Regarding Muggles

Mark Lawrence on fantasy’s “born to magic” aspect:

Muggles and Elitism in Fantasy

The main difference between fantasy and science fiction is the nature of the fake science (magic) they present us with. Generally the technology resulting from science is available to anybody to buy or discover given sufficient reserves of money, intelligence, infrastructure etc. It’s an egalitarian form of “magic”. To use a warp drive or phaser gun doesn’t require you to be born special.

Magic, on the other hand, often requires you to be born “magic”. Fantasy is rife with chosen ones, singular heroes whose talents allow them to change the course of history, wielders of magic that is  available to them alone or to some elite that were born special.

I think there are several aspects Lawrence is missing.

(1) If the dividing line between fantasy and science-fiction is “universal access to weird stuff” vs “genetically-determined access to weird stuff”, you run into difficulties. By Lawrence’s reasoning, X-Men (people being born with special powers) is fantasy, despite the fact that the underlying explanation is gene mutation (i.e. a science-fictional scenario). Alternatively, the necromancy in Wise Phuul (taught as a school subject in the Viiminian Empire) is science-fiction, despite the fact that it is, well, magic.

(2) Even in settings where magic is a limited resource, the Harry Potter-style wizards/muggles divide is hardly universal. Indeed, looking across the genre, you have all sorts of variations on how magic users obtain their abilities – from it being something that anyone can learn (Patrick Rothfuss’ sympathy), to something anyone can access from a source (the earthpower in Thomas Covenant), to something that is purely the domain of supernatural beings (Tolkien’s Istari are de facto minor angels), to something dependent on one’s god (George R.R. Martin’s R’hllor worshippers), to being a matter of folk wisdom and psychological manipulation (Terry Pratchett’s Witches). One even sees this distinction in Dungeons & Dragons, between wizards (magic from study), sorcerers (magic from innate ability), and warlocks (magic from pacts). Real-world magical traditions tend to be a combination of study, ritual, and interacting with the allegedly supernatural – there is very little emphasis on the practitioner’s ancestry. By Lawrence’s reasoning, such “real-world” magic would fall under science-fiction.

(3) Even in settings where there *is* a wizard/muggle divide, there is no need for the protagonist to be a wizard. Sam Vimes lives in a city where magic objectively exists – but he is strictly non-magical himself. Conan the Barbarian is also very much a muggle, but that doesn’t stop him chopping and slicing his way through evil sorcerers. Locke Lamora doesn’t do magic, but he deals with bondsmagi. Jon Snow and Bran Stark may have innate warging ability, but Tyrion Lannister doesn’t. Et cetera. Rather than focusing on the 1% in such a setting, why not focus on one of the 99%?

(4) It is perfectly possible for science-fictional works to be every bit as elitist as Lawrence alleges fantasy works to be. Indeed, the entire basis of Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light is that a particular caste have got their hands on a technological means of reincarnation – which they keep for themselves, and use to control others.

(5) Just because a magic system is (in theory) meritocratic doesn’t mean the end result is particularly utopian. Taking Wise Phuul as an example (it feels wrong citing my own work in this scenario, but let’s run with it anyway), necromancy is not only universally accessible, but one’s ability to do it is entirely independent of ancestry, gender or sexuality. That does not stop the development of a class system, or socio-economic factors playing a key role in determining how well one does at examination time.

Tolkien and Empire

It must be Wednesday – I run across a misconceived comment on Tolkien, this time by a historian who sees his work as being a product of the Empire:

But when it comes to modern speculative fiction, in particular fantasy, I’d say that J.R.R. Tolkien is the fountainhead. There is a before and an after Tolkien. And Tolkien was a man very much of his time. He was born in South Africa, which at the time was a colony in the British Empire and with much of the racist society structure that later would become Apartheid already in place. He was educated in the British School system during the height of the Empire. He then went on to become a professor of philology, which is the history of languages. And when it comes to racially charged theories affecting academic research, philology is right there at the epicenter. So, here we have a white, British man, born in a colony of the British Empire, who the goes on to become a professor of philology. And this worldview of Tolkien’s comes through in his writings. And since Tolkien is such a monumental figure within fantasy fiction, his worldview has spread throughout the genre and has generated tropes. So here too, the British Empire affects us. And we need to be aware of that so we can start moving away from the most problematic aspects of Tolkien’s legacy, get rid of those tropes.

This is gloriously misleading. Yes, Tolkien’s own worldview is a difficult fit for 2017. That does not make him a particularly good fit for 1937 or 1887. Yes, Tolkien was born in South Africa. That does not make him Cecil Rhodes.


I cannot speak about the role of racially charged theories in influencing philology – it is not my area of expertise – but I can speak about the implicit notion that Tolkien was just another white British man with an identikit view of the world to the rest of his generation. Leaving aside the fact that the Britain of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a place of incredible ideological diversity (would Kern be making the same claims about William Morris?), Tolkien was a bit “outside” his time in two areas.

Firstly, his religion (Roman Catholicism) put him at odds with English social conventions, in a way that evoked sentiments of persecution. His mother had suffered social shunning for her conversion, a fact that shaped Tolkien for the rest of his life:

“When I think of my mother’s death, worn out with persecution, poverty, and largely consequent disease, in the effort to hand on to us small boys the Faith, and remember the tiny bedroom she shared with us in rented rooms in a postman’s cottage at Rednal, where she died alone, too ill for viaticum, I find it very hard and bitter, when my children stray away (from the Church).” (Letter 267 – January 1965).

He also took a scathing view of the Church of England, which was (and is) the Established faith of the country:

“A pathetic and shadowy medley of half-remembered traditions and mutilated beliefs.” (Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, p.73.).

It is almost as if Tolkien’s devout faith informs his worldview, rather than merely being born in a particular place at a particular time…

The second area where Tolkien was not a man of his time is in terms of politics. Conservative scepticism of anthropocentric projects meant he did not buy into the dreams of eighteenth and nineteenth century ideologies. Rather than championing the worldview of the British Empire, as Kern suggests, Tolkien was intensely hostile to it:

“I love England (not Great Britain and certainly not the British Commonwealth (grr!))” (Letter 53 – December 1943).

“I know nothing about British or American imperialism in the Far East that does not fill me with regret and disgust.” (Letter 100 – May 1945).

Moreover, he has nothing nice to say about apartheid (making Kern look especially silly):

“I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones.” (Valedictory Address, 1959).

As for what you say or hint of ‘local’ conditions: I knew of them. I don’t think they have much changed (even for the worse). I used to hear them discussed by my mother; and have ever since taken a special interest in that part of the world. The treatment of colour nearly always horrifies anyone going out from Britain, & not only in South Africa. Unfortunately, not many retain that generous sentiment for long.” (Letter 61 – April 1944).

And on race:

“I do not regard the (probable) absence of all Jewish blood as necessarily honourable; and I have many Jewish friends, and should regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.” (Letter 29 – July 1938).

There was a solemn article in the local paper seriously advocating systematic exterminating of the entire German nation as the only proper course after military victory: because, if you please, they are rattlesnakes, and don’t know the difference between good and evil! (What of the writer?) The Germans have just as much right to declare the Poles and Jews exterminable vermin, subhuman, as we have to select the Germans: in other words, no right, whatever they have done.” (September 1944).

This is not to suggest that Tolkien was some sort of cuddly progressive. Far from it – his distaste for post-Enlightenment ideas applies just as much to classical liberalism and socialism, founded as they are on secular rationalism. In fact, given Tolkien’s identification with Anglo-Saxon language, we are talking about someone who regarded the Norman Conquest of 1066 as a disaster. But rather than Tolkien simply parroting the ideology of the Empire, and spreading it down through the genre, we are actually talking an incredibly idiosyncratic individual. He is simply too complex to pigeonhole as “just another white imperial male” –  and not just because of the unflattering depiction of Númenor’s decline and Fall.

John Clarke (aka Fred Dagg) dies

One of the great New Zealand (and Australian) satirists has died, aged 68. His gumboot song in particular remains an integral piece of Kiwiana:


Fantasy without Tolkien

I had been meaning to write this post for a while: a speculative guess at what the fantasy genre would look like without J.R.R. Tolkien. There’s no one answer to this, since it’s actually the sort of question that hinges on what, exactly, the historical point of difference is.

If you stop Tolkien ever jotting down the famous line “in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” you prevent the publication of The Hobbit, and thus The Lord of the Rings – immense changes to the genre right there – but The Silmarillion would still exist. Whether it would ever see the light of day is another matter, but it is entirely possible that it may have developed its own little cult following, and without the author being side-tracked by Rings, it is also possible that we might have ended up with the thing being finished in Tolkien’s own lifetime (a complete Fall of Gondolin!). So no hobbits or halflings in the genre, but certainly Elves. You would also still have Tolkien’s influence on C.S. Lewis, leading to the latter’s science-fiction trilogy and Narnia. From there, you could imagine a recognisable strain of post-Narnian children’s fantasy, stretching down to J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter. And Tolkien would still be remembered for his academic work, most famously his 1936 Beowulf article, The Monsters and the Critics.

But there are other potential ways of approaching this question. In 1940, Tolkien ran into severe writer’s block at the tomb of Balin. Suppose he never overcomes this, leaving Rings as a tragically unfinished work. That way you end up with both The Silmarillion and The Hobbit – all of the above then applies, but Tolkien also becomes remembered among the general public as a children’s author.

Or you could go down the darker route: Tolkien never comes down with trench fever in late October 1916, and is never invalided back to Britain. Since this represents the most dramatic change, this will be the scenario I’ll consider.

Given the casualties among the Lancashire Fusiliers, it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that that bout of trench fever saved Tolkien’s life.

Suppose, then, that Tolkien dies at the Somme, along with the more than a million others. Edith is left a widow back in Britain, and their children are never born.

What happens to Fantasy?

There is the argument that if Tolkien hadn’t done it, someone else would have: there was (and is) an enormous public appetite for high fantasy that Tolkien had the good fortune to stumble upon. Personally, I reject this argument – Tolkien’s creation reflects his unique intellectual background as a world-renowned philologist, and represents a lifetime of devotion and obsession. No-one else could have written The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, and I would point out that there is no equivalent in either science-fiction (no, not even Dune) or horror.

So fantasy would be different. In what respects? I think there are three parts to this: structure, content, and culture. Structure refers to the way fantasy stories are constructed, content to the actual nature of the narrative, and culture to the wider social impact of the genre.


Before The Lord of the Rings, the primary form of fantasy writing was the short story. Novels certainly existed – William Morris’ The Well at the World’s End (1896), E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros (1922), and Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) – but these were the exception. Dunsany’s short stories, together with the pulp heroics of Robert E. Howard’s Conan, and the weirder output of Clark Ashton Smith – this was fantasy fiction before Tolkien. With the arrival of Rings in 1954-1955, and then the post-1977 imitations, you not only had the novel replacing the short story as the template, but full-scale trilogies of novels. This has since expanded even further, culminating in modern multi-volume epics such as Steven Erikson’s Malazan or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

Without Tolkien, it is likely that the older short story tradition would have endured much longer, and those fantasy novels that did appear would be more likely stand-alones, rather than parts of a trilogy. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast also functions as an accidental trilogy, but it is hard to see that functioning as a template text after the manner of Rings – even if we ignore its comparative denseness, it is entirely possible to dispense with the third volume altogether. No-one wants to follow up a genre-defining couple of books with a minor add-on.

Admittedly, even without Tolkien, at some point the novel was going to become more prominent due to simple commercial factors. Printing costs dropped over the course of the twentieth century – making longer works more financially viable – and the traditional home of fantasy short fiction, pulp magazines, faded in the face of competition from television and other entertainment. Even so, it is not difficult to imagine a fantasy genre in the vein of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories – episodic adventures housed in a single volume – or fix-up novels in the vein of Michael Moorcock’s Elric output. Jack Vance may have never written Lyonesse, but his Dying Earth books would shine. Structurally, we are talking a fantasy genre very different from the doorstop trilogies of our timeline.

There would also be much less emphasis on developed world-building. Partly this is down to there being less page space, but the major reason is Tolkien himself. Tolkien’s greatest genre influence is in creating the consistent impression of vast historical depth. Without him, the genre precedents would fall back on real-world settings (urban fantasy, historical fantasy, H.P. Lovecraft, J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, et cetera), with secondary worlds being much more patchwork quilt in style. Consider Dunsany, Burroughs, Smith, and Howard – the setting serves as backdrop, rather than a character after the manner of Middle-earth. Even Mervyn Peake, whose setting is genuinely immersive, prefers atmosphere over world (Titus is the 77th Earl of Groan. One gets the impression that Peake paid little attention to Earls 1-75, or where Gertrude came from).


A genre of shorter stories and less worldbuilding is inherently more favourable to monster-of-the-week Sword & Sorcery than Tolkienian Epic Fantasy: you focus on a protagonist or two, have them overcome their immediate obstacle, then move on. The influence of Howard and Leiber would shine much brighter in this scenario, and while there is still plenty of room for Fate of the World stuff (c.f. Moorcock’s Stormbringer), that would be the exception, rather than the rule. Taking George R.R. Martin as an example, think the Dunk and Egg novellas, rather than A Song of Ice and Fire. This is a world without Terry Brooks, Stephen Donaldson, Robert Jordan, Tad Williams, or any of the more recent multi-volume epics.

If Fantasy without Tolkien would be less Epic – less interested in massive power-plays and massive battles – it would also paradoxically be less interested in the ordinary person. One thing that distinguishes The Lord of the Rings from the likes of Beowulf is that the protagonists are not larger than life heroes, skilled in the arts of war and magic – they are hobbits, very mundane and humble. The only things Frodo and Sam have going for them are grim determination and their moral choices. A more traditional story would have focused on Aragorn as the hero, and so, I think, would a genre without Tolkien. Even the likes of Fafhrd of the Grey Mouser, less grand than Conan and less tragic than Elric, survive by virtue of their street-smarts and competence. Frodo Baggins wouldn’t stand a chance.

Then there are the Tolkienian tropes. Orcs? Well, Tolkien was influenced by the likes of George MacDonald’s goblins, but I don’t think there would be anything so elaborate as the Orcs. In a monster-of-the-week setting, it would be better to mix up the followers a bit, which also means that the erstwhile Dark Lord figure is more likely to be a small-scale sorcerer, cult leader, or Mad King. Dwarves? They would be Dwarfs instead, and associated with the likes of Snow White and Wagner – creatures of folklore, certainly, but unlikely to be a defined fantasy “race” as such. Elves are trickier: Poul Anderson’s Broken Sword (1954) makes extensive use of them, and shows that even independently of Tolkien, fantasy could make these creatures something other than small winged Victorian fairies. So, yes, I think a genre without Tolkien would still have Elves – albeit less common, and ones with a more sinister and malevolent edge than those of Middle-earth.

In the absence of Rings establishing a clear demarcation line, I think it is also likely that the traditional overlap between fantasy and science-fiction would have endured much longer (recall that not just Burroughs’ Barsoom, but also Eddison’s Worm Ouroboros and David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus (1920) are technically extra-terrestrial adventures). Science-Fiction generally would remain the more prominent of the speculative genres, and there would be no incentive or motivation for publishers to split fantasy away. Insofar as you would encounter “pure” fantasy, I would speculate that Dunsany would remain a key template. Peake is too dense, and Howard’s social views would become problematic to a modern audience. Or perhaps the pure fantasy strain would be heavily influenced by Arthuriana? The Quest narrative would obviously exist without Tolkien (indeed, Tolkien inverted it – Rings is all about trying to get rid of the artefact, not recover it).


Geek culture would exist, no doubt, but I think it would be heavily weighted towards science-fiction: the likes of Doctor Who and Star Trek. While the creator of Dungeons & Dragons was hesitant about identifying Tolkien’s influence, Rings unquestionably influenced the people who started playing the game. Without Tolkien, would there be a viable audience for Tabletop RPGs? I am sceptical. Without that sort of shared community – whether in game-form or otherwise – I think you are looking at fantasy being a very, very niche interest.

The one possible exception to this that I remain unsure about – Harry Potter. Harry Potter falls into the old-fashioned genre of boarding school stories dating back to Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Rowling added wizards and magic, and the rest is history. Could she have done this without Tolkien? Of course – Merlin and Arthuriana would still exist, though Voldemort likely would not have been the “Dark Lord”. Would she have done this? Uncertain. Rowling was very nearly not published as it was. Would a publisher take such a risk without a well-defined fantasy genre? The million dollar question. Perhaps we would be looking at a science-fiction Harry Potter instead…

Happy 50th birthday to Adrian Mole

One of English Literature’s great fictional diarists turns 50 (in-universe) today:

A crying shame that Townsend herself passed away several years ago, but her creation will always have a special place in my heart. I had a great fondness for the books in my teenage years – not because I particularly identified with him (my life is a good deal less complicated, and I’m 15+ years younger), but because he was so damn fun to read about. Adrian is completely clueless, of course, yet strangely endearing.

Looking at Wise Phuul, I think Adrian Mole is actually one of the unconscious influences for Teltö’s character – the very mundane, not-very-bright young man who misses much of what is going on around him. Not that Teltö ever has a Pandora.

50/25/5 Reading Challenge: March

Completed reads for March:

  • The Rabbit Back Literature Society, by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
  • A Blink of the Screen, by Terry Pratchett
  • The Howling Miller, by Arto Paasilinna
  • Philosophy in the Boudoir, by the Marquis de Sade
  • Titus Awakes, by Maeve Gilmore
  • Little Star, by John Ajvide Lindqvist
  • The Ninth Circle, by Alex Bell


  • For 2017: 16
  • 500+ pages: 2
  • 1000+ pages: 0

Ivor update

My D&D character has now hit Level Four.

Ivor was interested in a feat, but our DM has told him to wait until the next Abiity Gain level, so that everyone else in the party can familiarise themselves with the feat rules beforehand.

He’s therefore used his ability boost to add +1 to CON (Hit Points are nice) and +1 to CHA (Charisma is the way he casts spells).

His new stats:

  • Strength: 12
  • Intelligence: 10
  • Wisdom: 10
  • Constitution: 15
  • Dexterity: 15
  • Charisma: 17

His spells are now as follows:

  • Cantrips: Friends, Minor Illusion, Vicious Mockery
  • 1st Level: Faerie Fire, Tasha’s Hideous Laughter, Dissonant Whispers, Healing Word [Dropped – Heroism, Sleep]
  • 2nd Level: Invisibility, Suggestion, Silence

Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Compendium

Seeing as this series ended up in fifteen pieces, I figured it would be handy to keep easy links in one place:

Original McGarry and Ravipinto Essay

  • Part I: Introduction, Stross’ quote as applied to pre-Tolkien fantasy and The Hobbit
  • Part II: Stross’ quote as applied to The Lord of the Rings
  • Part III: Stross’ quote as applied to The Lord of the Rings (plus Epic Pooh)
  • Part IV: Status quo and the Dwarves
  • Part V: Status quo and the Elves
  • Part VI: Status quo and Men (Númenor)
  • Part VII: Status quo and Men (Gondor)
  • Part VIII: Privileged heroes
  • Part IX: Aragorn’s Tax Policy
  • Part X: The Hero’s Journey
  • Part XI: Sauron I
  • Part XII: Sauron II
  • Part XIII: Reproduction, and the past as greater
  • Part XIV: Racism
  • Part XV: Homosexuality and women


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

Having broken with McGarry and Ravipinto to write 8000 words on Tolkien’s female characters (Part I, Part IIPart IIIPart IV), let’s return to it, and finish it off:

There are many ways in which sexual minorities are marginalized in fantasy fiction. In The Lord of the Rings, this is accomplished simply by ignoring their existence. As far as we can tell, every biological resident of Middle-Earth—human, elf, or orc—is cis-gendered and heterosexual. The transformative and evil forces— in this case, Sauron—may be once-men, but The sexuality of all “normal” beings of the world is much more clearly defined. Men love women, women love men, and there is no suggestion that things have ever been otherwise. Obviously, some of this is due to the time in which the series was written—a more progressive approach might have gained Tolkien censorship or even charges of indecency—but it still set a troubling precedent that extends even to a more progressive era.

This is simultaneously true and unfair. The article is correct to note that homosexuality was a criminal offence at the time Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings – it was only legalised in England and Wales with the Sexual Offences Act 1967 (some nineteen years before New Zealand…). Moreover, until 1959, English Law applied the Hicklin Test for works seen as corrupting the public morals – had Tolkien’s world been anything other than purely heterosexual, he would never have found a publisher. It’s worth noting that the trial of Oscar Wilde was something that took place in Tolkien’s own lifetime.


(Tolkien’s own views on the matter can only be subject to speculation. We do know, as per Letter 294, that he thoroughly enjoyed Mary Renault’s historical fiction novels – which portray homosexuality in an Ancient Greek setting).

In-universe, not everyone in Middle-earth is heterosexual in the sense that many characters simply don’t develop sexual relationships – not just the obviously asexual beings like Gandalf, but the likes of Bilbo, Frodo, Gimli, et al. It actually also seems common for certain characters to fall in love with certain activities, to the point where those override any sexual urges: Aldarion and the Sea, Boromir and fighting, dwarven males and their crafts. Haleth is an interesting female example of a woman who remains unmarried, not because she could never realise her true love (a la Andreth), but because that’s her choice. Were Fem-Slash not so comparatively rare in Fanfiction, Haleth would be a potential candidate for (purely reader-interpreted) lesbianism.

This presents an interesting problem to modern readers of Tolkien’s work, as much of the series concerns only the relationships between male characters. Women are prizes to be won or treasures to be protected (this is most particularly true of Aragorn’s fiancé, Arwen), and are almost always kept “off-screen.” It is therefore not surprising that modern readers see homoeroticism in the close friendship of Frodo and Samwise (Goodreads, 2010-2015). Samwise occasionally pines over Rosie Cotton, back in the Shire, but it is his love for Frodo that keeps him on the quest of Mount Doom, and that saves him from the Ring’s corrupting influence. Since overt homosexuality does not exist in Tolkien’s world, the deep connection between the hobbits seems even more sexual in nature. 

I have addressed the role of female characters elsewhere.

Ted Nasmith - La mort de Boromir

As for Frodo and Sam, Tolkien clearly did not intend this as anything homosexual – it is derived from a Victorian worldview, where such close (physical) relationships between men did not automatically attract the sexual overtones a twenty-first century reader might see in them. Nevertheless, it is entirely possible, applying the Death of the Author principle, for a modern reader to interpret something sexual in there. It’s their prerogative – since the reader (not the author) derives meaning in a text, The Lord of the Rings basically addresses homosexuality if (and only if) the reader wants it to.

The marginalization of minorities—both racial and sexual—extends also to women. It is no surprise that women are sidelined in fantasy, which deals primarily with patriarchal models (Kuznets, 1985). There are nearly no women of importance in the The Lord of the Rings and those few that exist serve primarily as prizes or caretakers. In Middle-earth, it is men who fight the battles, men who solve the problems, and men who change the world. Whatever small role Tolkien’s few women—Galadriel, Arwen, and Eowyn—may play in saving Middle-Earth from Sauron, ultimately the story of the War of the Ring is not theirs. 

As I concluded in my four-part essay on the subject, the scarcity of female characters in Rings does not render them unimportant. Éowyn is neither a prize, nor a caretaker (she is simultaneously an exploration of gender roles, and of the Northern Theory of Courage). She is the most important Rohirric character, and perhaps even the second-most important human character, behind Aragorn.

I would note though, that in their rush to identify men as the key actors, McGarry and Ravipinto overlook that the story of the War of the Ring isn’t really Aragorn’s story either. For all his majesty, he’s simply the distraction that allows the Ring to get to Mount Doom. The real determiners of Middle-earth’s fate are Frodo, Sam, and Gollum – in a context that does not really suit a thematic consideration of gender (would the text be different, beyond tokenism, if one or more of those three had been female?).

Yet for all this lineage and distinction, Galadriel plays a very small role in the War of the Ring. She welcomes the Fellowship to her home in Lothlórien, lades them with gifts, and provides Frodo with cryptic advice. It is mentioned in The Return of the King (Tolkien, 1955) that while Aragorn battled Sauron, Galadriel participated in an attack on the forces of Dol Guldur, but this struggle goes on “off-screen” and is by implication relatively unimportant. 

Galadriel plays a small role because the Elves are fading. This isn’t a matter of gender, it’s a matter of her entire race vanishing.

There is little to say about Arwen Evenstar, who in the entire series sews a banner and marries Aragorn, two traditionally female roles that have little impact on the struggle against Sauron. 

I’m not going to defend Book-Arwen, who is simply a weak, xeroxed version of a far more interesting Silmarillion character.

Yet even this small victory is soon taken from Eowyn, for shortly after Sauron’s fall, she quickly repents her martial ways in favor of the more marital, as she indicates when accepting Faramir’s proposal: “‘I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.’” (Tolkien, 1955, p. 262). Thus a character who began by railing against the restrictions under which women labor retreats swiftly to the role of wife, nurturer and, by implication of her engagement to Faramir, mother. 

As I have said elsewhere, this is not a woman being put back in her box. This is a woman who desired death, but who has now found cause to live again. It is rather strange, when you think about it, that the likes of McGarry and Ravipinto would consider hunger for violence a healthier motivation than a desire to heal. Are soldiers more worthy than doctors?

From The Lord of the Rings to A Song of Ice and Fire we can trace an evolution from Tolkien’s straightforward, epic Middle-earth to Martin’s more morally nuanced and grittily realistic Westeros. In a real sense, Martin is trying to answer the question of what happens if we do not accept at face value that a conquering hero “ruled wisely and well,” and in that he has undoubtedly been successful. His characters are more complex, come from a wider variety of backgrounds and grapple with shades of gray rather than the often less complex black-and-white conflict of Tolkien’s War of the Ring.

I could point out that Martin’s viewpoint characters are (with very few exceptions), the social upper-crust of Westeros, and even those exceptions tend to be people like Davos, who are notable because they hang around the upper-crust. By contrast, the two major heroes of Rings – Frodo and Sam – are middle-class and working-class respectively. Nor is there anything particularly grey about Martin’s conflict between the Others and humanity – the Others are the black-hats, and the humans are, well, humans. The reader knows which side to cheer for.

As for Tolkien, the War of the Ring does not represent a real-world conflict of Men vs Men. The Orcs aren’t Germans, or Russians, or Muslims, or whichever allegory of the week foolish people try to stick on the text. Tolkien knew only too well that real-life wars are much messier, with Orcs and Angels, and everyone in-between, being found on both sides of a conflict (hence his comment that “we were all Orcs [in the First World War]”). In the context of the War of the Ring, you have black and white as poles on a spectrum, with characters like Sam, Gollum, Denethor, and Sauron, falling all over the place – just because Tolkien actually applies an objective system of morality does not mean that system should be treated as straightforward or simplistic.

That completes my rebuttal of McGarry and Ravipinto. I hope you enjoyed it. 🙂

Begging to differ II

A while ago, I wrote a post on George R.R. Martin’s advice to new authors – my conclusion being that while there is much good stuff in there, I feel Martin’s views are grounded in a 1970s view of the genre. Basically, short stories are no longer the gateway he suggests.

The other day, I ran across another essay by author Robert Sawyer. And, well, I’ll have to disagree with this too. There’s the caveat that Sawyer’s essay was written in 2003 – some fourteen years ago – but I think the viewpoint it expresses needs commented on anyway.

So here we go:

Science fiction is a genre in which Canadian writers are having international success, but unless you follow the rules, you’re doomed to failure.

Sawyer is basically telling budding writers that unless they write in a particular way, they’re doomed. Which is an incredibly misleading line – yes, you won’t get anywhere if you don’t follow individual agent or publisher guidelines, but that’s a very different thing from requiring authors to follow rules of content.

First, SF literature has nothing to do with what you see on TV and in the movies. For one thing, printed SF is a largely character-driven genre, devoid of the simplistic heroes and villains of Star Wars. For another, SF is a literature of ideas. Although there is a place for mindless action-adventure, good SF is usually about something (and often something very profound, such as whether or not God exists).

I think Sawyer and I have different views on what constitutes character-driven. In many cases, science-fiction simply uses characters to explore ideas. That’s fine (Isaac Asimov does it all the time), but it isn’t character-driven writing. Character-driven science-fiction is something like Stephen Donaldson’s Gap series, where the setting exists to explore the likes of Angus, et al. You can also see this distinction within fantasy – between, say, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (character-driven) and R. Scott Bakker’s Second Apocalypse (idea-driven).

Moreover, setting up a dichotomy between Deep and Meaningful works and Candyfloss works isn’t a division of medium (TV/movies vs books), or a dichotomy between genres, it’s a dichotomy within the genre itself. Candyfloss science-fiction is just as much science-fiction as anything else, and if someone wants to write that, good on them. After all, even the cheesiest action-adventure Space Opera is about something. Star Wars (which I personally consider fantasy, but we’ll ignore that) is about something.

Second, science fiction and fantasy are radically different — indeed, antithetical — genres. There is always a way to get from our here and now to the setting of any science-fiction story (usually by making reasonable advances in science and technology as time marches on); there is never a way to get from our real world to the setting of a fantasy story (magic simply doesn’t work in our universe).

Oh dear. There is indeed a distinction between science-fiction (possible, with varying degrees of handwaving), and fantasy (impossible), but the distinction cannot be pushed too far – the reason both genres exist under the broad heading of Speculative Fiction is because weird stuff is happening that falls outside the scope of mundane setting. Moreover, if science-fiction and fantasy are so antithetical, what to make of Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light? Science-fantasy is a thing: does it really matter whether those demons are beings of pure energy, or whether they are more conventional fantasy demons? For the purposes of Zelazny’s story, it makes no difference – Arthur C. Clarke’s old line about technology and magic applies.

Third, science fiction is a largely pro-science genre. Although Vancouver’s William Gibson is right when he says the job of the SF writer is to be “profoundly ambivalent about changes in science and technology,” printed SF rarely takes the anti-science stance of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. Nor does it embrace the paranoia and credulous acceptance of the supernatural that underlies The X-Files.

It’s rather like Sawyer is cherry-picking works he doesn’t like, and is using them as straw-men (if you aren’t writing a work with a pro-science stance, you’re just like Michael Crichton and the X-files). In actuality, science-fiction being wary of science is as old as the genre itself – Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, being the case in point. And while H.G. Wells’ Time Machine and The War of the Worlds are less about the science than about the class-system and colonialism respectively, many of his other works can hardly be considered pro-science (The Island of Doctor Moreau? The Invisible Man? Even a more silly work like The First Men in the Moon takes a sceptical view of science-for-the-sake-of-science).

Don’t get me wrong: one thing I loathe about Stephen King’s The Stand (with which I have a love/hate relationship) is the underlying anti-science message. It is, however, a matter of execution more than anything else – what is H.P. Lovecraft’s Cosmic Horror but the comment that for all our scientific endeavours, we humans are nothing beside the might of a terrifying cosmos?

Fourth, the science in printed SF must be accurate. In Star Wars, Han Solo could talk about parsecs as a unit of time (rather than distance), and about “making the jump to light-speed” (the one thing Einstein prohibits is traveling at the speed of light); those gaffes would spell instant rejection from a print SF market.

OK, so apparently all science-fiction needs to be hard science-fiction. There is a place for science-fiction where science drives the story, but to assert that we must always cling to reality in a speculative fiction context is ridiculous. By Sawyers’ reasoning, Wells’ Time Machine must be discarded (time travel is impossible), and Donaldson’s Gap series must be rejected because of its goofs with the singularity grenades. We couldn’t have Space Opera at all, in any real sense. I won’t even touch E.R. Burroughs’ old Planetary Romance stuff.

Fifth, science fiction, although sometimes a medium of stylistic experimentation, is usually told in either third-person limited narration (following the point of view, and knowing the thoughts of, one character per scene), or first-person (unlike some fields, there is no taboo in SF against first-person narrative).

Which is to say that science-fiction is like nearly every other form of literature – Third Person Limited and First Person being easily the most common points of view, since the decline of the Omniscient narrator. I have no idea why Sawyer has this set out as a rule.

The essay then goes on to advocate short fiction as a means of breaking in (i.e. Martin’s viewpoint), and a seriously outdated dismissal of e-publishing. I’ve dealt with the former elsewhere, and the latter does not need addressing in 2017.

In summation, Sawyer is basically saying that you are doomed as a SF writer unless you write Deep and Meaningful Hard Science-fiction that is broadly pro-science, and certainly not in the least bit like that dirty, dirty Fantasy. This would be less annoying (everyone has their individual tastes and preferences), were it not for his misplaced insistence that these are the “rules”.