Thursday, March 30, 2017

Elrond vs. Elric: Situating Tolkien in Modern Fantasy

Some people do not like The Lord of the Rings.

 This, of course, is as it should be. I for one would be far more concerned if there were not a certain difference of opinion on the matter, and indeed I harbor certain reservations about Tolkien's work myself. What is more striking is the reason many give for their dislike: they find Tolkien unserious, even juvenile. Andrew Rissik's biting "Middle Earth, middlebrow" is a fairly typical criticism of the kind, in which references to "the twee doggerel of Tom Bombadil," Middle-earth as a "strangely simplified mock-Teutonic never-never land," and Tolkien's own "essential simplicity of temperament" make it clear that the author considers The Lord of the Rings a children's novel at best. It would be easy to dismiss Rissik as the very sort of literary gatekeeper Tolkien himself decries in "On Fairy-Stories," a biased critic who believes that tales about elves and dragons are fit only for the nursery. In Rissik's case, this may indeed be so, but such a defense of Tolkien generally is undermined by the fact that his work has been subject to similar criticism from other fantasy writers. I am speaking, of course, of Michael Moorcock, a critic so vocal that a 2014 profile in The New Yorker was simply titled "The Anti-Tolkien."

Before I turn to his criticisms of Tolkien, I would like to take a moment to evaluate Moorcock. So far as name recognition is concerned, he's hardly Tolkien, or even Pratchett or Le Guin, and yet Moorcock's influence on fantasy as a modern genre is equal to any of them. Tellingly, while Tolkien's elves, dwarves, and hobbits—excuse me, halflings—were always an important part of the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game, the RPG's original cosmology was based primarily on Moorcock's, and the first edition of the Deities and Demigods sourcebook included an entire section on his mythos and characters, particularly Elric of Melniboné, his signature fantasy antihero, until a lawsuit forced its removal. Modern luminaries of the genre regularly cite Moorcock as an influence—see, for example, Neil Gaiman's story "One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock." In 2000, the same year Tom Shippy declared Tolkien the "author of the century," Moorcock was awarded the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement. His qualifications to criticize even a fantasist of Tolkien's reputation are beyond doubt, and criticize he does.

Moorcock's most significant piece of Tolkien criticism is the essay "Epic Pooh," in which, as the title suggests, he unflatteringly likens The Lord of the Rings to an elf-filled version of A. A. Milne's children's classic. "The sort of prose most often identified with 'high' fantasy," he writes, "is the prose of the nursery-room." He proceeds to rip into Tolkien on this front, with textual examples, then moves on to complaining about his politics. Eventually, he returns to the point, even more strongly than before: "The Lord of the Rings is much more deep-rooted in its infantilism than a good many of the more obviously juvenile books it influenced." At this point, one gets the sense that Moorcock's complaint runs deeper than the quality of Tolkien's prose, or the conservatism of his politics. And, indeed, it does, though he dithers a while longer before finally spitting it out:
Tolkien, going against the grain of his subject matter, forces [a happy ending] on us—as a matter of policy.
The great epics dignified death, but they did not ignore it, and it is one of the reasons why they are superior to the artificial romances of which Lord of the Rings is merely one of the most recent.
 Moorcock goes on, but he hardly needs to. This, here, is the beating heart of his objection to Tolkien. It is, I think, the true heart of all of them, even Rissik's, if they could but get past their petty biases and articulate it properly.

As Moorcock's objection has its roots, ultimately, not in The Lord of the Rings, but rather in the philosophy of the "eucatastrophe" which underlies it, I shall turn now to "On Fairy-Stories," the essay in which that claim is articulated, in order to examine it. Tolkien's discussions of the definition and origins of fairy stories are irrelevant to us here, and can be safely ignored for the present. The first section of note is the one entitled "Children," for though his objection to the classification of fairy-stories and fantasy as children's things indicates that he aspires to something more, both Rissik and Moorcock suggest that he has failed to achieve it. Here, it may be helpful to compare the literary backgrounds of Tolkien and Moorcock's respective works. Tolkien's deepest sources are, of course, the ancient myths and epics, but his treatment of fairy-stories as having been tragically relegated to children's literature, along with his self-classification as a writer of fairy-stories, transitively suggests that he sees himself as arising from a literary tradition most recently incarnated in the form of tales for children. Moorcock, by contrast, got his start as a writer and an editor in pulp magazines, in the tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, and H. P. Lovecraft, and although his creation of Elric was a deliberate attempt to cast aside a number of Conan-era pulp conventions, even this refutation served to further cement him as heir to a tradition in which children had precious little place. Thus, Tolkien, unlike Moorcock, is in the position of trying to move beyond the childishness of his predecessors. As Rissik and Moorcock claim, he is not wholly successful.

Reading further in "On Fairy-Stories," certain contradictions begin to emerge. Close to the end of the essay, Tolkien writes that "one cannot conceive of a house built with a good purpose—an inn, a hostel for travellers, the hall of a virtuous and noble king—that is yet sickeningly ugly" as existing in Faerie. Here, Tolkien errs, first because I can most certainly conceive of such a place, and second because he reduces Fairy to simple binaries. But Fairy resist such easy categorization; it is an in-between place, full of tangled briars and crooked trees and twisting paths, and it is no easier there to tell good from evil at a glance than it is in our own world. One wonders if Tolkien is not here mistaking Fairy for Heaven or Hell, which are much neater places, despite his own admonition that it is neither of those. In this oversimplification, we can see that yes, perhaps, the charges against Tolkien—that he has failed to avoid the childishness he himself railed against—are merited, and that Moorcock's objection stands: the eucatastrophe is not the particular triumph of Tolkien's fantasy, but rather its undoing.

However, it would take a measure more misanthropy than I possess to simply leave the matter there, with Tolkien's idealism broken like some once-loved doll, for while I must conclude that Tolkien's methodology was flawed, even Rissik had to recognize a measure of nobility in his intentions. Perhaps there is something to be built from the wreckage. I am not a Christian, but I shall attempt to formulate my argument in the terms of that faith, in order to better be in dialogue with Tolkien. Before I begin, however, I must briefly two vital sources of criticism which shall inform my reconstruction.

First, in his essay "The Death of the Author," Roland Barthes writes that "every text is eternally written here and now;" that is, every reader, indeed, every reading, brings a new formulation, created in the moment. If we take this to be true, we find that suddenly not only the architect of a given secondary world but rather every reader to inhabit that world must be considered as a sub-creator of that world, generating a unique instance with each reading. For while, as in Tolkien's example, every reader may see a green sun, no two of them will see it the same. Each must take their own green—from grass, or from trees, or from some beloved's eyes—and apply it to their own sun. Though such is beside the point, this formulation also presents a far better argument than any that Tolkien actually gives against dramatic or visual representations of fantasy: that in creating such representations definitively, they deny the audience their own sub-creative power. I do not necessarily agree with that particular argument myself—I've seen too many fine works of visual fantasy to wholly believe it—but I cannot help but feel that Tolkien would have approved of the sentiment.

My second source is "The Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde, and while I may not use it in the way that Wilde intended, my earlier citation of Barthes should make it quite clear that I do not especially care. Wilde writes:
No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.

No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.

No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.
At first, these lines seem to suggest that art must have no relationship with what is ethical at all. However, as Wilde notes just a single line earlier, "the moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist." Rather, these lines are a caution against judgement. A writer of fiction, for example, I may create characters I find morally repugnant, and yet it is my duty as their creator to write them, if not dispassionately, then at least without judgement, for if I judge them in my own person, I am not writing justice, merely a scripted, predetermined farce. I must not yield to a desire to prove anything wrong in my fiction, but rather portray it as fairly and honestly as I am able—which will, of course, still be somewhat subjectively—and let it condemn itself on its own. I must, as Wilde says, have no ethical sympathies. I must express everything. In Christian theology, this forbearance of judgement and gift to the condemned of their own fates has another name. There, it is called grace.

Just as grace is an essential function of the Creator, it must also be understood as an essential function of any sub-creator. In this, we find Tolkien's eucatastrophe obsoleted by something yet grander, for, following my earlier point, grace must be a function of every sub-creator, reader and author alike, and thus a well-built fantasy will induce it in all who come into contact with it, bringing them closer to a supreme understanding and mercy. Whether the end of the story is happy or sad is irrelevant, because, as Tolkien notes early one, it is in fact the human beings in Fairy who hold our interest, and if they are rendered well, their tragedy will elicit as much a depth of feeling in us as their triumph. And perhaps, just perhaps, a sub-creator might carry some of this grace with them out into the Primary World. Just a sliver would be enough to justify the whole exercise.

So, Tolkien was not perfect. He was not, perhaps, the greatest author of the 20th century. But his methods, while flawed, were quite a step beyond what he was coming from, and moving in the right direction. He may not be the be-all and end-all of modern fantasy, but he nevertheless deserves the credit he receives for having shaped it, and if nothing else, we can forgive him for not getting everything right on the very first try. The Road, after all, goes ever on and on.

—Nathaniel Eakman


  1. I beg to disagree with some of your criticisms on the over-simplicity or childishness of Tolkien’s mythology. First, I believe it is wrong to interpret “eucatastrophe” simply as “a happy ending.” As Tolkien writes in “On Fairy-Stories,” “[The eucatastrophe] does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance: it denies … universal final defeat…”(86). Indeed, the ending of The Lord of the Rings, and of many other Tolkien’s fairy stories, though happy overall, is not devoid of sorrow. Yes, the Dark Lord is destroyed. The Good eventually prevails against the Evil. But Frodo is deeply wounded and can never be completely healed, let alone “live happily ever after.” The power of the Elves inevitably wanes along with the destruction of the Ring and they have to depart from middle-earth. Eucatastrophe denies universal final defeat, but it does not guarantee universal final victory, which I think is what Moorcock attempted to criticize based on a misinterpretation of Tolkien’s stories. Sorrow and loss are woven into the “happy” ending, the Joy of which as poignant as grief.
    Second, the quote “one cannot conceive…yet sickeningly ugly” should not be interpreted to be “contradictory because it is conceivable” or “reducing Faerie to simple binaries.” In real world it is perhaps not only conceivable, but quite common that good things appear evil or vice versa, and that is precisely the reason why fairy-tales need to represent things as they should be. As Tolkien recognizes that in modern world “goodness is itself bereft of its proper beauty”(83), to represent good as beautiful and evil as ugly is an essential job of fairy tales: to recover our vision that is marred by our experience in the primary world. And this recovery is more needed by adults than by children. Furthermore, one can easily see that Tolkien’s faery is not consisted of simple categorizations of good and evil, if one considers examples of complicated characters such as Gollum, Boromir, or Feanor in Silmarillion. It is hard to characterize one as simply “good” and the other simply “evil.”

    - K. Liao

    1. Note also that even within Tolkien's work, the good is not always beautiful and the bad not always ugly. Frodo says of Aragorn's ragged appearance: "I think one of his spies would- well, seem fairer and feel fouler, if you understand" (Book I, Chapter X).

      Similarly, Sauron appears to the men of Numenor and the elves of Eregion in fair guise, the Oathbreakers are terrifying in appearance but fight in the service of Aragorn, etc. Even "All that is gold does not glitter" seems to hint that appearances can be misleading! Because of these examples, I don't think Tolkien meant that as a general principle every thing or person's appearance must always reveal its true nature, nor do I think he reduces any aspect of his world to simple binaries.

      H. Bell

  2. I think you are on the mark with what irks Moorcock most about Tolkien: the desire for a happy ending. And yet, Tolkien gives almost none of his characters--except Sam--a truly happy ending. Even Aragorn and Arwen's story, the ultimate romance, ends in sorrow, not joy. Perhaps what bugs Moorcock is the sense that, nevertheless, Tolkien holds out the possibility of a happy ending...beyond the story? RLFB