JRR Tolkien vs GRR Martin: Who Wins?

It’s a battle royale. It’s an epic fantasy cage fight. Who will win—the aging champion, JRR Tolkien, best known for his book series The Lord of the Rings, or the rising media star, GRR Martin, best known for his book series A Song of Ice and Fire?

The two fantasy giants could be compared along a host of different criteria. But, for now, let’s keep it simple. Who sold the most books? Whose books have been translated into the most languages? Whose books made the most money when adapted to the big screen or small screen?

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Round 1

Most books sold. Even though both authors have written more books than their beloved series, such as the ever popular Hobbit for Tolkien and the Hugo Award nominated story With Morning Comes Mistfall for Martin, we’ll just narrow it down to their big rainmakers.

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series, which he worked on for almost 20 years before the books were published in 1954 and 1955, became a best seller rather quickly. The first book in the series eventually sold over 150 million copies, which is even more than JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  Not bad for an old prof.

Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, which began in 1996 with the first book, A Game of Thrones, and continues today with two more upcoming books, has stormed the international markets. Some of the books took the number one spot on the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists. Others were nominated for a Quill Award, British Fantasy Award, Hugo Award, and World Fantasy Award. The book A Dance with Dragons won the Locus Poll Award for Best Fantasy Novel. Together, they come in with a respectable 60 million copies sold.

Tolkien wins this round.

Round 2

Translated into the most languages. Since both series are sold internationally, we might get a sense of their reach across the globe by counting the number of languages they’ve been translated into.  Tolkien’s series obtains the high number of 38 languages, including most recently Yiddish. Oy vey!

That number seems hard to beat. But, this year Martin announced that his series will be published in its 47th language: Azerbaijani.

Martin wins this round.

Round 3

Most money earned from Movie and TV adaptations. With book series that have sold so many copies and reached into so many countries, it is not surprising that Hollywood would snatch them up. Between 2001 and 2003, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series made it to the big screen, directed by Peter Jackson.  The three movies, which were critically acclaimed and won over a dozen Academy Awards, earned close to $5.9 billion dollars—yes, billion.

Martin’s series is a little harder to calculate because it runs on the cable company HBO’s network. But news sources have said that each season has cost between $50 million and $100 million dollars. If we do some fuzzy math and take the middle point of $75 million and multiple that by 7 for seven seasons, we get a cost of $525 million. Now, given the international popularity of the TV series, which seems to be constantly awarded Emmy nominations and prizes, as well as achieving the dubious honor of being the most pirated TV show, it is probably safe to imagine that the TV adaptation is making more money than it costs. Although the actual revenue earned from the Game of Thrones show is unknown, let’s just double the cost number and round it off at $1 billion, if we consider sales like DVDs, video games, and other merchandise. That number may be too high, but the Night King probably doesn’t care.

Tolkien wins this round.


It was a close match, but in this particular fantasy take-down Tolkien comes out the victor. Frodo may go back to the shire with his big, happy feet. And GRR Martin was gracious, being quoted as saying, “I admire Tolkien greatly. His books had enormous influence on me.”

Who Do You Like Best?

Nonetheless, if you were a ringside judge, what criteria would you use and who do you think would be victorious? That is, who do you like best and why? Please leave a comment below. We’d all find it interesting.

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Photo Credit: Jo-B from Pixabay.












Clovis Whitman

Clovis Whitman is an independent author of coming of age and new adult fiction, because he has always been fascinated by the simple yet complex question of "Who are you?"

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