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.

Michael Moorcock, The Stealer of Souls


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.