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. 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.

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.

Fritz Leiber, Swords and Deviltry

I tell myself that I like to read what I call “crap fantasy,” but it’s not actually the case.  I like good fantasy or, given the confines of the genre, great fantasy.  I’ve tried reading crap fantasy–one of the Forgotten Realms novels, because I’d played D&D in that setting before–and couldn’t get past the third chapter.  I need a relatively high grade of crap to keep my attention.

I had also played D&D–this in college in what was the best group I’d ever played with (we’d start at noon with a case of Newcastle)–in a Lankhmar setting, based on Fritz Leiber‘s stories.  The Dungeon Master raved about Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, and a few years later I started reading Leiber, but for some reason he didn’t, at that point in my life, take to me, or vice versa.  If memory serves, I had picked up one of the books in the middle of the series.  At minimum it wasn’t Swords and Deviltry, the first, and a good beginning.  Maybe it’s that I started at the start, or that I’m at a point in my life where I’m more open to escapist reading, but I loved the book.

I will, before noting what struck me about Leiber, say that I’ve never read The Lord of the Rings, mainly because when I pick up The Fellowship of the Ring in a bookstore or library and flip through it, I can’t get past the dainty, tra-la-la prose Tolkein insisted on using.  I say this because I’ve seen the films, and one thing I gather is that Tolkein created a number of very strong characters for his fiction, which is more than I can say for most of the fantasy I’ve read, which centers on usually one complex character with a series of arche- or stereotypes surrounding him, because it’s basically always a male central character.

Leiber, apparently in collaboration with his friend, Harry Otto Fischer, came up with two compelling characters and an even more compelling relationship between the two, and that strikes me as the basic reason these stories work in a way that genuine crap fantasy doesn’t.  It should be said that Swords and Deviltry contains three stories, the first two about Fafhrd and then the Gray Mouser respectively, before they met each other.  Most of the book is about either Fafhrd or the Gray Mouser, with the third story, the justifiably-famous “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” about their meeting and the formation of their relationship.

All of the stories are good, but without question “Ill Met in Lankhmar” is the masterpiece.  Leiber has a lightness to his writing that, so diametrically opposed to Tolkein’s leaden prose, is refreshing, and much of this comes from the characters.  The two are quick to drink and impulsive, which makes for lightness.  The trick, though, is that Leiber can use these characteristics to bring the plot to totally devastating consequences, completely convincingly.  He’s an excellent writer.

A last note: Mouser begins his career as an apprentice Wizard, Mouse.  His transformation into the Gray Mouser is well-done–and it seems to me that showing (as opposed to telling) the transformation of a character is one of the more difficult things a writer can do–but though he showed himself capable with magic, he drops it completely in favor of swordplay, noting in a later story that magic was powerful but dangerous, or something like that, but with no further comment.  Fantasy as a genre contains magic, but it’s dangerous it seems for a writer because it can easily function as a deus ex machina, relieving the writer of the need to think one’s way out of a literary problem.  That said, and only having finished the second of the series now, I want Mouser to use a little magic sometimes, precisely because Leiber’s approach to it is that it has a cost.  Witness my notes on Octavia Butler for more on why precisely this is so important.