Monday, June 22, 2009

China Miéville on J.R.R. Tolkien

MIÉVILLE's derogatory opinion of J.R.R. TOLKIEN is pervasive and documented. His leftist criticism from a few years back denotes TOLKIEN as stultifying (i.e. tending to humiliate), reactionary, pompous, petty and in favour of status quo among other things. He consciously strived to move fantasy away from TOLKIEN's influence. In other words, MIÉVILLE's goal -- as I understand it -- was to make fantasy more aware of the problems of contemporary world, to make fantasy socialist, subversive and revolutionary, critical of the ruling elite and in favour of the common man. MIÉVILLE's position on the genre is, as he admitted himself, also indebted to MICHAEL MOORCOCK. MOORCOCK's highly critical and somewhat elitist position on the genre, or rather, the genre paradigm stemming directly from TOLKIEN is evident in the article titled "Epic Pooh", which is also well worth reading.

Now, "Lord of the Rings" was the first fantasy book I've read -- how cliched, I know :) -- and I don't, or rather, I won't, say a bad thing about it. Of course, I'm open to criticisms directed at "LOTR", as long as they are rational and constructive, and I wouldn't go out of my way to stubbornly defend it (I'm stallwart, but I'm not that rigid). But when it comes to me thinking about reviewing the trilogy, I wouldn't want to do it, because I don't feel that I'm grown up to the task. I'm positive that my attempts at impartiality would be utterly thwarted by my own feelings of affection and nostalgia. All this holds true only, if I wouldn't be completely disillusioned upon rereading "LOTR", but which I wasn't when I did reread it a couple of years ago, so it does, hold true that is.

In one of MIÉVILLE's latest entries as a guest blogger on Omnivoracious, he tempers his past commentaries on TOLKIEN with what could be called a praise or even a hommage -- he even mentiones the words grateful and rocks -- to the forefather of the large piece of contemporary epic fantasy, if only from the perspective of MIÉVILLE's past barrage of denunciation. Although he still acknowledges that even an author of TOLKIEN's fame can and -- exactly because of such high standing -- must be open to intellectual reproach, he nevertheless gives TOLKIEN credit for the achievments and contributions he's made to the genre, which, MIÉVILLE admits, were seminal and substantial. The essayistic manner in which MIÉVILLE wrote "There and Back Again: Five Reasons Tolkein Rocks" makes it for a dense, scholary read, but the five reasons can, basically, be boiled down to this:

  1. TOLKIEN was responsible for a tectonic shift of focus in storytelling; a shift from Greco-Roman mythology to a more yeasty Norse Magic. Greco-Roman influence on fiction was run of the mill at that time and MIÉVILLE views it as "too clean," "overburdened with percision," and "as cold as Greek and Roman marble". Norse mythos is, on the other hand, more fleshy, anti-moralistic and, well...awesome.
  2. TOLKIEN's vision is tragic. This is a noble trait that most of those who followed in his footsteps forgot -- intentionally or unintentionally -- to take over. The ending of "LOTR" is not happy, even though the good guys win. It is an end of a glorious age: the magic is going west with the elves, a premonition of a more mundane, and thus poorer future. The book ends with strong melancholia and nostalgia for times that are not quite gone yet, but are in passing. All this, argues MIÉVILLE, deserves celebrating and reclaiming.
  3. TOLKIEN " good monster. Shelob, Smaug, the their astounding names, the fearful verve of their descriptions, their various undomesticated malevolence, these creatures are utterly embedded in our world-view. No one can write giant spiders except through Shelob: all dragons are sidekicks now. And so on." All this, coming from a man with seemingly unfathomable imagination, means a lot.
  4. "TOLKIEN explains that he has a 'cordial dislike of allegory'. Amen! Amen!" If "LOTR" would be allegorical, then it would, in one way or another, represent, reflect or suggest resemblance to reality. Metaphor on the other hand does not suggest any such thing. MIÉVILLE still cautions that TOLKIEN's work does "throw off metaphors" that do "all sort of things, wittingly or unwittingly, with ideas of society, of class, the war etc.", but where metaphors "evade stability", allegory, on the other hand, is, "in some reductive way, primarily, solely, or really 'about' something else, narrowly and precisely." An allegorical work of fiction gives promise to the reader that he can 'solve' it by finding a right key, by decoding it, and "TOLKIEN knows that that makes for both clumsy fiction and clunky code. His dissatisfaction with the Narnia books was in part precisely because they veered too close to allegory, and therefore did not believe in their own landscape." So, in MIÉVILLE's view, "LOTR" is worthwile, because it believes in itself and in the world created within. It is 'lartpourlart' in its true sense and whichever stereotypes it does reproduce and if it defends the status quo, it does so evasively and unintentionally. I'm curious though, how does MIÉVILLE's work relate to allegory? Isn't he guilty of the same thing he stands so firmly against in this treatise?
  5. "Middle Earth was not the first invented world, of course. But in the way the world is envisaged and managed, it represents a revolution." Middle Earth was not the first, but definitely "an outstanding herald" of the fantasy worlds that are not secondary to the plot. TOLKIEN represents a paradigm shift which reverses the order of things: "the world comes first, and then, and only then, things happen--stories occur--within it." TOLKIEN calls this process 'subcreation' and it is now, probably, the default fantasy mode and an extremely potent literary approach, whether you denigrate or praise it. MIÉVILLE laments the fact that there is little to no theoretical work on this technique as of yet.
MIÉVILLE concludes his article in a lenient, mannerly way: "There are plenty of other reasons to be grateful to Tolkien, of course--and reasonable reasons to be ticked off at him, too: critique, after all has its place. But so does admiration..." You can read the article in its entirety here.

While MIÉVILLE doesn't recall his past harsh criticism of TOLKIEN, he nevertheless tempers and balances it out by complimenting the Professor and giving him acclaim, where acclaim is due. I'm just curious what brought him 'about'? Was the article written as a consequence of the process of MIÉVILLE's 'wising up' with age or is there a more pragmatic reason behind it? James takes an educated guess and speculates that MIÉVILLE's article comes as an indirect reposte to the RICHARD MORGAN's rant and I'm inclined to agree with him.

~ ThRiNiDiR ~


Marc said...

Hi Thrinidir, I didn't see this until today, but thanks for posting it last week! I was glad to see Mieville temper his past comments, and find at least a tiny speck of worthiness in "Tolkien."

But it seems he still equates "Tolkien" with "The Lord of the Rings." I wonder if he has ever read The Silmarillion, or Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle Earth (let alone, The Children of Hurin)? If he thinks LoTR had tragedy, he ain't seen nothin' yet.

Most of the things he credits Tolkien for are found more strongly in these other works than in LoTR. Have you read any of these works/ I'm just curious, if you did, whether you enjoyed them. I found they actually had a far stronger impact on my imagination, inspiring me to want to write truly tragic tales of my own.

Happy reading to you and your cohorts!

ThRiNiDiR said...

Hey Marc, thanks for dropping by. I was beggining to lose all hope that anyone would ever read this article :). Your assessment on Mieville only accounting for LOTR sounds right, so I won't dispute it :).

About The Silmarillion: yes, I've read it, but, alas, it didn't touch me as it did some of the people I know, including my good friend Madwand (also a contributor on this blog)...he's a big fan on The Silmarillion and snorts everytime I mention LOTR and 'great' in the same sentence :). I'll make sure he reads your comment and he might even deign to reply :). Even though I'm not a big fan of The Silmarillion I can see why so many people like it.

Madwand said...

I've got one name for you, my friend: Túrin Turambar. Forget Aragorn and Arwen or even Beren and Luthién, Túrin's where the true drama lies!
Even though I was struggling for the first 50ish pages when reading it for the first time, Silmarillion remains one of my favourite books till this day. This reminds me, I haven't re-read it for several years now, might be a good time to pick it up again. And seeing the regard in which Marc holds The Children of Hurin, I might give that one a go as well. Cheers.

Marc said...

Hi Guys,

I'm glad to contribute in some small way. I have seen statistics to the effect that for every person who bothers to sign on to something and comment, many others are reading silently and anonymously. So perhaps more people than we realize are reading your blog and mine!

You two, and anyone else reading this, can see more about tolkien at a different blog, a site that focuses on Robert E. Howard, but which also has very good, in-depth articles about Tolkien. I hope you find it entertaining!

ThRiNiDiR said...

I'm familiar with the site Marc and it's great. Thanks for the kind words and we'll see each other around :).

Reader said...

Hmmm...I actually haven't read any thing by Mieville (although I know who he is) and one of his book just came up available to read free for Kindle for iPhone. I'm curious what it will be like based on the fact that he had a fight with Tolkien...

Love you blog by the way!


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