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In this New Yorker piece Moorcock attacks The Lord of the Rings as conservative and supporting morally bankrupt values:

But Moorcock, one of the most prolific living fantasists, sees Tolkien’s creation as little more than a conservative vision of the status quo, an adventure that brings its hero “There and Back Again,” rather than into a world where experience means you can’t go home again. Moorcock thinks Tolkien’s vast catalogue of names, places, magic rings, and dwarven kings is, as he told Hari Kunzru in a 2011 piece for The Guardian, “a pernicious confirmation of the values of a morally bankrupt middle class.”

I don't get the reasoning. I have little knowledge of political theory, perhaps that is the problem. Can you explain what his critique actually is and what school of thought it belongs to? Is this some kind of critical theory / structuralist issue?


Please note: My focus is not whether or not what he says is true. I would just like to understand what his issue is. If you have factual input on the claims, I would like to know about that as well.

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    As Andres F says, this is a very broad and opinion based question. VTC – BBlake Jan 2 '15 at 13:29
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    Asking for clarification of someone else's opinion is not in and of itself opinion based. The OP is asking for an explanation of Moorcock's argument not validation of it. – TGnat Jan 2 '15 at 15:20
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    Moorcock also doesn't know or understand Tolkien, in addition to political theory. As discussed right here, the main hero of LOTR was a common man gardener Samwise Gamgee. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jan 2 '15 at 15:53
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    For a signifiantly more informed "criticism" (or at least "writing about") along similar lines, read Brin's '“Star Wars” despots vs. “Star Trek” populists' article. I don't necessarily full agree with Brin, but at least he doesn't write from the position of ignorance about BOTH politics AND the material. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jan 2 '15 at 16:02
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    @DVK Don't assume Moorcock "doesn't understand Tolkien" because you disagree with his conclusions. He is an informed guy with a radically different outlook on life. He in fact addresses your point about Sam Gamgee (and the rural underclass): "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. These people are always sentimentalized in such fiction because traditionally, they are always the last to complain about any deficiencies in the social status quo" – Andres F. Jan 2 '15 at 23:42
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Whether something is reactionary or not probably lies in subjective analysis. I don't think you'll get an answer here (and I'm honestly debating whether such a question should be allowed here). People will answer "yes" or "no" depending on their own subjective ideological and political analysis of it.

Let me say that Michael Moorcock's criticism isn't new; in 1989 he wrote a pretty well-known (in fantasy literature circles, anyway) essay titled "Epic Pooh" (full text online if you follow the link) where he critizes Tolkien and similar authors as aristocrat-lovers, defenders of the status quo, idealizers of a passive peasantry who doesn't complain and of a rural England that never existed, and childish detractors of the industrial revolution. He is one of the people who doesn't believe Tolkien when he says he doesn't deal in allegories; Moorcock argues the allegories are there, aren't subtle, and are reactionary.

I don't agree 100% with Moorcock, but I think he has some points. In particular, I disagree that Tolkien's style is crap (yes, Moorcock also argues that Tolkien's work is stylistically bad, not only reactionary). I do believe Tolkien was somewhat reactionary, but I can appreciate his work anyway. I can for a moment forget the ridiculousness of "all Orcs are bad", their depiction as embodying "the worst of Mongol types" (not a direct quote, but Tolkien did say that), and enjoy his fantasy for what it is: escapism. I don't expect to gain any real-world insight from Lord of the Rings, so I'm not disappointed. I probably wouldn't have liked Tolkien and his politics if I had met him, but I would have admired his scholarly enthusiasm for Anglo-Saxon literature.

See the problem in my answer? I wrote my opinion. You'll very likely disagree with it. Does it mean the opposite of what I wrote is true?

PS: before you dismiss Moorcock as having Tolkien-envy, let me say Moorcock himself is an accomplished fantasy author and editor. His Eric of Melniboné stories, while not awesomely great in my opinion, do go against the Tolkien conventions: they do not worship aristocrats, the "hero" is in fact a selfish, flawed, drug-addicted anti-hero, he doesn't go from pauper to king but actually the other way around. Some of his stories have very original and strange writing, totally unlike what you'd expect to find in Tolkien-inspired fiction.

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    there is a well known classical music critic here in Quebec that said to me once: "If I like it, I talk about it... If I don't, I simply ignore." And that makes for a class act in my opinion. Writing pamphlets on such things as artistic matters, which is in the end down to personnal taste is not something I appreciate and it never puts the author of it in good stance from my point of view, especially if the guy (or gal) is a writer... and as much as I love EA Poe for exemple, it's not a part of him that I like... the same goes for Moorcock. but then again, it's only a personnal opinion... ;-) – Joel Jan 2 '15 at 14:58
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    Tolkien's goal of attempting to create a mythology for England - making a bridge from Anglo/European myth to the modern - necessitated leveraging tropes, symbolism, and the overall stylistic treatment of the past to create (subcreate, even). Using this short statement of motivation, it's clear that Tolkien's goals were retroactive in nature - he's trying to tie the two worlds of past mythos and modern worlds together. In this way, it's nowhere near the speculative, forward thinking radical future of fantasy that Moorcock and others would have it. It's not so much a judgement as approach. – ghchinoy Jan 2 '15 at 18:14
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    @ghchinoy I mostly agree with you! However, it is quite obvious that many parts of LotR reflect Tolkien's true convictions (his Christian beliefs, his disgust for the industrial age, his idealization of rural England). Yes, he was trying to create a mythos, but his stories also reflected his beliefs about how a beautiful world should be. That is a form of ideology. Art often is. Obviously Moorcock hates that part of Tolkien's work, and he is entitled to this. Also, Moorcock wasn't merely a nay-sayer, but part of a wonderful movement within SF callend the "New Wave", to which we owe much! – Andres F. Jan 2 '15 at 23:38
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    True Andres... except Moorcock himself owes much to Tolkien in the sense that Tolkien almost single handedly established the genre in which Moorcock writes to put bread on his table... even if he doesn't like Tolkien's work, he should at least respect that. Once again, my opinion. – Joel Jan 3 '15 at 1:13
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    @Joel There is crossover, but note stylistically and thematically, Tolkien and Moorcock wrote in different genres. Tolkien wrote high/epic fantasy, while Moorcock's trade is low fantasy / sword and sorcery. – Andres F. Mar 18 '15 at 1:11
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This description of the Lord of the Rings is inaccurate.

an adventure that brings its hero “There and Back Again,” rather than into a world where experience means you can’t go home again.

Frodo couldn't go home.

I tried to save The Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me.

(The Grey Havens)

Moreover, Middle-Earth changes fundamentally during the course of the book, partly due to the destruction of the Ring: most of the Elves leave, and the Dominion of Men begins. Saruman nicely sums up the outcome for the Elves in Many Partings.

You have doomed yourselves and you know it. And it will afford me some comfort as I wander to think that you pulled down your own house when you destroyed mine.

(Emphasis mine.)

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    I think the quote is relevant, don't know why anyone would down vote this answer. – Beginner Jan 2 '15 at 15:57
  • @Beginner --- maybe my wording is a bit too strong. There are some debatable points in Moorcock's comments, but the statement about 'There and back again' is simply wrong. I think I'll edit the answer. – Ian Thompson Jan 2 '15 at 17:20
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    Well, @Beginner said that he isn't interested in whether or not what Moorcock says is true. This doesn't really address what the criticism is about. That's probably why you got downvoted. – KSmarts Jan 2 '15 at 21:47
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    On "all Orcs are bad"--Orcs were originally Elves. Morgoth kidnapped them and tortured them into their later, distorted forms. To consider it a simple case of good vs. evil is to oversimplify the situation. Conceivably, Sauron could have kidnapped some of the less powerful Elves and corrupted them in precisely the same way as his predecessor. In Tolkien's universe, nearly everyone is capable of being ruined. – E. J. Mar 17 '15 at 5:04
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    Even the Hobbits changed when they did go home. Merry and Pippin were movers, shakers and warleaders, not silly kids stealing carrots for fun from Farmer Maggott. – Oldcat Mar 17 '15 at 21:28
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I haven't read either the article in question or the essay "Epic Pooh", but in this recent obituary for Sir Terry Pratchett, Arthur Chu touches on some reasons why Moorcock disliked Tolkien's works, which I do not believe has been expanded on in the other answers. I will just quote what I deem relevant to this discussion here, links to sources etc. can be found in the obituary itself.

J. R. R. Tolkien famously defended escapism, saying that a soldier captured by the enemy had a “duty to escape”; as a Catholic he saw his own fiction as an escape from a fallen, sinful world, and told his friend C.S. Lewis that the only people who hate escapism are jailers.

Michael Moorcock (...) ripped into Tolkien’s brand of escapism in his essay “Epic Pooh” (...)

The argument over “escapism” circles back to the fundamental argument over the purpose of fantasy writing and of the arts in general. Tolkien writes of a better world, an imaginary past when Earth was closer to Heaven, where good shone more brightly in contrast to obvious, supernatural evil–a world where we can escape from the ugly, murky political controversies of daily life, where the idea of fighting honorably for a just cause seems believable and true. “Escapism” in the sense of Andy Dufresne listening to The Marriage of Figaro to remind himself a world outside Shawshank Prison exists.

By contrast (..) Moorcock and Miéville live in the here and now and regard abandoning the ugly political realities of the world we live in as irresponsibility. Their fantasy worlds amplify the moral ambiguity and horrifying Hobson’s choices of the world we live in rather than erasing them. Unlike Frodo or Aragorn, Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné is a sickly, twisted, mentally ill antihero from an evil culture whose power fundamentally comes from oppressing and exploiting others (his sword literally eats people’s souls), and who has to try to find a way to do the right thing and positively impact the world despite this.

(...)

They do the opposite of Tolkien’s escapism–rather than make you long for a better, purer world than the one we live in they shove a horrifying, corrupt world in your face and make you wonder how much our world is like that one beneath the surface. “Escapism” in the sense of the river of shit Andy Dufresne must slog through before any chance of actual escape.

I.e. Moorcock thought that escapism in the form offered by Tolkien's book was irresponsible, and that books should make the reader reflect on the real world. They just had very different writing styles, and approaches to what purpose their books should serve, which I suspect is the source of why Moorcock was so critical.

  • +1 Awesome answer. I've seen political subtext in Miéville's work (more specifically, Perdido Street Station), and find it fascinating. – Andres F. Mar 18 '15 at 1:13
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    @AndresF. It's the escapism of Gothic romances, of the Byronic fetishization of consumption victims, of every teenager who's ever dreamed of dying a tragically romantic death. I don't want to sound too harsh--I liked the Elric books, and they justly spearheaded a new subgenre of fantasy just as Tolkien did. They are perfectly good escapism, and there's nothing wrong with escapism, but they are escapist, and I think it's awfully hypocritical of Moorcock to condemn Tolkien on those grounds. – Phasma Felis Nov 5 '15 at 8:21
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    @PhasmaFelis You don't think they are an allegory / parable on how power corrupts and how the road to hell is paved with good intentions? Moorcock's point isn't that escapism in itself is bad, see the last paragraph quoted in the answer for how he uses it. – eirikdaude Nov 5 '15 at 8:33
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    @PhasmaFelis I disagree. You're stretching the definition, and in any case, escapism of the kind Moorcock is criticizing is the romantic idealization of a conservative "world that was" -- and one that never actually was, for that matter. This is very clearly stated in Epic Pooh. I don't see the hypocrisy. – Andres F. Nov 5 '15 at 13:16
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I was not an English major and can't address critical theory issues. I did, however, take two courses in political theory during college, and I don't see where Moorcock's comments in that article have much to do with it, unless you consider them a sloppy way of piggybacking on Marx. Honestly, it seems that he feels an aversion to Tolkien's work, and therefore has come up with criticisms in response. (While this is only my personal impression, I think that many Tolkien haters suffer from a visceral gut-reaction to which they have attached arguments. I also think that most of them hated The Lord of the Rings so much that they never bothered to read The Silmarillion, which offers situations that are far more morally complicated than those that exist in the LotR. Evil Elves! Imagine! Sadly, most Tolkien haters don't.)

From the article, I gathered that Moorcock's slamming of the "There and Back Again" theme was aimed directly at The Hobbit, in which case it is somewhat defensible--if you focus only on that book, and not at Bilbo's larger life-story, let alone the full history of the War of the Ring. The problem with slamming the "There and Back Again" theme is twofold. First, the story is a children's book. If I recall correctly, Tolkien eventually wished he had written the book at the same level as The Lord of the Rings. So it important to recognize that Tolkien grew quite a bit as a writer and mythologist after The Hobbit was written. Second, Bilbo does change. That's the whole point of the story. He starts out as a person who is growing into a rather dull middle age with a narrow, self-centered view of the world. His adventure forces him to change. Perhaps the change isn't as large a change as Moorcock would like to have seen, but that's Moorcock's personal preference. It doesn't necessarily mean that anything is wrong with the story as such. And of course, if you look at Bilbo's life story, the Ring turns out to be evil, and even though he never bears the brunt of it, he does eventually become restless, leave the Shire, and ultimately abandon Middle-Earth altogether.

As to the charge that Tolkien offers “a pernicious confirmation of the values of a morally bankrupt middle class.” First of all, I think it is a good rule to become suspicious any time someone starts talking about a "morally bankrupt middle class." That's old cant--I know it goes back to Marx, and my guess is that an Enlightenment philosopher or two said something similar before him. Possibly also Rousseau, in attitude, if not explicitly. At any rate, by now that rhetoric doesn't really mean anything, especially considering that Moorcock could probably be considered middle class himself. (And his rebellion is, in many ways, a typical rebellion of the middle class against itself! It's not uncommon to find people who benefitted from growing up in the middle class insulting the middle class.) In any case, Tolkien would have been the first person to have agreed that the middle class was morally bankrupt. Tolkien was a very traditional Roman Catholic, and he believed that Original Sin applies to everyone--rich, poor, and middle class all included. To top off his religious beliefs, he had a fairly pessimistic temperament, especially later in life. To consider Tolkien's vision a cozy conservative one is to misunderstand who he was as a person.

Hobbit values (unlike those of other races) do align somewhat with a rural English middle class, and Tolkien makes it very clear that Hobbitry has both a good and a bad side. On one hand, Hobbits are simple, peaceful creatures, and those qualities are admirable. Making things more complicated is not necessarily a virtue (a view Moorcock obviously disagrees with in his "Epic Pooh" essay--he apparently believes that superior writing is always characterized by tension and moral complexity). On the other hand, Hobbits can be narrowminded, foolish, and maddening. For a Hobbit to be very helpful to the rest of the world, he has to be pushed out of his comfort zone, as many of Tolkien's Hobbits are. Bilbo, Frodo, Merry, and Pippin all have ties to the more adventurous Hobbit families. According to Tolkien, Sam is the normal Hobbit, and Tolkien knew that some of his readers who had liked the book found Sam irritating. Sam's harsh behavior toward Gollum is one reason for Gollum's betrayal, but it was normal Hobbit behavior--Sam simply wasn't a broad enough thinker to realize the possible consequences of his actions until afterward. Tolkien had served with less well-educated men during WWI, and he used his stories to show their virtues while exploring their weaknesses.

As I said, Tolkien was staunchly Catholic, so, yes, Christianity lies at the back of his writings. He was conservative, but not in a way that would neatly fit into any current definition of the term. (He noted in one of his letters that, where government was concerned, he favored either anarchism or an unconstitutional monarchy. Basically, however, he was apolitical. None of his published letters deal very much with the British government.) He was also an environmentalist before environmentalism existed as a movement. Yes, he partly wanted to preserve the environment because of nostalgia for his childhood. He also simply loved trees. And, like many of his generation, he was a WWI veteran concerned about the effects of total war. Mechanization worried Tolkien because people were implementing inventions that destroyed the landscape and/or killed other people. The dropping of the atomic bomb horrified him. Tolkien also opposed imperialism and unbridled capitalism. Conservative? Sure. But most so-called "conservatives" today, at least in the United States, would hate the man's guts. The better you know Tolkien as a person, the more difficult he is to pigeonhole.

  • Agreed about the Silmarillion. It contains a range of morally ambiguous characters (for example, Eöl and Maeglin). Also an anti-hero with an evil sword - Túrin Turambar. (Although Moorcock claims Tolkien was not an influence on Elric - more likely they were both inspired by the Kullervo.) – RobertF Oct 21 '15 at 18:24
  • This is an interesting answer. It's a shame you removed the bits about the lack of tension and complexity (Tolkien vs Moorcock), and the bit about some of the Hobbits like Sam representing what Tolkien thought of the common, simple-minded man like the ones he met in WWI. Those were the most interesting parts, and you edited them out! – Andres F. Nov 3 '15 at 2:29
  • I was probably trying to cut down on length, but, since you think that part was helpful, I've put it back in. – E. J. Nov 3 '15 at 3:06

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