In Defence of Tolkien: a Rebuttal of China Miéville

Rockstar fantasy author and poster boy for the New Weird genre China Miéville attempts to slay the giant whose shoulders he stands on:

Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature. His oeuvre is massive and contagious – you can’t ignore it, so don’t even try. The best you can do is consciously try to lance the boil. And there’s a lot to dislike – his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity. Tolkien’s clichés – elves ‘n’ dwarfs ‘n’ magic rings – have spread like viruses. He wrote that the function of fantasy was ‘consolation’, thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader.”

Oh my, where to start

Tolkien is the foundation of the genre in which Miéville writes, its bones. Tolkien is a pioneer of ‘second-world fantasy’ – where the setting is not earth, but a world of the writer’s own making. It’s difficult to overstate how influential he was – “you can’t ignore it, so don’t even try.” Fantasy previous to Lord of the Rings involved interactions between the real world and fantastical elements – ghosts, witches, fairies, genies. There are now thousands of ‘second worlds’,  from the Discworld to Westeros to Miéville’s own Bas-Lag. Can you imagine your bookshelf, or your childhood, without them? If anything, Tolkien is the arse on which Miéville is the boil (or the adorable freckle, if you happen to like his writing).

elves ‘n’ dwarves ‘n’ magic rings

Miéville maybe does not know which direction time flows in? Does he blame the 1819 writer of The Vampyre  for Twilight fanfiction, or Shakespeare for the decline of theatre?

Penny Arcade on Miéville

These fantasy clichés were original when Tolkien wrote them. Orcs and halflings were entirely created by Tolkien, and elves mostly so (they used to be small, shy woodland creatures, nothing like the tall melancholy things we have now). And it’s a bit much to blame him for the proliferation of magic rings, since they show up in the myths of every ringwearing culture throughout history.

boys-own-adventure glorying in war

“It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.”

Tolkien in 1916

Translation: ‘war is rad’, apparently? Look, Tolkien fought in World War 1 – he had no illusions about glory. Unless words like “hideous” and “misery” and “oh god, so many lice” seem glorious to you. All but one of his friends were dead by 1918. War in Lord of the Rings had irreparable consequences. The plains west of Mordor, on which the battle of Dagorlad was fought, was the bleakest place the hobbits had seen. Nothing would grow on that desecrated ground ever again. And remember, it wasn’t warriors that saved Middle-Earth  – the last alliance has no hope of victory, they are only buying time for Frodo. Frodo who refused to slay Gollum, who won’t even wear a sword towards the end, and who is so damaged by his experiences that he can never really be part of a happy life again.

fantasy as ‘consolation’

Oh, now, Miéville knows better than that. ‘Consolation’ is a far more complex word than just ‘hugs and puppies’. It’s a word with centuries of thought and theology behind it. The 6th Century philosopher Boethius – and 21st Century philosopher Alain de Botton – have both written books titled “Consolation[s] of Philosophy” and neither of them were intending to mollycoddle.

absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity

‘How shall a man judge what to do in such times?’ ― ‘As he has ever judged,’ said Aragorn. ‘Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men.’

It’s true that Tolkien is not a moral relativist. That’s easy for me to deal with because neither am I. I want to talk about ethics in fantasy in my next post, so I won’t go into it too much here, but I think it’s one of fantasy’s strengths that it’s one of the few places in literature where we can still talk about right and wrong in unambiguous terms. That said, every writer has a moral standpoint, even if that standpoint is relativism. It only becomes obnoxious when the good characters have no flaws, or their good actions never have bad consequences. That is not the case in Lord of the Rings:

  • Gollum is very close to redemption at some points in the book. Sam’s suspicion and unkindness are very likely what tip him over the edge to betrayal.
  • Frodo, of course, fails and succumbs to the ring’s power at the last.
  • Gandalf chooses not to slay Gollum out of mercy, and that turns out to be the saving of Middle-earth. Mercy compels him not to kill Saruman, and that causes enormous suffering in the Shire.
  • Aragorn told Éowyn not to go to battle. That decision was completely wrong. Luckily she disobeyed.
  • Both Boromir and Denethor commit terrible acts, but they are both considered good and noble people despite their failings.
  • “Nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.”

In conclusion

The Miéville quote comes from a longer piece in which he tries to defend the fantasy genre by pointing out – rightly – that most of its detractors are referring solely to High or Epic Fantasy, while totally ignoring avant-garde subgenres such as New Weird, in which Miéville writes. But it’s one thing to distance himself from Tolkien’s fantasy – quite another to try and tear it down altogether. With apologies to Susanna Clarke:

It is the contention of Mr Miéville that everything belonging to Tolkien must be shaken out of modern fantasy, as one would shake moths and dust out of an old coat. What does he imagine he will have left? If you get rid of Tolkien you will be left holding the empty air.

Bonus Content: Boromir vs Faramir!

If you want to see where Tolkien’s values lay, compare the brothers Boromir and Faramir. Boromir tries to seize the Ring by force; he is killed and the hobbits are kidnapped as a result. Faramir is not tempted – he keeps his promise, “shows his quality” and aids Frodo and Sam on their journey.

So although Boromir is repeatedly referred to as the better warrior, the bolder, it is Faramir that Tolkien wants us to take for our moral example. Here’s what he has to say about war:

War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”

 Of course, I’m talking about the book. In the movie he nearly succumbs. Peter Jackson threw away the message and the character for a cheap moment of suspense, something that angered Stephen Colbert as much as it did me.

Extra Super-Bonus Content: Dwarfs vs Dwarves!

‘Dwarves’ is the correct plural term when referring to the non-human race in Tolkien or other fantasy works. For human people with dwarfism, ‘dwarfs’ is grammatically correct, but it makes some folks unhappy, so why not say ‘people with dwarfism’? It is only two more words.

So what is even the point of the word ‘dwarfs’? For when you want a verb meaning ‘to make something appear small’ – e.g. ‘the new hotel in Dubai dwarfs the buildings around it.’ The more you know.

Subversive Fantasy (done right)

In my last blog post I asked whether the fantasy genre is fundamentally conservative. My aim was to show that regardless of content, fantasy is inherently subversive. The idea that the content of many fantasy books is liberal seemed so obvious as to not be worth stating. I was surprised to learn from the responses I got that a lot of people are actually not aware of the range of really interesting fantasy available beyond the bestseller lists.

All of the books below are not just ethically sound but are also great stories with well-rounded characters and compelling settings. They are also complete stand-alone novels, even though they are part of ongoing series.

Swordspoint (Riverside #1)
Ellen Kushner
Half Regency-era romance, half Renaissance political scheming. Love and sex between men is treated as completely unremarkable. St Vier the duellist is dashing and glamourous, and yet the reality of a man who will kill for money is not downplayed. It’s hard to really like either St Vier or his lover – and yet somehow you want them to end up together. This book also avoids one of the common missteps of fantasy – that of assuming that aristocratic blood is of any value at all. I have trouble caring about whether the ‘rightful’ king reclaims his throne. Why should the biological royal make a better ruler than the usurper? I’m rarely convinced he will. Neither is Ellen Kushner.

Jhereg (The Vlad Taltos series)
Steven Brust
Two parts Raymond Chandler-esque noir, one part Hungarian folklore. Instead of trying to solve a murder, the assassin protagonist has to figure out how to get away with one. Reads like it was fun to write. Smart. Deals with the problem of gender differences by ignoring them (sort of like Starship Troopers the movie), and it works well. Women and men are equally likely to be wise, graceful, brutish, soft, cunning – scholars, prostitutes or thugs. Brust is a Trotskyist, and while you wouldn’t necessarily be able to guess it from his writing, issues of class are definitely there in the background.

Someplace To Be Flying (The Newford Books)
Charles de Lint
Set in a fictional city in modern day Canada, characters from Celtic and Native mythology begin to bleed into the everyday world, along with creatures of de Lint’s imagination – crow girls, tumbleweed men and other genius loci. Raven and Coyote are refighting their old arguments and singing their old songs. Anyone in Newford might be an old god, but the characters de Lint loves most are ordinary: slum dwellers, social workers, artists and musicians, and most of all people who have come from violent and abusive childhoods. These people have no roots they can trust, and they have grown themselves new roots in the city of Newford, tangled up with the spirits of the place. There are no grand battles or bombastic sacrifices, even when the world is at stake – most of the good done is in thankless interpersonal kindness and gentleness. Read the first chapter here.

Guards! Guards! (Discworld series)
Terry Pratchett
Most of the Discworld books offer social commentary on things like privatisation (Going Postal) and the use of racism to promote war (Jingo), but what stands out about Pratchett is his humanism. The title of Guards! Guards! comes from the trope of the palace guards who are called for and then immediately slaughtered by the dashing hero. Who are these people? Why are they so disposable? Their job must not be very highly regarded. And so the Night Watch of Ankh Morpork (an amalgam of Dickensian London and Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar) are drunk, underpaid wretches with gimpy knees and ill-fitting armour. But they are people. Pratchett starts with a fantasy cliche (in this case a marauding dragon) and thinks “How would real people respond?” Some would try to get on with their jobs and some would figure out how to make a buck out of it. Pratchett reminds me very much of Vonnegut, in his great cynicism and affection for humanity, and who said “It now seems morally important to me to do without minor characters in a story. Any character who appears, however briefly, deserves to have his or her life story fully respected and told.”

I suggest beginning with Guards! Guards! His writing has evolved from simple genre parody to complex social satire, and that’s about the earliest book that’s still very good. People will often tell you to start with one of his earlier books, because they are chronology purists. But these are stand-alone books and you really don’t lose anything by not reading them first.

Conspicuously Absent

Books which are not generally classified as fantasy, despite obviously being so.

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

Books in which the politics of the author appears to drive the story, rather than coming out naturally in the telling of it.

  • His Dark Materials Trilogy by Phillip Pullman

– subcategory: allegory (that dull brute)

      •  Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathon Swift (The Chronicles of Narnia are not, I think, allegorical. They were written by a Christian apologist, and his values show, but they’re also very sympathetic to paganism)

Books that are highly critical of, for example, inequality and racism, but are set in worlds in which it is rife. I tried to focus on books that show a really different sort of society.

  • the unutterably good Jonathon Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke,  and the work of Ursula le Guin.

Is the Fantasy Genre Fundamentally Conservative?

Yes, according to many theorists, or at least Tolkien-derived fantasy is.

They point to the fixation with a medieval golden age, the essentialist labelling of races as either all good (elves) or all bad (orcs), the glorification of monarchy and purity of bloodlines, stories that revolve around protecting the status quo… all of which are valid points (although more accurately applied to Tolkien’s imitators than Tolkien himself).

But they ignore Marshall McLuhan’s maxim, “the medium is the message.”

He means that the medium by which any particular message is conveyed has more of an impact on how humans think and develop than the content of the message. He gives the example of a televised news report of a horrific murder. The details of the particular report matter far less than the effect of bringing crime reports into our living rooms every evening, and how that affects our fear, our communities and our attitudes to crime and punishment.

When you read fantasy, there is more going on than the content.

Deep reading, where you actually sink into another world, forms memories as vivid as your real experiences. Your brain is basically incapable of distinguishing between real and imagined memories (which is bizarre, and fascinating, and you can read more about it here). So reading about new worlds broadens your mind in just the same way travel does.

The simplistic version of this might be “if elves and dwarves can get along, why not Muslims and Jews?” but that’s really not what I’m talking about. Experiencing any other society, good or bad, forces you to realise that the world as-it-is is just one of hundreds of possible set-ups for society. 21st Century Western Capitalist Democracy is not How Things Are, it’s one of many ways it could be.

Any High Fantasy book, no matter how regressive the world it portrays (Hello, Game of Thrones), renders itself revolutionary by the act of creating another world.

And, because this is how reading works, by making the reader a collaborator in the creation of that world.

**For the record, I love Druss. But that cover is pretty bad.

For a thorough explanation of Marshall McLuhan’s theory, watch his lecture, “The Medium Is The Message.”