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Detourned Literature: "The Last Ringbearer"

One of my good friends and comrades, knowing that I'm a sci-fi/fantasy geek at heart, recently emailed me a link to the translated file of Kirill Eskov's The Last Ringbearer.  For those who are unaware of this novel, it is to The Lord of the Rings trilogy what Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea was to Jane Eyre or, more appropriately perhaps, what Gregory Maguire's Wicked (the novel, not the simplistic musical adaptation) was to The Wizard of Oz.  That is, a political literature of detournement: Rhys wrote the story of the racialized first wife of Rochester, excavating the colonial commitments of British gothic literature; Maguire challenged the colonial and sexist chauvinism of Frank L. Baum (it is worth recalling that this was a man who penned articles about the necessity of extreminating indigenous peoples) by transforming a Wicked Witch into a revolutionary, the Wizard into an imperialist.  Now we have Eskov who, in 1999, wrote a book that was both a sequel and reinterpretation of Tolkien's beloved trilogy that, like these other detourned novels, challenged the politics of its source material.



Before going further, let's briefly note the aesthetic problems with the Eskov manuscript that is available in English.  Although The Last Ringbearer was published in Russia to some acclaim, and translated officially into several non-English publishing houses, it failed to find an English publisher due to the Tolkien estate that still possesses the power to forbid and/or sue any "derivative" works for copyright infringement.  (Some fans have joked that, since so much shite fantasy is derivative of Tolkien, said estate should be suing hundreds of authors.)  Hence, Eskov's book hasn't been able to find a professional English translator and so the only translation available, made by a devoted fan of the original book (Markov), isn't entirely literate.  Idioms are mixed up, the supposed English equivalents of the Russian decades out of date; tenses are confused; paragraph structure is confusing; the entire English manuscript often devolves into awkward prose configurations.  There is no possible way to assess the literary qualities of the original, and it is something of a red herring when critics of the only English translation available complain about its literary short-comings––but let's be honest, and uncritical fans be-damned, Tolkien was not a very good writer to begin with.

So aesthetic qualities aside––since it is impossible to judge these qualities with only a translation that was an amateur labour of love––let us examine this book that politically reinterprets the story of the most famous fantasy trilogy.  In the first place, why does this even matter?  Because Tolkien's famous trilogy was an act of feudalism lite where the virtues of pastoral traditionalism were treated as superior to industrial progress and where eurocentric chauvinism was rampant.  Indeed, the movie adaptations, despite whatever liberties they took, did a good job of visualizing Tolkien's eurocentrism: Return of the King treated movie-goers to a spectacle of African- and Arab-looking enemies of Western civilization; there was a point where Aragorn even addressed the "men of the west" to hold their ground against the dark(er) hordes of Mordor.  This was not simply the affectation of Hollywood; it was an amplification of the elements of the original text, laid bare simply because they had to be depicted onscreen.  The only difference is that I'd rather waste my time watching this eurocentrism than reading it over again because the latter takes longer and, in any case, is weighted down by a turgid prose that I could ignore when I was in elementary school finishing Return of the King under my bedsheets with a flashlight when it was past my bedtime.  In some ways, and not to belabour the point, the troubled prose of Markov's translation of Eskov's book is actually easier to read than the English original of Tolkien's beloved books.

In any case, Eskov begins his book by recognizing all of Tolkien's chauvinist assumptions and making them apparent.  The narrative of Lord of the Rings is treated as propaganda, the story that was not only written by the winner by mystified by an order beholden to magic and irrationality.  In other words, the official narrative of the War of the Rings is a lie told by a side responsible for genocide, a mythical justification for an imperialist war that was intended to preserve the state of affairs.  Early on, since the book spends most of its time as a sequel and only the first twenty pages retelling the story of the War of the Ring from the perspective of the losers, we have Gandalf arguing for a "final solution" to the "Mordor problem".  The reason for Gandalf's genocidal imperialism is explained by a fear of enlightenment, an era of rationality that Mordor is ushering into existence against the mystified world of magic:

"Barad-dúr […] that amazing city of alchemists and poets, mechanics and astronomers, philosophers and physicians, the heart of the only civilization in Middle Earth to bet on rational knowledge and bravely pitch its barely adolescent technology against ancient magic. […] It was a challenge to the bone-headed aggressive West, which was still picking lice in its log 'castles' to the monotonous chanting of scalds extolling the wonders of never-existing Númenor."
Fascism, of course, is reactionary precisely because it finds its politics in a rejection of enlightenment thinking by an appeal to a mystified past: in Logics of Worlds, for example, Badiou refers to the fascist subject as "obscure", the product of an "occulted" understanding of reality.  The War of the Ring, in Eskov's narrative, is precisely what Tolkien's pastoral view of reality, and his hatred of the "dark Satanic Mills" of technological progress, would actually mean.  Gandalf, a wizard afraid of a literal demystification of the world that will allow humans to escape what Samir Amin has referred to as "metaphysical alienation" convinces his wizard contemporaries, with the exception of Saruman, to join with the elves––beings of magic who see humans as animals and despise rational knowledge––and stamp out the social progress that is emergent in Mordor.  The fact that Mordor screwed up an irrigation attempt and thus ended up raising the saline levels of its soil and producing an arid wasteland (here it is interesting to note that Eskov originally started writing an essay about the odd geography of Middle Earth, attempting to nerdsplain its scientific origins) has already placed them in a position of peripheral dependency, despite their social and technological progress: they are reliant on food imports, a weakness that Gandalf and the other imperialists decide to exploit immediately so as to achieve their "final solution."

As some of my nerdish readers might be aware, around the time that the LOTR trilogy was adapted for film by Peter Jackson, McSweeney's produced a satiric "news commentary" by Zinn and Chomsky about the War of the Rings that made similar points.  Although this commentary was a good attack on the implicit imperialist framework of LOTR, like all things by Zinn and Chomsky it also did not go as far as Eskov's treatment.  For in Eskov's version of events, the people of Mordor and their eastern/southern allies are not the inhuman monsters in Lord of the Rings––Zinn and Chomsky still treat them according to this assumption.  Rather, they are simply human and have been racialized according to imperialist propaganda as "orcs" and "trolls" and what-not.  Here we have a nice analogy of orientalist discourse, the way in which oppressed peoples (and the Mordor coalition ends up in a position of oppression, crushed by the imperialist elf- and wizard-led alliance) are depicted as sub-human.  Even Sauron is simply a mortal leader, not some ancient demon, whose place of death is unknown, another body amongst the hundreds of thousands of Mordorians slaughtered in the war.

By maintaining that these "orcs" and "trolls" were just human cultures that were othered is what makes The Last Ringbearer more than just a parodic lampooning of a popular book's conventions.  This cuts right to the heart of Tolkien's own eurocentric assumptions because, as a consummate eurocentric who valorized Northern and Western European mythology and archaeology in his books, he would have understood human social groups outside of these European boundaries as less-than-human.  The orcs were indeed his "lesser races"––those vicious and war-mongering barbarians that did not share the rarified culture of a pastoral Europe that he celebrated.  And if he chose to confuse these others with the problems of industrialization he saw arising in his own European backyard, this was simply authorial license: far easier to ascribe the supposed sins of modernity to those who had been banned from modernity.

Here Eskov takes Tolkien at his word: yes, these others were responsible for Enlightenment and they were racialized.  This really isn't that far off the mark: the European Enlightenment came late, after all, the product of colonial ventures that, in the act of violently forcing subordination, stole most of its scientific and artistic concepts from the peoples it had reduced to subject populations.  And if we go back further in time, we can encounter those crusades where Western Europe invaded an Arab East that was already in the throes of an early Enlightenment––hell, that's how Aquinas ended up getting ahold of Aristotle, and why you find him quoting Muslim philosophers now and then (Averroes and Avicenna), because of a religious war where once side, though still gripped in the throes of religious mystification, was beginning to produce a mathematical and scientific order and challenge its own mystified categories of thought, only to be underdeveloped militarily by a group of people that could not tolerate Enlightenment.  If this same group of people claimed to originate said Enlightenment later, then so be it––the past has been intentionally obliterated.  Eskov has an answer to that anyhow in his book: the conquerors do end up producing a second enlightenment unintentionally (the Gondorian "economic miracle"), but this was simply the result of everything they stole, nearly a generation earlier, in an imperial war.

Thus, as with Wide Sargasso Sea and Wicked, Eskov's The Last Ringbearer is able to establish its fictional counter-narrative through its verisimilitude of the source material.  All of the major events of the War of the Ring are explained perfectly according to the counter-narrative, the only difference is war time propaganda––a grand narrative constructed by those who were victorious and remystified with bullshit stories about the destiny of kings and magical (evil) rings.  Aragorn, for example, is just some northern murderer who is an elvish puppet, his supposed lineage to an ancient order of kings based on an appeal to legend.  Boromir didn't die because he fell under the influence of the one ring, because the ring in question was simply an artifice designed by the Mordorian guardians to trick their magic-headed enemies; its destruction had nothing to do with the imperialist victory.  No, Boromir was assassinated by Aragorn so as to remove a potential political enemy, someone blocking the throne of Gondor.

But again, as with these other fictional counter-narratives, The Last Ringbearer is not just a rewriting of the "official" tale: it tells its own story that goes further in critiquing its source material and is thus a novel in its own right rather than simply a point-by-point rewriting.  As aforementioned, the counter-narrative of the War of the Ring is mainly explained in the first twenty pages.  The rest of the novel is about protagonists who are part of a shattered and losing army fighting a guerrilla war against the imperialist victors: a scout, a medic (who becomes an alter-Frodo), and a knight from Gondor who opposes the puppet-dictator Aragorn.

What is at stake in the main story of Eskov's novel, however, is not only an interrogation of Tolkien's commitments but an attack on mainstream literature that follows in Tolkien's footsteps.  Rejecting Tolkien's valuation of reality is to reject this mainstream; the aforementioned "feudalism lite" has always been a problem with fantasy, even with some of those more grittier and transgressive-seeming novels that appear to be rejecting Tolkien's conventions.  Even though it might be the case that now, a decade and a half into the 21st century, we might have an anti-Tolkien high-fantasy narrative (Joe Abercrombie, for example, is a good example of an author whose books were intentionally aimed at pissing on those conventions inherited from Tolkien), Eskov's book was written in 1999.  And, more to the point, he was attacking the holy grail of fantasy literature itself, rather than producing a critique from afar.

The protagonists in The Last Ringbearer are recruited by a Nazgul mathematician to fight against the hegemony of an elvish order that seeks to annihilate human creativity so as to prevent demystification:

"The forces of magic will reconfigure this world to their liking, and henceforth it will have no room for technological civilizations like that of Mordor. The three-dimensional spiral of history will lose its vertical component and collapse into a closed cycle: centuries and ages will pass, but the only things to change will be the names of the kings and the battles they win. […] In two or three decades the Elves will turn Middle Earth into a well-trimmed tidy lawn."
For those of us who are marxists, and speak of how a dialectical materialist understanding (as opposed to an idealist understanding) of history is a "spiral" this is a nice description, the fiction a useful device for explaining a concept that is often trotted out in a formulaic manner.  The reason why we speak of historical repetition in a marxist understanding of history as being a spiral is because all seeming repetitions are not simply repetitions as such but, like a three-dimensional spirals, moments of actual change.  Thus when revolutionary movements dawn the masks of past revolutionary figures, as Marx discusses in the 18th Brumaire this is not necessarily a circular return, a constant repetition of the same, but also something different.  The past returns but is rearticulated; the circle is broken by the spiral, the apparent ellipsis is actually change.  When we speak of Spartacus now, for example, though it is tied to a repetition of a past slave revolution it is also and always something new, transformed by the concrete facts of the present: the echo is preserved, but not with a fidelity to the historical context from which it was gleaned.

More to the point, a "spiral" versus a "circular" understanding of history explains the difference between progressive and reactionary understandings of historical change.  Hegel's dialectic is always circular, a preservation of the Totality that was understood as Totality from the outset; Marx and Engels abandoned this closed circuit, choosing to adopt that element of metaphorical torsion where contradiction, composed of two counter-forces (like a screw and a screw-driver) produces a spiral: a movement that appears circular but that possesses a third dimension where each twist forms a progressive differential.  All retrograde understandings of history seek to preserve the two-dimensional and circular understanding of reality: Nietzsche's concept of eternal return, for example, though in appearance anti-Hegelian is just as anti-progressive––the same thing, over and over and over again.  We find this preserved in Foucault, regardless of his critical importance, where his genealogical method (derived from Nietzsche, of course) appears at first to be critical due to its rejection of the doctrine of progress but, in this rejection, leads to the preservation of the normative same.  Once you claim that even a critical understanding of progress is a lie (i.e. the assumption that the only thing that counts as "progress" is the revolutionary upheaval produced by a dominated class overcoming its dominators), you are simply accepting that a two-dimensional preservation of the status quo is destiny: "the only things to change will be the names of kings and the battles they win."  Indeed, Foucault says pretty much the same thing when he claims that the only thing that counts as "change" are these contingent moments when one murderous order replaces another, neither possessing any real value beyond their discursive frameworks of power-knowledge.

Tolkien, however, wanted to preserve some pastoral order of tradition; LOTR was an attack on technological progress, misunderstanding that the horrors produced by capitalist social relations were the result of scientific-technological change.  His solution was a return of tradition (the "return of the king" symbolized by Aragorn, cipher of a legendary order that had been forsaken by the Gondorians) rather than an overstepping of the capitalist limits of progress, much in the same way that fascists sought to occult modernity by binding it to a traditional order of the volk.  Everything is preserved and occulted under the "returning" king, a new return to a mystified past, and historical transformation is either denied or distorted according to this remystified order.  Eskov's book challenges this; the story that comprises the majority of his book is a story where defeated Mordorians embark on a reversal of Frodo's quest to destroy the hegemony of mystification.

Doubtless The Last Ringbearer will never receive a proper translation and publication for years due to copy-right laws and the conservatism of the Tolkien estate.  In the meantime fanboys (the gendered term is intentional because the most vocal pro-Tolkien fanatics are usually male) will continue to dismiss, as many of them already are, Eskov's book as some misguided work of "fanfiction" without having read it, simply appalled by the summary of its narrative (indeed, on many comment strings fans have denounced the book as "bad" simply because of its synopsis––badness, here, being a synonym of critiquing the inherent political commitments of LOTR).  Still, for those of us who are interested in how a popular narrative can be retconned so to critique imperialism, orientalism, and the always present danger of a remystification (that is fascization) of the past, this book is as interesting and important as those produced by Rhys and Maguire.

Comments

  1. All true, especially the recommendation of Eskov.

    I quibble a little about the badness of Tolkien's style. I think if you really want to find a very popular writer whose prose is punishment, I (dis)recommend Anne McCaffrey or Terry Brooks. Unlike geology, in literature there is a bottomless abyss.

    The critique of Tolkien's writing and reaction was famously made by the beloved and influential Michael Moorcook in his essay "Epic Pooh." (http://www.revolutionsf.com/article.php?id=953), repeated by the likes of Hal Duncan at odd intervals. The interesting thing for me was how this critique missed one aspect of Tolkien that has to my knowledge rarely (never?) repeated by his imitators. Tolkien's central heroes, the hobbits, are characterized by weakness, cowardice, failure, delusions of heroism, guilt over succumbing to the temptations of a power they are inadequate to exercise. All their victory's are achieved only with much help nor is their much glory. One of the relatively few scenes added by the movie version to the story was the acclamation by the masses of the hobbits. There are many, many imitators of the rest of Tolkien, including his racialism and reaction, but this aspect? I'm not sure that any have, even though surely some people must (like me) finding it the only saving grace for an adult reading?

    It's certainly not the case for Moorcock. His fantasy figures never lack agency or potency. I'm inclined to believe that his critique rather falls into a fake-left (would-be left ) category. I'm not so sure that in the end Moorcock et al. aren't really so critical of Tolkien's reactionary premises as of his sentimental and traditional morality. I suspect that in the end what Moorcock really wants is a more discriminating "morality" suitable to the commercial jungle of a mass consumer society (aka modern capitalist.) More bottom line thinking rather than platitudes.

    Moorcock is certainly critical of Tolkien's style. Now although I often want to giggle at Tolkien's use of colons or count the number of sentences starting with "And.." just to see if it's really as often as it feels, sometimes I wonder if emphasis on style serves to detract from deeper considerations. If indeed, the notion of the style as the writing serves as a kind of art for art's sake, meant to rule out social/political criticism?

    Steven Johnson

    Moorcock's own fantasy heroes deliberately eschew

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    1. I think we can find writers who are even worse than McCaffery (i.e. Dan Brown springs to mind). And the Moorcock article you cited was actually what I linked to the throwaway statement about Moorcock's writing.

      You might have a point about the hobbits, but that acclamation scene in the movie struck me as a cheap hollywood tactic to cause viewers to tear up (my Tolkien loving father, who I saw it with, certainly did, while my partner, with no nostalgia for Tolkien and offended by the movie's prior racism, was trying not to laugh). At the same time, however, the story of the nobody "everyman", the country boy or the peasant or what-have you, struggling at great odds and being helped by powerful forces is a common fantasy theme.

      I disagree with your assessment of Moorcock since you are mainly assessing his pulp fantasy which he wrote primarily to pay the bills. It doesn't account for his serious work, which was always much weirder and decidedly lacking in heroes of any sort (though filled with despicable counter-heroes, like the Pyat tetralogy). So I don't think Moorcock wanted a "morality" suitable to a commercial jungle since that jungle was mainly something that helped him pay his rent (that was a time when sci-fi writers could be paid per word and Moorcock simply produced hundreds of pages a week, Angela Carter once made a joke about that) while working on other activities including his more serious novels and promoting the likes of J.G. Ballard and others.

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  2. Totally interested in reading this. However, some of the critique of Tolkien in my mind misses the mark. If I were to begin a critique of Picasso's blue period by stating that it is obvious from the paintings that Picasso hated the color red, I think people would think the statement ridiculous. In the same way Tolkien used Northern and Western European Mythology as a starting palette to create a new story. To pick apart this choice of palette too much may be to lose Fangorn for the trees. Maybe it was just childhood nostalgia. Maybe I'm different than most readers but the major themes of LOTR that I picked up on were:

    1. Power corrupts
    2. Industrialization can be dangerous and destructive
    3. The courageous actions of people generally considered powerless can make all the difference

    These don't seem to be completely conservative ideas to me. After all, arguably the bravest most important is character to the success of the Fellowship is Sam, a working-class hobbit.

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    1. It has less to do with the setting than the substance. The problem is not that Tolkien chose to set in a context that was based on Northern and Western European mythology, but he did so in a way that promoted his own conservative Catholicism and ideas about other peoples. And I think this is quite clear when you compare the world and narrative of Middle Earth to what Tolkien believed about the world. He is not just opposed to industrialization but to modernity in general, seeking a return to some pastoral reality that never existed. Moreover the solution to the problems in Middle Earth is the reestablishment of a kingly dynasty, a valorization of the monarchy as a necessity to wed together the social whole. Mieville refers to this kind of fantasy narrative as "feudalism lite", in that it hides the brutal realities of that kind of society's social production behind its ideological instance.

      As for your claim that "power corrupts" this is just a vague platitude. What do you mean by power, here? The spiritual power of the ring? Political or economic power? Because political and economic power is necessary for any revolution and is not some mystical force that "corrupts". At best the idea that "absolute power corrupts absolutely"––a cliched quip––comes out of a view about reality that is infected with unscientific notions like "totalitarianism", and a liberal notion of "corruption" that examines individuals rather than social structures. It is not a very productive theme.

      In this context, to call Sam a "working-class hobbit" makes no sense since he is not a proletariat but a gardener/farmer in a society that resembles the imaginary of the English pastoral. Indeed, to assume he is such seems more like wishful thinking since capitalism as a mode of production: a) does not exist in Middle Earth; b) is feared for its forces of production rather than its relations of production.

      *The Last Ringbearer* is notable because it really lays bare these assumptions.

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  3. Calling Sam working-class was a bit of a quip. I actually thought about addressing it in another post prior to your response. I believe he is employed by the Baggins as a gardener, so he isn't exactly a peasant. Anyway, I let it go, thinking it would amount to splitting hairs (maybe not). My intent was that he appears to be a member of the exploited class of a social group of individuals, who as a whole are not considered important (and yet is the hero in my eyes). Hope that helps, I don't think it changes my argument at all.

    The funny thing is, I agree with you, it does have less to do with setting than with the substance. So let's forget that the protagonists resemble Europeans and the baddies are from the South. Why? Because this is setting. As far as I know there is no history of Northern colonialism or subjugation toward the South in Middle Earth. In fact I think the opposite may be true. So if we look at the substance of the story what we have is a coalition of Northern indigenous peoples fighting against the invading force of a technologically superior Southern Army bent on empire and domination. This is the substance of Tolkien's story. Yes, sometimes indigenous peoples have social and political structures we don't admire (monarchies), but who's choice should it come down to (this is complicated and much less conservative/radical polarized than your interpretation)? And yes, at times indigenous people might even have lighter skin than those looking to conquer them.
    Sorry about my brevity with power corrupts (it was a blog post, usually brevity is a good thing). I totally agree with your statements about power when it comes to our world, individuals, and social structures. However, there is a difference between Middle-Earth and our world - magic works in Middle Earth. Some beings can be corrupted as individuals and dominate an entire planet, materialism be damned! What is important in Tolkien is that all the protagonist are reluctant to assume power over others (some of my anarchist leanings showing!). Aragorn is a reluctant king, Gandalf and Galadriel refuse the ring because even in trying to do good they know that they may end up over-reaching (my interpretation). I'm not an academic, and I understand that power is a loaded word, probably so is domination. In my understanding domination is forcing my will over another. It is something, while at times necessary (I have a two year old daughter) should be approached thoughtfully. The antagonist in LOTR embrace domination, while the protagonists struggle with it. Again, I believe this is straight from Tolkien without any interpretation.

    What interests me about the *The Last Ringbearer* is not that it "lays bare assumptions", but that it tells another side to a history. Who is to say which history is accurate? Is any "history"?

    I am not arguing against Tolkien being a racist, eurocentric, conservative Catholic. That all my be true. What I am unsure of is, does that really show up in LOTR. Is their some kind of author written material which shows intent ( I am completely admitting there might be, I am not a huge Tolkien fanboy ( I lean towards Abercrombie and Erikson, and all sorts of old sword and sorcery, yes, even though the racism in Conan makes me squirm). Otherwise, is one reading as valid as another?

    What makes me uncomfortable is reading into things too much. It smacks too much of listening to records backwards and hearing the devil.

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    1. First off, I like Abercrombie and Erikson as well!

      All I want to say here is that your uncomfortability in "reading into things too much" might be extremely problematic since the corollary is this: a) literature is empty of social meaning and can be anything we want it to be (note that a lot of very problematic fanboys say this about their favourite authors when these authors' stories are accused of sexism, etc., and this is used to silence other people, usually women); b) people who engage in literary analysis are akin to conspiracy theorists, which is anti-intellectualism because literary theorists are not the same as those who think that there are "secret" messages if you listen to records backwards.

      My position is that a novel does not exist outside of its social context and that the author imprints his or her book, sometimes unintentionally with the ruling ideas of the ruling class if they are not critical of these ideas. Moreover, every work of art is a product of its social-historical context. So in that case, examining LOTR in the way that I have (and the way that so many leftist social theorists have) makes complete sense. The narrative arc is the hallmark of reactionary thinking. Is it an accident, like a secret message, that the values are the values of a conservative Catholic? If you think that a basic reading of a text that, being a social product is stamped with a social value, is "reading into things" then you should also throw out all historical analysis and just assume everything is empty of meaning or that books somehow exist as pure works of art above classes. That is, the "art for art's sake analysis". But as Mao reminds us, there is no art that exists above class struggle.

      On this note, and for your interest, here's a piece I wrote with my partner who works in the world of art/politics on a blog we started a while back but infrequently updated:

      http://achillespowderlead.wordpress.com/2012/02/11/whose-art-and-for-whom-on-the-reason-for-this-blogs-name-as-well-as-its-potential-purpose/

      In any case, I think there are multiple readings to a single work––and that multiple readings are good things––but that they should be guided by an understanding of the work's meaning within its historical context. If we aren't comfortable with "reading into things" that are meant to be read into (this what an artist and an author wants, this is why works of literature and art are important and why very good ones have complex readings) then what's the point of literature anyhow?

      At the same time, however, I enjoy LOTR for the reasons you have expressed. Doesn't mean it is not a text that is flawed because of its social values, or that I can't get other values (like the ones you've expressed) out of it, but I think it is good to be aware of its ideological problems. I also have a two year old daughter and when she gets old enough I'll probably read her The Hobbit and then LOTR, hahaha.

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    2. Well, I typed a similar response to this into the blog a day ago and it disappeared in a funny way when I hit publish (no authentication etc.) So I'm thinking it may not have made it. I almost just let it go, but have been enjoying the opportunity to discuss both fantasy and left politics together. So I tried to remember most of my arguments from last time.

      To begin with, your last post is an excellent example as to why caution should be used to avoid reading more into what someone else has written then what is actually there. I cautioned against “reading into things too much” and you interpreted my argument as being against reading into things at all. These are two very different arguments. If I do not eat, I die. If I do not eat too much, I become svelte.

      I agree with you that art does not exist outside of it's social context. I would also insist that neither does the art critic, that critique is itself a social product. So, just as a fundamentalist Christian may be predisposed to hear Satan when playing “Suicide Solution” backward, so might a leftist be predisposed to see euro-centrism and racism in LOTR due to her preconceptions about Tolkien and her social/political beliefs. Just as an author can unintentionally imprint a work with the ruling ideas of the ruling class, a leftist critic can imprint implicit meanings onto a work during the process of critiquing it.

      To avoid this is difficult but not impossible. It does require continual reference back to the text to see if what we feel is there, is in fact, there, and beyond this an ability to see our own critique, er, critically. With regard to LOTR, I just don't find the your critique very convincing based on the text.

      For example, the fact that you see the “the solution to the problems in Middle Earth is the reestablishment of a kingly dynasty, a valorization of the monarchy” seems indicative of a very selective reading, one that raises the significance of Aragorn becoming king way beyond what the text would support, but which nicely meshes with your assertion that the “narrative arc is the hallmark of reactionary thinking”. Just as an experiment, ask 10 random people (keep it honest, not 10 random communists) familiar with LOTR what the decisive moment in the book is, or what the books are about. If any of them say anything about Aragorn becoming king I would be very, very surprised. And if it is all about Aragorn becoming king, why include all the nonsense about hobbits and the ring?

      Not only do I feel your reading is selective, but it also takes this event completely out of context. Some of the context I've already alluded to in my last post - Aragorn's reluctance to take the throne, and the fact that Sauron is the aggressor, which add important shades of meaning– but more importantly, is it reactionary to present Aragorn as better than the alternative in the text – i.e., Sauron. I mean, is it fair for anyone to expect a story, inspired by European myth, to make the choice one between Sauron and a really groovy commune. Tolkien very obviously sides with the potential monarch who isn't prone to invading peoples minds or bending beings into horrible monsters. In context, this seems much less reactionary.

      In fact, it is exactly how obvious the choice is in Tolkien which I would think possibly makes (not having read it) “The Last Ring-Bearer” work by showing how much of an ideological product history can be.

      In closing what I think I meant by not reading “too much” into a work was a caution against reading your (the critic's) social context into the work.

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    3. First off, my complaint is that your claim about "not reading too much" is actually saying to not provide a critical reading––that is my problem. Just how, precisely, is my reading selective: yours requires far more work when the one I suggest is precisely the values of a conservative reactionary, i.e. Tolkien? My problem, here, is that when people are presented with a critical reading of a text they like they claim that someone is "reading too much into it". To respond with the argument that you are not saying not to provide any reading at all is simply a dodge of what you are implying, which is that anything that is critical is "too much". So only the most obvious, nice, uncritical readings are allowed––get what I mean?

      I don't see why you can't understand how the social context of Tolkien's time and is class really does mediate his understanding of reality. What does Aragorn's reluctance matter? The story of the reluctant king is a pre-capitalist trope. The literature that follows and is inspired by Tolkien makes this ideology even clearer. Moreover, this is not even a unique reading: every critical leftist work on fantasy and sci-fi has engaged with this problem and indicated this. This is not a selective reading but quite a familiar and well argued one that is well argued by others; I'm only simplifying it.

      An author's choice of heroes and villains is important: the solution to Sauron (who yes is the Aggressor) is… a king! Yes the destruction of the Ring and the Hobbit is the main framing of the story but it's a bit of a macguffin.

      But oh well.

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    4. You sound exasperated. I don't mean to annoy or offend you. For me, thinking about this has been a divergence while doing some of the tedious manual tasks related to my job, but as I understand it this might be much closer to work for you and I'm sure you have plenty on your mind with the new book and all (congrats). I don't want to be like a guy following you around at a party who you don't feel like talking to, continually posting arguments you feel a need to reply to.

      I don't generally post on blogs or forums because I think it is a horrible medium when it comes to discussing ideas. The anonymity, the fact that you can't clarify or re-focus ideas as easily as in person. In my mind it leads to a form of communication which is generally less generous. I can't help but think we would have reached a completely different understanding (while maybe not agreement) over a beer.

      But then I do enjoy debate, and have a lifelong interest in both fantasy and left politics so your post kind of snared me (although I never thought I'd get this embroiled in it!). Thank you for allowing me to post, and for taking the time to reply. I feel as if I used some parts of my brain I hadn't in a little while, and I appreciate the opportunity.

      A couple not completely over-hyped fantasy authors worth checking out:
      Paul Kearney- I enjoyed The Monarchies of God (warning:king as protagonist), but he has a couple other series out as well.
      Daniel Abraham - The Dagger and The Coin has been interesting so far (4 of 5 books are currently out)

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    5. I apologize for the terseness; it really had nothing to do with you or your comment. I made the mistake of checking this blog after having not checked it for the entire day when I just returned home with my daughter. She was sitting on my lap at the time, demanding a music video about "robots" and banging at the keyboard while I was typing, while I was looking at six comments in my box, yours being one of them. I probably shouldn't have responded to yours at the time, but I did anyway and it was mediated by my haste to finish and return my attention to her while trying to tell her not to bang the keyboard.

      The comment medium has problems already. When you throw a toddler into the mix, as I'm sure you can appreciate, those problems are greatly amplified. I did enjoy your comments, even if that didn't come out because of the context, and despite the fact that our positions might be different I want to reiterate that I do think that readings of something of LOTR can indeed be variated without being contradictory: I think there's room for my position and yours because of the complexity of the work. I also wanted to say in the last comment, but then forgot and just ended with an "oh well" to get back to my daughter, that there is another aspect of Tolkien that I was not addressing in this review of the book in question that is something altogether different and very interesting––and this is his ability to replicate, and maybe this is because of his conservative, the mystified mythology structures of the very cultures he was influenced by. That is, I find that there is something far more interesting in his less novelistic works and more mythic works (i.e. the Silmarillion and all the other Christopher Tolkien edited stuff) because it replicates what a mythos should be, even if it is less fun to read. Adam Roberts wrote something very compelling about this on Strange Horizons a while back…

      I've read Kearney but haven't read Abraham. I'll give Abraham a look after I've finished what's on my current booklist. At present I've swung back to sci-fi, but more of the weirder sci-fi, and have finally immersed myself in M. John Harrison's Empty Space trilogy (Light, Nova Swing, Empty Space) as well as Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy which will be finished by September. I also have Tom Lloyd's Twilight Reign series on the back-burner, having read it up to the end of the third book several months back, which is worth a look if you like Abercrombie and Erikson (if you haven't read it already). Speaking of Abercrombie, what did you think of Red Country? It was my favourite book of his to date (haven't read his new YA one, though), though I did like Best Served Cold (despite the hackneyed title) quite a bit, because I felt it did a good job of placing fantasy in conjunction with the revisionist western (felt very Blood Meridian at times). At the same time, and just like Blood Meridian, it had a troubling Hobbesian perspective to it, which I suspect is the way that Abercrombie sees things, that I have always found suspicious.

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    6. Funny about the toddler keyboard battle. Experience it frequently ("pictures of princesses wearing pants"-long story). Maddening! And coming home to a bunch of comments sounds like the stuff of nightmares to me.

      Please don't think I was saying only you were less then generous. Looking over my posts I can't help but feel I could have been better about stating my arguments, more civil. It's something about forums, chats, emails. There's a reason they spawned terms like "troll" and "flame war". And I'd like to just say you were more than generous in the second paragraph of your last post and I appreciate it.

      I hope you like Abraham. He has another completed series called the "Long Price Quartet" which I've also heard good things about. I believe it is a somewhat more Asian inspired fantasy, although I believe I read a discussion by Abraham of his books and I think he purposely tries to avoid making his worlds analogs to historical time periods. One warning-The Dagger and the Coin series is not what I would describe as action packed. More character driven, so if you prefer a lot of swinging swords and mighty thews in your fantasy (which I personally have nothing against) you may want to avoid it.

      I've really, really, enjoyed all the stand alone novels in Abercrombie's First Law world. Actually I feel like every single one of his novels has been stronger than the last starting from the Trilogy (you don't mention The Heroes, which I think may tie Red Country for me). Red Country was amazing, and it surprised me to read on Abercrombie's blog that he felt like he really struggled with it (one of the reasons for starting the YA series). One thing I have to mention, I've 'read' most of his books as unabridged audiobooks (something else I do when doing the tedious part of my job), and the narrator for all the First Law world books (Steven Pacey) is just awesome.

      Speaking of audiobooks, that's how I started the Twilight Reign series. It is also how I started Gardens of the Moon. Both I kind of gave up on in that format (maybe to much detail to absorb just listening). I've since gone back and have started actually reading the Malazan books and have become completely enthralled. Maybe I'll give Tom Lloyd another try as well.

      Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought I may have seen on your blog somewhere that you are Canadian, which makes me think of R. Scott Bakker, who I've seen mentioned alongside Erikson because of their nationalities. Have you read any and would you recommend him?

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    7. Sorry I didn't respond sooner: bad internet connections on my commute to and from Ottawa.

      First off, I did enjoy the Heroes quite a bit, but somehow it's overshadowed in my mind by Red Country. I agree that the standalones were stronger. Actually, the first Abercrombie I read was Best Served Cold (bad title but good book) and then, after enjoying it, went back and read the First Law trilogy.

      I'm finding the Twilight Reign enjoyable but also uneven. There's something messy about it that bothers me slightly but I can't put my finger on the precise problem. I enjoy the world and the ideas in at as a whole but I think the execution is a little clumsy.

      Yes, I've read Bakker and for a while really enjoyed Bakker. Then I read his non-fiction philosophy work, encountered his online sexism, and discovered that his ideology wasn't as progressive as I had at first imagined. Still, it's worth a read. I was just disappointed to discover how much of an evolutionary psychologist, blind brain theorist, etc. he was in real life.

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  4. An interesting detail perhaps is that Yes'kov himself is politically a liberal (kind of in the old sense). Being a paleontologist by trade, he just comes as a cynically honest all-in-your-face guy when he expresses his views. So he did crack this "LoTR propaganda" open, but that doesn't mean he really sympathizes with the Orcs. Especially, since his interpretation was popularized in Russia and then reduced to a simplistic notion that the "Elves are Americans and Orcs are Russians", whereupon many "redcons" and outright nazis simply failed to register this whole "medievalism vs. industrialism" thing and went for the good old "us vs. them" thing.

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