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Refuting Tolkien

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | August 31, 2012 | Comments ()


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"There are two novels that can transform a bookish 14-year-kld's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish daydream that can lead to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood in which large chunks of the day are spent inventing ways to make real life more like a fantasy novel. The other is a book about orcs." -Raj Patel

In 1978, Michael Moorcock wrote an article called "Epic Pooh," which lambasted many components of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings along with other authors who followed in his footsteps. The title of the article derives from Moorcock's opinion that Tolkien was moralistic comfort food in the vein of Winnie the Pooh but cast in an epic mold for palatability. It remains a controversial piece, to say the least.

I read The Lord of the Rings the first time when I was nine years old. My parents bought The Fellowship of the Ring for me as a present and I plowed through it in absolute wonder. It was the first fantasy novel of any sort that I had ever read. In fact, it was the first actual series I had ever read, and even though the book said something about a "trilogy" on the cover, I didn't know what that meant and didn't think to ask until I was down to 20 pages left and was increasingly concerned about how they were going to get the Ring across the entire other half of the map in the scant pages allotted to the Fellowship. When I found out that there were two more books, my preadolescent mind was blown.

Over the next decade, I devoured all of the standard fantasy fare that followed from that starting point, including the endless piles of dreadfully derivative thousand page novels that at times seemed to merely cut and paste The Lord of the Rings, replace names, remove songs, and dumb down the prose. I came across that Moorcock article at some point in those years and loathed it with the perfect teenage logic that anything that criticizes what I love must be wrong. Two things occurred to temper that conclusion.

First, Peter Jackson's adaptations hit theaters. The Fellowship of the Ring was a decent enough attempt, not changing a terrible amount other than the complete excision of Tom Bombadil, whose chapter I usually skimmed at best on rereads anyway. But the second and third films were affronts to the source material, making changes that went explicitly against what I saw as the point of the novels. A battle of a few pages is expanded to be over half a film. The Scouring of the Shire is cut entirely. And I realized that those films were everything Moorcock thought was wrong with the novels.

Second, I read George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, the first of many fantasy novels that I would go on to read that nibbled at the foundations of Tolkien, not so much by pointing out flaws in The Lord of the Rings as demonstrating elements that I never quite noticed were missing. Although one could write many pages about the differences between Martin and Tolkien, and many have, there were two main marks that the series made: it made violence have consequences and it made heroes irrelevant.

Joe Abercrombie's The First Law series is in many ways similar to Martin's, what with the swearing and violence and general darkness. But he chooses to leave in much of the magic that Martin stripped out of his world, retaining truly inhuman evil but countering it not with the wise goodness of Gandalf, but merely another inhuman evil. It sneaks up on you over the course of the novels, the slow realization that the only alternative to being devoured is to cede all control to a manipulator and that all the heroic fictions we have are the cynical creations of those who would control us.

Jacqueline Carey takes that notion one step further in her two book piece The Sundering, which has been unfairly maligned, the criticisms masking a simply and unreasonable complaint that they're not Kushiel novels. She tells a story in direct analog to The Lord of the Rings, both creating a rich and original world, while essentially retelling the events of Tolkien from the point of view of the enemy. And the particular tact that she takes is brilliant, and vintage Carey, writing the Sauron analog as the demi-god of passion in this particular world, cast out by the gods of intellect as base and uncivilized. Elves are presented as amoral corrupters of men, their immortality gained at the price of passion (and it makes perfect sense once stated that of course the elves don't like sex, otherwise Middle Earth would be full of the immortal buggers). Tolkien, for all the beauty of his world, was still a late Victorian in spirit, which left a glaring blind spot in his mythos.

None of this is to argue against Tolkien. His novels are still lush creations, magnificent works of originality. That there are counterpoints to be made by other novels is not a criticism so much as an acknowledgement of the nature of art. It is always a moving target, it is a process of society not a destination.

"We speak of stories ending, when in truth it is we who end. The stories go on and on." -Jacqueline Carey

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.



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  • Merry

    Not to be horribly nerdy but Tolkien's elves do bang a lot. They can only get pregnant if they choose to, though. Lucky bastards. (Also, Tolkien fought in the trenches of World War I. He damn well knows that violence has consequences, and that's pretty plain to see in his writing.)

  • Carl

    I guess when you have to live with a name like Moorcock you just get grouchy. His essay reads like the reverse of so many rock fans: "I hated Pooh way before anybody else!"

  • The Heretic

    Solid article, tho i couldnt find a thesis. Thanks for mentioning Moorcock's superlative article. Funny, I never cottoned to fantasy as a kid, despite devouring scifi and comic books. Found Tolkien to be pretentious twaddle. But lately I've started to enjoy speculative fiction.

    Moreover, I just finished the first book of an epic fantasy: Gardens of the Moon by Erikson. It's balanced right between the sheer cynical philosophy of Bakker's Prince of Nothing series and the harsh realism of Martin's song of Ice & Fire series. THis is due to Erikson's background in archaeology and anthropology, I gather.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Boy, are you in for a ride with the rest of the Malazan novels.

  • The Heretic

    Indeed. Friends are praising it to the skies, and I went through book one in a week or so. Will get book 2 the next time I hit Barnes & Noble. Haven't been this eager since reading through Martin's first 4 books in a month.

  • Mrs. Julien

    That header photo made me yelp out loud at my desk when it popped up.

  • Troyliss

    Nitpick: Raj Patel stole that quote from John Rogers @ Kung Fu Monkey:
    http://cynthia1960.dreamwidth....

  • lonolove

    I have read up through Feast for Crows and I fully intend to finish reading whatever else GRRM puts in front of me, but I don't think he compares to Tolkien in terms of writing. I find his stories maddeningly repetitive and simple. I stopped reading Brian Jacques when I was younger and then Palahniuk when I was a teenager once I realized I was reading the same template over and over and over again... GRRM seems to be doing the same thing. There are about 2000+ pages that could be excised from the books, with little negative impact on the story. Good god, man! At least Tolkien's ramblings were beautiful to read.

  • "None of this is to argue against Tolkien. His novels are still lush creations, magnificent works of originality"

    Aaaand we're walking, walking, walking, walking...

  • Three-nineteen

    I'm pretty sure that I left this comment the last time this was posted, but I'm going to do it again.
    1) You state that GRRM "made violence have consequences and it made heroes irrelevant". I would like to either a) argue that GRRM didn't make heroes irrelevant or b) argue against the implication that Tolkien's violence didn't have conseqences, but since you don't explain what you mean by these ideas I won't either.
    2) The word "refute" means a) To prove to be false or erroneous and/or b) To deny the accuracy or truth of. In your last paragraph, you say "None of this is to argue against Tolkien". So, do you find Tolkien to be false or erroneous, or deny the accuracy or truth of what Tolkien wrote?
    3) You say that Jackson's second and third films "were everything Moorcock thought was wrong with the novels" and made "changes that went explicitly against what I saw as the point of the novels". But you don't tell us where we can read the Moorcock article to judge for ourselves what he's saying, or let us in on what you think the point of the novels are.
    I'm still confused about the central thesis of this post, but it seems like the whole article is a roundabout way of saying that the Tolkien novels have many good qualities but later works built on his foundation and improved it, so Tolkien seems outdated now. Which is fine, but even if that is true (I'm don't really think so, but I'm willing to discuss it) your article doesn't do a lot to support that idea.

  • MichaelEhrgott

    Its fantasy. Get over it. All genre stuff is comfort food to people who like that genre.

  • pcloadletter

    Nothing says "fuck you" like "get over it."

  • MichaelEhrgott

    Get over it. ;)

  • Quatermain

    You've been a busy beaver today. I think 90% of the stuff on the front page is written by you. As a parallel to your atheism piece about Buffy reflecting teenagers, Angel reflecting 20 somethings becoming responsible adults, etc. I think that the point could be made about fantasy novels as well.

    Harry Potter is the children's version of epic fantasy, where the world is all special and magical. Things are dangerous, but just enough to be exciting, and not enough to be actually dangerous.

    Lord of the Rings is the young person's epic. The stakes are raised somewhat, things are more difficult and there are actual consequences from actions that need to be deal with. It's still a fairly pleasant fantasy though, where good is beautiful and evil is ugly and there is never any difficulty telling the two apart.

    Robert E. Howard is the late teenage/college age epic, where much like Conan, you have just enough knowledge and skill to be at times stupid and dangerous to those around you. There is not a lot of thought put into it, and it sometimes gives the impression of being made up as it goes along, but that doesn't stop it from being enjoyable.

    Abercrombie and/or Martin are the, for lack of a better term, 'adult' epic, both in terms of content and in terms of outlook. You learn that knowledge is not necessarily a signpost of either wise goodness or cackling evil, but sometimes callously indifferent or manipulative. Sometimes beauty is not synonymous with good. Sometimes good honorable people get their throats cut at weddings and sometimes devious bastards flourish. Nobody ever truly gets what they want, but on the other hand, nobody ever truly gets what they deserve either, and sometimes that's the best you can hope for.

  • The_Ghost_of_Bo_Crowder

    Tolkein, bless him, did tend to bang on a bit.

    For my money the Jackson adaptations did a remarkable job of telling the essence of the story without a lot of the unnecessary "fat" that Good ol' JRR tended to leave in.

    The HBO adaptations of GoT are doing a similarly good job of Martin's excess prose too.

  • Quatermain

    I've often though that while Tolkien's writing doesn't scream to the heavens for a ruthless editor the way that Rand's does, it does maybe politely request a gentle one.

  • The_Ghost_of_Bo_Crowder

    It's the downfall of fantasy. Authors have to create their own worlds and can't resist the urge to tell everyone all about them as a result.

    Not really necessary in a gritty crime thriller.

  • seth

    Are we in freshman English?

  • Jerce

    What is with all this prolific-ness, SLW?
    Are you going away?
    Please don't go away!

  • sherlockzz

    Who's to say elves don't like sex? Maybe they have a gestation period of centuries or perhaps immortality affects fertility.

  • Pants_are_a_must

    Technically speaking, the Tolkien Elves have a similar gestation period to humans. Middle Earth used to be run over by those immortal buggers, like SLW put it. But they died out from battling everyone around them, including themselves, and by the time Lord of the Rings starts, they're far past their prime as a race. And now I will stew in my nerdy shame.

  • And don't forget all the ones who went off to cross the sea because they were basically suddenly tired of all the fighting (although if you read the Silmarillion and other works, it took them bloody long enough to decide...)

  • Pants_are_a_must

    And they killed a shitload of one another in Valinor anyway. When Elves battle, they fucking battle, man. Immortal beings or not, they can be very stupid.

  • Quatermain

    If elvish women were pregnant for centuries, I'd think that elvish women in turn would be really, really interested in contraception, which probably wouldn't do wonders for their birth rate either.

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