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An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & Literary Middle Ages (13) Literary Critics of Tolkien (Bloom, Moorcock, et al)

 

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring," 1953 (here, "At the Sign of the Prancing Pony," by Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” 1953 (here, “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony,” by Ted Nasmith)

An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & Literary Middle Ages (13) Literary Critics of Tolkien (Bloom, Moorcock, et al)

Good Morning, Everyone!

Last time, I reprinted the poet W.H. Auden’s review of The Return of the King from 1956, a piece that praised both the concluding book of the trilogy and the epic fantasy contribution to literature that Tolkien made with the entire Lord of the Rings.  Auden and C.S. Lewis both were aware that Tolkien was recapturing a lost form of the past — namely, the medieval epics and Scandinavian sagas canvassed in some of my earlier blogs — but it wasn’t so much the length of the story that impressed them, as much as the depth and scope of Tolkien’s multivalent achievement; for both Lewis and Auden, Tolkien’s works evoked truths philosophical, mythological, and (for Auden) even existential and religious.

Other critics weren’t so warm in their reception of The Lord of the Rings, and if I’m to maintain the demand that any “epic fantasy” for the 21st century should be held to literary standards, we need to also look at negative critiques of Tolkien’s works.  Tolkien himself assessed the criticisms made shortly after the 1953 publication of The Fellowship of the Ring, a “sequel” in publishers’ minds to The Hobbit that the public had been awaiting 16 years to read.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring" (by the Brothers Hildebrandt)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring” (by the Brothers Hildebrandt)

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

Tolkien’s Perspective on the Critical Response to The Fellowship of the Ring:
Personally, as I begin my own quest to “reboot and universalize epic fantasy” for a 21st century generation, I find myself heartened by Tolkien’s response to the release of The Fellowship of the Ring.  In other letters, Tolkien acknowledged that the book was of a prodigious length (he had to be convinced by publishers to break it into three parts), and as the public finally got its sequel to The Hobbit, not everyone was convinced by the narrative merits of The Fellowship of the Ring, nor by its potential to have sequels.  In the following letter, you see Tolkien responding to those doubters, as well as expressing hope that people will come back to purchase Parts 2 and 3, which were to be released in the following years!

Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring" (art by Ted Nasmith)

Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring” (art by Ted Nasmith)

Here is Tolkien’s response to some of the criticisms, from J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 149 (9 Sept 1954):

As for the reviews [of The Fellowship of the Ring] they were a great deal better than I feared, and I think might have been better still, if we had not quoted the Ariosto remark, or indeed got involved at all with the extraordinary animosity that C.S.L. [C.S. Lewis] seems to excite in certain quarters. He warned me long ago that his support might do me as much harm as good. I did not take it seriously, though in any case I should not have wished other than to be associated with him – since only by his support and friendship did I ever struggle to the end of the labour. All the same many commentators seem to have preferred lampooning his remarks or his review to reading the book.

The (unavoidable) disadvantage of issuing in three pans has been shown in the ‘shapelessness’ that several readers have found, since that is true if one volume is supposed to stand alone. ‘Trilogy’, which is not really accurate, is partly to blame. There is too much ‘hobbitry’ in Vol. I taken by itself; and several critics have obviously not got far beyond Chapter I.

Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring" (art by Ted Nasmith)

Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring” (art by Ted Nasmith)

I must say that I was unfortunate in coming into the hands of the D. Telegraph, during the absence of Betjeman. My work is not in his line, but he at any rate is neither ignorant nor a gutter- boy. Peter Green seems to be both. I do not know him or of him, but he is so rude as to make one suspect malice. Though actually I think ‘the cold in his head’ made it more convenient for him to use Edwin Muir in the Observer2 and Lambert in the S. Times, with a slight hotting up of the above.

I am most puzzled by the remarks on the style. I do not expect, and did not expect, many to be amused by hobbits, or interested in the general story and its modes, but the discrepancy in the judgements on the style (which one would have thought referable to standards independent of personal liking) are very odd – from laudatory quotation to ‘Boys Own Paper’ (which has no one style)!

I gather that you are not wholly dissatisfied. But there have been some very appreciative notices apart from C.S.L. (who had the advantage of knowing the whole), though not usually in the high places. Cherryman in Truth and Howard Spring in C. Life were pleasing to one’s vanity, and also Cherryman’s ending: that he would turn eagerly to the second and third volumes! May others feel the same!

Fawcett in the M. Guardian was complimentary in brief; and I was specially interested by a long notice in the Oxford Times (by the editor himself) in being by one quite outside the ring, and he seemed to have enjoyed himself. He sent an interviewer up, but what he will chum out for the O. Mail this week I do not know. ….

Well, this letter is already inordinately long. In the midst of it Professor d’Ardenne of Liege has arrived to harass me with philological work on which we are supposed to be engaged. [End, Tolkien Letter 149]

Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring" ("Under the Spell of the Barrow-Wight," Ted Nasmith)

Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring” (“Under the Spell of the Barrow-Wight,” Ted Nasmith)

We know that readers did, indeed, come back for The Two Towers and The Return of the King, but even those works were criticized by the literati, and to provide some equal time to my (admittedly) biased love of the Tolkien’s entire oeuvre, I’m going to provide some insight into problems that Tolkien’s detractors have had with The Lord of the Rings.

Christopher Snyder, "The Making of Middle Earth" (2013)

Christopher Snyder, “The Making of Middle Earth” (2013)

SYNOPSIZED NEGATIVE REVIEWS OF TOLKIEN’S “LORD OF THE RINGS” (1950s)

Christopher Snyder’s recent book on Tolkien, The Making of Middle Earth: A New Look Inside the World of J.R.R. Tolkien has a good synopsis of the negative reviews:

While C.S. Lewis admittedly gushed over The Lord of the Rings, most early reviews were, to say the least, mixed.  In the Times Literary Supplement, Alfred Duggan, while praising The Fellowship as “sound prose and rare imagination,” complained about Tolkien’s simplistic conception of good and evil and suggested that the novel was a subtle political allegory about the West versus the Communist East.  In its review of The Two Towers, the same publication hailed it “as a prose epic in praise of courage,” and yet lacking in its treatment of women.

Christopher Snyder, The Making of Middle Earth (2013)

Christopher Snyder, The Making of Middle Earth (2013)

Writing for The Nation in 1956, the American critic Edmund Wilson called the trilogy “juvenile trash,” while the British journalist Philip Toynbee celebrated (prematurely) in 1961 that Tolkien’s “childish” books “have passed into a merciful oblivion.”  Robert Flood, a Benedictine priest, even declared The Fellowship “pretentious snobbery” and “a fraud.” While the academics and other literati were mostly hostile, students on campuses from Britain to America became enamored of Middle-Earth in the late 1950s and early ’60s. By the time The Lord of the Rings appeared in paperback in America in 1965, it had already reached cult status among college students… [End Snyder quotation, p. 224.]

Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring" (here, "Attack of the Critics"...oops, I mean, "Attack of the Wraiths," art by Ted Nasmith)

Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring” (here, “Attack of the Critics”…oops, I mean, “Attack of the Wraiths,” art by Ted Nasmith)

Harold Bloom

Harold Bloom

For more general assessment of the LotR, here’s a brief critique from one of the most foremost literary critics of the 20th & early 21st Centuries, Harold Bloom (from the Introduction, Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: The Lord of the Rings):

“I will attempt, rather briefly, to define my aesthetic doubts about Tolkien’s trilogy by contrasting them to the shrewd defense by Roger Sale, Tolkien’s best critic, of what he regards as Tolkien’s and the protagonist Frodo Baggins’s heroism.

Tolkien, at twenty-three, went off to the Western Front, was wounded, and lost to the war nearly all his friends in his own generation. For Sale, the trilogy is Tolkien’s delayed, ultimate reaction to the Great War [World War I, 1914-1918], which decimated Great Britain’s young men. Tolkien dated his lifelong love of fairy stories to his turning away from the war, and The Lord of the Rings is a vast fairy story.

"...a descent into hell" (Tolkien, RotK, "Across Gorgoroth," by Ted Nasmith)

“…a descent into hell” (Tolkien, RotK, “Across Gorgoroth,” by Ted Nasmith)

Sale accurately observes that the trilogy purports to be a quest but actually is a descent into hell. Whether a visionary descent into hell can be rendered persuasively in language that is acutely self-conscious, even arch, seems to me the hard question. I am fond of The Hobbit, which is rarely pretentious, but The Lord of the Rings seems to be inflated, overwritten, tendentious, and moralistic in the extreme. Is it not a giant Period Piece?

Sale nevertheless makes quite a strong case for the trilogy, and a vast readership implicitly agrees with him. I don’t know whether Frodo Baggins breaks free and away from Tolkien’s moralism to anything like the extent Sale suggests. Frodo, and Tolkien’s deep creation of fairy lore, are the strengths of the trilogy, in Sale’s account.

Tolkien, "The Return of the King" ("The Houses of Healing," The Brothers Hildebrandt)

Tolkien, “The Return of the King” (“The Houses of Healing,” The Brothers Hildebrandt)

[Bloom critique, continued]
But there is still the burden of Tolkien’s style: stiff, false archaic, overwrought, and finally a real hindrance in Volume III, The Return of the King, which have had trouble rereading. At seventy-seven, I may just be too old, but here is The Return of the King, opened pretty much at random:

“At the doors of the Houses many were already gathered to see Aragorn, and they followed after him; and when at last he had supped, men came and prayed that he would heal their kinsmen or their friends whose lives were in peril through hurt or wound, or who lay under the Black Shadow. And Aragorn arose and went out, and he sent for the sons of Elrond, and together they labored far into the night. And word went through the city: ‘The King is come again indeed.’ And they named him Elfstone, because of the green stone that he wore, and so the name which it was foretold at his birth that he should bear was chosen for him by his own people.”

I am not able to understand how a skilled and mature reader can absorb about fifteen hundred pages of this quaint stuff. Why “hurt or wound”; are they not the same? What justifies the heavy King James Bible influence upon this style? Sometimes, reading Tolkien, I am reminded of the Book of Mormon. Tolkien met a need, particularly in the early days of the counterculture in the later 1960s. Whether he is an author for the duration of the twenty-first century seems to me open to some doubt.”  [end of Harold Bloom article, pp. 1-2, from Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: The Lord of the Rings (2001)]

Peter Jackson, "The Lord of the Rings" (The Green Dragon Inn, New Line Cinema)

Peter Jackson, “The Lord of the Rings” (The Green Dragon Inn, New Line Cinema)

Michael Moorcock’s Essay, “Epic Pooh”
And now, from the same volume of Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: The Lord of the Rings, here’s an excerpt from one of my favorite fantasy authors (with whom, in this case, I almost completely disagree, but more on that next time…), Michael Moorcock’s critique, “Epic Pooh”:

…The sort of prose most often identified with “high” fantasy is the prose of the nursery-room. It is a lullaby; it is meant to soothe and console. It is mouth-music. It is frequently enjoyed not for its tensions but for its lack of tensions…

A.A. Milne (1882-1956), Creator of Winnie-the-Pooh

A.A. Milne (1882-1956), Creator of Winnie-the-Pooh

“One day when the sun had come back over the forest, bringing with it the scent of May, and all the streams of the Forest were tinkling happily to find themselves their own pretty shape again, and the little pools lay dreaming of the life they had seen and the big things they had done, and in the warmth and quiet of the Forest the cuckoo was trying over his voice carefully and listening to see if he liked it, and wood-pigeons were complaining gently to themselves in their lazy comfortable way that it was the other fellows fault, but it didn’t matter very much; on such a day as this Christopher Robin whistled in a special way he had, and Owl came flying out of the Hundred Acre Wood to see what was wanted.”  [Winnie-the-Pooh, 1926]

Michael Moorcock

Michael Moorcock

[Moorcock, continued…] It is the predominate tone of The Lord of the Rings and Watership Down and it is the main reason why these books, liken many similar ones in the past, are successful. It is the tone of many forgotten British and American bestsellers, well-remembered children’s books, like The Wind in the Willows, you often hear it in regional fiction addressed to a local audience, or, in a more sophisticated form, James Barrie (Dear BrutusMary Rose and, of course, Peter Pan). Unlike the tone of E.Nesbit (Five Children and It etc.), Richmal Crompton (the ‘William’ books) Terry Pratchett or the redoubtable J.K.Rowling, it is sentimental, slightly distanced, often wistful, a trifle retrospective; it contains little wit and much whimsy. The humour is often unconscious because, as with Tolkien, the authors take words seriously but without pleasure:

Lobelia & Otho Sackville-Baggins, in Jackson's "The Fellowship of the Ring" (2001)

Lobelia & Otho Sackville-Baggins, in Jackson’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001)

One summer’s evening an astonishing piece of news reached the Ivy Bush and Green Dragon. Giants and other portents on the borders of the Shire were forgotten for more important matters; Mr. Frodo was selling Bag End, indeed he had already sold it — to the Sackville-Bagginses!
“For a nice bit, too,” said some. “At a bargain price,” said others, “and that’s more likely when Mistress Lobelia’s the buyer.” (Otho had died some years before, at the ripe but disappointed age of 102.)
Just why Mr. Frodo was selling his beautiful hole was even more debatable than the price…  [The Fellowship of the Ring, 1954]

Tolkien, "At the Court of the Fountain" from "The Return of the King" (Ted Nasmith)

Tolkien, “At the Court of the Fountain” from “The Return of the King” (Ted Nasmith)

[Michael Moorcock critique, “Epic Pooh,” continued]
I have been told it is not fair to quote from the earlier parts of The Lord of the Rings, that I should look elsewhere to find much better stuff so, opening it entirely at random, I find some improvement in substance and writing, but that tone is still there:

         Pippin became drowsy again and paid little attention to Gandalf telling him of the customs of Gondor, and how the Lord of the City had beacons built on the tops of outlying hills along both borders of the great range, and maintained posts at these points where fresh horses were always in readiness to bear his errand-riders to Rohan in the North, or to Belfalas in the South. “It is long since the beacons of the North were lit,” he said; “and in the ancient days of Gondor they were not needed, for they had the Seven Stones.”
Pippin stirred uneasily. [The Return of the King, 1955]

Tolkien does, admittedly, rise above this sort of thing on occasions, in some key scenes, but often such a scene will be ruined by ghastly verse and it is remarkable how frequently he will draw back from the implications of the subject matter. Like Chesterton, and other orthodox Christian writers who substituted faith for artistic rigour he sees the petit bourgeoisie, the honest artisans and peasants, as the bulwark against Chaos.  These people are always sentimentalized in such fiction because traditionally, they are always the last to complain about any deficiencies in the social status quo. They are a type familiar to anyone who ever watched an English film of the thirties and forties, particularly a war-film, where they represented solid good sense opposed to a perverted intellectualism.

Moorcock's Critique of 18th C. British Toryism & Bucolic Utopias sans Cities("Landscape in Suffolk," Thomas Gainsborough, 1748)

Moorcock’s Critique of 18th C. British Toryism & Bucolic Utopias sans Cities(“Landscape in Suffolk,” Thomas Gainsborough, 1748)

Some Critics' Association of Tolkien with Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung" (here Odin & Loki, Arthur Rackham, 1910)

Some Critics’ Association of Tolkien with Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung” (here Odin & Loki, Arthur Rackham, 1910)

[Michael Moorcock critique, “Epic Pooh,” continued]
In many ways The Lord of the Rings is, if not exactly anti-romantic, an anti-romance. Tolkien, and his fellow “Inklings” (the dons who met in Lewis’s Oxford rooms to read their work in progress to one another), had extraordinarily ambiguous attitudes towards Romance (and just about everything else), which is doubtless why his trilogy has so many confused moments when the tension flags completely. But he could, at his best, produce prose much better than that of his Oxford contemporaries who perhaps lacked his respect for middle-English poetry. He claimed that his work was primarily linguistic in its original conception, that there were no symbols or allegories to be found in it, but his beliefs permeate the book as thoroughly as they do the books of Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis, who, consciously or unconsciously, promoted their orthodox Toryism in everything they wrote. While there is an argument for the reactionary nature of the books, they are certainly deeply conservative and strongly anti-urban, which is what leads some to associate them with a kind of Wagnerish hitlerism. I don’t think these books are ‘fascist’, but they certainly don’t exactly argue with the 18th century enlightened Toryism with which the English comfort themselves so frequently in these upsetting times. They don’t ask any questions of white men in grey clothing who somehow have a handle on what’s best for us.

"Britannia between Death and the Doctors" (Political Cartoon, 1804, Gillray)

“Britannia between Death and the Doctors” (Political Cartoon, 1804, Gillray)

I suppose I respond so antipathetically to Lewis and Tolkien because I find this sort of consolatory orthodoxy as distasteful as any other self-serving misanthropic doctrine. One should perhaps feel some sympathy for the nervousness occasionally revealed beneath their thick layers of stuffy self-satisfaction, typical of the second-rate schoolmaster so cheerfully mocked by [Mervyn] Peake and [J.K.] Rowling, but sympathy is hard to sustain in the teeth of their hidden aggression which is so often accompanied by a deep-rooted hypocrisy. Their theories dignify the mood of a disenchanted and thoroughly discredited section of the repressed English middle-class too afraid, even as it falls, to make any sort of direct complaint (“They kicked us out of Rhodesia, you know”), least of all to the Higher Authority, their Tory God who has evidently failed them …

William Shakespeare, "To make my small elves coats," from "A Midsummer Night's Dream (Arthur Rackham)

William Shakespeare, “To make my small elves coats,” from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Arthur Rackham)

Sauron (John Howe & Alan Lee Concept art)

Sauron (John Howe & Alan Lee Concept art)

[Michael Moorcock critique, “Epic Pooh,” continued]
… The Lord of the Rings is much more deep-rooted in its infantilism than a good many of the more obviously juvenile books it influenced. It is Winnie-the-Pooh posing as an epic. If the Shire is a suburban garden, Sauron and his henchmen are that old bourgeois bugaboo, the Mob — mindless football supporters throwing their beer-bottles over the fence the worst aspects of modern urban society represented as the whole by a fearful, backward-yearning class for whom “good taste” is synonymous with “restraint” (pastel colours, murmured protest) and “civilized” behaviour means “conventional behaviour in all circumstances”. This is not to deny that courageous characters are found in The Lord of the Rings, or a willingness to fight Evil (never really defined), but somehow those courageous characters take on the aspect of retired colonels at last driven to write a letter toThe Times and we are not sure — because Tolkien cannot really bring himself to get close to his proles and their satanic leaders — if Sauron and Co. are quite as evil as we’re told. After all, anyone who hates hobbits can’t be all bad.

There is no happy ending to the Romance of Robin Hood, however, whereas Tolkien, going against the grain of his subject matter, forces one on us – as a matter of policy:

And lastly there is the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death. Fairy stories provide many examples and modes of this – which might be called the genuine escapist, or (I would say) fugitive spirit. But so do other stories (notably those of scientific inspiration), and so do other studies… But the “consolation” of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. For more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending.  [J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”]

A Pre-Raphaelite Dream of Nature: William Holman Hunt, "Asparagus Island"

A Pre-Raphaelite Dream of Nature: William Holman Hunt, “Asparagus Island”

Tolkien, "Last Sight of Hobbiton" (Ted Nasmith)

Tolkien, “Last Sight of Hobbiton” (Ted Nasmith)

[Michael Moorcock critique, “Epic Pooh,” continued]
The great epics dignified death, but they did not ignore it, and it is one of the reasons why they are superior to the artificial romances of which Lord of the Rings is merely one of the most recent.

Since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, at least, people have been yearning for an ideal rural world they believe to have vanished — yearning for a mythical state of innocence (as Morris did) as heartily as the Israelites yearned for the Garden of Eden. This refusal to face or derive any pleasure from the realities of urban industrial life, this longing to possess, again, the infant’s eye view of the countryside, is a fundamental theme in popular English literature. Novels set in the countryside probably always outsell novels set in the city, perhaps because most people now live in cities.

Tolkien, "Green Hill Country" (Ted Nasmith)

Tolkien, “Green Hill Country” (Ted Nasmith)

If I find this nostalgia for a “vanished” landscape a bit strange it is probably because as I write I can look from my window over twenty miles of superb countryside to the sea and a sparsely populated coast. This county, like many others, has seemingly limitless landscapes of great beauty and variety, unspoiled by excessive tourism or the uglier forms of industry. Elsewhere big cities have certainly destroyed the surrounding countryside but rapid transport now makes it possible for a Londoner to spend the time they would have needed to get to Box Hill forty years ago in getting to Northumberland. I think it is simple neophobia which makes people hate the modern world and its changing society; it is xenophobia which makes them unable to imagine what rural beauty might lie beyond the boundaries of their particular Shire. They would rather read Miss Read and The Horse Whisperer and share a miserable complaint or two on the commuter train while planning to take their holidays in Bournemouth, as usual, because they can’t afford to go to Spain this year. They don’t want rural beauty anyway; they want a sunny day, a pretty view.

Tolkien, "The Return of the King" ("The Grey Havens," John Howe)

Tolkien, “The Return of the King” (“The Grey Havens,” John Howe)

 

Alfred Tennyson, "Idylls of the King" (Gustave Dore)

Alfred Tennyson, “Idylls of the King” (Gustave Dore)

[Michael Moorcock critique, “Epic Pooh,” continued]
Writers like Tolkien take you to the edge of the Abyss and point out the excellent tea-garden at the bottom, showing you the steps carved into the cliff and reminding you to be a bit careful because the hand-rails are a trifle shaky as you go down; they haven’t got the approval yet to put a new one in … [Moorcock then proceeds to review some contemporary fantasy writers — praising works by Ursula K. Le Guin and Susan Cooper — before concluding with Tolkien…]

…It is Tolkien who is most widely read and worshipped. And it was Tolkien who most betrayed the romantic discipline, more so than ever Tennyson could in Idylls of the King, which enjoyed a similar vogue in Victorian England.

Corrupted romanticism is as unwholesome as the corrupted realism of, say, Ayn Rand. Cabell’s somewhat obvious irony is easier to take than Tolkien’s less obvious sentimentality, largely because Cabell’s writing is wittier, more inventive and better disciplined. I find William Morris naïve and silly but essentially good-hearted (and a better utopianist than a fantasist); Dunsany I find slight but inoffensive. Lewis speaks for the middle-class status quo, as, more subtly, does Charles Williams. Lewis uses the stuff of fantasy to preach sermons quite as nasty as any to be found in Victorian sentimental fiction, and he writes badly. A group of self-congratulatory friends can often ensure that any writing emerging from it remains hasty and unpolished.

A Fantasy World Moorcock Approves, Mervyn Peake's "Gormenghast" (art by John Howe)

A Fantasy World Moorcock Approves, Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast” (art by John Howe)

Lin Carter (1930-1988)

Lin Carter (1930-1988)

Lin Carter, "Imaginary Worlds" (1973)

Lin Carter, “Imaginary Worlds” (1973)

[Michael Moorcock critique, “Epic Pooh,” continued]
Ideally fiction should offer us escape and force us, at least, to ask questions; it should provide a release from anxiety but give us some insight into the causes of anxiety. Lin Carter, in his Imaginary Worlds — the only book I have been able to find on the general subject of epic fantasy — uses an argument familiar to those who are used to reading apologies from that kind of sf or thriller buff who feels compelled to justify his philistinism: “The charge of ‘escapist reading,'” says Carter, “is most often levelled against fantasy and science fiction by those who have forgotten or overlooked the simple fact that virtually all reading – all music and poetry and art and drama and philosophy for that matter —is a temporary escape from what is around us.” Like so many of his colleagues in the professional sf world, Carter expresses distaste for fiction which is not predominantly escapist by charging it with being “depressing” or “negative” if it does not provide him with the moral and psychological comforts he seems to need. An unorthodox view, such as that of Tolkien’s contemporary David Lindsay (Voyage to Arcturus) is regarded as a negative view. This, of course, is the response of those deeply and often unconsciously wedded to their cultural presumptions, who regard examination of them as an attack.

Fritz Leiber, "Swords against Death," Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser (art by Jeffery Catherine Jones, d. 2011)

Fritz Leiber, “Swords against Death,” Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser (art by Jeffery Catherine Jones, d. 2011)

The Quest for the Grail (Tapestry, William Morris, c. 1860s)

The Quest for the Grail (Tapestry, William Morris, c. 1860s)

[Michael Moorcock critique, “Epic Pooh,” continued]
Carter dismisses Spenser as “dull” and Joyce as “a titanic bore” and writes in clichés, euphemisms and wretchedly distorted syntax, telling us that the PreRaphaelites were “lisping exquisites” and that Ford Madox Brown (1821-93) was a young man attracted to the movement by Morris’s (1834-96) fiery Welsh (born Walthamstow, near London) dynamism and that because Tolkien got a CBE (not a knighthood) we must now call him “Sir John” — but Carter, at least, is not the snob some American adherents are (and there is nobody more risible than the provincial American literary snob — Gore Vidal being the most developed example).

Fritz Leiber (1910-1992)

Fritz Leiber (1910-1992)

In a recent anthology compiled by Robert H. Boyer and Kenneth J. Zahorski, The Fantastic Imagination, we find the following: “In addition to their all being high fantasy, the stories selected here are good literature.” Amongst the writers to be found in the volume are C. S. Lewis, John Buchan, Frank R. Stockton and Lloyd Alexander, not one of whom can match the literary talents of, say, Fritz Leiber, whose work has primarily been published in commercial magazines and genre paperback series. For years American thriller buffs with pretensions ignored Hammett and Chandler in favour of inferior English writers like D. L. Sayers and here we see the same thing occurring with American fantasy writers. Those who produce the closest approximation to an English style are most praised. Those who use more vigorous American models are regarded as less literary! The crux of the thing remains: the writers admired are not “literary” or “literate”. As often as not they flatter middle-brow sensibilities and reinforce middle-class sentimentality and therefore do not threaten a carefully maintained set of social and intellectual assumptions.

Yet Tennyson, who had his moments, inspired better poets who followed him, who sought the origin of his inspiration and made nobler use of it. Both Swinburne and Morris could, for instance, employ the old ballad metres more effectively than Tennyson himself, refusing, unlike him, to modify their toughness. Doubtless Tolkien will also inspire writers who will take his raw materials and put them to nobler uses. I would love to believe that the day of the rural romance is done at last.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Return of the King" ("The King Recrowned," Michael Kaluta)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Return of the King” (“The King Recrowned,” Michael Kaluta)

Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett

[Michael Moorcock critique, “Epic Pooh,” continued]
The commercial genre which has developed from Tolkien is probably the most dismaying effect of all. I grew up in a world where Joyce was considered to be the best Anglophone writer of the 20th century. I happen to believe that Faulkner is better, while others would pick Conrad, say. Thomas Mann is an exemplary giant of moral, mythic fiction. But to introduce Tolkien’s fantasy into such a debate is a sad comment on our standards and our ambitions. Is it a sign of our dumber times that Lord of the Rings can replace Ulysses as the exemplary book of its century? Some of the writers who most slavishly imitate him seem to be using English as a rather inexpertly-learned second language.

The Colour of Magic, Discworld Series #1(Terry Pratchett)

The Colour of Magic, Discworld Series #1(Terry Pratchett)

So many of them are unbelievably bad that they defy description and are scarcely worth listing individually. Terry Pratchett once remarked that all his readers were called Kevin. He is lucky in that he appears to be the only Terry in fantasy land who is able to write a decent complex sentence. That such writers also depend upon recycling the plots of their literary superiors and are rewarded for this bland repetition isn’t surprising in a world of sensation movies and manufactured pop bands. That they are rewarded with the lavish lifestyles of the most successful whores is also unsurprising. To pretend that this addictive cabbage is anything more than the worst sort of pulp historical romance or western is, however, a depressing sign of our intellectual decline and our free-falling academic standards” [End of Michael Moorcock excerpts from pp. 1-18 of Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: The Lord of the Rings (2001).]

So, what do you think, Folks?  

By making film adaptations, Peter Jackson has certainly popularized key aspects of Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the stories of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but have you gone back recently to the actual books and read them as works of literature? Go flip through some of the The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, and see what you think of the prose.  Are these criticisms off-base? Do they have merit? And, in the context of getting published in today’s marketplace, what would modern editors and publishing houses think of Tolkien’s fantasy?

Please jot me a line in the box below and let’s start a conversation!

Next time:  The Perspective of a Medievalist:  Writing a Medieval Literary Saga or Epic in the Modern Publishing World (or, why even in 1953, Tolkien had to split The Silmarillion from The Lord of the Rings to Get His Magnum Opus Published!)

 

 

 

 

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