J.G. Keely's Reviews > Elric of Melniboné

Elric of Melniboné by Michael Moorcock
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Dec 10, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: fantasy, uk-and-ireland, reviewed, sword-and-sorcery
Read from December 10 to 13, 2011

I have spent a long time searching for a modern fantastical epic which is worth reading. It seems like there should be one, out there, somewhere. I have so enjoyed the battlefields of Troy, the dank cavern of Grendel's dam, Dido's lament, Ovid's hundred wild-spun tales, perfidious Odysseus, the madness of Orlando, Satan's twisted rhetoric, and Gilgamesh's sea-voyage to the forgotten lands of death. And so I seek some modern author to reinvent these tales with some sense of scholarship, poetry, character, and adventure.

There are many great modern fantasies, but the epic subgenre lacks luster. In reading the offerings--Martin, Jordan, Goodkind, Paolini, even much-lauded Wolfe--I have found them all wanting. They are all flawed in the same ways: their protagonists are dull caricatures of some universal 'badass' ideal, plot conflicts are glossed-over with magic or convenient deaths, the magic itself is not a mysterious force but a familiar tool, and women are made secondary or worse (though the authors often talk about how women are strong and independent, the women never actually act that way).

But then, they are all acolytes of Old Tolkien, who is as stodgy, unromantic, and methodical as a fantasist can be (without being C.S. Lewis). Though I respect Tolkien's work as a well-researched literary exercise, it is hard to forgive him for making it acceptable to write fantasy which is so dull, aimless, and self-absorbed. It is unfortunate that so many people think that fantasy began with Tolkien, because that is a great falsehood, and anyone who believes it does not really know fantasy at all. It nearly died with him.

Yet there are many who do think he started it. They like to comment on reviews, especially reviews of their favorite books--especially negative reviews of their favorite books--which have, lamentably, become a specialty of mine. And often, they end up asking me "Well, what fantasy do you like?" There are many I could name, numerous favorites which have shocked and overawed me, which have shaken me to my core, which have shown me worlds and magic I dared not dream. But none of them are epics.

I could mention Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a powerfully self-possessed work and one of the only fantasies of the past twenty years that I consider worth reading--the other is China Mieville's Perdido Street Station--but these are a Victorian alternate history continuation of the British Fairy Tale tradition and a New Weird Urban Fantasy, respectively. I could mention Mervyn Peake's Titus books, which so powerfully inhabit my five-star rating that Mieville and Clarke must be relegated to four--but this is a work whose fantastical nature would probably not even be apparent to most fantasy enthusiasts.

Alas they are not good counter-examples. I can (and do) mention Robert E. Howard's Conan, and Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar series, but these are fast-paced adventure stories, and though their worlds may be vast, mysterious, and grand, the stories themselves lack the hyperopic arc at the heart of an epic work.

But there have been many suggestions, many readers who have come to my aid, and who have named authors I might look to next, in my quest: Guy Gavriel Kay, Ursula K. LeGuin, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, Jeff VanderMeer, Michael De Larrabietti, John M. Harrison, Scott Lynch, Patricia McKillip, and John Crowley (Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss have been both suggested and sneered at). It is my hope that, somewhere amongst them, I will find the exemplary epic fantasy I am looking for--but I haven't found it in Moorcock.

Moorcock is good, he has scope, depth, complexity, and long, twisting plots, but at their core, his stories are modern, metaphysical, and subversive. They are light and lilting, ironical and wry--too quick and twisting to be 'epic'. The characters are introspective and self-aware, and it is clear that it is they, and not the world, who will be at the forefront.

It is all so thoroughly modern, so reinvented, full of sprightly ideas and metaphysical brooding. But it is decidedly not modern in the accidental, self-defeating ways of all those pretenders to the 'epic' title. The characters are not merely the male-fantasy counterpart of a bodice ripper, with modern, familiar minds dressed thinly in Medieval costume. The world is not simply our world with an overlay of castles--dragons for jet fighters, spells for guns, with modern politics and sensibilities.

No, Moorcock's world and characters are alien and fantastical, but Moorcock does not achieve this by ripping them whole-cloth from history, but by extrapolating them from modern philosophical ideas. Fantasy stories have always been full of dreamscapes, of impossible places for the reader to inhabit. These places draw us in, somehow we recognize them, like our own dreams, because of what they represent.

Anthropomorphism is the human tendency to see people where there are none: to see smiling faces in wood grain, to assign complex emotional motivations to cats, and to curse at the storm that breaks our window. The 'Other World' of British Fairy Tales is based on the latter: the assigning of our luck--good and bad--to capricious spirits. The world of fairy has rules (as do storms), but those rules are mostly a mystery to man.

But Moorcock's world personifies the ideas of Kant and Nietzsche: his 'Other Worlds' (called 'Planes') are those of the human mind: they are places of morality, like heaven and hell, except he has updated the concept to existential morality. There is Chaos, and there is Law; Chaos is the selfish urge, Law the communal urge, and he arrays his magic, spirits, and dreamscapes along this axis.

Like Milton, he has infused his epic with the latest thoughts and notions, updating it for the modern age. Also like Milton, Moorcock's influence has been felt, far and wide, despite the fact that most people do not recognize it.

The Dungeons & Dragons game prominently used his Law/Chaos dichotomy, among other concepts, and his 'Wheel of Psychic Planes' is an influence on their most audacious and unusual publication, the philosophical 'Steampunk' setting, Planescape. And many of these tropes have filtered down into the grab-bag common to the modern voice of fantasy stories.

Reading Elric, one will invariably be reminded of a dozen other books and games, as Elric drinks endless potions to maintain his strength and vitality, slaying twisted demons on a plane of fire in search of a rune-sword, dressed in ornate black armor and a dragon-helm. Indeed, the central mythology (and much of the plot) of the Elder Scrolls games--in particular Oblivion--owe a vast debt to Elric and his world, and not simply for the land of 'Elwher'.

Clearly, Moorcock's odd vision has been transcribed onto the imaginations of fantasists, but as with those who were inspired by Tolkien, most of his followers have failed to recreate the weight of the original message. Except for a few outliers, like Planescape and Perdido Street Station, most authors have copied the outward appearance of Moorcock's alien world, but were not skilled or knowledgeable enough to take the substance along with the form--the existential ideas, the vital core of his dreamscapes, are most often missing, or at best, faded.

But while the ideas and the overall vision are strong--even compared to the ubiquitous attempts to recreate them--there are a number of flaws in Moorcock's presentation. The first and most damaging is a weakness in the voice. Moorcock has a lot to say, but must sometimes resort to explaining his ideas to us. He is not always able to deliver his world and characters through interactions, hints, tone, and actions. He is hardly an inexperienced enough author to explain to us that which is already self-evident, but it is a weakness in his delivery which sometimes takes us out of the flow of the story, so that we must step back from the world and listen to Moorcock talk about it, though he does do his best to veil it with Elric's thoughts.

Secondly, it can be difficult to get a strong impression of his characters, they are often difficult to sympathize with or to predict. It isn't that they aren't vivid and active, but that their actions are often based around ideas and concepts--the things Moorcock built his world on--which can create a sense of a top-down world, where the characters are there to fulfill a purpose, to explore various notions and philosophies.

The book is certainly not an allegory--there are no easy one-to-one correlations to be made between characters and ideas, but the world does not revolve around personalities--except, perhaps, for Elric's, but his thoughts and motivations are often the most difficult to reconcile. The personalities of all the other characters are, more or less, wholly dependent on him.

To some degree, the characters seem to operate on much older fantasy rules: their capricious yet repetitive acts becoming motifs for the larger ideas in the story, not unlike Tolkien's fantasy forefather, E.R. Eddison, whose characters seem half-mad with heroism for its own sake (another candidate for my favorite epic, if I didn't think his beautiful, deliberate archaism might prove too remote for many readers).

Part of the reason for this is that Elric's personality and world were created as an exercise, and with an explicit purpose: to portray the anti-Conan. He is sickly, weak, pale, effeminate, sorcerous, erudite, cruel, reluctant, intellectual, and hardly promiscuous. Conan becomes king by his own hand, while Elric begins as emperor and we witness the hardships of his downfall.

But this contrariness, while coloring the story, is hardly its center. Moorcock uses it as a springboard--an inspiration to drive him to something greater. It is one more example of the fact that genius is at its best when it has a lofty challenge before it. Moorcock is not interested in making a parody, but in exploring a little-trodden path, operating on the notion that if you start with something familiar and begin to move away from it, you are bound to end up somewhere else.

I must also mention an unbelievable incident involving a group of blind soldiers, which put dire strain to credulity. A bit of creative myth or capricious magic could have saved it, but as it stands in the book, it makes little sense.

But despite the subtle weaknesses in voice and characterization, Moorcock's idiomatic adventure story is eminently enjoyable. There are few fantasy books I could name which suggest such a playful intellect as this, and though it is not as wildly imaginative as his Gloriana, this philosophical exploration disguised as a pulp adventure is a delightful read that never gets bogged-down in indulging its own thoughtfulness.

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Comments (showing 48-97)





message 97: by Rob (new) - rated it 4 stars

Rob I'm curious to see how you'll rate the successive books in the series. I'm a big fan of Moorcock, but to me his most notable weakness is that his series feel rushed towards the end. The first couple books in a series feature careful characterization and a well-developed setting. By the latter books, the plot careens to its conclusion in a blur. I suppose this is understandable, when you consider that Moorcock - the last of the prolific pulp writers - was writing 5-10 books a year at this point.

And for my money, the Corum books are better than Elric. The inspiration of Welsh myths gives them a more cohesive feel. And Corum isn't quite as brooding and self-pitying as Elric.


message 96: by Matt (new)

Matt I'm reading this printing of these stories: http://tinyurl.com/73mpr6m

I'm wondering if I should switch to the version of the series that you're reading. The one I'm reading has a lot of stories that don't even seem to have anything to do with Elric at all. Maybe I'm just missing something in the whole "Multiverse" thing.

Also, I have decided to go ahead and recommend a series by Andrzej Sapkowski to you. You may already be aware of it as the series of fantasy novels that inspired the "Witcher" series of computer games. As of now there are only two books in English, a collection of stories called "The Last Wish" and the first novel in the actual "series" called "Blood of the Elves". The problem is...I am capable of reading novels in Spanish. I have read them all in Spanish and I think they would interest you given what you have to say about fantasy so far, but I'm not sure the English translations are very strong or do it justice. There's also an entire second collection of stories that are apparently never going to be translated. I dunno how you feel about reading translated novels (a lot of subtlety can be lost) but as a work of fantasy I believe these books are superb.


J.G. Keely Yeah, the Amazon reviews of that version seem to suggest that it's best for people already familiar with Elric's story.

You know, I have heard of the Witcher novels, but I've never added them to my list. I shall have to rectify that. Thanks for the suggestion.

Rob wrote: "his most notable weakness is that his series feel rushed towards the end."

That's unfortunate, hopefully I will find something redeeming in them, but I know that's how some of my favorite series have dwindled off at the end, like the Lankhmar books.

I'll keep the Corum stories in mind, too.


message 94: by Jayaprakash (new)

Jayaprakash Satyamurthy The Corum books are probably closer to epic fantasy. Look up my review of the first Corum trilogy if you can, I used to classify it as minor Moorcock but a recent re-read made me revise that impression.


J.G. Keely Mmm, thank you. Duly noted.


message 92: by Colin (new) - added it

Colin Man, this sounds really interesting, but I can never find these books, despite having wanted to read them for a while. Sadly out of print I guess.


message 91: by Matt (new)

Matt It isn't hard to find recent printings of Elric stories on Amazon and such, the problem is finding the arrangement like the ones Keely is reading, which seems to be the better arrangement of the stories. They can be found pretty readily on Abebooks but the condition of a lot of the copies for sale sounds suspect...


J.G. Keely I just kept an eye out in book stores, particularly used bookstores and Goodwill.


message 89: by mark (new)

mark monday although i found your commentary on Tolkein to be odd and rather nonsensical... i really loved your excellent analysis of Moorcock & Elric. that part of the review was fantastic and a real pleasure to read. it's not often that i'm shown new ways to look at one of my favorite authors. if you haven't done so already, you may also want to check out Moorcock's Von Bek.

i don't think you'll find much in the way of 'epic fantasy' in John Crowley. although i do think he is excellent, and his The Deep does explore various epic fantasy themes & tropes.

good luck on Guy Gavriel Kay. i'm very interested in reading what you have to say about his Tigana, if you ever get around to reading it. although i fear you won't particularly enjoy it. same with Fionavar Tapestry, which i adore - but i can't really see you feeling the same way.


J.G. Keely "i found your commentary on Tolkein to be odd and rather nonsensical"

In any particular way? Was it that I didn't fully appreciate the gayness of Tolkienian romance? Did you read Moorcock's 'Epic Pooh' which I linked to in my review? In some ways, I think of my review as a continuation of those ideas. You could also look at this piece from Mieville, which is rather brief and caustic, but references some of the same problems that concerned me.

I'm glad you liked my analysis of Moorcock, though. Thanks. Thank you also for the observations on the different suggestions I've gotten for fantasy reading. Mostly, the factor that determines what book I read next is what I can find used locally--Elric seems pretty omnipresent, in that regard--of course, it helps if you know what you're looking for, so it's good to get titles.


message 87: by J.G. Keely (last edited Jan 22, 2012 04:57AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

J.G. Keely Originally a reply to a comment now deleted

Yeah, that is one of the certain benefits to reading a work that is flawed or falls short in very specific ways: it suddenly seems so easy to write something that would improve upon it. It seems like there are two types of influential works: the ones that are so cool that everyone tries to live up to them but fails, and the kind that are kind of interesting, but so flawed that they make every author feel like they could do better.


message 86: by mark (last edited Jan 21, 2012 01:58PM) (new)

mark monday Was it that I didn't fully appreciate the gayness of Tolkienian romance?

ha! that is funny. and so true... well, at least with the swooningly romantic gay melodrama of the film versions.

but no, the stuff i found to be odd & nonsensical were the "unromantic, dull, aimless, self-absorbed" comments.

your Moorcock link was quite interesting. there is a lot to consider there. but i also think a lot of it is off-base and nonsensical. particularly his commentary around Saurun being Tolkein's version of "The Mob". i also think he over-reaches a bit in his insistence that the Shire & hobbits are an example of Tolkein's tasteful bourgeois paradise. i see the kernel of truth in there of course, but Moorcock piles a lot on that feels like he is really reaching, and rather desperately. The Shire is tasteful? uh, what? if anything, Tolkein balances his 'perfect little world' view of hobbit life with an acerbic perspective that mocks and critiques that kind of English village life. sure, in the end, he obviously adores it overall. but he does not provide an unexamined view on the middle class. many of the critiques that Moorcock tosses Hobbit Life's way are actually already present in LOTR.

as far as the Mieville critique, well i actually found that to be pretty odd & nonsensical. and downright silly at times in its personal bias. reminded me of an undergrad student railing against Shakespeare and other supposedly Stodgy Classics - simply because that type of literature is not to his taste. he stacks the deck of his own argument. the basis of Mieville's entire argument appears to be that LOTR is not radical or challenging enough for him. i think it should go without saying that a work need not be radical to be of value... and Fantasy is certainly large enough to include both the radical and the conservative, the traditional and the variously challenging new schools - with both sorts of perspectives being potentially of interest or of value.

Howard Hawks & John Ford made some wonderful films, ones that often celebrate and reify 'traditional values'. John Huston & Anthony Mann also made many wonderful films within the same genres - films that often critiqued & deconstructed the traditions of those genres. i think both sets of filmmakers are obviously of interest and value. i just don't get the either/or mentality. seems so narrowly binary!


J.G. Keely ". . . at least with the swooningly romantic gay melodrama of the film versions."

Ah, I was referring to your top-voted Goodreads review--which I had sought out in hopes of better understanding your position on the issue. I didn't realize it was a movie review, though if you're thinking mainly of Tolkien's story in terms of the movies, that explains why Moorcock and Mieville's critiques don't make sense to you.

"the stuff i found to be odd & nonsensical were the "unromantic, dull, aimless, self-absorbed" comments."

I suppose, for me, the most symptomatic elements would be the endless, repetitive songs, long lists of troop movements, the novella-length digression that is Tom Bombadil, and the numerous references to an obscure history the original reader couldn't possibly understand. All of the books are full of things which do not contribute to the story or the characters, and which are only included because of a dry, studious whim of Tolkien's.

As for being unromantic, it's been said before, but how romantic can a story really be when it chiefly concerns a boys-day-out adventure and the principle love interests spend 95% of the book hundreds of miles apart?

". . . he obviously adores [The Shire] overall. but he does not provide an unexamined view on the middle class."

I have to wonder again if you aren't thinking more of the film portrayals, which I found more subtle and layered than Tolkien's originals. Certainly, he does give us some less scrupulous characters who inhabit The Shire, but this doesn't really provide an examination of The Shire, itself. His tone is, as Moorcock points out, not merely fond of The Shire, but sentimentally prepossessed with it.

His little obdurate comic figures don't actually comment on the drawbacks of the false dream of 'Merrie England', indeed, since they are presented as its worst parts, they end up supporting sentimentality, because they are such weak, foolish foils. Tolkien does not actually examine the origins or flaws of his British automyth, since he seems to implicitly support the social order of the proper lords and their happy yeomen, as represented Aragorn's noble ascension.

"Mieville's entire argument appears to be that LOTR is not radical or challenging enough . . ."

No, he's arguing that Tolkien's tone, his entire purpose is wrapped up in being consoling, in condescending to the reader, typified in characters who are not simplistic merely in a mythic, archetypal way--like Beowulf--but are simplistic morally. I think this is one of the main reasons that readers tend to want to read Tolkien allegorically, even though he rejects that interpretation: because his worldview is so sentimental and staid that it is easy to make it fit ideals.

To some degree, the critique is that to write a story which is centrally conservative, sentimental, and short-sighted is inimical to the fantastical, that this kind of small, compact thinking is the very opposite of magical, because it is so predictable and easily contained. Certainly, an author can work within tradition and do remarkable things, but Tolkien is not even presenting us with a whole tradition, but with the small piece that sheared off when he tried to force two traditions together.

His transplanted Christian morality is already much more simplistic than the great English example Milton set, because Tolkien's evil is not comprehensible or psychologically motivated, like Milton's is--it is merely convenient. Likewise, though he keeps the trappings of the dark self-will of the Norse epics, he naturally recoils from any Dionysian character, which becomes problematic as he tries to find another way to justify a violent warrior-king hero, producing the same central conflict of crusade apologists: how can Adam remain pious when he must fight like Satan?

It's not merely that he presents a conservative voice but that, in the end, his conservative ideal is not entirely justified, and it is undermined in a way which weakens the very fabric of his narrative, and of his world.

Hopefully some of that explanation will prove less inexplicable to you, but I admit that, having tried to clarify with two other views that you found it equally difficult to elaborate upon, perhaps there is some other, more fundamental barrier to mutual comprehension here.


message 84: by mark (new)

mark monday Ah, I was referring to your top-voted Goodreads review--which I had sought out in hopes of better understanding your position on the issue.

i thought your comment had a familiar ring to it! but obviously that review was written with tongue firmly planted in cheek. as far as serious LOTR reviews go, i choose to opt out, if only to avoid being repetitious. there is a surplus of excellent positive reviews out there and i doubt i can bring anything new to the table in that regard. except maybe some cheap humor. such as my Return of the King review.

I have to wonder again if you aren't thinking more of the film portrayals, which I found more subtle and layered than Tolkien's originals. Certainly, he does give us some less scrupulous characters who inhabit The Shire, but this doesn't really provide an examination of The Shire, itself. His tone is, as Moorcock points out, not merely fond of The Shire, but sentimentally prepossessed with it.

oh no, definitely disagree there. although i would be foolish to say that you should read it again - if you did, you would find much parody on english village life, from grasping relatives to ostentatiously rules-obsessed nonsense to small-minded ignorance to straightforward xenophobia. it is all there, right alongside the sentiment and affection. in the end, The Shire is no doubt Tolkein's vision of A Place That Should Be Protected, but he does not provide a ridiculously perfect portrait of that world.

how romantic can a story really be when it chiefly concerns a boys-day-out adventure and the principle love interests spend 95% of the book hundreds of miles apart?

ah, i think we are thinking of different versions of romantic. i wasn't particularly thinking of "romantic" as Romantic Love. but rather the romantic elements around celebrating & mourning a bygone & dying age, a quest, battles between good & evil, the various odes to loss, etc.

most symptomatic elements would be the endless, repetitive songs, long lists of troop movements, the novella-length digression that is Tom Bombadil, and the numerous references to an obscure history the original reader couldn't possibly understand.

i suppose that is all about what a person appreciates in a novel. personally, i don't mind the songs - i find them to be quite beautiful times. i respond positively to detailed description of war (including movement of troops) the same way i can positively respond to those elements in a straightforward military fantasy/scifi adventure. i don't mind digressions (and often those digressions will be what makes the book particularly enjoyable to me) and i certainly don't mind references to an obscure mythic history. the latter is another thing that i often find pleasing in epic fantasy.

and as far as the latter is concerned, wouldn't you say that is overwhelmingly present in Jonathan Strange?

No, he's arguing that...

well you make many interesting points about the Mieville article for me to consider. particularly around what Mieville considers to be the "opposite of magical". overall though, i do still think that Mieville is engaging in the same odd reductivism - that he accuses Tolkein of in the LOTR - when describing what he thinks constitutes quality fantasy. they come from two different schools of thought and personally i think both schools have much merit.

and is it really problematic that Tolkein recoils from the Dionysian and that he paints a black-and-white world of absolute good and absolute evil? all of his heroes are Apollonian constructs! when looking at LOTR from that perspective, how is his conservative ideal undermined? he is not aiming to challenge paradigms; if anything LOTR revivifies them. why should he be critiqued for not accomplishing something that he never set out to do in the first place?

if you're thinking mainly of Tolkien's story in terms of the movies, that explains why Moorcock and Mieville's critiques don't make sense to you.
...
two other views that you found it equally difficult to elaborate upon


ouch! well i suppose if i was nervy enough to dismiss some of your comments as 'rather nonsensical', i can take a few of your own barbs with good humor.


message 83: by J.G. Keely (last edited Jan 22, 2012 05:44AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

J.G. Keely Actually, the first wasn't meant to be a barb, I sometimes find it hard to separate the vision presented in the films with the actual book, and there are a lot of differences, particularly in plot, sentiment, character portrayal, and moral message--and I think the movie actually presents the more nuanced, psychologically insightful version.

As for the second remark, I was very disappointed that you seemed to gloss over Moorcock and Mieville's actual arguments, especially since I felt that you were calling on me to defend my position when you hadn't presented any solid counter-point. If you find something nonsensical, perhaps there is some specific clarification you could request?

"all of his heroes are Apollonian constructs! when looking at LOTR from that perspective, how is his conservative ideal undermined?"

And his villains are even more Apollonian, since they are all very structured, based around loyalty and hierarchy. We do have Saruman as a rebellious Satan figure, but after his rebellion, he just creates another very structured, ordered force, so it's obvious that he doesn't have a philosophical Dionysian streak.

I would argue that Tolkien's heroes are not that Apollonian, or at least his attempt to make them so is undermined by the fact that many of their actions are governed by the violent, selfish heroism of the Eddas. They primarily seem to be fighting for their own survival, not for some higher purpose. One might try to bring in the Maiar, but I don't think Tolkien ever bothers to explain how they fit in, at least, not in the confines of LOTR itself.

I think Tolkien wanted his heroes to come off as Apollonian, but for that, they would have to display a piety to some greater philosophy of structure, not merely self-preservation. As far as I could tell, his portrayal of 'good' and 'evil' rarely rose beyond an excuse for open conflict--that is to say, the psychology, purpose, and philosophy of good or evil were not vital to the story. It is difficult for characters to be Apollonian without a tradition they can attach themselves to.

The sense of 'tradition' Tolkien presents is such a loose thing that it is more of a sentimentality. Again, I agree that some of the figures in The Shire are meant to be comical and unpleasant, but in a funny, harmless way. He's not looking at the power structures of the peasant life, or at the real conflicts this structure would bring about.

I reiterate that the 'problem figures' he presents are so petty and silly that they do not constitute a deconstruction of the Merrie England ideal. By focusing entirely on such minor, inconsequential problems, he is implying that these are the only problems that would exist under his sentimental system.

". . . the romantic elements around celebrating & mourning a bygone & dying age, a quest, battles between good & evil, the various odes to loss, etc."

Ah, certainly, the other 'Romance'. I would have to say that Tolkien is romantic in that sense, but he romantic only about ideals, about ill-defined things which never actually existed, and to be romantic about an undefined ideal is to be merely sentimental. There can be no Great Romance without Great Ideas.

". . . i don't mind the songs . . . i respond positively to detailed description of war . . . i don't mind digressions . . . "

Well, you really are a Tolkien apologist. Old boy can do no wrong, eh? I agree that there is nothing inherently wrong about songs, troop movement, or digression if they are done well, but I don't think I have ever seen someone argue that these are strengths of Tolkien's. Certainly, he did have a purpose in including them, but that purpose was an affectation: he included them to make his book more like the Eddas. They rarely had a purpose for the characters or the story, and hence, these very long, very self-involved parts of the book were not digressions which, as in Jonathan Strange, revealed some curious detail or side story, but interrupted the tone and pacing of Tolkien's story without adding to the narrative.

You asked how anyone could find Tolkien dull, aimless, and self-absorbed, and I would say any author who fills their books with digressions that sideline the story for an extra-textual purpose are all three.

"he is not aiming to challenge paradigms; if anything LOTR revivifies them."

How does he do that? How does his epic in any way build upon the English Apollonianism defined by Milton? Certainly, he is not challenging paradigms--even when the wildness of the Eddas incidentally leaks into his work--but neither does he uphold the great tradition, because sentimental idealism is not a large enough vessel to bear any great tradition.


message 82: by mark (last edited Jan 22, 2012 01:26PM) (new)

mark monday If you find something nonsensical, perhaps there is some specific clarification you could request?

at this point, there is really no need. you have explained yourself exceedingly well! i would certainly be hard-pressed to dismiss your initial anti-Tolkein comments as "nonsense" now that i more thoroughly understand your perspective.

you really are a Tolkien apologist. Old boy can do no wrong, eh?

well... yes, actually! i suppose i am an apologist for all of my favorite authors.

The sense of 'tradition' Tolkien presents is such a loose thing that it is more of a sentimentality... to be romantic about an undefined ideal is to be merely sentimental. There can be no Great Romance without Great Ideas... How does his epic in any way build upon the English Apollonianism defined by Milton... sentimental idealism is not a large enough vessel

well that is certainly food for thought. and would require a bit more study from me on English Apollonianism defined by Milton before i feel comfortable replying. but a truly interesting point.
_______

as far as digressions go, i'm still quite curious to read your thoughts on the digressions within Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (which is also a book that i greatly admired, digressions & all)

and just a general comment here... thank you for your lengthy response. many points to consider, particularly around your idea that Tolkein's heroes are faux-Apollonian.

i truly do appreciate the time & effort you put into your responses (here and elsewhere) - even if i don't end up answering them point by point. they are a pleasure to read and i'm not sure there is another GR reviewer who has given me so much food for thought from reviews, even though i often heartily disagree with your various stances. you are one of a kind Keely, never change!


J.G. Keely ". . . you have explained yourself exceedingly well!"

Oh, good, I was worried I was just confusing you even more with my long-winded attempts to explain myself.

"i suppose i am an apologist for all of my favorite authors. "

I suppose we all are, I was just surprised that your defense extended so far--I know a lot of fans who adore Tolkien but who still found his songs, troop movements, and vague references dull and self-absorbed. There are certainly authors I am fond of, and find myself defending, but each still has their flaws and caveats.

". . . and would require a bit more study from me on English Apollonianism defined by Milton before i feel comfortable replying."

Yeah, I know what you mean--I often feel that, to really perform due diligence when talking about books would require vastly more time than I have, returning to books and critics and trying to put together something worth writing instead of these half-formed snippets I usually produce.

"i'm still quite curious to read your thoughts on the digressions within Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell"

I think I briefly suggested before that I found her digressions did not break from the general tone or pacing of her book--they were not long-winded explanations, but amusing asides. In addition, even if they were sometimes extraneous to the plot, they tended to be humorous, providing tongue-in-cheek commentary on the world, characters, and narrator.

Contrast, for example, Tolkien's troop movements. I don't mind troop movements in general, I found them very exciting and interesting in Caesar's Conquest of Gaul and Eddison's Worm Ouroboros (which was one of Tolkien's inspirations). The problem, as I recall, with Tolkien's was that they broke in suddenly upon the narrative, went on for a while in a dry, encyclopedic fashion, and then went back to the main plot. As I recall, it didn't add to the general thrust of the conflict, because it did not end up being vital to the resolution, which focused instead on the characters.

I don't mean to harp on Tolkien, I just wanted to try to demonstrate some of the differences between how I think his digressions work compared to JS&MN.

I'm glad you enjoy trading comments, and I certainly don't blame you if you don't always do a point-by-point, I certainly don't expect that.

"you are one of a kind Keely, never change!"

You say that like I have a choice in the matter!


message 80: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian "Marvin" Graye Keely, this is a wonderful review. Not only was it a pleasure to read, it has what many reviews lack and that is an authority.

I want to start "Perdido Street Station" soon.

Would there be any sense in reading "Elric" beforehand?

Is there a cross-author continuum that might benefit my reading of Mieville?

I've read some of Moorcock's non-fantasy work, but no fantasy yet.

In fact, I'm pretty unskilled in the fantasy genre.


message 79: by Matt (new)

Matt I know this is directed at Keely, but I'm just curious. What do you mean by this?

"Is there a cross-author continuum that might benefit my reading of Mieville?"


message 78: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian "Marvin" Graye Matt, I started to feel during the review that Mieville might be standing on Moorcock's shoulders, only from an influence point of view. I've got some of the reissued Elric series and was wondering whether I might detect any influence if I read some Elric first. My question comes from a relative ignorance of both authors, although I've read The City and the City.


message 77: by Matt (new)

Matt Ahhh, ok.

I'd say there's no "need" to read any Moorcock first. A lot of authors have stood on the shoulders of Moorcock to varying degrees. I don't think it'll be necessary for your enjoyment of Perdido Street Station. Just understand it is in an alternate world with no real relation to ours and that Mieville will do a good job making sure you stay with him through the more unusual elements of that world.


message 76: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian "Marvin" Graye Thanks, Matt


J.G. Keely Well, there are definitely connections, in both style and content, but I wouldn't suggest Elric as a starting-point, since so many of the ideas in Elric were things Moorcock only explored fully in later books. The Elric series is very much a first draft of his multiversal fantasy vision.

Mieville, himself suggests Moorcock's 'Hawkmoon' as an influential book in this list, so that might serve you better.


message 74: by [deleted user] (new)

I'm peeving sorry, but on the seventh paragraph, I think you meant Brandon Sanderson?


J.G. Keely Thanks for the correction, much appreciated.


Rebecca Huston Back in the seventies, I was a huge fan of Moorcock and read everything that I could lay my hands on. I do think that Elric was my favourite of his heroes, just because he was so radically different than other Sword and Sorcery fantasy. Now I don't read as much as I used to in the fantasy genre, mostly finding it to be Tolkien or Arthurian copies, but I like what Lois McMaster Bujold and Julian May have done, if you're looking for new authors.


J.G. Keely Thanks for the suggestions. I've got Bujold's Chalion series on my list, and May's Pleistocene Saga, though I have that marked as sci fi. Are there any other suggestions you'd make for them?


Rebecca Huston Bujold's Sharing Knife series is very good, and so is her Vorkosigan Saga, which is SF, but some of the best writing I've ever come across. I've read May's Boreal Moon series, which is straight up fantasy that is smart, and her Pliocene Exile novels are what ruined most SF for me, as well as the Milieu Trilogy. Other fantasy that I've come to enjoy has been Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, which veer onto the silly side at times, but it's such great satire that I can't help but like it.


J.G. Keely Thanks so much for the suggestions, I'll definitely have to add them to the pile. Though I have tried Pratchett on a couple occasions, since I know so many other reviewers and friend who love him, but I just didn't find him funny in the least, and couldn't understand how people could compare him to Douglas Adams. However, I have been told I may have started on 'the wrong books', so who knows, maybe I'll give him another try some day.


message 68: by Josh (new)

Josh Honestly, I see people say this as often as you see people misuse Tolkiens proper place in Fantasy.

"They are all flawed in the same ways: their protagonists are dull caricatures of some universal 'badass' ideal, plot conflicts are glossed-over with magic or convenient deaths, the magic itself is not a mysterious force but a familiar tool, and women are made secondary or worse (though the authors often talk about how women are strong and independent, the women never actually act that way)."

You have a really great style of writing, but when you "gloss over" negative commentary without giving real examples of what you felt they have done and how you think it should be you lose credibility imo. Sure it is a lot to add to a review of a book, but based on the length of the review an extra paragraph or two could go a long ways.


J.G. Keely For every single author I name in that paragraph, I link to my review of one of their books where the flaws I mention are laid out in more specific terms. I did not think that my review of Elric was the proper place to start going into detail about the particular ways those drawbacks play out in other books.


message 66: by Josh (new)

Josh Keely wrote: "For every single author I name in that paragraph, I link to my review of one of their books where the flaws I mention are laid out in more specific terms. I did not think that my review of Elric wa..."

Awesome, it was late and i was tired. I basically liked your review and was hoping for someone with some obvious knowledge on the inner workings of critique (yourself) to provide good examples. I'm going to check out those reviews. Thanks for the response.


J.G. Keely No problem, good reading to you.


message 64: by [deleted user] (new)

I'm not sure which one to buy. I got this editon for free. But there are others with the stories in different orders.

Does it really matter?


J.G. Keely I think you should be alright, whatever edition you decide to read them in.


message 62: by [deleted user] (last edited Sep 01, 2013 06:16AM) (new)

So far, it's pretty damn good.

I think Elric is a spendid character. I'm glad to have met him. I do hope to get to know him more as I read more of this series. I get why he's been described as "radical".

The stories are pretty fun, but I think I understand why Moorcock says he's a bad writer. And agree with you on this point:

"He is not always able to deliver his world and characters through interactions, hints, tone, and actions..."

I like how honest Moorcock is about his bad writing. It's not that bad, though. I suppose after reading Foundation, this ended up being a breath of fresh air. That was like reading a textbook!

Did he ever improve when he wrote Gloriana? I wish to read more fantasy thanks to Mr Moorcock.


J.G. Keely Augustin said: "Did he ever improve when he wrote Gloriana?"

Yeah, he becomes a much more subtle and powerful writer later in his career, and Gloriana is a good example of what he's capable of when he can maintain pace and tone throughout a book.


message 60: by Han (new) - added it

Han Asra Keely, If might ask, have you read Moorcock's essay collection about fantasy?
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6...
I would like to know what you think about his thought.


Steelwhisper Did you ever read Camber of Culdi and the other books in her Deryni verse?


Kuro_no I almost totally agree with you in your thoughts of why Elric is such a big undertaking and how marginally could have been one the best fantasy stories. Despite its ambitiousness however it is probably Moorcock's worst work. That still shows how impressively Moorcock can dig into ideas!


message 57: by Nirvana (new)

Nirvana My only exposure to Moorcock was through his lyrical collaborations with Hawkwind and Blue Öyster Cult, plus his own band, The Deep Fix. He's one hell of a lyricist, which makes me all the more excited to delve into his literature.
When reading the Eric cycle, would you advise I start with the first book; or are the books written in so episodic a fashion that I could pick up any of them and still get a firm grasp on the lore and circumstances? For my local library is not so generous as to stock the entire series.


J.G. Keely I think you could get by reading them out of order--while there are connections from beginning to end, they are also episodic in nature. Plus, the older Elric stories are much rougher, representing as they do some of Moorcock's earliest work.


The Brain in the Jar The connection to Planescape sold me.

Regarding Elder Scrolls: I don't think the epicness/vastness is what the series is truly aiming for. Playing Skyrim, I felt that the creators paid the most attention to the NPC's lives. They tried to show you how Ordinary People live in a genre that's often about heroes, villains and other big characters. Every NPC has its unique dialogue and traits of its own. I think they did it better in Fallout 3, but it's something special in the genre. It's as if their inspiration is more Raymond Carver's intimate fiction than Moorcock.

If you find that I comment too much then forgive me. You just say interesting stuff.


J.G. Keely Skinneejay said: "Playing Skyrim, I felt that the creators paid the most attention to the NPC's lives."

Hmm, that was not the impression I got from that game--indeed, I often felt that the NPCs, numerous as they might be, were disappointingly flat, and that the player had very little ability to interact with them meaningfully.

For example, you'd get your house with your housecarl companion, but there really weren't any dialogue options or stories for them--they didn't have inner lives, wants or desires. You could also marry a lot of characters, but again, there was no real dialogue, no unique interactions or relationships--you just did the quest and bam, you were married.

Even for the more interesting characters, like Kodlak of the Companions, I remember feeling disappointed that his internal thoughts and motivations only become clear after he's gone and you're reading his journal--that the writers were clearly trying to set him up as this wise father figure for the Dragonborn, and yet instead of actually developing that relationship in real time, through dialogue options, you end up getting it all after the fact in some book.

I felt like this happened a lot--that anything in the game that was actually interesting, whether it was some aspect of the world or character personality, tended to be delivered via a journal you randomly find, instead of being an integral part of the story.

Compared to NPC dialogue in games like Baldur's Gate II, Torment, Knights of the Old Republic, or even newer games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect, it just made Skyrim and FO3 feel really shallow to me--sure, you have all these NPCs, but you can't really interact with them very meaningfully, you can't explore relationships, and they don't change over time as characters.


message 53: by Antonis (new)

Antonis The critque of Skyrim is taken, but the focus there -- like in all of the other Elder Scrolls games, Morrowind notwithstanding this -- is an emphasis on the poetry of landscape. The NPCs are less a draw than the world itself (and honestly, coming from a lifelong gamer, NPCs are rarely a draw to an interactive experience for me anyway). It bears more in common with, as you said, Tolkien or the Beowulf-Poet or Snorri than, say, Moorcock or Eddison or the Gilgamesh-Poet. I can picture JRRT playing Skyrim and loving it. I can equally picture Moorcock playing Dragon Age.

That would be a neat thought experiment. What kind of interactive media or video games would famous authors be playing in today's age?


J.G. Keely Antonis said: "the focus there -- like in all of the other Elder Scrolls games, Morrowind notwithstanding this -- is an emphasis on the poetry of landscape"

Then I'd say the problem is that so much of the landscape ends up being the same--'Oh, another bandit dungeon'--though Skyrim is markedly better with this than Oblivion. Beyond that, if the landscape is supposed to be the focus, then why spend so much time poking at the inner lives of flat NPCs?

Certainly, there are games built around the poetry of physical exploration, take Journey as an extreme example, or even Zelda games like Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker. In those games, the NPCs are often deliberately flat or silly--the old cliche of the JRPG where a townsperson just says the same thing over and over--because that isn't the focus of the game.

I feel Skyrim muddies the water more, because you're clearly supposed to care about many of these NPCs, to interact with them and think of them as less symbolic and more realistic, and yet I don't think that the game gives them enough depth to really merit the time you end up spending on them. I have no problem with a game that is about physical exploration, but don't then pad that game out with all sorts of other interactions that don't contribute to that.

"I can picture JRRT playing Skyrim and loving it."

Actually, I think a lot of it would upset him--particularly the parts where you're working with demon lords and as an assassin, with no moral comeuppance for your crimes. All the grey morality would not sit well with a man who spent so much time carefully molding Catholic theology and symbolism into his fantastical works--the dark, conflict-based play of Skyrim feels more to me like E.R. Eddison than Tolkien--more like the original Eddas rather than later Christian rewrites.

Take for example the great war in Skyrim versus that in Tolkien. In Skyrim, both factions are equally corrupt, and equally right in their own way--orderly colonials versus self-government racists. In Tolkien, it's a case of obvious good versus evil, righteousness versus viciousness--a choice very easy for any Good Christian to make. As such, I don't think the setup or its implications would be satisfying to Tolkien.


message 51: by Antonis (last edited Oct 09, 2015 12:11PM) (new)

Antonis Keely: "Then I'd say the problem is that so much of the landscape ends up being the same--'Oh, another bandit dungeon'--though Skyrim is markedly better with this than Oblivion."

"I feel Skyrim muddies the water more, because you're clearly supposed to care about many of these NPCs, to interact with them and think of them as less symbolic and more realistic"


I will concede this, definitely. But I do think one shouldn't rule out scope or focus in such considerations. If Skyrim is supposed to be a rough fantastic reimagining of the Nordic, British, some continental European, and even western Slavic lands -- full of Jutes, Angles, Saxons, and Danes -- and emulating the literature of those people, then it would be unfitting to, say, add a great desert landscape like those found in Journey or bright Mediterranean waters like those in Wind Waker, or to have the NPCs be merely gruff stereotypical Vikings. Granted, they're not going to have the nuance of rugged individualistic lives like we find in Bioware's great games. But it would be a failure not to see how certain modern characteristics cannot be applied backwards in time. Universalism of characterization is a failing of much historical fiction, let alone fantastic fiction.

But we're probably talking around the real problem that Bethesda ran into, and that's disk space. It's all well and good for us to sit here criticizing a game that doesn't have BOTH the main and NPC cast of Mass Effect AND the world of Journey or Septerra Core or Planescape, when 1) they weren't really going for either, and 2) the variety of landscape present in a game like Planescape would deteriorate the focus. But it's another matter when they may have wanted to do such a thing and simply couldn't fit such a monumental game onto a 360 or PS3 disc.

Keely: "All the grey morality would not sit well with a man who spent so much time carefully molding Catholic theology and symbolism into his fantastical works"

"As such, I don't think the setup or its implications would be satisfying to Tolkien."


It would do you well to read The Children of Húrin then (which I see you've marked to-read). And probably The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún for good measure. He's certainly not averse to writing, reading, or engaging with the bleak, the tragic, or the absurd. And trust me, I was not expecting the Lear-levels of tragedy I found in Hurin.

I know that in later drafts Tolkien did take to fleshing out the Catholic and moralistic themes of LotR, but that's a natural approach to symbolism -- it's an approach that most any other author would take, if they were to end up with a story like LotR. Allegory does not work largely because the artifice does not allow the development of the story naturalistically. Langland's Piers Plowman doesn't hold to today's scrutiny largely because of this. But you can still maintain the Christian and moral theming of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and have it be approachable by an agnostic audience because it is NOT a "carefully molded" theological work, but a great adventure tale that just so happened to lend itself to said themes. And I think that's where we disagree in our reading of Tolkien, Keely. I don't think he set out to make a Catholic allegory, and he himself says this on numerous occasions. And while I know declared authorial intent doesn't hold to interprative scrutiny, I can't in good conscience say (or agree with anyone else who says) that LotR is an allegory. It's too large, too full of life and lore and background. There's too much of it for it ALL to be an artifice for a detailed, molded, pruned allegory.

And it's perfectly fine that we disagree on this. But I would be careful not to quickly dismiss Tolkien as a mere moralist.

Keely: "...the dark, conflict-based play of Skyrim feels more to me like E.R. Eddison than Tolkien..."

Letter 199 of Tolkien seeks to really make a hardline differential between he and Eddison, though it's not one of narrative; rather, narration. Tolkien admires Eddison's literary deftness and, in fact, the moral complexity of Mistress and Worm, but dislikes in parts the praise given to "arrogance and cruelty" while he took umbrage with Eddison calling Tolkien's views "soft." It's a matter of authorial voice, not content. I feel he would try to defend himself on this matter, but I don't really have the time to go on, unfortunately.


J.G. Keely Antonis said: "it would be unfitting to, say, add a great desert landscape like those found in Journey or bright Mediterranean waters like those in Wind Waker"

No, I'm not arguing that the landscape should resemble those games geographically--or even that it should have more variety in terrain. I was using those as examples of games that put more focus on exploration as an experience--which I think could also be done in a northern, mountainous climate. Indeed, I think Skyrim sometimes succeeds at providing this, but that overall, the repetition and lack of precision in design detracts from it, along with the focus on other aspects, like NPCs.

It reminds me of folks trying to defend movies like Avatar, saying that it's not supposed to be about the stories or characters, really--it's supposed to be about the spectacle. But then, if that's the case, why does Cameron spend so much time concentrating on the plot and character conflicts? The structure seems to be at odds with the purpose.

Contrast this with something like Fury Road, a film that truly did downplay plot and character in order to focus more purely on spectacle--which I feel is similar to how a game like Journey operates.

"we're probably talking around the real problem that Bethesda ran into, and that's disk space"

Eh, I'm not convinced that they would have done better with more disk space, because so much of their world, and their NPCs were already rather repetitive. I simply don't trust their crew to write the sort of complex characters and plots that we see from some other companies.

Beyond that, if they simply 'ran out of room', then the real problem was their planning in the first place. It's not as if they're new to games--they should have a good idea by now what will fit and what won't--which is why I think a lot of smaller games outperform Bethesda, because they are planned out better, with greater focus on areas of import.

However, I do think part of the problem a lot of modern RPGs are running into is voice-acting. If you're going to write a complete character, an interesting NPC, a town with its own feel and internal politics, then all of that needs to be voiced. This places a huge burden on the writing team, and doesn't allow them to rewrite or alter things that aren't working--on top of the rush and deadlines games already have, it isn't surprising that this is a huge struggle.

It also surprises me that more games haven't taken a cue from KOTOR, which used a splendid trick of having some aliens speak in their own tongues with subtitles, allowing the writers to add on and tweak innumerable minor character throughout the development process without having to worry about rerecording anything.

"It's all well and good for us to sit here criticizing a game that doesn't have BOTH ... when 1) they weren't really going for either"

Well, if that wasn't the core of the game, then I find it puzzling that they would spend so much time on both NPCs and exploration--indeed, that's the majority of what you're doing in Skyrim. If that wasn't meant to be the focus, then what was?

"It would do you well to read The Children of Húrin then"

Yeah, I've heard some interesting things about it.

"I don't think he set out to make a Catholic allegory, and he himself says this on numerous occasions."

Well, the problem I have with that is that Tolkien was a believer, and as such, when he looked at the world, he saw an obvious 'right answer' there, and to him, the world was full of signs and symbols which would naturally lead any right-thinking person to that answer--which is to say, to Tolkien the real world was an allegory. There is a proper interpretation, and all the people and events you run into in your life are supposed to point you toward that interpretation--and indeed, that the only way to avoid that belief is through willful (sinful) neglect.

As such, it would be natural for Tolkien to say that his work is not n allegory to him, that it is realistic, because it does correspond with his view of the real world. Certainly, it is not along the simplistic lines of Plowman or Lewis, but it's still delivering specific messages based on a set of symbols--messages about race, class, sex, faith, and morality that are fairly clear and direct.

Instead of using the text to force the reader to question things for themselves, to come face to face with latent prejudices and confront them, and ultimately come away with a more thoughtful understanding, Tolkien is instead trying to instruct us, to give us the 'one true way' of things. I always prefer authors who force us to ask questions rather than ones who try to force their own answers onto us, and I think the latter sort is always writing an allegory of some kind.

Of course, there are pieces that stick out in Tolkien, that don't quite fit--Bombadil is the most obvious example--and these elements are quite interesting, but I tend to see them as leftover artifacts of Tolkien's Pagan influences, rather than deliberate symbolic inclusions meant to indicate a conflict with his central theme.

"It's a matter of authorial voice, not content."

I think it's very much a question of content. In Eddison's world, conflict is the natural state--even the desired state for his heroes. They relish having a great nemesis to struggle against, and deliberately seek it out. I think it is this Nietzschean will toward struggle and conflict that Tolkien opposes, and which he thinks of as 'arrogant and cruel'.

To him, and within his world, struggle is something that the sinful and evil force upon the good--and while it is certainly noble for them to take up arms and fight against evil, it is not their desired state. At the end of his book, his characters leave the world for a place of eternal peace, which Eddison's earthy heroes would find boring and pointless.


message 49: by Antonis (new)

Antonis Your points on Skyrim are well taken, but I still think it an admirable piece of work. I feel that the "repetition" of quests can just as easily be applied to the old classic CRPGs, but I suppose the writing hid this better in those games. Mechanically, Skyrim may not be the tightest, but I'll be damned if I don't admit I was taken in by its scenery (and some of the poetic cadence of a few noteworthy NPCs). I may have to replay these to form a more cogent opinion.

Kelly: "Tolkien was a believer, and as such, when he looked at the world, he saw an obvious 'right answer' there, and to him, the world was full of signs and symbols which would naturally lead any right-thinking person to that answer"

"As such, it would be natural for Tolkien to say that his work is not n allegory to him, that it is realistic, because it does correspond with his view of the real world."

"delivering specific messages... that are fairly clear and direct."


But here's the rub: would you prefer him to lie? By that same mark, Eddison, as you say later, admires the heroic impetus that craves battle and slaughter and ceaseless conflict -- or at least, he admires the literary quality of said attitudes. That is itself a view imposed. I don't begrudge him this view in constructing his world, which functions around it -- and I certainly can't criticize the piece itself. But I certainly can criticize the truthfulness of it. Anyone who is, say, tired of the endless, fruitless conflicts America wages in the Middle East would naturally criticize it. What you're asking (or at least seem to be asking, I don't know) is that Tolkien simply write a different story, not a better one. One wherein the worldview is not his, but another's, or no one's.

And on the contrary, I think this ardent desire to speak truthfully and straightforward is desirable. It's certainly something Orwell would praise, and I agree with him. Freedom is the ability to speak the truth, even if the whole world disagrees. Any attempt to subvert an honest authorial voice is a move towards the politicking of language, to dodge saying anything of substance and instead embracing the looseness of language to say nothing, and so destroy its foundation beneath it. Even if I disagree -- and with much literature, I often do -- I don't want an author to deny what they think, to not speak clearly and plainly, and by making fictional worlds and intricate cultures, authors are able to become more than just didacts; they can put analogy and parable to work. To be a didact, one needs more than just positive statements about truth or morals. Didacts are those who have no time for fiction. Hence why someone like Ayn Rand fails from a literary standpoint. Her "fiction" exists solely to serve the message, whereas with Tolkien, the language and the world preceded the Catholicism by years; it was only through a natural flowering of elements that already existed in the story -- as a result of it being Tolkien's story, not, say, Eddison's -- that Tolkien was able to successfully merge the Christian and the Pagan. Middle-Earth is a Christian-Pagan world because it was made by a Christian who enjoyed Pagan literature; as such, Lord of the Rings must necessarily be a Christian-Pagan work. Any attempts to subvert this would make it less good and not emblematic of Tolkien. This I believe rather wholeheartedly.

Keely: "I always prefer authors who force us to ask questions rather than ones who try to force their own answers onto us"

Having an answer does not eliminate the question. That Tolkien answers honestly/truthfully (for himself) through the work doesn't keep us from questioning the answer. The question is, of course, what is the nature of Good and Evil? Tolkien says they are binaries. His characters are souls made bare. The means employed and ends achieved by both sides in the conflict are respective of what is good and righteous and what is evil and loathesome. You are meant, as a reader, to confront this and ask yourself "Is this true?" And you are doing so by engaging with Tolkien anyway. Tolkien is doing the legwork: he's asking the question (and forcing us to confront the question) and postulating a solution (while also forcing us to reach an agree/disagree stance, or perhaps no stance at all).

In short, I think "asking questions" is a nice way of saying that the work is too vague or insubstantial to say anything at all. No boldness. Authors should feel more free to say what they mean and mean it good and hard. It should be up to us to decide whether they're right or not.


The Brain in the Jar Whoa, I opened a can of worms.

@Keely:

Hmm, that was not the impression I got from that game--indeed, I often felt that the NPCs, numerous as they might be, were disappointingly flat, and that the player had very little ability to interact with them meaningfully

I agree with you the game lacked meaningful interactions, but I don't think that's what they aimed for. Most of the NPC's are everymen, each having his worries or his job and commenting on it. The purpose is not to create vivid, larger-than-life characters but simple people. It tries to get the same intimacy of Raymond Carver's dirty realism.

I agree with you that many of the quests were disappointing in Skyrim. They didn't even have the weird details of Morrowind, which felt like it was limited because of the technical stuff.

I haven't played those other RPG's except for Planescape. This one I also didn't finish, but it's worth worshipping. Maybe my opinion will change when I'll play them.

I disagree with you regarding FO3 though. Its quests were few but long and tended to split to different directions. The Superhero Gambit, Blood Ties, Oasis, the Republic of Dave. FO3 also has its share of mad characters. I found the superhero guys to make sense in that context. They felt like people who went crazy because of the wasteland and adopted that persona to cope with survival.

The DLC's felt undeveloped. Point Lookout had a weird story going on but suddenly you're in the climatic battle and not understanding anything.

Another special thing about FO3 is that it makes racism look sensible. Henry Eden wants to cause a genocide, but there are many moments where it looks like this genocide is necessary. Maybe a world without irradiated people would be better? FO1 does something similar. I need to write a blogpost about that connection.

You know, I think of writing my own Epic someday. I don't know what the events will be but I do know what it's about. I want my epic to explore sexuality, gender and all that fun stuff. Isn't the problem with these bad epics is that they lack a central theme to drive them?


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