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Speaking of the Lord of the Rings yet again… April 22, 2017

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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As we did last week and the week before. When I was a kid I read the LOTR very young, probably around the age of ten, and for a couple of years it was something I’d haul around with me and reread again and again. And then. I stopped and didn’t pick it up for decades, not until the films came out. At which point I wasn’t able to read it.

More recently I’ve started back in again and I’m struck by how cosy it is – and how near forensic its detailing of Middle-Earth. I kind of like the way it lopes along, over hill and dale as it were, with, quite literally many a twist and turn in the landscape described. Indeed the thought strikes that it would be feasible to provide a sort of visual journey depicting that. An enormous project.

Cosy, as I mentioned above, and chock full of songs and poems and so on. I’m fascinated in a way as to what Tolkien thought of what he was doing – not in the sense of what his intent was, but whether he thought it was ‘serious’. Because it is difficult to read it and not be hugely impressed by the detail of place and language and history and mythos. And it is impossible not to feel that this fantasy was indeed serious.

But then, in another sense, how is that different to any fiction? These are, after all, all creations – perhaps even lies in the sense that they are not fact or truth or history. Tolkien went further, much further, than most others in filling in the backstory.

For me the way my own feelings about it have changed over the years is somewhat intriguing. They have moved from absolute love to something close to indifference (music and politics and so on took over my adolescent years and after) and back slowly to a sort of fondness.

It’s intriguing too how those other factors inflect my reading (and viewing) of it. For example, and I know this probably sounds like no fun, viewing Rohan last weekend on DVD the question struck me how the hell does its economy work? Or Bree and the Shire? How do the different races function in relation to one another. Bree is human, the Shire hobbit. But the distribution of humans throughout that area seems remarkably sparse given our own experience of same. And again the economy of Bree is somewhat mystifying, though the Shire less so. The levels of technology are pretty disparate, the Shire is 18th century, or thereabouts, those of Rohan near medieval. Gondor perhaps a little more advanced. Mordor is more mechanised but whether a largely troll-driven technology counts is a different matter.

And what of the court of the King in Rohan? Were there no checks and balances to prevent him being upstaged? Or the Stewart of Gondor. Not a King but with a seemingly hereditary system of rule. How did that work? On the other hand perhaps one should be grateful to Tolkien for offering us a rather more sceptical view of hereditary rulers than traditional myth – human frailty and weakness is never more than a chapter or two away. But then for Tolkien all is decline – and humans are thin material to build upon. Rohan may be led by a ‘noble’ King but he’s pretty damned flawed too. It’s difficult to feel any comfort in the reign of Kings. And perhaps that is how it should be.

Then there’s the dearth of women. Famously the film had to blur out Glorfindel and introduce Arwen on the way to Rivendell, in order to introduce a prominent female character. But the books? You’ll be looking quite some time. And not finding. I’m admiring of the treatment of Eowyn which at least attempts to address the issue more or less head one – that being why are women not more prominent, and her role right up to the end is significant. But is Tolkien addressing a ‘reality’ consistent with the mythos he is building or is he ignoring potential means of introducing or giving a higher profile to female characters?

And speaking of reality – how does magic work in relation to the fabric of the universe. There’s Gandalf and the Balrog falling through a fissure in the Earth. Do plate tectonics function? If so how do other ‘powers’ impinge on them?

Yeah. I’ll back away from the book real slow…

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1. Starkadder - April 22, 2017

“And speaking of reality – how does magic work in relation to the fabric of the universe.”

Tolkien said in a 1951 letter to Milton Waldman that the Elves
“‘magic’ is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power,
sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation.”

So perhaps the Elves’ magic could be regarded as an example of
Arthur C. Clarke’s “”Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” As for Gandalf and the other Wizards,
they are actually Maiar (Angel-like spirits in human form) so their “magic” would actually be miraculous powers. I presume those powers were what helped him survive in the underground world and defeat the Balrog.

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EWI - April 22, 2017

Tolkien very clearly wanted to reveal his larger mythology, but the publishers only wanted a ‘Hobbit’ sequel. The LOTR was the result (along with some retconning in future editions of The Hobbit), a fusion of both using a framing story.

As for Gandalf and the other Wizards, they are actually Maiar (Angel-like spirits in human form) so their “magic” would actually be miraculous powers

As were (spoiler alert) the Balrog, the Ents, Tom Bombadil and even Sauron himself. Even Aragorn was descended from one, so therefore had some powers of his own. ‘Men’ had some destiny apart from the other races after death outside of Middle Earth, the denial of which resulted in wraiths and other spirits (such as the Dead encountered in the passage by the Rohirrim to the Pelennor Fields).

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2. CL - April 22, 2017

I thought The Hobbit a wonderful little book and many 9 yr olds agree with me. I began reading the LOTR but soon put it down and was unable to pick it up again.
Friends thought me sacrilegious. But i am not alone.

“Just why Mr. Frodo was selling his beautiful hole was even more debatable than the price…
The Fellowship of the Ring, 1954

“Like Chesterton, and other orthodox Christian writers who substituted faith for artistic rigour he (Tolkien) sees the petit bourgeoisie, the honest artisans and peasants, as the bulwark against Chaos. These people are always sentimentalized in such fiction because traditionally, they are always the last to complain about any deficiencies in the social status quo….
While there is an argument for the reactionary nature of the books, they are certainly deeply conservative and strongly anti-urban, which is what leads some to associate them with a kind of Wagnerish hitlerism. I don’t think these books are ‘fascist’, but they certainly don’t exactly argue with the 18th century enlightened Toryism with which the English comfort themselves so frequently in these upsetting times….The Lord of the Rings is a pernicious confirmation of the values of a declining nation with a morally bankrupt class whose cowardly self-protection is primarily responsible for the problems England answered with the ruthless logic of Thatcherism. Humanity was derided and marginalised. Sentimentality became the acceptable subsitute. So few people seem to be able to tell the difference.”Michael Moorcock.
http://www.revolutionsf.com/article.php?id=953&page=2

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Starkadder - April 22, 2017

I don’t think Moorcock likes most writers of Christian-based fantasy (though he does like “Many Dimensions” by
“that under-admired Oxford “Inkling” Charles Williams” ).

I do remember reading the Rosemary Jackson book
“Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion” and being quite disappointed with it. It had a very narrow view of fantasy, restricting it to fictions largely considered as horror. Also, it dismissed any fiction (including UKLG’s ) set in a secondary world as “reactionary”-which, as Richard D. Erlich pointed out, meant Jackson ended up describing Tsarist Fyodor Dostoyevsky as more left-wing than Le Guin! .

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3. Dermot O Connor - April 22, 2017

Michael Moorcock’s ‘Wizardry and Wild Romance’ may be of interest. (I’m plagued by a memory of reading a book by Moorcock on fantasy, where he compares Tolkien vs. Peake. I was standing in Waterstones on Dawson St (?) ~1990, reading that passage and being blown away by it. I’ve never been able to find that passage online though, and it’s driving me nuts. MM is no fan of Tolkien’s toryism!

I *think* this is the book that contains that essay, but can’t be sure until I buy it (30+ years later).

https://www.amazon.com/Wizardry-Wild-Romance-Study-Fantasy/dp/1932265074

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Starkadder - April 22, 2017

Dermot- I believe that W&WR is the book that contains the essay on Mervyn Peake vs. Tolkien, but I can’t be sure.

It might be of interest to list several explicitly left-wing (as opposed to simply liberal /centrist)
fantasy writers I know of:

William Morris (Marxist)
Sylvia Townsend Warner (Marxist)
Herbert Read (Anarchist)
John Cowper Powys (Anarchist)
Naomi Mitchison (Fabian socialist)
Terry Bisson (Socialist)
China Mieville (Marxist)

Also, I think John Crowley of “Little, Big” fame might be a leftie, since he has a book coming up in the socialist-orientated “Outspoken Authors” series:

https://secure.pmpress.org/index.php?l=product_detail&p=857

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4. Dermot O Connor - April 22, 2017

More Moorcock!

http://flag.blackened.net/liberty/moorcock.html

STARSHIP STORMTROOPERS

QUOTE: If I were sitting in a tube train and all the people opposite me were reading Mein Kampf with obvious enjoyment and approval it probably wouldn’t disturb me much more than if they were reading Heinlein, Tolkein or Richard Adams. All this visionary fiction seems to me to have a great deal in common. Utopian fiction has been predominantly reactionary in one form or another (as well as being predominantly dull) since it began. Most of it warns the world of ‘decadence’ in its contemporaries and the alternatives are usually authoritarian and sweeping — not to say simple-minded. A look at the books on sale to Cienfuegos customers shows the same old list of Lovecraft and Rand, Heinlein and Niven, beloved of so many people who would be horrified to be accused of subscribing to the Daily Telegraph or belonging to the Monday Club and yet are reading with every sign of satisfaction views by writers who would make Telegraph editorials look like the work of Bakunin and Monday Club members sound like spokesmen for the Paris Commune…

…I started writing about what I thought was the implicit authoritarianism of these authors and as often as not found myself accused of being reactionary, elitist or at very best a spoilsport who couldn’t enjoy good sf for its own sake….

…Our main serial running at the height of our troubles was called Bug Jack Barron written by Norman Spinrad, who had taken an active part in radical politics in the US and used his story to display the abuse of democracy and the media in America. He later went on to write a satirical sword-and-sorcery epic, The Iron Dream, intended to display the fascist elements inherent to the form. The author of this novel existed, as it were, in an alternate history to our own. His name was Adolf Hitler. The book was meant to point up the number of sf authors who were, in a sense, ‘unsuccessful Hitlers’….

…The majority of the sf writers most popular with radicals are by and large crypto-fascists to a man and woman! There is Lovecraft, the misogynic racist; there is Heinlein, the authoritarian militarist; there is Ayn Rand, the rabid opponent of trade unionism and the left, who, like many a reactionary before her, sees the problems of the world as a failure by capitalists to assume the responsibilities of ‘good leadership’; there is Tolkein and that group of middle-class Christian fantasists who constantly sing the praises of bourgeois virtues and whose villains are thinly disguised working class agitators — fear of the Mob permeates their rural romances. To all these and more the working class is a mindless beast which must be controlled or it will savage the world (i.e. bourgeois security) — the answer is always leadership, ‘decency’, paternalism (Heinlein in particularly strong on this), Christian values……

…Traditional sf is hero fiction on a huge scale, but it is only when it poses as a fiction of ideas that it becomes completely pernicious. At its most spectacular it gives us Charlie Manson and Scientology (invented by the sf writer Ron Hubbard and an authoritarian system to rival the Pope’s). To enjoy it is one thing. To claim it as ‘radical’ is quite another. It is rather unimaginative; it is usually badly written; its characters are ciphers; its propaganda is simple-minded and conservative — good old-fashioned opium which might be specifically designed for dealing with the potential revolutionary….

…I attack these books because they are the favourite reading of so many radicals. I attack the books not for their superficial fascination with quasi-medieval social systems (a la Frank Herbert). Fiction about kings and queens is not necessarily royalist fiction any more than fiction about anarchists is likely to be libertarian fiction. As a writer I have produced a good many fantastic romances in which kings and queens, lords and ladies, figure largely — yet I am an avowed anti-monarchist. Catch 22 never seemed to me to be in favour of militarism. And just because many of Heinlein’s characters are soldiers or ex-soldiers I don’t automatically assume he must therefore be in favour of war. It depends what use you make of such characters in a story and what, in the final analysis, you are saying.

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WorldbyStorm - April 22, 2017

That is an interesting contention he makes re Rand loved by radicals. I don’t think so. I also don’t think many on the left would view Tolkien as radical, but I do think it is possible to enjoy him while still being left wing. I love Moorcocks stuff but that seems to me to have been written in the slipstream of the counterculture and perhaps people did once make claims about Rand et al then, but it’s a long time ago and things have moved on. To slightly shift his point I would strongly agree that the counterculture of the 60s had on occasion deeply reactionary aspects. Never trust a hippy. Generally sound advice (though always liked the Ladbroke Grove contingent who seemed much more like proto punks) 😉

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5. Starkadder - April 22, 2017

Amusing essay, but inaccurate. For start, “Starship Troopers” was serialized in F&SF, not “Astounding”:

http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?1112

Also, I’m puzzled why Moorcock thinks the centrist Isaac Asimov was somehow a reactionary.

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WorldbyStorm - April 22, 2017

Asimov was I’d go so far as to say actually kind of social democrat in a US context.

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WorldbyStorm - April 22, 2017

By the way anyone any leads on Marxist or at least radical fantasy? Not Mevielle, read him, but others, or any where class is addressed? Richard Morgans stuff came close.

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EWI - April 22, 2017

By the way anyone any leads on Marxist or at least radical fantasy?

I suppose you might take Dunk, the working-class hero of George Martin’s Game of Throne prequel short stories as something like this. There’s a fair bit of subversion of the usual tropes.

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Starkadder - April 22, 2017

Check my earlier comment for two other fantasy writers who followed Chuck Marx. 😉

Also, Jack London? His “The Star Rover” is clearly a fantasy about reincarnation. There’s also “The House of Arden” by E. Nesbit, which I’ve seen described as having socialist undertones.

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oconnorlysaght - April 23, 2017

E.Nesbit was, I understand, a member of the Fabian Society, or, at least close to it. Her stories remain readable (and unembarassing) today.
As for the hippy counter-culture, the problem was that there was always an element there of Crowley’s ‘do what you will is the whole of the law’. It is not accidental that Manson was one of its children. However,Rand’s roots go back further: the Enlightenment gone rotten.
I’m not sure whether Punk is that much better. Though J.Lydon has not resorted to serial killing (yet?), his recent thoughts (?) on Brexit and Trump are, if radical at all, radical in the wrong direction.

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Ramzi Nohra - April 23, 2017

Hi
Long time no see!
Interesting thread. Probably worth reading “son of the morning” by Mark Alder. It’s historical fantasy in the time of Edward III and has quite a radical take on established religion, and also of Edward II, who it positions as being overthrown due to his sympathies for the working class. The treatment of the aristocracy vis-a-vis the peasantry in warfare is also drawn out in a distinctly non Tolkien way.

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WorldbyStorm - April 23, 2017

And likewise! Sounds good.

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EWI - April 22, 2017

Also, I’m puzzled why Moorcock thinks the centrist Isaac Asimov was somehow a reactionary.

I don’t get this either. He was a noted humanist, and the last of his Foundation stories ends with a radical proposal.

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6. EWI - April 22, 2017

Or the Stewart of Gondor. Not a King but with a seemingly hereditary system of rule. How did that work?

As I understand it, the Kings each appointed their own Stewards (essentially prime ministers) as they pleased. It only became hereditary when the last King never came back, and his death in captivity was never known. Towns and villages in Middle Earth could at least had mayors, but as for the cities…?

The problem with ‘royalty’ and ‘nobility’ for Aragorn and the Dúnedain is that in their world, there actually *was* a real divine right of kings descended from Luthien, and a certain people actually had been enhanced for nobility which was passed down through generations (and Théoden was of part-Numenorean descent). The issue for our universe is that there actually is no such thing as the supernatural or the divine here.

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WorldbyStorm - April 22, 2017

Yep, that’s for sure.

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7. Gearóid - April 23, 2017

I really like Mieville’s article on Tolkien here, especially the point about the Watcher and the Water and underdescribing. http://www.tolkienlibrary.com/press/896-China-Mieville-on-Tolkien.php

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8. ivorthorne - April 23, 2017

I’m no expert but I’ve been told that Tolkien’s world was created more to serve the languages he created rather than vice versa.

My impression was Tolkien liked a sort of agrarian lifestyle. The Shire is a place that has not fallen to industrialisation (see Mordor) and is a place where everyone knows everybody, the feuds are minor and there is a strong sense of community – even if people can be small minded.

I don’t think he ever really gave much throught to the economies of Rohan or Gondor. Both seem to be based around farming with things like mining being left to Dwarf tribes.

Later fantasy tends to give more attention to economics. It is something that looms large in the background of ASOIAF – if that’s not a contradction in terms.

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EWI - April 24, 2017

Later fantasy tends to give more attention to economics. It is something that looms large in the background of ASOIAF – if that’s not a contradction in terms.

Martin is pretty good at deconstructing ‘fantasy’. Dealing with economies is something that Robert Jordan had touched on earlier, too.

In modern sci-fi, both The Expanse and BSG have also at least acknowledged the issue. It’s no longer just hand-waved away, these days.

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9. An Sionnach Fionn - April 24, 2017

I never stopped reading about the Lord of the Rings and related Middle-earth writing but I haven’t read the actual trilogy – or The Hobbit – in years. I’m afraid to. What if now I hated it? 😦

I loved Moorcock’s early 1960s’ and ’70s’ stuff, Dorian Hawkmoon and Elric and all that, but I found his later writing rather more tedious. Some of his late stuff was, sorry to say, kinda boring.

I agree with some of his anti-Tolkien arguments but a few of his interpretations of the LotR’s faults were a bit off. Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth is a good read on the Oxford don.

Moorcock was certainly right about authors rummaging around in Tolkien’s attic, searching for inspiration 😉

One slight sign of hope. I recently reread Philip José Farmer’s World of Tiers, a full-on cliche-ridden 1960s’ sexist-abounding romp, and still enjoyed it (more or less). So I might give Tolkien a go again with fingers crossed.

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