Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Richard K Morgan on Tolkien

British author Richard K Morganhas a short essay up over on Suvudu. Just thought I'd provide a link. So here it is: A LINK.

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29 Comments:

Blogger Constance said...

Hmm. Color me underwhelmed.

11:41 PM  
Blogger Child of Albion said...

I second Constance's sentiment. My cynicism does not fail to note the appeal to ridicule at the end of Mr. Morgan's piece, nor the capstone book plug. Such things make it difficult to take the essay seriously.

12:52 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

I did find the book plug at the end rather... distracting.

1:24 AM  
Anonymous Greg W. said...

Amen to all the above comments. Apparently the "let's bash Tolkien, it's so DIFFERENT!" crowd has decided to reappear again. If you're going to criticize Tolkien (and much as I admire his work, it's certainly not flawless), as least try to be original in doing it!

2:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi David,

I bought Acacia last year in Seattle and it languished on my bookshelf until about two days ago.Now i cannot work,sleep,eat or do any other normal thing without thinking,can i get another chapter in? Im about halfway through and already Im checking Amazon to see when the next book release date is. Then I remembered the reason I didnt read Acacia was that I was waiting for the sequel to come out first.All good plans. So ,thanks andI am enjoying your book immensely. And I loved the V Day blog.

Jim

11:11 PM  
Blogger paranoyd said...

Hmm. I thought Morgan made a good point about the difference between Tolkien's archetypes and the very human moment of the guard.

I love Tolkien's story, but not his writing. It suffers from "Hey you just missed the coolest thing let me tell you about it" itis. I will say I enjoyed The Hobbit cover to cover, and have reread it a few times. (I've also reread LOTR three times. These are the only books I've reread.)

Greg W., I think you may have misread Morgan's point. He was in no way bashing Tolkien, he said that Tolkien's ideas are not complex enough to sustain, in his opinion, an adult mind. He also said that JRR could have written it from a more interesting perspective to Morgan's thinking, but he did not.

I had no problem with the book plug, either.

I think when someone invokes the name of JRR Tolkien, the next thing everyone expects is praise, and some people just don't like those books. It's just one man's opinion, at any rate, and it is just as valuable as anyone else's.

3:27 AM  
Blogger Ink said...

Thanks David,

I threw in my two cents over on the Suvudu thread. Well, actually it was a good dime's worth at least. :) Interesting discussion, so thanks for the heads up. I think Morgan had a lot of interesting points... but I also think his reading of LotR is overly simplistic (exceedingly so, really). Though whether that was partially to get a reaction I don't know...

Thanks again,
Bryan Russell

11:18 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Jim,

So glad you bought Acacia and that it's now disrupting your daily schedule! Wonderful that you're enjoying it. I hope you remember to pick up The Other Lands. I believe the Sept 15th pub date is going to stick, so it's really not that far a way.

-David.

1:13 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Regarding Morgan's essay... I'd actually have liked it to have been longer. I share his criticisms of Tolkien in many ways, although I'm genetically made up in a way that means I'd express them with a gentler tone. But I also can't help but respect the vast readership the T has had over the years. He's touched and inspired too many people - including myself - for me to write him off. Nor can I write off those readers because they don't see the same flaws I do.

I'm not saying that's precisely what Morgan was doing, but that's why I wish it were longer. It may be because I'm an academic, but I think the topic - if you choose to write about it - deserves to be considered with more depth.

On the other hand, the essay did get folks riled and writing. I thought some of the responses at Suvudu - including yours, Brian - were very insightful. In a way, the brevity and tone of Morgan's piece got people involved. That's pretty clever...

1:30 PM  
Blogger Alis said...

I haven't posted before, although I really enjoyed Acacia (haven't read your other novels yet) and am looking forward to the next book.

But if you ever have time or inclination I think you would do an excellent job writing such an essay on Tolkien. I found the Morgan essay a bit too glib (I'm never convinced by a critique that seems to fall into the "the writer didn't write the book I wanted him/her to write" camp), although I think it's great that he provoked a lot of discussion.

I think there is a great deal to examine and criticize in Tolkien--I love LotR but am not therefore unaware of its shortcomings as seen from a later perspective--but surely it needs to be done with a less simplistic reading of what Tolkien was trying to accomplish.


Kate Elliott

2:19 PM  
Anonymous Greg W. said...

I actually wrote an entry about this article on my blog, since it did indeed get me "riled up." :) And paranoyd, I don't think I misread his point at all--I'm sorry, but it's hard for me to interpret "he said that Tolkien's ideas are not complex enough to sustain, in his opinion, an adult mind" as anything other than highly dismissive criticism at best on his part.

As I mention in my blog post, the point isn't that Tolkien should always be praised to the heavens and can do no wrong...the point is that if you're (the generic you, not anyone on this thread specifically :) ) going to criticize him, 1. do it based on something he actually wrote, rather than something you wish he had written for the sake of your argument and 2. try not to act as if your criticism is some radical departure from the norm. The norm at the moment is to beat Tolkien up at all costs--defending his work has become the exception to the rule, at least in a number of critical circles.

3:02 PM  
Blogger Drew Bowling said...

I'm a fan of Morgan's fiction.

That said, I've already started writing an essay to defend the literary merit and moral complexity of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's classic masterpiece, thrumming with dark poetry and melancholy hope, is a many-faceted crystal through which the human condition can be better understood, regardless of the angle from which it is viewed. The one precondition, of course, being that it must be examined in the light of an open mind. There are endless reasons why C.S. Lewis equated The Lord of the Rings to "lightning from a clear sky," and I will argue that none of them revolve around mollycoddling readers about the verities and vices of man.

On another note: Hey there, David! I asked Chris to swing you that ARC of The Steel Remains several months ago. Did you ever get it?

9:22 PM  
Blogger paranoyd said...

Greg, first off, you might wanna take a small step back from the "Everyone's picking on Tolkien" routine. You are beginning to sound like those Christian's who complain that everyone picks on them when someone doesn't want the Ten Commandments in a government building. Honestly, I didn't see that Morgan was picking on JRR, he ust had a valid criticism. (Valid in the sense that he backed himself up, whether you agree or not.)

I really think the main point here is that thematically, LOTR is about as complex as a Saturday morning cartoon. With a couple of exceptions, you know the good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, and the good guys are gonna win with very little loss along the way. Even the good characters who die do so saving everyone. And some come back more powerful. The bad guys all die. Good wins and the kingdom is restored. That is what I think Morgan is talking about.

Now, as far as the language and structure goes, that is very complex, sometimes overly so. Those are not easy novels to read. The Hobbit is a breeze, but LOTR is quite difficult in places. (As I said, I've read all of them three times, so it's not like I'm talking out of my a$$ here.)

As far as those critical circles that beat up JRR, please point at least one of them out. I'll go there and defend JRR. I enjoyed LOTR and think they are essential reading for fantasy fans in their teens and early 20s. After that, you should be rereading them, not reading them for the first time. I really think someone middle aged reading those books for the first time would be disappointed.

And finally, because I am very long winded on other people's blogs, I think your point about complaining not about what something is but what it isn't has merit, but I also think sometimes that IS the problem. An author/filmmaker/whatever sets the audience up for a certain story or fell and shifts gears, or heads some other direction that just isn't as interesting. Morgan is merely stating that there was a point at which he could see what LOTR could have been, which would have been a better read for him. He never said the books were crap.

3:54 AM  
Anonymous Greg W. said...

Hmm. I really don't think I'm arguing that "everyone's picking on Tolkien." I am arguing that pretending that you're (again, the generic you, not you personally, Paranoyd :) ) being radical and different and brave for taking an anti-Tolkien stance is absurd and misguided. I've heard versions of Morgan's argument a hundred times before, and if nothing else I would have liked to see some different ideas brought forward. As I've said many times, Tolkien is far from immune from criticism. But I get annoyed at straw man attacks held up as examples of thinking outside the box.

The second problem is that Morgan DIDN'T back himself up. What he did was assert that Tolkien writes a black and white moral universe the vast majority of the time, with monolithic forces of Incorruptibly Good arrayed against Unspeakably Evil, before dismissing the whole kit and kaboodle as juvenile and something no adult would want to read, conveniently offering his own work as a helpful alternative. My objection isn't that this is unreasonably dismissive of Tolkien's readers (though it's really hard to see how it isn't--honestly, if you're a mid-thirties reader of Tolkien, how are you supposed to take Morgan's statement I just mentioned?), it's that it's just flat wrong (I've laid out why on my own blog, so I won't clutter up David's with my argument here. :) ) And arguing that it's as "complex as a Saturday morning cartoon" isn't exactly meeting the Christians with rational responses either, to follow along with your metaphor. :)

Third, the problem with the thematic argument is that it's just not accurate. Is Denethor good? How about Ghan Buri Ghan? Boromir? What about Rohan's shaky relationship with Minas Tirith? Are the Ents innately good or simply self-interested, insofar as they don't act until their own forests and lands are threatened? On the "other side," are all of LOTR's evil characters created equal? Is Shelob the same kind of evil as Sauron? Saruman? Are Wormtongue's actions at the end of LOTR towards Saruman indicative of a monolithic evil force? And of course, what about Gollum? Sam's (unsympathetically portrayed) treatment of him? Frodo's (repeatedly emphasized) kinship with and pity for him? Is this evil? And although Sauron is defeated, what's the cost to the "good" forces? What is the cost to Frodo?

I entirely agree with you about the language, as I did in the beginning, though I think it too has its own beauty. But there's no doubt there are times when one wishes Tolkien would get on with the story. And if you think LOTR is tough, try The Silmarillion on for size! (In fact, now that I think of it, if you look at the just released Children of Hurin you'll see not only difficult language but a very, very mixed portrayal of "good." Believe me, Hurin is far from an un-nuanced character, and his story is far from a happy one.)

I'll try to track down some academic books which make the anti-Tolkien move (I've seen at least four academic papers presented with the "Tolkien as racist" meme), but in the meantime type in "Tolkien racism" in Google and see what pops up. Again, this isn't intended to short-circuit criticism of his work--it's to point out that such criticism is much more the norm than the exception.

In any case, this has been an interesting discussion, Paranoyd! You've got some good points to make--in fact much better points, I think, than in the original article. Would that you, or David, or Minister Faust, had written it. :)

4:37 AM  
Blogger Ink said...

Drew,

Sounds interesting. Are you gonna put the essay up on your blog when you're finished? I wouldn't mind taking a peek at that.

Greg,

Thanks for pointing out many of the grey areas in LotR. Frankly, there's a lot of moral ambiguity in the story that people always seem to glaze over. Indeed, I think people seem to misread it quite often, failing to see how the voice of the Ring (the voice of Sauron, Saruman, Wormtongue, etc.) is really just a representation of man's struggle with sin. The real conflicts are within: struggles with vanity, pride, greed, fear, despair. Yes, they're embodied at times in outward aspects (Sauron, the Ring), but it's a fantasy novel, so its symbols are manifested accordingly. I think it's a fairly adept exploration of a metaphysical reality seen through the prism of a fun adventure story. And I think it's that combination that has led to its lasting resonance with readers. Yes, it's fun. But fun isn't enough. Lots of books are fun. LotR remains important because it resonates on a deeper level with many readers, who recognize (consciously or unconsciously) many of their own struggles within the story.

Interesting stuff. My best to everone,

Bryan Russell

10:45 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Well, Mr. Morgan created a mini-firestorm it appears. I know it'll burn out soon, only to reappear later, I guess. I am impressed with the amount of discourse he's inspired, and I'm impressed at the insightful perspectives you all are bringing to the discussion.

Hello Kate Elliott (aka Alis)!

I'm thrilled to see you visit here. It's funny, actually, because just yesterday I put together a PowerPoint presentation on fantasy covers for a course on popular fiction that I'm teaching. One of the images I used was your Shadow Gate!

I'm afraid I haven't read your work yet, but your one of those authors that I've been following for a while now: reading reviews, visiting your blog, picking up your books each time I'm browsing fantasy, being jealous that you live in Hawaii. I'll have to get beyond being a lurking near-fan soon.

Thank you very much for your comments on Acacia. I'd be happy to make sure you get an early copy of The Other Lands, if you'd like one.

As for writing about Tolkien, it's been awhile since I read LOTR. I'd have to reread it carefully, making sure I'm commenting on it instead of the Jackson films. We own all of those and I've seen them (or fragments of them as my kids watch) hundreds of times. I'm sure they also cloud the waters of this whole discussion. So, for me, writing about Tolkien would have to be a major project. At the moment I'm happy to read others on the subject.

Greg,

You make great points.

Paranoyd,

You do as well, but, uh... see Greg's points.

Bryan,

Nicely balanced approach you have.

Drew,

Hey. What's up? Thanks for dropping in. I'll be interested in your take on all this, so do let me know when you've got it up.

That's right, I remember now that you'd hooked me a Steel Remains! But, no, I never got it. I think Chris needs a talking to...

I look forward to seeing you somewhere sometime. We'll have a beer. (This last statement can be applied to anyone who has posted here, by the way.)

11:10 AM  
Blogger paranoyd said...

You make some good points about the gray areas and the dubious characters. I still feel, though, that in many of those cases, the character does not question the order of the universe and their place in it. The character Morgan pointed out is just a guard. That's his lot and he does it, but he questions the order of things and is not at all comfortable with the war. He just wants it to end so he can go home. I would argue that this a bit more of a complex emotional stance than the ents, for example, who know who they are, know what they are, do not question the established order, and do exactly what they are expected to do.

Boromir was corrupted to show how humans are corrupted. It was a first-hand account, but not complex. Interesting, important, but he was redeemed in the end. Sam was a jerk to Gollum, true, and that brings up some moral ambiguities, but ultimately he is proven correct. None of this disproves your point, but it shows that one could look at these characters a bit more simplistically and still be largely correct.

I think we bring a lot to books and films as observers. Someone once said (paraphrased) "If I'm looking for red, red is all I'll see." I think you, as a Tolkien fan, see a level of complexity that is not necessarily not there, but less obvious to the casual or non-fan reader. To be fair, I think the books work, mostly, on either level, simplistically or more complex. I just don't think one should be forced to see it that way.

I have read The Silmarillion. I completely agree with you.

Last point, someone was talking about war and said it was easier to kill your enemy when you painted them as mindless savages. The next question was, well, what if they are mindless savages? The point being, while it is impossible to fairly judge a body of work from a different time and viewpoint, sometimes things are what they look like, or at least fairly close. Not that Tolkien is a racist, but there are some fairly obvious racial themes in the books, intentional or otherwise, that may or may not be a reflection of the time when they were written. Calling something out as having racist overtones may be accurate, even while the thing may be classic and important. Huckleberry Finn, anyone?

11:34 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Paranoyd,

You wrote:

"I think you, as a Tolkien fan, see a level of complexity that is not necessarily not there, but less obvious to the casual or non-fan reader... I think the books work, mostly, on either level, simplistically or more complex. I just don't think one should be forced to see it that way."

That seems a strange argument. If the moral complexity IS there it's... well, it IS there. If a casual or "non-fan" reader doesn't see it isn't that their fault? Isn't it a lack of insight on their part - not a flaw of the text?

11:52 AM  
Anonymous Greg W. said...

Thanks, David, and Paranoyd, I'll respond more when I have a chance to the excellent arguments you make here. In contrast, check out the original article, where Morgan doubles down on the simplistic quality of his initial article by arguing that all of the responses to it are products of "knee-jerk defensiveness."

Oversimplifications for all! :)

12:42 PM  
Blogger paranoyd said...

Well, yes, David. That is a strange argument. Let me attempt to clarify without digging a (deeper) hole.

As you know, stories work on different levels. Sometimes one can skim the surface of a story and get the flavor of it. Some people like to examine a story and really get to the meat of it. (I just ate. I'm not sure why I'm making these food analogies. I digress.)

And some people turn a story over and over so much that it takes on a different life than the one the creator intended or even understood.

I think LOTR is like that. I don't think Tolkien wrote complex characters, but I think over time if one reads it enough and studies it enough, they can apply a layer of complexity to it that is not really in the text, per se, but in the overall meaning of what Tolkien was writing.

I think even deep readings of the novel(s) don't reward the reader with this level of complexity. But deep studies of the material, including a look at Tolkien himself, gives the knowledge seeker much more information about the text than is actually IN the text.

I guess what I'm saying is that scholars of the material will find something in it that Tolkien himself may not even have intended, if only because they find it difficult to separate the book from the person who wrote it.

So no, I really don't think the complexity of character is IN the novel, but in Tolkien, and to those readers who expand their studies farther than just the pages of the manuscript will see that Tolkien was complex, as most people are, and ascribe that complexity to the novels. And they won't necessarily be wrong because that is what they see with their expanded knowledge.

Maybe I'm not making any sense. It feels clear to me, but I can see how it would not be so to anyone outside of my head. But that being the case, that rather implies my point. From my words, one thing is obvious (I may very well be talking out of my a$$); from my thoughts to my words, based upon my experiences, something else would be implied (There is an actual point here whether or not one believes it.)

To quote Lex Luthor: "Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it's a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe."

5:02 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Paranoyd,

That makes sense. It's a good point, one that needed a few additional lines to flesh it out.

5:34 PM  
Blogger paranoyd said...

Greg, if you are gonna call Morgan on his choice of words, you should be careful of your own. ;) He did not call all the responses knee-jerk defensiveness.

What he actually said: "That said, the fact that this straightforward (and pretty even-handed) piece of lit crit has triggered such a spate of knee-jerk defensiveness is, I think, indicative of an alarming lack of relaxed confidence in our genre - and that can't be anything but bad."

Reading that for the fourth or fifth time, I do not see where he calls out all of his detractors as being knee-jerk. Indeed, he seems to be saying that having knee-jerk reactions to his (debatably) even-handed lit-crit is regrettable, as it shows, to him at least, some low-self esteem inherent in the genre.

I think this is a fair point - having a visceral response to something you enjoy is one thing, but some of the comments in the thread just sound defensive, and that generally is indicative of the sort of low-self esteem he is commenting on.

9:36 PM  
Anonymous Greg W. said...

Paranoyd: Sorry, don't agree. Using your own argument regarding those who choose to analyze LOTR and thus find things others won't, if you parse a sentence enough you can probably find any meanings in it you want to...but the bottom line is that the phrase "spate of knee-jerk defensiveness" is neither accurate nor specific. Nowhere in Morgan's responses (until the very end of the thread, when it's clear that opinion has turned against him because of the excellent logic of a number of commenters, including Bryan's) does he address any of the specific points brought up in any of the comments. They're all lumped together in the categories of "knee jerk" or "didn't read my post," which is manifestly not true. Like his original post, his argument here is simplistic. You would have done a much better job with it, trust me! :)

As for low self-esteem, it seems to me that going after Tolkien--like lots of people have been doing for the better part of a decade--while pretending to have a claim to a more original and "adult" understanding of fantasy (which you can find at your local bookstore for the low low price of $9.99, buy now and save!!!) is more indicative of self-esteem issues than those of any of the commenters who weighed in.

There are definitely some responses on that thread which aren't particularly convincing or developed. But the fact that most of Morgan's replies fit that description is the most telling thing to me.

9:24 PM  
Blogger paranoyd said...

Greg, fair enough. And thank you for the comment. :)

9:49 PM  
Blogger Alis said...

I'm sorry about Hawaii. I was totally forced to move here. Seriously. (The fact that I love it here came as an unexpected bonus.)

Actually, I loved your photos from the Shetlands, a place I would love to visit. I am 1/8th Faroese, so those windswept North Atlantic Islands carry a weight of ancestral memory for me.

I can see why writing about Tolkien would be a major project. I, for one, have never tackled it (partly because I would also have to do a reread, as I haven't read the trilogy for, um, a really long time). But if you were ever to do so, I think you would do an excellent job at teasing out its contradictions and flaws from its strengths without being glib. I find, for myself, that the quick shots that strike me as too glib don't really tell me anything much about Tolkien.

I've sent you a separate email re: The Other Lands.

Kate Elliott (aka Alis)

2:11 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Alis,

Wonderful place to have been "forced" to move.

1/8th Faroese? Cool. Makes me laugh, though. If I had to figure out my origins by fractions it would seriously challenge my math skills. :)

Shetland is an amazing place. We're already booked in to a cottage just down the road from my father in law's place. This is for summer 2010, a Hamefarin year when Shetlanders and family all around the world try to return to celebrate. It'll be great.

We're on the same page re Tolkien. Glib doesn't cut it.

3:29 PM  
Blogger Kate Elliott said...

The reason I can accurately state that I am 1/8th Faroese (and since you'd just been in the Shetlands, I knew you would know of the Faroe Islands, which most people have not heard of) is because I am otherwise 7/8ths Danish ancestry (one immigrant parent, one parent who is the grandchild of immigrants).

I would love to hear more about the Hamefarin tradition.

2:56 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Alis,

I don't really know much more about it than that - that's a grand reunion of Shetlanders that happens once every ten years. That's rather a big deal, really, because so many people move off the islands and end up in far flung places all around the world - even Fresno, CA. I imagine the return will be a combination of a lot of Shetland pride mixed in with a good deal of international influences as well.

The Shetland Council has a website up for it here...

http://www.shetlandhamefarin.com/

1:29 PM  
Blogger Kate Elliott said...

I think that is really awesome, actually: the Hamefarin.

3:39 AM  

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