Friday, November 27, 2009

More Cimmerian Goodness

Over at The Cimmerian, Brian Murphy posts a nice takedown of Michael Moorcock's "Epic Pooh," perhaps Moorcock's most famous windmill tilting expedition against the work and legacy of J.R.R. Tolkien. The funny thing is that I rather enjoy Moorcock's literary creations -- I'm busily re-reading some of his later Elric stories right now -- but I tend to think his literary criticism is shoddy at best. Unlike many, I won't engage in amateur psycho-analysis of the man and impute jealousy to his career-long denigration of Tolkien. A more likely explanation, I think, is that Moorcock, like a lot of people, simply never really understood Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings is not in fact a simple work and a surface reading of it will undoubtedly leave one with many misapprehensions about it and its author, misapprehensions I think Moorcock has consistently demonstrated in his shallow critiques over the years.

In Moorcock's defense, I imagine that Tolkien was so temperamentally opposite himself that understanding him would probably prove quite difficult. It's little wonder he didn't really get either The Lord of the Rings or Tolkien. In addition, I get the sense that Moorcock believes it's the duty of authors to "challenge" the status quo and, in fantasy, Tolkien is very much the status quo (even if, ironically, the ideas his books champion are not). Combined, these two facts make it all but inevitable that Moorcock would engage in his long-running Quixotic crusade against the good professor. That doesn't mean there's a lot of merit to the crusade, as Brian Murphy quite ably shows in his post.

Speaking only for myself, I read Tolkien voraciously as a younger person and enjoyed it well enough, but didn't really fall in love with his writings until comparatively recently. Like Moorcock, I engaged these books only on a surface level and failed to appreciate just what Tolkien was doing and why. Older and (hopefully) a little wiser, I better see Tolkien's project for what it was and stand in awe of it. It's a pity Moorcock can't do the same, but we all have our blind spots, so I can't be too harsh in judging him, even if I do wish he'd at least recognize that his reaction to Tolkien is a personal one and not necessarily a reflection of anything in the man's writings.

60 comments:

  1. My favorite criticism of Tolien's Lord Of The Rings trilogy is a an academic explanation of why LOTR is not considered serious literature: it doesn't deal sriously or realistically with the issues of human sexuality or mortality.

    I have to confess ignorance in that I hadn't read any of Jack Vance's work, hence I can not comment on it. I remember long time ago seeing an old book, in a hardcover binding that was done by the library itself to save the old pages. The book's cover sheet read: Jack Vance; To Live Forever.
    I did not pick it up, unfortunately, instead choosing a thick paperback with the word "WARDAY" on its cover. I liked it. Better that King's Stand or Mc Cammon's Swan Song (better than Stand). Warday is memorable for its miscast future right down to the World Trade Center surviving the hydrogen bomb blast and towering over the wasteland. However, if there ever was a time I was tempted to steal a library book (a capital offense, in my estimation, along with murdering cats), it was that day back in 1987when I held that Jack vance book in a dark orange thick library binding...

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  2. Yeah, Moorcock has never been too objective about other authors whose politics don't match up with his. "Epic Pooh" was written some decades ago, though, so who knows if MM still holds the same opinions. I'm tempted to call it a cheap shot for the Cimmerian to dredge this up after so long, but his points are certainly still valid.

    I find it interesting that Murphy steers wide of firing back at MM for his condemnation of Tolkien's prose style, mostly since it's such a big target. As someone who is an ardent fan of both authors (and whose politic worldview, FWIW, falls much closer to MM's than JRRT's), I feel that I'm relatively impartial. IMO Moorcock on his best day can't hold a candle to Tolkien on his worst day in terms of writing skill.

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  3. Brooze, good point on what constitutes "lierature," at least in the stuffy and elitist academic sense. I distinctly remember my AP English teacher saying at the start of the class that "all literature is ltimately about sex and/or death," which implies, of course, that if isn't about those subjects, it isn't literature. That said, LOTR certainly falls into the death category, as everything he wrote is about decay and decline.

    James, great link and great summary. I think that Tolkien's works can be appreciated on many levels, the juvenile "shallow" level and the wiser and more experienced "deeper" levels. I, too, also love Moorcock's work, but I would proobably end up punching him in the nose if I ever sat down for a pint in a pub with him.

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  4. I have read the original Moorcock essay, and doesn't agree with it at all...

    But It's interesting to me that so many Tolkien readers misunderstand him and his work. Is it some kind of "too serious" literature?

    The other thing, I can't remember where I read it, maybe in the same "Epic Pooh" essay, or maybe in an interview, but somewhere Moorcock said that his main problem with the Lord of the Rings was that he read Poul Anderson's Broken Sword before it, and it was so much better that Tolkien could never impress him enough. It was always some second rate attempt of the kind of nordic saga influenced fantasy.

    Maybe he could never read it with truly open mind...

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  5. I recognize Tolkien's sub-creation as a work of profound morality. When I read The Lord of the Rings (for example), I am both chastened and edified.

    In a nutshell, the work illustrates the stark choice that faces each of us on a daily basis: Will I respect the liberty of each man, or will I throw in my lot with those who seek to control others?

    As the various characters' reactions to the Ring illustrate, the only proper area of control is that of self-control. Galadriel (for example) illustrated self-control and a lack of desire to control others, whereas Sauron illustrated a desire to control everything except his own passions (with he let have free rein).

    This philosophy expresses itself in the political arrangements of Middle-earth. The forces of good are found in the spectrum between natural law kingship and individualist anarchism. The forces of darkness, on the other hand, were a bunch of totalitarians. Observe that Saruman tried to ruin the Shire precisely by inflicting on it a government (i. e., control). The four Hobbits returning home immediately set about overthrowing that government and allowing the natural order of quasi-anarchism to re-assert itself (i. e., freedom).

    The whole world would be better off if everyone would read The Lord of the Rings and take it to heart by rejecting all attempts at control over others, and instead exercise rigorous self-control. Instead, most of us are little Saurons.

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  6. Gee, I can't believe that a dime store Marxist doesn't understand the subtleties of great literature. Oh wait... I can believe it.

    I do always feel a bit of pity when someone fails to understand Tolkien, because I cannot think of anything more beautiful in the realm of fantasy literature. I say that thinking principally of the Silmarillion, a work which is unequalled in the realm of fiction.

    I've enjoyed Moorcock's stuff as popcorn, but it isn't especially deep (there's a bit of Frankfurt School in there, but that's about as far as it goes). So it's not strange to think of the man himself as superficial. I'm not sure that ultimately a materialist is capable of subtle thought.

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  7. I find Moorcock's "criticisms" of Lovecraft to be infinitely more grating. Probably because I hold Lovecraft in higher esteem than Tolkien.

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  8. So...

    A 'takedown' of a 30+ year old article that amounts to "he doesn't get it"?

    Uh, right.

    I like Tolkien, I like Moorcock, Lovecraft too... But you can criticize each of them pretty easily for any number of reasons.

    Moorcock himself has revisited (repeatedly!!) this old piece and revised it, clarified it and admitted it was overly-critical but that it amounted to the way he was thinking and feeling at the time.

    So I'm afraid I can't be quite so easily impressed by Mr. Murphy's rather needless attempt to "knock a little stuffing out of his puffed-up essay". There's plenty of better ways to take a creative swing at Michael Moorcock at any point of his career.

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  9. I think Moorcock's greatest mistake in his Pooh essay is expecting Tolkein's work to be interpreted as political commentary. Moorcock's own work frequently presented the idea that Empire, stolid and lost in dreams of former glory, must be torn down to make way for the New. As a active participant in the politics of the 60's and 70's, its not surprising that Moorcock found Tolkein's affection for landed country gentlemen especially grating.

    Where Moorcock falls short is in not acknowledging the possibility of wisdom on Tolkein's part and the assumption that the generation ahead of his was ignorant of social conscience, an opinion that has very possibly been tempered with his own advancing age.

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  10. Welleran,
    LOTR is about a dying world and changing of ages, but that bit about Elves sailing off to never-never land to spend eternity is a cop-out, IMHO. Death is not about decay and nostalgia, it's about people DYING and leaving their loved ones BEHIND. Compare with Bernard Cornwell's tales of Uhtred.

    Tolkien, CS Lewis, and I think there were other British authors; they were in literary "circle" like a discussion club, and they were all extremely conservative. try to read their views on the events of 1920's and 1930's in UK and other places, and you will see just how anachronistic their political views were, when compared with the views of their contemporaries.

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  11. Thanks for the shout-out, James.

    It seems like I'm getting some criticism for taking up the cause against a 30-year-old essay. But the very fact that (as has been pointed out here) Moorcock has continually returned to and updated his essay--recall that the His Dark Materials trilogy, which he references in an author's note, was published in 1995--means that he still stands behind it.

    That, and the fact that it's commonly cited by Tolkien critics, makes "Epic Pooh" fair game for debate, at least in my opinion.

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  12. There's nothing unfair about criticizing Moorcock's published criticism of Tolkien, no matter how old it is, no matter how far Moorcock's opinions about Tolkien may have changed.

    The belief that people should be allowed to publish opinions that are somehow immune to criticism is a corollary of an approach to interpersonal communication I've heard memorably called "the turd theory of communication," the idea that you should be allowed to drop your opinions in a public forum and walk away without being held accountable for them. The battle to get in the last word in an argument is a perfect example of the belief that one somehow has a right to chuck an opinion out there and run.

    Citizens in a democracy have a duty to wrestle with the range of opinions available to help us find the best way forward, to help us sort out the strengths and weaknesses of the perspectives and strategies we've come up. This certainly applies to speeches and discussions, but written works because of their greater longevity are especially in need of being critiqued as often or as belatedly as necessary.

    Kudos to Brian Murphy for keeping this vital tradition alive by taking Moorcock to task for publishing such a shallow critique of Tolkien. Regardless of how Moorcock may have felt about Tolkien later on, by putting these early, half-baked criticisms into writing he has earned the dubious privilege of seeing them embarrassingly dissected for the rest of his life.

    And thanks, too, to James for bringing Mr. Murphy's review to our attention.

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  13. I find Moorcock's "criticisms" of Lovecraft to be infinitely more grating. Probably because I hold Lovecraft in higher esteem than Tolkien.

    @Yog-Sothoth - Why do you find Moorcock's views on Lovecraft more grating? "Pooh" is certainly over-the-top in places, and MM arguably completely misses the point of Tolkien's work.

    In contrast, in "Starship Stormtroopers" (which is what I assume you're referring to), MM takes Lovecraft and Heinlein to task for various forms of quasi-fascist pig-doggery. Without getting into the details, I believe that this essay stands the test of time (and close scrutiny by those familiar with the other authors' works) much better than "Epic Pooh". I love Lovecraft, too, but it's difficult not to agree with MM's criticism that he was unpardonably xenophobic (to put it nicely), at least until his late period.

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  14. Moorcock has continually returned to and updated his essay--recall that the His Dark Materials trilogy...

    @Brian - I didn't realize MM had been updating the essay all along, so I retract my statement about you resurrecting a dead issue. Clearly the debate rages on :).

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  15. Brooze, of course the Elves sailing off is not specifically about physical death - they were immortal, after all! But it is about loss and could be seen as a metaphor for all kinds of things (example: a Christian view of the world where you go out, experience life, then return to "Heaven;" or one of many other interpretations). Tolkien is famous for his stated abhorence of allegory, but I think there is allegory there whether he wanted it or not.

    The Inklings (Tolkien, CS Lewis, Charles Williams, etc.) were certainly "anachronistic." They were, in fact, conservatives in the classic sense - they wished to preserve some "good" from the past that they felt was threatened by newer ideas; they were fighting against the idea that anything new must be good and anything old must be bad. It really is a microcosm of the changes in thought throughout 20th Century, if you think about it.

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  16. Just the other day, I came across the idea that the very form of the novel, with its attention to the private struggles of an individual protagonist is the epitome of petit-bourgeois-capitalist-suck-upism. If this is true, then MM isn't really much of a Marxist, right? From what I've heard, you can't really enjoy Moorcock without getting into Elric, and buying into his personal struggles, both external and internal. In Tolkien's work, if there is a "main" character," he's not the cool character (you could never sell a game or a book by putting just Frodo's face on the cover). Rather, the tale of little people in solidarity and who reject the myth of individual heroism provides us a model for the triumph of the proletariat!

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  17. Moorcock maintains the same disdain for Tolkein in his Wizardry and Wild Romance. I approached this book as Moorcock's version of Lovecraft's Supernatural Horror in Fiction. That is to say, I was hoping it would be an enumeration of Moorcock's views of what makes/defines good fantasy. It turns out to be one long hatchet job on Tolkein.

    On the one hand, I get that Moorcock doesn't get Tolkein. Considering the counter-culture vibe of the times, I can see Moorcock both rebelling against conservativism, as well as feeling a need to tear down the icons that went before. He seems to still hold this view.

    On the other hand, Tolkein was attempting way more than writing "another effing elf story." It's an exploration of the nature of good and evil (among many other things), which I suspect Moorcock also rejects as unsubtle. Consider that, if anything, the cosmology of the Eternal Champion stories. Law is both good and bad, as is Chaos.

    I only wish Wizardry and Wild Romance had been more about Moorcock's views of what makes good fantasy, and less about doesn't. It's as though he doesn't have anything positive to say.

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  18. I only wish Wizardry and Wild Romance had been more about Moorcock's views of what makes good fantasy, and less about doesn't. It's as though he doesn't have anything positive to say.

    This is pretty much my opinion as well. My good friend and business partner recommended the book to me some time ago, thinking I'd enjoy it, but, alas, I did not. I found it tedious and fairly banal, less about Moorcock's own insights into fantasy and more about how much he hated Tolkien and his imitators. It's a pity, because I actually think Moorcock is a talented writer with a wonderful imagination. I've derived a lot of pleasure from his books. I wish I could say the same about his attempts at literary criticism.

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  19. For those who haven't read "Epic Pooh," it may be found online, here:

    http://www.revolutionsf.com/article.php?id=953

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  20. As others have said above, I really doubt Moorcock is a Marxist. Although that certain people think he is speaks volumes.

    As I mentioned the last time we discussed this, I agree with one of Moorcock's main criticisms: ie. Tolkein is a not a great writer. There are so many clangers in Lord of the Rings and it is very much pitched at a cosy level. I just opened my copy at random at pp.444f where Aragorn and Gimli are looking for Merry and Pippin: the pace is so gentle and lulling... I realise that he is probably trying to recreate the repetitive cadences of epic poetry but if you read Homer, say, even in translation, the tone is far more vivid if not as detailed.

    My other main problem, esp. when I tried to read the epic for the first and last time as an adult, is the highly objectionable characterization of Sam as a forelock tugging toad eater. That many of Tolkien's fans here and elsewhere don't pick up on that says a lot.

    And it says even more about Tolkein in that although, as Murphy correctly notes, he respected the lower class privates and batmen with whom he served in WWI, he could not understand them.

    If you want criticism of Tolkein that isn't contaminated by "Marxism" try David Brin's version. He does, however, make reference though to "democracy" and other such "radical" centuries old social theories.

    He makes it clear that it isn't about left vs right as many seem to think, rehearsing their own favourite ideological battles, but rather between the impulses of the Enlightenment (eg. belief in the empirical) and Romanticism (belief in the innate).

    Which is why I like to introduce Conan into this topic, because he is the ultimate post-romantic hero who kowtows to no-one. His world-view is utterly alien to Middle Earth. What would he have said at the council of Elrond?

    "A murrain of these wizardly feuds! ... Give me a clean sword and a clean foe to flesh it in. Damnation! What would I not give for a flagon of wine!" (The Scarlet Citadel)

    On whose side do you think he would have fought?

    "... you speak of Venarium familiarly. Perhaps you were there?" - "I was," grunted [Conan]. "I was one of the horde that swarmed over the hills. I hadn't yet seen fifteen snows, but already my name was repeated about the council fires." (Beyond the Black River)

    @Brian: Interesting point. Literary criticism should not be taken as gospel but like D&D as a kind of game. As Brin says at the end of that article, it's good to play these What If exercises with the stories you've read.

    @Al: I don't think Moorcock is expecting any social commentary from his writers (does he care whether Poul Anderson shares his "radical" opinions?) but rather engaging with the what Tolkein actually expressed consciously or otherwise.

    Ross A. Issacs:
    I only wish Wizardry and Wild Romance had been more about Moorcock's views of what makes good fantasy, and less about doesn't. It's as though he doesn't have anything positive to say.

    So what do people here think makes for good fantasy?

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  21. Surely, Moorcock does not get Tolkien. I think that basically his dislike for Tolkien's christianity and conservatism blinds him. Also, simply he does not seem to have done his homework in reading LOTR.
    Moorcock is a powerful phantasist and a master of pacing, his early Elric stories have a raw, primal vigour.
    I wonder wether he ever read the story of the Children of Hurin. That dark tale of death and incest, whose main character is a anti-hero armed with a back sword that had taken the life of a friend. Turin, who lets his black sword take his life. And the black sword speaks.
    Sounds familiar? Ironically, Turin and Elric are literary brothers, both descended from the character of Kullervo in the Finnish Kalevala.
    Indeed, Moorcock's criticism sucks.
    I pardon him for that silliness.
    I must also say that Tolkien was not immune from literary shortsightedness. One egregious examples is found in his letters where he bashes Dante as "petty": all focused on the petty grudges of little people living in petty cities.
    In Middle-Earth there's no "Italy" you move directly from Northern Europe to Bizantium (Gondor). But I love Tolkien all the same.

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  22. Korgoth: "I'm not sure that ultimately a materialist is capable of subtle thought"

    Epicurus, Lucretius, David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, and many other important philosophers throughout the history of Western thought would certainly disagree.

    As for Moorcock, though, I agree that he's never struck me as an especially 'subtle' writer (irrespective of his metaphysical 'materialism'). He paints with broad strokes, to say the least. Many of his ideas are wonderful -- the eternal struggle between Law and Chaos, the 'million spheres' multiverse, etc. However, his style is often slapdash, and many of his stories seem to have been written over a manic weekend fueled by scotch and coffee (and perhaps other things).

    While I very much love many of Moorcock's ideas and some of his stories, of the two writers, Tolkien is unquestionably the superior. Ironically, many of the tales in the Silmarillion strike me as stories that Moorcock would like. The tale of Turin is a tragedy reminiscent of Elric (but superior in execution and mythic grandeur). And Turin's sword Gurthang is shockingly similar to Stormbringer!

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  23. I read that Moorcock piece a while ago. My only thought was that, apparently, Tolkien went right over his head. I've disregarded his non-fantasy writing since.

    Also, I agree with Geoffrey. That may be because I'm pretty much a Rothbardian anarcho-capitalist libertarian now. I despise leaders.

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  24. @Chris T: I realise that he is probably trying to recreate the repetitive cadences of epic poetry but if you read Homer, say, even in translation, the tone is far more vivid if not as detailed.

    A comparison with Beowulf would be more apt, since Tolkien wanted to create an English epic in the northern tradition, not the Hellenic one.

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  25. Pick some lines from from Beowulf then, if you like. The comparison stands.

    These bards, Hellenic or British, would have died cold and hungry if their style was as cosy as Tolkein's.

    And of course, they were writing for different audiences and different times. This does nothing to alter the validity of my analysis :)

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  26. Chris T said:
    "Sam as a forelock tugging toad eater."

    You mean the same Sam who is the hero of the trilogy? The Sam who is the only character to wear the One Ring *and actually resist it*? That Sam? Sam puts on the Ring, in Mordor, while Frodo is captured and being tortured, and the Ring offers Sam the power to set things right and end the darkness... its mightiest and most subtle lie. And Sam takes it off. That is his virtue... that he alone knows evil for what it is, and will have no part of it.

    Sam is the mortal (and perhaps mature) counterpart to Bombadil. Bombadil cares nothing for the Ring and would forget that he had it (the Pacifist). He's immune to its power but he's no help in the war. Sam is not immune to the Ring... it gives him all that it has got... he is simply more powerful than the Ring. The Ring is pride, and the surpassing virtue of Master Samwise is humility.

    Maybe you don't see humility as a virtue? Then I'm sorry for you.

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  27. Well, to begin with. Moorcock is not a Marxist.

    Then I want to know how come everyone after James state that Moorcock didn't "get" Tolkien? What makes you think that is the case?

    I do think that Mike Moorcock have a so different attitude to literature and a so different personality that it would be hard for him to like LotR, but why wouldn't he understand it?

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  28. @Wally - For once we're agreed, though I see your comment has been erased. Amateur literary criticism has about as much value as amateur psychoanalysis. And if comments are to be systematically censored here, then I'm done with reading it.

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  29. And if comments are to be systematically censored here, then I'm done with reading it.

    To date, only a single poster's comments have been "systematically censored" and that's only because I know of no means to ban him. Wally is a longstanding thorn in my side, who refuses to play nicely according to the implicit rules of this blog. Lots of other people disagree, sometimes strongly, with my posts and yet somehow their comments remain. Could it be that they understand how to disagree respectfully and without rancor?

    If civility offends you, by all means, be done with this place, but the comments here are left open on the assumption that people will behave themselves. I make no apologies for deleting comments that don't meet that standard.

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  30. If you want criticism of Tolkein that isn't contaminated by "Marxism" try David Brin's version. He does, however, make reference though to "democracy" and other such "radical" centuries old social theories.

    While I agree that Brin's criticisms are better than those of Moorcock, they (much like his critiques of the Star Wars films) strike me as tone deaf. He seems quite willing to discount the power and value of mythic archetypes, acknowledgment of which is, in my opinion, pre-political. I don't think the resonance many feel for the notion of a One True King says anything about one's commitment to notions of equality or democracy, for example, and Brin doesn't seem to want to give that line of thought any credence, unless I am badly misreading him.

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  31. That is his virtue... that he alone knows evil for what it is, and will have no part of it.

    Indeed. I'm not particularly moved by the notion that The Lord of the Rings is riddled with "classist" prejudices. I genuinely believe that Middle-earth is a "pre-political" place that defies easy attempts to describe it according to modern ideologies. But I'm weird that way.

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  32. I do think that Mike Moorcock have a so different attitude to literature and a so different personality that it would be hard for him to like LotR, but why wouldn't he understand it?

    Consider that Moorcock, by his own admission, created Elric to be an "anti-Conan," to turn the assumptions of S&S literature on their heads. There's a powerful anti-establishment thread to his thought and writing philosophy. He built his career partially upon that. To make peace with Tolkien would, I think, undermine his "rebel" image. Tolkien is the eternal father against whom up and coming fantasists have to rebel to prove their own independence from him. Witness China Miéville's temper tantrums on the subject, for example.

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  33. Welleran, agreed.

    There is a lot that works in LOTR, I wouldn't dismiss it as a whole. Two things that bug me about it: When LOTR enjoyed the popularity among the American grad students in 1960's, they totally disregarded the history and the context in which it was written, much as men of the Middle Earth may have disreagrded The Ring. Scond, Tolkien's naive and fawning attitude of admiration towards aristocratic nobility, disguised as "Elves" realy irks me, perticularly since Aristocracy remained a powerful institution in Tokien's day, they were truly "first class citizens" and nearly had diplomatic status in UK, where aristocratic rank and privilidge from any Balkan or European country was recognized. I am not anti-nobility at all, just want to see a realistic treatment of it. Also, people don't realize that LOTR was as much about the peole who lived in Europe between wars as it was high fantasy. To see a portrait of a doomed "elf" I direct you to read Christopher Isherwood's encounter with a supermarket owner in his "Goodbye to Berlin" (1935).

    Here is an example of just how much influence a noble birth had (and still does) in UK. The year was 1946. A certain British commandos captain is loking for his brothers, who were disappeared by nazi gestapo into the german death camp system under night and fog decree. In the warcrimes trials environemnt were allies are restarained and are forbidden from puching prisoners, he freely smacks them across the face. I am NOT feeling sorry for the former SS, merely pointing out the fact that others would have been brought up on charges, while this British Commandoes Captain cuts a dashing figure, larger than life. He tells one prisoner he is interogating: "You are an animal and you are not fit to walk on two legs." Everytime he saw this nazi standing up, he would knock him off his fieet with a fist across the face until the nazi was going about on his hands and feet. A Chaotic Good warrior in action. Later on, UK gov't tried to keep
    from publicizing the brutality with which the captured commandoes were tortured and executed (political reasons, laying the groundwork for the alliance between UK and West Germany in the coming cold war). This Captain was outraged and published the atrocity investigation documents, in his possesion, CLASSIFIED, in a chain of British newspapers, which his family owned and operated. So far, so good, except that unlike the US, UK has an Official Secrets Act, under which it prosecutes and still locks up whistleblowers to prison terms unheard of in the US. That particular Cpatain, though,was never prosecuted or touched by scandal; he was of noble birth.

    I am not sure, which irks me more -Tolkien's fawning attitude towards nobility, keeping in mind that Tolkien himself was NOT of noble birth, a commoner; OR the blissful ignorance of the traditional British class system, reflected in LOTR, by the modern American fans of Tolkien.

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  34. I must also say that Tolkien was not immune from literary shortsightedness. One egregious examples is found in his letters where he bashes Dante as "petty": all focused on the petty grudges of little people living in petty cities.

    In Middle-Earth there's no "Italy" you move directly from Northern Europe to Bizantium (Gondor). But I love Tolkien all the same.


    Absolutely. Tolkien was definitely stereotypically English in his lack of appreciation for Mediterranean/Romance language Europe. I believe he found even the Arthurian legend cycle "too French" for his tastes, preferring more purely "northern" inspired source material generally. For myself, I love the northern stuff but I also adore the literature of the Romance language countries as well. As I said, Dante is a particular favorite of mine.

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  35. Ah,
    Tolkien, the man who loved Wagner, and who was later driven to tears by that other set of Northern Europeans, also into Wagner. "They are bastards!" he cried to the interviewer (70's, I think), "They took every ideal I had about the golden age of European culture, and they perverted it!" In the same intreview, Tolkien saud that the Middle Earth has nothing to do with our world. That in our world, The Shire would be enslaved by mankind, and the Ring would never be destroyed, men would never allow it and get their hands on it and use it to destroy their enemies. Tolkien also said that The Ring is NOT the nuclear weapons of our world, as some people were speculating at the time. Tolkien wss pessimistic, the interviewer noted. I say, influence of our Mortal and Mundane world! M&M!!!

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  36. I'd still say you have far from proved that Moorcock don't understand Tolkien, James.

    I don't agree that his "anti attitude" or the anti-establishment ideology of Mike is a hindrance for understanding. The reverse is closer to the truth, I think! Moorcock understands Tolkien far better than most, but he feels it is contrary to all his ideals and thus don't give LotR any value, or calls it childish or "comforting" as denigrating adjectives.

    That Moorcock perhaps is, consciously, avoiding admitting the values LotR have is another matter, upon which I agree.

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  37. Moorcock understands Tolkien far better than most, but he feels it is contrary to all his ideals and thus don't give LotR any value, or calls it childish or "comforting" as denigrating adjectives.

    It seems clear to me that anyone who could, in all seriousness, call The Lord of the Rings "childish," let alone "comforting" doesn't understand it. The novel is many things but "comforting" it is not.

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  38. Then I see what you mean. I don't agree with your conclusion, but it makes sense when I understand how you were thinking.

    But, I also don't agree with Moorcock! :)

    LotR sure is an amazing book, it do generate interesting conversations.

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  39. @Korgoth: Yes, that Sam! I appreciate the intent behind the character - but Tolkein's execution is tone-deaf. He should be the hero of the novel as you say but by the time Sam gets to do anything remotely interesting, however, 700 pages later, people like me have gone way past caring.

    He *should* be everyone's favourite. But for the most part he just simpers his way through the magical world of his betters. Yes, he has a pivotal role in the story but so does the magical negro archetype in many a patronising Hollywood film.

    Your comparison of Sam with Tom is an interesting one. But perhaps I just don't find that level of humility particularly virtuous.

    James:
    I don't think the resonance many feel for the notion of a One True King says anything about one's commitment to notions of equality or democracy, for example, and Brin doesn't seem to want to give that line of thought any credence, unless I am badly misreading him.

    and later:
    To make peace with Tolkien would, I think, undermine his "rebel" image. Tolkien is the eternal father against whom up and coming fantasists have to rebel to prove their own independence from him.

    So what do you suggest we do? Give in to our desire for a "One True King" uncritically? Should we suspend our critical faculties lest we be imputed Wally-fashion as having some half-baked Freudian oedipal complex?

    Should we pay our token respects to all the works of our forebears lest we be marked as "rebels" or "image conscious"?

    What would Tolkein say? One True King sounds a lot like One True Ring... ;)

    Tolkein's style is very much a bed-side fairy-tale one though and it suits The Hobbit perfectly. I may read it again today. But for some of us over a thousand pages of it palls, esp. if those thousand pages feel like he's trying to recapture the lightning in a bottle that he got with The Hobbit and make it more "mature".

    There is a sense of fun and adventure in The Hobbit. Bilbo is a great character. He is adventurous and resourceful. He's a bit of a rascal...

    In The Hobbit Gandalf is just a wizard and not some quasi-religious avatar.

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  40. So what do you suggest we do? Give in to our desire for a "One True King" uncritically?

    Not at all. I have no beef with anyone who dislikes Tolkien's style or finds his tales unmoving or engaging. What I do take issue with are critics whose criticisms stem primarily from attempting to apply categories (particularly politically derived ones) that simply don't apply. My mention of the One True King was intended merely as an example of something in Tolkien that, in my opinion, can't be criticized by recourse to post-Enlightenment thought, since Middle-earth is a mythical, pre-Enlightenment world. The character of Aragorn isn't intended to be representative of a political platform, philosophy, or ideology but is rather an archetype within a large myth cycle. I think it unfair to Tolkien to lambaste him for sticking to archetypal characters and relationships when that was part of his intention.

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  41. My mention of the One True King was intended merely as an example of something in Tolkien that, in my opinion, can't be criticized by recourse to post-Enlightenment thought, since Middle-earth is a mythical, pre-Enlightenment world.

    James, I have to say that this bit seems very non-sequitor-ish to me. While it is true that Middle Earth is mythical and pre-enlightenment, Tolkien was not. An artist's creations cannot be divorced from the context of the artist themselves. That is one of the most fundamental lessons of studying literary theory. Honestly, for all of the people who claim that Tolkien is some kind of master artisan, I have to disagree. I actually prefer authors who have somewhat of an education in literary theory, and who don't spend entire chapters describing the idyllic country side--get to the action already! It took me almost two months to read The Fellowship--that is far, far too long. The only reason I stuck with it afterwards was so I would know what (vaguely) to expect from the other two movies (which, were, imho, far better because they actually had pacing). Anyway, I just wanted to say that, while MM's criticism may have been (slightly) off target, I think the criticism I am reading of his criticism is even moreso.

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  42. On another note, I wanted to see if you had ever considered doing a retrospective of Karl Edward Wagner's Kane Novels/Stories, or of the Lankhmar material pf Fritz Lieber (or did you do one and I missed it?)

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  43. I actually prefer authors who have somewhat of an education in literary theory, and who don't spend entire chapters describing the idyllic country side--get to the action already!

    We shall have to disagree then. I both find Tolkien a fine author without his having been a literary theorist and I appreciate his description of the countryside -- they are among some of the most moving passages in all his work.

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  44. I have written about at least one of the Kane novels, but I haven't posted anything by Leiber since the series began. I will certainly correct that in the future.

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  45. I guess my problems with Tolkien stem from the fact that his characters seem to live ON the world, rather than IN it. you never get a good sense of how these "People" live - apart from the Wurzel Gummidge hobbits, of how they interact with "real" world. Now don't get me wrong - I enjoyed the books and read them near continuously for a good number of years when I was in my teens. I can even put aside the clumsy structure. But while the landscape decriptions are all very nice, to me they come across as descriptions of pictures of places, not the places themselves.

    And then there is Tolkien's innate conservatism. The novels seem to want to preserve an idyllic past rather than move to a dynamic future. The Elf aristocracy abdicate in favour of the Middle Class men, with the agrarian hobbit workers still defending there passive agrarian ways. And what of the Dwarven engineers? IS there no place for advancement in Middle Earth. The returning hobbit war hereoes, after saving the Shire retire to happy squiredom...

    Moorcock has written some great, and some not so great, works. But you can never say that he was content to comfort. He always tries to challenge the reader. To think that you can't "get" Moorcock without "getting" Elric is a simplification. If you don't get Elric, there are plenty of different avenues to choose: the post apocalyptic science fantasy of Hawkmoon; the Celtic reimaginings of Corum, the quantum anarchy of Jerry Cornelius; or the majestic, complex and magnificent picaresque of Pyat (possibly, IMHO, the best "literature" since the war...)

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  46. I think Moorcock may have changed somewhat from the youngish Trotskyite urbanite who wrote Epic Pooh. He did go off to live in small-town Texas, after all.

    Personally, I'm from the kind of rootless academic background and long had the adolescent sensibility that made Moorcock's work much easier to identify with. I hold Tolkien in high regard without enjoying reading him much. But I see the gleam in the eyes of my middle to upper-middle English half-cousins when they disuss Tolkien. For them his work is soul food, they have a visceral connection to it that I lack, but appreciate the value of.

    Another point - I think spiritually and politically we live in a dark time, post 9/11, and Tolkien's themes of endurance, resistance and rebirth seem much more meaningful to me now than in the '80s. Maybe that's just me getting older, though.

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  47. On politics, I don't think you can separate it out the way the Cimmerian claims to. I guess when I was young I was a silly liberal humanist, not as far left as Moorcock perhaps, but his approach sat well with me. Now I can see that the Moorcock/Pullman/Pat Mills/Alan Moore side is wrong, and the Tolkien/CS Lewis side is a lot closer to being right, that has changed my appreciation of the merits of their work. Reading the third book of Pullman's execrable trilogy really confirmed that for me. You don't have to be Christian to see that the Luciferians are worse.

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  48. James:
    I appreciate his description of the countryside -- they are among some of the most moving passages in all his work.

    Q.E.D.


    Groakes:
    And then there is Tolkien's innate conservatism.

    I'm afraid this innate conservatism is exactly what many in this thread find so attractive... It's a way of demarcating tribal divisions.

    Why on earth was Murphy's trolling post put on the Cimmerian, of all places? Aren't there Tolkein sites that would have taken it?

    I am also very disappointed because it provides further fuel to the old school doubters, the 3.5 munchkins and all the rest, that really deep down this movement, as represented by this particular blog at least, is not really about good gaming but a certain kind of nostalgia and hero worship.

    That it's not about bringing all us old school players together but only a certain narrow subset that subscribes to a particular status quo.


    S'mon:
    Now I can see that the Moorcock/Pullman/Pat Mills/Alan Moore side is wrong, and the Tolkien/CS Lewis side is a lot closer to being right, that has changed my appreciation of the merits of their work

    So, putting to one side the gross generalisation in that statement, it's not about mastering the craft of writing or good story-telling but being "right", whatever the hell that is.

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  49. "So, putting to one side the gross generalisation in that statement, it's not about mastering the craft of writing or good story-telling but being "right", whatever the hell that is."

    Yup. The ones I listed are all good storytellers, but some of them are morally reprehensible - IMO it's the left-wingers (although unlike eg Pat Mills, there's not much objectionable in Moorcock's actual fiction, which often shows a sneaking regard for conservatism at odds with his non-fiction statements). Obviously YMWV.

    This article was influential in my recent appreciation of Tolkien, who I used to find rather boring:

    http://www.amconmag.com/article/2007/sep/10/00013/

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  50. Talking of what is "Right" and "Wrong" seems to me a very fundamentalist position. You may not like, or agree, with a given author - but that hardly makes them "Wrong" and someone else you like better, "Right". In my opinion, absolute Right and Wrong exist at the very limits of human experience - in between there is a lot of grey (and literary criticism).

    What you like - it all comes down to a matter of taste. Like music, there is only two types of book - ones that you like and ones that you don't.

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  51. @S'mon - I would be interested to know what you find morally reprehensible about the authors you listed, given that I would hold most of them (I haven't read any Pat Mills) to be humanists with a passionate love of humanity.

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  52. I am also very disappointed because it provides further fuel to the old school doubters, the 3.5 munchkins and all the rest, that really deep down this movement, as represented by this particular blog at least, is not really about good gaming but a certain kind of nostalgia and hero worship.

    I don't write this blog for anyone but myself. That other people find anything I write here to be of use to them is gratifying, but it's not for that reason that keep posting each day. So if my traditionalism, "hero worship," and general stick in the mud nature scare some people away, so be it.

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  53. Chris T:

    Why on earth was Murphy's trolling post put on the Cimmerian, of all places? Aren't there Tolkein sites that would have taken it?

    You might want to read the large tagline at the top of The Cimmerian as to why I'd chose to defend Tolkien there.

    Secondly, what on earth was "trolling" about my post? Moorcock's essay is commonly cited by Tolkien's critics. Moorcock has returned to the essay and updated it over the years (see the new Pullman references), which means he obviously stands behind it. I think it's fair game for a counter-critique, no? Or is MM above criticism?

    You'll note that I chose to stay away from politics in my rebuttal of the essay. I simply pointed out that think Moorcock's reading of the themes and ideas expressed in The Lord of the Rings is quite flawed. Tolkien demonstrably does not glorify war, does not preach "cowardly self-protection," does not avoid the subject of death, and certainly does not force a happy ending upon the reader.

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  54. James, that's cool - it's your blog. Just saying...

    Brian M., no, you didn't mention politics and yes, it is fair game to counter-critique. Bring it. :)

    You are right in arguing that it doesn't have a "happy" ending, it is bittersweet one. But it is hardly a complex one. The Shire is saved, evil defeated, king restored and everyone except Sam goes to the *magical* Western Lands. In a sense Fordo "dies" (and "magic/elves") by having to leave the Shire but being part Took he wasn't destined for it anyway. So no great loss really. Death comes to all, but if you're one of the goodies, ie. "decent" "self-sacrificing types" as per MM, it comes later and in a magical way...

    I'm afraid I can't see where MM says that Tolkein glorifies war. A greater proportion of his article is comparisons and quotes of other writers' styles with JRRT's.

    But when you say Tolkein's attitude to war thus: "War is necessary when “destroyers” like Sauron or Hitler would impose their will on the free peoples of the world, but it is a duty to be carried out, not glorified,' you imply that Tolkein has an extremely simplistic attitude to the nature of war, a Manichaean world view as noted by many a commentator. Who are these Destroyers? Where do they come from? Those orcs are nasty, eh?

    I think you're taking his use of the term "cowardly self protection" a little out of context there. I don't think he was talking about War but rather the British middle class and how JRRT reflects its concerns (eg. as I note, his depiction of Sam constantly bowing and scraping): "One should perhaps feel some sympathy for the nervousness occasionally revealed beneath their thick layers of stuffy self-satisfaction... but sympathy is hard to sustain in the teeth of their hidden aggression which is so often accompanied by a deep-rooted hypocrisy."

    Maybe it's difficult for American readers to understand what Moorcock is talking about.

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  55. groakes:
    "@S'mon - I would be interested to know what you find morally reprehensible about the authors you listed, given that I would hold most of them (I haven't read any Pat Mills) to be humanists with a passionate love of humanity."

    Pat Mills is/was the main writer/editor for the comic 2000AD, notable for Nemesis the Warlock, Slaine, Finn etc.

    They are Humanists who don't understand Humanity. They're like the Anarchist academic who gave a talk at my Law School last week - "We must have total Autonomy and Equality! The masses must be mobilised to destroy the State!" Whenever the Left's vision is actually implemented it is disastrous for actual humans. Often it has created Hell on Earth.

    Actual human flourishing requires a dynamic interaction between liberal and conservative principles - which is in accordance with Moorcock's literary Cosmic Balance between Law and Chaos, but not his non-fictional political stance. Mills, Moore and Pullman by contrast only want absolute Autonomy. Which only results in enslavement anyway, as in His Dark Materials where the protagonist rebels fight against the antagonist Catholics, but are written as even more unquestioning of *their* authority figures and the rightness of their cause than the supposedly villainous Magisterium! When Lucifer says jump, they ask "How high?" Moorcock to his credit is much more subtle, and doesn't present unquestioning obedience to the 'right' (ie Left, or Chaotic) side as desirable, his Law is generally shown as preferable to his Chaos, although he dislikes writers like Tolkien who have the inner aspect on Lawfulness.

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  56. groakes:
    "Talking of what is "Right" and "Wrong" seems to me a very fundamentalist position..."

    You're disrespecting my opinion! Fascist! >:)

    word verify: Czygoda - sounds like something from the Lost City of Cthuloid demon-gods.

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  57. Korgoth:
    "I've enjoyed Moorcock's stuff as popcorn, but it isn't especially deep (there's a bit of Frankfurt School in there, but that's about as far as it goes)"

    Moorcock makes good use of Jung and Freud, as well as Campbell of course. I haven't enjoyed his recent works though, I never finished the last Elric sequel.

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  58. Chris T:
    "As others have said above, I really doubt Moorcock is a Marxist. Although that certain people think he is speaks volumes"

    He is, or was, a New Left Marxist, like most of his peers. I know in the US that (cultural) Marxists tend to not call themselves Marxists, since using other terms like 'Progressive' is seen as better for advancing Marxism in US society.

    Here in the UK and Europe it's pretty much 'respectable' to be Marxist. Most of my academic colleagues are either New Left/cultural Marxists, or classical economic Marxists. They like the Marxist fantasy writer China Mieville a lot, he spoke once at the staff seminar but unfortunately I couldn't attend that week.

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  59. I sometimes assume that Moorcock simply never got farther than Book 1 of TLOTR, and that that, as much as his own ideological preconceptions, is where the problem lies. If one never gets farther than Farmer Maggot's mushroom farm, I can understand readers of a certain temperament growing fed up and stopping. While there's (obviously!) much great set-up in the early chapters, it's really the second half of The Fellowship of the Ring that turns TLOTR into a very different sort of work. If Moorcock never actually got there and simply assumes the whole story is written in the same vein, I can see how he might get to the view he presents in "Epic Pooh," even if I dont agree with it.

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  60. Chris T: I disagree about your interpretation of death in Middle Earth. Only the elves (and as you mentioned, Maiar like Gandalf) return to the Undying Lands. Men do not; their fate is uncertain. This is the great tragedy as told in the Appendices of the tale of Arwen and Aragorn. Not to mention that elven "deathlessness" brings with it a host of problems, and it is hinted that humans, with their finite lifespans, are the luckier. So yes, complex, at least in my opinion as supported by the text.

    When MM says that Tolkien is guilty of contributing to the myth of sacrifice, adapting the "sentimental myths that make war bearable," and that he doesn't ask any questions of "white men in grey clothing who have a handle on what's best for us" (i.e., politicians, generals, etc.),the implication is that Tolkien is guilty of glorifying war.

    You can ascribe any motivations to the orcs/other destroyers that you like (Tolkien consciously avoided doing that; whether he did so unconsciously is another issue). They could be imperialistic, aggressive nations like WWII Japan or Germany. Who knows? There are extremists today who are opposed to the free thinking and exchange of ideas expressed on this internet and this very blog.

    Michael Moorcock may think that the actions of all nations are morally equivalent and that every war is equally reprehensible, but I think most sensible people do not.

    Regarding "cowardly self-protection," I do think you're right that Moorcock's target with that statement was the middle class, though I note that I stated in my essay that I suspect that Moorcock has a problem with the social organization of the Shire to which the hobbits return, not necessarily their bravery in defending it.

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