Gandalf the Grey, the wise old wizard in J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendary fantasy series The Lord of the Rings, knows a thing or two about death. ”Many that live deserve death,” he tells the Hobbit Frodo. “And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them?”
For a 13-year-old boy named George R.R. Martin, the answer to Gandalf’s question was a resounding “yes.” The A Song of Ice and Fire writer went on to dole out death—lots of it.
Martin kills off major characters with little respite, imbuing both his best-selling fantasy series and the TV show based on them—HBO’s Game of Thrones—with an unending sense of dread. Anyone, including and especially your favorite characters, can die.
What makes Martin such a cold-hearted overseer of his fantasy world? Now we know. Gandalf made him this way.
In the middle of the first Lord of the Rings novel, The Fellowship of the Ring, shortly after his pronouncement on death to Frodo, Gandalf dies.
“I can’t explain the impact that had on me at 13,” Martin said in a recent interview with PBS. “You can’t kill Gandalf. I mean, Conan didn’t die in the Conan books. Tolkien just broke that rule, and I’ll love him forever for it.”
As well as shaking the teenage Martin up as a reader, the shocking death planted a seed for him as a writer. “The minute you kill Gandalf, the suspense of everything that follows is a thousand times greater,” he explained on the PBS series The Great American Read. “Now anybody could die.”
Gandalf’s death, of course, doesn’t last long. He returns in Tolkien’s second novel of the series, The Two Towers, in an even more powerful form: Gandalf the White. (Gandalf, like all the wizards in Tolkien’s universe, is actually one of the “Maiar,” immortal spirits who can take human form.)
And Martin also took this second lesson from Tolkien: Dead characters don’t always have to stay dead. Jon Snow, a fan favorite, is killed and then quickly resurrected. In the books, Catelyn Stark is brutally murdered and then brought back to life before going on a revenge spree against the people who orchestrated her death. (The TV series instead folds that plot line into the story of her daughter, Arya Stark.)
Martin isn’t the only one to use this device. Transient deaths are hugely popular in comics as well, as publishers have learned that deaths and resurrections sell a lot of books.
One big difference between the two fantasy authors is that Tolkien finished his series, while Martin has yet to do so, to the consternation of his rabid fans. Perhaps he’s not as comfortable ending his story as he is the lives of his characters.