Thursday, June 25, 2009

Five Things China Mieville Likes About Tolkien

Eye of Sauron
Blog cannot live by blowing up stuff in space alone, and in a small miracle of exquisite timing Carla pointed me to this intriguing China Mieville essay about Tolkien and Lord of the Rings. Go forth and read it here. Blog will be patiently awaiting your return, to take on Mieville's five points, most of them applicable to SF/F as a whole.

1) Norse Magic. Mieville applauds Tolkien for rescuing Norse mythology from Fimbulwinter and marching down like Alaric the Visigoth to sack Greco-Roman mythology. This is a bit odd to me. I admit that I grew up on an ancient tome called Myths Every Child Should Know, which relegated Northern mythology to a final chapter, and left me with a lasting impression that that is where it belongs. Yeah, Thor and his hammer, yada yada, but I never got the impression they were having much fun. No wonder they went a-Viking, just to get away from it all. Even in bowdlerized form the Greek myths were much juicier stuff.

Yes, I know I'm in trouble now, but it isn't like the Northern Thing is underrepresented in modern fantasy. It is Olympus that has been abandoned, its altars untended, while Zeus and the rest wait, with the patience of immortals, for this cycle to run its course. Among other evils unleashed upon the world, the Northern Thing gave Hollywood an excuse to under-light fantasy, the better to conceal bad acting and clumsy camera work.

2) Tragedy. Sometime around 500 AD, warrior elites who spoke an early form of English whomped on warrior elites who spoke an early form of Welsh. The losers retreated west. Whether these events were tragic depends on your perspective. The peasants probably didn't care. They stayed behind, and to deal with the new rent collectors they learned a broken form of early English, which in due course became the language of Tolkien and this blog.

But Noble Elves have been passing into the West ever since, with a big upsurge starting in 1954-55. Mieville calls LOTR a tragedy. I would call it bittersweet. Mixed in with regret for a declining ruling class is a broader conservatism, in the true sense (which has little if anything to do with modern political 'conservatism'). Middle-Earth, for all its ups and downs, is gradually going to hell in a handbasket. The Fourth Age will be less Noble than the Third, which was less than the second, and so it goes.

I agree with Mieville that Peter Jackson dropped the ball in the films by leaving out the Scouring of the Shire. (He mistakenly calls it the 'Harrowing,' and in fairness to Jackson there wasn't really time in the films.) But calling the Scouring 'petty' is Mieville's biggest miss in this whole essay. The fall of Sauron and survival of Gondor are grand and distant, nearly abstract; the rescue of the Shire is immediate, earthy, and real. And it is the hobbits' own doing. Yet it is part of the grand coolness of LOTR that Mieville and I can agree about the importance of the Scouring while totally disagreeing about why it matters.

3) The Watcher in the Water. Wow, this flies right past me! I agree with Mieville that Tolkien does good monsters, but I must have blinked and missed that one. (Confession that I've never done a second full cover-to-cover^3 read of LOTR, only skips hither and yon.)

4) Allegory. Tolkien famously bashes allegory. So does Mieville, and I agree with them both. Allegory, as Mieville says, does not believe its own landscape. There's an old saying, 'If you gotta message, use Western Union.' Heinlein and Ursula le Guin are just two of the most notable authors who did themselves no good by mounting up on a hobby horse about the present day world. (I got off to a bad start with le Guin; the first work of hers I read was the execrable 'Word for World is Forest,' so blatant in its message-tooting and villains shallower than Muroc Dry Lake that it still makes me want to nuke the whales.)

Yes, as a practical matter, stories can't help having implications for the real world, because that is where the authors all live. But that is no excuse for waterboarding the story to make a point.

5) Subcreation. Tolkien, as Mieville says, revolutionized worldbuilding, and changed the whole relationship of fantasy to the worlds it takes place in. His impact on science fiction worldbuilding was not quite so great. Worldbuilding of a rather literal sort was already established to SF, along with creating future technologies and the societies that wield them. As a curious little matter of convention, maps and star charts have never become standard in SF, whereas a map is de rigeur for any self respecting fantasy novel.

The hazard of worldbuilding is that it can become an end in itself, to the detriment of ever getting around to writing stories about said world. This presumably was the point of M. John Harrison's essay, mentioned by Mieville. You can read an excerpt here – nothing more is extant, since Harrison deep sixed his blog, unhelpful to his argument.

I am certainly not going to bash worldbuilding,a frequent theme of this blog. My beef, as in the space warfare series, is with the unexamined borrowing of conventions. If you want a space navy complete with dreadnoughts and light cruisers, admirals and ensigns, by all means have one – but do it by intent, not mere force of habit.

How much worldbuilding you actually need to do … depends. The basic rule is, enough to make your world real. For Catherine of Lyonesse I didn't do very much – I didn't even name the para-Seine, near the banks of which exiled Catherine lives for most of the book. The bridges across it have names, but the river is just the River. Nor did I work out a detailed back history. I didn't need to know the names of the 20-odd Saxon kings of Lyonesse. It was enough to know that 300 years before the time of the story John of Guienne crossed the Narrow Sea and put an end to them. Tragic to someone, surely, but hardly to a young royal lady whose name is Catherine de Guienne.

I'll add that realism, as such, is not central to the project. We generally would like to be realistic, or at any rate plausible, about details – how to survive a swordfight or a space battle, or the economic underpinnings of pseudo-medieval kingdoms or interstellar trade federations. But science fiction and fantasy, and their cousin genres, are not fundamentally realistic fiction. They belong to the great supergenre of Romance, in the older sense of this word – which emphatically includes romance in the modern sense, but also much more. 'It's still the same old story, a fight for love and glory …'

Related links: I wrote about the Romance supergenre here, and was a bit irreverent toward LOTR here.


Anonymous said...

1. Norse Magic; Mieville (and you, to a much smaller extent), have overlooked a basic principle of criticing an historical have to view it in the context of the era. At the time Tolkien wrote his epic, Greek Mythology was the only 'acceptable' one amoung the scolarly elite.

2. the Classic Greek sense. You can see that everything is going to hell from page one, but how it gets there is what's so damn facinating!

3. When they are stumped as they stand before the doors of Moria, when one of the Hobbits (I'll let you guess which one), disturbs the lake; then the huge forest tenticles explodes out of the water and nearly drags them in...they escape into the mines just in time. The tenticles are the only part of the creature anyone sees...leaving the rest to the readers' imagination. No other monster created by JJRT is scarier, for that exact reason.

4. Allegory; I agree that not everything needs to be a sly comentary on current social issues, but sometimes a story can be rich and rewarding even if it is allegory. You're right; the writer's experiance of the real-world does influence the stories he tells in his made-up world.

5. I think that this makes your point; most modern SF/F writers use world-building without even thinking about why they use it. For good or ill (sometimes both), THAT is impact.

Rick said...

Ferrell - Nice zing on Norse myth! But just to add a layer of complexity, Tolkien was the scholarly elite when it came to the early English, Oxford don and all that. Still, you're right how the world has changed in 50 years, not least due to Tolkien.

I think in a way Tolkien rejected formal tragedy. Saruman could have been played as a tragic hero, but the dark side doesn't just break him, it demeans him.

I guess I gotta re-read that bit at the doors of Moria!

The Narnia books arguably transcend their allegory - in fact, it flew right past me as a kid (even though a Sunday school teacher recommended them).

On world building, right - it is simply taken for granted now.

Anonymous said...

Tolkien successfully argued that Beowulf should be viewed as a great work of literature. Before him scholars viewed it as primitive, a crude lump of words inferior to the works of Antiquity and the Renaissance. He changed the way scholars approached Anglo-Saxon literature, and how they viewed its relationship to Chaucer and Shakespeare.

The whole Moria sequence is brilliant. Even the Balrog is never fully described, just implied as a series of shapes and sounds.

Wotld-building is a great tool, but it can be overused. Detail and backstory takes the place of real story. A three paragraph dissertation on the ecology and uses of Goblin's Gold, with another paragraph on the etymologies of its alternate names, takes the place of one line about star-glitter under a rock. I think this analytical explosion is one of the reasons LotR is so popular among a certain class of geeks. You can memorize the backstory, cross-reference all the names and concealed references, analyze the history and linguistics, annotate the appendices... Without ever really paying attention to story or theme.


Rick said...

Ian - This is very true. And Tolkien's academic work was part of a larger process of rethinking the Middle Ages. Roman Britain was literate but not literary (at least nothing has survived), whereas 'Dark Ages' Britain produced native works of literature and scholarship.

And yes, worldbuilding lends itself to its own form of pedantry!

Carla said...

Don't knock calling your river "the River". That's following in a very long tradition; "Avon" means "river" so all the River Avons in England are "River River", and "Esk" means "water" so all the River Esks, Exes and Axes and probably Usks are "River Water".

Rick said...

I knew about Avon, but not Esk. I have the mental image of a proto-English speaker asking 'What is this,' and a proto-Welsh speaker saying 'A river, you blithering idiot! How the hell did you people conquer us?'

But an odd thing that just struck to me: 'River' is a French import. So what did English people call one before 1066? Stream? Avon? :-)

(It's my blog, and I can digress if I want to!)

Anonymous said...

Creek, stream, beck, brook, bourne, and rill, among others.

Calling your river the River makes perfect sense in an era when most people never travel more than one day's walk from home. My family name means 'meeting place on the hill'. There were probably thousands of such places across England, but my ancestors only cared about one: the Maldon.


Carla said...

"Stream", I should think. The word comes direct from Old English and has cognates in the usual other Germanic languages so it's been around a while. It generally means flowing water, which is presumably why it can be applied to other kinds of flows (bitstream, stream of consciousness...). In modern usage it's usually applied to a watercourse smaller than a river, but we still have "upstream" and "downstream" in use applied to rivers of any size. In Old English I think "salt-stream" could be used for the sea.

Another possibility is "Water". That's of Old English derivation, and in Lowland Scots usage you commonly see rivers called "Water of X". E.g. the Water of Leith in Edinburgh.

"Burn" is still in use in Lowland Scots and Old English "bourne" survives in place names, e.g. Sherborne (variant spellings of each other).

"Beck" is only common in Cumbria and the old Danelaw areas and is Norse rather than Old English.

And, yes, your mental image may very well be correct :-) A similar thing applies to other topographical features. I think the record is held by Pendle Hill in Lancashire, which is "Hill Hill Hill" in Brittonic (Pen), Old English (hyll, worn down and compounded to form the '-dle' bit) and Modern English (hill), respectively. There's a Penhill in Yorkshire that evidently only went round the cycle twice instead of three times.

Esk, by the way, is cognate with Gaelic 'uisge', from which derives 'whisky'.

Ian - Quite so. I still refer to "the river" or "into town" for the local places, without needing to name them.

Tamora Pierce said...

Yeah, Thor and his hammer, yada yada, but I never got the impression they were having much fun. No wonder they went a-Viking, just to get away from it all.

Ha! You never read about Thor cross-dressing to get something back from the giants! You never read about the giants suckering Thor into a wrestling contest with Time! Okay, I admit, a lot of the fun stuff was Thor and the giants (with maybe some Loki thrown in), which is why Thor was always my favorite, but you have to read a lot more than a freakin chapter to get to it!

As for your poor neglected Greek gods . . . ::shakes head:: Once again, this is what you get for sticking by those losers in adult fiction. In YA we still honor the Greek gods! Rick Riordan is just finishing a triumphal 5-book run in his Percy Jackson and the Immortals series, in which the heroes are the half-human children of the Greek gods (Olympus is now sixty stories above the Empire State Building) and the other characters include the gods, demi-gods, and divine monsters. Tobias Druitt's Corydon trilogy is more traditional, being set in the same time. Corydon collects monsters as friends, having a goat's foot himself. He ends up living with the likes of Medusa and her sisters, traveling to Atlantis, and visiting Troy. Esther Friesner (she of Chicks in Chain Mail fame) did a two-part story with Helen of Troy trained as a Spartan princess in her youth and smuggling herself disguised as a boy aboard the Argo. She also did a contemporary novel with a modern teenager who ends up as a summer temp with the Three Fates. Stephanie Spinner did QUIVER, about Atalanta and QUICKSILVER, about Hermes--fairly straight retellings.

I'm sure I'm missing some (they're buried somewhere under the vampires), but you get my drift. We kiddie writers know to whom respect should be paid! (Not that we neglect the Norse gods, either.)

Rick said...

Ian and Carla - What you both said. In writing the book, the name of the river simply never came up. Why name it, when it was perfectly natural to say 'the river?'

I've always heard that 'creek' in the sense of stream is an Americanism, the word meaning a narrow arm of the sea (perhaps including an estuary) in England.

Early in LOTR of 'across Water' referring to whatever body of water (a lake?) Bywater is by. :-) And it also seems to have a sense something like bay, as in 'Southampton Water.'

Rick said...

Tammy - No, I never got as far as Thor in drag! Whereas even as a kid I knew the Olympians et al. were up to some naughty stuff. Plus those 'Sons of Hercules' movies every Saturday morning, full of Italian babes in mini-togettes.

Of course, I also still remember the theme music for 'The Long Ships!'

I am so far behind on my fiction reading that it is beyond pitiful, but I'm glad to know the YA writers are giving the Olympians a boost. That will help keep classical antiquity alive!

Carla said...

You've never met the story of Thor in drag? You're missing a great tale. Kevin Crossley-Holland's retelling is my favourite and that's in copyright(try your library), but I daresay there's a version online if you Google for it. It's called The Lay of Thrym.

'Creek' may be from Norse 'kriki', meaning nook or cranny. I haven't done a systematic survey, but I don't remember seeing it used in England for a river. Here I associate it with a narrow, often shallow, arm of an estuary.

Rick said...

I just went and read a short version. I kinda feel sorry for Thrym's sister, who asked for a bridal gift and got hammered.

But Thrym was pretty dim. Thor in drag had to be even less convincing than Achilles in drag!

Carla said...

Yes, the giantesses very often get a raw deal, though sometimes giants' daughters' fall in love with gods or heroes and live happily after ever.

Most of the giants are as thick as a brick, like Thrym. Not always, though; the giant Utgard-Loki is a master of magic to rival Odin.

Rick said...

There still seems to be a folk tradition that giants mostly Aren't Too Bright.

Carla said...

Like trolls :-) Which is why Utgard-Loki is puzzling. I suspect he was originally a version of Loki, which would explain a lot, but is pure speculation.

Anonymous said...

"What? Is good woman! Sturdy! Your brother Thyrmyr, he married pretty girl and look what happened. Only seven children and she died! You marry this girl, she give you many strong children."

"Ma, she's built like a blacksmith. And he has a beard."

"So picky. Where did I go wrong?"


Rick said...

Took the words right out of my mouth ...

Sam Kelly said...

It looks like Mieville's blithely assuming that the point (spearpoint) of LotR was the defeat of Sauron, which is very much not the case. It's the destruction of systems of power and control - the War of the Ring itself is a combination of defensive action and desperate distraction. The Ring itself gets destroyed, but we still have to go through the world unpicking the effects it has had.

The abstract "hurrah, the hegemony has been overthrown" ending is a bit boring, so we need the immediate local earthiness of the Scouring to bring that home to us properly - and to bring it home how much real effect the Shadow had on the world.

And then we need the third ending at the Grey Havens to show us that some wounds cannot be healed, some evils cannot be undone. That's tragedy for you, alright...

Regarding the Norse thing - in many ways, Tolkien was as much a very late Victorian as a late Edwardian, and the Victorians were really big on the whole Norse/Anglo-Saxon thing.

Rick said...

Yes on all points. The Shire anchored Middle-Earth in an earthy reality, which made the Scouring central to the story. And Saruman is really more important as a character than Sauron (who isn't really a character at all).

Tamora Pierce said...

My friend Bruce Coville did a hilarious re-telling of Thor's wedding day, as told by the wiseass kid who tends his goats. The cover alone (Thor, beard and all, donning a corset) is worth the price of admission.

And FWIW, the Harrowing of the Shire was not only the best part of The Return of the King (okay, "The eagles are coming!" was pretty good), but it was the point of the whole trilogy. Over and over the elves and ultimately Gandalf continued to say their age was fading, and the age of Man had begun. Since the beginning mentioned that hobbits were still around, I think they were meant to be a variant of humans--certainly they continued into the time of the narrator. Also, whether Tolkein despised allegory or not, what he knew of the Great War and the industrialization of the world (and the terrible weapons of the war) informed a lot of the story.

The Harrowing was, for me, the entire point of the book. All of this was done to keep the hobbits (the smug, countrified, commonsensical commoners of rural England) safe. And yet, when the Great War came to them, when their waters and air were polluted by industrialization, they dealt with the problem and returned to their old ways, sadder and a bit wiser. The Wise had kept the worst of it from their doors, and they were able to deal with the rest. More importantly, they did it on their own, led by their own--no wizards, no elves, no armies, no horsemen. Just stout English--I mean, hobbits--who'd finally had enough.

Now that I'm long past my Tolkein fantgirlishness, the Harrowing is my favorite part of all three books. It's the only part I still re-read.

Rick said...

Tammy - As said, Thrym was not the sharpest battle ax in the armory.

And I agree with you completely that the Scouring (you slipped!) of the Shire is the point of the whole thing. It just doesn't get better than:

This was too much for Pippin. His thoughts went back to the Field of Cormallen, and here was a squint-eyed rascal calling the Ring-bearer 'little cock-a-whoop'. He cast back his cloak, flashed out his sword, and the silver and sable of Gondor gleamed on him as he rode forward.

'I am a messenger of the King,' he said ...

But I am even more eccentric than you. There are two parts I regularly re-read - the Scouring, and the opening section about Bilbo's birthday party and Frodo's departure.

magpie said...

Re allegory:

I noted - to my intense annoyance - that National Geographic made a whole 'documentary' that presented The Lord of the Rings as an allegory. It linked Aragorn with people like Teddy Roosevelt.
....I'm not making this up. It was total crap.

But I like 'good' allegory.
Sometimes it's subtle enough to register without "waterboarding" the story, as you put it.
Watership Down is generally considered allegory.

Rick said...

I guess the people at National Geographic never got around to reading the book. And their connection between Aragorn and Teddy Roosevelt - WTF?

The allegory in Watership Down eluded me (which perhaps is a strength of the book). Come to think of it the boundary conditions of 'allegory' are a bit elusive. Meaning that if I dislike allegory but like a particular book, it's easy to decide that it is not allegory!

Asyhlo said...

I just wanted to say, I liked "Word for World is Forest". Yes, it is very much an allegory for colonialism, environmental destruction, and all that. But I think it's a very interesting product of its time - her concealed comments on Vietnam are fascinating, although I had to read closely to find them (being younger than that). It also has a unique perspective on lucid dreaming - again, worldbuilding, but in a cool way. Plus it's pretty darn quotable.

Rick said...

De gustibus non est disputandum! 'The Word for World is Forest' is a pretty widely respected story; my opinion of it, besides being worth what you paid, is mostly reflective of my general attitudes toward 'message' in fiction. And, I'm not sure when I read it, but probably in the early 70s, when the Vietnam references would have been anything but subliminal, and added to my sense of getting beaten over the head with Message.

Meta note that I'm always glad to see earlier posts here still drawing comments!

Anonymous said...

:nothing more is extant, since Harrison deep sixed his blog,

Just thought I'd contest that statement. :)

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