'Close your eyes and think of Middle Earth'
My recent post on Tolkien has prompted some discussion on the international Marxmail e list, with several fans of the great man rising to his defence.
Somebody with the austere name of 'DCQ' complains that Tolkien has become a 'sort of punching bag of the left' since he reached the big screen. DCQ points out that Tolkien became disillusioned with run of the mill conservatism, and sometimes styled himself an 'anarcho-monarchist'. But it seems to me that it was precisely Tolkien's unhappiness with both the left and the mainstream British right that drove him towards the impossibilist nostalgia for the Middle Ages that is reflected in Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien was one of a generation of British intellectuals who became disillusioned with the realities of twentieth century life - with the slaughter of the First World War, the chaos and suffering associated with the Great Depression, the ugliness of an industrial economy which had by the 1930s lost any dynamism and glamour it had once possessed - but who could find no viable social group and political movement with which to identify.
Unwilling to throw their lot in with an idealised British working class, in the manner of the young Auden and countless other writers of the inter-war period, and disgusted with the philistinism of a British ruling class that had lost its aristocratic liberal fringe, intellectuals like Tolkien, FR Leavis and Evelyn Waugh looked back longingly to a pre-industrial era where the problems of the twentieth century were absent.
DCQ talks of the philistinism of left-wingers who ply reductionist political analyses of literary texts, but then goes on to argue that Rings must be good, and have at least some progressive qualities, because 'millions of people' read it. Is that not a pretty philistine argument?
I think that the vastly increased audience Rings has won in recent decades is in part a reflection of the contradictory course that history has taken in that time. Over the past thirty years capitalism has struggled to regain the bouyancy it had in the decades immediately after the Second World War, and even in the wealthy countries of the West ordinary people have been made to pay for this failure. Yet despite economic stagnation and decades of falling real incomes, the triumphs of the neo-liberal right in the '80s and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 have helped ensure that an entire generation has grown up without the prospect of a feasible alternative to capitalism.
This curious combination of stagnation and the evaporation of a real alternative to the status quo has meant that a sizeable number of young people, in particular, have begun to hold the sort of attitudes that gave birth to Rings over sixty years ago. Today's disillusioned look about them and hate the world that they see, but can conceive of no feasible alternative to maladies like globalisation, the War of Terror, and environmental degradation. It is not surprising that many of them turn to ideas and cultural movements based on a rejection of modernity in toto. I have encountered many people active on the rather otherwordly primitivist and eco-anarchist fringes of the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements movement who, contra DCQ, regarded Rings as a sort of allegory for their political stance, if not as a full-blooded manifesto.
In another post to Marxmail, Bob Hopson complains about those who 'want to bring Marxism into my entertainment choices' and counterposes Tolkien to a joyless tradition of literary 'realism':
There was an interview with China Mieville (a Marxist scholar and science fiction writer) where he confessed to finding realisitc literature almost unreadable. I sometimes wonder whether realism isn't just a fad of the modern era. And if you can't enjoy fiction without social commentary, there's always Leguin, Butler, etc.
Hopson seems to reduce the term 'realism' to a description of the subject matter of a text. But many literary scholars would argue that it should also relate to the way that a text treats its subject matter. Rings may have a fantastic setting, but its prose style is ultra-traditional, drawing on Norse legend and Chaucer and completely ignoring the innovations that modernist writers like Joyce, Proust, Hemingway and so many others had given to the novel form in the first decades of the twentieth century. To my mind, Rings is a very dour piece of realism when set beside a novel like Joyce's Ulysses, even though Joyce tells his story in twentieth century Dublin rather than a fantastic land of elves and hobbits.
It seems strange, too, that Bob Hopson invokes China Mieville in defence of Tolkien, given Mieville's oft-stated disdain for Tolkien's scribblings. Here's a juicy quote from Mieville's excellent essay against Tolkien, 'Middle Earth meets Middle England':
The hobbits' 'Shire' resembles a small town in the Home Counties, full of forelock-tugging peasants and happy artisans. Though he idealises the rural petty bourgeoisie, Tolkien treats them with enormous condescension...
Tolkien claimed the function of his fantasy was 'consolation'. In other words, it becomes a point of principle that his literature mollycoddles its readers. Tolkien and his admirers (many of them leftists) gave his escapism an emancipatory gloss, claiming that jailers hate escapism. As the great anarchist fantasist Michael Moorcock has pointed out, this is precisely untrue. Jailers love escapism. What they hate is escape.
Tolkien is naive to think he's escaping anything...The myth of an idyllic past is not oppositional to capitalism, but consolation for it. Troubled by the world? Close your eyes and think of Middle Earth.