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.