Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Part II
I will admit it: yesterday’s post was a bit cheeky. I took this quote:
[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)
And actually tried looking at high fantasy novels from the 1920s and 1930s to see how well they matched up (if anything is traditional in this stuffy old genre it ought to be stuff from before the Second World War, right?). Lo and behold, neither the Tolkienian nor non-Tolkienian works actually fit with Stross’ quote (cited with approval in the introduction to McGarry and Ravipinto). But, you see, I know full well that when the article talks of “traditional high fantasy”, it does not literally mean “traditional high fantasy”: I was merely approaching the matter from the point of view of someone who knows a bit about the genre’s history, rather than the all-too common viewpoint that modern fantasy sprung from a hole in the ground in the 1950s. What Stross really means with this quote about “traditional high fantasy” is The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) and its attempted imitations.
Fantasy would still exist without this particular work, but it would not be fantasy as we know it (it would be an interesting thought experiment to imagine how the genre would have developed had Tolkien developed a bad case of writer’s block in 1940). The question is therefore – how well can this 1100 page monster be condensed into Stross’ formulaic summary? The answer is that while the book can be read like that (indeed, it is inevitably a much better fit than either The Hobbit or The Silmarillion due to being so much more prominent), I would suggest that it probably shouldn’t be read like that. To do so is to miss (deliberately or otherwise) so much nuance and complexity.
Let’s start with “some source of disruption that threatens to destabilise the land”. At face value, you would guess Stross is referring to Sauron: the Dark Lord of Mordor disrupting Middle-earth. But here’s the funny thing: Mordor is incredibly stable. Sauron has ruled it as a god-king for thousands of years, and (unlike Gondor) has never presided over civil war or disorder. Sauron’s chief servants, the Nazgûl, are enslaved more fully to his will than any other beings in Arda (they’re not going to rebel!), while the Dark Lord trusts the actually unreliable Saruman about as far as he can throw him (see the proposed peace offering from the Lieutenant of Barad-dûr, when talk of rebuilding Isengard comes up). Sauron, in explicit contrast to, for example, Shelob, also doesn’t want to engulf the world to satiate his dark hunger: he merely wants to rule it. Just as he ruled Middle-earth for much of the Second Age – the Black Years of Middle-earth – for never forget that Sauron has been there already. Gandalf, after all, talks of the Dark Lord covering all the lands in a second darkness, a tyrannical re-unification of everyone under the thumb of Barad-dûr.
Why am I going on about this? Simple. Sauron is a force for order and stability in Middle-earth, not chaos and disruption, as is Saruman too, of course (recall him trying to persuade Gandalf with talk of the rule of knowledge and order). Too many people have this idea, likely based off the portrayal of the Orcs, that Sauron seeks to overturn things; in Michael Moorcock’s infamous Epic Pooh essay, the Dark Lord and his minions are compared to football hooligans throwing beer bottles over middle-class fences. But, no, if you read Tolkien’s essay on Morgoth and Sauron (History of Middle-earth Volume X), it becomes quite explicit: Sauron, in contrast to his old master, doesn’t mind the existence of the world, so long as he can do what he likes with it (anyone who believes I am cheating by referring to texts beyond the book is welcome to re-read the previous paragraph: this interpretation of Sauron’s character is supported by the actual work). And if Sauron the villain is a force for order, that must mean Tolkien isn’t quite so keen on law-abiding stability as people think.
Turning to the next part of the “traditional” framework, we encounter “it is up to the hero (usually it is a ‘he’) to set things right”. Again, at face value, The Lord of the Rings appears to fit. Regardless of whether you think the hero of the story is Frodo, Sam, or even Aragorn, all three of them have penises (indeed, the entire Fellowship is a veritable sausage-fest), and all of them are trying to do the right thing. And again, if you look closer, things get messier. As is made explicit throughout the book (see Galadriel’s comments, for example), the heroes actually face a choice of evils: the destruction of the One Ring means the end of Elvish civilisation in Middle-earth, but Sauron cannot be defeated otherwise. Is this “setting things right”? Perhaps – after much back-and-forth, it is clear that it is a lesser evil than letting Sauron win – but it is not restoring things to the status quo. The Quest is about ending magic in the world, and indeed literally brings about the end of the Third Age and the arrival of the Dominion of Men. All very sad, of course, but if Tolkien was promoting staunch reactionary ideas in this book, it’s a bit bizarre for him to have the heroes forever change the world.
Then there’s the accusation that our heroes merely restore the order of benign tyranny to the world. As we have seen, to call what happens at the end of The Lord of the Rings a restoration is to focus on one aspect (the return of the King to Gondor) at the expense of everything else: not just the end of the Elves, but the changes that take place in The Shire (you know, where our actual heroes live). Even if we give into the Gondor-centric view, for all the glamour associated with King Elessar, he is really first of the new as much as he is a revival of the old. One suspects that the claim of the Heir of Isildur to rule Gondor would have been rather more contested and difficult had Denethor not taken himself out of the equation and Gandalf not launched his coup. Minas Tirith has a history of telling Isildur’s line to get stuffed, after all, which does actually make Aragorn’s rise a break from convention. But, more importantly, labelling Aragorn a benign tyrant is a little too smug and self-congratulatory a reading: apparently wearing a crown (as opposed to wearing a grey suit and having a slightly different job title) qualifies one as a tyrant. Aragorn, for one thing, is less a dictator than Denethor ever was, never mind Sauron or Saruman: he explicitly makes peace with Mordor’s human allies (Sauron’s former slaves end up getting control of the agricultural fields they worked), and goes around giving self-government wherever possible (c.f. the Ents, the Drúedain). Most notably, he forbids all humans – including himself – from setting foot in The Shire. Is one still a tyrant (benign or otherwise) if one voluntarily surrenders power?