Wednesday, February 18, 2009

More on JRR Tolkien: Love his work? Hate it? Why?

My previous post pointing out Richard K. Morgan's opinionated essay at on JRR Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings has stirred up some fun debate in the comments section of my post. Richard has been good enough to keep stopping by to address/argue/debate some of my readers. And it certainly seems to be a heated issue.

But Richard isn't the first prominent SF/F writer to discuss the many flaws in Tolkien's work. In the Fall 2000 issue of International Socialism Journal, China Mieville discusses Tolkien at length, both the debt that the fantasy genre owes him as well as the serious problems with Tolkien's most famous published work:
For Tolkien, the function of his fantasy fiction is 'consolation'. If you read his essay 'On Fairy Tales' you find that, for him, central to fantasy is 'the consolation of the happy ending'. He pretends that such a happy ending is something that occurs 'miraculously', 'never to be counted on to recur'. But that pretence of contingency is idiotic, in that immediately previously he claims that 'all complete fairy stories must have it [the happy ending]. It is its highest function.' In other words, far from 'never being counted to recur', the writer and reader know that to qualify as fantasy, a 'consolatory' happy ending will recur in every story, and you have a theory of fantasy in which 'consolation' is a matter of policy. It's no surprise that this kind of fantasy is conservative. Tolkien's essay is as close as it gets to most modern fantasy's charter, and he's defined fantasy as literature which mollycoddles the reader rather than challenging them.

In Tolkien, the reader is intended to be consoled by the idea that systemic problems come from outside agitators, and that decent people happy with the way things were will win in the end. This is fantasy as literary comfort food. Unfortunately, a lot of Tolkien's heirs--who may not share his politics at all--have taken on many tropes that embed a lot of those notions in their fantasy.
And over at the blog, Kate Nepveu has been systematically re-reading and writing fascinating commentary on every chapter of the The Lord of the Rings, one chapter at a time.

So I wanted to open this up to a wider debate, since I know that so many of the readers of this blog are fans of and/or writers of genre fiction:

JRR Tolkien: Do you love his work? Hate it? Why?

Jump into the conversation!


Amethyst Greye Alexander said...

I like Tolkien very much from a literary aspect (generally speaking, I appreciate his character developement) but I love his work from a purely sentimental place. My father, who died just after I turned three, adore LotR--so much so that he named me Amethyst Greye, in honor of his favorite character. Not to hawk my own blog, but I JUST finished a post about this very thing.

Take care,

Ugly Deaf Muslim Punk Gurl! said...

I fell asleep when I tried reading the first three chapters of 'The Fellowship of the Ring' and then decided not to proceed with it.

Just not my thing, I guess. But I do respect him, don't get me wrong.

e. f. danehy said...

Tolkien has absolutely inspired me. His importance to me hasn't been simply through his fiction, but also through his essays and literary arguments. Reading his theory and essays as research for my college thesis (as well as closely reading his novels for other projects) was almost more important than actually reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings for fun.

Looking back at Tolkien and his influence upon me, I suppose I think of him along the same lines I think of someone like John Milton and the effect of Paradise Lost. I read Paradise Lost and I'm floored by its images, its epic scale and thematic issues, how Milton layered the very question of dangerous fiction within a story essentially about one of the greatest storytellers in literature -- Satan. Tracing the effect Paradise Lost has had on English literature, on other writers, on modern culture, is nearly inconceivably difficult. It's so deeply entrenched in our psyche now. That's how I view Tolkien in the 21st century. He's made such an indelible impact on the genre of fantasy -- of adventure and quest stories in general -- that it's hard to think of ways he hasn't impacted me as a writer of fantasy, or the writers I read.

His fiction never grabbed me as a teenager the way other stories did -- I think I needed and still need more psychoanalytical narrators and female characters, haha. But as a student of literature, I really do love his work. It's powerful stuff.

Anthony said...

Bah! Bah I say!

Tolkien was a world-builder who put love and thought into an overwhelming array of details. Despite this massive back-story, the core four books are mastery of entertaining story telling and a primer on exposition for the fantasy writer. In the Fellowship of the Ring, he does not put you to sleep with a bunch of tell (there are other Tolkien books for that). He jumps right into show and from there he story rarely slouches despite the absolute wealth of the world he created.

When you read The Lord of the Rings, because of this word building, you have a sense of background that is very rare and, um, precious. I’ve talked to the occasional non-fantasy book-worm who read the series for some reason or another, and when I talk to these people they have definite opinions about the quality of the prose and pacing. When they talk about the world he showed us, their eyes light up filled with wonder. It is a child-like wonder, and in the end, what could be wrong with that?

Peter Jackson got it. The theme of the movies, as with the books, was that the smallest person could sometimes make the biggest difference. It is not about Good vs. Evil. It is about the triumph of the sprint and will under the most difficult and bleak of circumstances.

That, my friends, is a story I want to read. Any day of the week.

With all of that said, I like the movies better than the books. That is my point, however: there is so much there as a fantasy, that it lent itself to some of the best films ever to grace the screen.

How lucky we are to have lived in a time where such entertaining and artistic endeavors were created.

Anonymous said...

Periodically people like to pop their heads up and "expose" Tolkien. He's a great scapegoat for "everything wrong with SF/F" because he is dead, old, traditional, and pretty much the first guy we have on record succeeding to the level he did. People say it about the Beatles and music all the time, too. But man, that just ain't right.

So let's step back a moment and remember that he was a man of his times, not a man of ours--something that is forgotten far too often. He was a professor, father, husband and Catholic. He was a soldier, a survivor who had seen horrors in the trenches that few of us these days can even comprehend. And you know what? If he wanted to write about worlds with hope and happy endings, that's fine with me.

See, it irks me when people fail to recognize his contribution on silly grounds like, oh, he wrote an article about fairy tales being nice and happy and sunny! Sure, LoTR isn't for everyone; I haven't read it since college, but it changed everything I knew about writing. It showed me that worlds can exist, can feel as real as this one, can be as complete and inspiring as any history. Before him, only William Morris had attempted that, and no one really cared at that point.

Tolkien became a reluctant celebrity in his later years, and is often portrayed as a curmudgeon of an old man, staunch and conservative. So what? I'm a flaming liberal, and I love his stuff. Because, to me, it's not mollycoddling. To me, the greatest thing about LoTR is the overarching theme of hope in spite of despair--hope in the clutches of the darkest, deepest horrors one can imagine. Hope so great, that a single person gives up on it to preserve it for everyone else.

In the book, Frodo fails. We follow him the whole way just for him to say, "Screw this. I'm keeping the Ring." That's not a fairy tale! In a fairy tale he'd ride off on a white horse, and return to a hoard of adoring fans. But when it was over, with one less finger, he went home and faded into obscurity, before basically dying, and let the rest of his friends take the credit for the incredible thing he did. That Tolkien creates such a discomfiting end is remarkable. He destroys Frodo entirely to tell his ending.

No, Tolkien is not perfect. He doesn't hold up in this day and age like some hope, and even I have a few bones to pick with him. (Really, is Eowyn the best you could do?). But, honestly. Quoting his own essays regarding "fairy tales" can't apply to the man's contribution to literature as we know it.

If it weren't for Tolkien, the whole face of SF/F changed, and not for the better. We all could use a little hope, I say.

Bill Cameron said...

I think the problem with many of the critiques of Tolkien is that they're based on yanking him out of context. Similarly, one could argue that Newton was flawed because he totally missed the whole relativity thing, or Einstein was flawed because he totally missed quantum entanglement.

Critiques get all fixated on the ways that Tolkien isn't like subsequent authors who wouldn't be writing the stuff they're writing if not for writers like Tolkien who came before.

Now that said, there's nothing wrong with Tolkien not being your thing. We like what we like. But people like Morgan work their way backward, as if trying to prove what a kewl kid they are because they don't like that old guy who somehow wasn't able to extricate himself from his social context.

Are there problems with Tolkien? Sure. And you can fixate on them, thus robbing yourself of the ways in which he broke important and profound new ground, or you can read through them and find the gold to be mined within.

Now, I'll give Mieville credit for understanding the power of his work and respecting it. Morgan, in contrast, is a churlish pedant.

As for 'On Fairy Tales,' it's a charter only if we allow to be. In The Hobbit, Tolkien clearly followed his charter. In The Lord of the Rings and the ephemera, not really. Maybe he wanted to, but the material pushed him past his consolatory comfort zone in many ways.

In the end, if contemporary fantasy is better or richer or deeper or whatever you want to call it, it's at least partly a precursor to react to and build from. Einstein needed Newton, and today's quantum theorists need Einstein. You don't jump from Democritus to string theory in a single stride.

clindsay said...

Bill & Natania -

I think that Tom Shippey's excellent Tolkien bio JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century addresses both your points very well. A great read; I would highly recommend it!


Anonymous said...

Yes, I have read that. It's a great book. I actually wrote a long and boring paper on the Catholic themes of LoTR in college... I got to read that book for credit, if I recall, as it had just come out.

Bill Cameron said...

I will take a look at it. Sounds like an intriguing read.

Dara said...

I've tried to read LoTR but can't get into it. Fantasy in general just isn't my thing.

However, I've listened to the audiobooks and seen the movies (of course!) and love the story. I like the happy ending--I don't always want to read books that end on a depressing or "realistic" note. Not that those types of fantasy books aren't good, but happy endings have a place too.

Anyway, I can't really say much more because I haven't actually finished a book of his.

Barbara Webb said...

I'm a fantasy writer and I love Tolkien. I reread LotR periodically, as I do the Dragonriders of Pern and the Heralds of Valdemar series. All these books have their flaws, but they all evoke the sort of emotional response in me that is, ultimately, what I read books for.

There are books I hold up as exceptional examples of the craft, which I also love to read over and over (Snow Crash, Last Call, Fudoki, Watership Down, IT). Those are the books I would point someone to if that someone wanted to know how to write a good book. I would never tell someone to try to learn writing from Tolkien, but I do think he's an important part of the genre's cultural vocabulary, and everyone who wants to write fantasy should at least try to read him. (And then never, ever, ever write another sexist/classist/racist book where beautiful elves and tall, strong, white men are the only ones who can make the right decisions for the world.)

Jeff said...

I love Tolkien, though LotR is no longer my favoritist book like ever.

Boy do I ever disagree with China, though. There is absolutely nothing miraculous about the ending of Lord of the Rings. I'm not going to give a spoiler alert, because if you've read this far, you've read the books.

How many fantasy novels end with the failure of the quest? The ring is too great for the hero of the story, but in the end, the ring is destroyed anyway - not by a miracle, but by a perfectly logical and foreshadowed effect of its own already-stablished magical power. The ring actually destroys itself, because Frodo says to Gollum, if ever you touch the ring again, you shall be cast into the fire. And what happens the moment Gollum touches the ring?

If Tolkien had been mollycoddling his readers, Frodo would have fought off the ringwraithes and thrown the ring into the fire and Gollum would have been saved and returned to his good old hobbit self, like in Star Wars.

And I like Star Wars, too. The first three, anyway, plus the new Clone Wars series, which is so much better than episodes 1, 2, and 3, you wonder how they ever made it out of the studio.

Jeff said...

Or what Nataniabarron said. I really should read comments before commenting. She nails it - Frodo doesn't have a happy ending until he's basically dead and goes to heaven.

Juliette Wade said...

I admire Tolkien most for his skill in world and language building. I enjoy his narrative voice, because it always makes me imagine myself a listener sitting at a storyteller's knee. However, I do prefer faster pace and I would have loved to see the various stories interwoven instead of told separately. I was excited when, in The Two Towers, Legolas began talking as though the others were little children - it seemed to me Tolkien had just discovered a voice that really represented who Legolas was. And as a linguist myself, I have the utmost admiration for his work in creating Elvish and the language of Mordor with their various scripts. That is an unparalleled achievement.

Finch said...

While we're at it, let's be sure to lambast Conan Doyle for his ridiculous obsession with the occult, and Wells for using his fiction as a thin veneer for his socialist dogma. Clearly these observations about those individuals' personal views thoroughly invalidate their literary contributions, right?

As soggy as his paeans to rural England may be, as misanthropically Christian, as anti-intellectual and ponderous of tone when invoking archetypal evil as his work may be, Tolkien's world, his characters and his stories have touched and awoken something in us that has been largely responsible for bringing us to this literary point in time, and have made the old mythic formulas accessible again; to fault him for writing from the perspective of his experience and his environment seems a bit insincere, since that is all any writer can do.

I find the comment about requiring happy endings to be a shade ironic, considering the ending of the Lord of the Rings does not meet this requirement. Without spoiling the ending for both of the people who haven't read it, shall we not forget what 'passing to the West' is a convenient euphemism for, and what traveling beyond the Grey Havens means to those who do so? Bilbo's Last Song, anyone? The ending of this tale is not a series of happy events in any traditional sense; it may be a highly appropriate series of events, but they are clearly more cause for mourning, for those left behind, than for celebration.

Tolkien is not a perfect author -- no such beast exists, so to claim otherwise would be silly. I would absolutely be willing to argue that his mythic works (Hobbit) are far stronger than his heroic works (LotR), and I would have hoped that those who came after him would, at least, innovate rather than simply imitate -- but if they do not, this is human nature, and not the fault of the original artist, yes?

Helen said...

I love Tolkien's writing and he was part of what set me onto loving fantasy so much, but I do think the LotR could have been a bit shorter. But that's just me, and it doesn't mean I love his books any less.

Anonymous said...

I personally think that fantasy is a genre where many fans do not want so much innovation. When I am browsing the fantasy shelves in a bookstore, reading the backs to try to find something new, and see a book claiming some new monster, I will almost always lose interest and drop it back on the shelf. Sorry, but I love trolls, goblins, dragons, elves, and wizards, and that is exactly the kind of story I love to read. It can be gritty and real like George R R Martin or it can be high fantasy like Tolkien and I love it either way.

I don't understand the sexism and class comments against Tolkien. When I read the histories of time periods like the Middle Ages, women are just not generally running about with swords. To me it would be very unrealistic and gratuitous to thrust a strong female character into most such fantasy novels. And, when has class not been a strong part of history? I guess I need people to clarify what they mean about this within the context of what Tolkien was trying to do, because though it was a created world, it was certainly based rather heavily on our own Middle Ages and myth.

Anonymous said...

All that "happy ending" stuff makes me chuckle. Happy ending? Tell that to the Noldor. And Túrin Turambar. Poor buggers.

If it was so full of feel-good promises, then Blind Guardian wouldn't have composed as many songs as they did. Tragedy is so much more fun to sing.

Richard Morgan said...

Kewl kid????!!!! Very kind but I think at 43, I'm a little old to be vying for that kind of status. Oh well - balances out against the random insult of "churlish pedant" I guess.

There's been a lot of talk here about not judging Tolkien for things he "couldn't help" because he was "a man of his time". This is foolishness. Should we not critique, then, the anti-semitism in The Merchant of Venice because Shakespeare was "a man of his time"? Should we not condemn R E Howard's blatant anti-black racism in the Conan stories because he was "trapped in his time and circumstance"? Tolkien was an intelligent (highly intelligent) man of letters and had seen some of the most savage human behaviour on recent historical record first hand. This leaks into his work here and there, but - my point in the original essay - he appears to be in full retreat from its implications. For this we can indeed - and should - critique him.

Nor is this an issue of "hope and happy endings", neither of which are incompatible with good literature. But Tolkien equated, astonishingly simplistically, Good with Old, Bad with Modern, Virtuous with Rural and Corrupt with Industrial, and generally recoiled in horror from any suggestion that Change might be a force for good. He also fixated firmly on the idea that Good and Evil are intrinsic aspects, of cultures and individuals, and ultimately of breeding stock (the Blood of Numenor, anybody?). This, all of it, is - for a writer of the mid-twentieth century - a failure to engage of epic proportions.

As for the man's place in the canon, well, I'd acknowledge that as I did in the original essay, but to claim that before Tolkien "only William Morris" had been doing this kind of thing is ridiculous - Tolkien is predated by a rich literary tradition of fantastical worlds: George MacDonald, Lord Dunsany, Ryder Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E Howard, to name only some of the most prominent. And that's without even getting into the original source mythologies that Tolkien looted and pillaged for his purposes.

My recommendation? There is a little known (and unfairly so) fantasy novel by Poul Anderson called The Broken Sword. It was published in 1954, contemporaneous with The Fellowship of the Ring, and draws heavily on exactly the same Norse and Anglo-Saxon roots as Tolkien's work. It is purely brilliant. It gives you swords and sorcery, epic battles, mythical beings and beasts, as many and as much as you could desire. It is also intensely humanistic, deals with human nature and circumstance with absolutely no illusions, builds characters who are neither Good nor Evil but all stumbling about with their own agendas somewhere in between, and is filled with rich heart-rending emotion. If Anderson could write that book at that time, see the source material for what it really offered in commentary on the human condition, take all that and what was going on around him in the twentieth century on board and use it to telling and powerful effect, then there is simply no excuse for Tolkien and his wincing evasions.

Adam Whitehead said...

As I have commented elsewhere, I would love to see some of this criticism revisited with regard to THE SILMARILLION. Happy ending? No. Most of the characters die? Yup. The 'good guys' do ruthless things that blur the line between good and evil? Repeatedly. You could make a strong case for it being almost nihilistic in tone.

After writing that for 20 years beforehand, I'm not surprised Tolkien wanted something a bit lighter with a 'happier' ending, although LotR's ending is, at best, bittersweet. Everyone dies or goes to Valinor which, as The Sil attests, is a very dull place without the demon she-spiders from hell livening the place up.

Anonymous said...

The Silmarillion is certainly not a kids book. I read it as a teen and just couldn't get myself to like it much, but having read it recently (I am over 40) I just loved it. I had to force myself to understand each and every name and reference, which was tough, but that is what ended up making it so beautiful.

Scott said...

Could Tolkien have realized the impact of his books so many generations later? Doubtful.

Every book written has its flaws. Tolkien's works are no exception. In the end, I absolutely love the books. He tells a compelling story with flawed characters who are all - every last one of them - changed by the events of LOTR. He shows the prejudices (something ever present in real life . . . even today) of society, and (Gimli and Leagolas) how prejudices can be set aside and ever-lasting friendships formed. He shows hope, but not without a cost. In a series of books, the man (brilliant in his time, and - IMO - still brilliant) compressed life, real life, into a story that still resononates today.

So, I'll take LOTR, flaws and all, any day. I'll immerse myself in a crazy world of hobbits, elves, men, and dwarves, where trees are the shepards of the forest, and where a hoarde of dragon gold (and possibly a dragon as well) might lie hidden beneath a mountain. I'll drift down the Anduin in an elven boat and listen to the song of Galadriel. Life was good in Middle-Earth, even in the worst of times when the shadow grew in Mordor!

pauljessup said...

Richard Morgan-
I love your books, and that essay was very interesting. But telling me to read Broken Sword instead of Tolkien? Do you grab all of your ideas on Tolkien simply from Moorcock's essays or what?

I like Poul Anderson. But he's hardly "obscure". Certainly he's become less known in the last decade or so, but for awhile he was one of the more popular fantasy and science fiction writers. His presence is still scene in any urban fantasy novel that tries to approach werewolves realistically (by explaining if there is any weight gain/loss in transformation, etc).

I'd have to agree with Natania- we've heard all of this before. This is not exactly new criticism. Sure, his rampant Toryism can be offensive to some, but it's no more offensive to me than the libertarianism running rampant in most old skool science fiction.

I'm not saying the man is infallible, but if we're going to create a criticism of Tolkien's work, why not add something unique and interesting?

Oh, and just like Tolkien didn't invent world building, he is also not the first conservative toryist writer to push his view points into his fiction (hell, the tv show Merlin is practically all bout the relationship between high blood and low and kingship and etc. Why not target that as well?)

I'm not saying we shouldn't criticize Tolkien. But I am saying that I can disagree with his beliefs and still enjoy his work. The two are not intrinsically bound.

Also- Lord Dunsany? Also a raging Toryist. Don't throw his name into the mix if you want to criticize Tolkien's beliefs.

pauljessup said...

Oh and one more thing-
It would be interesting to see what you thought of the posthumous work The Children of Hurin. It's not happy, not consoling, not anything at all like Lord of the Rings.

Anonymous said...

Okay, so, in response: there's a thousand different ways to look at every writer. But context is extremely important, and you can't read 21st century ideals into Tolkien. Having done my time in Graduate School, if there's one thing I've learned is that no one ever agrees how to read books. Period. As a lone medievalist in a room full of post-modernists, well, it's even worse. Hence, I have New Historicist leanings. I guess that's why I'm not in a PhD program, because I hate squabbling about the minutiae while the work itself is cast away.

Sure, Richard, I understand about important issues like racism and anti-Semitism (again, as a medievalist, one who spent most of her time in her program researching Muslim/Western medieval relations in the romance tradition nonetheless) I'm very sensitive to those things. But while there are plenty of sticky issues in Tolkien, it's nowhere near as stark. If you're talking the lines he draws between good/evil, rural/modern, etc., then he's far from the first. Try Tennyson on for size!

But what bothers me is that I dislike the idea of critiquing Tolkien simply on the grounds of his own founded beliefs, because that's unfair. Sure it's important to recognize what's changed, and what could have been better, that's fine. That's good criticism. But I can't very well toss out "Beowulf" because I don't like the reliance on violence and lack of sympathy for Grendel and his mom and the nefarious construction of the Other.

That Tolkien's opinions differ from ours (and mine, in fact) doesn't negate the influence or the power of his work. Whether you like him or not, whether you want someone else to replace him in the canon, or whatever, he was, at the heart, writing for his own obsession. Morris and Tolkien re-created worlds on a grand scale that is certainly astonishing, and up until that point, quite rare: that was my point. I'm not writing a thesis any longer, just stating an opinion. I think their contributions--while of course being influenced by other traditions, including mythology--have a fantastical element on a much larger scale than most.

Writers are allowed "wincing evasions" because for some of them, in their times, in their worlds, they simply can't fully explore into the deepest, darkest corners. Especially a man who was writing simply for the love of it, for the passion. Yes, he balked at some important moral questions, but he was a devoted Catholic. He couldn't very well go against the heart of his religion, and though I don't entirely understand that choice, I respect it.

It's up to others, who come after, to pick up the torch, to add their strain to the melody, and to ask (and perhaps answer) the questions people like Tolkien could not. That's how it's always been. That's how Arthur went from an obscure mention in an annal to the King of all England! So maybe Tolkien is Malory, and you're hoping for T.H. White? I don't know. Clearly, reading most of the comments, Tolkien still works his magic.

I'll look up Poul Anderson; he really does sound fascinating.

ICQB said...

When something sticks with you in a big way, then you can't deny that you really like it or really hate it.

When my cat is walking on top of the crusty snow while I'm stomping through it I say, "You're and elf cat."

It's akin to quoting Monty Python because you really get a kick out of the Holy Grail ... "Where, behind that rabbit?"

Not everyone likes Monty Python either.

Either you get it because it connects with you on some level, or you don't.

I get it and I'm a fan.

Finch said...

@ Richard Morgan: you raise a very interesting question. Is it, in fact, useful to critique a work or its artist based on the social constructs it adopts that, while acceptable or common sense at the time of that art, have since fallen out of favor?

Note that I specify critique -- I absolutely do not question whether it's important to note these details, as understanding them is often key to understanding the work itself. But I do wonder what service a critique, a valuation of an artist's work, where some of the criteria of that valuation are based on the validity of an artist's historical perspective, might serve when critiquing a non-history book.

I don't actually have an answer to that, and my statements aren't meant to be leading, but it is a curious question.

Also, while I respect (and in many ways agree with) your reaction to Tolkein's 2-color contrasts, I'm not entirely certain he was quite as simple as you describe. If anything, one can very reasonably argue that in LotR, Men (who, remember, rise to dominance at the end of the story as the old races wither and pass from the land) represent change, while Sauron, the Elves, the Ring and everything else that goes away represents resistance to that change. Accept that argument, and some of your talking points are reversed: Bad is old (how much older than Sauron can you get?) while Good is the new line of Kings and the ascendency of Men.

I do believe you're right in stating that Tolkein believed that Good and Evil are intrinsic parts of cultures and individuals -- but I believe you're right in how you've said it: Good AND Evil are intrinsic, and in varying proportions -- see Boromir, Eomer, Grima, Saruman, Denethor, Galadriel, etc.

Clearly, others were doing this work before JRRT was, but, for whatever reasons, he was the storyteller that his generation responded to, and with great emotion. I do think it's as important to understand that resonation and the whys behind it, as it is to identify the works of that time period that failed to gain notice under the shadow of the Ring, works that may reflect our personal, and highly modern, preferences.

Cool discussion -- thanks much for dropping by for it!

Jeff said...

Richard, you certainly have a talent for livening up the conversation. You said, "If Anderson could write that book at that time, see the source material for what it really offered in commentary on the human condition, take all that and what was going on around him in the twentieth century on board and use it to telling and powerful effect, then there is simply no excuse for Tolkien and his wincing evasions."

Why, because Tolkien was more interested in telling an epic, heroic story than in-depth exploration of the human condition? Anderson wrote a different book because he wanted to write a different book. I love his work, by the way, and thanks for alerting me to this one, as wasn't aware of it. I intend to pick up a copy and add it to my stack. But have you ever stopped to consider why Anderson's book is virtually unknown, while Tolkien's is known the world over? You said in a previous post that just because a large number of people like something doesn't make it right. But this actually is the measure by which we describe great literature - stories that span the generations and remain accessible to large numbers of people.

It just seems to me that once again you are arguing from the stance that your personal tastes constitute the one true measure of quality in fantasy fiction, and anything else is a failure. That's like saying French food is the best in the world and only idiots who don't know what good food tastes like enjoy anything else. You're engaging in just the sort of absolutes for which you criticize Tolkien.

Equating good with old, modern with evil, etc. is a perfectly valid point of view still held by a large number of very modern people. Loss is a common theme in literature, a harkening back to better, elder days, going all the way back to Homer. The Change Tolkien offered in his novels was clearly for the worst (unless you think they should have given Sauron a chance?), but even so, he hardly feared Change as you describe. Read his descriptions of hobbits again - he recognizes their ultimate rube-ness, yet loves them because of it and recongnizes their rightful place in the world. Gandalf thinks Frodo is the best hobbit in the shire not because he clings stubbornly to the past, but because he doesn't. Frodo is unique. Gandalf wouldn't feel that way about Frodo if Tolkien believed as you say he did. In any case, if Tolkien truly hated Change as you imply, the Golden Age would have been restored at the end. Obviously, it wasn't. LotR is a story of change and loss (as are all stories about Middle Earth), about regret and acceptance and moving on. It's not as simplistic and one dimensional as you believe.

And no, we shouldn't criticize Shakespeare for his anti-Semitism, or Howard for his racism. We can recognize these aspects, but what is the point of criticizing them?

Carmen said...

I hope no one throws anything at me for saying this, but I never liked Tolkien. Couldn't ever get through the books, didn't like the LOTR movies. Mostly because I like to read books that I don't have to decipher, brain candy if you will. I don't want to have to re-read a page because I missed something the first three times. ;)

Jeff said...

Carmen, or even the first twenty times. I know lots of people who don't like Tolkien, who could never get past the Bombadil chapters, etc. I'm even married to one. The difference is, she doesn't say there is something wrong with me because I do, just as I don't say something is wrong with her because she likes Danielle Steele.

I also read Faulkner for pure enjoyment. So I'm weird that way.

Richard Morgan said...

Paul - I haven't read the Moorcock essay you mention, (though I do owe my discovery of the Broken Sword to Moorcock, via his dedication to Anderson at the beginning of Elric of Melnibone) so I can't answer the question of how closely my critique resembles his. All I know is that TBS engages me at a level LoTR never did, and I ascribe that to the level of humanistic realism poured into the characters and scenarios - something that is not entirely absent from Tolkien's work, but which flickers infuriatingly on and off like a dodgy lightbulb and which Tolkien himself seems terrified of allowing too cast too much unflattering light on anything. Anderson, by contrast, revels in the brutal truths of the bygone era he is portraying, and will not pretend that it was in some way a more "noble" time.

Further to this point, Jeff, you're absolutely right - there is a reason why TBS is virtually unknown and LoTR is a global phenomenon; and that is because very large numbers of people do not want their fiction to reflect uncomfortable human truths or to delve into areas of moral grey - they are far happier with stories about Great Good triumphing over Great Evil.

Which is fine, each to their own. But too equate that popularity with a definition of great literature is very dodgy indeed - not least because you'll then have to consider putting Harry Potter up there alongside Frodo and Sam.....

Elaina said...

Amazing, absolutely amazing. Mention Tolkien and LOR...and you get people really talking.

A small speech from me: love Tolkien for the grand epic, the huge history he has behind it, List LOR and Silmarillion as favoutite reads, but let's face it, as a read there is a LOT of waffle. As a literary adventure, I would withdraw the remark.

Do wish there were more Tolkien's today.

Richard Morgan said...

Couple of other things:

Jeff, you said: "Equating good with old, modern with evil, etc. is a perfectly valid point of view still held by a large number of very modern people."

Actually, no. It's not a "perfectly valid" point of view because it can be demolished by even the most cursory examination of the empirical evidence. And I'd submit that the only very modern people who believe this kind of thing are very modern people who haven't troubled themselves to think it through.

You also said: "And no, we shouldn't criticize Shakespeare for his anti-Semitism, or Howard for his racism. We can recognize these aspects, but what is the point of criticizing them?"

In point of fact the word I used in Shakespeare's case was critique. Criticism would be pretty pointless, given that 99.99% of Europe in Shakespeare's time was violently antisemitic - but a critique of the work is invaluable, because not only does it work as a pointed reminder of the brutal intolerance of those times, but it also highlights rather poignantly the way in which Shakespeare's better, humanistic nature struggles to emerge in the text from the crippling savagery of his upbringing and environment.

And there's a direct parallel here with Tolkien because (as I was at pains to stress in the essay) you can see, in fragments like the one I quoted, a similar battle going on. The rudiments of a modern, humanistic perception are there every so often, but repeatedly and hopelessly crushed by the author's terrified retreat from modernity itself and the necessary moral re-tooling it involves.

Which leads me to another point that needs clearing up - I'm not offended/shocked/angered by Tolkien's failings in this respect; I just thing they ruin his work. Something goes CLUNK every time I read about the cuddly bumbling bucolic hobbits or the evil, evil, oh so evil orcs or the lovely, lovely oh so lovely elves (or their interminable bloody singing). Something goes CLUNK every time I hear about the Ultimate Evil of Sauron. My mind fills with annoying little queries like Don't the Orcs have any songs? And if they do, what are they like? (one imagines Metallica). What's Sauron's motivation for all this evil - what's in it for him? Just how good a king is Elessar likely to make once the fighting is done? And so forth. This is the web of adult human complexity, and any good fiction examines such pre-occupations as it goes along. Tolkien resists this dynamic and so we end up with a child's eye simplicity shot through with involuntary glimpses of what might have been if he'd seized the potential that was there. I don't hate or feel offended by the result - I just think it fails as a work of adult literature, and that's a great shame.

K Marburger said...

I love Lord of the Rings. It's one of my favorite books of all time.

That doesn't mean I don't see its flaws: It's class-conscious, professorial, and old-fashioned, even for its time. Tolkien couldn't write a woman. I never liked the poetry.

But it's an original. He did it first. (Everybody seems to agree on that.)

I especially love it for the language--the made-up languages, the borrowings from Anglo-Saxon, the read-it-out-loud rolling phraseology.

I don't read it for humanistic realism. It's myth and saga, which have other values. The hobbits give it "humanness" and humor--which is why The Silmarillion is such an unreadable failure.

And no writer deserves to be judged by his opinions about writing.

Richard Morgan said...

okay, one last thing. Nataniabarron, you said:

"I can't very well toss out "Beowulf" because I don't like the reliance on violence and lack of sympathy for Grendel and his mom and the nefarious construction of the Other."

Actually, you can. Who says you can't? And, judging by the recent movie version, that's exactly what Neil Gaiman did when he took the material on. The genius of that film (and of Gaiman in this case) is the way in which it does exactly what you're saying we can't do and re-tools the original myth to both expose its brutal, bloodthirsty tribalism for what it is and to develop a more rounded, convincingly human and thus satisfying adult narrative. (Nice, in fact, to see a computer generated movie doing the exact reverse of the process we got in 300, where an originally fascinating and culturally complex true story gets turned into simplistic comic-book fare with all the humanity of a Soviet propaganda poster.)

pauljessup said...

Well then, I'm terribly sorry I assumed the influence of Moorcock's essay. You should read it sometime (and perhaps most of Wizardry and Wild Romance), I think you'll like it quite a bit and probably agree with a large number of his points (I think there is a free copy of the essay on the web somewhere- Epic Pooh, it was called).

I think were we differ is how we define "adult reading" and what we mean by adult reading. I understand the clunk that happens to you- it happens to me in other books (most notable Gaiman's Anansi Boys) so I can't fault you that.

Anonymous said...

The guy built worlds and told great stories. Most of us could only hope to be as good at either, let alone both.

So he liked happy endings. Does that negate him?

pauljessup said...

K Marburger:
you said-
"But it's an original. He did it first. (Everybody seems to agree on that.)"

No actually, a lot of people here (esp Richard himself) are negating that. He wasn't an original, he didn't do it first. There was a long history of world creation before Tolkien, and world creation borrowing Nordic influences isn't anything new either. I could list off the top of my head 20 some books of fully imagined worlds that were written before Tolkien wrote the Hobbit.

Jeff said...

Richard, isn't it enough to just not like the story? Why fabricate rationalizations to justify your opinion? I think in your last post, you were more honest than previous ones, in that the story just goes clunk for you. That's fine. It isn't for everybody, and saying so isn't insulting.

Good fiction doesn't, by definition, have to reflect the reality of the human condition (especially when the characters aren't human, something I think that is often forgotten in this discussion - only two of the nine were human). Fantasy and science fiction and horror are free, and have always been free, to create monsters and angels - as long as they behave appropriately and believably within the context in which they are written. Lord of the Rings does this probably as well or better than any fantasy of comparable size and scope ever written. To criticize it for being that which it was never meant to be just seems to me rather pointless. As is insulting those who enjoy it by calling them children.

Jeff said...

Oh, and Metallica is far too tame for orcs. I see them listening to Gorgoroth (ha!), Lamb of God, and White Zombie.

But that's just my opinion.

Jaime Theler said...

For those who have a hard time with Tolkien I always tell them that whenever they see italics, just skip that part. You get rid of a lot of songs/stories/history that slow down the story for those who aren't die hards. I've had a lot of people thank me for that advice.

Richard Morgan said...

"To criticize it for being that which it was never meant to be just seems to me rather pointless. As is insulting those who enjoy it by calling them children."


Alright, look, this is getting out of hand. First and foremost I haven't insulted anyone. If you look back at the essay, you'll see what I actually said was that I wondered why anyone adult would want to read a story about Towering Archetypal Evil pitted against (and inevitably being overcome by) Irritatingly Radiant Good? And that's true - I do wonder how an adult reader can be satisfied with that. But as I put in a post here yesterday, I also wonder how anyone can enjoy eating cheeses that smell like unwashed feet. This doesn't pre-suppose any kind of insult to either group of people, nor a claim of superiority over them, and taking it as such is simply a sign of knee-jerk defensiveness.

Second up, what LoTR was or wasn't meant to be is hardly a closed case. Authors are rarely fully in control of what they're writing, and much less so over such an extended period. I doubt if Tolkien himself could have nailed down exactly what the book was intended to be, and we certainly can't now. What the piece I wrote does (all it does) is pick up on an element of the text that I find compelling, discuss where it might have come from, lament the fact that such elements are few and far between, and speculate on why that probably is. As far as I can see, that's not an attack, it's basic literary criticism. And again, reacting as if it were an attack seems to me to demonstrate that same distressing level of defensiveness.

Anonymous said...

You know, nothing could ruin Tolkien for me. So I guess that just makes me different than some. To me, he was my first glimpse into a heartbreaking kind of beauty in writing; he's not the Pinnacle of Everything Literary to me, of course, as he was when I was fifteen. But I owe the man a debt of gratitude none the less.

And that's all I really have to say about that.

Anonymous said...


You said:
you'll see what I actually said was that I wondered why anyone adult would want to read a story about Towering Archetypal Evil pitted against (and inevitably being overcome by) Irritatingly Radiant Good

This is, I agree, the fundamental issue. Let me see if I can answer your underlying question of "why", here, at least for myself.

I could for example say that I've had a lot of stresses in my life that I'd really rather not see reflected in my reading choices--but that would be only partly true. I could also say that I've seen plenty of "gritty reality of human condition" things about life that aren't even necessarily connected with me personally, and that I'd like to have a story that's more optimistic for once--which would also be only partly true.

Sometimes it's simply a question of what I'm in the mood for, nothing more, nothing less.

Sometimes I want me a witty period mystery (Dorothy Sayers). Sometimes I want adventuresome and dashing historical warfare with bonus musical interludes (Patrick O'Brian). Sometimes I want me a funny urban fantasy (Tanya Huff, Anton Strout). Sometimes I want oh, say, a gritty and complex SF thriller. ;)

At the end of the day what's ultimately most important to me is, does the book not only keep me engaged but ideally even make me eager to get back to it? Are the characters reasonably likable--or, alternately, like Kovacs or like C.E. Murphy's heroine in The Queen's Bastard, interesting and compelling enough that even if I don't like them, I still want to read about what happens to them next? Is the progression of events in the plot not only reasonably intelligent but also appropriate to the story? (I prefer me a happy ending most of the time, but I'll take a tragic ending if that's what the story's leading up to, as long as that's clearly what the story is demanding.)

If I can say yes to all of these things, then the book's done its job. No matter what its genre or style.

Hope this gives you at least one answer to your question. :)

Lorelei Armstrong said...

Tolkien refused to be edited and it shows.

usedbuyer 2.0 said...

May I suggest that what interested Tolkien was the process by which unexceptional, if fundamentally decent people perform heroic deeds? I think he found evil not only incomprehensible, but, frankly boring.
Those who suggested here that Tolkien was of his time, a vet etc., should also remember what evil was in the world when he wrote. Would one really care why Stalin or Hitler were so obviously evil, or would one be likelier to concentrate on how one might rise to fight these forces?
And remember, in Tolkien, traditional heroics and magic fail in the end and can only face death bravely -- an entirely admirable attitude, so far as it goes, Tolkien might have said, but not enough when facing annihilation, and already out of date?
True, there are obvious faults, and areas of blind Donnishness; all the preoccupation with a lost Golden Age of simplicity, magic, agricultural contentment,, The ugly and unquestioned class assumptions inherent in plain "Sam" and "Mister Frodo," etc. But the pleasure of the thing for me is tinged with a nostalgia for my own lost childhood, so perhaps that makes me more forgiving.
I know my all but absolute refusal to read contemporary fantasy fiction is rooted in just such issues as mentioned elsewhere here and only touched on above. But really, it has mostly too do with the exhaustion of the conventions of the genre. Heroics, magic and fairies were all very well, but in a world library populated to overabundance with books of adult interest, describing and exploring adult themes, in adult language, without resort to the quaint quackery of magi and armor, why would a grown person want to spend precious reading time in the perpetual nursery of fantasy? For every tired Terry Brooks brick, or bloated Jordon psuedo-history, there are literally whole libraries of great literature as yet unread. Exoticism can be had by reading literature from real places I sadly know too little about. Inventive language and stylistic innovation were the hallmarks of the last Centuries best authors. And breadth of character and sweep of history are available from any of the great novelists of the Century before last. Why waste time on the the fundamentally 2nd rate, once nostalgia has been sated by rereading the best of the fairy tales I loved as a child ?

Anton Strout said...

sometimes I could go for some Anton Strout too... but what are the odds of THAT happening.

I love me a whole bunch of Tolkien, although the whole begatting section of the Silmarillion hurt my wee writer brain.

Adam Whitehead said...

I think I'll reiterate this point that whilst, from a narrative stand-point, LotR stands by itself, from a thematic approach it is very much the sequel to THE SILMARILLION, and much of the first simplistic reading of LotR is revealed to be erroneous or incomplete by that book.

The 'happy, good' elves of LotR, for example, are a race that was once literally the chosen people of God who, through jealousy, bitterness and overwhelming pride destroyed themselves, pulled themselves from grace and subjected themselves to ten thousand years of brutal warfare (most of which was down to them simply refusing to admit defeat even after all their objectives had been lost). Sauron is a brilliant and effective artist and engineer whose skills are belittled by his master, so he turns to Morgoth for inspiration instead, only to live in his shadow instead for millennia. When he finally strikes out on his own, he can never be more than an also-ran, second-rate tyrant whose successes are more down to the self-inflicted wounds and weaknesses of his enemies than his own capabilities. Sauron is an ultimately pathetic and pitiful figure, which you wouldn't really get from LotR by itself.

Mike Harris-Stone said...

Once again I think Tolkien, who is actually quite a subtle writer, is getting misunderstood. "Good=Old?" Where do you get that from? Sure, Tolkien wasn't uniformly pleased with the results of industrialization, (Global Warming anyone?), and he was most certainly a Catholic writer, but give the man credit where credit is due. LOTR is full of characters who are neither wholly good nor wholly evil. i.e. Frodo for starters, Gollum, Borormir, etc. Even Gandalf, who is good, isn't simple and even gets a bit crusty. In reality, Tolkien, as a Catholic writer, saw evil as a pervasive problem WITHIN the human heart. That' why Frodo struggles so much with the ring and why even the elves very early on their history have murder and mayhem occuring. (Feanor and the kin slaying.) In Tolkein there aren't any complete paradises. Even Valinor has seen its share of evil. The Shire, no matter how the films presented it, is NOT idyllic in the books...nor are hobbits uniformly good. Instead, greed, sloth, arrogrance, and sheer ignorance are part of their culture. (Sackville Baginses anyone?) What Tolkien meant by consolation isn't looking at the world thorugh rose colored glasses -- what he meant is that as a Catholic one believes that Good is the ultimate reality. (Read Augustine) So Consolation in this sense, isn't a lie, it's actually a recovery of a more balanced perspective. Naturally many would disagree with this and are welcome to. What I don't like is the gross misrepresentation of Tolkien's arguments. And know, I don't think LOTR is the ultimate fantasy book, in spite of its many strong features!!!

Anonymous said...


Ha! And yeah, although I fangirl on the Silmarillion more than I do LoTR, all the begets and begats hurt my brain too. Except for Aragorn being Elrond's nephew many, many, many, many times removed. That part brings me lulz. ^_^

Ink said...

Mike Harris-Stone,

Thanks for that. I have to agree that people seem to misread Tolkien's simplicity, his Good vs. Evil. The books, to me, are a Catholic writer's attempt to write about human sin in a concrete way. For story reasons he makes concrete the voice of human sin, embodying the internal struggles of the characters within the outward conflicts.

There's a running motif of "voice" throughout the books, of seductive and corrupting voices. Wormtongue, Saruman, Sauron, the Ring, the Palantir, Old Man Willow... These are all outward manifestations of the human struggle with sin, a dramatization of the characters faults and internal conflicts. Is
Boromir a great man merely "magicked" by an Ultimate Evil? Or did he, in truth, merely fall sway to his own pride and vanity, his own despair and fear? I think the latter. Pippin with the Palantir Stone? Aragorn contending with his fate, with whether he is made of something sterner than Isildur? Will his pride and desire lead him to take up the Ring? Even Gandalf fears the voices... and so refuses take up the Ring himself, knowing he would take up the Ring out of desire to do good... and fall prey to human weakness, to vanity and pride. Galadriel? She, too, has faults she must resist, faults made manifest in the temptation of the Ring. The Ring is not evil, it is merely an expression of our own human wishes, our own urges and failings. It's an expression, I think, of our very human sins.

Come now, is Frodo really fighting Ultimate Evil? Or is he just fighting his own weaknesses, his human failings? A fight he fails in the end. And yet that struggle is worth something, is it not?

And once Sauron is defeated... what changes? Nothing, really. They return to the Shire to find in it a mirror of the greater struggle, they see Sauron reflected in miniature. Saruman and Wormtongue... no more magical powers and yet they have proved just as dangerous, their merely human voices still capable of corruption, still capable of working on the vices of ordinary people. Tolkien, to me, is very clear at the end that evil is not grandiose but simply a part of the human condition. It can't be defeated, or escaped (except, perhaps, by death). But that struggle is important, even if, as with Frodo, the rewards are few, and the pains are far greater than the glories. So it is with most of us.

Ultimate Good and Ultimate Evil? On the surface, perhaps...

My best to all,
Bryan Russell

Joanna said...

I can not express my love, respect and admiration for Tolkien as a writer in a comment post. I have read anything of his that I could get my hands on, and took classes on his work in college. And I'm freepin' excited to see that more essays are to be published again soon.

K Marburger said...


I admit to being hyperbolic when I said Tolkien did it first. Certainly other people wrote fantasy worlds before LotR. (20? Are they any good? I was once a Lord Dunsany/William Morris fan, but my tastes have changed.)

But Tolkien was the first to have commercial success. And in my own opinion, to write extremely well. Nobody can write fantasy now without considering and avoiding or accepting the Tolkien canon. Sort of like Elvis or the Beatles. He changed the fantasy world.

That's all I meant. Richard Morgan is an extremely good writer. Altered Carbon changed me--darkly, it is true. I just don't happen to agree with his lit crit. Different things "clunk" with different people.

Drew Bowling said...

Hey there, Richard. I'm a fellow writer in your American editor's stable. You might remember me from San Diego Comic-Con (I won't blame you if you don't, though, since we shared more than a few drinks).

If you do remember me, you might also remember me telling you that I'm a fan of your fiction, especially Altered Carbon, which rekindled my love of science fiction.

I enjoyed your essay, along with the ensuing fallout. That said, I think your oversimplifying the study of morality in The Lord of the Rings.

Like I said on Durham's blog, I think Tolkien’s classic masterpiece, thrumming with dark poetry and melancholy hope, is a many-faceted crystal through which the human condition can be better understood, regardless of the angle from which it is viewed. The one precondition, of course, being that it must be examined in the light of an open mind. Your interesting analysis of the book did just that, and even you, who are not a Tolkien fan, were able to take something away from the story. I just think that another read might reveal further insights. The Lord of the Rings has, after all, remained a touchstone of literary argument, a catalyst for rigorous debate. It's inspired so many people, including writers like Gene Wolfe, Ursula K. LeGuin, and George R.R. Martin, all three of whom most critics consider to be of the first order. There are endless reasons why C.S. Lewis equated The Lord of the Rings to “lightning from a clear sky,” and I will argue that none of them revolve around mollycoddling readers about the verities and vices of man.

Anyway, thanks for igniting all the fun! Come to the states again soon. I have a deadline to meet, but I'd love to debate this sort of thing over a beer or ten.

Richard Morgan said...

Hey Drew - 'course I remember. How's things?

Thanks for the kind words (in various places) re Altered Carbon. Much appreciated.

Karen and Robyn - Writing for Children said...

I haven't read his works in quite a while, but I loved him when I did. I read his triolgy of the Hobbit in my teens. He created wonderful fantasy worlds and brought you into them.


BuffySquirrel said...

I have mixed feelings about LOTR. On the one hand, it's an amazing achievement, and I love the way places have different names in the different languages, and the breadth of Tolkien's imagination. OTOH, all those exclamation marks!!!!!!!!!

My mother was a huge LOTR fan and was often to be found carrying around her yellow copy. I do however remember her once telling me she thought it a very silly book. Make of that what you will!