My, what radical ideas you have!

I was wandering past David Anthony Durham’s blog the other day and came across an article he had linked to by Richard K. Morgan. Now Morgan’s best known for his gritty sci-fi work, and so I admit I was a bit surprised to see him commenting on fantasy…until I read the article and realized he was really going for a thinly-disguised advertisement for a recent fantasy novel of his, and then it all made sense. Because what Morgan concentrates on is a portion of The Two Towers where two orc captains are talking about life as a grunt in Sauron’s army, a section which he refers to approvingly as “some of the finest, most engaging work in The Lord of the Rings” because of its attention to a (of course) gritty reality. Unfortunately, Morgan goes on to say, Tolkien is “not able to mine this vein of experience for what it was really worth–in fact he seemed to be in full, panic-stricken flight from it,” and for the rest of the book is content to “retreat into simplistic nostalgia,” involving ponderous epic tones of “Towering Archetypal Evil pitted against Irritatingly Radiant Good.” “I only wonder why on earth anyone (adult) would want to read something like that. And I’ve written a fantasy novel for all those adults who wouldn’t.”

Well, thank God for that!

Sigh. I must admit that I’ve grown awfully tired of people throwing rotten fruit at Tolkien while acting as if they’re doing something startling or thinking way outside the box, since it’s actually been trendy to bash him for at least a decade now. And Tolkien certainly isn’t flawless–his prose can be stilted at times, and at times he seems more interested in lengthy digressions than with, you know, getting on with the story. I’ve also talked to a number of authors with more unusual criticisms of Tolkien–such as a tendency to justify genocide as a proper course of action to remove evil from the world, as Minister Faust has argued. I don’t agree with him, but it’s a legitimate argument to make. But Morgan’s criticism is so tired that I’m surprised it’s still got any traction, for two reasons:

1. Capitalizing “Towering Archetypal Evil” and “Irritatingly Radiant Good” is presumably intended to call attention to the book’s black and white (and thus cliched) vision of evil, which tends in these lines of critique to be accepted as a given. The only problem is that it’s absurd. First of all, the book paints evil in a number of different lights, its forces hardly monolithic and often not allied with each other (Shelob doesn’t really even recognize Sauron’s authority, and is just as likely to eat an orc as a hobbit; Saruman allies with Sauron because he has no choice, but neither trusts the other and the forces of each are forever at each other’s throats; and check out what Wormtongue does to Saruman at the end and try to explain how one dimensional the relationship among evil forces is), and good doesn’t come off much better–the relationship between Rohan and Minas Tirith is hardly an untroubled one, and what kind of good is Denethor, exactly? Second: Gollum. If Tolkien is a black and white thinker, how exactly do we explain Gollum, or Sam’s treatment of him (which is not responded to sympathetically by either Frodo or Tolkien), or Gandalf’s repudiation of Frodo’s wish that Bilbo had killed him? How do we explain the kinship Frodo feels with Gollum?

2. The criticism levelled against Tolkien could be made against any of the earlier fantasies, including ones which most people wouldn’t dare challenge–like, for example, Beowulf, which is just as “class-bound” as anything Tolkien ever wrote. Maybe the argument is actually that all of the early stuff is just “simplistic nostalgia.” But this leaves me with the following question:

Nostalgia for what?

I mean: what’s the foundation? What’s the baseline to which Tolkien is retreating? If all of these brave new world fantasies take a look at the gritty side of life–which, by the way, gets old just as quickly as any of the allegedly “black and white” stuff–what are they differing from? From what are they breaking away?

Hmm. It couldn’t be Tolkien’s work, could it?

And that’s really the point, one which it’s hard for me to believe I even need to make: Tolkien came first, or at least first for modern works. If you want to blame people for making Towering Archetypal Evil and Irritatingly Radiant Good into cliches worthy of capitalizing (if you feel such a need…frankly I think there’s room in fantasy for traditional and non-traditional forms, and I have a tendency to be suspicious of people who like speculative fiction so long it only speculates in certain ways), shouldn’t you be blaming the slavish imitators before you attack the original? When Tolkien wrote about orcs, elves, dwarves and Nazgul, he was the first one to do it in the way he did, and his work forever revolutionized fantasy. Attacking him for relying on cliches is a little like attacking Michael Jordan for playing like Kobe Bryant…not quite the, you know, chronological order in which they appeared.

As I said, Tolkien is hardly immune to criticism. But if you are going to criticize him, it would be nice if it be something both true and attributable to his actual writing, not just something you wish he had written.