Friday, February 20, 2009

Taking another Tolkien-basher to task

Novelist Richard Morgan recently wrote a critical piece on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in which he argues that the book suffers from its shallow depictions of good and evil, “ponderous epic tones of Towering Archetypal Evil pitted against Irritatingly Radiant Good (oh - and guess who wins),” writes Morgan.

I don’t agree with Morgan’s piece and consider it a rather surface-level bit of analysis. It’s kind of like claiming that Watership Down is a simple tale of Nature vs. Man. But I will concede that he makes some good points that are certainly food for thought. Tolkien’s characters are rather simple and one-dimensional compared to what we are used to in the modern novel, though I don’t think this is proof of his failure of his as a writer, but rather the result of deliberate choice. Many critics have successfully argued that Tolkien based The Lord of the Rings on much older sources, including Beowulf and medieval romances.

Tolkien also did not choose to write from a liberal humanist perspective or create characters conflicted with self-doubt, though I do point out that the main character of the book, Frodo, is tormented throughout by inner struggle. This may be the evil influence of the One Ring, or it may be something much more interesting—his own frailty and desire for power. Or both. Morgan in his essay also seems to have forgotten Gollum, a complex character who began his life as a hobbit, succumbed to his own weaknesses and the One Ring, and was on the brink of redemption but tragically had his window of opportunity slammed shut by the (to quote Morgan) “unwearyingly good and wholesome” Sam.

I would also note that The Lord of the Rings offers much more than a simple struggle of good vs. evil. In it Tolkien explores coming to grips with death, the possibility of a higher power, the problem of power and possessiveness, and the pervasiveness of war and the long-term effects it wreaks.

But unfortunately this isn’t the end of Morgan’s piece. He then goes on to salt his essay with nasty stilettos aimed at the professor and his readers, spiteful barbs that for me completely undermined any legitimate points he may have been trying to make. Apparently anyone past puberty who finds value in The Lord of the Rings is developmentally delayed, according to Morgan:

I’m not much of a Tolkien fan—not since I was about twelve or fourteen anyway (which, it strikes me, is about the right age to read and enjoy his stuff).

I’m honestly at a loss to even answer this statement. It's so ludicrous, inaccurate, and poorly thought-out (and deliberately inflammatory) as to defy belief. Hell, a 10-second Google search would provide a litany of reasons why Morgan is wrong.

So, Mr. Morgan, here’s a homework assignment for you from all of us overgrown 14-year-olds. Read some Tom Shippey and John Garth. Pick up Meditations on Middle Earth by Karen Haber to find out what authors like George R.R. Martin, Orson Scott Card, Ursula K. Le Guin, Raymond E. Feist, and Terry Pratchett have to say about Tolkien. You may be surprised that all of these worthy authors seem to have found something of lasting value in The Lord of the Rings, which I guess in Morgan’s world makes them all uneducated hacks (sidebar: I wonder if 50-60 years from now we’ll be reading anything Morgan wrote).

Finally, Morgan concludes his “essay” with this:

Well, I guess it’s called fantasy for a reason. I only wonder why on earth anyone (adult) would want to read something like that. And I’ve written a fantasy novel for all those adults who wouldn't. I hope you like it.

Ah, now we get to the true purpose of this post. Congratulations, Mr. Morgan. By posting on my blog I’ve fallen for your trap, and given you what you obviously were after all along—publicity for your new book.

I hope it sells through the roof. And all you had to do was demean Tolkien and all of his readers to get it.


Anonymous said...

I knew Morgan had written some mediocre comic books (and so I'm told, some mediocre novels), but I didn't realize he was a jackass, too :)

Leaving aside Tolkien's choice to write archetypal characters in a way that is not currently fashionable, I think his understanding of the relationship between good and evil is very nuanced, well-observed, and timelessly relevant. Well beyond most writers today, particularly in the sci-fi/fantasy field. I can understand people disliking LOTR because it's too slow-moving or something, but implying that Tolkien is some kind of simpleton will never go over well.

James Maliszewski said...

Bad mouthing Tolkien in poorly argued essays seems to be a right of passage for mediocre novelists with an inflated sense of their own greatness. It's the same principle behind game writers who feel they have to knock Gygax down a peg or two. A pity these guys don't take the time to understand the writers at whom they're taking posthumous potshots. Their criticisms might ring a little less vapid and self-involved if they did.

Brian Murphy said...

I can handle thoughtful criticism of Tolkien, but this essay was more or less a cheap shot.

As for Morgan the writer, anyone who feels the need to resort to name calling and insults is off my list.

noisms said...

You've got to love that last line, haven't you? "Tolkien's crap and only for kids... read my book instead!"

Real classy.

The sad thing is that mediocre writers can make a name for themselves this way. For ever person who decides not to read Morgan because of his cheap shots, there'll be a dozen whose curiosity is piqued enough to buy his books.

Chad Thorson said...

Richard who?

Oh, it was an ad for a book. So all this time, when I've read and re-read Tolkein (for my own enjoyment), I've been retarding my intellectual growth. I guess I'll go to Barnes and Noble tomorrow and buy one of his books.

Actually, I've read Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, and it was good. His main character is what I consider "typical" for the 21st century, the cynical anti-hero. I think the whole anti-hero thing has been done to death, and more people are gravitating back to the black and white, good vs. evil stories.

Richard K. Morgan is worth a read, but after reading his cheap trashing of Tolkien I doubt I'll read him again.

Why does the guy at the bottom always try to tear down the guy at the top?

Anonymous said...

Wow, I was intending on reading Altered Carbon sometime in the not too distant future. Now that I know what a jackass the author is, I can strike that one off my 'to-read' list.

Anonymous said...

I like what you have to say Brian, especially the part about Gollum, and defending Tolkien's 'weakness' as being a choice rather than a failure.

Morgan has written some excellent books Altered Carbon (great ideas but a little long), Market Forces (a very good grim satire), Thirteen AKA Black Man is also read-worthy. I look forward to his new fantasy novel.

Mr Baron said...

I have taken Mr Morgan's works off my Amazon wish list.

I am not aligned to his point of view.

Dave Hardy said...

Morgan has some interesting ideas about how Tolkien treats the conflict of Good/Evil both between rival groups, though he elides how Tolkein considers the conflict within oneself. Alas, the value of those ideas is undercut by his crass self-promotion.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi everyone, thanks for responding.

I've encountered many bright readers and fantasy fans that don't like Tolkien, either because they think he's a lousy writer, not gritty enough, they don't like his perceived politics and religion, whatever. I don't happen agree with them, but it's their opinion and I respect it.

But when Morgan blanket-statements Tolkien as "for children" he's immediately lost any credibility. Many smarter critics and better writers than he have found something of value in Tolkien. I'd like to personally ask him how he accounts for the scores of critical studies on Tolkien, college courses taught around his books, etc.

In the end, I really do think his essay was simply pure commercialism to sell his novel.

Anonymous said...

Morgan's novel, The Steel Remains, which he turns from smearing Tolkien long enough to shill, is actually one of the best sword and sorcery novels to see print since the 1970's.
Once again, just because an artist is on record with boorish behavior is no reason not to examine his or her art.
Has anyone here read the venomous comments about Tolkien uttered at length by Michael Moorcock?

John Hocking

Anonymous said...

I read your review of said " Critical Essay " and it left me wondering.. Am I supposed to know who this Richard Morgan guy is?

maybe I should check Barnes and Nobles Discount aisle more often..

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. I didn't think the essay particularly scathing. He just offered his opinion on why Tolkien didn't work for him personally and said that if you of the same mind, well he's got a new book out called THE STEEL REMAINS.

As the essay happens to be posted on his publisher's website though, so that's to be expected surely?

Brian Murphy said...

No, he didn't just offer his opinion on why Tolkien didn't work for him. He essentially stated that anyone who enjoys Tolkien are adolescents (you know, people like those no-talent authors Ursula LeGuin, George R.R. Martin, and Terry Pratchett). I call that a personal attack, and a rather uninformed one at that.