Epic Fantasy and Breaking the Rules of Infrastructure in the Interest of Speed

One freezing Boxing Day, my kids and I watched the extended editions of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy in sequence, with bonus material (how the armor and swords were made, cast hijinks, CGI amazingness) added in as needed. Our marathon lasted over 16 hours. It was delightful. We emerged woozy and satisfied, like (weed-free) Pippin and Merry at the ruins of Isengard.

One detail bothered me, though. Why is there no road to the mighty fortress-city of Minas Tirith in either the books or the movie? Gandalf’s initial approach reveals a broad plain and the menacing flames of Mordor in the distance. Faramir returns—then is dragged back—over browned grass…but not on a road. The same is true of Edoras, seat of the Horse Lords. No road. Some maps show roads but they are mostly absent from the actual text or the films.

Think quickly: what roads do you remember from Lord of the Rings (books or movie)? I came up with those located in The Shire, exiting Rivendell, through the depths of Moria, and the fell ways of Mordor. The Shire is positively thick with roads, a veritable Middle-earthian suburb: the Bywater Road and its inn, the Ivy Bush, Bagshot Row, the road Gandalf travels to reach Hobbiton for Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday. Under Aragon’s leadership, the hobbits purposefully stay off the roads, to avoid Black Riders.

Then—very few roads. At first glance, this makes no sense in terms of worldbuilding. Densely populated cities need roads, to bring in supplies. Every civilization Tolkien turned to for inspiration had not only roads, but money, markets, trade routes, functioning mines and communications systems that went beyond the beacons used to spread word of an emergency, to name just a few elements. In other words, infrastructure, the physical and contractual bones of any functioning society. For the most part, the books skip over these elements but for a few “silver pennies” exchanged at Bree and the feeling, throughout the story, that money breeds only greed.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s sketch of Minas Tirith

What the story emphasizes, in abundance, are the things Tolkien loved: landscape, song, and language. Above all of these are the heroes who drive the story, starting with Aragorn. He stands up to the challenge at Helm’s Deep and when it’s time to save the world, he triumphs on the (pathless) plain at Mordor’s gates.

But his strong-jawed prowess is not what brings new generations of readers and viewers to the tale. Tolkien’s real heroes are the (sometimes literally) little people who keep stepping up to be better than they imagined themselves to be: the hobbits, of course, the shield maiden Eowyn, and Faramir, who proves himself stronger than his elder brother. Tolkien was less concerned with realism than he was with refashioning legend, to highlight the role all of us can play in challenging evil and doing the right thing.

I’ve read the trilogy dozens of times, finding in it different things at different moments. Recently, I skipped over the battles and relished Tolkien’s masterful method of using landscape as a way of building an idealized, wondrous world. Yet it is a landscape without function—beautiful as wilderness, but not as peopled, cultivated land.

Contrast Tolkien’s hero-centric, roadless approach to A Song of Ice and Fire, an epic that owes much to Middle-earth, yet uses infrastructure quite deliberately and to great effect. In both George R. R. Martin’s sprawling tale and HBO’s interpretation of the books, infrastructure is practically a lead character, at the root of every conflict.

[Spoiler warning: The remainder of this article mentions several developments in the most recent episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones, “Beyond the Wall.”]

Do you need to get somewhere? Beware of the bridge at the Twins, held by the money-grubbing Freys. If you plan to make a play for the Iron Throne, you’d better have paid your debts, Lannister-style, to the Iron Bank of Braavos. Troop strength, soldier training, and weapons technology matter as various rival factions scheme for domination. Pace the Valryian steel and magic, but viewers can imagine at some level what it’s like to live in Westeros, with its spoiled food, rutted roads, and entrenched class system, where the wealthy battle over power while the innumerable peasantry suffers and dies. Costume designer Michele Clapton, in a talk delivered at The Getty Museum, said, “I want the audience to almost smell the costumes,” a reflection of the trilogy and show’s premium on realism.

In The Lord of the Rings, the ultimate hope for humanity lies in the destruction of a black magic ring; in Westeros, hope rests largely on the structural integrity of an ice wall.

The emphasis on infrastructure undergirds another key difference between these works of fantasy. George R. R. Martin isn’t interested, ultimately, in heroes, but in complexities—the villain and the hero inhabiting the same corporal space. There’s Tyrion, whose small stature evokes the hobbit theme (but with a lot more in the way of political acumen and a capacity for patricidal violence). One of my favorites is Jaime. His love for his twin and growing realization that Cersei will do anything to hold onto power is one of the series’ most wrenching threads. Dany now has weapons of mass destruction, but so does (after Season 7’s penultimate episode) the Night King. The Targaryen queen’s dilemma—to use her army and dragons indiscriminately or try the slower, more frustrating yet less lethal path of diplomacy—is one of the key tensions of the show.

I’m not an enthusiastic reader of most epic fantasy post-Tolkien, since those stories tend to be all magic and little reality. It almost seems like cheating and drains the tension from the tale. Rules actually tighten the narrative stakes, make us pay attention. We can watch a melee only so long. We need to know whose life is at stake, how they’ll manage the threats against them, how banging against the rule will change them. This is where fantasy can powerfully connect to real life. We may never face an army of screaming wights, but we grit our teeth—or sigh in relief—as the Hound lets his fear overtake him, then rallies to save a comrade.

Hard science fiction often swings to the opposite extreme: all infrastructure and little to no human emotion, which is equally off-putting to me. I read widely in the middle of those two extremes, entranced with the wild worldbuilding of masters like David Brin and Robin Hobb and eager for boundary pushers in infrastructure like China Miéville and Octavia Butler.

Some Game of Thrones superfans are howling now that show runners and writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are racing to conclude the season to the series’ detriment. I admit I’m with them, concerned that in the interest of wrapping up, the show is erasing exactly what makes it so thrilling. Characters now cross the Seven Kingdoms with head-spinning speed to forward the plot. Yet when it really matters, they’re stuck in the equivalent of Gendry’s epic row across the Narrow Sea. For example, if Dany is so smitten with the doe-eyed Jon Snow, why didn’t she just fly Drogon with the Magnificent Seven on board North of the Wall, fry the Night King and his wights, then turn her violet eyes on Cersei?

There’s no negotiating with overwhelming force.

Under all these complaints is a single culprit: breaking the pre-established rules of believable infrastructure in the interest of speed.

With his deep investment in the hero trope, Tolkien had more latitude for these moments of deus ex machina. We really don’t know (or care) why Sauron wants Middle-earth in darkness. He’s BAD. And we don’t worry about Aragorn gaining total control of Middle-earth—or how he’ll fund the rebuilding of his kingdom. He is GOOD. Tolkien himself coined the term “eucatastrophe” by connecting the Greek prefix eu, meaning “good,” to catastrophe. The term means the sudden and unexpected climax of a story that ensures that good triumphs. It’s like a bolt from the sky, a religious miracle; in his case, the incredibly convenient and unexplained intervention of eagles at key moments.

In terms of the storytelling, no one choice is necessarily better than another. But once the choice is made, the writer at her peril violates the rules of the world she’s built. Indeed, it’s the digging into those established rules that results in the most gripping, effective stories. In terms of authentic human travails, only Denethor and his sons provide us with real tension in Tolkien’s saga. I never really doubt that Aragorn will make the right choice. He is good. But Boromir and Faramir authentically struggle when they feel the power of the Ring, and that drama is compelling.

I think the least effective parts of Game of Thrones have to do with magic. Sure, the demon smoke baby finished off Renly Baratheon way back in the Triassic period of the story. But is that the scene that sticks with you? My personal favorite is the painfully raw exchange between Jaime and Brienne in the baths. There, the Kingslayer finally reveals himself as broken. Brienne, not a touchy-feely person, reaches out to him in human fellowship.

Their encounter is deeply rooted in character and in the elements of infrastructure underlying Martin’s detailed, gritty worldbuilding that cost Jaime his hand and Brienne her freedom. The two are captured because Brienne is forced to choose between attempting a perilous river crossing or using a more exposed stone bridge. No elf will save them or elven cloak hide them. Disastrously, Brienne chooses the bridge. After she frustrates Jaime’s escape attempt, the Bolton’s henchman, Locke, strikes. As a viewer, I was aghast and riveted, knowing full well that Locke’s resentment of a privileged cad like Jaime Lannister— and his hatred of women, long nurtured by the Boltons—augured no good for two of my favorite characters.

Martin and HBO then mined this toxic stew to extract a jewel of a moment, when these two unlikely figures connect emotionally in a surprising, deeply moving way. I’ve watched the scene a dozen times. Every time, my breath catches when, having collapsed into Brienne’s arms and utterly unprotected, the Kingslayer asks her to use his given name, Jaime.

I’d trade all of the Brotherhood’s ridiculous flaming swords for one more moment like that.

Robin Kirk is at work on a speculative trilogy with absolutely no magic.  She teaches human rights at Duke University.

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