Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Part III

Having written over 2000 words just on an introductory quote, I now feel obliged to discuss the last bit of Stross all to itself:

Fantasy, in short, is frequently consolatory, and I don’t get on with it.

Consolation, in the context of fantasy criticism, is a loaded term. Very loaded, since it forms the cornerstone of Michael Moorcock’s infamous 1978 essay, Epic Pooh


Moorcock cites Tolkien as follows:

And lastly there is the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death. Fairy stories provide many examples and modes of this – which might be called the genuine escapist, or (I would say) fugitive spirit. But so do other stories (notably those of scientific inspiration), and so do other studies… But the “consolation” of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. For more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending.

In a nutshell, Moorcock latches onto the word, and castigates Tolkien for poisonous mollycoddling, as if our loveable Oxford Don has single-handedly turned his readers into latter-day Lotus Eaters. This is what Stross is invoking here: the idea that Tolkien doesn’t challenge or upset the apple-cart, but rather drugs our critical thinking and puts us to sleep.

It is, in short, nonsense. For Tolkien explains what he means by “consolation”:

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

In short, it is the message that however dark things may get (and if one reads The Silmarillion, one sees that Tolkien can go to some very grim places), there is no reason to accept that that sorrow and failure will last forever. Lying down and dying is not an option in Tolkien (well, it is, but those who choose that route, like Denethor, are clear failures). Instead, the implicit idea is that we have to keep the flame alive (so to speak) for the unlooked-for moment where the tide turns, a sentiment utterly at odds with what Moorcock (and Stross) think Tolkien is getting at. Rather than trying to put people to sleep with soothing poison, Tolkien’s “consolation” urges us to stay awake in the darkness, so that if dawn comes, we will be there to see it, and thereby derive both strength and powerful joy. Of course, we might not be the ones to actually see the dawn, but our grandchildren might.

In the case of The Lord of the Rings, we see this “consolation” at several points, and in no case does it take the form of the British middle-class reaching the end of its tether, or what Moorcock considers “Pooh fights back” (seriously, what does he have against A.A. Milne?). Instead, I would cite three examples:

(1) Gandalf’s return.

I recall George R.R. Martin criticising Tolkien for bringing back Gandalf as a character (why, Lord Beric Dondarrion, how are you? Please sit down, and sample the fine wine of irony…). Apparently it’s cheating.

Except that Gandalf’s return is truly unexpected, both in-universe and out: our wizard, as a minor angel, has literally sacrificed himself against a fellow Maia, just so the Fellowship can keep going. It is not a calculated move on Gandalf’s part (certainly nothing like Harry Potter getting himself killed just so that Voldemort can be defeated), for this resurrection (unlike Glorfindel) is not part of the world’s standard cosmology. Rather Gandalf does the right thing for its own sake, whereupon Divine Intervention takes an unexpected hand (this is Eru working directly here, not the Valar). One does not rely on eucatastrophe – it is a miracle, not something that can be planned in advance.

Note also that this still does not “win” the day for our heroes. Even in a more powerful form, Gandalf the White cannot simply blast his way through Sauron’s forces (or even Saruman’s). All he can do is provide guidance and support, which he does. The actual victory belongs to the Peoples of Middle-earth (whether they be Men, Hobbits, or Ents), and the one moment where Gandalf looks like he is going to be forced into action (his confrontation with the Witch-King of Angmar amid the ruined gates of Minas Tirith) is actually a war of words and wills, rather than of magic. In other words, Gandalf’s revival – unexpected Divine Intervention though it is – does not distort the narrative, though it obviously brings joy to both our heroes and ourselves as readers. After a long run of failures, it is a glimmer of hope.

(2) Rohan had come at last

This one shows you can still achieve a powerful “turn of the tide” without needing Divine Intervention. This is the moment where the brave defenders of Minas Tirith – having held out for so long – are faced with the Witch-King himself riding through the gates of their city. As far as Gondor knows, it is doomed. Then something happens, starting with that most simple (and biblical) of images, a rooster crowing:

And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the city, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, reckoning nothing of war nor of wizardry, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.
And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns, in dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the north wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.

Does this strike you as mollycoddling the reader? Not to me, it doesn’t. This is a brave denial in the face of all that has come before – not a “go back to sleep; it’ll be all right in the end”, but rather a “we’re not finished yet, you bastards” worthy of a Winston Churchill speech (I know, I shouldn’t bring the Second World War into this, but you know what I mean). It’s the sort of literary passage where if you don’t get chills, something is wrong.

(3) Gollum’s fall

The third and most important of these little moments of consolation occurs at the very edge of the Crack of Doom. Frodo, facing an impossible situation, finally succumbs and claims the Ring for himself. The Quest fails, as anyone who recalls the fireplace scene at Bag End knows it would. But in the face of disaster, something unexpected happens – Gollum makes a grab for the Ring, bites off Frodo’s finger, and falls into the volcano, thereby achieving what our heroes could not.

In any conventional sense, it would be hard to see this as consolation, but if we understand what Tolkien is getting at, we can see eucatastrophe at work. Just as Gandalf’s altruistic and non-calculated self-sacrifice brings about unplanned Divine Intervention, so it is here, where cumulative acts of mercy result in something that could not have been anticipated. Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam did not let Gollum live just so he could be around at Mount Doom to bail them out of a tight spot, they did it because it was the right thing to do, in and of itself. Our heroes’ physical endurance got them to Mount Doom, but it was only their moral choices that enabled them to finally succeed. A moment where something bigger takes a hand, reminding us that Middle-earth has not yet been abandoned to Darkness Everlasting, and that just because everything looks bleak there is no excuse for giving up.

I hope you keep all this in mind the next time you see someone like Stross or Moorcock twisting terms to make Tolkien seem something he isn’t. “Consolation” is a tricksy word indeed.

This (finally!) completes my look at McGarry and Ravipinto’s introductory quote. Next time I’ll start addressing the meat of their article.

Essay continued.


2 thoughts on “Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Part III

  1. Pingback: Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Compendium | A Phuulish Fellow

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