Epic Pooh - Moorcock Review of Tolkein/Lewis

Crisspin

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I haven't seen any discussion related to Michael Moorcocks essay Epic Pooh. This is one of the only critiques of Tolkeins work, and highlights some of the failings that are so often overlooked.

Epic Pooh


His overall points seem to be the following :

- The prose of Tolkein and Lewis are similar to nursery rhymes. They lack tension, drama or real feeling and instead simply try to comfort and play nice with the reader.

- It contains very little humour or joy. The writing does not bring out characters, but simply describes actions.

- Tolkein claims his stories contain no alegories or messages, while the story itself debates that claim as it is "deeply conservative and strongly anti-urban".

- He re-inforces the fairy tale happy ending. "The great epics dignified death, but they did not ignore it, and it is one of the reasons why they are superior to the artificial romances of which Lord of the Rings is merely one of the most recent."

- C.S. Lewis is questioned for his inferior writing and dogmatic christian propoganda. "he books are a kind of Religious Tract Society version of the Oz books as written by E. Nesbit; but E. Nesbit would rarely have allowed herself Lewis's awful syntax, full of tacked-on clauses, lame qualifications, vague adjectives and unconscious repetitions; neither would she have written down to children as thoroughly as this childless don who remained a devoutly committed bachelor most of his life."

- This kind of story telling (fairy tale, simplistic) and writing (lack of tension, feeling and character) show a lack of respect for both adult and young readers. Compared to other stories for young readers they pale in comparison (i.e. Rowling/LeGuinn).

- Tolkein seems to yearn for a day long past, romanticising it without showing its faults. He is very anti-urban, anti-growth, anti-20th century. It tries to convince how much better life was before it was corrupted by modernity.

In conclusion he writes

" The commercial genre which has developed from Tolkien is probably the most dismaying effect of all. I grew up in a world where Joyce was considered to be the best Anglophone writer of the 20th century. I happen to believe that Faulkner is better, while others would pick Conrad, say. Thomas Mann is an exemplary giant of moral, mythic fiction. But to introduce Tolkien's fantasy into such a debate is a sad comment on our standards and our ambitions. Is it a sign of our dumber times that Lord of the Rings can replace Ulysses as the exemplary book of its century? Some of the writers who most slavishly imitate him seem to be using English as a rather inexpertly-learned second language. So many of them are unbelievably bad that they defy description and are scarcely worth listing individually. Terry Pratchett once remarked that all his readers were called Kevin. He is lucky in that he appears to be the only Terry in fantasy land who is able to write a decent complex sentence. That such writers also depend upon recycling the plots of their literary superiors and are rewarded for this bland repetition isn't surprising in a world of sensation movies and manufactured pop bands. That they are rewarded with the lavish lifestyles of the most successful whores is also unsurprising. To pretend that this addictive cabbage is anything more than the worst sort of pulp historical romance or western is, however, a depressing sign of our intellectual decline and our free-falling academic standards."

Discuss amongst yourselves.
 

Crisspin

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For myself, I find the review very interesting. His points echo many of my own in how Tolkein has dominated epic fantasy and why his specific viewpoint as the "arch-type" is a shallow and narrow storytelling direction.

I do believe that he ignores the positive aspects of the books. I agree with the writing style and general story, but believe the fully fleshed out self-created world was done very well.

I also think that while I agree that pure black and white tales such as Tolkein's ignore many issues of the human condition ... that does not mean there is no place for fairy tales.
 

Storm Centurion

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Crisspin,

One of the things that bothered me most about Moorcock's essay wasn't that he disliked The Lord of the Rings, but his reasons. I understand them but they just come off as completely snobbish.

By that I mean, what is wrong with a story that reads like a Fairy Tale or a Nursery Rhyme? I wasn't aware that that was cause for distress. Sometimes I want a cheeseburger and sometimes I'm in the mood for a french gourmet meal. When I enjoy a story, regardless of the author's style, I enjoy it because of whatever emotional nerve it hits. Tolkien claimed to want to write a good adventure story. And, I think he did. If Moorcock wants to aspire to more than that, that's up to him, but he comes off as, as I said before, snobbish. Not that wanting to be something more than a good story is snobbish. But denigrating those that just want to tell a good story is. It reminds me of an ex-girlfriend that found out that I wanted to be fireman and didn't really want to do much more with my education. Who is she to criticize my dream? Who is Moorcock to criticize Tolkien for wanting to tell a good story?

Also, yes, Tolkien's work, which he claimed was not allegorical did betray his own anti-urban and anti-technological bias. But that happens. Every writer leaves something of his world view in his work somehow. One might argue that a writer that doesn't isn't putting their heart into it. I might not agree with the writer's view. But that doesn't necessarily take away from the story.

Do we take this to mean that Moorcock has an anti-rural bias? It would seem so from his essay. Is either one wrong or is it mearly a matter of preference? Is Tolkien a stick-in -the mud? A curmudgeon? Is Moorcock a city-slicker? A City Mouse to Tolkien's Country Mouse? More importantly, who cares and why does that matter in the scheme of things. Is it a good story?

The question that sprang to mind when reading this was, why does Moorcock want me to dislike The Lord of The Rings so much?

It has its flaws. It is long and wordy at times. It does tend to simplify moral dilemnas. It did spawn, unfortunately, almost an entire industry of shallow copy cat "epic" trilogies. But that isn't Tolkien or the story's fault. Just fans turned unimaginative writers.

I was also unmoved by the remark that the Great Epics didn't ignore death. Neither did Tolkien. I would surmise that Moorcock wanted different characters to die than the ones that actually did.

I would also dispute that it shows a lack character or tension. I think it is a credit to Tolkien that each and every character in the Fellowship is a complete and distinct individual. And that Tolkien didn't have to beat the reader over the head with examples of these differences. And as for lack of tension, the reader only has to look at most scenes involving the Naz-Gul. Or the debate over the potential uses for Sauron's ring. Or the debates between Sam and Frodo over the Smeagol/Gollum character.

Unfortunately,I think that the Lord of the Rings suffers from it many copies. People forget, amidst all of the dwarven and elven sterotypes, in all that crappy fantasy, that Tolkien's were among the first to be portrayed in that light, with the nuances he added.

Thank you for reminding me of the Epic Pooh essay. I hadn't read it in a while and it good the juices flowing again.
 

Saltheart

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I agree with him for the most part. As a writer, Tolkien was... well, average; but as a world builder, he was simply amazing: I don't think almost anybody can compete with him in that.
 

Azathoth

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Just some random quotes from the essay:

Like Chesterton, and other orthodox Christian writers who substituted faith for artistic rigour he sees the petit bourgeoisie, the honest artisans and peasants, as the bulwark against Chaos.
If the Shire is a suburban garden, Sauron and his henchmen are that old bourgeois bugaboo, the Mob - mindless football supporters throwing their beer-bottles over the fence the worst aspects of modern urban society represented as the whole by a fearful, backward-yearning class for whom "good taste" is synonymous with "restraint" (pastel colours, murmured protest) and "civilized" behaviour means "conventional behaviour in all circumstances".
While there is an argument for the reactionary nature of the books, they are certainly deeply conservative and strongly anti-urban, which is what leads some to associate them with a kind of Wagnerish hitlerism.
Let's all be cosy, it seems to say (children's books are, after all, often written by conservative adults anxious to maintain an unreal attitude to childhood)
Later, The Plague Dogs (1977) displayed an almost paranoid conservative misanthropism.
Of the children's writers only Lewis and Adams are guilty, in my opinion, of producing thoroughly corrupted romanticism - sentimentalized pleas for moderation of aspiration which are at the root of their kind of conservatism
Their theories dignify the mood of a disenchanted and thoroughly discredited section of the repressed English middle-class too afraid, even as it falls
They would have been a wonderful antidote to the bland fare which generally became acceptable on all the myriad planes and demi-planes of the English middle-class when I was young.
Another variety of book has begun to appear, a sort of Pooh-fights-back fiction of the kind produced by Richard Adams, which substitutes animals for human protagonists, contains a familiar set of middle-class Anglican Tory undertones (all these books seem to be written with a slight lisp) and is certainly already more corrupt than Tolkien.

I sometimes think that as Britain declines, dreaming of a sweeter past, entertaining few hopes for a finer future, her middle-classes turn increasingly to the fantasy of rural life and talking animals, the safety of the woods that are the pattern of the paper on the nursery room wall.

Lewis speaks for the middle-class status quo

As often as not they flatter middle-brow sensibilities and reinforce middle-class sentimentality

...Starting to notice the utter repetition of his essay? "Bourgeois, conservative, middle-class..." The real problem Moorcock seems to have with these authors is that they aren't radical, angry, postmodern, pseudo-intellectual elitists like himself. I've also noticed that he has latched on to certain authors - James Joyce, Terry Pratchett, Le Guin, etc. Quite frankly, I see in Moorcock a man who has narrow-mindedly attached himself to a handful of favorite writers, and who has taken it upon himself to sneer at others whose tastes are even slightly different.



And one last thing (and this is something Moorcock completely ignored): Tolkien didn't write "fantasy". The Lord of the Rings were written as mythology - and mythology has an entirely seperate set of rules than conventional literature. Once one views Tolkien's work in that light, one will see that Tolkien is indeed a master on par with any other 20th century writer. As for Lewis - well, I never read any of the Narnia books, but I have read some of his theological books, and I will say this: his writing style is crisp, clear, and quite often beautiful. No, he doesn't employ multi-syllabic words every sentence, but then, a good writer shouldn't. Moorcock seems to believe that a good book must be inaccessible to the common man - quite ironic, considering his little tirade against Tolkien's "Toryism".


Pfeh, Moorcock has earned my contempt.
 

headcold

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There's a reason why I stopped reading Moorcock's books when I got out of middle school, and why I continue to read Tolkien's over and over. The proof is in the pudding. An albino swordsman with a magical sword that demands blood... Did Moorcock still that idea from a death metal album cover?
 

j d worthington

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There's a reason why I stopped reading Moorcock's books when I got out of middle school, and why I continue to read Tolkien's over and over. The proof is in the pudding. An albino swordsman with a magical sword that demands blood... Did Moorcock still that idea from a death metal album cover?
Sorry... have your chronology slightly wrong. Elric made his first appearance in the short story, "The Dreaming City" in 1960 or 1961 -- a good twenty-plus years too early for that, I'm afraid. On the subject of music and Moorcock, he's both influenced and played with a sizable number of groups over the years. You may want to step back and give Moorcock another look; if you don't care for his fantasies, try some of his other works, such as Mother London, The Brothel in Rosenstrasse, The Cornelius Quartet, or some of his ironic fantasies such as The Dancers at the End of Time. The thing about Moorcock is that he is quite versatile (and variable), and has done a bewildering array of different types of books, from political broadsides to humorous spy thrillers (including a fair number of scripts for comic books over the years, as well). He's also one of the major influences on modern fantasy; very close to Tolkien and Howard in that respect. And, while I don't agree with his views on Tolkien (whom he knew) I do find them challenging and entertaining (and written with gusto). (I also disagree with his views on quite a few other things, for the matter of that.) He also had a considerable influence on the growth of science fiction through his editorship of New Worlds in the 1960s (and the New Worlds anthologies in the 1970s, as well).
 

Xiaopo

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Azathoth said:
Moorcock seems to believe that a good book must be inaccessible to the common man - quite ironic, considering his little tirade against Tolkien's "Toryism".
I don't at all understand this charge of elitism that's being leveled at Moorcock. Terry Pratchett, Richmal Crompton, or J. K. Rowling (!) are "inaccessible to the common man"? In which alternate universe?

Evidently his gripe isn't with accessibility, it's with escapism, fairy stories, and an exaltation of the bucolic virtues. C. S. Lewis loved fairy tales and talking animals; that might be why he fell in love with Phantastes and why he preferred Animal Farm to Nineteen Eighty-four, and also why he really, really detested modernism in literature. Those of us who don't understandably find a lot of his work gooey and sentimental.
 

j d worthington

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Hello, Xiaopo, and welcome to the Chronicles.

The odd thing about Moorcock, I think, is that he rather straddles the two. He does have a streak of elitism, which you'll see in several of his essays as well as an interview or two; yet he does strongly aim for accessibility and has little patience with the more esoteric literature -- even in the sf field, he has always been more prone to favor the easily accessible adventure tale (among his favorite writers were Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton, for instance) to the more scientifically rigid Astounding/Analog style fiction; and he's certainly always made himself extremely accessible to his readers.

I think that Xiaopo pins it pretty well ... his distrust of Tolkien, Lewis, et al. was more with their conservatism not simply as conservatism, but as a retreat from the realities of the modern world. Myth and legend can be used to explore those, and should be, in his view, rather than an attempt to retreat into an idealized past that (even granting it ever existed) can never exist again. As John Clute once put it, speaking of the Jerry Cornelius stories: "Michael Moorcock has tried to tell us how to stay alive in the places where so many of us truly life. He has tried to tell us how to live here, in the deep cities of this world, in the years of their dying."
 

that old guy

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An albino swordsman with a magical sword that demands blood... Did Moorcock still that idea from a death metal album cover?
Actually, Michael Moorcock co-wrote at least one song with my favorite Ulmaut band of the 1970s: Blue Öyster Cult. For him to get all snotty about Tolkien or Lewis with that in his background is disingenuous at best. Not quite death metal, but on the way to it.

Nowadays Blue Öyster Cult is more famous for the "More Cowbell" skit on Saturday Night Live than anything else. :p

Black Blade

I have this feeling that my luck is none too good
This sword here at my side dont act the way it should
Keeps calling me its master, but I feel like its slave
Hauling me faster and faster to an early, early grave
And it howls! it howls like hell!

Im told its my duty to fight against the law
That wizardrys my trade and I was born to wade through gore
I just want to be a lover, not a red-eyed screaming ghoul
I wish it'd picked another to be its killing tool

Blue Oyster Cult | Black Blade lyrics
No clue where you'd go to d/l it, but those are certainly lyrics for the ages. ;)
 

j d worthington

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Yep. That was from a period when several bands were doing things based on the Elric and Eternal Champion books. He also wrote "The Great Sun Jester" for BOC (on the album Mirrors), about The Fireclown, and "Veterans of the Psychic Wars" on Fire of Unknown Origin. Essentially, each song tells in miniature the central theme or motif of whichever cycle of books it was based on. He also wrote songs with Hawkwind, as well as performing on some of their albums.....

But that's rather comparing apples and beefsteak, wouldn't you say?;)
 

that old guy

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But that's rather comparing apples and beefsteak, wouldn't you say?;)
Eh? Those of us who've lived our whole lives in Yankeeland never understand these Southern comparisons.

Anyway, as best I recall the average Blue Öyster Cult fan was the sort that bought four foot tall bongs and drove around in a customized van with a crushed velour interior and with paintings of nekkid chicks on the side reminiscent of Frazetta or Vallejo. Perhaps I'm unfairly doing a guilt by association thing, but Moorcock is forever in that category in my eyes.

And I only know Hawkwind because they kicked out the founder of ANOTHER Umlaut band: Lemmy, the "mastermind" behind Motörhead. :p
 

j d worthington

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Simply put, it would be like comparing Tolkien's "Errantry" with, say, Poe's "Annabel Lee"... the purpose each is designed for is completely different. Moorcock has written several excellent novels with exquisite prose. But when he goes to doing a pop song, he does a pop song, not a Keatsean ode. So the comparison really doesn't hold. If you compare The Silmarillion, say, with Mother London or The Brothel in Rosenstrasse, you'd be closer to the mark.

This is not to say that Tolkien, Lewis, etc. are bad; simply that Moorcock comes from an entirely different philosophical perspective. While he is unabashedly urban, Tolkien and Lewis were much more rural and bucolic in their orientation. They are also much more retrospective, as was also the case with both Arthur Machen and H. P. Lovecraft. Moorcock is more concerned with the realities of modern life, rather than nostalgia about the past. Also, Moorcock is a polemicist, and that particular form of essay requires a certain level of hyperbolic language and even some use of invective; it is geared to get a reaction, and he does that quite well, as evinced by the fact that that essay still stirs the ire it does some twenty years after it was written....

By the way... it's an interesting thing that Lemmy has still performed periodically with Hawkwind, providing both vocals and instrumental material for several of their albums long after they originally parted company. That particular relationship is a very interesting one indeed....:p
 

pyan

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Is it just me that thinks that the whole matter is irrelevant anyway?
I read through Moorcock's work in the mid seventies, and never touched them since - in fact, unusually, I don't own even one book by him. I read Tolkien's LotR in the late sixties, and have read it again at least once a year since. Like JRRT, don't like MM.
But all that MM says about Tolkien isn't going to change that one iota - nor, I should imagine, will it alter the opinion of anyone else that likes him. So where is the point of a vitriolic attack on his work? It'll all be the same in a hundred years anyway, when I suspect JRRT will still be massively popular, and MM will be a footnote in a treatise on 20th century SF.
Don't get me wrong - I would defend MM's right to express his opinions to the end. I just don't think that getting excited about what he says is worth wasting time over.


Which is exactly what I've just done, isn't it? Damn....
 

Crisspin

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I just don't think that getting excited about what he says is worth wasting time over.
Not sure how excited I saw things getting :) I posted this first in August and there is about a page of responses and half of those are about Blue Oyster Cult :cool: just too cool for words .... I can remember seeing BoC simply to hear Black Blade and Godzilla .. add in some Dio and Deep Purple and its a fantasy metal extravaganza!

Oh, and on that Moorcock, Tolkein thing ... Its simply an interesting little critical critique. Don't make it more than it is. Its really most interesting when you look at what the entire piece says about both Moorcock and those he writes about. Its full of politics, standards and ideals ... beliefs that MM had strong feelings about, and you can see he wrote passionately about it in the article.
 

Urien

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Piglet's eyes blazed with eldritch fire, his laugh echoed, huge in the deep cavern "The sacred honey is mine, mine, mine."

The feral rabbit horde edged forward.

Pooh stepped over the decapitated corpse of Eeyore. There would be time for mourning afterwards.

Flanked by Tigger and Roo, they met the ravening rabbits in pitched battle.
 

j d worthington

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Andrew... wonderful response!:D

And Crisspin, that's exactly the point... he does write about these things with passion, and that tends to engender reactions. It's intended to. I disagree with Moorcock on a lot of points, but I do find his essays like this both entertaining and fascinating (I also know of several essays of his that I agree with wholeheartedly).

Pyan: You might be surprised. You might want to look at some of the things Moorcock's done since that period, when he genuinely became a novelist to contend with; especially such things as Mother London, The Brothel in Rosenstrasse, the four Pyat novels (though Pyat is not a character most people will like -- nor is he supposed to be -- the books are quite good), Lunching with the Antichrist, etc.; there's been quite a lot of growth there.
 

pyan

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Ok, on your recommedative head be it - but I'll set Hoopy on you if if you're wrong!:D
 

j d worthington

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Ok, on your recommedative head be it - but I'll set Hoopy on you if if you're wrong!:D
Well, I'll warn you... it's not fantasy in the usual sense, and watch out for the Pyat books... he's a very unpleasant sort... But the writing is very good...
 

Xiaopo

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Thanks for the welcome. :)

Also, Moorcock is a polemicist, and that particular form of essay requires a certain level of hyperbolic language and even some use of invective; it is geared to get a reaction, and he does that quite well, as evinced by the fact that that essay still stirs the ire it does some twenty years after it was written....
Yeah, this is exactly it. I think the essay rubs a lot of people the wrong way because, as a friend put it, "he presents his opinions as absolute truth." But I bet if he prefixed every statement with an "in my opinion" and added lame qualifiers all over the place, it wouldn't produce more than a yawn.

pyanfaruk said:
It'll all be the same in a hundred years anyway, when I suspect JRRT will still be massively popular, and MM will be a footnote in a treatise on 20th century SF.
Don't be too certain about that. A century ago, Marie Corelli, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and Hall Caine were all the rage—the most popular writers ever known. How many of their works have you read lately?
 
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