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Thoughts on The Lord of the Rings

11 Feb

Ok, so I’m talking about the books here, not the movies.  I like the movies, but it’s an incredibly different thing entirely from the book–with different strengths and weaknesses.

So The Lord of the Rings might be one of the most influential pieces of literature written in the 20th century.   Fantasy as a genre emerged because of this book alone.   The Epic, which really hadn’t been a viable format since the death of popular poetry and operas, came roaring back to life.   What’s more, Tolkien made something that was somehow both extraordinarily popular, and artistically viable.   In fact, The Lord of the Rings often comes up as the set of books that nearly any reader will have a fondness towards.

The interesting thing is that China Mieville, whose wonderful books I’ve been reading lately (reviews will come) does not like Tolkien at all.    He calls him “a wen on the arse of fantasy.”  Personally I wouldn’t go that far, I love The Lord of the Rings.

But I see his point.

Tolkien might be the biggest influence on fantasy, but that doesn’t mean he was a GOOD influence.    After The Lord of the Rings it was impossible to have a fantasy novel that wasn’t a Tolkienesque epic–the whole thing is such a cliche by now.

Also, what exactly is Tolkien really saying? (Tolkien often resisted the idea that he was saying anything, by the way, however–I don’t believe him.)

So he neatly divides his middle-earth into two groups–good and evil.   There’s a FEW people you could say were neutral…maybe, but everyone else is wonderfully good or terribly evil.   So what separates the two?

GOOD:  Individualistic, team playing, rule-following, human or human-like, domestic, ordered

EVIL:  Greedy, Power hungry, hordes, cruel, irredeemable, disordered, love of chaos

So to go against these evil hordes we get an elite team of special members that can destroy these hordes.  Added on to that the support of fate and prophecy (because they are good), they’re pretty much guaranteed to succeed.   Yes, they might have some losses, but still there will be mostly rewards for the good and punishments for the evil.

The fight is usually over 1 all powerful item (the ring) which will destroy the world if it falls in the wrong hands.   Here’s the issue I have here–the Dark Lord wants to destroy the world and basically run it.  He’d rather be king of a trash heap than a peon in a palace.   However, he never wants anything BUT that, in fact he’s a disembodied face that is just evil.   He already has a lot of power, but he doesn’t seem to use it for anything, and is willing to risk everything in order to make sure he owns each and every inch of this blasted land.  His followers follow him because they’re basically hitching their wagon to the star.   And that’s my problem.   Never do our heroes get caught in the throws of two equally valid options–one is always the good option, and the other is the evil one, and it’s such an extreme way to view the world.

Also, funnily enough, we see the good guys kill a lot more than the evil ones do. Now if this wasn’t such a moralistic trope (rag-tag gang of good guys fight evil), I wouldn’t mind, but the emphasis is so much on how good and pure-hearted they are, and I’m not so sure they have earned it.

I mean, the reason they are “the good guys” are because society chose them–they were born into it, because of prophecy, because of secret royal lineage, they are special–they–and only they–are meant to lead society to a new age.

And what’s weird with these good guys–it’s totally ok to kill some people if they’re the right (evil) sort of people to kill.   It’s ok for whole cultures to die out and move on, because their time is past and the good guys time is now, they never have to worry about money, they rarely worry about ordinary people (beneath them), they are constantly hanging out with the elite, worrying with the elite, and protecting the elite.  That is where their loyalties lie.

The reason why Mieville snubs TLOTR is simple–it’s a sham construct–that there’s a group of “good people” that are better at ruling the world.  It’s elitism and classism, and while I know that’s only one way to read this book, it’s hard for me to say that the Tolkeinesque fantasy is pretty escapist–it’s about being an order where good people get rewarded and bad people get punished.   It’s kind of a sham that really tells us more about our inner desires than anything about people or the way they work.  We are looking at idealized individuals, not real ones.

I still love The Lord of the Rings–the knock-offs, not so much.  The reason whole generations of fantasy readers could go through reading essentially the same story over and over, is it’s a security blanket.  We like the stability, we like that it’s completely predictable, we like that the characters are little more than broad generalizations and stereotypes.

But perhaps, it might be time to put the security blanket down.   There’s so much more to see!