As some of you no doubt realise already, I am not a big fan of JRR Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings circus. I agree with Michael Moorcock, who argues in his book Wizardry and Wild Romance that Tolkien's writing was driven by an obsessive fear that the south of England, aka the Shire, with its idealised countryside and countryfolk, was about to be over-run by rough northern blokes (orcs) led by nasty Bolshy intellectuals (evil wizards) and supported by ungrateful natives in other parts of the Empire.
The sad thing is that in the space of a few decades the writing of an embittered old Oxford Don - writing which could originally only be published by a crank religious outfit - has become a myth that thousands of people on the other side of the world have assimilated.
I was driving through the Urewera forests with a friend who had been out of the country for a while, when he turned to me and said 'That's what I love about New Zealand bush - it looks so much like Lord of the Rings'. Tolkien and his faithful fan Peter Jackson have affected the way we look at our country, taking some of us, at least, back to the nineteenth century conception of New Zealand as a 'new Britain' and, in all too many cases, expunging the real history of the New Zealand from the minds of Kiwis who had only just been getting used to the facts of that history. People like my friend are imagining castles full of orcs or elves on mountains that are still covered in the visible remains of pa sites and kainga. They picture epic clashes between the rival armies of Tolkien's world over plains and hills where real, half-forgotten battles were fought only a little more than a century ago. Their imaginations turn puriris into oaks and cabbage trees into pines.
Tolkien comes at the fag end of a British tradition of romantic repulsion against industrialism and its effects on humans and the environment, and his work misses all of the progressive aspects found in earlier incarnations of this tradition. Where Blake in poems like 'London' and William Morris in his utopian novels decry the effects of industrialisation on the working class that the industrial revolution created, Tolkien identifies this class completely with all the negative aspects of industrialism. In doing so, he dehumanises them more surely than any mill owner or coal baron.
Where the likes of Morris wanted to get rid of the ugly aspects of industrial society by empowering workers, Tolkien wants to turn back the clock and thus eliminate the entire working class. In common with reactionary contemporaries like Evelyn Waugh and TS Eliot, he retreats from the modern world into a vision of an idealised Middle Ages society, a society ballasted by a happy peasantry that knows its place. Tolkien is rather like those middle class Western 'primitivists' whose response to the impact of industrialisation on the people of the Third World is to demand that those people leave their dark satanic mills and teeming cities, don grass skirts, pick up spears, and run around in the bush in noble savage mode.
All the failings described above could be forgiven, of course, if Tolkien were a great writer, like his fellow-reactionaries Eliot and Waugh. At least then he would provide us with an unforgettably vivid picture of his own alienation. If a writer has to be a fascist then he or she should at least compensate by being a genius. But Lord of the Rings , with its ponderous, pedantic narrative, cliched characters, and pretentious prose style is no work of genius: Moorcock was right when he described the book as 'Winnie the Pooh posing as an epic'.
Richard and the other defenders of Rings that I've encountered have been remarkably reluctant to contest Moorcock's interpretation of the book. Instead, they've questioned whether it is even appropriate to try to discuss the political meaning of Rings. They insist that Rings is an 'escapist' work, and that attempts to read it politically are bound to lead to miss the 'point' of the book.
But does the fact that Rings is an escapist book, and most of the people who like it read it as an escape, mean we can't analyse it in relation to the real world? Escapist literature gets much of its appeal from the way that it offers fantastic - and fantastically easy - solutions to real-life problems. (In Rings, magic and the intervention of benign advanced beings like the Elves enable the beleagured people of the Shire to best the mighty forces of Evil. In the real world, the social upheaval created by the decline of British capitalism could never be countered so easily. )
And to criticise the escapism of Rings is not to condemn all escapist fantasies. An analogy might be made here with debates on the left over tourism. Some leftists have taken a holier-than-thou attitude toward the mass, cheap tourism of the jet age, ignoring the fact that the people who take these holidays are usually trying to escape the failings of very capitalist system that the left criticises.
Ironically, mass tourism was one of the bugbears of reactionary British intellectuals like Tolkien in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Increased spending power and leisure time and cheaper transport meant that large numbers of workers were able to escape the dreariness of life in mill and coal towns on weekends and Bank Holidays: seaside resorts like Blackpool and Brighton were especially popular. Many intellectual guardians of the old order were disturbed by this new mobility of the working class, just as they were disturbed by mass literacy and the rise of the paperback.
I don't think there is a fundamental difference between nineteenth century holidays in Blackpool and Brighton and twenty-first century holidays in Ibiza and Majorca and Fiji. A balance needs to be struck between a recognition of the negative features of mass tourism and an appreciation of its function as an escape from the pressures of ordinary life for large numbers of working class people.
Tourist destinations can be seen as temporary utopias, which allow the acting out of fantasies and identities which are repressed in 'real' life. In a sense, then, they are no different from William Morris's equally evanescent but far healthier visions of an alternative, utopian society, or the fantasy and science fiction novels of radical left writers like Moorcock, Iain M Banks, China Mieville, and Ken MacLeod. The trouble with Rings is not so much Tolkien's escapism, as the type of society he wants us to escape to!
There's a more fundamental problem which needs to mentioned here. Many of the commenters on this blog have a tendency to try to wall 'art' off from 'life', by insisting that an artist's political opinions and behaviour, and the political context in which their work is received and used, should not interfere with judgements of their work. I can understand that this desire to wall off art and politics might be prompted by a distaste for the conception of art as propaganda, and for simplistic political readings of complex works of art like, say, Eliot's poems. I certainly detest didactic art and simplistic political readings of works of art myself.
The trouble is that if we treat art as basically autonomous from politics we actually accept the schema of the reductionists who want all art to be propaganda. Whether they are Stalinists or right-wing philistines and moralists, they typically divide art into 'self-indulgent' stuff, ie 'weird' or 'difficult' or 'irrelevant' stuff they can't easily reduce to a simple political message, and 'good' or 'conscious' or 'wholesome' stuff, ie simplistic propaganda. They dismiss the supposedly self-indulgent stuff as basically a bourgeois/decadent bohemian luxury with little relevance to the lives of ordinary people in the real world. If we celebrate, say, the poems of Eliot as autonomous works of art unaffected by the life and politics of their author then we are in danger of accepting that Eliot has nothing to say about anything but poetry - we are in danger of saying that reading him is an escape from things like politics into a different world, the world of Literature.
I think that the extremes of art as propaganda and art as escape are both dead ends. What we need to do is relate art to the real world it springs from, without reducing it to a simple reflection of or commentary upon that world. And I don't think my comments here have been too reductionist - if I were only interested in judging people's art by the standards of their politics, then I'd be lumping Eliot in with Tolkien as a bad writer, not defending him as a genius.