Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Part I
As some of you may know, I’m a bit of a fixture on various fantasy literature forums: I like discussing this genre and its noble inhabitants. So when author Neil McGarry posted a link to an article he had co-written about the inherent conservatism of the fantasy genre, and invited responses, this was a temptation I could not refuse. Since I was a bit preoccupied with German Play stuff earlier in the month, my commentary had to wait… until now.
I am approaching McGarry and Ravipinto from a (mostly) Tolkien-centric viewpoint. Strictly, their article uses George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire as its second data point within the genre, but Martin’s series is viewed primarily as a conscious rebuttal/response to Tolkien’s earlier work. Rather than engaging with McGarry and Ravipinto’s analysis of Martin, my interest is instead in arguing that Tolkien isn’t what they make him out to be. Or, in other words, that Tolkien’s undoubted conservatism is a good deal more nuanced than is represented. Let’s get started.
[T]he traditional format of a high fantasy novel is that some source of disruption threatens to destabilize the land; it is up to the hero (usually it is a ‘he’) to set things right and restore the order of benign tyranny to the world. Fantasy, in short, is frequently consolatory, and I don’t get on with it. (para. 12)
Here the article quotes author Charlie Stross. To be honest, a major problem with the cited section is that it does not actually define what is meant by high fantasy novel: genre lines are slippery enough without delving into subgenres, which is just asking for someone to start playing No True Scotsman. However, putting Tolkien to one side for a moment, let’s try to get a handle on this alleged “traditional” format by taking a look at two novels that predate The Lord of the Rings (or even The Hobbit), and which are both unarguably high fantasy: The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison (1922) and The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany (1924). Spoilers follow for both works, by the way.
The Worm Ouroboros follows the heroics of our larger-than-life protagonists as they defend noble Demonland against the forces of Witchland aggression (everyone is human, incidentally: Eddison just had a very bizarre approach to names). Our protagonists are also male, to the point where they practically drip testosterone. A fit for Stross’ template? It seems like it… until you realise that, for these people, the actual act of fighting is more important than what they are fighting for: Eddison’s heroes aren’t interested in restoring the order of benign tyranny, or any order at all: they’re just looking for an excuse (any excuse) for grand heroics. Indeed, at the end, our protagonists literally recreate the setting as it was at the start of the story, just so they can fight the whole thing over again, like a rather more epic version of Valhalla (and, yes, Eddison was very influenced by the Eddas). It is the (literal) restoration of a status quo, but probably not one as Stross (or McGarry and Ravipinto’s article) would have meant.
The King of Elfland’s Daughter is an even worse fit for Stross’ alleged traditional format. Basically, because it’s a straight-out fairy tale, dealing with the difficulties of human-fairy union (people get bored!) and the relationship between the magical and the mundane. Rather than Eddison’s tale of macho heroics, Dunsany serves up an (admittedly ponderous) rumination on dream, desire and beauty (‘I would sooner give you a spell against water, that all the world should thirst, than give you a spell against the song of streams that evening hears faintly over the ridge of a hill, too dim for wakeful ears, a song threading through dreams, whereby we learn of old wars and lost loves of the Spirits of rivers’). While there is a “consolatory” ending, it is an ending about resolving the magic/mundane divide. The book most certainly does not involve defending or restoring benign tyranny against some disruptive Dark Lord figure.
So we don’t find much support for the article’s framework in our brief look at pre-Tolkienian fantasy. Let’s turn to the man himself… how does The Hobbit (1937) fit? And, yes, I am fully aware that McGarry and Ravipinto’s article focuses on The Lord of the Rings, but we are talking about judging the entire high fantasy genre here, so I think it only fair to invoke Tolkien’s other works for broader consideration.
Here’s the funny thing about The Hobbit – it doesn’t obey the supposed rules at all. Bilbo Baggins isn’t some grand hero, out to rectify an external threat. He’s a bored middle-aged, middle-class pipe-smoking guy who gets press-ganged into stealing treasure. That’s it. Wish-fulfilment for a certain middle-aged, middle-class pipe-smoking Professor, perhaps, but no-one actually expects Bilbo to kill Smaug (nor does he), or indeed do anything beyond burgle. Indeed, Bilbo (and Gandalf) is actually out to subvert the status quo – Smaug has sat on that hoard for nigh on two centuries, while Gollum’s had the Ring for even longer. Left alone, they’re not hurting anyone, let alone The Shire – insofar as a dragon can be called benign, Smaug’s tyranny is it. While Bilbo (as an agent of change) does indeed set in motion events that lead to Thorin’s short-lived reign as King Under the Mountain, he then consciously undermines his friend’s authority in order to give Bard et al an effective bargaining chip: less “let’s restore the good old days,” and more “why can’t everyone get along?” The Thorin-Bilbo relationship itself is never one of deference to traditional authority/benign tyranny, but rather an awkward Odd Couple who grow to friendship through experience. And can we agree that The Hobbit is most certainly more bittersweet than consolatory? Thorin dies, the actual new King is someone Bilbo has barely met. Bilbo himself sacrifices his prized middle-class respectability, but has grown substantially as a person. The Hobbit is altogether more complicated than Stross’ neat little pigeonhole would suggest.