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.