The Heroic Epic in an Age of Television

Last night, after watching the recent trailer for The Hobbit, my mind wandered to the other fantasy epic that I really care about, Game of Thrones. It struck me that enjoying The Hobbit will require extricating myself from the mindset that I have built up from reading and watching Game of Thrones over the past year: that the best story is a realistic story, and that the best character is one painted in grey.

The style of J.R.R. Tolkien is notably different from G.R.R. Martin’s in this regard. Tolkien engages in Manichaean, good-or-evil storytelling in which protagonists of the greatest virtue (Aragorn, Gandalf, Frodo) face off against antagonists of the greatest evil (Sauron, and even Saruman turns out to have been a baddie from the start). There is little to none of the ambiguity found in Martin’s characters, the only exceptions being Boromir and Gollum, although in both of these cases the ambiguity comes from an external influence (the Ring) rather than any internal flaw that would have come out on its own. Tolkien’s goal was not to create a Middle Earth couched in Machiavellian realism, but instead to create a fantasy in the style of a Norse heroic epic. (It worked.)

This opposition between heroic epic and realist epic in popular culture is not confined to the fantasy genre. You find a similar division in science fiction between the heroic, captain-based, relatively unsubtle moral story-telling of High Star Trek (TOS & TNG) and the high-context, morally ambiguous Low Star Trek (DS9) and its intellectual cousin, Battlestar Galactica. Like fantasy, both sets of show are enjoyable, but you need to be in the right mindset for each. You can’t enjoy TNG on DS9’s terms, and vice versa.

Fantasy and sci-fi are in many respects two sides of the same literary coin. What might be surprising is that this division between heroic epic and realist epic is not confined to that genre, but can be found in many other respects. For example, in the realm of political story-telling, the work of Aaron Sorkin, particularly with West Wing, falls into the heroic category. While the show did delve into some areas of moral ambiguity with its War on Terror story lines in its later seasons, for most of its run, and certainly during the Sorkin years, the domestic political story lines were portrayed with virtuous Bartlet administration officials pitted against cartoonish Republican villains. West Wing made a statement that politics could be a noble art, or, as the White House Communications Director, Toby Ziegler, put it in one speech, “a place where people come together.”

Contrast West Wing with Ziegler’s equivalent in the BBC series The Thick of It. In that series, the Prime Minister’s communications director and “enforcer”, Malcolm Tucker, is a crass and profane spin doctor who routinely manipulates junior political figures, to no apparent ideological or policy purpose. Tucker’s goal, as he maneuvers his incompetent colleagues like chess pieces, is simply to stay in power. In a matter of art imitating art, recent episodes in season four have even specifically referenced Game of Thrones as an obsession of one of the lower-ranking flunkies who seeks to match Tucker at his game. The Thick of It is an exercise in realist epic, the anti-West Wing in political drama.

What is so interesting is not that heroic epic and realist epic continue to exist, but that they perform so well commercially and critically. It suggests that the public craves both kinds of story-telling, and just as importantly has the capacity to switch from one kind of story to the other. Significance? That rather than reality-show-obsessed masses asking to be condescended to, there is a broad public audience hungry for intellectually engaging drama and capable of appreciating it in various forms.


About Daniel Clinkman

I recently completed my PhD in History at the University of Edinburgh. My academic interest is in the transition from feudalism to liberalism in early modern Britain and its empire. My non-academic interests include public policy, political thought, international politics, social institutions, and travel. I grew up near Boston before attending the American University in Washington, DC. I now live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow me @dclinkman on Twitter.
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