Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Richard K. Morgan on JRR Tolkien: The Real Fantastic Stuff in The Lord of the Rings

Over at the Random House Suvudu blog, my friend (and one of my favorite writers!) Richard K. Morgan has posted a great essay on why - although he's not a fan of JRR Tolkien - he's found surprising things to love about The Lord of the Rings. Very thoughtful piece; well worth reading!

26 comments:

annathepiper said...

Heh. As an adult who quite enjoys going back to re-read Tolkien every so often, I could expound at length on why adult readers would enjoy him. But I get the sense Mr. Morgan wouldn't be interested. ;)

That said, I do agree with the gist of the essay at large. I am not so much of a Tolkien fangirl that I can't see that yeah, Middle-Earth does all too often paint things in (literal, sometimes) shades of black and white.

Jeff said...

I wonder if we share the same definition of "thoughtful."

Seems more like yet another hipper-than-thou fantasy blogpost. Why would anybody (adult) want to read Tolkien? Hell, I don't know. Ask the whole damn English-speaking world, plus a big chunk of the non-English-speaking world.

Bill Cameron said...

I confess, he lost me at, "not since I was about twelve or fourteen anyway (which, it strikes me, is about the right age to read and enjoy his stuff)." I plowed on for a while, but it was clear that he's a rather superficial reader of Tolkien by the end of the first paragraph.

clindsay said...

Jeff -

Actually, I know more fantasy writers who don't like Tolkien than do, and usually for the same reasons: the class and race systems set up in the story. Though most writers who dislike Tolkien's prose still feel that writers owe him a debt of gratitude for providing such an amazing example of world building.

I loved The Lord of the Rings when I was eleven. I reread it again at fifteen and still enjoyed it. But when I read it as an adult, I found it seriously flawed as a novel, although as a "fictional history" it works nicely. I thought that the films actually were an improvement; Jackson managed to provide all of the action and forward motion that the narrative in the book lacked.

We'll have to agree to disagree on this one, sir. =)

Colleen

katatomic said...

I'm one of the adults who just don't care for the books. I've tried, again and again. They simply don't hold me as novels. As world building and structure examples they are very interesting, but as novels they annoy and bore me.

bad kat...

Scott said...

I absolutely love LOTR and re-read the books every few years . . . and have since I was in my teens.

I'm not one to dissect books. I read for pure entertainment value. I don't read to find the hidden themes the authors allegedly did or did not put into their writing. LOTR - IMHO - is a good read, whenever you're reading the books. Then again, it is all a matter of personal reading preference.

In the end, Tolkien paved the way for fantasy writers. He set the stones on the path so that the Guy Gavriel Kays, the Anne McCaffreys, the J.K. Rowlings and all the other fantasy writers out there could do what they wanted to do . . . write!

Jeff said...

Colleen, as you say, everybody has different tastes.

Certainly, many fantasy writers dislike Tolkien for the same reason literary writers dislike Faulkner, except for historical purposes, as you say. But fantasy readers seem to love them some Tolkien, as has been proven by sales and polls throughout the years (not so much Faulkner).

I recently reread Lord of the Rings around Christmas. I haven't read the series since before the movies came out. I wouldn't have written the story the way Tolkien did, but that doesn't mean it sucks, or is only for children, in my opinion. I don't have a problem with the race and class systems because it's fiction, it's part of the world he built for his story.

Richard Morgan said...

Hi Colleen - cuanto tiempo! how's things?

"Why would anybody (adult) want to read Tolkien? Hell, I don't know. Ask the whole damn English-speaking world, plus a big chunk of the non-English-speaking world."

That's flawed logic, Jeff. That a large number of people behave in a certain way does not automatically render that behaviour readily intelligible or intelligent. Look at all the Americans who voted for Bush. Twice.

There's no "hip" issue here - unless you consider that a liking for engagement with the human condition in literature is a sign of terminal "hipness" (and not, as I would have thought, a simple quest for quality). It seems to me, in these times, that being "hip" is likely to involve exactly the opposite - say, a great liking for the cardboard caricature story telling of "Sin City" or "300" (the latter of which offers up many of the same flaws as Tolkien's story-telling, but cooked to crack cocaine intensity)

clindsay said...

Hey there, RK!

Que pasa, sir! Nice to see you pop in here. It's been a while!

We need to have a serious discussion, by the way, about why Ringil in THE STEEL REMAINS wasn't completely chafed after all that boinking of the enemy. (Seriously chafed. Dude.)

=)

When you coming back to the US of A so I can buy you a drink or four?

Colleen

Richard Morgan said...

Ah - see, chafing works differently in the Grey Places.... :-)

Not sure when I'll be back in NY - no US tour for The Steel Remains, so it might be some time. But don't worry - I never forget the offer of free whisky....

annathepiper said...

I wasn't going to address this thread further, but okay, if Richard's actually reading this, I'll say this:

Again, I have no issue with the assertion that Tolkien is often overly simplistic. I do however take issue with the idea that his work is kid stuff, or that there couldn't possibly be a reason that adult readers would want to read him.

I can't speak for the rest of the adult population of the planet, but I can speak for me. Here's why I like reading Tolkien: the worldbuilding in general and the incredible depth of detail of languages in particular (it makes my little wordgeek heart very, very happy). Also, I've never actually had problems with Tolkien's word choices and style. I know lots of readers find him unbearably dense and opaque, but me, I see richness and music in his prose. That goes a long way for me in the entire experience of reading him.

Now. Like I said, I'm not so much of a Tolkien fangirl that I can't also acknowledge his flaws. His simplicity of class and racial structures are a big example. So is his treatment of gender and the relative scarcity of truly dynamic female characters; I have to go into The Silmarillion for Luthien before I can get a female character I really, really like. Galadriel comes in second and then only because there are interesting notes about her that sadly never made it into final works.

My overall point though is this. I see agents and editors mentioning all the time on blogs about how publishing is such a subjective business--that sometimes one's query will be turned down just because "your novel just didn't work for me". Tolkien doesn't work for some readers. I get that. He does however work for me, and I assure you, I'm looking at him with my fully informed and adult reading glasses on. ;)

And btw--I also really like your work, Richard. I quite liked the first Takeshi Kovacs novel and the only reason I haven't read more of them is lack of mass market paperback editions. Cheers.

annathepiper said...

P.S. Aheh, sorry about getting Tolkiengeeking all over your blog, Colleen; I'm only slightly less prone to that than I am to geeking about Canadian folk music, Star Wars, or Elfquest. ;)

Amanda B. said...

Good points, but I don't agree. I'm a Tolkien geek and I always will be. But if I must lay down LotR, I'll just have to pick up Roverandom.

Richard Morgan said...

Hi Anna - fair points, I suppose, though it does seem to me what you're really saying is that Tolkien's footnotes and appendices are perfectly appropriate for adult consumption. Bear in mind that everything published under Tolkien's name after LOTR is really no more than an immense, tidied-up pile of author's notes for the aforementioned book. The Silmarillion is just the further, onward sprawl of the appendices from The Return of the King. And tellingly, this is where you find Luthien and the parts of Galadriel that interest you, as well as all the minute detail that you enjoy immersing yourself in.

But the awful truth is that LOTR is a children's book; it was begun as such, as a sequel to another very successful children's book, the Hobbit (also massively popular with adult fantasy readers) and though Tolkien imported rather more of his obsessively detailed background into this one, the overall tone remains. For me, the only thing that lifts LOTR (occasionally) above that level and into adult narrative is not the inclusion of that world-building detail (logistically impressive though it may be), but the inclusion of those few momentary excursions into human realism such as the one I quoted in the essay - and sadly I think those are unconscious lapses on Tolkien's part.

Of course, tastes vary and everyone's entitled their own. Whatever lights your fire. But just as I don't understand why some people like to eat cheese that smells like unwashed feet, I also don't understand why some adults like (nay, love) to read fiction which paints the world in the simplistic tones of a small child's perception. I don't claim superiority to them (the smelly cheese eaters or the Tolkien lovers) - but I just don't see the appeal.

clindsay said...

Anna -

Debate is always welcome at The Swivet. I think I learned long ago that most of my readers are smart people who like to argue a point. This is why I don't moderate my comments. I trust you guys to act like adults. ;-)

RK -

Thanks for coming by to answer these questions! And if you'd ever like to post a guest-essay on this blog, just let me know. You're always welcome. (In fact, I'd love to have you pop in to discuss THE STEEL REMAINS!) And don't worry; I have some serious single-malts waiting for you. I guess I'll be alone in eating the stinky Époisse cheese, however. =)

C-

Jeff said...

Richard, I disagree that it's flawed logic, because Tolkien's work has held up over time and appeals across the generations. This isn't American Idol.

I think the flaw in your own reasoning is a tendency to demand of the book that which it is not, and was never meant to be. Because it fails to delve into gritty realism isn't a flaw - it would only be a flaw if it was supposed to be gritty realism, and failed. It's high fantasy, some would argue the greatest work of high fantasy ever created, and it seems to me that you're accusing anyone who appreciates high fantasy of being immature. That's the incurable hipness I feel you're engaging in - the institutional disdain for high fantasy. In any case, you state the issue quite well yourself - a liking for engagement with the human condition: key word, liking. These are your personal tastes in literature, and your personal tastes are not everyone's quest for quality.

I agree with you that the orc scene in Two Towers is quite good, but so are the scenes with Sam and Frodo, especially the one after Sam rescues Frodo from the tower. Gollum is a truly tragic hero of the classic style. Eowyn's torment is great stuff, up until she finds redemption in Faramir (a chapter I usually skip), but Tolkien hardly ever gets credit for creating such a strong female character. There are depths to this rather simple story of good and evil, if you care to think about them.

The main thing is, I appreciate the exploration of the human condition and high fantasy for what they are. They are not mutually exclusive, except as a matter of personal taste.

Kat Richardson said...

RK said: "I never forget the offer of free whisky...."

Oh, so that's what it takes. Next time I shall bear that in mind and forgo post-signing foodage at the RAM with Duane and co and wave single malts under his nose....

Jeff said...

Full disclosure: last year I published a story in Mallorn - the journal of the Tolkien Society - so I am somewhat biased toward the old man's work.

But if stranded on a desert island today with one fantasy novel, I would probably choose Titus Groan.

clindsay said...

Jeff -

Have you seen Kate Nepveu's chapter-a-week re-reading and commentary of The Lord of the Rings over at the Tor.com blog?

Fascinating!

clindsay said...

Kat -

If memory serves me correctly, Richard can also be bribed with a dozen or so tasty capirihnas. =)

Heh!

C-

The Geeky Quill said...

In regard to LotR being a children's book- Tolkien wrote a wonderful essay about fairy tales and he's of the opinion that they aren't just for children.

Jeffrey L Riffe said...

I have to admit to loving the entire body of work, more as a younger reader than as one the age of 42.

I've often imagined that Tolkien wanted to tell a story set in the world that he had so elaborately constructed but felt it necessary to tailor the narrative towards an audience that he felt would be more receptive to such work.

Moreover, that this was done as much out of his perceived social constraints and the time period in which this work was written than out of the genuine desire to write a fantasy book for children.

Consider that by his own admission inspiration for his work came in part from the very wars that he took part in; how would he turn around and convert that into accessible content for younger readers?

Perhaps he found himself with this fantastic world he had created, a definite story that he wanted to tell and a publishing environment that would have never accepted the story as he really would have liked to have written it.

So he compromised. He painted the story in more simplistic terms of good and evil and toned it into something a younger audience would most readily grasp.
But, he included all that he could to leave the story as an open ended allegory against the horrors of war. All this with the recognition that despite these horrors, time to time there will be the absolute necessity to fight such wars because the alternative is even worse.

That's pretty heavy to throw into a book for kids and I bet it would scare the bajeebus out of a publisher if he pitched it like that.... back then.

But hey, I am just armchair quarterbacking here, I'd actually have to do some research to back up my outlandish suppositions.... O_0

/Cheers

Jeff said...

Colleen, thanks for the Tor link. I wasn't aware of it. I just read some of the recent chapter posts - she knows her stuff, that's for sure.

annathepiper said...

Richard--

it does seem to me what you're really saying is that Tolkien's footnotes and appendices are perfectly appropriate for adult consumption

Har. Well, certainly I accept that most children would be snowed under by the massive, massive pile of footnotes and appendices that the vast majority of available Tolkien works comprise. ;)

And tellingly, this is where you find Luthien and the parts of Galadriel that interest you, as well as all the minute detail that you enjoy immersing yourself in.

I'll give you this, certainly. The Tolkien tales that most interest me are in fact the ones in the Silmarillion: Beren and Luthien, which plays for me as a classic love story and has the added bonus of Luthien kicking major ass in her own right.

Also, the tale of Turin, which is heftier stuff than I would expect most young readers to get into. I love the hell out of the recently released The Children of Hurin, even though it took Christopher Tolkien to finish up what his father started and piece all the extant bits of the Turin saga into one big cohesive work. And I certainly would not expect most young readers to enjoy that. I turned up my nose at Turin when I was a kid; now I have a lot more appreciation for the inexorable doomwreck that was his entire destiny. I'd put his story up against any tragic opera any day of the week.

(Of course, I don't expect everybody to appreciate tragic opera, either. ;) )

But yeah, both of these stories are more complex than either The Hobbit or LoTR, easily.

But the awful truth is that LOTR is a children's book; it was begun as such, as a sequel to another very successful children's book, the Hobbit...

Yep, still with you (although here's the thing--I don't think it's an 'awful' truth)...

the inclusion of those few momentary excursions into human realism such as the one I quoted in the essay - and sadly I think those are unconscious lapses on Tolkien's part.

And yeah, I'm with you on this. Like I said--I do buy your overall assertion that Tolkien tended to be way too simplistic, which is pretty damned funny for a man who loaded such awesome detail into his work, innit? Even over in the Silmarillion, you can boil a lot of that down into all the woes of Middle-Earth tracing clear back to Iluvatar smacking Melkor for singing out of tune in angel choir, and Melkor stomping off and having a hate-on for the entire planet as a result. And then you've got the entire First Age where the elves are killing each other over shiny holy rocks. ;)

And yet--he does sometimes rise past that. And I agree with you, that's when he achieves true greatness.

Now, you also said....

I also don't understand why some adults like (nay, love) to read fiction which paints the world in the simplistic tones of a small child's perception.

This, I think, is unfair. For one thing, as I'm sure is obvious, I disagree with the assertion that Tolkien is so simplistic that he's only fit for a small child to read. Yes, his overall scheme of Good vs. Evil is about as simplistic as it gets, but I've found plenty in Tolkien that I've appreciated far more as an adult than I ever did as a child. See for example previous remarks re: Turin, and re: Beren and Luthien.

For another thing, "children's literature" doesn't automatically equal "unfit for adults to read" or "uninteresting to adults". Just because a work's main target audience might be kids doesn't mean that adults might not also find it enjoyable, or that the adults are somehow demeaning themselves by engaging in it. See also, Pixar movies, Star Wars, Harry Potter.

but I just don't see the appeal.

Which is fine.

As I said in my earlier Comment of Enormousness, publishing is a very subjective business--and that's because reading is so subjective. One person's escapist crap is another person's classic mythic saga. I would not expect you to jump over into Tolkien fandom just on the strength of the testimony of l'il ol' me; I'm mostly just aiming to give you data about why an adult reader might enjoy his work. That adult reader doesn't have to be you. ;)

annathepiper said...

Colleen--

Debate is always welcome at The Swivet. I think I learned long ago that most of my readers are smart people who like to argue a point. This is why I don't moderate my comments. I trust you guys to act like adults. ;-)

Oh good! I promise to clean up the random snippets of dwarf jewelry, pipeweed, and elf/human romances I'll probably leave lying around the place before I go. ^_^

Mike Harris-Stone said...

Nice essay! I like the point about the "realism" of the orcs concerns.

But I must take issue with the idea that LOTR is any kind of a retreat into "nostalgia." Anyone wanting further insight into Tolkein's work would do well to read his essay "On Fairy Stories" and the little parable that goes with it: "Leaf by Niggle." I think the darkness at the heart of LOTR and the sense of loss, elevates well above any charge of "escapism." It's not perfect for sure, but it is far deeper and more profound than most people seem to realize.