Nick Frost: Hobbit

I didn’t see The Hobbit for other reasons (the filmmakers disputed the allegations in the second link, but not the first), but this also annoys me about it.

Bilbo Baggins is meant to look (and initially act) like a complete non-hero. He’s not a ‘leading man’ type.

Nick Frost, on the other hand, not only looks the part…

…but in Sean of the Dead and Hot Fuzz he played characters who start off basically useless but who step up to the plate when necessary.

I guess fat guys aren’t allowed to be the hero, even in a story about how the fat guy can be a hero.

China Mieville (part 2: Is Tolkien a wen on the arse of fantasy literature?)

As I said yesterday, China Mieville once said that Tolkien was “a wen on the arse of fantasy literature.” A wen, by the way, is a cyst on the skin. Mieville is like Tolkien in that he likes using obscure words. Another, more significant, similarity is that he has good guys that are good and bad guys that are bad. I can’t imagine either of them having characters like Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, who are far from evil, but who arguably do more harm than good, and certainly aren’t fighting for anything other than their own wealth. I also can’t imagine him having a hero appointed by a prophecy.

Similarly, in Mieville’s stories it always matters to the broader world whether the good guys win or not. If Conan was to die his ex-lovers and comrades in arms would be sad, but it wouldn’t cause any great suffering in the general population. The people he’s robbed might even be relieved. But in the New Crobuzon stories the city is always in actual danger unless the heroes win.

However that didn’t stop him saying that

Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature. His oeuvre is massive and contagious – you can’t ignore it, so don’t even try. The best you can do is consciously try to lance the boil. And there’s a lot to dislike – his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity. Tolkien’s clichés – elves ‘n’ dwarfs ‘n’ magic rings – have spread like viruses. He wrote that the function of fantasy was ‘consolation’, thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader.

(source)

The point about “elves and dwarves and magic rings” is probably one that lots of people will nod their heads at. Of course they aren’t really Tolkien’s original ideas, but it’s true that most examples of elves, dwarves and magic rings in modern popular culture come to us via Tolkien (probably by way of D&D and the computer games that copied it, and by fantasy authors copying all of the above).

However it wasn’t Tolkien who made these things cliches, it was all the people who copied Tolkien. That isn’t a reason to dislike Tolkien, it’s a reason to dislike copying. If Tolkien had never lived, I don’t imagine fantasy fiction would be any more original. There’d probably just be a lot more sub-Robert E. Howard and sub-HP Lovecraft and China Mieville would be talking about “sorcerers ‘n’ barbarians ‘n’ forgotten, slumbering gods” (which, of course, actually are fantasy cliches). Or if those writers had never lived either, “lost valleys ‘n’ dinosaurs ‘n’ Martians”. The lazy, ‘vanilla’ version of fantasy would be different, but just as lazy and vanilla.

In any case, I think talking about Tolkien’s style or ‘literary merit’ is missing the point. The real issue here, I’m pretty sure, is that Mieville doesn’t like conservative Catholicism.

I can sort of see why Mieville dresses up this fairly straightforward argument so that it sounds like he’s complaining about too many dwarves. A lot of people really, really hate the idea that fantasy writing can have a political agenda. Or at least they hate the idea when it’s writers they like, and when they agree with the ideas. I remember having an online debate with James Maliszewski of the Grognardia blog about this, in which he seemed to argue that the Catholic Church has never engaged in politics, and therefore Lord of the Rings has no politics. I imagine that he’d say that China Mieville is trying to drag politics in where they don’t belong, and that this is both evidence that he’s an inferior writer and one of the causes of his inferior writing.

A lot of people, maybe even most, seem to be ashamed to say “I enjoy writing more when I agree with the political ideas behind it”. Perhaps there’s a pervasive idea about ‘great books’ that everyone should prefer, or that good writing is about ‘eternal truths’. Whatever the reason, I think people’s inability to own up causes a lot of ridiculous arguments about books where everyone tries to find another reason to justify their preferences (‘Tolkien is cliched’. ‘No, Mieville is a bitter cynic’).

So I can see why Mieville would want to try and argue around that. However I don’t think you should fight bullshit with more bullshit. Clearly fantasy writers have ideas about how the world works, clearly they use these ideas in their writing, and therefore clearly fantasy has political ideas. Those ideas might not be very interesting or controversial ones in some cases, but that’s partly a function of the society in which they were written. “Black people are savages” was quite an uninteresting and uncontroversial assumption in past decades, and if someone had written with the opposite assumption they would have been the ‘political writer’.

So I guess I’m saying that “I don’t agree with conservative Catholicism” is quite different to saying “Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature”, and you shouldn’t say one when you mean the other. However a lot of the arguments you hear in response seem to be equally dishonest, because they pretend that Tolkien is ‘apolitical’.

China Mieville (part 1)

I’ve been reading a fair bit of China Mieville lately, after discovering that my university library had most of his books.

For those who haven’t read him, he’s probably best known for three books set in the city of New Crobuzon and the world of Bas-Lag. New Crobuzon is a ‘big evil fantasy city’ in the tradition of Lankhmar and Ankh-Morpork, but much grimmer than either.

He says that he’s influenced by role-playing games (and he actually wrote some stuff for Pathfinder). Perdido Street Station has a brief appearance by an obvious D&D adventuring party. More broadly, the city is one where lots of non-human species live side-by-side with humans, and there are large non-human societies elsewhere. He doesn’t use dwarves, trolls etc like Terry Pratchett. His main non-human races are frog-people, cactus-people, and the most interesting ones, khepri, who are red-skinned women whose heads are giant dung beetles (there are males, but they’re just giant dung beetles and aren’t intelligent). Another D&D-like quality to his work is that magic is common, and magicians are analagous to academics, specifically scientists.

The most distinctive thing about the New Crobuzon books, to me, is that politically powerful figures act like politically powerful figures in the real world, and are condemned as such.

Some examples of what I mean: Fritz Leiber presents the ruler of Lankhmar as borderline insane, but this fact doesn’t effect Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser’s lives very much and the story sort of laughs it off. It’s part of the picturesque detail of Lankhmar. Terry Pratchett presents the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork as a cold, scheming despot. But, very improbably, he always wants what’s best for the city. And although it’s stated that he tortures and kills people,.he never does it to a main character and it’s apparently not something that you’re supposed to worry about. Whereas when the rulers of New Crobuzon have people murdered, you’re supposed to be outraged, and it’s often part of the plot rather than a background detail.

Similarly he has organised crime, but they do things like deal drugs and murder each other, rather than being a loveable thieves guild.

Anyway he once described Tolkien as “the wen on the arse of fantasy literature”, which not surprisingly caused a lot of bad feeling. Tomorrow I’ll get into that.

Riddles in the Dark

In The Hobbit, the ring that Bilbo Baggins finds was originally ‘only’ a magic ring of invisibility. However, as Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings, he changed it to the corrupting One Ring that we’re familiar with.

This was one reason why he made some changes to The Hobbit; specifically to the chapter ‘Riddles In the Dark’.

I recently came across a page which compares the revised version of this chapter to the original. It’s here.

Lord of the Rings: The Tribal Love Rock Musical

British filmmaker John Boorman has a reputation for making films that are either really good or really bad. He produced, directed and co-wrote Deliverance, which was nominated for three Academy Awards and five Golden Globes. He also wrote, produced and directed Zardoz, which had a lot of interesting ideas, but is generally derided for, among other things, dressing Sean Connery thusly:

He’s a man who makes the films he wants to make. So when he co-wrote a script for a film version of Lord of the Rings, he wasn’t going to be weighed down by the safe ideas of lesser men. Ideas like “stick to the story” or “don’t have a kabuki / circus performance at the Council of Elrond”.

Actually it sounds like he had some good ideas. Some orcs are “slumbering or in some kind of narcotic state. The fellowship runs over them, and the footsteps start up their hearts” (that was actually co-writer Rospo Pallenberg’s idea, and the quote is from him). A Nazgul rides a horse that “seems to have no skin. Its live, raw, bleeding flesh is exposed”. At the end of the film Legolas sees a rainbow and says “Look! Only seven colors. Indeed, the world is failing.”

But, to me, they feel very much like original ideas, as opposed to good ideas for a film version of someone else’s book.

Also Frodo has sex with Galadriel.

There’s a detailed summary of the script here.

from The Hobbit

Now they had gone far into the Lone-lands, where there were no people left, no inns, and the roads grew steadily worse. Not far ahead were dreary hills, rising higher and higher, dark with trees. On some of them were old castles with an evil look, as if they had been built by wicked people.

JRR Tolkien.

Michael Moorcock vs JRR Tolkien

As I’ve said before, I suspect many people who come to this blog also read James Maliszewski’s blog Grognardia. Thus you’re likely to have heard of British writer Michael Moorcock, and his criticisms of Tolkien. And you might also know that that James Maliszewski has a strong opinion on these criticisms, which he’s stated a few times but most recently here. To sum up, he accuses Michael Moorcock of being motivated by a mixture of jealousy, immaturity and the desire to promote himself.

I’ve never been a fan of Michael Moorcock. I liked Elric OK, but there’s not that much that I took away from it and remembered. I read Epic Pooh, the essay we’re talking about, and wasn’t particularly convinced.

And yet…

Something about James Maliszewski’s argument doesn’t feel quite right. Here’s a quote from the article I linked to above.

Like teenagers desperate to prove their independence, rebelling against Tolkien seems to a rite of passage for many fantasy writers and it’s not hard to see why. The odds that any work of fantasy is ever going to become as well known or influential decades after its publication is slim,  New York Times bestseller lists to the contrary. A far more attainable goal, therefore, is to generate controversy centered on Tolkien and then to bask in the fleeting notoriety.

The link is as in the original article.

I have a few problems with this.

Firstly, I can see a bit of a contradiction. He seems to be saying that Michael Moorcock is acting for emotional reasons, because he’s ‘like a teenager desperate to prove his independence’. But then he also seems to be saying that it’s a calculated attempt to get some undeserved sales. Is Michael Moorcock a helpless man-child who thinks Tolkien is his hated father (or his older brother who Mom liked best), or is he a scamming hack who knows exactly what he’s doing, ie talking nonsense to sell some books?

More broadly, I’m always suspicious of statements about why someone acted, particularly when they’re stated as if they were well-known facts. People often don’t know themselves why they act. If someone who (as far as I know) hasn’t even met Michael Moorcock is going to tell the world why Michael Moorcock does stuff, I’m going to want to see some pretty rigorous evidence. Hell, he’s alive, why not ask him?

And finally, I noticed what James Maliszewski doesn’t say. From reading the linked article, you’d think that Michael Moorcock just hated Tolkien’s prose style (or dishonestly pretended to hate it). Having read his essay Epic Pooh, I can say that that’s not the case. Michael Moorcock’s main beef with Tolkien (actually with a whole group of writers including Tolkien), is that he thinks Tolkien is espousing far right-wing ideas. There are a number of obvious counter-arguments to such a claim: no he’s not, it’s a good story so who cares, it’s not going to change anyone’s mind so who cares, you’re a censorious zealot who only wants people to read books with the ‘correct line’, and probably others.

Yet James Maliszewski didn’t say any of those things. He ignored the political element of what Michael Moorcock said, which is really to ignore the stated point. I can see someone ignoring the political element because they wanted people to agree with Michael Moorcock – but why would you pass up such a free point to your side? It’s a story that everyone knows. Here’s an author just trying to entertain people, and some political/religious windbag gets their knickers in a twist because they make everything about their issue whether it is or not…bam, Michael Moorcock is a left-wing version of the people who say Harry Potter is Satanic, and 99% of the world is on your side.

So, in conclusion, I don’t find myself completely comfortable with James Maliszewski’s argument. Next I’ll take a look at what Michael Moorcock actually said.

EDIT: Actually I didn’t return to this, since I lost interest. In short, my thesis is that James M. doesn’t want to accept the idea that Tolkien’s conservative Catholic views are a form of politics, which is a reasonably common view, especially on the Right (my views are common sense, yours are politics). This leads him to some untenable ideas, such as that (if I interpret what he’s saying properly) the Catholic Church has never been involved in politics.

>from The Lord of the Rings

>Gil-galad was an Elven-king.
Of him the harpers sadly sing:
the last whose realm was fair and free
between the Mountains and the Sea.

His sword was long, his lance was keen,
his shining helm afar was seen;
the countless stars of heaven’s field
were mirrored on his silver shield.

But long ago he passed away,
and where he dwelleth none can say;
for into darkness fell his star
in Mordor where the shadows are.