J.R.R. Tolkein, The Return of the King

I just finished Tolkein, for crying out loud. Enjoyed it, no doubt, but I got to a point after reading the first two that I ran out of steam for a while. Returning to Moorcock’s famous “Epic Pooh” essay, this description of Tolkein’s prose bears quoting:

sentimental, slightly distanced, often wistful, a trifle retrospective; it contains little wit and much whimsy.

More than anything, I found that contrary to an assertion Moorcock alludes to from unnamed defenders of Tolkein’s prose, that the prose in The Return of the King was more grating than in the previous two books. Maybe I was moodier, maybe the gradual accruing of archaicisms just wore on me. But I put it down despite liking it and being generally interested in the story.  I picked it up a week ago, feeling strongly that I wanted to finish it and that Tolkein deserved better than George R.R. Martin, who in the fifth book of his series has seemingly lost me for good.

Briefly I should say a few potentially contentious things.

  1. Tolkein wrote a great read but by no means is he a Great Writer. Turgenev was a Great Writer. Ishmael Reed is a Great Writer. Octavia Butler was a Great Writer.
  2. Continuing, the entire Lord of The Rings is thoroughly flawed as a work of art, often poorly paced even when taken on its own terms, with, as I’ve written before, astonishingly shallow characterization.
  3. Tolkein’s political blind-spots are near killers for someone who does not share them. In this volume, the portrayal of the “wild men,” the Dunlendings, seemed straight out of Kipling at his worst.

All these, but I read the book, which is not something I always do. So, the pertinent question would be, now that I’ve finished it, “what does Tolkein do well?”

I don’t think the big attraction about the book is Tolkein’s “world-building,” though it’s something often pointed to even by critics as the chief virtue of the book. Certainly, having played Dungeons and Dragons as a kid I appreciated it and found the small allusions to long ago histories throughout completely engaging. But that said, it’s not like Tolkein drew all this up out of nothing. At some level while it’s not the inevitable outcome of an Oxford philologist, specializing in Old English, deciding to come up with a fantasy story and having the whole project snowball into an obsession, it seems certain to be one of the likely outcomes. But this isn’t good or bad, as people don’t generally invent something from nothing, and likely they never do.

Two things really strike me as Tolkein’s interesting and at some level original, at least in the genre, achievements. First, he has an understanding of the working of political power, particularly as it applies to Mordor, that is rare in the genre and valid. Particularly, and I think I’ve made this point before, Sauron is not an all-powerful evil. Maybe it’s the rash of movies in the past few years in which some overwhelming galactic enemy is going to destroy everything everywhere, and which is all-powerful and invulnerable, only to be suddenly defeated five minutes before the film’s close. Tolkein spends much time, generally through Gandalf, pointing out the tenuousness of Sauron’s position. The good guys are not all but doomed nor is their victory inevitable, but rather there is a both formidable and vulnerable enemy. This is a genuinely interesting approach and one which retains some meaning in our actually-existing world.

Second, Tolkein, for all of his flaws, approaches his subject from a fundamentally humane perspective. I have plenty of people in my life with whom I have real political disagreements and whose politics I am certain has bad effects on the world, but who, in their dealings with people in everyday life are generous and humane. I feel like Tolkein was like that. Critical here is his treatment of the orcs. There is an element in the portrayal of the orcs wherein they are evil hordes simply to be slaughtered. Functionally, in the novel, that’s what they are. Yet, particularly in The Return of The King, which in some scenes looks in relatively close detail at orcs’ relationships with each other, we get some detail to support–was it Gandalf’s assertion at some point?–that the orcs weren’t flawed at conception but developed to be so. This is really important and likely undercuts the narrative structure of the book, which is “good triumphs over evil.” At some level I get the feeling that Tolkein the person was more humane than his book.

I’ll close by noting that I picked up Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Sketches, and his descriptions of the countryside absolutely demolish Tolkein. There really is no contest.

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J.R.R. Tolkein, The Two Towers

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As I write this I’m already a bit into The Return of the King. Despite what seems to be its reputation as the relatively boring middle bit, I thoroughly enjoyed The Two Towers. These books pass the most important test I give to books at this point in my life: I enjoy reading them.

Having said this, and feeling like the whole point of this blog is to say something, I’ll say that there are all kinds of flaws in Tolkein. The reverence with which some people approach his work, and the issuing of every single piece, it seems, of material he wrote to prepare for the trilogy, seems completely unwarranted. I know that there are classes offered in Tolkein as I’ve spoken with people who have taken them. I can imagine devoting a few classes to the work in a larger course, but a full course seems to me a desperate measure by untenured faculty to offer something–anything–which will boost their enrollment. The best use of Tolkein is to read the novels, not to study them.

One of the common praises sung of Tolkein is that he “invented a whole world” and “invented entire languages” that people spoke. These praises are generally presented with an endearing type of fanboy credulousness. But while Tolkein is certainly, in his creation of Middle Earth, hugely inventive, what is actually more interesting to me, reading it, is the extent to which it is visible that he did not invent out of whole cloth. This doesn’t make it less of a creation, but rather gives a sense of what it actually means to create. It’s not that there’s nothing new under the sun, because that’s not true. History doesn’t just repeat itself despite the cliche.

And so what’s interesting is not the extent to which Tolkein doesn’t invent something new. What he was clearly trying to do was to create a novelistic approximation of the type of otherworldliness one encounters in pre-Christian English literature, Beowulf specifically, and also like the various Scandinavian sagas. That literature presents worlds very different from the ones we inhabit. There’s magic, for example. Yet they are written not as fantasy, or not seeming to be as fantasy, but rather as a record of how things were, magic included. Behind the formal execution of those works, the actual words on a page, there is a full conception of a way the world works, or worked we would say from our current vantage point.

So, we should not say that the world of Tolkein’s is actually different than our own. A quick google reveals all kinds of predictable discussion about the underlying racism of Tolkein’s presentation. Predictable in that it’s not hard to see in the reading of it, and predictable how lots of people try to pretend it’s not there. This bit describes the problem well:

Tolkien did not write in a vacuum. Caught up in a generation of global war that profoundly and permanently altered British culture, he saw the world in terms Samuel Huntington might have recognized: the “clash of civilizations” in which East and West are pitted against one another. It is not a coincidence that Tolkien locates evil in Middle Earth in the East and South, or that the Haradrim mercenaries recruited by Saruman are readily identifiable as North African Arabs. Nor is it a coincidence that the dividing line between good and evil, the river Isen, is a homonym of the common German surname Eisen, and is given the same meaning (“iron”).

I will say that I was shocked but not surprised that at one point Orcs referred to some of the Rohirrim–people from Rohan–as “white skins.” It just made it all clear.

This isn’t about Tolkein as much as it is about how one goes about creating art. Tolkein clearly saw the world in a way that reflected the racism of the British Empire in which he grew up and which he defended. I can get past that. It doesn’t make him a bad writer. God help me if it’s only my worst qualities that count. What’s interesting to me is how generally well Tolkein actually does in presenting his world with an air of versimilitude. It’s only in moments like that use of “white skins” that the fictive nature of the endeavor peeks through. Really, it’s very good.

The same applies to Tolkein’s “invented” languages. Rohirrim, a plural, is a good example. Yes, Tolkein put a lot of effort into inventing an elfish language, etc. But the “-im” plural rang really familiar to me when I read it. It was one of those moments where, despite the best efforts of the author, the fictive nature of the novel becomes visible. It’s like a scene in a movie where you see the overhead mic dip onto the screen. The source for this plural–at least as it reads, which is the real test–would be seraphim & cherubim. My point is not that Tolkein wasn’t inventive, but that what he invented didn’t come out of nowhere.

The big problem in Tolkein, as a read, is the massive contrast between the thoughtfulness of the setting and the shallowness of the characterization. As I start to read The Return of the King, Gandalf is developing some depth as a character. Memory is imperfect, so maybe it was on display in The Two Towers as well. Here’s Gandalf, the wonderful celestial being, who flies off the handle at the slightest inconvenience. Not horribly interesting, but complex in a way that none of the other major characters are. None, except Gollum.

We'll tip our hat to Ralph Bakshi.

We’ll tip our hat to Ralph Bakshi.

Were I to advance a bold thesis, I’d say that Gollum absolutely ruins The Lord of the Rings as a work of literature, not because he’s poorly characterized but on the contrary because he’s the only figure in the series that is thoroughly well-drawn. I will say that once Gollum fully entered the narrative I had this sense that, for the first time, I had encountered a real person in this book. I thought of Tolstoy–now this is a real writer, I thought, with a real novel. Every tiny character in War and Peace is as well-drawn as Gollum, if through Tolstoy’s complete mastery of the small, telling detail. And those are the tiny characters. I thought, Tolstoy gave us hundreds of these characters, and Tolkein gives us one. I am not so much making a judgement as I am reporting a thought process. What is true is that, as I experienced it, the depth of Gollum only served to make all of the other characters look shallow. This is a real problem.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

The-Fellowship-Of-The-Ring-Book-Cover-by-JRR-Tolkien_1I don’t know what precisely possessed me, but I finally started reading The Lord of the Rings. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the various writers, Moorcock, Durham, Martin, Leiber, who have in various ways attempted to up-end Tolkein’s model of fantasy.

In my responses to all of those writers, I sympathized. At any number of levels, I still do. Tolkein’s work is classist and legitimist, and it presents a simplistic moral philosophy in which good and evil appear to be things.

A read of The Fellowship of the Ring confirms at least provisionally all the elements of these critiques. I will say, though, that while, for example, Tolkein indeed presents too simple a dualism of good and evil–it doesn’t, in its simplicity fit my experience of the world–he’s also more interesting in the actual reading than one would imagine from the movies, or The Hobbit.

What struck me was that at one point, almost as an aside but huge in its implications, Gandalf noted that Sauron was not always evil. Now, that is interesting. Having no interest to read the Silmarillion, I used Wikipedia and found that Sauron was more or less a fallen angel as we would find in Milton. This certainly makes for a more interesting read, as a dynamic evil, i.e., subject to change, is vastly superior to a static one, if one is going to adopt a framework of good and evil as a moral philosophy. More interesting as moral philosophy, though it does make Tolkein’s overarching mythology, highly original in its copious, pushing obsessive detail, less so it its broadest, essentially Christian contours. I guess the lesson is that great artists steal.

What was most interesting about the read was not that the moral philosophy was a bit more nuanced than I’d come to expect, and I will say that Tolkein did not surprise me with an unexpected depth of characterization. Really, characterization is his biggest flaw as a writer. Great on conceptualization, not so much on characterization. What really took me surprise, however, was the portrayal of land in the book. My ex began reading The Fellowship of the Ring while we were together, and stopped, citing among other things interminable discussions of hills and dales. Surely, she had a point to make.

For my part, though, I was blown away. Tolkein clearly gave more thought to land than to people. I don’t think this makes him a bad person. I find the long discussions of the land in which the narrative takes place both enormously interesting and politically important. This gets to the contradiction in English politics of the 18th century, one that E.P. Thompson pointed to in his Whigs and Hunters. When I was a kid in school, raised with the politics I was, the Whigs, Liberals, were the good guys in that story and the Tories the bad.

But of course as time passed and I got a fuller story, it became more complex. The good guys weren’t so good, and the bad guys weren’t simply bad. Tories, in seeking to maintain traditional social bonds of necessity recognized, if implicitly, traditional social rights, however imperfectly as I am all too aware they upheld those rights on an individual level in practice. The Whigs, in seeking to “liberalize” social relationships threw the baby of traditional rights to use land, in this case for hunting, necessary for the maintenance of agricultural communities.

So, while working Englishmen in the countryside had reason to fear both Whigs and Tories, in significant ways Tories were much less of a threat than Whigs. Tories–the local, landed aristocrat–were of the land, too, at least in some kind of imagination. I did not expect to see that connection to the land, the aspect of European Conservatism with which I am most sympathetic, so fully displayed in Tolkein, but there it is. Good for Tolkein.

Jack Vance, the Dying Earth

dying-earth2These words refer to Jack Vance’s original, 1964 anthology, consisting of six stories, and currently out of print. What remains in print is a larger anthology of the four Dying Earth books Vance wrote over the course of his lifetime. Unless there is some compelling reason, I like to deal with things as they originally came out.

I’d long known Vance’s name because of his influence on the magic system in Dungeons and Dragons, and, then, by the consistently high regard in which his work is held by readers who by all appearances care about quality. I will say that with this collection–to be clear, I’m talking about first Dying Earth book, six stories–I entirely agree.

While on the one had the characterization in the collection is strong across the board, the setting itself here is of central interest. Briefly, the “Dying Earth” stories are so-called because the setting is on the planet Earth, but of the far future, when the Sun is in the process of dying out. Climate and weather change in fantastic ways, and, more interesting, the characters are aware that they are living, if not at, then near the end.

It’s not a deep observation to say that good speculative fiction, be it sci-fi or fantasy, or whatever, uses the speculative aspects of the genre to examine ways in which actually-living people live in the world. Not a deep observation, but a critical one. There is an escapist appeal to speculative fiction, but if it is going to stick, it needs to be about us. The best case in point I know of is Octavia Butler. Vance’s setting, fantastic, with magic, points to the underlying awareness in all people that life is transitory. Nicely done, Vance.

Nearly immediately, it’s clear why the people who created D & D turned to Vance as a source for their system of magic. It’s not simply that Vance’s portrayal of magic fits the demands of a game. It certainly does: in Vance people who use magic must memorize spells verbatim, which, upon their use, they completely forget, requiring more study before more use of magic. Great for a game.

Reading Vance, though–and this leads right to characterization–what’s most interesting is that part of the reason people need to memorize spells is because, late, late in the Earth’s game, magic is magic because people have, by and large, forgotten how to create it through experimentation. What remains are the records of other magicians’ work, which one memorizes, uses, and forgets.

In “Turjan of Miir,” we meet the titular character who is trying to create humanoid live in vats using magic. He is not up to the task, and seeks another, greater magician, Pandelume, who by reputation knows how to pull the spell off. This of course is the same basic trope, with all its attendant patriarchal problems, as Pygmalion.

Pandelume has previously created a physically beautiful and mentally flawed woman named T’sais. T’sais sees everything negatively, and as a result is both miserable and violent. Her story in the collection, taking her name as its title, is one of the most affecting works of fantasy I’ve read, and by any measure a beautiful story. Maybe it spoke to me on some personal level, and as a result produced the emotional response it did. I know what it is like to see everything as ugly. The crucial moment, one of the most beautiful transitions I’ve read, is when T’sais becomes conscious that it’s not that the world is ugly, but that she perceives it to be so. She then resolves to learn how to see beauty, and her attempts, with some beneficial results, are entirely believable and therefore very affecting.

I can’t overstate how thoroughly a small transition in a character, like that in T’sais, is the mark of a real writer. I’m in the fifth of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, and feeling very frustrated with the writing. The action seems to be in taking more or less static characters and creating situations in which the plot develops, but the characters do not. Or–this in hindsight–we have a character who develops, if very early on, like Daenerys’ change from timid girl to Dragon queen. The more I read in the books, though, the more confused I am about how that change actually happened, and the more convinced I am that Martin did not in fact give us a character development but merely replaced the first Daenerys with a second. Vance, totally contrary and vastly superior, not only shows us a turning moment in T’sais but causes us to feel it. That’s the real thing.

George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows

A_Feast_For_Crows.365x600.w.bI’d heard from more than one source that this fourth novel was one of the weaker, if not the weakest, of the five yet published. Likely this is because—I’m not making an original observation here—it’s one-half of the too-large manuscript Martin submitted to his publisher, only to be told to split the thing into what would be the fourth and fifth books of A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin chose to divide the text geographically rather than chronologically, and this meant that a number of well-liked characters, left in cliffhangers in A Storm of Swords, made no appearance in A Feast for Crows. This, and a large part of the book involves new characters, yet to prove their depth compared to the old.

So be it: the book’s good. If the new characters don’t seem as deep as the old, then at some level it remains to be seen whether this is a function of knowing them for less time or a less-compelling conception.

The broader issue for me, aside from enjoying the read, is the extent to which Martin’s work revises Tolkein’s precedent. Along this line, the question of women in the narrative is central. Martin’s work is widely seen as rebutting Tolkein’s near-totally male Middle Earth. Rhiannon, in an excellent piece, puts it as follows:

A Song of Ice and Fire is a mostly feminist text, featuring fascinating, dynamic female characters in a variety of situations. The fact that these girls and women live in a deeply misogynistic world only adds to the realism of their struggles and ultimately to the strength of their achievements.

I might have gone with that sentiment all the way through the first three books, but am hesitant with A Feast for Crows. Why, precisely, and why with this book? For me, any feminism worth getting behind is based on the premise that women are precisely as complex as men. This is more of an analytical point than an evaluative one. Patriarchy is based on the premise that women are as a group are subservient, simply. All my experience flies in the face of this idea, and so I reject it.

Martin’s treatment of Cersei in A Feast for Crows has forced me to re-investigate the women who populate the books generally. She is, here, an alcoholic hitting her bottom. For starters she drinks constantly, and to finish everything she does is wrong and destructive. Interestingly, I find myself becoming more sympathetic toward her in inverse proportion to the extent Martin reduces her to a simply destructive presence. It’s as if I feel like it’s one thing for her to fight against a rotten father, dashed hopes, a philandering royal husband, and a murdered child, but something more difficult entirely to fight against an author who chooses to make you a predictable villain. Nobody deserves that kind of treatment.

I don’t have the series of books at hand and were they here I would not refer to them in any event. My concern is how I feel about the books now. I find myself wondering about how Martin built Cersei in previous books. The general idea is that Martin, contra Tolkein, not only writes women into his books, but writes them well. I am not sure at this point. Martin places appropriate details in Cersei’s trajectory, but I am not sure, in hindsight, that I saw them come together as someone like Jaime or Tyrion. Cersei behaves selfishly and abominably throughout the series, but we get told that she is truly devoted to her children. This is contradiction substituted for complexity. I don’t suggest that any individual has some kind of essential core character from which all behavior springs. There is no such core in anyone. What is true, however, is that as people develop, the varying aspects of what we call, as a convenience, personality, fit together, not because of a predetermined design but because each influences the other and in turn is influenced.

We don’t see this kind of developing “personality” in Cersei. We have elements in her that form contrasts—love of children, selfish behavior—but not mutually-forming contrasts, as in real people and, I would say, in characters like her brothers. Though she makes no direct appearance in A Feast for Crows, I think back to Daenerys and feel as if a similar process is at work. On the face of it, she functions as a foil for Cersei, and vice versa. Where Cersei wields state power foolishly, the teenage girl Daenerys,when last we saw her in A Storm of Swords, makes political and strategic decisions more effectively than either Jorah Mormont or Barristan Selmy. All good, but we don’t see any development that would have given her the kind of understanding she demonstrates in her actions. She began the series timid and emotionally dependent on her older brother. After learning to enjoy sex with her husband, her personality changes and she becomes assertive. That’s the only development, per se, I can recall in the character. I like Daenerys, it’s good that we see a woman wielding political power well, but real people have a learning curve. Daenerys doesn’t.

Feminism’s most important point is that women are real people and that our social, political, and economic norms need to reflect this fact. I see powerful women in Martin,and certainly progress from Tolkein, but I am increasingly unsure that I’m reading, in his female characters, about real people.

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George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords

I'm with the consensus. Best yet.

I’m with the consensus. Best yet.

For whatever reason, A Song of Ice and Fire really has its hooks in me by this point. A number of people I know who’ve read the series thus far have told me that A Storm of Swords is their favorite, and thus far I have to agree. More than anything, the book is good because Martin maintains a general inventiveness in plot and depth in character.

To return to the running thread of the discussion, my concern with Martin has been the extent to which he revises Tolkein’s influence on the genre. Right now, my concern is that the genre, nearly without exception takes a European center to its fantastic settings. Middle Earth is Europe, and the Shire is rural England. We know this. Even a Moorcock, who so thoroughly revised Tolkein’s ethical framework, maintained this European focus. His principal non-Melibonean characters were either Europeans by another name or exoticized others, sympathetic or no. In Tolkein, Sauron enlists the forces of Islam, if one scratches below the surface.

There can be no doubt that Westeros is, for the greater part, Europe. You could argue about Dorne, but the rest is there. I make this point without judgement, but with some concern. Why? Because one of the reasons I engage with literature the way I do is because literature, particularly more lowbrow forms of it, those for “entertainment’s sake” shape the way we as people see our world and the other people in it. This, and the fact that when we imagine that something is “just entertainment” we are all the less likely to be conscious as people of how what we read (or otherwise consume) affects our thinking about our world. My concern is that the thoroughly Eurocentric character of the genre can leave a reader with the impression that Europe–or the settler colonies Europeans established–is the center of the world and its history. This can transfer easily, especially in one of the settler colonies like that in which I live, to people. White people become the center of the world’s action, and their phenotypes become the norm. This type of thing has concrete, destructive consequences.

So, Martin doesn’t change this aspect of the genre. The question then becomes, how does he handle Europe? Discussions about what Europe means are very important, just like though we know Marx didn’t deal in depth, in his major works, with the non-European world, what he had to say about Europe is of enduring importance.

The colonialist line on Europe is that it took a civilizing turn away from the rest of the world when the Greeks defeated the Persians. Where others had superstitions, Europeans had philosophy. This predicated the Roman and British Empires both, and is why the English-speaking peoples gave us heavy industry.

There is a second, less discussed, and much more accurate and useful take on Europe. Rather than a Europe that breaks from the rest of the world with the Greeks, we have a Europe that breaks in the modern period. Of interest here is Carlo Ginzburg’s work, which I’ve discussed before. In essence, what we see with Ginzburg’s work is the process of church orthodoxy rooting out–physically–localized, indigenous religious practices under the guise of a struggle against witchcraft. This happens both under the context of the new Reformation and the development of modern, global, colonialist capitalism. The point here is that Europe was, as it continues to be, split unto itself.

We imagine Europeans, and, it follows, their white descendants in North America, Australia, and New Zealand, as peoples entirely culturally–genetically, to the biological racists–distinct from the indigenous peoples they displaced in their colonialist primitive accumulation. However one deals with this, though, the arrival of those Europeans who settled other peoples’ lands was the end of another, European process as much as it was the beginning of another. What a Ginzburg points to is a Europe that was as much connected to its particular, local land as any indigenous culture could be. In this view, Europe split from the rest of the world when it cut off its own roots in its own land.

All this discussion, because Martin deals with this process, in his way. Jojen Reed is the best example, at least in Storm of Swords. Bran, too, but Jojen is the one who is conscious of the processes involved. Tolkein gave us happy Hobbits living in their English countryside, but Martin gets to something more real: indigenous peoples under seige by settlers. The settlers–think the kings of Westeros, with their ideologues, the maesters–imagine that what had been there before is now entirely gone, but they’re wrong. The land still functions through people like Jojen.

Why is this important? Because one of the sustaining fictions of white supremacy is the lie, cherished as fact by explicit racists and privileged white liberals both, that “the Indians are gone.” I can’t count how many times I’ve heard that precise sentence from people who considered themselves on the left. Indigenous people are not gone, though white settlers did their damnedest. And who were those white people? Not people who were at some basic essence different from those they displaced, but people whose bond to their land had been forcibly cut, who found themselves at some level unmoored, and, as such, capable of great social violence. I return to Chief Seattle, to whom I will continue to return, again and again:

To us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. You wander far from the graves of your ancestors and seemingly without regret.

George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings

A-Clash-of-KingsBeset by illness, I plowed through the last 200 pages of A Clash of Kings much more quickly than I expected to. A part of me had thought I’d finish both it and the ensuing A Storm of Swords before the third season of the HBO series began, but that train’s left the station. 960 pages is long. Needless to say, the best part of being fairly sick was the time spent with this book. Generally I felt awful.

Substantively, A Clash of Kings improved on A Game of Thrones. We all miss Ned Stark, but what struck me, having seen the series, was how well-developed the characters are in this second book compared to the series. Arya Stark stands out. There’s a lot more going on with her in the book than the show. So too Davos, Stannis Baratheon’s “Onion Knight.” These are fantastic characters, and the show simply does not do them justice.

Any glance at any of the bits I’ve written on fantasy here will reveal that one of my hobby horses is to bemoan how thoroughly Eurocentric the genre as it exists is. I noted that while Martin certainly demolishes Tolkein’s almost entirely-male conceptual precedent, he does so in a world that is, basically, late Medieval Europe. In particular, I am concerned when indigenous people–in Martin’s world we have “the Children of the Forest” are “all gone” or at least presumed to be.

My point has nothing to do with fantasy lit per se but rather that I’ve had too many conversations with actually-existing white people (it’s white people that concern me most because I am one, and because they still hold, as a group, social sway in this country) who say things like, “gee, the Native Americans really had a good thing going. Too bad they’re all gone.” This, despite the very real presence of all kinds of Native people not only on reservations but living in your city, white man. This approach allows this country to not deal with the present results of past genocide, and it’s not good. So, when I see that trope play itself out in fantasy lit, I know that it soothes the white subconscious in a way that will not move us forward.

So, let me then say that it’s becoming clear that Martin’s approach to indigenous people is more nuanced than was clear, or at least clear to me, in A Game of Thrones. First, we meet Jojen, who has the ability of greensight. He is of a group of people who, while not children of the forest, “keep the old ways.” Those old ways, clearly, still work in this new world of Westeros, and that is leagues removed from the idea that “those nice people are all dead and gone now.” It puts the question of our full, human relationship to land and ancestry into the present, rather than the past. There are other examples as well: Bran Stark is a “warg,” inhabiting the body of his direwolf in dreams, and one gets the feeling that we will meet children of the forest in later volumes. Good for Martin.

I’m nearly 200 pages into the third book as I write this. I don’t feel like I’ll bother with the HBO series for some time, if at all. Good series, better books.

Michael Moorcock, The Stealer of Souls

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The book, and the man himself behind it.

Though I hadn’t read the Elric stories in this anthology the first time around–I read the old DAW versions, in order of the internal chronology–I continue this new pattern of rereading stuff. I like it. A good book read at a different point reveals something different.

I don’t know why, fix or six years ago, I decided to read Elric, but it was at the time the first work in the genre that, once started, I actually finished. For whatever reason, likely a piercing nostalgia for my childhood adventures in Dungeons & Dragons, I took Elric up. I’d tried to read Robert Jordan many years earlier when someone I worked with at a bookstore told me how genuinely well-written it was. I was not impressed. Maybe I’d read it differently, but the language seemed artificially archaic and I detected no moral subtlety. I made it through 50 pages at most.

Likely, one of the things that drew me not only into but through the entire Elric series, excepting Moorcock’s more recent novels, was what immediately impressed me again this time around. Moorcock, it bears repeating, came up in a literary world of monthly magazines and fanzines. He had to engage his reader from the start unlike something drafted with the intent to occupy a minimum of three volumes. I have read, as a glance at this “blog” indicates, plenty more since in the genre, but with the possible and for me likely exception of Fritz Leiber, for straight-up page-turnability, Moorcock has no peer.

Likely, as well, I initially chose Moorcock and Elric particularly because of his reputation as a critic of Tolkein. Rereading the work, it’s impressive how, working with the concision pulp literature demands of its authors, Moorcock provides an exceptionally clear and systemic philosophical framework for the narrative. Tolkein’s son–good for him–has milked his father’s background sketches for decades now, and while some point to the volumes Tolkein wrote with no expectation of publication to sketch the backstory to The Lord of the Rings as a virtue, it strikes me as more akin to the shut-in who works, in his dingy apartment, all week preparing volumes for the one evening he will act as Dungeon Master at the Wednesday evening D & D game at the local game shop, volumes the bulk of which will never get pulled out of his backpack but which will be lovingly filed in one of the stacks on his bedroom floor. Moorcock, very much the contrary, drew up a clear sketch, thought about it to see if it worked, and then, knowing it did, got down to the business of writing something he actually wanted to see published.

One thing to note about this particular anthology is that it apparently follows the date of publication rather than the internal chronology I’d first encountered. Stormbringer, in which Elric dies, was, I now know, written quite early, with intervening stories later. The upshot is that while I expected I’d read the first portion of Elric’s story, I got the first bit and then the last. The other volumes in this series I gather fill in the rest. This is fine, but to fact is that I would rather have kept the internal chronology. Bear this in mind if you investigate the work.

As an aside, while Alan Moore‘s introductory essay displays all of the pomposity that mars his own work, I read it and felt that I’d wished he’d become a literary critic rather than a comic book writer. He fully understands both Moorcock’s literary and his social significance, and communicates both objectively and entirely clearly. Moorcock’s essay which follows Moore shows a man less impressed with his own erudition and at the same time clearly more genuinely erudite. Moorcock comes off as someone aware of his talents but much more interested in the work itself than what the work indicates about his own value as a person, an enthusiast in the best sense of the term.