Real Fantasy

I stumbled across this short essay from February by Richard Morgan whose book, The Steel Remains, I am currently reading.  (And it’s good so far, and very dark, and very adult.)  Anyways, Morgan takes on Tolkien and offers up some pretty strong criticism of his Rings books.  Discussing a scene of dialog between two orcs, he writes:

For me, this is some of the finest, most engaging work in The Lord of the Rings. It feels – perhaps a strange attribute for a fantasy novel – real. Suddenly, I’m interested in these orcs. Gorbag is transformed by that one laconic line about the city, from slavering brutish evil-doer to world-weary (almost noir-ish) hard-bitten survivor. The simplistic archetypes of Evil are stripped away and what lies beneath is – for better or brutal worse – all too human. This is the real meat of the narrative, this is the telling detail (as Bradbury’s character Faber from Fahrenheit 451 would have it), no Good, no Evil, just the messy human realities of a Great War as seen from ground level. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that what you’re probably looking at here are the fossil remnants of Tolkien’s first-hand experiences in his own Great War, as he passed through the hellish trenches and the slaughter of the Somme in 1916.

The great shame is, of course, that Tolkien was not able (or inclined) 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. I suppose it’s partially understandable – the generation who fought in the First World War got to watch every archetypal idea they had about Good and Evil collapse in reeking bloody ruin around them. It takes a lot of strength to endure something like that and survive, and then to re-draw your understanding of things to fit the uncomfortable reality you’ve seen. Far easier to retreat into simplistic nostalgia for the faded or forgotten values you used to believe in. So by the time we get back to Cirith Ungol in The Return of the King, Gorbag and his comrades have been conveniently shorn of their more interesting human character attributes and we’re back to the cackling slavering evil out of Mordor from a children’s bedtime story. Our glimpse of something more humanly interesting is gone, replaced once more by the ponderous epic tones of Towering Archetypal Evil pitted against Irritatingly Radiant Good (oh – and guess who wins).

Well, I guess it’s called fantasy for a reason.

Morgan’s example of the orcs is spot-on.  “But what about Boromir?” I muttered to myself.  In the comments, commenter Bryan Russell had this to say:

I also consider the idea that LotR operates on a linear dynamic of Archetypal Good vs. Archetypal Evil to be a rather simplistic interpretation of the novels. Tolkien was a devoted Catholic thinker, and it seems to me what he’s really writing about is sin and its seductiveness. Sauron and the Ring are merely symbols of this, physical manifestations operating in the fantasy world to make the ideas concrete. But the real fight is inside the characters, fighting the seductive voice of sin (the pull of the One Ring, the voice of Sauron, etc.). The evil is that in Boromir, his vanity and pride, and the struggle is his too, as it is for everyone. A conflict with sin, with the vices of man. Pippin gives in and looks at the seeing stone. Theoden gives in to the voice of wormtongue/saruman and later battles his pride and despair. It goes on. And, ultimately, it is epitomized in Frodo’s struggle with the Ring. It is that conflict that becomes central. Yes, it’s made concrete in Sauron and the Ring, but really he is battling himself. And in the end he fails. Archetypal good? Really? In some ways the books suggest that it is only chance that sometimes allows us to prevail against ourselves, and hope that gets us there. And yet human values, ideals, are important, and can persevere (such as Sam’s loyalty).

You know, to me there’s a reason Sauron is bodiless, nonexistent. He operates better as a symbol this way, and as a character he does less to obscure the central struggles of the characters. Sin is disembodied, too. You can’t cut off its head, because there’s no head to cut off. It comes down to a choice, a moral action. And sometimes we fail even there.

To me it has always seemed as if the problem is not that Tolkien was too simplistic, but that too many subsequent fantasy writers failed to understand his complexity. Why do the hobbits return to an enslaved Shire? In the end it’s not about the Big Baddie, but about human weakness and strength. There’s no escaping it, not even in the idyllic paradise of the Shire. Even here the voice of evil/sin lingers in the heart… embodied still (Saruman/wormtongue), yes, but no less important, I think, for its effect on various characters and the choices they make.

Which is exactly right.  The fact is, a lot of fantasy writers took that archetypal struggle between Good and Evil and dumbed it down.  They missed all those internal struggles that Russell is referencing.  So instead of what I think was a pretty in-depth look at pride and power and the conflict of self, you get really generic elven heroes battling really generic Dark Lords.  And that’s a big problem with many who have attempted, consciously or not, to imitate Tolkien’s work.

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6 thoughts on “Real Fantasy

  1. One issue I had with this essay is how cliched the author’s response is. Another gritty, neo-noir reimagining of genre fiction? How daring! I mean, it’s not like this sort of thing hasn’t been done before . . .

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  2. Yes. I just read a review of the book (I’m about two chapters in) and he basically says just that: the author tries to do something new, but it’s too late – it’s been done. And when you strip away all the grit and sensationalism you’ve got little left. I may shift course and read something else. Orson Scott Card’s recommendations seemed very good at the Corner yesterday. Warbreaker looks like a good read.

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  3. When someone asks, like Morgan, why on earth anyone would want to read “something like that,” I’m inclined to think he is probably missing something. Or a lot, in the case of Tolkien’s works. A good many of us adults actually enjoy “all the overwrought prose, the nauseous paeans to class-bound rural England, and the endless bloody elven singing.” Not to mention everything else Tolkien was doing with all the languages he invented. That said, I do play videogames, so my sense of what qualifies as “adult” may be suspect.

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  4. I just finished The Steel Remains last week, and, eh. It was pretty good, I guess, but it certainly wasn’t something that made me think “if only Tolkien had written like THIS!” And it isn’t that dark. If he was going for dark, he’s still light-years (pun not intended, but not ignored) behind, say, Glen Cook’s Black Company books.

    I also had the same reaction as Kyle to the claim that no one “adult” would want to read Tolkien, because Mr. Morgan does not care for it. Which, ironically, is a comment I have seen my 6-year-old make: she cannot even conceive that someone would like to eat asparagus, merely because she doesn’t like it.

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  5. Sort of off topic, but I’ve been re-watching Babylon 5 (which I hadn’t seen since its original run in my mid-90s late childhood), and one of the things I’ve noticed is that it’s very strongly influenced by Tolkien – but in all the best ways. (The space-opera setting probably helps though.)

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