly Spenser and The Faerie Queen, the work of William Morris, The Well at World's End, E.R. Eddison, Lord Dunsany – all great writers in their own way. But Tolkien created a whole new template that not only me, but every modern fantasist is following.

But yeah, specifically, I was reading The Fellowship of the Ring at the age of twelve or thirteen, and when you get to the scene where Gandalf and the Balrog go plunging into the pit, it was shocking. It was a punch in the gut, you know? Gandalf was the guy who had all the answers. He was the most powerful. It was a template, like the father dies and now the children are on their own. OK, so the children in this case included not only the hobbits, but some pretty studly characters like Aragorn and Boromir, but still – without Gandalf, how the hell could they possibly make it? That was so shocking. It really set me up with the belief that everything that followed was so much more suspenseful, because I thought, 'Well, anybody can die. Who's going to die next?' There was a period, of course, where you think that Frodo has died, where he gets stung by Shelob and Sam takes the ring. 'Oh my God, he killed Frodo! Not only did he kill Gandalf, but he killed Frodo?' Then of course Boromir dies, and you never know who's going to die next. It makes it so much more suspenseful.

I've heard you address the comparisons between you and Tolkien and explain that you're very different writers with very different interests. I especially appreciate your comments about what it actually means for Aragorn to be a wise ruler.

But do you think the world would have embraced Tolkien's stories the way they did at the time if he had explored some of those deeper issues, or do you think the relative simplicity was essential to his success?

Well, Tolkien was very interested in myth. He said he was creating The Lord of the Rings as a myth for Britain, so in the context of a mythological setup, I don't think it really would have been appropriate for him to write a book about Aragorn's reign and his challenges. But I am very different, and I'm not Tolkien. I'm writing many years later and I come from a different place. Although yes, Tolkien was a gigantic influence on me, but he was not the only influence on me. I was also reading a lot of historical fiction and a lot of history about some of the actual rulers in the Middle Ages. I had things that I wanted to say that were not the same things that Tolkien says.

This is part of the whole tradition of literature. You look at not only fantasy, but English literature in general, and you see over the generations, over the decades, over the centuries, the writers are talking to each other. They're replying to each other. They're in a dialogue.

That's gotta be a cool feeling, to be in that dialogue.

It is. It is. I wish I'd actually had a dialogue with Tolkien. When I was that thirteen year old kid, I was so impressed by his book that I thought for a while about writing him a fan letter, but then I never did. I said, 'I don't know his address, it'll never get to him. What would I say? I'm just some kid.' And then many years later, when I was reading biographies about him, I found out that he replied to many of his fan letters, and tried to reply to all of them in the beginning. It's really made me regret that I never wrote that fan letter, or I might have gotten a letter back from Tolkien, and that would have been incredible. Because I have no idea whether Tolkien would have liked my work. I suspect he probably might not have, because it's of a very different generation and sensibility than his stuff.


As you might imagine, red carpets are not the ideal environments for interviews, with the talent being herded down a seemingly endless line of reporters and photographers, and I've had plenty of experiences where people just want to be done with that experience as quickly as possible. Martin, however, was totally engaged, gave thoughtful answers, and seemed to be willing to talk forever (at least until a handler shuffled him on to the next person). Anyway, if you were interested enough in Martin to read the interview, I figured you might want a better picture of what the man himself was like in that moment.

Tolkien hits theaters on May 10, 2019.