Another Over Inflated Opinion About the Lord of the Rings

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.

Prepare yourself . . . for imminent . . . sonic . . . attack!

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?

lolwut no pants?

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.


12 responses to “Another Over Inflated Opinion About the Lord of the Rings

  • sinsynn

    Wow…great post.
    It almost seems that nowadays ‘not liking’ LotR can get you in trouble due to the popularity of the films….
    Which I didn’t really like much either.

    Me not liking both Lotr AND Harry Potter may get me killed one day at a comic book convention or something!

    I read LotR when I was a wee lad, like 10, I think?
    Loved them then.
    Tried to re-read them as an adult, and…couldn’t.
    I’ve read too many other, possibly better (matter of taste, I suppose) books by then.

    Once again, you summed it up perfectly…I respect LotR for it’s impact on the genre.
    I guess I’ve just…moved on?

    btw, James, I used your completely awesome quote as the ‘top line’ in my most recent post…

    It was just such a perfect phrase, I couldn’t NOT use it!
    I hope you don’t mind! I made sure to credit you and link your blog…
    Hope that’s cool!

  • WidthofaCircle

    Just found this blog via the linked article above. Good read, and I couldn’t agree more. I have only just started to read ‘The Wheel of Time’ and feel that although his prose is a slight bit more modern, Robert Jordan suffers from the same.

  • Von

    There’s a difference between criticising Tolkien and critiquing the works of Tolkien. We’ve had this discussion before, I think…

    Someone, and I’m glad it was Moorcock when all’s said and done even if he had his eye on Tolkien’s position as Ancestor-God of British Fantasy when he did it, had to take the Professor’s claim that “there is no allegory in The Lord of the Rings” to task. The books _are_ of their time and celebrating them, immersing oneself in them, absorbing them, without being aware of that is perhaps unwise. Ideologies are embedded in narratives, and become embedded in people through the intellectual back door of narrative, understood as ‘the way the world works’.

    That doesn’t mean that the books are only allegories. A text that contains a Bad Thought is not automatically and completely a Bad Text forever and ever. The Middle-England conservatism, dubious racial politics, and invisible females of The Lord of the Rings are a problem, but they don’t detract from the quality and depth of its worldbuilding or the occasional flashes of genuine excitement and drama that the book presents.

    The Mines of Moria, the death of Boromir, Gandalf’s confrontations with Theoden and Saruman, and Sam’s torment in the depths of Cirith Ungol are all genuinely moving moments and frankly, that Tolkien bloke can write when he puts his mind to it. Read your favourite bit aloud in stentorian tones and tell me it’s not good for something.

    Bringing Tolkien himself into this discussion and passing moral judgements on the author is largely an exercise in irrelevance. What’s important is that the progress we’ve made is maintained, cf. learning from what we do not wish to repeat, and that we don’t witlessly repeat Tolkien’s efforts instead of continuing to drive forward.

    Besides, fanficcers owe a lot to Tolkien for legitimising textual poaching back when Henry Jenkins was a glint in academia’s eye…

  • James S

    @sinsynn, I don’t mind at all that you used my words, it kind of makes me feel famous! In fact I should thank you as it seems to have got me at least one new commentator.

    I also loved the books as a kid, and also failed to plough through them as an adult. It’s a pity because I want to like them. The Hobbit is pretty cool though. I’m keen for the movie.

  • James S

    @WidthofaCircle, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I think Robert Jordan is not a bad comparison, his world was clearly the focus of his books too, and he wasn’t shy of taking his time!

  • James S

    @Von . . . I defer to your knowledge of literary criticism. Tolkien definitely had his moments of powerful writing. He wasn’t crap or anything – hell, he was an Oxbridge professor back before general literacy standards fell. I think he could be dry and long-winded in places where he shouldn’t have been though. He may have been a mcuh better writer than R.E. Howard for example, but give me Conan for entertainment value any day.

    You’re right too about ideologies being embedded in narratives. I’ve actually been writing on this lately for work, about how cultural morality is transferred via moral narratives. Do you think maybe Tolkien thought he was writing allegory-free, but with hindsight we can see his cultural biases, or do you actually think he was being disingenuous?

  • Von

    I agree that there are some extremely dry and stodgy sections of the books, and the pacing’s way off – too many slow chapters of hobbits plodding across the Shire in Fellowship, and whenever Tolkien shifts into exposition high gear his characters notably go into lecture or seminar mode, which doesn’t do wonders for anyone’s sense of immersion (‘The Shadow of the Past’ and ‘The Council of Elrond’ are two of the most frustratingly frontloady brainmelty information-overloady chapters of anything I’ve ever read).

    I don’t think anything about what Tolkien was thinking. For one, what matters is not his intentions but his productions; for two, I’m not enough of a Tolkien-fancier to own and process his letters and other paratext and establish by discourse analysis what he said he was thinking at various times and what factors motivated the saying of it (Tolkien rebutting accusations that there is nothing but allegory in LotR might be forgiven a little absolutism of his own in return, but Tolkien writing in a less charged, less argumentative context may have been more accurate in his admissions).

    For three, and crucially, in the words of China Mieville, “when you read or write a book society is in the chair with you”. Whether Tolkien thought he was writing allegory-free or not, Tolkien’s ideas and ideology are the context his text is embedded in and growing out of. He can think what he likes; all text is allegorical in so far as it is written by people who either think something about the world or are choosing not to (and even that affords some contextual insight, in the same way that atheism remains a religious choice).

  • Thor

    Damn. It’s like all intellectual discussion up in here!

    I saw the first movie before I read the books and after the first movie I went ahead and read them all. That first book was extremely hard to get through after having seen the movie. While not everyone is a fan of them they did do something the books didn’t and that’s put more focus on the characters and the transpiring events. So, trying to plod through pages and pages describing mountain ranges and fields was a chore, more so when stacked against the movie as my introduction to Tolkien. The next two books went better because I read them before the release of the second movie and I suppose I knew what to expect at that point.

  • Von

    Ho hee. I tend to have this effect on conversations, I fear.

    ‘Fellowship’ is frankly a rather tedious read, especially the first volume with all that hobbit trudging and Bombadil (not even Tolkien could explain what the hell he’s doing in there, y’know). I don’t blame you for finding it heavy going – I ruddy do. It’s not until they leave Rivendell that things start picking up a bit, to my mind.

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  • James S

    @Thor, yeah you know it’s going to get heavy when Von starts saying “paratext” and “discourse analysis” 😀 Thanks for the pimp’n by the way.

    @Von, good points as always. I don’t think I agree though that every story is allegorical in that it reflects the author’s social, cultural and personal context. That doesn’t seem like allegory to me, allegory should be deliberate right?

    Uncovering an author’s naive assumptions, prejudices etc is just deconstructing a text isn’t it? Reading an allegory in is different. I think Moorcock is conflating the two in Epic Pooh. He’s deconstructing Tolkien and then sneaking in an accusation that Tolk’s personal/social context are actually a deliberate allegory designed to make people yearn for Ye Olde England. Much as I like Moorcock as a writer I just don’t buy it.

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