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“Game of Thrones” ends as it began, inferior to “The Lord of the Rings”

game of thrones finale
Less than meets the eye.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

If the Game of Thrones finale seemed familiar, it’s probably because large parts of it were already done better by J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson.

Thrones author George R.R. Martin has never been shy about how The Lord of the Rings influenced his still-incomplete fantasy series, on which the HBO series was based. It would be impossible not to be. Tolkien’s work—and the blockbuster film trilogy it spawned, directed by Jackson—are the seminal fantasy stories in their respective mediums. The parallels were obvious from the start: questions over the true heir to rule the kingdom, rumors of a dark power rising on the outer edges of the world, and, of course, the presence of Sean Bean.

From that point, however, both Martin’s novels and the HBO show naturally differentiated themselves from LOTR, chiefly by leaning into more adult themes, becoming the “sex, blood, and rock ‘n’ roll” version of the story. Influenced by Tolkien’s experience in World War I, LOTR was a story of war, heroism, and the quest for power. Martin explored those things too, but he was also far more interested than Tolkien ever was in the intricate machinations involved in that quest for power—the whispering, backstabbing, and lobbying that had more in common with modern politics than it did early 20th-century global conflict.

Yet when the HBO series ended last night (May 19), it went right back to the core of Tolkien, settling on a lite version of the ending that the British author published 65 years ago.

Using The Lord of the Rings as a roadmap, Vanity Fair writer Joanna Robinson predicted virtually every Thrones character’s ending in a piece published two weeks ago. Last night’s finale made those parallels even more stark:

Daenerys was Gollum

Tolkien’s story was ultimately about the corruptive nature of power—how it completely destroys those who seek it above all else. This was conveyed in the character Smeagol, a Hobbit consumed by his desire for the One Ring who turned into the grotesque, pathetic creature known best as Gollum (and performed incredibly by actor Andy Serkis in Jackson’s films). Daenerys Targaryen’s controversial turn into the Thrones‘ villain—and her demise in the finale—closely mirrored this Gollum arc.

Dany was consumed by a metal talisman (the Iron Throne), which served as a symbol for the power she thought she was always owed. Like it did for Gollum, this, of course, led to not only her own destruction but also the literal destruction of the object she so ferociously desired. Both the Iron Throne and the Ring are melted into oblivion. Both Dany and Gollum die just out of the grasp of the objects of their desire. In Jackson’s film, as Gollum is being swallowed up the lava within Mount Doom, he reaches desperately upward to the surface to hold his “precious” one last time before it disintegrates. In the Thrones finale, Dany finally gets to the Throne, and then dies mere steps from it before her dragon, Drogon, obliterates the thing in a very heavy-handed visual metaphor.

Arya sails “into the West”

At the end of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo sails west to Valinor, “the Undying Lands,” where he might find peace after the physical and psychological toll of being a Ringbearer. It is a deeply bittersweet ending for one of Tolkien’s heroes: Frodo wins the rest he deserves, but it is a rest that he and he alone can experience. His friends can’t come with. (OK, Samwise Gamgee gets to go much later, but Merry and Pippin don’t ever see Frodo again).

Arya Stark’s ending is very much the same. Tired of the whole game of thrones, Arya decides to pack her things and sail west to discover what lies beyond Westeros. (Has nobody ever tried doing that?) It goes unsaid that her family—Sansa, Jon, and Bran—may never see her again. She is off on a new adventure, one she must take alone.

Jon Snow’s ending is quite Frodoesque as well. He retreats to the North—the true North, beyond the wall—to begin a new life, in the place where he’s always felt that he’s belonged. Like Frodo, Jon was always an unwitting hero. The weight of the world was thrust upon him, and he, bastard son of Ned Stark, did the best that he could. Snow was Martin’s version of the everyman hero—the ordinary person who can do great things when called upon. While we eventually find out Snow was actually much more than ordinary, at the end he becomes Snow once again—anonymous, but this time reborn, a lone wolf leaving the perils of Westeros behind him. And his family assembles at a serene dock to see him off.

“A Song of Ice and Fire” provides a recap

Fans predicted this plot development years ago—that Martin’s book series would exist within the world of the TV show, written by a character recapping the previous eight seasons. In the finale, Samwell Tarly presents a book, “A Song of Ice and Fire,” essentially an outline of everything that we’ve seen happen on the HBO series. Fans thought the author might be Sam himself, and while he remarked that he “helped with the title,” the book’s author was in fact Archmaester Ebrose, Sam’s former boss at the Citadel.

This happened in The Lord of the Rings, too. Bilbo and Frodo both write memoirs recounting their experiences in the story; Frodo’s calls a section of his “The Lord of the Rings” before passing it onto Samwise Gamgee to finish.

There were numerous more parallels in the last few episodes: The Battle of Winterfell was clearly indebted to The Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers. Tyrion Lannister choosing to release a prisoner (his brother, Jaime) despite the knowledge that it would likely cost him his life was akin to what Faramir did for Frodo and Sam. And that’s still to say nothing of the obvious Samwell-Samwise similarities—Martin could barely even be bothered to change the name.

So if you were disappointed by the Game of Thrones TV finale, it’s probably time to read Tolkien’s books and watch Jackson’s movies. The Lord of the Rings depicted more fulfilling character arcs in nine hours than what Game of Thrones could muster in more than 70.

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