Tuesday, 16 June 2009

U-Turning on Tolkien

I'm writing this from a roadside internet cafe somewhere in the depths of Iwate prefecture - I wouldn't normally have bothered spending the extra 200 yen, but I just spotted something in my google reader feed that I had to link to: China Mieville saying nice things about Tolkien. (Regular readers will know why this is of extra special interest.) It seems China has had a change of heart, and it's a welcome one. Three quotes I picked out on a cursory reading:

Whatever we see as the drive behind Tolkien's tragic vision, and however we relate to its politics and aesthetics, the tragedy of the creeping tawdry quotidian gives Middle Earth a powerful melancholia lamentably missing from too much of what followed. It deserves celebrating and reclaiming.


[S]ay what you like about him, Tolk gives good monster. Shelob, Smaug, the Balrog...in their astounding names, the fearful verve of their descriptions, their various undomesticated malevolence, these creatures are utterly embedded in our world-view. No one can write giant spiders except through Shelob: all dragons are sidekicks now.


In his abjuring of allegory, Tolkien refuses the notion that a work of fiction is, in some reductive way, primarily, solely, or really 'about' something else, narrowly and precisely. That the work of the reader is one of code-breaking, that if we find the right key we can perform a hermeneutic algorithm and 'solve' the book. Tolkien knows that that makes for both clumsy fiction and clunky code. His dissatisfaction with the Narnia books was in part precisely because they veered too close to allegory, and therefore did not believe in their own landscape. A similar problem is visible now, in the various tentative ventures into u- or dystopia by writers uncomfortable with the genre they find themselves in and therefore the worlds they create, eager to stress that these worlds are 'about' real and serious things--and thereby bleeding them of the specificity they need to be worth inhabiting, or capable of 'meaning', at all. [Emphasis added.]

I find China's comments about 'Oedipal Resentment' on the part of young writers towards Tolkien pretty funny, because he's obviously speaking from experience but isn't honest enough to say so. I also think his own fiction has strayed into the territory he rejects in the third quoted section above. But this is the best piece I've read on Tolkien in some time, and it's nice to see that China's grown up quite a bit. I was going to buy his latest book anyway, but I think I might get it even sooner than I was going to.


  1. I totally disagree that this is necessarily a change of heart.

    I feel like CM's position all along was (plausibly) this:

    -Tolkien influenced way too many bad fantasy authors to mindlessly copy him. ("wen on the arse" etc.--as in "something that's always there whether you want it or not")

    -Tolkien's work is flawed.

    -Tolkien's work has lots of good things about it, too.

    There's nothing contradictory about that ensemble of positions.

    In fact, I feel like more or less every single discussion of Tolkien in the mainstream literary press when the LOTR films came out shared this same set of positions.

    I don't necessarily agree or disagree with it, I just think that there's nothing inconsistent about it.

  2. "Hi China, what took you so long?"

    Good find noisms.

  3. no isms, Good detective work young man.

  4. "I never hated Pink Floyd. I was having a laugh.

    "How could you hate Pink Floyd? It's like saying, 'Kill the fluffy bunnies.'"

    - John Lydon

  5. Gotta love a John Lydon quote.

    Anyway, I'm pleased to read this, and it salvages some of my opinion of him.

  6. And so the priests of the Cult of Tol-Ken lower their torches. The heretic has recanted. Their auto de fé has run its brief course. They purse their lips and toast each other with sour wine.

  7. I can't help but feel that CM was still coming across as awfully condensending regarding as the father of the genre that he is now writing in. I don't see that it's any different from anything else he's said in the past

  8. I wish that guy would Just. Stop. Talking.

  9. It never fails to amuse me the way Tolkien fanatics froth at the mouth while rolling natural 20's on their brow-furrowing impotent rage checks whenever confronted by even the slightest criticism of their prophet.

  10. It never fails to amuse me when people post anonymous inflammatory comments on people's blogs. Get the balls to put your name or alias to what you're writing.

  11. Iwate prefecture? Where the tadpoles are falling from the sky, according to today's Slow News Day headline in The Guardian?

  12. ["Get the balls to put your name or alias to what you're writing."]

    That would require a registration that I don't care to go through. If knowing my name will make a big difference to you it's Nigel. How has this changed anything? Has this somehow made me less anonymous? Surprise, you're still an assbag! Stick that in your Gondor and smoke it.

  13. Oh my god, my v-word is "china".

    anyway, noisms, sorry to see you're blog has attracted flamers.

    maybe it's time to move back to less controversial topics like opium, molluscoid prostitutes, and human sacrifice.

  14. Damn, that is some good shit.

  15. Nigel: It does make you less anonymous, yes. That's generally what a name does - the clue is in what "anonymous" means.

    You don't have to register to comment under a name, you know. If you have so much time to waste that you can spend it posting idiotically unoffensive "offensive" comments on my blog, you probably have enough time to work out how to post a non-anonymous comment.

    Zak: Lesson #1 of blogging about role playing games - you can talk about human sacrifice, opium addiction and humanoid slug prostitutes, but you'd sure as hell better not try to bring up Tolkien if you value your sanity...

  16. Thanks for sharing. There is some significant u-turning going on here, particularly this paragraph by Mieville:

    Unlike so many of those he begat, Tolkien's vision, never mind any Hail-fellow-well-met-ery, no matter the coziness of the shire, despite even the remorseless sylvan bonheur of Tom Bombadil, is tragic. The final tears in characters' and readers' eyes are not uncomplicatedly of happiness. On the one hand, yay, the goodies win: on the other, shame that the entire epoch is slipping from Glory. The magic goes west, of course, but there's also the peculiar abjuring of narrative form, in the strange echo after the final battle, the Lord of the Rings's post-end end, the Harrowing of the Shire--so criminally neglected by Jackson.

    I'm not sure where this statement came from, but I'm glad to see he's finally had a change of heart and opened his eyes to Tolkien. Compare the above with his previous statements that Tolkien was guilty of "moddycoddling" the reader and portrayed the war of the Ring as "boys-own-adventure glorying in war."

  17. kelvingreen: Apparently a very slow news day, because that hasn't even made the news in Japan. Or even in Iwate prefecture.

    Brian: My thoughts exactly.

  18. You're not very skilled at this whole "logic" thing are you "Noism". That's alright, I'll baby you through this as I'm sure this is the manner in which you're accustomed to being taught about many things.

    1) It's cute the way you and your potato headed friends bath yourselves in pretentious language regarding Tolkien and Miéville, but when a light is put on your idiocy you resort to the only thing you have even a shaky understanding of - that is your own genitals. You and those like you are Chickenhawks, you play at intellect as long as your foe doesn't respond to you, in which case you scatter and squawk like the tiny-brained things that you are.

    2) Having a name to associate with my comments doesn't mean much given the context. How do you even know that the person calling himself "Nigel" is the same person who made the initial comment, much less that this is his real name? How do to know I am that person now? The fact is that you don't; the fact is that anonymity remains. Obviously the irony I'm pointing out here and in the previous anonymous comment escapes you, as I'm sure most concepts beyond the existence of your own testicles do.

    3) Why would I take the time to register an account when I can freely comment on your drivel without registering an account? Because something is possible, does not mean it is necessary or inevitable. This is another concept I'm sure you have trouble comprehending, as your habit of waxing polemic every time China opens his peep about your Messiah illustrates. So here is a lesson I'd like to impart on you even though I'm betting it's more than likely going to fall upon def ears or more accurately blind eyes; because China Mieville doesn't particularly respect your favourite shitty novels about elves and rings doesn't actually mean you will have to enjoy Tolkien less unless you produce some ham-fisted rebuttal. Although I'm sure it is at least vaguely entertaining for you to do so, just as insulting you and watching you furrow your textual brow at what must seem to you to be nothing short of "supernatural deftness at wordplay" is to me. The difference being that you will occasionally run across somebody like me who will call you on your bullshit and make you look stupid in front of your friends where as I in my anonymity risk nothing.

    Class dismissed, assbag. Now go back to painting your Bard.

  19. It's weird how last week you managed to have a whole 86-post-long conversation here between people who did and didn't like Tolkien and nobody really blew their top or starting getting pointlessly personal and then all of a sudden this guy shows up and decides people who disagree with him are "assbags".

    Can you even put an ass in a bag?

    Or is the idea that it's a bag made of asses?

    Will think on this and get back to you.

  20. Nigel: "Noisms", actually, not "noism". It really makes the rest of your comment fall down when it turns out you can't even get my alias right.

    1) I like to think I have a pretty profound understanding of my own genitals, actually. It certainly ain't shaky.

    2) Mate, that's Alanis Morissette irony, not the real thing. You do know what "anonymous" means, don't you?

    3) You really don't have anything better to do, do you? How long did it take you to write that? Couldn't you have spent the time more productively by drinking, masturbating or sleeping?

    Zak: Maybe idiot-speak for an enema?

  21. Colostomy bag, maybe?

    If so, that's gross. You aren't one of those, are you?

  22. Zak: No, but I do have a nice collection of antique colostomy bags in my dining room. Funny how dinner guests always seem to want to leave early and never come back.

  23. Wow, that is odd. I am becoming more and more concerned about The Guardian's writers.

    Also, can you get assbags from CafePress? I wouldn't mind having one with a picture of Tolkien and/or Mieville on it.

  24. I agree with Zak S, this isn't necessarily a conversion (based on your quotes), just a more nuanced explanation of part of his original ideas.

    The third paragraph you quote could easily be a contrast between The Scar, which is a semi-utopic vision of an anarchist and multi-racial society that is so well done that (imho) one doesn't really notice its political vision; and Iron Council, which is a clunky polemic.

  25. Kelvin: Does China Mieville write for The Grauniad now or something?

    faustusnotes: Read the whole article. It flies entirely in the face of what Mieville said earlier about mollycoddling, glorifying in war, Tolkien being a wen on the arse, etc. etc.

    There are a few clunky bits in The Scar too - I particularly remember one scene where some sailors are joking about the mosquito women and one of the characters suddenly becomes a Mieville mouthpiece and starts internally pontificating about sexism. It's like...really, China? And we were getting along so well.

    Also, some bits of Iron Council are fantastic. The whole middle section about the building of the railway is terrific, and generally speaking everything to do with the train is good. The stuff in the city, where it gets all Paris Commune-lite, I could have done without.

  26. I will read it when I have a spare hour... probably sunday. I'm suspicious that you are being overly generous to the man.