Like most fantasy/gamer types I have a long and personal history with the Lord of the Rings in all its forms. Lately I’ve noticed a bit of negative feeling towards J.R.R. Tolkien and his books. I’ve even been a source of it myself over the years. This blog post here at The Realm of Dungeons and Dragons is a pretty good example of what I mean. Also, the other night I was having dinner with some friends (all genre fans and gamers) and three out of four of us admitted to not liking the Rings all that much. Two said they could never get past reading The Council of Elrond. I believe I may have even said “there’s nothing more boring than reading page after page of the characters in a story deciding what to do.” In this article I thought I’d talk a bit about some of the common criticisms we see of the Rings, and what I see as their importance for fantasy as a genre and for gaming in particular. Hope you find it interesting!
So Tolkien’s work is a complicated issue for us lifelong genre fans. It used to be fantasy/sci-fi heresy to speak out against these beloved books, but now it seems the wind has changed. Criticisms abound, and many people present their criticism with a tone suggesting that they’ve always thought this, and only now do they feel brave enough to say it. Almost like coming out of the closet.
Others seem to think they are being outrageous iconoclasts: “hey look, I’m a fantasy fan but I hate Lord of the Rings!” Pity Michael Moorcock got there first back in 1989.
No matter how cool you think you are, Michael Moorcock is cooler. I mean, he used to drop acid and jam with Hawkwind and the Blue Oyster Cult.
Anyway. Perhaps the Rings have now achieved such popularity over so long that geeks, their former custodians, now feel justified panning them? After all, the more populist something is perceived to be, the more the self-proclaimed mavens of geekdom will sneer, as I discuss here. There’s no point being a geek (or any sub-culture really) unless you’re defined against an imaginary mainstream, and when something is generally regarded as a work of quality what else can you call it but mainstream? This path of scorning the popular of course winds up with people claiming that justifiably unpopular pieces of shit are in fact masterpieces but whatever. I don’t want to get too much into that.
I do think there’s more to Lord of the Rings hate than people trying to be shocking and contrary though. The books generally deserve some of the criticism that is thrown at them. C.S. Lewis nominated them for a Nobel for litrature in 1961, which I think is a bit much. So did the Nobel committee: they’ve recently opened their records for 1961 explaining why they didn’t pick the Lord of the Rings.
I’ve seen it suggested that the fact the book is so popular means it must be good, and therefore the Nobel is a meaningless wank-trophy given only to snobby intellectual authors by snobby intellectual judges. Or that the judges have some beef with fantasy or genre fiction.
While some of that may be true, I read a lot of different sorts of books, including both genre fantasy and Nobel prize winning novels, and Tolkien just doesn’t stack up against any Nobel winner I can think of in terms of literary merit. He was a learned man, with a good imagination and a deep knowledge of linguistics and folklore, but he was not one of the great artists of literature. He was not interested in unsettling the reader and pushing their boundaries in a literary sense. If I was handing out Nobels I wouldn’t give him one either. I think Alan Moore and the later Moorcock are better examples of genre writers who are also literary artists, and I don’t even think I’d give them Nobels. The only genre writer whose power and authenticity is (in my opinion) maybe deserving of induction into the ranks of Nobel laureates is George Orwell. And if you’d called him a science fiction writer he probably would have been baffled. So yeah, I agree with the people who say Tolkien wasn’t that great a writer, but then again who is?
Other criticisms of Tolkien I’m not so down with though. I think Moorcock and critics who follow him are being unfair to the old professor. It’s easy to throw stones at a writer for racism, sexism, elitism or whatever after the fact. Of course these things are bad (now), but suggesting that they somehow reflect on the writer’s character or the value of the story is like saying Newton was stupid because he didn’t come up with Einstein’s theory of relativity back in the 17th century. Tolkein was a man of his time, and not a particularly bad one. He wasn’t (as far as I know) any more racist or misogynistic than the next WWI veteran. Moorcock was equally a man of his time when, in a fit of 80’s socialist-inspired vitriol he criticized Tolkien for being an imperialist reactionary. But we shouldn’t hold it against him.
To be honest, I actually prefer early American fantasy to Tolkien’s work. Fritz Lieber, Lovecraft and R.E. Howard are my favourites. But Tolkien did bring something hugely valuable to modern culture and I think it’s so obvious that people often don’t notice it: Tolkien showed everyone that it was possible to create an entire world, complete with history and mythology. That world became the real protagonist of his books. Howard’s Hyboria and Lieber’s Lankhmar are detailed and rich settings, but they play second fiddle to the larger-than-life figures of Conan and Fafhrd and the Mouser. They are background.
With Tolkein’s work I always feel as though Middle Earth is the thing I’m really reading about, and each story within it is simply the professor opening a window onto some history. The Lord of the Rings is in a weird way a fictionalized snap-shot of “real” events in the history of Middle Earth. You get the feeling that it was all there in front of him, and if he’d just chosen a different part of history to focus on it wouldn’t have made any difference. Frodo and Aragorn are no more important really to Middle Earth than the ancient kings Gil-Galad or Elendil, but what’s Hyboria without Conan? Not much.
In other words, Tolkien is important not because he was a great writer (he wasn’t) or because he invented fantasy (he didn’t) but because he excelled at the process of world-building. Literature was not his aim; he was no Salman Rushdie. Story-telling was not his aim; he was no Dickens either. The intellectual exercise of inventing an entire world: history, mythology, languages and all, was his aim. Middle Earth is the point.
Without Tolkein countless other fantasy writers who are actually world-builders by temperament would not have known what it was possible to accomplish. Gary Gygax would not have realized that our imaginations could be used in such a systematic, adult way to envision whole realities.
Games are everywhere in our modern world, and I seriously think that Tolkein was more important to the development of modern gaming than he was to literature, or the fantasy genre, or anything else. I may find Lord of the Rings a bit boring, and the hundreds of fantasy worlds inflicted on us by imitators clunky and worthless. But I’m certain that the games we love today would be much, much paler – if they existed at all – without Tolkein’s example of just how deep a background can be.
So the next time you’re living in a fantasy world (i.e. every time you are immersed in a table-top wargame, RPG or CRPG), maybe spare a thought for the guy who showed us how it was done. And give him a bit of respect.