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Approaching Contemporary Fantasy: An insight into the fantasy styles and theory of J.R.R Tolkien and George R.R. Martin

Reátegui-Vásquez, Ramón (2015) Approaching Contemporary Fantasy: An insight into the fantasy styles and theory of J.R.R Tolkien and George R.R. Martin. Honours thesis, Murdoch University.

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The main aim of my thesis is to explore and define the characteristic styles of the contemporary fantasy story’s narrative structure, primarily by focusing on the works of both J.R.R Tolkien, also acknowledged as the father of the modern fantasy genre, writer of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, published after his death and a more contemporary fantasy author, George R.R Martin, writer of the A Song of Ice and Fire series. I am interested in their narrative structure and approach to the fantasy genre, the similarities and the dire contrast between them, how Martin took the foundation of what Tolkien designed and how he has expanded upon it to create a more contemporary perspective to the genre. I aim to focus and expand upon Tolkien’s own theory of sub-creation, in which he argues that the crucial feature of fantasy should be the creation of what he called secondary belief. I argue that Martin also adopts this approach, but brings a greater level of reality to his creation, seeing Tolkien’s depiction of his world and its politics as being too naïve and lacking complexity. Martin explores issues of power and gender in his work which gives his own ‘sub-creation’ a more recognizable contemporary texture. In my own work, offered as part of this thesis, I have tried to adopt the best of both approaches within my own narrative, For Glory.

J.R.R Tolkien always held a strong fascination with fairy tales, where they originated and how they eventually developed into the fantasy genre we all know so well. He marked their relationship with myths, leading him to investigate the well-known but conflicting theories of Max Muhller and an opposing theorist Andrew Lang, who sought to categorise fairy tales and their place within literature. However after examining both Muhller’s Solar theory and Langs anthropological theory, Tolkien found that he did not agree with either theory, leading to him developing his own theory about myths and fairy tales, arguing that they were the direct result of what people knew about the world around them and the human imagination. Tolkien could not stress enough how important the human imagination was, he went on to base his sub-creation theory mostly upon this, developing it during his time writing The Hobbit and finalising it as he wrote The Lord of the Rings. This in turn led to the development of his Sub-Creation theory, which is expanded upon in Tolkien’s World by Randel Helms. Tolkien sought to transport his readers into a world which they could visualise and believe without suspending disbelief, a world full of many magical creatures and monsters that were mainly influenced by Tolkien’s fascination with Nordic mythology.

The Lord of the Rings and his other works set the tone for the next generation of fantasy writers, many embracing the structure of Middle Earth and creating similar worlds. George R.R Martin, author of The Song of Ice and Fire series, was no exception to this; like many fantasy writers that followed in Tolkien’s footsteps, he went on to create Westeros, a world also set in medieval times, loosely based upon the historical War of the Roses. Martin decided that Tolkien, despite his success in creating a rich, magical and detailed medieval world of Middle Earth, had nonetheless ushered in many other fantasy writes that followed too mechanically, with character types such as Dark Lords being over used. He decided that Tolkien had diluted the trappings of power too much, as he never went into depth into the political arena and what it means to rule. Martin made sure to clearly illustrate that within Westeros, political machinations were rife, as each House strives to outplay the other and one has to watch one’s step or get killed in a moment of weakness. Also instead of a central quest, the characters within Martin’s world spend most of their time separated from one another, scattered across Westeros and beyond, where they would all undergo their own personal journeys, sometimes crossing paths but never gathering together to complete a certain task. After expanding upon the finer points of the styles and structures that J.R. R Tolkien and George R.R Martin applied within their narratives, the thesis will then outline which factors make up a successful fantasy story, factors that I applied to my own fantasy story, For Glory.

Item Type: Thesis (Honours)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Arts
Supervisor(s): Moody, David
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