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Refuting Tolkien

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | August 31, 2012 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | August 31, 2012 |

“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 You can email him here.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.