Saturday, November 11, 2006

Against Tolkien

Here's a cleaned-up version of the comments I made - or rather excavated - during the debate I had with Richard Taylor about Lord of the Rings the other day.

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.


Blogger Richard Taylor said...

I am not exactly a "defender of the Lord of the Rings " as indeed I haven't read it (I have watched the films however) - I was puzzled and am still puzzled by your belief that the films and the book is reactionary and also what do your mean by raectionary...?

I cant see any connection between the Lord of the Rings - as I say I have only seen the films - and that was because my son loves them - now I have come to find them to be great movies. I dont know about the book.
All I can say is that it is very long - forbidingly so for me.
I think that the book - or the films - can be seen as archetypal of the struggle between good and evil (as say Paradise Lost is and many other works) and in fact the analogy might be be that Tolkien values the goodness of England versus the evil of the potentially invading Germany - he was in the First World War - he hated war - and BTW as far as I know he was not embittered.

But the Orcs could be seen as the Nazis (although there is no mention of them or of "the working class" or industrialisation in the book or film that I know - although perhaps that could be inferred - but I think Moorcock has probably read too much into it all - it is a harmless fantasy - and the writing in the Hobbit is pretty good -I dont know about the LOTRs (writing in).

But if there are any analogies to be made - the only book I have on the subject says that Tolkien didn't want any analogies - it could be to the sruggle agaisnt Nazi Germany or evil and war in general - because Tolkien wasn't a Marxist merely means he saw the world differently from say - whoever wrote and was Marxist. The only example of possibly a great writer who was both I can think of is Brecht.

I dont think you can blame Tolkien or Jackson on "cultural Imperialism" or Jackson's films - that is absurd - (as I said I liked "Heavenly Creatures" but not his other films.

I am not particullry interested in fantasy - I read all kinds of things - but I thought the films of the Lord of the Rings were magnificent.

There is nothing "reactionary" here - it is simply fantasy - coloured by Tolkien's love of England perhaps...nothing else. If anything it is an instructive story - about courage, the overoming of hardships and "evil", freedom, and love: and as my son said there is at least no pornography in it. The love is pure - of your fellows and women and of various and different groups. Of course it is very stereotyped, but then so was Beowulf and Spenser's analogous "The Fairie Queen" The story as I say is archetypal - fundamental.

You are assuming that there is necessarily going to be some human 'progress' - now that is possibly a false view - another view (eg via Srephen Jay Gould) is that we are merely accidents and just one branches or even accidents of existence and this vaunted progress of the working class (and other classes and people) is a dream only - progess is possibly indeed a "no go" - or to use a trendy cliche the concept of progress is a "no brainer" - I have 'rubbed shoulders' with working class all my lfe and they are not - let us say - to think that somehow wonderful things will come via them is a fairy story in itself.

I can empathise with Tolkien's point of view re industrialisation - although I doubt that he thought of anyone as "working class per se...

The argument that if Tolkien had been a "great writer" then his reactionariness would be ok (as Eliot's was you say )is fallacious -as what if we found some writings -previously unknown by Adolf Hiter -and they turned out to be greater than those of Shakespear? And he had also secretly composed music more wonderful than Mozart's? Does that mean that Hilter is now suddenly "not so bad"? Or do we condemn the writing and music - supress it? Eliot's The Waste land is great poem - but does that make him thus less reactinary and is The Waste Land perhaps not also reactionary? (And what of Pound and his Cantos and his ravings from Italy by radio to the world in favour of the Nazis and Mussolini and his "Facist Cantos"?..and yes he was great poet..) - There is more evidence that Eliot hated the "people" more than Tolkien did - he was much (probably totally) opposed to democracy - preferred the old systems of the Middle Ages - believed we had gone backwards to a kind of corrupt spiritual state (and he was anti-Semitic etc etc) - perhaps he was right - things dont look too good in the world just now.

And this is why we maybe need fantasy - not always of course - but it is great for the human soul.

12:56 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


10:45 am  
Anonymous laurie bunter said...

I thoroughly enjoyed your Marxist tirade against Tolkien! :) While I don't agree with your assessment that Tolkien is a bad writer, I totally agree with your scathing observations regarding the socio-economic lay-out of Middle-earth and its idealized view of "peasants who know their place." I find it unfortunate that so many Tolkien fans refuse to accept this kind of reading of their favorite author.

4:35 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tell me, are you a professional moron, or just a moron in your spare time?

4:31 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...



6:46 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I heard about the cult of Moorcock sometime last year, just after I'd finished Perdido Street Station by Mieville, which I thought was fantastic. I picked up the first entry in his Elric series and got about two chapters into it before I hucked it across the room in disgust. Honestly, I've read better fan fiction by middle schoolers. His sentences were the very definition of purple – grotesquely bloated and full of superlatives. Every time he found himself unable to describe his black velvet unicorn imaginings, he pulled out words like "weird," "strange," "eldritch," "impossible," etc., the eternal recourse of bad fantasy writers.

I love Tolkien passionately, but have no trouble listening to critics of his writing. I personally find his treatment of race highly problematic. But when these criticisms come from a hack writer like Moorcock, I have trouble stifling my laughter.

Racially prejudiced? Probably. Politically nuance? No. "Epic Pooh?" Not a chance in hell. It's as if Moorcock never read The Hobbit. The entire novel is about Bilbo's progression out of the insular and ignorant world of Hobbiton into a larger, more complicated world. Bilbo learns to value responsibility for others over his own comfort. And even in Lord of the Rings, the characters all accept the fact that their world is changing. Power is shifting from Elves to Men in much the same way that in Tolkien's time Imperial Britain was fading and former colonies were gaining autonomy. You could say that progress is an essential force in the novels. Just because that progress incorporates nostalgia for the passing world and an environmental conscience is no reason to label it "fascist" and "reactionary."

Much as I loved Perdido Street Station, I have to say that Mieville himself would much prefer to live in London than New Crobuzon, where, thanks to the efforts of environmentalists, for whom Tolkien was a prophetic voice, the atmosphere is still livable.

A final note: Tolkien's use of hobbits for protagonists was incredibly progressive, opening the role of fantasy hero up to the average workaday person, a little flabby around the middle and prone to despair. Moorcock's Elric, despite his showy addiction to drugs, which is nothing more than a fetishistic flourish, is a regressive throwback to the muscle-bound, fair-skinned, heavy-metal album art demigods of Robert E. Howard and his ilk. As far as empathy for the proletariat goes, Tolkien beats Moorcock every time.

3:10 am  
Anonymous Mike Potts said...

I think you make some good points about Tolkien, but I believe your defence of Morris is misplaced.

Tolkien, as I'm sure you know, got the inspiration for LOTR from Morris, who once said that he hated civilization.

Don't be fooled by Morris's avowal of socialism. It's the same "socialism" as HG Wells or GB Shaw - patronising and elitist. As Betrand Russell once observed, the power of labels when it comes to politics is quite remarkable.

George Orwell also sees Morris-style socialism for what it is in his Road to Wigan Pier. An excellent dissection of the arts & crafts approach to "socialism".

9:18 am  
Anonymous Viagra Online said...

Lord of the Rings is one of the best books in the history, I have read 2 of the trilogy... I think that you said some important things about the book... excellent job!!! congratulations 2d2d

8:56 am  
Anonymous said...

Lord of the Rings is a fantastic film, the characters and the whole story is just amazing.

3:41 am  
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