Keely's Reviews > The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
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Jul 18, 07

bookshelves: fantasy, reviewed, uk-and-ireland
Read in August, 2001

Authors who inspire a movement are usually misunderstood, especially by those they have inspired, and Tolkien is no exception, but one of the biggest misconceptions about Tolkien is the idea that he is somehow an 'innovator of fantasy'. He did add a number of techniques to the repertoire of epic fantasy writers, and these have been dutifully followed by his many imitators, but for the most part, these techniques are little more than bad habits.

Many have called Tolkien by such epithets as 'The Father of Fantasy', but anyone who makes this claim simply does not know of the depth and history of the fantasy genre. For those who are familiar with the great and influential fantastical authors, from Ovid and Ariosto to Eddison and Dunsany to R.E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, it is clear that, long before Tolkien, fantasy was already a complex, well-established, and even a respected literary genre.

Eddison's work contains an invented world, a carefully-constructed (and well-researched) archaic language, a powerful and unearthly queen, and a central character who is conflicted and lost between the forces of nobility and darkness. Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword , which came out the same year as The Fellowship of the Ring, has distant, haughty elves, deep-delving dwarves, a broken sword which must be reforged, an epic war between the armies of light and darkness, another central character trapped between those extremes, and an interweaving of Christian and Pagan worldviews.

So, if these aspects are not unique to Tolkien, then what does set him apart? Though Dunsany, Eddison, and Anderson all present worlds where light and dark come into conflict, they present these conflicts with a subtle and often ironic touch, recognizing that morality is a dangerous thing to present in absolutes. Tolkien (or C.S. Lewis), on the other hand, has no problem in depicting evil as evil, good as good, and the only place they meet is in the temptation of an honest heart, as in Gollum's case--and even then, he is not like Eddison's Lord Gro or Anderson's Scafloc, characters who live under an alternative view of the world, but instead fluctuates between the highs and lows of Tolkien's dualistic morality.

It is a dangerous message to make evil an external, irrational thing, to define it as 'the unknown that opposes us', because it invites the reader to overlay their own morality upon the world, which is precisely what most modern fantasy authors tend to do, following Tolkien's example. Whether it's Goodkind's Libertarianism or John Norman's sex slave fetish, its very easy to simply create a magical allegory to make one side 'right' and the other side 'wrong', and you never have to develop a dramatic narrative that actually explores the soundness of those ideas. Make the good guys dress in bright robes or silvery maile and the bad guys in black, spiky armor, and a lot of people will never notice that all the 'good guys' are White, upper class men, while all the 'bad guys' are 'brutish foreigners', and that both sides are killing each other and trying to rule their little corner of the world.

In Tolkien's case, his moral view was a very specific evocation of the ideal of 'Merrie England', which is an attempt by certain stodgy old Tories (like Tolkien) to rewrite history so that the nobility were all good and righteous leaders, the farmers were all happy in their 'proper place' (working a simple patch of dirt), while both industrialized cultures and the 'primitives' who resided to the South and East were 'the enemy' bent on despoiling the 'natural beauty of England' (despite the fact that the isles had been flattened, deforested, and partitioned a thousand years before).

Though Tom Bombadil remains as a strangely incoherent reminder of the moral and social complexity of the fantasy tradition upon which Tolkien draws, he did his best to scrub the rest clean, spending years of his life trying to fit Catholic philosophy more wholly into his Pagan adventure realm. But then, that's often how we think of Tolkien: bent over his desk, spending long hours researching, note-taking, compiling, and playing with language. Even those who admit that Tolkien demonstrates certain racist, sexist, and classicist leanings (as, indeed, do many great authors) still praise the complexity of his 'world building'.

And any student of the great Epics, like the Norse Eddas, the Bible, or the Shahnameh can see what Tolkien is trying to achieve with his worldbuilding: those books presented grand stories, but were also about depicting a vast world of philosophy, history, myth, geography, morality and culture. They were encyclopedic texts, intended to instruct their people on everything important in life, and they are extraordinarily valuable to students of anthropology and history, because even the smallest detail can reveal something about the world which the book describes.

So, Tolkien fills his books with troop movements, dull songs, lines of lineage, and references to his own made-up history, mythology, and language. He has numerous briefly-mentioned side characters and events because organic texts like the epics, which were formed slowly, over time and compiled from many sources often contained such digressions. He creates characters who have similar names--which is normally a stupid thing to do, as an author, because it is so confusing--but he’s trying to represent a hereditary tradition of prefixes and suffixes and shared names, which many great families of history had. So Tolkien certainly had a purpose in what he did, but was it a purpose that served the story he was trying to tell?

Simply copying the form of reality is not what makes good art. Art is meaningful--it is directed. It is not just a list of details--everything within is carefully chosen by the author to make up a good story. The addition of detail is not the same as adding depth, especially since Tolkien’s world is not based on some outside system--it is whatever he says it is. It’s all arbitrary, which is why the only thing that grants a character, scene, or detail purpose is the meaning behind it. Without that meaning, then what Tolkien is doing is just a very elaborate thought exercise. Now, it’s certainly true that many people have been fascinated with studying it, but that’s equally true of many thought exercises, such as the rules and background of the Pokemon card game, or crossword puzzles.

Ostensibly, Scrabble supposedly is a game for people who love words--and yet, top Scrabble players sit an memorize lists of words whose meaning they will never learn. Likewise, many literary fandom games become little more than word searches: find this reference, connect that name to this character--but which have no meaning or purpose outside of that. The point of literary criticism is always to lead us back to human thought and ideas, to looking at how we think and express ourselves. If a detail in a work cannot lead us back to ourselves, then it is no more than an arbitrary piece of chaff.

The popularity of Tolkien’s work made it acceptable for other authors to do the same thing, to the point that whenever I hear a book lauded for the ‘depth of its world building’, I expect to find a mess of obsessive detailing, of piling on so many inconsequential facts and figures that the characters and stories get buried under the scree, as if the author secretly hopes that by spending most of the chapter describing the hero’s cuirass, we'll forget that he’s a bland archetype who only succeeds through happy coincidence and deus ex machina against an enemy with no internal structure or motivation.

When Quiller-Couch said authors should ‘murder their darlings’, this is what he meant: just because you have hobbies and opinions does not mean you should fill your novel with them. Anything which does not materially contribute to the story, characters, and artistry of a work can safely be left out. Tolkien's embarrassment of detail also produced a huge inflation in the acceptable length of fantasy books, leading to the meandering, unending series that fill bookstore shelves today.

Now, there are several notable critics who have lamented the unfortunate effect that Tolkien’s work has had on the genre, such as in Moorcock’s Epic Pooh and Mieville’s diatribe about every modern fantasy author being forced to come to terms with the old don's influence. I agree with their deconstructions, but for me, Tolkien isn’t some special author, some ‘fantasy granddad’ looming over all. He’s just a bump in the road, one author amongst many in a genre that stretches back thousands of years into our very ideas of myth and identity, and not one of the more interesting ones

His ideas weren’t unique, and while his approach may have been unusual, it was only because he spent a lifetime trying obsessively to make something artificial seem more natural, despite the fact that the point of fantasy (and fiction in general) is to explore the artificial, the human side of the equation, to look at the world through the biased lens of our eye and to represent some odd facet of the human condition. Unfortunately, Tolkien’s characters, structure, and morality are all too flat to suggest much, no matter how many faux-organic details he surrounds them with.

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Comments (showing 1-50 of 67) (67 new)


message 1: by the review man (new)

the review man I'm curious as to why you awarded The Lord of the Rings 3 stars. In a bout against modern fantasy writers (Goodkind, Salvatore, Weis, Hickman et al.), Tolkien is certainly light-years ahead in many respects. But what separates The Lord of the Rings from another book that you have awarded 5 stars (pick your favourite)? Is it its length or its seemingly plodding nature? Personal preference? Or something else?

(As an aside, if you think The Lord of the Rings is plodding, I encourage you to pick up The Silmarillion and have a go at that. While LotR essentially takes place in less than a year, The Silmarillion squashes four thousand years of history into a couple hundred pages. Fun times for all.)


message 2: by Keely (last edited Aug 20, 2010 12:07AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Keely This review is mostly my understanding of how Tolkien differs from those who were inspired by him, and why I don't hold him responsible for the same problems they have. I didn't go very in depth in my critiques of Tolkien, though there are indications throughout, and I'm more explicit in my conclusion:

"Tolkien was a stodgy old Tory, and he painted the Shire to be his idealized Merrie Olde England . . . It can be dull, affected, and moralistic . . ."

It wasn't the length or the complex language that stymied me, since my favorite book rivals Tolkien for both, it was the unsophisticated psychology and message.

I do respect what Tolkien was able to do with his languages and the work he put in creating the world, but I wasn't impressed by his plotting, characterization, or exploration of ideas.

He was trying to recreate an older form of epic, but he didn't actually write one. His version was updated, simplified, and moralized. It is also a deliberate affectation: there is a dullness to it because he is adding details not to contribute to the story and the ideas it explores, but as part of a somewhat arbitrary exercise in rewriting his influences.

Yet Tolkien is not some ancient skald compiling a cyclopedia of life, philosophy, and history, Tolkien was a scholar in a little office messing about with his work.

There are some interesting elements of cross-pollination there for other like-minded scholars to appreciate, and there's nothing wrong with allusions and adopting forms, but Tolkien was also overwriting parts of those earlier forms of which he didn't personally approve, like the awkward Christian asides in Beowulf.

Tolkien was using everything but the heart of the genre he was pirating, which strikes me as a bit disingenuous. His recreation is impressive as an exercise, but as a piece of literature, it has flaws, mostly issuing from the self-satisfaction of the author, as literary flaws often do.

LOTR is not brutal or lifelike, as the old epics are, and it is not subtle, it is polarized and romantic, yet without any sense of irony. It then betrays it's own aspirations to romance because Tolkien, himself, was uncomfortable with the implications of romance, and so distanced himself and his characters from them.

But then, Michael Moorcock said it all much better than I could in his 'Epic Pooh', which is certainly worth a read for anyone interested in epic fantasy, as a genre, and in Tolkien (and his flaws), in particular.

I did start the Silmarillion, and it was interesting, but even more dry and symbolic than LOTR, so it didn't hold my attention. I may pick it up again someday, though.


message 3: by Aaron (new)

Aaron worst review


Keely So did you just sit down and think "This review is terrible, but I bet I can write a comment that's even worse"?

Would that count as a response to tone?


message 5: by Brandon (new)

Brandon Tolkien didn't attempt to force Christian theology in Lord of the Rings.


Keely He certainly doesn't create a toothless allegory like Lewis, but I think it's hard to deny that Tolkien's fable is a continuation of the attempt to Christianize the Northern European fairy tale tradition--particularly British fairy stories.

I think Dunsany's King of Elfland's Daughter is an excellent representation of the conflict between the two styles. You have one form of magic which is fundamentally alien and uncaring, which is top down, uninterested in either aiding or destroying man, but often menacing him as a foot might an ant. It is from this tradition that Lovecraft draws his magic.

Conversely, Dunsany represents the alternative Christian system, which is fundamentally concerned with man and his happiness. Even if 'god works in mysterious ways', those ways are still based upon a grand plan which not only includes man, but is based upon man and his happiness. It is a much stronger anthropomorphization of the notion of fate.

What is also curious is that these two systems can be exemplified by Nietzsche's concept of 'Master Morality vs. Slave Morality', one being top-down and power based, the other bottom-up and concerned with the weak. Then again, this shouldn't surprise us, since the duality has been played out in epics throughout history, from 'master' Achilles to 'slave' Aeneas, and the comparison of both types in Milton, from which Tolkien draws much of his mythic philosophy, if not its outward form. His heroes persevere not due to their strength, but their submission and humility.

In sharp contrast to the Welsh and Norse myths on which Tolkien's world is based, we do not have forceful 'Dyonisian' heroes, but pious and humble 'Apollonian' ones, as exemplified by both Frodo and Strider. We can even compare Tolkien to his most recent influence, Eddison, whose Worm Ouroboros represents a fantasy world of glory and struggle, a world of irony and passion--a world in line with the philosophies of the old, pre-Christianized tales.

Not only does Tolkien put forth a vision of chaste, humble, 'everyman' heroes who persevere against temptation through piety, he also presents a world of dualistic good and evil, of eternal, personal morality, prototypical of the Christian worldview, particularly the post-Miltonic view. His characters are bloodless, chaste, and noble--and if that nobility is sometimes that of simple, hard-working folk, all the better for a Merrie England analogue.

Beyond the pervasive characterization and theology which underpins Tolkien's story, there are also a number of more literal elements that come in--particularly if one reads his related works. For example, Gandalf is not a human being, he is in fact a magical spirit sent from the good god to aid men in combating evil. Likewise, the notion that men were once purer and lived for centuries before they grew wicked and petty is Biblical.


message 7: by Brandon (last edited May 04, 2012 05:02PM) (new)

Brandon Yes, I am aware, but he did not ATTEMPT it. To attempt is to seek to achieve, and that word choice bothers me, and it would, I'm sure, bother Tolkien because he didn't seek to achieve that. He hated allegory (loathed it, in fact), as you mentioned, and he hated the idea of surreptitiously inserting personal views/hidden meanings in literature. That's why he wasn't a fan of The Chronicles of Narnia (and the fact that Lewis mixed mythologies just annoyed him even more). "You've read Jack's children's story?" He said to a mutual friend. "They won't do you know!" He was very much for the idea of entertainment only. He wrote Lord of the Rings to give the languages he began to invent when he was 16 a history and a world to exist in and, secondly, to entertain his readership. He wasn't aware of the Christian symbolism until the revision process, and, reluctantly at first (he had extreme perfectionist tendencies), embraced the fact that his religious views had seeped in, so, no, he did not ATTEMPT it.


Keely Changing the theological underpinnings of a story does not mean writing an allegory. Nowhere did I suggest any one-for-one symbolic representation in Tolkien--even in Lewis' case, it is more analogy than allegory, since the symbolic structure is hardly one-for-one.

And are you suggesting that Tolkien--who went through all of his books to make sure the lunar phases matched the passage of time and the depiction of rock formations and biomes progressed logically--added a Christian moral center to his myth entirely by accident? He was an experienced scholar of Welsh and Norse culture and myth. He was familiar with their theology and social morality. If he changed the fundamental motivations of the characters in his reconstituted myth accidentally, that does not say much for his authorial self-awareness.

Beyond that, when I say 'attempt', I am implying that his substitution of slave morality for master morality in the heart of his myth was not a particular success--the subject matter and the moral explanations did not properly mesh. Tolkien often criticized Lewis for placing talking animals, witches, father Christmas, and mythic creatures into an ill-fitting, contradictory conglomeration. I would suggest that Tolkien did the same thing, on a deeper level, by trying to combine disparate moralities and theologies, and was nearly as unsuccessful. The notion of 'trying' comes in when his goal, whether deliberately included or not, failed to produce a holistic result.


message 9: by Brandon (new)

Brandon Keely wrote: "Changing the theological underpinnings of a story does not mean writing an allegory. Nowhere did I suggest any one-for-one symbolic representation in Tolkien--even in Lewis' case, it is more analog..."

Yes, I am suggesting that because I'm basing it off of things he, himself, has said. Are you so cynical that you would suggest Tolkien is lying? I said it before, and I'll say it again, Tolkien said it was unconscious at first, and he didn't consciously think about it until he was revising. He wrote the books from 1937 to 1948, and he went back and revised them all in 1949.

Oh, "when I say 'attempt,' I mean" is so ridiculous. Mean what you say from the beginning because your use of 'attempt,' and even going so far as to say he forces Christian theology into his work, doesn't come off the way you're describing it here in the original review. It's misleading to readers who would assume, based off what you said, that he consciously sought out to instill his Catholic beliefs into his work, and that's just not the case.

Cheers.


Keely It is not my flaw if you consider a clarification of terms to be ridiculous.

If a man is walking down the street, trips, begins to fall, then thrusts a leg out, he is trying to stabilize himself, whether he does it consciously or not. Beyond that, you admit that Tolkien recognized what he was doing during editing--which is a part of the writing process--so in the finished product that was eventually published, the inclusion of these Christian themes is deliberate.

I say 'force' because I did not see his work as a clean unification of disparate traditions, but an attempt to overlay one on the other without unifying them in terms of tone, subtext, characterization, or message. Tolkien did not only criticize Lewis for using allegory, but for failing to go into greater depth in exploring and presenting Christian theology and morality. If we expect Tolkien to take his own advice on the first point, there's no reason not to make the same assumption with the second point, particularly as it is supported in the text.


message 11: by Tim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tim Much as I loved this book (and I must confess was distracted and bored by the songs and other such things), I found your review fascinating. Perhaps I have a perverse attraction to voices who 'subvert the dominant paradigm', as it were. And LOTR has become something akin to that. My ex has read the book 17 times, and she made observations similar to yours regarding the alternate mythology Tolkien tried to create. And when you're doing something like this you're bound to throw in details which are superfluous to the main narrative, but are nonetheless needed. After all, you are creating a mythology for a culture raised on monotheistic traditions and myths.

It's a bit like my favourite history book, Frontiers, which tells the story of South Africa's creation from the perspective of the Xhosa people and their wars against the colonists. Some have said the book was way too long. But it had to be, because SA historians have tended to focus on the Zulu Wars, Chaka and Dingaan being such dominant, larger-than-life characters. Mostert had to start almost from scratch in the telling of the Xhosa's story.

Great review, and interesting debate. Kudos to both of you.


Keely "when you're doing something like this you're bound to throw in details which are superfluous to the main narrative"

Well, I have read a few books where the world was revealed almost entirely through pertinent story details, so I don't think it's necessary to go off on tangents in order to reveal a complex world. However, I also don't think it's a problem if an author wants to add extra details, as long as they present them in a way that is skillful and entertaining. Long digressions and explanations are more problematic--often a sign that the author isn't skilled enough to reveal things through the story.

Glad you liked the review, thanks for the comment.


Capitán Piluso Leaving the religious allegory might have been deliberate, but it wasn't deliberate to write a religious allegory.
The difference is substantial, and I feel that you know this but you are exercising your rethoric skills with us just for the sake of winning a debate.


Keely I do not see a substantial difference. He wrote a book containing a religious allegory. If he did it on purpose, then he is hypocritically ignoring his own advice. If he did it accidentally, then he is not a deliberate, masterful writer. If he did it first accidentally, then realized it, but left it in anyways, then he is both oblivious and hypocritical.

Editing is part of writing. If an author sees something in editing and chooses to leave it in, that makes it a deliberate inclusion.

"I feel that you know this but you are exercising your rethoric skills with us just for the sake of winning a debate"

If you have to invent a sinister motive to try to discredit the person you are having a discussion with, that may be a sign that your counter-argument is weaker than you would like it to be. If you have a good refutation, put it forth, If you think 'the difference is substantial', then it should be easy for you to explain it.

The only reason to malign my intent is if you have nothing better to say. I know it often feels like people who hold a different opinion are being malicious, but that is rarely actually true--and even if it were, dwelling on it would do nothing to help your case.


Capitán Piluso Words are superfluous when you can see between the lines.


message 16: by Martha (new)

Martha Burns Thanks for the review. The links to other works give me new works to explore.


Keely Oh, cool. If you're interested, I have a list of 'suggested fantasy' on my blog.

Capitán said "Words are superfluous when you can see between the lines."

And that's why I have to keep using so many words.


message 18: by Sebastian (new)

Sebastian Schulze I have searched the www to find critical voices about Tolkien`s masterpiece. My intention was to look behind his work. Your review is brilliant and gives me many points to think about.
There is no denying that he has created a book which is like a bible. If you criticize his work, you will be burnt at the stake. Many people worship him like a god and do not like critical questions.
I have respect for what he has done but i do not like his intention.
Thank you for your recommendations on your blog.


Keely Well, there are a lot of people who are critical of Tolkien, particularly amongst writers and scholars of the epics, even if it's harder to find negative opinions among the average reader--there are a lot of people who swear by him.

I'm glad you liked my review, and I hope my recommendation list proves useful to you in finding other interesting works of fantasy. Thanks for the comment.


Tabasco Very well said. Key words being "dull" and "lack of imagination". Everyone has different tastes, but I just cannot stomach this book.


Keely Glad it resonated with you.


message 22: by Phil (new) - rated it 3 stars

Phil I am still slogging my way through the trilogy, half-wondering what the hoopla was about. Well, I can see where Tolkien created something out of his intellectual background and interests, but I have found so much just plain b-o-r-r-i-n-g. Thank you for expressing so eloquently - and so much better than I ever could - my reservations.


Jonathan interesting take. Tolkien was, at the end of it all, interested more in language and culture far more than storytelling - no matter what he said. and i think that is inescapable, as you mentioned. his religious notions also fought with his love for the "pagan". all of this means that Middle Earth is much less a triumph of literature as it is in the creation of a modern English mythology - which is what he really wanted to do in the first place. Myths have always encouraged poor imitators or narrow malinterprations (see Disney's Hercules), but neither the source nor the later iterations are necessarily the worse for it. that is how culture processes itself.

great review...or discussion, as it were.


Keely Thanks for the comment, Phil, glad you enjoyed my review.

Jonathan said: "Tolkien was . . . interested more in language and culture far more than storytelling . . . the creation of a modern English mythology - which is what he really wanted to do"

Yeah, and when authors get wrapped up in intellectual exercises like that, it's often to the detriment of the story. If an author is chiefly interested in linguistics or the details of history, perhaps adventure fiction is not the most effective place to explore those things?

Plus there's the fact that Tolkien's 'myth' is so small-minded and stodgy. It's not like Milton or Blake where you have these nuanced, visionary explorations, as opposed to Tolkien's narrowness and condescension. I don't really see how a narrow, conservative myth can be effective.

Thanks for the comment, glad you liked the review.


message 25: by Jonathan (last edited Oct 15, 2012 12:37PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jonathan Keely said: Plus there's the fact that Tolkien's 'myth' is so small-minded and stodgy. It's not like Milton or Blake where you have these nuanced, visionary explorations, as opposed to Tolkien's narrowness and condescension. I don't really see how a narrow, conservative myth can be effective.

I will have to refamiliarize myself with Blake and Milton to make that comparison more carefully, but I think the general premise that Tolkien is narrow and condescending may be slightly exaggerated. Surely the wealth of Tolkien-inspired works speaks to the contrary? Besides, he was one man telling the story - a true mythology builds over time as competing voices push to be heard. Perhaps the majority of High Fantasy in anglophone (and perhaps most Western European traditions) could be considered the wider mythology created from Tolkien's first attempt.

Or is that being too generous or expansive? ^_^ I hate to be a Tolkien apologist - I can hardly make it through his books, myself. But I confess to a love for world-building in general.


Keely I think the general premise that Tolkien is narrow and condescending may be slightly exaggerated. Surely the wealth of Tolkien-inspired works speaks to the contrary?

I'd say the works that have been inspired by Tolkien are even more narrow-minded and unimaginative than the original, so I wouldn't see that as a defense of Tolkien's work, no. The only interesting explorations of cultural myth I see in modern fantasy are those books which have moved away from what Tolkien did.

"Besides, he was one man telling the story - a true mythology builds over time as competing voices push to be heard."

Yes, but there were already a multitude of voices at work, as Tolkien was drawing on Welsh myth, the Norse sagas, English national identity, and Catholic morality. I did not think Tolkien combined these voices in a way that produced a new vision, superior to what came before. Tolkien's combination was a simplification and white-washing of the complexity of those earlier texts.

That's part of why I compare him to Blake or Milton, who took in many unusual voices and recombined them into an original vision, the strong vision of a single author, with breadth, depth, and insight.

"I confess to a love for world-building in general."

I often find the obsession with world-building in fantasy to be a problem, especially since 'world building' is such a nebulous phrase--since technically, any time you mention any detail about the world, that is world building, even if that detail is pointless and contributes in no way to the story or the characters.

I actually just wrote a post about this, if that interests you.


Jonathan ...I did not think Tolkien combined these voices in a way that produced a new vision, superior to what came before. Tolkien's combination was a simplification and white-washing of the complexity of those earlier texts.

That may be true, but I guess I am more interested in a description than a value judgment. I think he was very successful in what he set out to do, (although not so successful in writing a masterful adventure fantasy novel, as you point out) in showcasing his version of an English, Christianized (or Christian-friendly) mythology. Whether he was narrow or regressive is not so relevant as the fact that it was popular and compelling. Other literary and cultural voices add their own value in the ways they support, contradict, or challenge Tolkien - just as his work interacts (or doesn't) with theirs. In this way the culture, and Anglophone literature, continued to develop. I don't see the process as one that necessarily implies improvement - or even requires it - it simply is.

Of course that is not to say I don't find his whitewashing and parochialism problematic. But it fit the mood of his era in some important ways. And I think he was consistent within his own worldview – a popular one at the time – both religiously and culturally. A dualistic, and morally rigid, romanticization of life and a cheery view of England was just what the doctor ordered. He was, after all, trying to deal with his experiences in the war – it seems he wanted to remind himself that he had been one of the “good guys”.

I often find the obsession with world-building in fantasy to be a problem, especially since 'world building' is such a nebulous phrase--since technically, any time you mention any detail about the world, that is world building, even if that detail is pointless and contributes in no way to the story or the characters.

Loved the post; I will be interested to see the one on authors. I think, for myself, many of those details you mentioned (color of so-and-so’s underwear, etc) are not what I would call "world-building". Instead, those are details, just as you say, and only have value insomuch as the details in any work contribute, or don't, to the overall work. What I mean by world-building, I guess, is anything that counts as an attempt to represent, reflect, or analyze the complexity of "the real world". For instance - Tolkien's creation of languages, including proto-versions of the languages is fascinating and serves as a great thought experiment. That is what I appreciate in world-building, it should be a grand (or else pithy) thought experiment. China Mieville's books are almost always thought-experiments, and - I think - he manages to do pull them off (would be interested to hear your thoughts on him).

I think world-building is at its best when it is a) well done [has integrity, well-thought out, does not over-simplify], b) is innovative, and c) manages to provoke critical thinking on some aspect of our own lives - be it political, social, metaphysical, or what have you. Otherwise, as you say, it is simply a self-contained novelty that is, in the end, pointless in its self-obsession.


Keely "Whether he was narrow or regressive is not so relevant as the fact that it was popular and compelling."

I suppose I tend to think of popular works as often being narrow and regressive, since the general public must be eased into what is innovative gradually.

"I don't see the process as one that necessarily implies improvement - or even requires it - it simply is."

Certainly true--like biological evolution, it's not about a particular endpoint, but about innovations and adaptations to new and varying conditions.

"A dualistic, and morally rigid, romanticization of life and a cheery view of England was just what the doctor ordered. He was, after all, trying to deal with his experiences in the war – it seems he wanted to remind himself that he had been one of the “good guys”."

It's true, but I find this sort of response self-serving and simplistic. The point should not be to justify your actions as being 'the good guys' but to look at what the conflict says about humanity in general, not to paint it in reductive 'us vs' them' terms.

There are fantasies before and after Tolkien that dealt with the same concerns with more breadth, depth, and sensitivity, so i don't think he comes off well in comparison.

"What I mean by world-building, I guess, is anything that counts as an attempt to represent, reflect, or analyze the complexity of "the real world". For instance - Tolkien's creation of languages . . ."

I suppose I'm left wondering how productive this thought experiment really was. As you say, what makes the details of world-building important is how they relate to the ideas of a work. If they do not add to and comment on those ideas, then they are just details. I don't see how Tolkien's linguistic obsession gave the book more meaning.

I agree about Mieville, I think of his odd details and digressions and being very concerned with exploring psychology, reality, and the nature of humanity. They are usually very pointed observations. I've got a review of Perdido Street Station up here, if that interest you.


message 29: by Mike (new)

Mike Writers who inspire a genre are usually misunderstood...

>I generally agree with this. However, Tolkien was not a professional writer. He did not write fiction to make a living. He wrote for his own entertainment and the entertainment of his children and the Inklings. Although many people mention other influences like this, there is little evidence in his letters or biography that he was influenced by any of the fantasy writers you mention. Tolkien really worked on his own.

His writing was chiefly influenced by his familiarity with the mythological traditions of the Norse and Welsh cultures. While he began by writing a fairy story with The Hobbit and other early drafts, his later work became a magical epic along the lines of the Eddas…

>You need to read Tolkien’s biography and the History of Middle Earth Series. His work began with the tales of the Silmarilion, The Lost Tales etc., his “Mythology for England”, started while he was soldier in WWI. The Hobbit was a story for his children and a very few elements from the Legendarium crept in (e.g. Elrond). He wrote LOTR after he finally figured out what makes up a Fairy Story (see On Fairy Stories). He made the Andrew Lang lecture at about the time the Hobbits were in Bree. After this, LOTR took on the characteristics he described in On Fairy Stories. The earlier part had to be re-written in order to conform to the model in On Fairy Stories. This essay was the model, not the Eddas.

Contrarily, those who have followed in his footsteps since have tended to be inspired by a desire to imitate him. Yet they failed to do what Tolkien did because they did not have a whole world of mythic tradition, culture, and language to draw on. They mimicked his style, but did not understand his purpose, and hence produced merely empty facsimiles.

>I completely agree with this. Fantasy novels are written by professional writers who need to make a living and get works out to the public. They are inevitably shallow.

This was the purpose of all of Tolkien's long, dull songs, the litany of troop movements, the lines of lineage, the snippets of didactic myths, and side-adventures…

>Tolkien’s motivations are summarized in On Fairy Stories. The first task of the writer of Fairy Stories is to create, “The Perilous Realm and the air that blows in that country”. Tolkien’s details fill in the setting. They are there to present an internally consistent environment and history.

He gave characters similar names to represent other historical traditions: that of common prefixes or suffixes, of a house line adopting similar names for fathers, sons, and brothers...

>Tolkien’s creativity often started with a name. Many of the naming conventions in his stories are openings to a language analysis that absolutely entertained him and many readers.

The only reason he sometimes gets away with breaking such sensible rules of storytelling is that he often has a purpose for breaking them, and is capable of drawing on his wealth of knowledge to instill further depth and richness in his world. Sometimes, when he slowed his story down with such asides, they did not have enough purpose to merit inclusion, a flaw in pacing which has only increased with modern authors.

>This is an excellent point that contributes to the confusion about Tolkien’s writing style. He wrote in an archaic style consistent with creating a mythology. He did not write in a modern demotic style.

Bombadil is the most notorious remainder of the fantastical roots of Tolkien's story which he painstakingly removed in editing in favor of Catholic symbology.

>From the History of Middle Earth series, it is clear that Tolkien really didn’t know what to do with Tom Bombadil. Tolkien referred to him as one of the original and early characters he created. Tolkien had no clear idea of where to take the Hobbit sequel when he began. He thought to just get the Hobbits, led by Bingo (later renamed Frodo; Bilbo and Bingo were the names of stuffed bears owned by his children) on the road and something will happen. The first thing that happened was a Black Rider appears on the road, unable to see but able to smell, projecting fear. Tolkien pondered on who this Black Rider might be. Tom Bombadil was included in the story around this time. I think he was included because Tolkien didn’t know where he was taking the story. Slightly later in the story line, about the time the Hobbits are in Bree meeting Trotter (a worldly Hobbit who later became Aragorn), Tolkien was asked to present the Andrew Lang lecture and write, On Fairy Stories. This enabled him to think long and hard about fairy stories. He finally mapped out what they were and this resulted in dramatic changes to LOTR.

Yet despite internal conflicts, there is something respectable in what he achieved, and no fantasy author has yet been capable of comprehending what Tolkien was trying to do and innovating upon it...

>I think this confusion of Tolkien with “fantasy writers” has contributed to misunderstandings about his works.

One cannot entirely blame Tolkien because Jordan, Martin, Goodkind, Paolini, Brooks, and Salvatore have created a genre out of his work which is unoriginal, cloying, escapist, and sexually unpalatable (if often successful). At least when Tolkien is dull, ponderous, and divergent, he is still achieving something.

These authors are mostly trying to fix a Tolkien they don't understand, trying to make him easy to swallow. The uncomfortable sexuality is an attempt to repair the fact that Tolkien wrote a romance where the two lovers are thousands of miles apart for most of the story. Even a libertine like me appreciates Tolkien's chaste, distant, longing romance more than the obsessively fetishistic consummation that has come to define sexuality in the most repressive and escapist genre this side of four-color comic books.

>Tolkien was writing an imagined history. Histories don’t usually include individual fornication, flatulence, defecating, urinating and other bodily functions unless this has some historical significance. If everyone has sex then there is no historical significance in it. Histories also don’t usually contain romantic stories unless these events (e.g. Anthony, Caesar and Cleopatra) influenced history.

I don't think Tolkien is a great writer, I don't even think he is one of the greater fantasy writers. He was a stodgy old Tory, and the Shire is his false golden age of 'Merrie Olde England'. His romance wasn't romantic, and his dualistic moralizing cheapened the story. His attempt to force Christian theology onto a heroic epic is as problematic and conflicted as monks' additions to Beowulf.

>Your anti-Tory bias is showing. This generalizes to your other characterizations of Tolkien’s writing. This is also one of the failings of Moorcock’s review. I think you could argue that Tolkien forced more Norse theology into his work rather than Christian. Read the Silmarillion for his story of creation. I believe that one of the psychological themes that underlies all Tolkien’s works is the realization of a world in which religion is present, consistent and real. Tolkien once described Gandalf as an angel. Complex moralizing is present in the character of Gollum. I don’t find complex moralizing in histories. Complex moralizing is an attribute of modern, character-driven stories and not everyday life. Morals are much simpler in true history: Nazis were evil, misguided and fallen. They are redeemable but were hard to convince (some are still unconvinced).

Tolkien's flaws have been well-documented by notable authors, from Moorcock's 'Epic Pooh' to Mieville's adroit analysis, but for all that, he was no slouch. Even if we lament its stolid lack of imagination, The Lord of the Rings is the work of a careful and deliberate scholar of language, style, and culture. It is the result of a lifetime of collecting and applying knowledge, which is a feat to behold.

>These other reviews and yours are uninformed by the History of Middle Earth (HOME) series. No complete review of Tolkien can be written without the knowledge of Tolkien’s writing history contained in it. The biography and letters are also important. The HOME series is truly amazing. I cannot think of any similar account we have for any other author. The series outlines and describes every draft and variation of the story as it was written. It is a great work by Tolkien’s son, Christopher Tolkien.

>Moorcock’s review is hard to follow because he blends in so many disparate authors in addition to Tolkien. Comparing Milne to Tolkien is false. Moorcock also has an anti-Tory bias. This bias is generalized into a number of obtuse, negative characterizations of all the authors he reviews. The review is uninformed confusion.

Yet what good is that to a story? It may be impressive as a thought exercise, but to put that much time and work into the details instead of fixing and streamlining the frame of the story itself seems entirely backwards to me. But for all that The Lord of the Rings may be dull, affected, and moralistic, it is Tolkien's, through and through.

>The details make the story believable and allow the suspension of disbelief. Many people find the details necessary to imagine the secondary world of Middle Earth. Entire books have been written on the details, especially the languages. There is a book just on the flowers and plants Tolkien invented for Middle Earth. Tolkien’s pondering on language is amazing. After reading LOTR, I have become a language watcher, and a tree spotter. What are the histories of place-names in my home town? Why is that tree called a Rowan or Quickbaum? Could that be the origin of the name for the Ent, Quickbeam?

>My summary of your review is that you are motivated by the opinions of the literati. You like the story but the credentialed or experts among the academics (e.g. Moorcock) won’t let you like it. You are torn between heart and intellect. Follow your heart.


message 30: by Jocelyn (last edited Nov 11, 2012 11:57AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jocelyn Nice review, Keely. Despite the fact that I practically worship the ground Tolkien walks on, even if he's dead, your review brought up a lot of good points. I've always been a devoted Aragorn fan, but now that you pointed out, he is inexplicably good. I see that this happens to a lot of other characters too, people behaving in a certain way for no reason, which makes them slightly more two-dimensional. The overall lack of...psychology in this book made it hard for me to relate to it on a personal level, too.

Though to be fair, this might have been his purpose--like you said, his goal was to recreate myths and legends into a single trilogy. In mythology, people didn't really have any true explanations for their virtue (or lack thereof) either. I wouldn't see it as a Christian allegory. Christianity is not the only religion or some other set of beliefs (for lack of a better phrase) that have inexplicably good/bad people.


Keely Mike said: "there is little evidence in his letters or biography that he was influenced by any of the fantasy writers you mention"

Tolkien mentions Dunsany (specifically the story 'Chu-Bu and Sheemish') in his letters, and gave Clyde Kilby a copy of Dunsany's Book of Wonder to introduce him to the style of Tolkien's own Legendarium. Eddison was also a sometime guest of the Inklings, where he read his work aloud to Tolkien, and Tolkien specifically mentions and praises that work in his letters, calling Eddison

"The greatest and most convincing writer of 'invented worlds' that I have read" (Letters of Tolkien, p. 258)


"I don’t find complex moralizing in histories."

Then I'm not sure what histories you're reading. From Tacitus and Sallust to Ibn Khaldun, history is often very concerned with morality, and in presenting and analyzing the motivations and characters of those involved. Indeed, Plutarch's Lives were explicitly written on that subject.

"Histories don’t usually include individual fornication, flatulence, defecating, urinating and other bodily functions unless this has some historical significance. If everyone has sex then there is no historical significance in it."

I'd suggest precisely the opposite: if everyone is doing something, that gives it the greatest and most central of historical significance, because people are defined by what they do, and by how they do it. And as for significance, Tolkien tries to make central a romantic story, as in Antony and Cleopatra, he just doesn't do it very well and lets everything else get in the way. In any case, I never suggest the bodily fluids and sex scenes need be involved--that's a straw argument of your own invention--a full and complex emotional view of the relationship would be enough.

"The details make the story believable and allow the suspension of disbelief. Many people find the details necessary to imagine the secondary world of Middle Earth."

Just because a detail or wealth of details happen to be in a book does not make them worthwhile, even if there are people who want to spend time memorizing them. I would argue that added details extraneous to the story take away from the suspension of disbelief, because of the harm they do to the book's focus and pacing.

Fiction is not about copying events from reality, but about using the way the mind perceives to create a story which we can take for real despite the fact that it is necessarily and deliberately artificial.

"You like the story but the credentialed or experts among the academics (e.g. Moorcock) won’t let you like it."

So now pulp fantasy writers are 'experts among the academics'? If I really had an academic bias, I'd be siding with Tolkien, not Moorcock. And no, I do not like Tolkien's story, I find the pacing, characterization, and focus to be entirely off. I have read biographies and specialized books on Tolkien, including an analysis of his language, but it did not improve my opinion of the LOTR books, because it did not improve the quality of writing in those books.

My heart says Tolkien is dull and lacks depth, my intellect says he fills his tale with extraneous detail and one-sided moralizing, so no matter which I go with, we end up about the same.

Jocelyn said: "I wouldn't see it as a Christian allegory. Christianity is not the only religion or some other set of beliefs (for lack of a better phrase) that have inexplicably good/bad people."

Very true, yet the specific way in which Tolkien sets up his world is much more reliant on Christianity than any other tradition. Indeed if you read his letters, it is often explicitly Christian, and he spent a great deal of time editing and re-editing the books to remove any references to other mythic traditions and to make them more in line with Catholic theology.

Interesting look at that here.


message 32: by Jocelyn (last edited Dec 28, 2012 09:36PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jocelyn Keely wrote: "Very true, yet the specific way in which Tolkien sets up his world is much more reliant on Christianity than any other tradition. Indeed if you read his letters, it is often explicitly Christian, and he spent a great deal of time editing and re-editing the books to remove any references to other mythic traditions and to make them more in line with Catholic theology."

Thanks.


message 33: by Cain (new)

Cain "Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape? The bankers, the know-nothings, the authoritarians have us all in prison. If we value freedom of mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can"

- J.R.R. Tolkien


Keely Well, I can't say it surprises me that Tolkien would look to find glory in an empty ideal. There is only one escape from life and that is death, whether of the mind or the spirit or aught else, and perhaps Tolkien is right, that we should have the liberty to seek that path, but I don't see that it makes it glorious.

But then, whenever I hear the plaint that life is so awful that we are entitled to escape from it, I can't help but think that its terribly misanthropic, pessimistic, and naive. The world can also be wonderful and overawing, and books can deliver that to us, too. I prefer a book that helps me to see my problems in a new way, to improve myself and increase my scope, not one which enables me to be blindered briefly and ignore the rest.


message 35: by Cain (new)

Cain Well I'm only 17 years old and I suppose I've not yet developed the capacity to distinguish that which is profound from that which is merely "an empty ideal". However, I will emphatically assert that profundity is absent in vacuous statements such as, "There is only one escape from life and that is death". Would you deem it terribly misanthropic, pessimistic, and naive for a slave to desire escape from physical bonds?


Keely No, but an escape from bondage is not an escape from life, it is an escape to life. Unless you are suggesting that life itself is bondage, and if that is the case, then I must reiterate that there is only one way to loose those fetters, be it literal or symbolic.


message 37: by Cain (new)

Cain Could it be that you are viewing/reading the quote strictly through a dichotomic scope? I don't detect anything that suggests either-or positing in Tolkien's commentary on escapism. If an authoritarian has us locked in a "literal" prison, can we not find "symbolic" escape while simultaneously strategizing to loose those, very real, fetters?


Keely Well, I suppose it behooves us to unpack this metaphor.

In the quote, Tolkien is equating literal physical imprisonment with being trapped mentally. I can understand that a person who was trapped in an actual prison would want to experience things that take them away from that reality, since they are not capable of physically moving away or improving their situation.

However, when we are instead trapped mentally, what allows us to break those bonds is internal change. If we read something escapist, that will not promote learning or growth, it will not help us to move away from being stuck, in fact, it facilitates us remaining stuck. It comforts us where we are, it does not force us to challenge ourselves or to move forward. At that point, the escapist text becomes a force which enables our own psychological entrapment.

We use the text to justify our own preconceptions, our own views of the world. We create a fantasy for ourselves of being successful and powerful which does nothing to help us understand why we are actually weak and fearful.

Indeed, I would say even in the case of the physical entrapment of prison, we can still endeavor to escape into the world instead of moving away from it, by choosing to continue to challenge ourselves, to learn, and to develop a sense of internal progression so that even if our bodies cannot be free, our minds may be.

Tolkien talks about a love of liberty and freedom, but I ask: liberty to do what? To remain stuck, to continual enabling of preconceptions? The freedom to entrap ourselves in ideals by creating in our heads a prison of thought just as separate from the world as if it were iron-barred?

But this is an argument that comes up rather regularly, and I've expanded on it a bit, here, if that helps to bridge the gap. We may just be using terms differently.


message 39: by Text (new)

Text Addict Doesn't the very possibility of escape imply the possibility of change?


Alex You're probably not an existentialist then.

That said, I agree with your conclusions about 'escapist literature' whilst not really sharing your optimist outlook. Life isn't wonderful - every day millions of people suffer and die... often due to the selfishness and neglect of other people.


Keely Text said: "Doesn't the very possibility of escape imply the possibility of change?"

Except that, in escapist books, there is no real possibility of escape. When you close the book, you are right where you left off. You have not actually escaped your life, you are still in it, all you have done is pretend for a moment that you are not.

Alex said: "Life isn't wonderful - every day millions of people suffer and die... often due to the selfishness and neglect of other people."

Oh, certainly so, but looking only at the negative side is no more honest than looking only at the positive side. Both exist, and it is up to us to make something of ourselves in the world. I only mean to say that the sort of people who blame the world for their problems are, in most cases, simply being avoidant.

Yes, millions suffer and die, but does that make food taste less sweet? Does it make the words of Shakespeare less beautiful? Does it mean we cannot take another's hand in our own and find companionship? Indeed I do think of myself as an existentialist, and I take from Nietzsche the lesson of his philosophy of joy: that even if the world is unfair, without intrinsic meaning, and full of suffering, that does not prevent me from seeking knowledge, wonder, satiety, and betterment for myself in it.


Alex Keely wrote: "Oh, certainly so, but looking only at the negative side is no more honest than looking only at the positive side. Both exist, and it is up to us to make something of ourselves in the world. I only mean to say that the sort of people who blame the world for their problems are, in most cases, simply being avoidant.."

It depends what kind of people you mean and to what extent the blame, but I don't think that this is true. The working class reject who sees the upper classes prospering at the expense of his labour is not exactly to blame for his/her own problems, they are mostly down to socialisation and economic circumstance. I think it's pretty fair to complain about one's poor lot in life when one has been dealt a bad hand, particularly since there are mechanisms that could change these things. I do agree with you that there's room for optimism in most cases and a sunny outlook helps get one through the day. I agree that food tastes sweet and that Shakespeare is beautiful... but food doesn't taste that sweet when one can barely afford it and is stuck in a mire of depression and abuse. Or one has never been able to attain the education needed to appreciate Shakespeare.

Re: existentialism I was thinking more about Sartre to be honest (I'm not really sure that Nietzsche is genuinely part of the Existentialist philosophical tradition, but I don't know his work all that well) "Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains" and the philosophy that leads to "Hell is other people". Not that this is an adequate summary of his position as opposed to an aphorism, but you get the idea... I think that I'd agree that one should seek wonder, knowledge and betterment within the world but see the play in terms of a constant struggle and a fight for betterment in a world in which others constantly try to oppress and marginalize you. Thinking about life can be quite sobering at times, so I see why others feel the need for "escape", though I don't think that pure "escapism" is an adequate reason for or justification for literature as a whole for anyone over the age of 5. Ironically, Tolkien's book, whether you agree with or find profundity in his outlook or not, is a whole lot more than just "escapist".


Jonathan Alex wrote: "Keely wrote: "Oh, certainly so, but looking only at the negative side is no more honest than looking only at the positive side. Both exist, and it is up to us to make something of ourselves in the ..."

I think you'll find that "Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains" is from Rousseau in The Social Contract (not that I've read it but I have had to use quotes from Rousseau for history studies). Fascinating thoughts nonetheless...


message 44: by Alex (last edited Jan 12, 2013 02:19AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Note to self: don't try to talk in pithy quotations.

What I was looking for was "man is condemned to be free"

*shoots self* (I see no optimism here)


Jonathan Alex wrote: "Note to self: don't try to talk in pithy quotations.

What I was looking for was "man is condemned to be free"

*shoots self* (I see no optimism here)"


Ah of course!


message 46: by Wilcott (last edited Feb 07, 2013 04:37AM) (new) - added it

Wilcott "Oh, certainly so, but looking only at the negative side is no more honest than looking only at the positive side. Both exist, and it is up to us to make something of ourselves in the world."

I agree.

We have all been lit into this existence without much choice, so pointing fingers at each other is not as productive as we may think. One will only identify the problem, and not much else.

Good review, Tolkien has been an author that has orbited around my life since I was a child, and you have changed my opinions on him and on fantasy in general. Thank you.

Paradise Lost is awesome!


Keely Alex said: "I think it's pretty fair to complain about one's poor lot in life when one has been dealt a bad hand"

Certainly true, there's a lot of shitty stuff that happens in life, and I', not going to jump on people who get upset about that, or who want to point it out. One of my favorite Nietzsche scholars is Rick Roderick, and one of the arguments that he puts forward is that being depressed and withdrawn or angry and frustrated is a perfectly natural response to oppression.

He points out that acculturation (and advertising in particular) are the opposite of psychotherapy: in psychotherapy, the purpose is to grow more aware of the self and to bring unconscious thoughts and habits to the surface so they can be dealt with. The purpose of advertising, on the other hand, is to create unconscious impulses and desires in the mind which govern behavior without the affected person realizing it.

In that sense, you could say that people are very much under siege from the culture around them, and that to withdraw and put up walls is perfectly natural.

However, we're not just talking about people who are in a bad spot and complain, but people who use that complaint as an excuse to ignore the state that they are in, and to avoid change and self-betterment. If you are under siege, then it's better to fight back than to simply lock yourself away and starve.

If a person is so damaged by the hand life has dealt them that they shut the doors off to any challenge, any voice of dissent, any opportunity for growth and change, then I would characterize that as a mental disorder.

There are quite a few of Roderick's lectures up on youtube, if that interests you.

"Tolkien's book, whether you agree with or find profundity in his outlook or not, is a whole lot more than just "escapist"."

Well, I'm not going to say it isn't complex, or that there isn't a lot going on, but I do tend to think of the larger part as being escapist. First you have the 'Merrie England' idealization of the Shire and the yeoman farmer, then the representational conflict by which the pious perseverance of one man allows him to overcome a world of evil by symbolic gesture, and then Tolkien's attempts to align his magical world with the tenets of Catholicism, which represents another type of reality-denying idealist escapism.

Willcott said: "Good review, Tolkien has been an author that has orbited around my life since I was a child, and you have changed my opinions on him and on fantasy in general. Thank you."

Wow, that's very humbling to hear. I'm glad that you got something out of the review. It's always good to know that what I do touches others out there, in the world.

"Paradise Lost is awesome!"

It sure is, isn't it?


message 48: by Alex (last edited Jan 12, 2013 10:54AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Keely wrote: "Well, I'm not going to say it isn't complex, or that there isn't a lot going on, but I do tend to think of the larger part as being escapist. First you have the 'Merrie England' idealization of the Shire and the yeoman farmer, then the representational conflict by which the pious perseverance of one man allows him to overcome a world of evil by symbolic gesture, and then Tolkien's attempts to align his magical world with the tenets of Catholicism, which represents another type of reality-denying idealist escapism."

I just want to touch on this quickly because you highlight some things as "escapist" which I'd fundamentally say aren't really; although they are things that later became fantasy cliches and staples of traditionally escapist literature. I think it's only fair to Tolkien and his imitators to make a distinction between the fanbases he read his work for escapist purposes and the main thrust of the work which IMO still engages with reality.

I think I'd rather argue that the "Merrie England" is a conservative portrayal than an escapist one. Tolkien clearly has a lot of passion for the English countryside and sees it as something worth cherishing. But then, being British, so do I. I'm not sure that a narrative that impinges on the potential destruction of a beautiful land that has its roots in reality is really escapist; there are a lot of hints and threads in the book that discuss the destruction of the countryside by urban/industrial forces. Sam sees this happening when he looks in Galadriel's Mirror and the Hobbits confront it when they return to the Shire following the Ring's destruction. To me, the Scouring of the Shire is one of the most important chapters in the book because it shows how fundamentally important Tolkien sees the plight of the common working man (again, it's in a patriarchal conservative way, and one that I ultimately would have problems with, but my point is that it's a very real world concern and shows how genre fiction can have concerns that transcend the typical "escapist" label that's slapped on them)

To address your other point, I'd say that the plight and the journey of the Hobbits is again, anything but escapist in nature. Just because the Hobbits don't go through realist character arcs that show the slog of daily life in an urban city or something, doesn't mean that their journey doesn't hold weight. What I found poignant as a little 10 yr old and teenager (and still do, though I've read more weighty stuff since) was Frodo's fear in undertaking the quest that's his burden to undertake. he knows that he has to do it, he's scared, frightened and alone and given every opportunity to not even *have* to face the fear -Gandalf doesn't volunteer him to be in the Fellowship, he thinks his burden has already been too great - but he embraces it, struggles and truly grows as a person throughout the story. I keyed into this as a teenager especially because as a "little guy" myself with no political or academic aspirations upon me, being an average working class kid, I realised that the only way to effect change in my life was to embrace the things that I feared and to be strong and grasp them. It would be easy for Frodo to do as the other Hobbits do, hide their heads in the sand and let the rest of the world fight battles, but social change cannot happen that way, and threat from evil cannot be defeated that way. Any person who has truly achieved anything in life I believe has probably faced that fear and that aloneness. I think it's a very poignant thread in the book.

As such, I've always found the narrative thrust of the book as inspiring as I find it Conservative and I've never ever looked towards it as an escapist novel. For me something like Agatha Christie is more escapist than trad conservative fantasy because characters are paper thin with motivations that can be altered as the author needs them to serve a plot that is there purely to kill time (who did it - it doesn't matter as long as you don't know until you turn the last page).

That's not to say I don't have a fondness for reading trashy detetctive novels either, but my point is I think you misrepresent Tolkien's intent in writing the book and in saying stuff about escapist literature. My presumption would be that he genuinely thinks that stories about other worlds and mythologies can have as much meaning as stories about this world but that "escapist" angle is fascinating for keying into a certain set of desires we have to need to immerse ourselves in an environment or situation that's different from the average humdrum of our daily lives. It's one thing saying "be optimistic, love life and flowers and beauty" but it's another thing to face the reality of the daily life of a working class factory worker who might want to approach life in a different way, a different setting. So, I don't think that literature should be purely escapist, but I do think those traditional escapist elements/ideas have a relevance when thinking about fantasy literature. I.E dragons aren't real, dragons are cool, I wanna read a book with dragons in ... is a reasonable train of thought, as long as one doesn't make that he height of one's literary aspirations and ambitions. I am passionate about reading the classics, but sometimes I like to read a book with dragons and heroes that do dumb things because it pleases me superficially to do so.

Again, though, I think LOTR is a much better book than you give it credit for because there's a lot more thought and heart to its content than the majority of knock-off LOTR fantasy rip-offs.


Keely "I think I'd rather argue that the "Merrie England" is a conservative portrayal than an escapist one. Tolkien clearly has a lot of passion for the English countryside and sees it as something worth cherishing."

I'd argue that what makes the Merrie England portrayal escapist isn't that it represents the benefits of preserving the countryside and its cultural history, but that it creates an idea of a countryside that never actually existed, of a group of rightful, noble rulers and their willing, simple-minded servants, a sense that everything is in order and that our modern problems are the result of losing this balance.

What makes this escapist is the fact that that world and its balance never actually existed, it's a false golden age which the author hearkens back to to support their own political, philosophical, and religious notions. Hence, it is taking a false ideal and holding it above reality, ignoring what actually existed and choosing instead to concentrate on a pleasant falsehood--that is what makes it escapist to me.

"What I found poignant . . . was Frodo's fear in undertaking the quest that's his burden to undertake."

Agreed, and I do think you're correct when you say there is more than just escapism going on in Tolkien. The internal journeys of Frodo and of Gollum show difficulty and hardship in ways that we can sympathize with. However, as I mentioned before, the resolution of these journeys is, in the end, not internal, it's a symbolic construction where good wins out and evil loses not because of how they operate, but because Tolkien makes it so.

In that sense, he is holding up a portrayal of goodness not because it is of intrinsic worth, but because he attaches it to ideas of superiority and victory without actually making that connection vital and natural.

"My presumption would be that he genuinely thinks that stories about other worlds and mythologies can have as much meaning as stories about this world but that "escapist" angle is fascinating for keying into a certain set of desires we have to need to immerse ourselves in an environment or situation that's different from the average humdrum of our daily lives."

I agree that other worlds and settings do not have to be escapist--indeed, they can challenge us and force us to rethink life. It is not the fact of Tolkien's fantastical world that I consider escapist, but the construction and portrayal of the ideas that underpin that world and his story.

Just because something leads us away from our everyday life does not mean that it can't also force us to think about things in a new way--indeed, it is stories which are truly different from our experience that are often the most profound to experience. In Tolkien's case, I simply don't find his world or his philosophies and insights to be particularly different or engaging. In general, I find them to be straightforward, traditionalist, and simplistic.

"dragons aren't real, dragons are cool, I wanna read a book with dragons in"

I guess I've just read a lot of books where the dragons weren't cool, because dragons are used so much that they aren't particularly fantastical: we know how they work, we know what they do. In that sense, the only thing that makes them fantastical is that we don't actually see them around, which is equally true for most people and blue whales. So to me, what makes a dragon interesting isn't the fact that it's a dragon, since they're a dime a dozen, but what the author chooses to do with it, the way it's presented.

"I am passionate about reading the classics, but sometimes I like to read a book with dragons and heroes that do dumb things because it pleases me superficially to do so."

I think that writing a good, well-paced adventure with fun characters and scenarios is very difficult to do, and I respect any author who is capable of doing that. I enjoy those books and the thought and care that goes into them. A book doesn't have to be 'deep' or full of literary references in order to be well-written.

"I think LOTR is a much better book than you give it credit for because there's a lot more thought and heart to its content than the majority of knock-off LOTR fantasy rip-offs."

So you think LOTR is good just because it isn't crap? That's a pretty low standard by which to judge it. Saying you prefer eating gruel to dirt isn't exactly high praise.


Bunyip eh. I still find LOTR just a load of boring old tosh that goes on, and on, and on... its vastly overrated - and primarily because (pulling a totally unsubstantiated figure out of her head) probably 70 to 80% of those who read it never have read fantasy before and never will read another fantasy novel again in their life. So they think it is wonderful because they have been told so and they no nothing else in the genre. The Hobbit is pretty good though. Maybe I just like a simple, well told story over a long winded, dull, moral and historical allegory.


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