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.


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’.

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

  1. One of the more interesting non-scholastic analyses of Tolkien, his religious & pagan influences, comes from Varg Vikernes of Burzum in his explanation of the origins of the project’s name.

    A lot of people have drawn a lot of different conclusions from Lord of the Rings and interpreted it in different ways, but I think Varg may take the cake for seeing it as an inspiration to seize on anti-christian nationalism.

  2. Right on. Tolkien was such a revelation to so many that they wanted to experience his inventions over and over, so that they became cliches and turned fantasy into commodified “genre fiction.”

    When Gary Gygax died, one obituary said that he’d probably done more than any other person to make fantasy generic, and I think that’s probably true…But he did that by giving everyone what they really wanted back then, which was a chance to live in Middle Earth or a place just like it.

    Mieville is popular enough now that in another generation HIS influence may be bemoaned by someone.

  3. I don’t know about other people, but I know that when it comes to politics, I’m not looking to see my viewpoints re-iterated, I’m looking to see something interesting and compelling, and Mieville is terrible at that.

    He’s a clever, interesting guy and a great stylist, but his politics and his approach to politics seems like a kind of caricature of un-imaginative mid-left intellectuals.

  4. Thank you for so succinctly summing up everthying I thought when I read Mieville’s Tolkien-bashing nonsense. Same goes for Michael Moorcock, who I’ve heard is an acknowledged influence of Mieville’s. The two are great writers, but for some reason they become intellectually dishonest when it comes to discussing Tolkien.

    • I wouldn’t say dishonest, it’s iconoclastic sure, he’s clearly taking aim at something that has dominated 20 years of the genre, the epic fantasy trilogy. Moorcock maybe not as much seeing as his Epic Pooh was written when most Fantasy was not taking its cues from Tolkein, most of what was out there more closely resembled the heroic fantasy or science fantasy of the type Moorcock wrote. Tolkein was probably seen as a relic of the past at the time, the more socially active, politically left leaning stuff that came out of New Worlds taking centre stage. Of course we talkin now after a resurgence of fat trilogies following the pattern of Tolkien crashed over the genre like a wave, maybe that was due to the change in global sensiblity, the rise of Regan, the Heating up of the Cold War and later 9/11 and the War on Terror, the oppositional stance of Moorcock and his buddies became less desirable as people more and more looked for confort in Tolkien’s escapist literature.

      Although maybe we’re seeing a change in recent years, the fact these things are being discussed again might mean that the general mood is changing again, those oppositional views are getting more exposure and the grip of xeroxed Tolkienesque fantasy trillogies are loosing. Could be that people are just tired of being flogged that particular dead horse.

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