George R.R. Martins fantasy novel Game of Thrones is the first novel in a seven book series titled The Song of Ice and Fire which has been turned into a hit HBO show. This post is confined to the first book and will not address the shows sleaziness, but those interested in reading about that should check out Douthats critique here.
Instead, Ill focus on this articles comparison of Martin and Tolkien. Martin has been described as the anti-Tolkien because his work is realistic while Tolkien is idealistic or fantastic. One example of Martins apparent hardheadedness is his portrayal of Eddard Ned Stark. Neds storyline presents the reader with the political problem of dirty hands: the desire to stay out of politics and war in order to remain morally pure.
For two-thirds of the book Ned appears to be the traditional hero who is guided by honor. But by the novels end his unwillingness to commit a base action leads to his death and sets up a civil war for the second novel. He is contrasted with the members of the House Lannister and Lord Petyr Baelish , also called Littlefinger , who all commit immoral means to attain their ends.
But is Martin really criticizing Stark for his idealism here? Neds son, Rob, is clearly inspired by him and is the white knight by the storys end. Catelyn, Eddards wife, says repeatedly that Ned had taught Rob the art of politics and war well. And House Stark is the family the reader is supposed to root for.
Maybe the better comparison to Ned is Catelyn, not Littlefinger and the Lannisters. Ned and Catelyn share the same set of convictions yet there are several instances in the novel where Catelyn relies upon misdirection and equivocation in order to obtain her goals e.g. the capture of Tyrion Lannister. She is prudent when thinking about what to say (and not say) when counseling her son, arranging a marriage pact with House Frey, and pleading with House Tully and Lords of the Riverlands to avoid civil war.
The same cannot be said of Ned, however noble he might be. His virtues are those of the solider, not statesman. Ned helped Robert Baratheon win the War of the Usurper, but he did not help him rule the Seven Kingdoms afterwards.
Cersei Lannister presents the problem of the Game of Thrones as some sort of Hobbesian Choice. Presented this way, the heroes and villains are indistinguishable from each other. Luckily, Catelyns statesmanship shows the rules of the game are not as black and white as Cersei suggests.