[Marxism] re Tolkien

DCQ deeseekyou at comcast.net
Thu Nov 16 00:01:52 MST 2006

Thanks for taking up my comments. I think you mischaracterized me a bit  
(see below). But please take this as comradely debate...

On Nov 14, 2006, at 6:53 AM, Scott Hamilton wrote:

> Interesting discussion on Tolkien. I've made some replies on my blog  
> at:
> http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2006/11/close-your-eyes-and-think- 
> of-middle.html
> The China Mieville essay I quote seems on the money, until it begins  
> to discuss Peter Jackson's awful films.
> My recent post on Tolkien has prompted some discussion on the  
> international Marxmail e list, with several fans of the great man  
> rising to his defence.
> Somebody with the austere name of 'DCQ' complains that Tolkien has  
> become a 'sort of punching bag of the left' since he reached the big  
> screen. DCQ points out that Tolkien became disillusioned with run of  
> the mill conservatism, and sometimes styled himself an  
> 'anarcho-monarchist'. But it seems to me that it was precisely  
> Tolkien's unhappiness with both the left and the mainstream British  
> right that drove him towards the impossibilist nostalgia for the  
> Middle Ages that is reflected in Lord of the Rings.
This is an improvement over your initial characterization of Tolkien as  
a hard-right reactionary and fascist. (And I wasn't complaining about  
Tolkien being a punching bag...I was point out a fact.)
> Tolkien was one of a generation of British intellectuals who became  
> disillusioned with the realities of twentieth century life - with the  
> slaughter of the First World War, the chaos and suffering associated  
> with the Great Depression, the ugliness of an industrial economy which  
> had by the 1930s lost any dynamism and glamour it had once possessed -  
> but who could find no viable social group and political movement with  
> which to identify.
> Unwilling to throw their lot in with an idealised British working  
> class, in the manner of the young Auden and countless other writers of  
> the inter-war period, and disgusted with the philistinism of a British  
> ruling class that had lost its aristocratic liberal fringe,  
> intellectuals like Tolkien, FR Leavis and Evelyn Waugh looked back  
> longingly to a pre-industrial era where the problems of the twentieth  
> century were absent.
This might be true of Tolkien in general. But it's irrelevant. One  
cannot draw those conclusions from his novels. His novels are rife with  
conflict on a mass scale: war, slavery, environmental destruction,  
greed, and the resistance they spawn.
> DCQ talks of the philistinism of left-wingers who ply reductionist  
> political analyses of literary texts, but then goes on to argue that  
> Rings must be good, and have at least some progressive qualities,  
> because 'millions of people' read it. Is that not a pretty philistine  
> argument?
This is a gross mischaracterization of my argument. What I argued was  
…Especially if something becomes the cultural phenomenon that Lord of  
the Rings has become, we have a responsibility to acknowledge and  
explain it to the extent that we can, and suggesting a course of  
action. If Tolkien was nothing but a miserable reactionary who couldn't  
write, then we can do little else but draw pessimistic conclusions  
about the level of consciousness (and aesthetic tastes) of millions of  
people. But if Tolkien is a more contradictory writer, then there are  
some pretty interesting things we can discuss with prospective  
radicals, socialists, and revolutionaries.
This is an “if-then” argument relating to the possible real-world  
conclusions we can draw about people’s political consciousness based on  
Tolkien’s popularity, not the asinine tautology you attribute to me.
> I think that the vastly increased audience Rings has won in recent  
> decades is in part a reflection of the contradictory course that  
> history has taken in that time. Over the past thirty years capitalism  
> has struggled to regain the bouyancy it had in the decades immediately  
> after the Second World War, and even in the wealthy countries of the  
> West ordinary people have been made to pay for this failure. Yet  
> despite economic stagnation and decades of falling real incomes, the  
> triumphs of the neo-liberal right in the '80s and the fall of the  
> Soviet Union in 1991 have helped ensure that an entire generation has  
> grown up without the prospect of a feasible alternative to capitalism.
> This curious combination of stagnation and the evaporation of a real  
> alternative to the status quo has meant that a sizeable number of  
> young people, in particular, have begun to hold the sort of attitudes  
> that gave birth to Rings over sixty years ago. Today's disillusioned  
> look about them and hate the world that they see, but can conceive of  
> no feasible alternative to maladies like globalisation, the War of  
> Terror, and environmental degradation. It is not surprising that many  
> of them turn to ideas and cultural movements based on a rejection of  
> modernity in toto. I have encountered many people active on the rather  
> otherwordly primitivist and eco-anarchist fringes of the  
> anti-globalisation and anti-war movements movement who, contra DCQ,  
> regarded Rings as a sort of allegory for their political stance, if  
> not as a full-blooded manifesto.
And you prove my point. Despite making noises about his popularity  
being “a reflection of the contradictory course” of recent history, you  
mention only the negative aspects or recent history. And you draw  
negative conclusions about the consciousness of Tolkien fans. (Well, if  
Tolkien is spawning a mass movement of eco-anarchists, wouldn’t that be  
an improvement over what we have now, which is not much of anything?)
> In another post to Marxmail, Bob Hopson complains about those who  
> 'want to bring Marxism into my entertainment choices' and counterposes  
> Tolkien to a joyless tradition of literary 'realism':
> There was an interview with China Mieville (a Marxist scholar and  
> science fiction writer) where he confessed to finding realisitc  
> literature almost unreadable. I sometimes wonder whether realism isn't  
> just a fad of the modern era. And if you can't enjoy fiction without  
> social commentary, there's always Leguin, Butler, etc.
> Hopson seems to reduce the term 'realism' to a description of the  
> subject matter of a text. But many literary scholars would argue that  
> it should also relate to the way that a text treats its subject  
> matter. Rings may have a fantastic setting, but its prose style is  
> ultra-traditional, drawing on Norse legend and Chaucer and completely  
> ignoring the innovations that modernist writers like Joyce, Proust,  
> Hemingway and so many others had given to the novel form in the first  
> decades of the twentieth century. To my mind, Rings is a very dour  
> piece of realism when set beside a novel like Joyce's Ulysses, even  
> though Joyce tells his story in twentieth century Dublin rather than a  
> fantastic land of elves and hobbits.
Realism has many meanings. Definition #1: Realism as a literary  
movement popular between the Romantic movement and the Modernist  
movement, roughly starting with the failed revolutions of 1848 and  
ending with World War I. Definition #2: Realism is writing about the  
real world in a straightforward fashion. Bob and China are using  
definition #2, while you are using definition #1.
> It seems strange, too, that Bob Hopson invokes China Mieville in  
> defence of Tolkien, given Mieville's oft-stated disdain for Tolkien's  
> scribblings. Here's a juicy quote from Mieville's excellent essay  
> against Tolkien, 'Middle Earth meets Middle England':
> The hobbits' 'Shire' resembles a small town in the Home Counties, full  
> of forelock-tugging peasants and happy artisans. Though he idealises  
> the rural petty bourgeoisie, Tolkien treats them with enormous  
> condescension...
> Tolkien claimed the function of his fantasy was 'consolation'. In  
> other words, it becomes a point of principle that his literature  
> mollycoddles its readers. Tolkien and his admirers (many of them  
> leftists) gave his escapism an emancipatory gloss, claiming that  
> jailers hate escapism. As the great anarchist fantasist Michael  
> Moorcock has pointed out, this is precisely untrue. Jailers love  
> escapism. What they hate is escape.
> Tolkien is naive to think he's escaping anything...The myth of an  
> idyllic past is not oppositional to capitalism, but consolation for  
> it. Troubled by the world? Close your eyes and think of Middle Earth.
I have great respect for China’s writing (although I was disappointed  
by Perdido Street Station) and imagination and analytical skills. But I  
think he’s wrong on Tolkien. Not that he (and Moorcock) doesn’t have  
some valid insights. It’s simply that in order to develop his  
full-blown head-on critique of Tolkien, he has to create a strawman in  
order to knock it down. Tolkien's essay is a complex argument (given  
after he had finished the Hobbit, but 16 years before the Lord of the  
Rings was published) about the role and value of fairy-stories. When  
Tolkien mentions "Consolation," he specifically discusses (among other  
things) the "Consolation of the Happy Ending" as an integral feature of  
fairy-stories. This is factually true of historical fairy-stories.  
Tolkien's argument is difficult to follow because he mixes  
academic/historical study, prescriptive advice for authors, his own  
idealistic religious philosophy, and a good dose of tongue-in-cheek  
humor (for instance, he wonders about the type of fantasy stories  
fairies write about us). But in no place in the article does he make  
the argument that fantasy writers need "to mollycoddle the reader," as  
China claims. Tolkien claims many things in the article, some true,  
some false, some strange--among them that fantasy can waken a reader's  
mind to the possibility that things have been different, and may be  
different, that "grim reality" while real, is not eternal or permanent.  
And he compares this function of the fantasy writer to the resistance  
against the Nazis (and remember this is written in 1938).

Furthermore, as I mentioned, Tolkien's writing on the whole contains an  
element of tragedy that is absolutely astounding (China rightly  
mentions this as a positive and interesting aspect of Tolkien's work).  
Despite the "happy ending" in LOTR, there is a profound sadness at the  
end. And this is more true of what Tolkien considered his major work,  
the Silmarillion. The Silmarillion is tragedy on a grand scale (this  
comes through even in the patchwork posthumous novel his son cobbled  
together as "The Silmarillion"; whereas Tolkien envisioned it as a work  
that would be longer than LOTR). The story of Turin (which will be  
published as a stand-alone novel this spring) is one of the greatest  
tragedies I've ever read (complete with murder, madness, incest, dragon  
spells, a family curse, and suicide), Shakespeare and Sophocles  
included. It's hard to square this great tragic epic, which Tolkien  
considered his "real" writing, with the claim that he thinks fantasy  
writers should "mollycoddle" the reader. Quite simply, Tolkien's  
writing is able to capture a sense of loss and grief while maintaining  
a sense of endurance in hope--a hope that no matter how bad things get,  
no matter how many traitors and false friends we have to endure, no  
matter how many battles we lose, there will always be somebody fighting  
the good fight along with you. That's something, particularly in these  
times, that every progressive should be able to appreciate.


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