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.

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7 thoughts on “Michael Moorcock vs JRR Tolkien

  1. James’s opinion does not take into account the historical context of Moorcock’s essay. In 1978, although Tolkien was a best seller, most fantasy on the racks did not resemble Tolkien, aside from ‘Sword of Shanarra’ and ‘Lord Foul’s Bane’ most of what was out there more closely resembled heroic fantasy or science fantasy of the type Moorcock wrote. Moorcock’s position was not nearly as iconoclastic as it seems today, after fat trilogies following the pattern of Tolkien crashed over the genre like a wave. The reason we are debating a lot of these ideas now is because that wave is clearly subsiding.

  2. I’ve always found it curious how Michael Moorcock levels charges of infantalism against J. R. R. Tolkien while simultaneously demonstrating his own political immaturity at the time.
    Moorcock spends a lot of time decrying classism, and comparing his adversary to Hitler, among other things, but it is the nihilistic lack of currency given to words like Good and Evil, and the desacralisation of the land, for example, that underpins so much injustice and destruction in our world. Moorcock’s principles and politics, particularly with regard to gender, are often admirable, but in this essay he seems confused – it is as if he wants a world of justice, of what is right, but wants to win himself and his books an audience of simpletons with the intellectual fortitude of disaffected youth who think the “bad guy” is the good guy, because he’s “cooler.”
    I thoroughly enjoyed the Eternal Champion series, and I understand that this essay was written some time ago, and its author has probably matured, but it and its legacy online has dented my opinion of Moorcock considerably.

  3. I’ve been looking though responses to Epic Pooh and have been disappointed at what appears to be a willful misunderstanding of the points raised with in. I have to say, while your is better due to acknowledging the political nature of Moorcocks critique, you still fall back on misrepresentation of Moorcocks position- that he’s “a censorious zealot ” who follows the party line (ironic considering he is an anarchist). I don’t get this, were in his essay does Moorcock say he wants to stop people from making their own decisions.

    I don’t think that the debate Moorcock raises is left-wing vs right wing but rather modernism vs sentimentalism. Moorcock faulted Tolkien for pulling back from confronting the implications of his subject matter, which Moorcock saw in terms of Class.

    “[T]he books…are certainly deeply conservative and strongly anti-urban, which is what leads some to associate them with a kind of Wagnerish hitlerism. I don’t think these books are ‘fascist’, but they certainly don’t exactly argue with the 18th century enlightened Toryism with which the English comfort themselves so frequently in these upsetting times. They don’t ask any questions of white men in grey clothing who somehow have a handle on what’s best for us.”

    Tolken is too busy constructing his pastoral world view to question its social makeup. The Hobbits, being the petti-bourgeoise, while being perfectly honest and brave, never bother to question the intent of their social superiors nor do they question the hierarchy that puts the hobbits at the bottom of the social scale even though it’s the honest hobbit-folk who end up saving Middle-Earth! This is why Moorcock makes the connection between this reactionary sentimentalism and ‘the mood of a disenchanted and thoroughly discredited section of the repressed English middle-class too afraid, even as it falls, to make any sort of direct complaint…least of all to the Higher Authority, their Tory God who has evidently failed them’.

    Its not so much that he disputes that courageous characters with a willingness to fight Evil were to be found in The Lord of the Rings, or even that such a fight wasn’t worth having. Its because Tolkien doesn’t challenge the dominate narrative of old colonial Britain and even acts as its ideological glue. LotR comforting prose style is at odds with Moorcock’s modernist extermination.

  4. Sorry I didn’t realise this blog post is a year old.

    To briefly touch on James Maliszewski, he does come of as someone who would rather sequester his Fantasy away in order to preserve its innocence, and gets rather defensive when critiqued from the outside (that is from a literally postion). I think his is the assumption that only the left wing are political while the right-wing is just common sense.

    • No problem: I see every comment that gets made, regardless of which post it’s on.

      I made another post about criticisms of Tolkien here (this time in relation to China Mieville).

  5. Moorcock isn’t political hardly an anarchist; suspiciously conservative but very appealing. The greatest English writer since Wells Orwell Aldous Huxley. He’s still looking for the answer but aren’t we all

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