Moorcock's exemplarily bad essay on Tolkien

Ray McCarthy

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blankness of his villains
True for Sauron

Saruman
Grima worm tongue
Boromir more complex badness.
Gollum (he killed to get the ring)
Shelob
The Balrog?
Orc Captains
Witch King / Head of Nazgul
Then there are lesser unpleasant characters and corrupted characters (The Steward)

But I agree there is little detail on the baddies. I've found it near impossible to do a chapter or whatever from baddy POV, so my own stuff, most of the baddies seem a bit distant.
 

Edward M. Grant

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With all respect to Moorcock, Elric’s singing slaves just sounds kind of silly to me. It’s arch-villain stuff (Wuh-huh-huh!). I find Tolkien’s view – effectively, that all things are moving towards their end – far more unsettling because it’s not there to show how “dark” one character is – it’s basically true.
The slaves seem more a power thing, and not too far from the kind of things that actually happened in some Communist regimes. It's just Maoism turned up to eleven.

Tolkein was writing in the End Times of the fading Empire, and I'm guessing much of the inspiration for LoTR came from WWI, which proved emotionally devastating even to the 'winners' in Europe, shaking the moral underpinnings of those societies. Moorcock was writing among the wreckage when the Empire had already faded, and the old mythologies no longer provided any moral support. That probably explains a lot about the difference in their books.
 

Edward M. Grant

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But I agree there is little detail on the baddies. I've found it near impossible to do a chapter or whatever from baddy POV, so my own stuff, most of the baddies seem a bit distant.
In my latest story, pretty much everyone is a 'baddy', and it's been good, wholesome, psychopathic fun. The hardest part is not going too far over the top (or getting so attached that I don't want to get rid of them).
 

Toby Frost

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I just get the feeling that straight-up evil wasn't something that really interested Tolkien to write about, although corruption did seem to interest him a lot. I doubt he could have given much insight into the orcs (although there didn't seem to be much there to be insightful about...)

That said, with its endless surveillance, permanent war footing and selective breeding programme, Mordor is like a weird mixture of totalitarian dictatorship and Bentham's Panopticon. Not a great place to live.
 

Idealect

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Oh, I agree with you. :)

I've simply been itching to raise the point for the long time that Lord of the Rings has far darker undertones than many people give it credit for - especially in recent discussions on whether modern fantasy is getting too "grim" or "dark". :)
personally I found it extremely disturbing how the ring in the end is only cast into the volcano by the intervention of providence. Sauron is checkmated, the ring is in the ring-destroying place, -precisely the object of the quest of the last two and three quarter books, but frodo, or is it sam, is still paralysed by the malign influence of an evil will, and, -I may be misremembering this- not on the grounds that sauron is just too strong, or frodo too weak or tired, -mechanically, that is, but that the ring itself is somehow irresistible, at least at the heart of its power. But if that's true, and if it can only be vanquished there, doesn't that mean the best good can hope for is a 1 in a hundred random outside shot, even if they do everything right, -that it is essentially doomed from the very start?

Where does this guy Simo Häyhä - Wikipedia fit into such a universe? Where is the room for outmanouvering, outskilling, outfocus, outpacing? Where is the place for the noble warrior? Enthralled to Sauron's will 99 times out of a hundred, along with the rest of his world, even if they do everything perfectly?

LOTR: existential horror epic.
 
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Toby Frost

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I don't know. If I remember rightly, Gollum’s snatching of the ring and subsequent death doesn’t mean that it’s all chance, or that the efforts of the characters are ultimately meaningless. At least I’m sure that’s not the point Tolkien wanted to make. I think it’s just as arguable that Gollum’s death is the punishment for his insane greed and the corruption brought about by the ring: in that way of looking at it, evil is self-destructive. By making Gollum mad, the ring has brought about its own destruction.

As to what one individual can do, in Tolkien’s world, the answer is surely a vast amount. For one thing, given the low level of technology and the “heroic” setting, one King Arthur-type fighter can rampage through hundreds of orcs in a way that would be impossible in a more realistic setting. Secondly, the Tolkien world is based on individuals, especially kings, holding power. Nobody ever suggests that putting power into the hands of one man is a bad idea in principle: it’s which man that’s the issue.
 

Idealect

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Moorcock is right about one thing. Tolkien created beautiful, comforting books. An old man, a war veteran, a codebreaker, wrote books which, among other things, were lullabies-in-prose for children, among others.

Tolkien knew first hand that there are a lot of things in the world to comfort people from.

Moorcock in contrast apparently hates middle class people and A.A. Milne, and somehow consequently anything with the remotest possibility of a hint of patronisingness in its attempts to comfort, which he seemingly rejects, as a principle, not only for himself, but as a universal principle, for everyone.

Consequently begrudges a man who was lucky to have seen and not succumbed in war the comfort of the idealised, or perhaps just past, countryside, of his youth, and the comfort the lilt of his words affords to himself and at others.

I wonder what he'd have to say about the biggles books and their author.




The criticism in my last post applies triple to Elric. He's constantly bumbling around, clueless, putting no forethought or planning into what he does and making unforgivable blunders. Moorcock has a fine sense of style but no sense of strength. Tolkien stacks the deck against the protagonists to a degree he cannot satisfactorily get them out of, but moorcock hands elric everything on a silver platter, has him squander it, then pulls some new deus ex machina out of his arse to keep the book going along.

There's nothing wrong with moorcock rejecting comfort in how he wants to live his life, but there's nothing gritty, realistic, or brave about sneering at people who choose to avail themselves of that resource. It's like a teetotaler not only slapping the alcohol out of a person's hand as they settle down after a hard day at work, but also proceeding to lecture them on it for fifteen minutes, half of which is taken up by beyond vicious personal insults (yes, yes, I'm sure there's far more could be tapped from that particular well if desired, but they're still beyond vicious. If that is somewhere near the beginning rather than the end of your personal insult scale that makes it worse, not better.), and anecdotes about what, yes, are sympathetic stories of moorcock's childhood experiences with what to him were false presumptuous, and insiduous, which I can see how-might provoke a bit of a chip on the shoulder, or a hell of one, but provides not the least excuse for being reduced to the level of snorting pig, even if it wears a top hat and monocle. No excuse a man would accept for himself, anyway.
 
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Idealect

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I don't know. If I remember rightly, Gollum’s snatching of the ring and subsequent death doesn’t mean that it’s all chance, or that the efforts of the characters are ultimately meaningless. At least I’m sure that’s not the point Tolkien wanted to make. I think it’s just as arguable that Gollum’s death is the punishment for his insane greed and the corruption brought about by the ring: in that way of looking at it, evil is self-destructive. By making Gollum mad, the ring has brought about its own destruction.

As to what one individual can do, in Tolkien’s world, the answer is surely a vast amount. For one thing, given the low level of technology and the “heroic” setting, one King Arthur-type fighter can rampage through hundreds of orcs in a way that would be impossible in a more realistic setting. Secondly, the Tolkien world is based on individuals, especially kings, holding power. Nobody ever suggests that putting power into the hands of one man is a bad idea in principle: it’s which man that’s the issue.
I did genuinely find it disturbing, and, actually, wrong, but I was engaging in a bit of sophistic (is that a word? is that the word?) inflation.

edit: which is just to clarify the intent of my earlier post, thanks for the thoughts in your reply.
 
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Toby Frost

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I just read Moorcock's essay again, and I have to say that I think it is weak. A lot of it reads like a flyer written by a Momentum activist or some similar hard left type. It is so stuffed full of statements like this:

The Lord of the Rings is a pernicious confirmation of the values of a declining nation with a morally bankrupt class whose cowardly self-protection is primarily responsible for the problems England answered with the ruthless logic of Thatcherism

And this:

the wretched ethic of passive "decency" and self-sacrifice, by means of which we British were able to console ourselves in our moral apathy


that I'm surprised that something about capitalist jackals crushing the proleteriat under the jackboot of bourgeois materialism isn't in there somewhere.

In short, Moorcock is arguing "I hate Dire Straits because they are not The Clash", which isn't much of an argument to me. Moorcock doesn't really make his arguments good beyond saying that LOTR is not to his political tastes, because it is too melancholy and "safe" (I've not been in a WW1 trench, but I'd have thought it makes you rather appreciate being safe). How, for instance, does "moderation" ruin the Lord of the Rings? The hobbits come from the Shire: why should they not want to go back there? If you make a world full of dangers - to make it exciting - why shouldn't the characters want to go home? Would Moorcock be happier if the hobbits' home was more "exotic" - a stylised Middle Eastern souk instead of a stylised rural England, say? You might be repulsed by Tolkien's world-view (I'm not, although it isn't my own) but Moorcock fails really to grapple with the problem except to say that it isn't his.

He is probably on stronger grounds attacking Tolkien's prose, but again I'm unconvinced. I'm no great fan of Tolkien's prose, which is miles behind that of, say, Peake, but then Tolkien is trying to evoke an epic style rather than anything cutting-edge. In that, he succeeds, I think, although the result is rather numbing in places. Tolkien, to my mind, is trying to pastiche and slightly modernise an older style - but for Moorcock, I suppose that is bad in itself.

So while Tolkien doesn't hold the special status for me that he does for most fantasy fans, I think Moorcock's arguments are not up to much.
 

BAYLOR

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Ive read the Hobbit, Lord of The Rings , The Silmarillion and his version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Children of Hurin is yet to be read. Even thought times he can be a bit ponderous , he's worth reading.
 

zlogdan

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The Hobbit was conceived as a children's book and Tolkien's prose at this book is more akin to this genre and probably more often meeting what Moorcock criticizes "as bad" in his essay, something I disagree . Still, I think - it is just my opinion :) - that Lord Of The Rings although starts narrating the comfortable and "cozy" life of the Shire, it becomes bleaker when the story reaches the second half of "The Fellowship of the Ring".

Being myself a big fan of both I generally ignore this essay and I generally meet troubles when I realize the apparent "leftism" that seems so evident in Moorcock's 70's works ( especially in his trilogy "Nomad Of Time streams", which I love ) but at least from reading his posts on the now inactive forum Multiverse.org he has apparently become a far more tempered person in his political beliefs.
 

The Big Peat

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The essay, the quotes from the link to it, and some of the posts reminds me of a sentence in the recent exchange between the anonymous students complaining about a professor wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt and her response. This one:

"Otherwise, you are risking trading the credibility of your entire message for the momentary satisfaction derived from communicating your disdain."

There's a lot of hyperbole, both in Moorcock's own thoughts and in others' thoughts about Moorcock, that do indeed risk the credibility of the entire message. I've read Moorcock's essay once and that, I think, is enough. There's no shortage of good criticism of Tolkien's conservatism and cosiness and what not out there and if I run short, I can always run up the Hobbit signal here.

I would also like to loudly applaud Toby's theory on Tolkien being far more interested in corruption than evil. It rings very true to me.
 
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