Tolkien’s worst friend and best enemy

A few years ago I asked members of the Mythopoeic Society why they felt it was still necessary to defend J.R.R. Tolkien’s work against critics in literary criticism. They cited recent critical reviews of Tolkien which were stinging enough (in their opinions) to merit some defense. Fair enough, I said. I wasn’t aware that people were still taking potshots at Tolkien.

I had long come to believe that only second-rate Tolkien wannabes like Terry Pratchett were still tackling Middle-earth with an eye toward riding controversial essays and op-ed pieces to perceived literary significance. Pratchett for a while would publish some anti-Tolkien remark and then half-retract what he said, all the while insinuating that he was a better writer than Tolkien.

So what brings me to stir the cold dead ashes of old self-laudatory comparisons to Tolkien? It’s actually NOT the latest such sham analysis of Middle-earth (by the comic writer Richard K. Morgan — oh, did he also win an award?).

Actually, what brings me back to this topic is the lop-sided, back-handed “defense” offered by Brian Murphy, who is an “editor for publishing company by day”.

Murphy takes exception Morgan’s gratuitous attack on Tolkien (the whole point of which seems to be Morgan’s plea that people read his fiction instead of Tolkien) only to note as an aside that “Tolkien’s characters are rather simple and one-dimensional compared to what we are used to in the modern novel”.

To say that Tolkien’s characters are …rather simple and one-dimensional is like saying the U.S. Federal Government spending plan is equivalent to a monthly household budget. Morgan at least grants Tolkien some modicum of recognition for his handling of a couple of Orcs (neglecting to discuss or mention the other Orc characters who are treated with equal sympathy by Tolkien).

Murphy challenges Morgan with the piercing argument that “Tolkien also did not choose to write from a liberal humanist perspective or create characters conflicted with self-doubt”.

Hm. Apparently neither of these guys looked at Aragorn very closely — a character who is so consumed by self-doubt he almost throws the entire mission into chaos. Mr. Decisive leads the Company into idyllic Lothlorien for a few weeks while he recovers from the shock of losing Gandalf to the Balrog — all the while failing to come up with a plan. To say this was not the future King of Gondor’s most shining hour is to admit that Tolkien’s characters were anything but “simplistic and one-dimensional”.

But perhaps I digress. Mr. Morgan’s blatant self-promotional motive for attacking Tolkien’s credibility as a writer is easily recognized for what it is. I would have ignored his nonsense had people not risen to the flame-bait and felt compelled to respond. That’s just the sort of attention he wanted, of course.

This is an example of the cunning and deep-throated critical analysis Mr. Morgan directed at the Tolkien fanverse: “And for a while – until Tolkien remembers these are Bad Guys and sends the wearyingly Good and Wholesome Sam up against them …. ”

Good and Wholesome Sam, who repeatedly wanted to murder Gollum out of hand just to keep him from getting the Ring. Good and Wholesome Sam, who had taken (Orcish) life, who had defied the authority of one of Gondor’s princes before his men, who had lied to Gandalf about his activities in spying on Frodo.

Apparently all sin and personal corruption is good and wholesome to people who can only see “Irritatingly Radiant Good” (implying, I think, that the Good guys somehow win in a story which is about loss, death, and the search for deathlessness).

Sam is the least corruptible of the members of the Fellowship, but does that make him “good and wholesome”? That’s really a strategic lie foisted upon gullible readers who don’t want to look any deeper than the shallow faux analysis they have been offered.

Mr. Murphy’s brilliant defense of the work is summed up in this chilling paragraph:

I would also note that The Lord of the Rings offers much more than a simple struggle of good vs. evil. In it Tolkien explores coming to grips with death, the possibility of a higher power, the problem of power and possessiveness, and the pervasiveness of war and the long-term effects it wreaks.

Actually, the story is more about about the struggle for recognition of the fact that Middle-earth is our world and not some pseudo-medieval pastiche of bad Tolkien rewrites. In other words, Tolkien was exploring the roots of modern story-telling in a way that neither Mr. Morgan nor Mr. Murphy seem capable of grasping: through the changing form of language.

The Lord of the Rings is not a single, simple story. It is a story about stories, many of which are about death, the pursuit of deathlessness, and the constant struggle for self-recognition. The real conflict is not between good and evil (because “nothing is evil in the beginning, not even Sauron”) but rather the struggle between domination (what Tolkien called The Machine) and individuality (freedom of expression, as epitomized by the “endless bloody elven singing” that elevates The Lord of the Rings above cheap, schlocky cyberpunk echoes and shadows of pure human expression).

It took a comic book writer’s cheap insults to bring out the worst of Tolkien defenses. It’s not like this is rocket science, however. If you cannot see more than one dimension in Tolkien’s characters, you’re not ready for mature reading — or writing. So now everyone has been insulted. There is nothing like a good criticism of fantasy literature — and neither Mr. Morgan’s fairy-tale attack on Tolkien nor Mr. Murphy’s back-handed defense were anything like good criticism of fantasy literature.

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