Thursday, July 22, 2010

Wolfe’s lost road: Discovering an author’s personal essay on J.R.R. Tolkien

Freedom, love of neighbour, and personal responsibility are steep slopes; he could not climb them for us—we must do that ourselves. But he has shown us the road and the reward.

--Gene Wolfe, “The Best Introduction to the Mountains”

J.R.R. Tolkien has so many readers, and his works have become so pervasive in the broader culture, that coming to his defense hardly seems necessary anymore. Haven’t we established Tolkien’s credentials by now? Magazines like Time have selected The Lord of the Rings as one of the top 100 novels ever, according to Wikipedia it’s one of the top 10 best-selling books of all time with 150 million copies sold, and the movies upon which it’s based won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Tolkien has made it onto several college syllabi and there are academic journals and numerous critical studies devoted to his works, including Tom Shippey’s par excellence works Author of the Century and The Road to Middle-Earth.

But someone always comes along to attack Tolkien on the basis of his conservatism or religion, his perceived racism, and/or the perceived shallowness/non-literary nature of The Lord of the Rings, and I’m reminded of why we need to vigilant. For example, David Brin of, Science fiction/fantasy author Richard Morgan (author of The Steel Remains), and Phillip Pulman (author of the His Dark Materials trilogy) have all taken shots at The Lord of the Rings and/or Tolkien himself in recent years, calling him outdated and dangerously conservative (Brin), a refuge for 12-year-olds and adults who have never grown up (Morgan), and shrunken and diminished by his Catholicism (Pulman).

Now I’m not saying Tolkien is above criticism, but critics like Brin and Morgan have essentially gutted The Lord of the Rings, attacking it on an existential basis and more or less claiming it should be placed in the dustbin of history. When people take aim at classics like Ulysses or Moby Dick you rarely see criticism elevated to the level of calling into question the very existence of these works. Yet Tolkien criticism for whatever reason frequently ascends to shrill peaks of outrage.

To read the rest of this post, visit the Black Gate website .


Trey said...

Thanks for the link. Interesting essay.

Atom Kid said...

That was a great essay! It makes me want to go back and read a chapter a day. Thanks for sharing that.

Anonymous said...

Well said!

Usually, the louder the criticism indicates the truly valuable merits of the target. Writers cast stones at him because they all stand in his shadow. What they need to do is simply step out of shadows and make one of their own.


Lagomorph Rex said...

I find also that Typically, the authors who don't like Tolkien.. are also authors who I can't stand their own writings.. So it's a great help for me for them to identify themselves so I know not to read them. Phillip pullman, failed to endear himself to me through his writing as well as through his anti religious bias and its extension in his bias against authors who were strongly religious (Tolkien and C.S. Lewis).

I feel the same way in regards REH, if an author has read and liked his works, then I generally will enjoy their works. However if they don't like his works, or seek to belittle his influence or purposefully subvert it then I can't enjoy their writing.

I feel a lot of it is rooted firmly in the little green monster of jealousy, the "new" author doesn't want to be cloaked forever in the shadow of a forerunner.. and so even if her stories are firmly rooted in those earlier works she will still attack them in order to create a perceived distance between them. "I'm not like him because I think he sucks" It also helps when they echo the feelings of "the learned" since it makes them seem like one of "The learned" .. Moorecock, Pullman, Morgan, Meivelle.. they all get interviewed whenever any newspaper needs a story on Fantasy novels.. You never see them interview Tracy Hickman or Ursala K. LeGuin(unless they want a feminist bent on their story)

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for the comments, all.

Lagomorph: I do agree that the most vociferous Tolkien critics have an element of Oedipus Complex about them. It's not enough to write their own stories--they feel a need to take down the father figure of fantasy to show how hip or avant-garde their stories are in comparison. In the end all it does is diminish them.

Even China Mieville (who has written some scathing things about Tolkien) admitted this phenomenon in a recent essay in which he recanted on Tolkien, just a bit:

"Every few years, certain as tides, someone will write a splenetic screed against the Professor, explaining why he's the devil/ worst things to happen to fantasy/voice of reaction/zomg most boring writer EVER /etc."

Mieville was one of those guys but at least he seems to be coming around a bit, it seems.

Lagomorph Rex said...

Yeah, even if he hasn't recanted at least he can understand how it makes him look. I'm not going to hate some one for legitimately disliking Tolkien's books, not everyone will like them and thats something I respect.

I thought wolfe's was a great little peice and it's really encouraged me to want to read his books.

stag said...

I certainly DO wish Tolkein had included more women in his works. To round him out a bit more.

But thats just my opinion.

Brian Murphy said...

Fair enough Stag, and I do think that's one criticism that can be leveled fairly at Tolkien. Though I will say that the heroines he did write (Eowyn and Galadriel) are strong, self-sufficient, and integral to the plot.