I’m not going to mince words. This post is going to talk about plot details of every season of HBO’s Game of Thrones and the three movies of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. (I’m quite shocked that Peter Jackson made the trilogy with only three movies.) So, if you’re allergic to spoilers, you should probably stay away.
I think it’s a popular thing to compare either JRR Tolkien and George RR Martin as writers or their respective works, Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire, as fantasy epics. Usually by someone who has an axe to grind.
Full disclosure: this is going to be one of those posts but I hope it’ll be slightly different. I’m not trying to prove one is better than the other but I plan on doing some comparisons. Trust me, Ned.
Before I get started, here’s a quick poll. Don’t worry, it’s not graded and there is no wrong answer.
Okay, I lied. I am grading this poll, and there is only one right answer. You are welcome to disagree with me and to express your opinions in the comments, but I hope you consider the following argument.
Orcs would totally identify with the Starks.
Sure, you might want to associate the orcs of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth with some of the more so-called “savage” or “barbaric” demographic groupings from Westeros and Essos (what’s the planet’s name, Eartheros?)
But I think that kind of pigeonholing is unfair based on our limited exposure to those fictional cultures. Besides, that’s irrelevant. I was asking who the orcs would identify with, not what convenient box we’d put them in.
The naive and cliched answer is that villains often see themselves as the heroes in their own narrative. Therefore the orcs might consider themselves the heroes, and since the Starks are the heroes in Game of Thrones, it’s a done deal, right? QED?
Actually no. Like I implied, that’s a weak argument.
Although most people who watch the show or read the books would probably lean towards the Starks as the “good guys,” the world of Westeros is a fairly shades-of-gray type of place. Even if the orcs consider themselves and the Starks equally protagonistic, that’s not what would echo and resonate with the dark orcish heart.
It’s the fact that the Starks get their asses kicked, often unfairly, up and down and all around. Just like the orcs.
Both groups have to eat so much crow. (No, I’m not talking about the Thenns, literally eating Night’s Watch members. Metaphorical crow. With two eyes. Not that triclops crow of Bran’s either.)
The Brutal, Grinding Story of the Starks
Indulge me for a quick recap of the Stark saga.
- The Starks, a hardy and rough hewn group of people who would probably be prosperous if left alone, have their world turned upside down when by royal decree the patriarch of the family is summoned to King’s Landing in an official capacity.
- There’s immediate conflict with beautiful, blond-haired people.
- A Lannister dwarf gets taken prisoner, which seems like it might be a point in the Stark’s favor, but really messes things up.
- Ned Stark discovers an amazing secret involving blond shenanigans. King Robert is away from town, but once he returns (The Return of the King!!!), Ned plans to fill him in.
- The Lannisters, those beautiful blond people who are causing him issues, will be in serious hot water and will no longer be a problem for Ned. He might even be able to wrap stuff up and head back home. Total victory.
- King Robert returns, dying from a hunting accident. Ned had been THIS CLOSE.
- The king grants Ned temporary supreme executive powers and then he dies. Ned plans to transition power to the legitimate king, Stannis
- No one respects Ned’s authority; he’s tossed in the black cells.
- The Stark forces mobilize, head south, and pull of some military victories, but Ned the patriarch/prisoner is beheaded, and the Stark daughters are either missing or hostage which acts as a counter-balance to their battlefield gains.
- Arya Stark, the youngest daughter, bounces from captor to captor like a hot potato.
- Catelyn Stark is THIS CLOSE to getting a political alliance with the upstart pretender-king Renly Baratheon. Together, the Starks and this branch of the Baratheons would easily take care of the Lannisters. The Starks are THIS CLOSE to victory.
- Nope, Renly is killed by the magical offspring of his brother Stannis Baratheon and the red witch Melisandre, ruining that potential for the Starks.
- Robb Stark captures some squires who are literally Lannisters (family members, as opposed to regular Lannister squires.) Having their own hostages might work out for them.
- Nope. Lord Karstark, a disgruntled bearded guy, kills them.
- The ancestral homeland of the Starks is invaded by Viking-like raiders, and their stronghold of Winterfell is eventually set ablaze.
- Robb Stark boldly makes a plan to capture the Lannister home-fortress of Casterly Rock, but is betrayed by his allies and killed along with his mother and bride. Thanks to Lannister gold. (Or possibly Melisandre’s burning slug magic.)
- Arya Stark was THIS CLOSE to being reunited with her family, but they were slaughtered and paraded in front of her. It’s like GRR Martin hates the Starks. He’s so mean to them.
- Jon Snow, the Stark bastard, is just lucky to be alive. He’s stubbornly survived basic training, undead attacks, Wildling interrogation, Wall-avalanches, face-slashing eagle talons, and arrows from his girlfriend.I don’t think he’s been warm or had a good night’s sleep since episode one. Oh yeah, there was that cave… (hey, it’s not ALL doom and gloom.) Despite his surviving all this, Jon’s just not a happy guy.
- Sansa Stark has been a powerless pawn the entire time, narrowly escaping marriage to Joffrey Baratheon, sexual assault, an indictment of regicide, and defenestration by her psycho aunt.
- Bran Stark, twice, was THIS CLOSE to meeting up with Jon Snow, his beloved half-brother. Nope. It’s off to the frozen north, and the worst-accommodated magical boarding school in existence for young Brandon.
- Arya Stark was THIS CLOSE to being reunited with her sister Sansa, but Aunt Lysa ended up littering the floor of the Vale, cancelling Arya’s plans to visit.
- Arya Stark was THIS CLOSE to being protected by the loyal and upstanding Brienne of Tarth, but once again, Lannister gold ruined that deal.
The story of the Starks is an unfortunate one of loss, disappointment, close brushes with victories and then sudden tragic reversals. Mostly.
Are things looking up for the Starks, here or there? Don’t get too comfortable. GRRM still has some more books to write. Plenty of time for the other iron-clad shoes to drop.
The Brutal, Grinding Story of the Orcs
So, is there some kind of correlation? Am I saying that since the Starks have it bad, the orcs should identify with them? Just because the Starks are the underdogs?
That might not seem totally convincing. The orcs are pretty dominant in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, right? I mean, it’s the Fellowship of the Ring that are always in dire straights. You would imagine that the Fellowship and the Starks have more in common, and not just because of Sean Bean.
I don’t know. I really can’t agree with that statement. The Fellowship has an easy-breezy time compared to the orcs.
Let’s examine the story of the orcs of Middle-Earth, more or less in the bounds of the Lord of the Rings movies (I might pull some data from the books and a charming televised presentation of the orcs.)
- The orcs, a hardy and rough hewn people, are conscripted from their holes and wastelands by infernal royal decree. Are they necessarily happy about this? Has anyone asked?
- They have a long history of conflict with beautiful, quite-often blond people.
- But even though they’re being marshaled for war, there’s a chance that they won’t have to fight. If Sauron can recover his ring, well, it’s curtains for their enemies. Sauron’s discovered an amazing secret: his ring is in the hands of a wee little harmless hobbit.
- Sauron deploys his dreaded nine Ringwraiths to obtain it. These elite monsters should be able to pick up the ring with no problems, and the orcs would have a much easier time.
- The wraiths try to collect it at Bree, but sneaky Strider had slipped out into the night with the hobbits.
- Some of the wraiths try to collect it at the ancient site of Weathertop (site of the annual Weathertop Folk Music Festival in the Lord of the Rings Online game) but torch-wielding Strider drives off the five Ringwraiths. They were THIS CLOSE.
- All nine wraiths get together and make a rush for the hobbits and the ring. An elf carries Frodo over a river into Rivendell territory and the freaking river smacks the Ringwraiths down. They had their chance. Now the orcs have to get involved.
- The Fellowship of the Ring, nine guys on foot, decide to hoof it right through Underground Orc Central, aka Moria. Seems like they’re delivering the ring to the orcs.
- The orcs in Moria, assisted by a cave troll and the walking Middle-Earth version of a WMD, get so so so close to capturing or killing the Fellowship. Shoddy Dwarf bridge construction ruins that plan. (Or sneaky wizard magic. One of those.)
- Saruman the White, who is kind of an ally of Sauron, has been breeding his own brand of orcs, the Uruk-Hai. He sends them out after the Fellowship.
- The Uruk-Hai mostly get wiped out thanks to an elf and his seemingly endless number of arrows, but at least they take two of the hobbits, Merry and Pippin, hostage. Which could work out for them somehow.
- Nope. The orcs are hunted down by Viking-like raiders. The hobbits aren’t even killed, they manage to escape. Nassty hobbitsses.
- No worries. Saruman has fielded a tremendous army and he’s planning on crushing those Viking guys, the Riders of Rohan, who are hanging out at Helm’s Deep.
- Some elves show up. For some reason. Elves.
- The orcs are kicking ass in the siege on Helm’s Deep. They are SO CLOSE to victory.
- Meanwhile, hobbits Merry and Pippin convince an army of mobile, sentient trees to assault and occupy Saruman’s fortress, Orthanc. Saruman’s shocked at this turn of events.
- The orcs at Helm’s Deep are about to kill everyone there, ensuring that Rohan really won’t be able to muster itself against Sauron, when Gandalf shows up at the last minute and routs the Uruk-Hai with a bunch of Rohirrim cavalry.
- Hey, that’s okay. Once those orcs stop running, they’ll be able to continue to be a threat.
- Nope. Some freaking sentient trees that the orcs run into TEAR THEM APART.
- Saruman’s orcs never really had a chance. It’s like JRR Tolkien hates the orcs, he’s so mean to them.
- Meanwhile, in Mordor, Sauron kicks them into high gear. Even though Saruman hasn’t pulled his end, Minas Morgul has a fairly sizeable amount of orcs. They head west and get some battlefield wins. They capture Osgiliath. They set up a siege on Minas Tirith. Things are looking fairly promising for the orcs. Once Minas Tirith falls, Gondor might surrender, demoralized.
- Boom. As if Melisandre dropped by for a lot of sex with Aragorn, a huge army of shadowy dead soldiers, ones that unfairly can’t be attacked but can kill orcs dead, show up and scrub Minas Tirith clean of every last orc.
It’s crazy. The orcs were moments away from winning. Gondor’s steward Denethor had given up and was on fire. Even Gandalf was expecting to die. Then out of the blue (or green, they were kind of green) these dead guys spoil everything. Dead guys! Isn’t that Sauron’s deal? Totally unfair.
- But all isn’t lost. If Sauron gets his hands on the ring, the orcs can bounce back. And it’s not like Aragorn’s troops can invade Mordor and wipe out Sauron.
- Aragorn leads an army to the gates of Mordor anyway. The orc army assigned to the Morannon deploy, surrounding Aragorn’s pretty puny army. It’s quite possible the Mouth of Sauron muttered “You have the stronger claim, but I have the bigger army.”
- The orcs are SO CLOSE to wiping out the last heir of Elendil. It’s not necessarily as good as taking Minas Tirith, but it’d still be a major win for Team Mordor.
- Whoa! Frodo succumbed to the power of the ring and put it on. Sauron knows where he is! This is even better.
- Then, boom. Gollum bites off invisible Frodo’s ring finger and falls into the lava. The One Ring is destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom.
- Sauron’s tower falls, its baleful light extinguished.
- A very specific earthquake wipes out the orc army fighting the Gondorians and Rohirrim. An earthquake that magically wipes out just the orcs and trolls. Those orcs were doomed. Mount Doom’d.
So, the orcs were pretty much being drubbed up and down the entire time.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read…)
Fine. My point is this: in Game of Thrones, the Starks (although they do occasionally manage to squeak by a victory or escape imminent doom) just get stomped on. Stomped. On.
Crippling injury, assassination attempts, ambushes, coup d’etats, treachery, beheadings, bad marriage contracts, abductions, hostage-taking, homeland invasions, home invasions, betrayals, slaughters… it’s endless. It seems like they just can’t catch a break.
In Lord of the Rings, the orcs similarly have the worst of times. Their special forces (the ineffective Nazgul) consistently drop the ball, so the orcs routinely are massed up into huge, overwhelmingly powerful armies and marched off. Armies that get brutally destroyed and slaughtered by all sorts of dirty tricks.
The orcs, by being ground into the dust by fate’s heavy heel, are certainly going to identify the Starks as kindred spirits.
Besides, when beseiging the gates at Minas Tirith, the orcs could have just used a massive log to batter the gates. But instead, they took the time to craft a symbol that represented them.
A giant direwolf.
A Stark Fellowship
I doubt I’ve convinced everyone, since there are some people who can’t listen to reason. (Or they might have skipped the above wall of text and amusingly captioned images. Fine.)
A case might still be made that the Starks are more like the Fellowship. After all, the Fellowship has issues. Boromir dies, Gandalf dies (and comes back), Merry and Pippin are abducted by orcs, Frodo carries a painful wound, gets poisoned by a giant spider and held captive by orcs. Sam and Frodo nearly die time and time again.
I agree that these comparisons can be made, but I don’t think the Fellowship experience really compares to the soul-crushing experience of the Starks.
I think the Lannisters fit in closer with the Fellowship. Both groups have obstacles that they are often saved from. The Starks don’t get saved, they just manage to cling on, waiting for the next abusive moment. Really, the Fellowship just kind of breezes along.
Sure, Merry and Pippin are abducted, which delivers them into the hands of the Ents who help out. That’s closer to Tyrion wandering into the Mountain Clans who become his allies than any of the Stark’s experiences.
The second movie, in particular, was so devoid of abuse to the Fellowship, that the script writers included elves at Helm’s Deep so at least one person that we might possibly be able to identify would die. To provide some false sense of dire stakes.
You know, that elf from Lothlorien, they said his name… Hal-something, and he showed up with elves, claiming to be from Elrond. So he dies and it’s terribly emotional, right? No? Yeah, no one cared about that odd character.
So the Fellowship really doesn’t embody the Stark’s inherent doom the way the orcs do.
What’s the Point in All This?
Well, saying orcs == Starks is pretty fun in itself, but I have other reasons.
At the beginning of this article I mentioned that it’s fashionable to compare Lord of the Rings with A Song of Ice and Fire (or compare the authors.) They’re both popular fantasy epics, and both have large and often intersecting fan bases.
People often have preferences, which is fine, but I will admit that my hackles get raised when people bash on Game of Thrones, for what I consider dumb or incoherent reasons.
I once read a television forum thread where a poster really dismissed Game of Thrones because the show’s story was so one-sidedly against the Starks. I’d expect something like this right after the Red Wedding episode, which was truly a dark time for the Starks, but this was well into Season Four, where the tables were beginning to turn against the Lannisters.
A corollary to the complaints against Game of Thrones could be summed up as this: the poster wanted his epic stories to be more evenly balanced, like in Lord of the Rings. (They actually mentioned Lord of the Rings as the counterpoint fantasy.)
I don’t think the orcs would agree that Lord of the Rings was a balanced situation.
Clearly, I’m cherry-picking situations for both series’, but that’s part of my point, and I don’t think I’m any more guilty than those who are focusing on just the story of the Fellowship.
If you look for despair among the Stark’s story, you’ll find it. If you look for hope among the Stark’s story, it’s also there. Hope is a powerful force. The story isn’t over yet.
Comparing Lembas and Lemoncakes
To wrap up, I hope I’m not coming off too negative on people who want to compare the respective series’ with an agenda of establishing one superior to the other. I totally get that.
DC versus Marvel. Star Trek versus Star Wars. It’s what the fan community does.
But I support and sympathize with people who love both works and refuse to choose which one might be better than the other. You’re on my team.
Err, no. I’m Team Stark, baby. Not that there might be that much difference…
(Comments are always welcome. Super welcome! But if you want to talk spoilery Game of Thrones talk with me (also welcome) I’d invite you to visit my Safe Spoilers page on my backup blog. That way my non-book-reading friends won’t be shocked with foreknowledge.)
Images from HBO’s Game of Thrones and New Line Pictures’ Lord of the Rings (obviously.)
Video from the Rankin and Bass animated The Return of the King television broadcast.
I make no claims to the artwork, but some claims to the text. So there.
If you liked this article, thank you! I have all of my Game of Thrones related articles on my handy-dandy Game of Thrones page should you want to read more but don’t want to navigate around my site.
Also, and I’ve probably exhausted my allotment of links, in the weeks leading up to this blog, I’ve been tweeting Orcish observations on Game of Thrones from the @GotOrcs account, and aggregating the tweets into blog posts at http://OrcishViewsOnGameOfThrones.wordpress.com – yes, I probably have some kind of problem.
© Patrick Sponaugle 2015 Some Rights Reserved