In the same vein as the Brin piece linked to the other day, Tomb of Horrors and Lake Effect (he’s back!) have pointed to Epic Pooh, another Tolkien-bashing article, this time by Michael Moorcock. Obviously, I disagree with a lot of what Moorcock has to say here, although I did find the Pratchett quote a bit eerie. (“Terry Pratchett once remarked that all his readers were called Kevin.“) It’s irrefutable that much of Tolkien‘s writing is infused by a near-Luddite paranoia about the industrial order and a backwards-looking regret for a lost Golden Age. And yes, our beloved Oxford don is a bit of a snob – both the Cockney speech of the orcs and the often-limited imagination of Samwise attest to that. But it’s fatuous to compare Tolkien’s pre-industrial nostalgia to that of bored Bournemouth vacationers (and a bit hypocritical to accuse Tolkien of fostering anti-humanist Thatcherism while continually bagging on commuters who enjoy reading “addictive cabbage”…who’s the elitist here?) Considering both his youth in Birmingham and his experience in WWI, Tolkien’s loathing of modernity was to my mind hard-earned and deeply felt.
As for evil being “never really defined” in Tolkien’s book, I emphatically disagree. It seems clear that evil is defined by the will to, and temptation of, power. Both Brin and Moorcock argue that Tolkien never gives Sauron’s POV about matters, that evil is one-dimensional. That’s garbage. Evil is manifested throughout the trilogy not as a state of being but as a choice made, by Saruman deciding the world would be better if he were in charge, by Boromir attempting to harness the power of the ring as a weapon, by Frodo learning the seduction of domination through the taming of Smeagol. As such, in Tolkien’s trilogy, all good characters are capable of evil…Frodo, Galadriel, Gandalf (yes, even the “white men in grey clothing who somehow have a handle on what’s best for us,”), and most evil characters (Sauron, Saruman, the Nazgul) were once good. (This duality is most obviously and explicitly represented by the tortured Smeagol/Gollum.) Thus, Tolkien’s representation of evil in the Lord of the Rings is much more nuanced and complex than either Brin or Moorcock suggest. It is a complexity that belies Moorcock’s charge of “infantilism.”
Also, it should be noted that Tolkien’s backward-looking elitism is tempered somewhat by a forward-looking faith in pluralism. As emphasized in the films, multilateralism becomes a necessity in Middle Earth. Men, elves, dwarves, hobbits, ents…all have to come together and work together to have any chance of countering the threat of Mordor. Indeed, as Brin noted, Tolkien himself declared the aristocratic Elves’ fleeing to the West to be “selfish.” Southrons and Easterlings notwithstanding, Tolkien’s writings argue passionately for a pluralism more at home in the modern age than any previous.
I’m not going to deal with Moorcock’s attempted dismantling of other authors here…of his other targets I’ll confess a fondness for Richard Adams Watership Down, but I was never much into the Narnia books. That being said, I quite liked David Brin’s Uplift War series, and people I trust tell me that the film version of The Postman was a horrible translation of a quite-good novel. So when Brin has something to say about Tolkien’s writing, I’ll give him his due. But Michael Moorcock?! Are you kidding me? As a teenager, when I would devour all the science-fiction and fantasy books I could get my hands on (“addictive cabbage” and otherwise), I read the first couple of Elric books…not to put too fine a point on it, I thought they were pretty lousy. (And even then, it was clear Moorcock had an axe to grind with Tolkien.) I’ll get my brooding and platitudinous Goth melodrama from Anne Rice, thank you very much. I say, I say, give me Elrod the Albino over the “Stormbringer” any day. Update: Perhaps Moorcock would prefer a different author for the Rings trilogy? (Some of these are hilarious.)