Thursday, January 3, 2013

Happy birthday to JRR Tolkien; jeers to Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman is another notable fantasy author who, alongside the likes of Michael Moorcock and Richard Morgan, has grossly missed the mark in his appraisal of The Lord of the Rings. Listening to this recent Geeks Guide to the Galaxy podcast I was dumbfounded not only by Pullman’s ignorance of The Lord of the Rings, but the gall he exhibits throwing around opinions on a work he admittedly read only once—and as a teenager. “I’ve tried to read it since, but I was unsuccessful,” Pullman says in the interview (note: the Tolkien portion starts around the 17:10 mark; its only a two minute segment or so of the interview). Admitting this fact should automatically invalidate any opinions you have on The Lord of the Rings. I was forced to read Moby Dick in high school. Had that been the only time I read it, and 40 years passed, how much would my opinions on the book matter? None, right?

But since Pullman is a big-time successful author, in the eyes of some we must take him seriously. So I’m taking this opportunity on what would be Tolkien’s 121st birthday to show just much how much he gets wrong.



Pullman’s primary criticism of The Lord of the Rings is that it does not sufficiently deal with our world, unlike the most “successful” fantasies which deal with “some aspect of real life”. While somewhat a matter of opinion and interpretation, Pullman’s assessment is as close to flat-out wrong you can be in the subjective world of literary criticism (very high schoolish, you might say). To wit: The problem of power and possessiveness (as symbolized in the One Ring) is not an element of real life? In what universe is this the case? How about death and the pursuit of deathlessness? How about wars, and their destructiveness? How about the lessons of The Scouring of the Shire? How about the destruction of the environment, and the equivocal nature of progress? How about the fact that its author was a traumatized veteran of World War I, and that his experiences on the Somme inform its battles, its soldiers manning the walls of Minas Tirith, and the landscapes of the Dead Marshes? Are these issues not real enough for you, Mr. Pullman? This is what happens when you read a book once in high school and think you’ve got it all figured out.

Pullman also reveals a very narrow view of the purpose of fantasy novels and the characters they contain, which (he thinks) must serve a modern version of reality. The implication of his argument is that characters must be written in a certain way, conflicted with self-doubt and petty day to day preoccupations; older forms of literature that feature larger than life heroes, or modern novels which derive their inspiration from these older sources (such as LOTR) are therefore lesser in some regard. For example, Pullman claims that the only interesting character in the entirety of Tolkien’s universe is Gollum, and the rest are “cardboard” and “not sufficiently like him to be interesting.” But again he shows his lack of familiarity with the novel: Any half-perceptive reader will find several fallible, in many respects very modern human characters, including Boromir, Denethor, and Saruman. Also, as I have argued before, the vast cast of characters of The Lord of the Rings, summed together, represent all the facets of humanity.

But I also don’t find any of the non-conflicted characters “cardboard”; far from it. You don’t forget cardboard characters, and it’s hard to forget the dogged loyalty of Sam, or the cutting but good natured wit of Gandalf. Sure, Aragorn might not be Leopold Bloom, an angst-ridden, tortured soul whose inner journey we follow over hundreds of pages, but we love him nonetheless.

Petty aside: If Tolkien has cardboard characters, Pullman has committed the far more egregious sin of having a cardboard agenda. His last book in his “celebrated” His Dark Materials trilogy quickly devolves into a naked polemic against religion, to the detriment of any story he was trying to tell.

Pullman also complains that The Lord of the Rings doesn’t include romance or sex, so that too makes it a lesser work. To leave out that aspect “in a book of that length seems like cheating,” Pullman complains. What a load of horse shit! So all novels need to have this element, then, or else they “cheat.” It’s not enough to be inundated with the sex lives of celebrities 24 hours a day, our heroic fantasy must embrace this noble aspect of humanity as well, apparently. I wish one of the hosts on the Geeks Guide to the Galaxy followed up with this question: But Mr. Pullman, where is the sex in Huckleberry Finn or Moby Dick? Surely Melville was also “cheating” not to include a romantic relationship on the Pequod, right Philip?

Anyway, happy birthday to JRRT, and may he not have to endure the orcish criticism of the Philip Pullmans of the world in the Blessed Realm.

13 comments:

Keith said...

Well said. You've hit on a number of reasons why I don't bother with reading Pullman.

Lagomorph Rex said...

Yup... I honestly was not impressed with Pullman.. and even though I'm not a Christian, I'd still give my (Hypothetical) kids Narnia (Or Prydain, or The Dark is Rising, or Redwall) over Dark materials any day... simply because I feel the things Dark Materials has to say are a quick path to raising a bunch of narcissistic egoists.. might as well start the kids off with Anthem or the Fountainhead.

A lot of people dislike Tolkien because, to borrow a new agey term, he is the granddaddy of "Right Hand Path" Fantasy.. where as people like Moorcock and Pullman write distinctly 'Left hand path" fantasy..

Ted Cross said...

I'm so tired of people bashing Tolkien. It must be some form of jealousy, or perhaps these are just people who are THAT clueless. I tried reading Pullman and it bored the heck out of me. Then that horrid movie was made and it turned me off of his work for good.

Paul R. McNamee said...

I find most Tolkien bashers to be woefully uninformed. Half or more haven't even read LOTR once. They just see all the book covers with elves and D&D trappings and assume/lump LOTR in with that stuff, and then berate it without understanding it whatsoever.


Ken said...

Agreed. Reading Pullman was a chore. I'm used to reading books that serve as a bully pulpit for the author (one can't really read contemporary speculative fiction without either encountering political allegory or outright screeds), but the better ones are more subtle about it. Pullman's subtle knife cuts about as finely as a spatula.
http://about.me/ken_lizzi

Brian Murphy said...

I think the difference between His Dark Materials (post The Golden Compass, which was a fine book) and Narnia is that HDM is too negative, spending too much time pillorying organized religion, while Narnia, even if you're not a Christian, is positive/optimistic in the main. Plus Pullman's concept of "Dust" as some extraterrestrial element that invests us with our humanity is pure mumbo-jumbo. He's apparently doing a 4th book in the series called Dust, I believe, in which I presume that he'll try to fix all the problems he's created.

I find most Tolkien bashers to be woefully uninformed. Half or more haven't even read LOTR once.

Exactly. Moorcock has stated that he didn't even get all the way through it, for instance, and yet people still think Epic Pooh is on-target.

Taranaich said...

Good stuff, Brian.

The unfortunate thing about Tolkien is that even a significant number of his fans seem to have the wrong idea: they look to the Shire as a rural idyll, the way the world ought to be; they look on all the villains as simplistic evil bad guys who have no shades of grey, and all the heroes as paragons of virtue. I know you're a big fan of escapism, but even Tolkien fans seem to think of it as the kind of escapism where one can't deal with modern life, so decides "let's read about dragons and elves" rather than the more subtle variation.

But man, the idea of Pullman nakedly acknowledging he hasn't finished reading the book, yet still goes on to make proclamations that you could only justifiably make having read it. Honestly, the host should've just said something.

Anonymous said...

Pullman is a narcissist.


Jim Cornelius
www.frontierpartisans.com

Brian Murphy said...

I know you're a big fan of escapism, but even Tolkien fans seem to think of it as the kind of escapism where one can't deal with modern life, so decides "let's read about dragons and elves" rather than the more subtle variation.

I think Tolkien does both kinds of escapism well; you can get lost in Middle-Earth, its woods and fields and streams, and forget about life for a while. But he also offers the "productive" side as well: You can escape into the realms of the Elves, for example, and think about what it would be like to be immortal, and the associated problems that accompany deathlessless, which with advancing medical science is entirely relevant today.

But man, the idea of Pullman nakedly acknowledging he hasn't finished reading the book, yet still goes on to make proclamations that you could only justifiably make having read it. Honestly, the host should've just said something.

Yeah, I give Pullman some honesty points for admitting that he hasn't read it since he was a teenager, but then he goes out to spout his ill-informed opinions anyway, which does seem to make him out as a narcissist, as Jim states. His critique is entirely personal (Tolkien's characters don't do anything for me, there's not enough sex in it for me) and he doesn't even pause to consider that they may work for many others.

Anonymous said...

thanks for share.

Eric D. Lehman said...

As an author, it is a chancy thing to talk about other writers you DON'T like. Years ago I made a vow only to write positive reviews of books I really liked, and I've stuck to that. I'm sure it's difficult for Pullman, who is dealing with someone (Tolkien) who is a giant, but he should know better and keep his mouth shut. It only makes him look silly and petty.

wylantern said...

Not surprised by what Pullman says. He has a reputation for being an arrogant dick.

Anonymous said...

Your analysis of many fans' appreciation of Tolkien is also spot on. Although I do consider myself a "fan", I think there is a danger that fandom and it's associated activities can have the effect of dulling your critical faculties and encouraging a kind of fawning attitude toward a work. Your example of seeing the Shire as a rural idyll is a good case in point. Such a perspective ignores the complex themes regarding government, responsibility, and social
Organisation that The Shire embodies. Sadly, too many fans just ignore the complexity and use escapism as an excuse for literary ignorance.