Books

The Real Fantastic Stuff, an essay by Richard K. Morgan

 

Richard K. Morgan

The following is an original essay by Richard K. Morgan. I hope you enjoy:

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“I tell you, it’s no game serving down in the city”
– Gorbag – forgotten orc captain from Minas Morgul
I’m not much of a Tolkien fan – not since I was about twelve or fourteen anyway (which, it strikes me, is about the right age to read and enjoy his stuff). But it would be a foolish writer in the fantasy field who failed to acknowledge the man’s overwhelming significance in the canon. And it would be a poor and superficial reader of Tolkien who failed to acknowledge that in amongst all the overwrought prose, the nauseous paeans to class-bound rural England, and the endless bloody elven singing that infests The Lord of the Rings, you can sometimes discern the traces of a bleak underlying human landscape which is completely at odds with the epic fantasy narrative for which the book is better known.
LOTR.pngThat little twist of urban angst quoted above is one such trace. It comes at the end of The Two Towers and is part of an on-going set of dialogues between two orc captains at the tower of Cirith Ungol. And for a while – until Tolkien remembers these are Bad Guys and sends the wearyingly Good and Wholesome Sam up against them – we get a fascinating insight into life for the rank and file in Mordor. The orcs are disenchanted, poorly informed and constantly stressed by the uncertainties that lack of information brings. They suspect that the war might be going badly for their side, and that their commanders, far from being infallible, seem to be making some serious errors of judgment. They worry that if their side loses, they can expect scant mercy from their victorious enemies. They mutter their misgivings sotto voce because they know that there are informers in the ranks and a culture of enforcement through terror bearing down from above. They also seem possessed of a rough good humour and some significant loyalty to the soldiers they command. And they’re not enjoying the war any more than Frodo or Samwise; they want it to be over just as much as anybody else.


For me, this is some of the finest, most engaging work in The Lord of the Rings. It feels – perhaps a strange attribute for a fantasy novel – real. Suddenly, I’m interested in these orcs. Gorbag is transformed by that one laconic line about the city, from slavering brutish evil-doer to world-weary (almost noir-ish) hard-bitten survivor. The simplistic archetypes of Evil are stripped away and what lies beneath is – for better or brutal worse – all too human. This is the real meat of the narrative, this is the telling detail (as Bradbury’s character Faber from Fahrenheit 451 would have it), no Good, no Evil, just the messy human realities of a Great War as seen from ground level. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that what you’re probably looking at here are the fossil remnants of Tolkien’s first-hand experiences in his own Great War, as he passed through the hellish trenches and the slaughter of the Somme in 1916.
LOTR2.pngThe great shame is, of course, that Tolkien was not able (or inclined) to mine this vein of experience for what it was really worth – in fact he seemed to be in full, panic-stricken flight from it. I suppose it’s partially understandable – the generation who fought in the First World War got to watch every archetypal idea they had about Good and Evil collapse in reeking bloody ruin around them. It takes a lot of strength to endure something like that and survive, and then to re-draw your understanding of things to fit the uncomfortable reality you’ve seen. Far easier to retreat into simplistic nostalgia for the faded or forgotten values you used to believe in. So by the time we get back to Cirith Ungol in The Return of the King, Gorbag and his comrades have been conveniently shorn of their more interesting human character attributes and we’re back to the cackling slavering evil out of Mordor from a children’s bedtime story. Our glimpse of something more humanly interesting is gone, replaced once more by the ponderous epic tones of Towering Archetypal Evil pitted against Irritatingly Radiant Good (oh – and guess who wins).
Well, I guess it’s called fantasy for a reason.
I only wonder why on earth anyone (adult) would want to read something like that.
And I’ve written a fantasy novel for all those adults who wouldn’t.
Hope you like it.
steelremains.png

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To learn more about Richard K. Morgan, his titles, or additional essays, visit his website: http://www.richardkmorgan.com/.
This essay will also be featured in the upcoming issue of Del Rey’s DRIN newsletter. Want to find out why the DRIN is one of the best genre newsletters out there? Check it out for yourself here: DRIN Newsletter Online.
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  • vorpalsquirrel

    That’s awfully generous of you, allowing Tolkien a line or two of greatness. Wow.

  • Shawn Speakman

    Going back to something Richard said, I think the hesitance of Tolkien humanizing the Evil doers hearkens back to his experiences in the trenches.
    He and thousands more fine men were fighting against naked aggression, but many of those Germans were simple men merely carrying out what they perceived to be their duty. They were real, like Gorbag, had hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares. They too just wanted to get by and survive the war and hated the conditions in which they were placed.
    But to humanize those Germans would have been catastrophic to Tolkien—and probably to many of his readers at that time. Doing so, in a weird psychological way, would not lend the kind of condemnation Germany’s leaders deserved as a whole. At that time, people needed to hate that kind of Evil for the loved ones they had lost—anger being part of the healing process—and I don’t think they were ready for a more human, literary take on Germany, or Sauron for that matter. They weren’t ready yet.
    Now is another matter. I think if Tolkien wrote LOTR now, it would be different. He wouldn’t have been a part of that war and most of his possible readers would have passed on. No one to cater to, in short.
    The argument can be made that maybe Tolkien should have pushed the envelope. After all, that’s how we grow, by being challenged. And that’s legitimate.
    But I can understand the why of it. And enjoy a work like The Sundering by Jacqueline Carey, which I think attempted to humanize that evil and show the other side of things.
    Richard is right though. Tolkien missed an opportunity. No doubt about it.

  • Shawn Speakman

    vorpalsquirrel: Richard does have a valid criticism of Tolkien’s work. It’s such a valid criticism that it can be placed upon many of the epic fantasies for the last 32 years or so. Ultimate Good vs. Ultimate Evil without showing the humanity on the other side.
    In fact, I think part of the greatness of the writing we are seeing right now is an admittance of Tolkien’s shortcoming. Many writers today are writing characters—both good and evil—that are gray, that do not conform to archetypal stereotypes of merely Good or merely Evil. So perhaps we have finally made it to the rebuttal stage of Tolkien’s masterwork.

  • DonGR

    every now and then you get som eone trying to knock JRRT so they sound hip, and I guess its that time again.

  • richard morgan

    Yeah, and every now and then the JRRT fan-base flinch and wince and knee-jerk blindly away from any critical assessment of their hero so they don’t have to face the many and manifest flaws in the text, and I guess it’s that time again too.

  • Shawn Speakman

    As the long-time webmaster for Terry Brooks, I’ve had my share of Tolkien people coming into and right out of my life — usually because they send angry comments and flee.
    A post like this is good. It forces people to think, think, think! Or at least some people. Some people are so stubborn, no matter what you say, they are firm in their beliefs despite being challenged to explain them with facts.
    Gorbag is a fact of the book. He does exist. He is a window into an aspect of LOTR that fans can’t ignore. Tolkien made a decision to have Gorbag in the book and use him quite differently in tone and interest than 99.9% of the rest of the book. Why? Why does it exist? I think it is important to question it rather than simply embrace it. Why can’t we look at LOTR and look at it critically, without Tolkien fans getting bristly?
    For me, I’m the first to say that the first 1/3 of The Sword of Shannara parallels Fellowship plot point by plot point to a tee almost. That was also the point Terry stepped away from writing his debut book for two years and, after coming back to it, changed direction. Some Terry Brooks fans bristle at that, but the critical facts are indisputable. Usually after a long fight they see what I am saying, even if they don’t like it.
    Tolkien fans, from what I have seen, tend to defend all the more vehemently because… well… perhaps he was the “first” to define the new era epic fantasy? It is hard for them to look critically at the work after so many years of reading it and enjoying it and memorizing it. For some, like Richard, they look at it critically to see how they can twist convention ever since Sword was released. And Richard did that in The Steel Remains.
    So please, stop the peevish comments, from both sides. No reason for them. Let’s have a real discussion about it, one based in the books themselves. Why do people have to resort to flame posts?
    Earnest discussion. Please.

  • Suemoe

    I think Richard has a valid point, and he certainly walked the walk in THE STEEL REMAINS. But I think a nod to the traditional epic fantasy is in order. This discussion seems to be saying that ultimate good vs. evil is no longer to be desired.
    There’s also been a lot of discussion (not here yet) about fantasy being serious fiction and shouldn’t be seen as escapism. Well, while I was reading fantasy novels to escape my homework from grade 3 on, or currently rereading the whole Jane Austen cannon – I was and am unabashedly doing it to escape. To find a world where good will always triumph and it isn’t just a triumph of the ‘better fighter’ or winning by the skin of their teeth. I enjoy a good Tolkienesque traditional epic fantasy.
    That said, I also applaud, obsess over, and will devour all subsequent sequels of new fantasy like The Steel Remains. But I don’t know how fair it is to critique it for not being like Tolkien. I think it is in a new genre of fiction, or creating a new genre, rather than sitting squarely on the shoulders of the old.

  • vorpalsquirrel

    Shawn, good points, but the original flame post was the essay itself.
    “I only wonder why on earth anyone (adult) would want to read something like that.”
    The essay seems to be accusing Bach of not being Beethoven. You get out of a piece of art what you’re willing to put into it, as an observer, reader, or listener. I know a guy who says, “why should I listen to the Beatles, they stopped making music before I was born.” And Shakespeare isn’t Harold Pinter. But so what?

  • Shawn Speakman

    vorpalsquirrel: I guess my point is, “Why answer a flame with a flame?” Use rationale deduction to disagree with Richard, not the “knee-jerk” reaction you had — and which he zinged you with.
    I can’t enforce that, of course. This isn’t my board to moderate. On Terry’s board, anyone who flames is warned, moderated and then tossed in that order if they don’t shape up. We don’t have that here, so do what you must. But the whole point of writing in these kinds of discussions is to have a discussion, not to be petty.
    And I say that at both sides, of course. But what do I know? Ya know?

  • Shawn Speakman

    Oh, and like SueMoe said, there is nothing wrong with Good vs. Evil novels. Some people love that kind of escape and I am one of them. It takes all kinds. If I want a novel with more complicated characters like seen in Song of Fire & Ice, I’ll go buy it. If I want the LOTR type of story, I’ll go buy LOTR or any number of novels published in the last 30 years. It all depends on what a reader is looking for.
    But as I’ve said, I do find it interesting Tolkien took several evil characters and made them “real,” and then backed away from it. I’m sure he had his reasons, reasons I think I’ve already theorized, but I think looking at those reasons and talking about them is a worthy endeavor. Cheers!

  • Adam Whitehead

    “But to humanize those Germans would have been catastrophic to Tolkien—and probably to many of his readers at that time.”
    There was very little condemnation of the German soldiers fighting in WWI, certainly not by the British (the French may have felt differently). The Kaiser was portrayed as insane, mad for power and evil, certainly, but not the common German soldier, who was seen as pretty much doing his job just as the British Tommies were. The two sides even fraternised when breaks in combat allowed it (the famous Christmas Day football match, having patriotic sing-offs from opposing trenches, assisting one another in recovering the dead and wounded). The overwhelming psychological damage done to many soldiers on both sides was certainly partially caused by this knowledge that the opposing side wasn’t monstrous, unlike WWII when the Allies did have that moral certainty on their side.
    What WWI instilled in those who fought in it was a hatred and loathing of war itself, particularly a war that was senseless and wasteful. That’s where some of Tolkien’s most stunning imagery – the faces in the Dead Marshes are straight from the Somme – comes from.
    I would be interested to see more appraisals of the considerably darker Silmarillion (in which the “Hail fellow well met,” stuff is drastically reduced), which could even be argued to by nihilistic in places: almost everyone dies, the world gets devastated several times and the Free Races only survive by the skin of their teeth and in very small numbers. That one definitely doesn’t have a happy ending.

  • vorpalsquirrel

    Shawn, you say flame, I say mock, let’s call the whole thing off.
    While Richard’s observations about the orc scene are quite valid, in my opinion, they are merely an interesting aside. The meat of the essay seems to be the Tolkien beat down, at least to me, and the tone meant to attack and inflame Tolkien readers. How should one respond to someone who seems not to invite discussion, but rather the very knee-jerk reaction he decries? If you go around yelling Tolkien sucks, that’s what you’ll get, not thoughtful discussions of why Tolkien sucks. It’s almost funny the way he “zings” people as knee-jerk reactionaries who automatically defend Tolkien, when he fails to limit his criticism to Tolkien and extends it to anyone stupid or childish enough to enjoy Tolkien past the age of 14.
    Almost funny, but not quite.

  • TheDude

    I enjoyed the essay and I think it makes a lot of valid points,some of which I agree.
    But I still think that this is yet another case of a writer bashing Tolkien’s work because it’s the cool thing to do these days (for another example, see Mieville’s comment that “Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy”)
    And I’m not even a part of the “JRRM fan-base”. I don’t like Lord of the Rings that much. (by the way, I think that Richard Morgan’s comment that “the JRRT fan-base flinch and wince and knee-jerk blindly away from any critical assessment of their hero” is unfair because it’s impossible to dodge the constant abuse that Tolkien’s work been suffering since the movies came out. So I can understand why they’d be tired of yet another anti-Tolkien tirade)
    The problem with lines like “I only wonder why on earth anyone (adult) would want to read something like that.” is that it is insulting, condescending and abusive in so many ways: to Tolkien, of course, although he won’t mind these days, all the extremely talented writers who have been influenced by him (George RR Martin, Robin Hobb, Ursula Le Guin, R. Scott Baker, Gene Wolfe) and most importantly you’re insulting all the Tolkien fans, many of them are probably Richard Morgan fans as well (these things aren’t airtight. It’s perfectly possible to like both types of fantasy).
    And since I’m at it I might as well ask: can’t The Steel Remains be judged for its “many and manifest flaws”? It’s a good book, it really is, but I could cheat and go for the obvious criticims like the explicit sex scenes, the violence, trying to make the characters cool by saying “fuck” everyother word, having a gay character just for shock value.
    See? I know I’m not being fair but Morgan is doing the same thing by just pointing out the bad in the Lord of the Rings and leaving out the good

  • Bryan Russell

    Interesting article, here, with some vary valid points, though the tone occasionally trips into an overly confrontational style, or so it seems to me. Like maybe Mr. Morgan wants a fight… and naming the adult readers of Tolkien as juvenile seems a good way to go about it.
    But, some interesting points, certainly. I’d agree with some and disagree with others. Yes, Tolkien was interested in ideals and at times inserted these in his fiction, but to dismiss this as “simplistic nostalgia for faded and forgotten values” is in itself somewhat simplistic. Ideals are not without value. What is a symbol but an idealistic representation, a focusing of intent and meaning? Because we often fail these ideals, these “faded values”, does not mean they are without merit.
    I also consider the idea that LotR operates on a linear dynamic of Archetypal Good vs. Archetypal Evil to be a rather simplistic interpretation of the novels. Tolkien was a devoted Catholic thinker, and it seems to me what he’s really writing about is sin and its seductiveness. Sauron and the Ring are merely symbols of this, physical manifestations operating in the fantasy world to make the ideas concrete. But the real fight is inside the characters, fighting the seductive voice of sin (the pull of the One Ring, the voice of Sauron, etc.). The evil is that in Boromir, his vanity and pride, and the struggle is his too, as it is for everyone. A conflict with sin, with the vices of man. Pippin gives in and looks at the seeing stone. Theoden gives in to the voice of wormtongue/saruman and later battles his pride and despair. It goes on. And, ultimately, it is epitomized in Frodo’s struggle with the Ring. It is that conflict that becomes central. Yes, it’s made concrete in Sauron and the Ring, but really he is battling himself. And in the end he fails. Archetypal good? Really? In some ways the books suggest that it is only chance that sometimes allows us to prevail against ourselves, and hope that gets us there. And yet human values, ideals, are important, and can persevere (such as Sam’s loyalty).
    You know, to me there’s a reason Sauron is bodiless, nonexistent. He operates better as a symbol this way, and as a character he does less to obscure the central struggles of the characters. Sin is disembodied, too. You can’t cut off its head, because there’s no head to cut off. It comes down to a choice, a moral action. And sometimes we fail even there.
    To me it has always seemed as if the problem is not that Tolkien was too simplistic, but that too many subsequent fantasy writers failed to understand his complexity. Why do the hobbits return to an enslaved Shire? In the end it’s not about the Big Baddie, but about human weakness and strength. There’s no escaping it, not even in the idyllic paradise of the Shire. Even here the voice of evil/sin lingers in the heart… embodied still (Saruman/wormtongue), yes, but no less important, I think, for its effect on various characters and the choices they make.
    Now, having said all that, my favourite character from the LotR is Grishnakh, one of the orcs crossing Rohan after Merry and Pippin have been captured. I loved that inside look at the orcs, their conflicts with the goblins of the Misty Mountains and with Saruman’s Uruk Hai. Really, I loved all those brief moments “inside” the forces of “evil”. I think it’s right to say that this is a very human look at them, something complex and interesting. I don’t see it, necessarily, as a failure that he didn’t follow up further with them. I think he merely gave us a glimpse of the reality as he saw it. These were simply normal people who had been corrupted, who had given in to those voices. What are orcs? Elves and men that have been twisted and corrupted. They are not born evil, but have chosen this path through their own actions. They gave in to their own weaknesses and fears… and their own pride, lust, greed, sloth, etc.
    As for the paeans to rural England… I’ll concede that. 🙂 And, yes, the Elvish singing… but, really, this all started as a linquistic experiment, so who can blame him? Gotta give the man the chance to play a little with his shiny new toys…
    Great article and interesting discussion. My best to everyone,
    Bryan

  • TheDude

    Oh, and I just want to add: using this whole essay just so in the end you can promote your book…priceless!!!
    It’s like writing a 5000-thousand word thesis called “Shakespeare sucked donkey balls! Read my book The Steel Remains instead!”

  • cschluep

    In Richard’s defense, I (his editor) asked him to do the piece for Suvudu. The only guideline was that it be about something that interested him. Frankly, I’m glad to see that Richard caused a little conflict, because this was one of the more interesting discussions I’ve seen on this site. While it got a little snarky, all sides made pretty intelligent points, even if those points contradicted one another at times. So don’t hold it against Richard that he wrote this piece (although I guess you can hold his opinions against him if you’d like). It was my fault he wrote it, and I’m glad he did.

  • Bryan Russell

    Dear Mr. Morgan’s Editor,
    Thanks for having him write the article, as it was an interesting discussion. And all publicity is good publicity, right? Actually, The Steel Remains has been on my TBR pile for awhile now, so hopefully I’ll get to it soon. Despite the lean of my earlier comments, I’m all for grit in fantasy novels, as that’s what I write myself.
    My best, as always,
    Bryan

  • cschluep

    Dear Bryan,
    Thank you for not eviscerating me. As an infrequent contributor, I wasn’t so sure about dipping my toe into these churning waters.
    Good luck with your writing,
    Chris

  • Drew Bowling

    I love the fantasy genre because it’s endlessly elastic. With boundaries extending as far as the human imagination, it has, quite literally, room for any idea. It’s important to emphasize that many dedicated fantasy readers, including more than a few of the people posting here, enjoy an extremely diverse range of fantastic fiction. No surprise, then, that when a high profile writer like Morgan – or China Mieville, or Michael Moorcock – publicly voices a negative opinion about an immensely popular author like Tolkien, there’s sure to be a backlash.
    So what? That’s a good thing. It speaks of a vibrant fan community. I, for one, reading Morgan’s essay and the rebuttals that follow, find myself enjoying these verbal broadsides. Argument between opposing viewpoints creates intellectual tension, which in turn creates progress – and in any event conjures up an entertaining spectacle.
    For the record, I agree with some of Morgan’s arguments, disagree with others, and remain a loyal Tolkien enthusiast who thinks the above essay drastically oversimplifies The Lord of the Rings. I also think Altered Carbon is one of the most thrilling science fiction novels I’ve ever read. I’m twenty three years old, and when Morgan wonders how an adult could enjoy The Lord of the Rings, I’m free to explain why so many do, even the ones like me who also enjoy The Steel Remains (and then, thankfully, return to what I was doing before jotting all this down, which was fondly speculating on what Kovacs would have done with the One Ring, had he, instead of Frodo, been holding it over the fires of Mount Doom). Once I’ve finished up a certain project of my own (coffee break, Chris, I swear), I might set about writing an essay on Tolkien’s literary merit. If I do, though, one thing’s for sure: I hope there will be people who enthusiastically disagree with every single line I write. I like fireworks. I would so love to watch the ensuing sparks.
    Drew

  • Kyle M.

    Great response Drew! I had something typed up, but you said it better, so I’m rebounding off you instead. Sorta.
    I would say I have the same feelings, but an opposite opinion of Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings series was a turning point for me as a younger reader; it was the point at which I turned away from fantasy. I just couldn’t get into it and, as I was told this was a pinnacle of fantasy writing, figured the rest was more of the same. So I sought out horror and science fiction instead.
    Now, we all know that my “it must all be like this” idea as a younger reader was very very wrong. There were then and are now some very talented writers creating some really gripping books, and thanks to several great recommendations by friends I’ve been lucky enough to read some of them, but Tolkien remains inaccessible to me. I just don’t get it, it doesn’t work for me. I’ve tried three times to slog through it and can’t.
    But that only means that my own highly subjective reading tastes aren’t interested in Tolkien. As I read through this essay, I was nodding my head the whole way through. But reading the comments, I can understand and appreciate that the book is beloved by other fans.
    As Drew points out, this is all okay. The genre is big enough to accommodate both sides. At the end of the day, I’m most thankful that Richard Morgan wrote a fantasy novel (I’m also hoping he isn’t finished with science fiction, because I love his science fiction), thankful for the many shades of gray in which his worlds exist and all the complexity of character and, sure, the warts that those shades bring. Because that’s what I need as a reader, more shades of gray and fewer instances of pure white and dark.
    But again, that’s me. It doesn’t have to be you. And the fact that we can both get along in this genre makes it all the stronger as a whole. Just my own two cents.
    [/disjointed rambling]

  • Greg Wilson

    I’m incredibly heartened to see some people (TheDude, Drew, others) not going down the road of “Tolkien is all bad, look at how cool we are for going against the grain by saying he’s bad, all of us! All of us…er…individuals…going against the…grain…together…”
    🙂
    But TheDude has it exactly right–whenever I read these kinds of criticisms of Tolkien (not the more subtle ones advanced by Minister Faust and others, but the “Tolkien’s so black and white!” types) I always feel like they’re arguing against a book which doesn’t really exist–one which they wish had been written for the sake of their argument, but one which doesn’t match the reality. I wrote more about this in my blog, so I won’t take time to rehash it here…but suffice to say that there’s a lot more going on in LOTR than either this article or other similar criticisms acknowledge, and I think that’s unfortunate. The discussion of the article, though, has been truly enjoyable to follow.
    Greg

  • noisms

    Aside from the complete lack of class Richard Morgan demonstrates here, it must be said that his point has been made so many times before it has become banal. Tolkien is all about good vs. evil, black vs. white, and that’s not realistic or interesting, blah blah. We’ve heard it all before a thousand times. People were saying it at the time of the Lord of the Rings’ first publication. What’s new here?
    This essay’s worst quality is not the childish dismissal of another writer (a dead one who can’t answer back, no less) to promote the author’s own book. It’s the utter lack of any original content whatsoever.

  • Shawn Speakman

    I don’t think Richard is talking about how black and white Tolkien is, although in certain instance and verbages he sounds just like that.
    If you read his article, it’s more about the one moment when Tolkien strayed from it being black and white… and Tolkien reeling it back in for reasons we don’t and probably can’t fully understand.

  • bmurphy

    Whatever points the author of this article has tried to make are lost in his insulting, dismissive comments of Tolkien and his readers. Pretty shoddy work here.

  • Shawn Speakman

    That I agree with, Mr. Murphy. That I agree with.
    Richard is a very good writer. He knows how to use words. The question you have to ask yourself is, why did he say those insulting and dismissive comments concerning Tolkien and his readers.
    It’s not to sell his newest books. How does insulting a target readership sell books? It doesn’t. So why?

  • Greg Wilson

    But that’s the point, Shawn–his claim is that this is the “one moment” (and only one) when Tolkien departed from a black and white moral frame, and that’s simply not true. I’d also point out that since Tolkien himself said he based portions of Frodo and Sam’s journey into Mordor on his own experience in WWI, it certainly isn’t a revelation new to Morgan’s article.
    Greg

  • noisms

    Shawn, controversy of any kind generates sales. For every Tolkien fan who gets turned off Morgan by this essay, there’ll be a dozen people who feel neutral about Tolkien (or who agree with Morgan) whose curiosity will be piqued enough to buy The Steel Remains. Any publicity is good publicity, remember – and if people are talking about you (even in a negative way) it’s always better than being ignored.

  • Shawn Speakman

    Greg: The WWI / LOTR connection isn’t new at all. Did I even say that? No. Books, plural, have been written about it. That’s not what I am saying Richard’s point is. I’m saying he is bringing up a specific instance in the book, “one such trace” as Richard writes from “traces” in the book (meaning Richard acknowledges there are other traces in the book, not just “one moment”), that takes a departure from 99.9% of Tolkien’s black/white narrative.
    I merely wrote earlier a reason why Tolkien would not want to venture where Richard wanted him to go.
    So why did Tolkien do it the way he did? Why in that small percentage did he venture into that territory? That’s the question Richard is raising, not whether or not Tolkien is valid reading or not.
    Here is another random thought: Richard is a Brit, like Tolkien was. How much of his apparent rancor comes from having Tolkien forced upon him, not only during childhood but during adulthood? I’d like Richard to talk about that, if he is still around.
    noisms: That’s entirely true. Bad publicity is good publicity. Lord knows I have enough bad publicity out there at the moment and yet more people are finding my website than ever.
    Here is a question: How many million Tolkien fans are there? What percentage of that number would be angry at that post? Then you’ll know how many people wouldn’t buy Richard’s backlist and would probably start websites to try to stop people from reading Richard’s work. I bet that number is fairly large. But at the end, you are right: the people who don’t particularly like Tolkien or who are indifferent to the debate might become interested in Richard’s work. Maybe.
    I don’t read Neal Stephenson because he is the biggest ass I’ve ever met. I’ll never read him. Could people feel that way about Richard based on that article? Perhaps. I don’t know.
    At least Richard spoke his mind. Unless some of you think he doesn’t actually feel that way and just wrote that piece to gain sales. haha
    Which I think it is obvious how he really feels.
    But that’s just me.

  • noisms

    Shawn: Hey, on your website it says you’re currently reading a Neal Stephenson book! (For what it’s worth, I’m not a Stephenson fan in the slightest.)
    I’m sure Richard does really feel that way about Tolkien. But I also think he was fully aware of what he was doing with this article. You don’t make pointlessly incendiary comments for the fun of it; this piece is in part just a deliberate kick to a hornets’ nest.
    Anyway, I certainly won’t be reading a Richard Morgan book because of this article. If you’re a genuinely good writer you don’t need to pull cheap stunts like this (“Tolkien is for kids…read my book instead – it’s for real adults!”); you let your work stand for itself.

  • Greg Wilson

    Shawn: We seem to be talking past each other a bit. To begin with, I was commenting on the fact that Morgan seems to be patting himself on the back, as many people with these kinds of criticisms do, for being different or brave enough to “challenge” Tolkien…when that’s actually the norm these days. There’s nothing radical about yet another attack on Tolkien’s alleged use of cliches, any more than there’s anything revelatory in speculating about how his experience as a WWI soldier affected war scenes in LOTR when Tolkien explicitly said such experience played into those scenes. To me, that kind of mistake undermines the “newness” of the argument, and that in turn raises questions about how insightful the argument is overall. But all of this is about Morgan…I wasn’t referring to you there at all.
    Where I was referring to you was the comment you made about Morgan’s admiration of the small portion of Tolkien’s book which departs from the black/white narrative, which you repeat in your reply here (99.9%)–my point is that Tolkien does NOT write a black and white narrative 99.9% of the time, and that this is a false claim based on a fundamental misreading of the book. Tolkien “ventured into that territory” much more than Morgan (or you, if I’m reading you correctly?) is willing to acknowledge. The fact that he admires the remaining .1% is nice, but the point is that his math is way off to begin with.
    You may be quite right about his feeling that Tolkien was forced upon him when he was younger (although he seems to think that’s the ideal time to read that, ahem, “juvenile” work)–I’d be interested to hear that answer too.
    Greg

  • richard morgan

    Shawn – many thanks for repeatedly getting my back here, but it’s really not necessary (and a bit of a pointless enterprise as well, I think). Most of the vitriol you’re trying to shield me from is coming from people who haven’t actually read the text of the article with any close attention at all – they’ve simply grabbed my assertion that LoTR is a kid’s book (which it is – it was commissioned, envisaged and written as a sequel to that other great kid’s book, the Hobbit) and taken offense at it. Or they’ve taken offense that I don’t get much out of kid’s books and don’t really understand how other adults do. Which, (as I’ve already said over at Colleen Lindsay’s site “The Swivet”), is akin to blaming me for not understanding how people can enjoy eating cheeses that smell like unwashed feet. It’s a matter of taste. Some people like smelly cheeses, some adults like reading kid’s books. If you do – good for you. Enjoy. But I still don’t get it. And it seems only fair to warn you that you won’t find that runny Camembert on the cheese board if you come to dinner at my place, and nor will you find the moral simplicities of children’s fiction in my books if you choose to read them.
    The really curious thing is that the article (if one takes the trouble to read it rather than just recoil from it) is actually focused on an analysis of exactly the areas where Tolkien gets loose from his original brief and does aspire to more adult literature. I’m discussing precisely the more complex, less black and white areas of the text that people here are accusing me of either missing or deliberately ignoring. The article praises in no small degree one example of such instances, examines it in detail and speculates about its probable origins and inspirations, laments the fact that there is not a lot more such in the text and speculates on why that might be. This is not insult or abuse, it’s basic literary criticism. It’s certainly not brand spanking new lit crit, but then if I had something brand spanking new to say about Tolkien, I’d be seeking publication in a peer-reviewed academic journal, not producing a casual article for a genre fiction website and my publisher’s newsletter.
    That said, the fact that this straightforward (and pretty even-handed) piece of lit crit has triggered such a spate of knee-jerk defensiveness is, I think, indicative of an alarming lack of relaxed confidence in our genre – and that can’t be anything but bad.

  • noisms

    Richard, it’s rather disingenuous to turn this into “a matter of taste” – you’re the one who began by casting aspertions on any adults who dared to be so childish as to like The Lord of the Rings (unlike you, the mature reader). If you start making those sorts of comments, then anything else is fair game, in my opinion.
    “Lit crit” is fine, and to be welcomed. What I find alarming for the genre is that a) the “lit crit” pertaining to it is so banal if this piece is anything to go by; b) new writers are apparently so lacking in confidence that they have to use “lit crit” pieces about Tolkien as blatant springboards for their own books; and c) polite and valid responses to criticism of a revered author are automatically smeared as “knee jerk defensiveness”.
    Worrying times for the fantasy genre indeed.

  • TheDude

    Mr Morgan, the second you wrote “I only wonder why on earth anyone (adult) would want to read something like that.”, you lost all reason in the argument. You pretty much insulted lots of people, many of them your fans.
    You call the reactions you got “knee-jerk defensinevess” and you know what? You’re absolutely right. But not because of Tolkien (like I said, there are many books that I think are better than Lord of the Rings), but because of the arrogance and condescension of what you said.
    Better people on this site have already made a case against what your essay. I’ll simply add two points:
    1)whatever you and anybody else says against Tolkien is irrelevant. You can’t win. Decades from now, when we are all dead and your books have long run out of print, Tolkien will still be considered the father of modern fantasy and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.
    2)Tolkien is probably a big reason why you’re able to make a living writing speculative fiction full-time. You think that the market for fantasy (and even SF) would be as big if it wasn’t for the Lord of the Rings, especially after the movies?
    That is all. If brevity truly is the soul of wit, then I’m a huge dumb fuck

  • Greg Wilson

    I think the point I’ve repeatedly made–that Morgan makes an argument based on a book he wishes existed for the sake of the points he wants to present rather than the one which actually exists in reality–is supported by his response here, where he responds to (mostly) thoughtful criticism by calling it knee-jerk defensiveness. I’m not accusing Morgan of missing the non-black and white areas of the text in his article. I’m arguing that the text isn’t nearly as black and white as he claims, THROUGHOUT THE TEXT, not just the .1 percent he wants to focus on.
    Again, anyone should feel free to criticize Tolkien, who has plenty of flaws. But if you’re going to point them out, it would behoove you to make sure they exist in reality, not as the straw man you set up only to triumphantly knock it down while waiting for applause.
    P.S. By the way, I think a lot of children’s book authors would object to having their work called “morally simplistic”–read Neil Gaiman’s new The Graveyard Book for an example.

  • Adrienne

    I personally am not a fan of Tolkien, at least of the LOTR books, I quite enjoy the LOTR films however. So I am not here to debate that side of the argument. I would however like to briefly address Richard’s opinion of children’s books which obviously comes from a place of ignorance as there is no way he could have a knowledge of the current children’s book industry and still come to this conclusion:
    “But I still don’t get it. And it seems only fair to warn you that you won’t find that runny Camembert on the cheese board if you come to dinner at my place, and nor will you find the moral simplicities of children’s fiction in my books if you choose to read them.”
    Because if he had read any recent children’s fiction he would know that these “moral simplicities” that he refers to are not quite as prevalent as he thinks. Heck even Harry Potter goes from a place of rather black and white at the start of the series to incredible grey. You could probably easily use Lemony Snicket as an example of moral complexities in children’s lit (the obvious choice). And the Gaiman novel mentioned above works too. I would also offer my own work as an example of such (I know Richard will forgive me for using my own work as an example, considering he offered his own up as the antithesis of Tolkien).
    As to why adults enjoy reading children’s literature, the answer is deep and involved (though can come down to, “because we like it”). However I did post a lengthy entry several weeks back over at Nathan Bransford’s blog that answers that very question if Richard, or anyone else so puzzled, was interested: http://nathanbransford.blogspot.com/2009/01/guest-blogger-adrienne-kress-on-why-she.html
    I will add, that I in no way think one OUGHT to like children’s fiction, and I will agree with Richard it is a matter of taste. Just as, for example, I am not much of a fan of using sweeping generalisations in order to make an argument, and others sometimes prefer that technique. But I nonetheless believe there are valid reasons to enjoy Children’s Lit as an adult, just as there are vaild reasons to enjoy any genre that I might still not like simply because of personal taste.
    At any rate . . .
    I hope this somewhat answers your question and that I didn’t take things too off course with this reply.
    Best,
    Adrienne

  • Shawn Speakman

    noisms: You are right. I need to change that damnable picture! I was reading Anathem when I met Neal for the first real time – and was immediately yelled at by the man. Literally. People around me shrank from him, and I came close to giving it to him in front of all his fans… all because I wanted to video tape his event so his fans worldwide would be able to listen to him speak. Stupid.
    Greg: What percentage would you say orcs run the narrative in LOTR? Then what percentage of that percentage do they act gray-area human? Get back to me and then we can discuss.
    Richard: Have at it! 🙂
    The Dude: 1) This isn’t about winning. This is about looking at something critically. Richard did that. Although he might have overstepped his boundaries a bit by using some words that chastised adults who read “children’s” books, the point of his article is still maintained. As he said, re-read it and see his intent, not the imagined intent to merely slam Tolkien fans for shock reasons.
    2) Ultimately, the reason why Richard has a genre to write in is because of Terry Brooks. Without Lester del Rey taking a chance on The Sword of Shannara in 1977 and believing people wanted more Tolkien-like writing, we wouldn’t have the section in the bookstore we have today. Sure, Tolkien wrote the initial book decades ago but it wasn’t until The Sword of Shannara was published that publishers saw money could be made off of fantasy. Without publishers, we would have nothing. Numerous authors over the years usually credit Terry with that, not Tolkien. But that’s for another discussion probably.
    Adrienne: Perhaps you and the rest of the people posting here should pick 3 or 4 of the children’s books you are talking about and challenge Richard to read them. 🙂 Sorry Richard, but I had to do it. I happen to agree that there are many children’s and young adult books at the moment with the exact type of hard hitting story you seem to be advocating, books that work well on one level for children and work on a completely different vaunted level for adults.

  • Kyle M.

    Adrienne, all I can say is yes, yes, yes! When children’s or young adult fiction is done well it does challenge its readers. My favorite of late has been The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. Peter David’s Tigerheart is another strong selection.
    There are some wonderful, and complex, stories to be found in the YA ranks. Thanks for reminding us all of that.

  • richard morgan

    Shawn, Adrienne – I’m all for that list, go for it. Would love some recs that prove me wrong. Last children’s stuff I tried was:
    1) The first Harry Potter, which I found unreadable for a variety of reasons, moral simplicity being only one of them
    2) Northern Lights, which I found readable enough, but ultimately not very satisfying at an adult level (and I should add I’m a great admirer of Pullman – I think he’s a fine children’s writer) simply because there was a bit of a skeletal texture to the narrative; as you say, Adrienne, kids want a well-paced story, they’re not apt to hang around for too much other stuff. That said, I still thought the moral dynamics of NL were pretty straightforward/simple.
    3) Chris Wooding’s Haunting of Alaizabel Gray, which was excellent (though again lacked adult fiction heft). But again, there is this Ultimate Evil out there to be defeated by plucky heroes…..

  • Bryan Russell

    Richard,
    (I’ll try and avoid any vitriol :))
    The Lord of the Rings is not a children’s book. The Hobbit was. The latter he wrote first for his kids, and then published it as a fantasy for children (which adults were welcome to read and enjoy). The initial idea of The Lord of the Rings was to do a sequel of the same sort. In the writing, however, it became something quite different, though traces of the original intent remain here and there, particularly in the first few chapters (the famous omniscient dip into the head of the fox, for example). There’s a lightness and bounciness in certain early elements that carries over from The Hobbit. However, as he wrote he moved away from the concerns of The Hobbit and instead saw an opportunity to continue with his writings on the mythos of Middle-Earth, something he had started many decades earlier. This came to predominate in the story. His goal, which he stated on a number of occasions, was to create the sort of mythology (within a Christian framework) that he thought Britain lacked (being unimpressed by the Arthur legends). Indeed, he had come to regret some of the simplicity of The Hobbit, and thought he had played down too far with it.
    As for the article, I think many of the specific points you made about the text are quite accurate, though I disagree somewhat with the interpretations you draw. Yes, there is certainly a gritty humanity in those scenes you pointed out… but such scenes exist throughout the book, and are not merely limited to those areas. The books, to me, seem pretty clearly to be about man’s struggle with sin, and this struggle is apparent through many characters, both within their own thoughts and embodied throughout the text in the voices of corruption (The Ring, Sauron, Saruman, Wormtongue… a very strong motif througout). And very often the characters fail, and give in to despair. Eowyn, Theoden, Boromir, Faramir, Denethor, Gollum… some are redeemed or partially redeemed, some are not.
    It’s the struggle, though, that’s important. The choice, the attempt itself is what is lauded. Frodo fights his own weaknesses and impulses, and in the end he fails. He fails, and in many ways is broken by the ordeal. Grace, in the end, comes as a gift. The characters are all imperfect, and it’s in that moment of grace gifted to us (a very Catholic belief) that we can be redeemed. Now, you may not like those values, or those interpretations of the human struggle, but dismissing their existence within the text seems a little premature.
    Tolkien, very carefully I think, does not end the novels with the defeat of Sauron. What has been accomplished by defeating the Archetypal Evil? Nothing, really, except another day to continue the human struggle. The hobbits return to an enslaved Shire, to evil written in human terms – Sauron in miniature, since Sauron, in the end, was only a symbol writ large. All they have gained is a chance to continue making moral choices. This, to me, is Tolkien’s point, our very human struggle versus sin (our human faults). Defeating the evil of Sauron (who is never really more than a disembodied symbol of our own vices – operating much the same way the Devil operates within biblical narratives, as a personification of negative human attributes) is merely an example of the human struggle Tolkien has playing out through many of the characters. Sauron is a searching eye, a voice… temptation. The Ring is an exterior embodiment of the interior struggles. Boromir wasn’t magicked by an Ultimate Evil… he was merely vain, proud and despairing, which Tolkien dramatized through the Ring. Yet Boromir was virtuous enough in the end to see his own flaws and repent (through sacrifice). Now, you might not agree with the values, with such a religious interpretation of the human struggle… but I don’t think it’s Black and White or particularly simplistic.
    It’s quite ambiguous and grey, really. Are the Ents good… or merely self-interested? Tolkien humanizes the orcs and goblins, who seem merely the dramatization of normal people who’ve failed through their own faults and actions (and in the mythology that’s how they were created… elves who became corrupt – bartering with the Devil, as it were). Eowyn verges on suicidal… Gollum bends back and forth… Pride is a huge theme throughout the works, and almost all the characters must face that one at some point, even the wholesome Sam. Gandalf and Galadriel and Aragorn… they all have to face that temptation. They all must face the responsibility of having power. What to do with it? Denethor and Boromir fail this… while Faramir resists. Humility, choice in the face of struggle, in the face of his desires, his pride and greed…
    I just struggle to see how any of this is overly simplistic, how any of it fits neatly into a framework of Archetypal Good vs Archetypal Evil. Now, many of the writers influenced by Tolkien have written exactly the sort of stuff you’re talking about. I always wonder how so many of them grasped the simplistic aspects… and failed to see the underlying complexity. Maybe it’s harder to see than I thought… but I definitely think that moral and theological framework is there. Now, elements of that framework are clearly drafted within a mythic vision, operating through symbol and motif… but other aspects are clearly human, direct and character oriented.
    Those are my thoughts, anyhow. Anyone convince you that a re-reading might be interesting yet?
    Thanks again for the article, and the interesting discussion. I’m looking forward to cracking open The Steel Remains soon. I’ve read a few interesting reviews (Abercrombie, et al) so I’m curious. Best wishes,
    Bryan Russell

  • TheDude

    I think that the idea of a list of books is really good but I would put it the other way around: since it was Mr. Morgan that started the discussion, let it be him that provides a list of books that have the moral complexity that he finds lacking in other epic fantasies.
    I read all 7 Harry Potter books, the His Dark Materials trilogy and liked them all. I see no need to defend my reading habits like they we’re “guilty pleasures”.

  • richard morgan

    Hi Bryan
    (the vitriol was never yours – as I’m sure you realise 🙂 )
    I think your analysis is pretty much flawless – as far as it goes. But to me christian theology is itself pretty child-like and simplistic (despite the best efforts of the Jesuits to complicate it) and I think Tolkien’s unreconstructed Catholicism is in fact crucial to the issue here. Yes, sin is an underlying pre-occupation in LoTR (consciously on the author’s part or not) , but for an adult audience in the mid-twentieth century, I just don’t think that’s good enough. As with C.S. Lewis, Tolkien’s outlook extends a paternalistic and patronising attitude to human affairs in general. Blessed are the meek, save ye be as little children etc etc…… In the end, what the underlying motifs and symbology boil down to are A Great Evil Arises, and All Are Judged by their ability to resist it. There’s no attempt to examine the nature or origins of said evil, or to ask if in fact there is any capital E evil at all – it’s just a given, and it has to be fought. Don’t ask questions, stiff upper lip and over the top with you. Rat-at-at-at-at-at……..
    The Gorbag passage I quoted is, I think, an example of Tolkien’s Authorial Talent shouldering his Priggish Metaphysical Concerns out of the driving seat for a while (you can see a similar dynamic in Milton’s handling of Satan), but, as I lamented in the article, it doesn’t last long, AT gets booted into the back seat again and PMC is back in charge. I think you can see similar examples of that struggle littered throughout the book, but the result is always the same. This is the retreat from the lessons of the twentieth century that I was talking about in the essay and it’s how we end up with a book written by a man who’s witnessed the slaughter of the Somme, in which massive frontal assault against suicidal odds is still seen as a Noble Thing. That’s the failure I’m talking about.
    Here are a few things, off the top of my head, that might (IMHO) have thickened the mix to more adult proportions:
    Denethor retains most of his disagreeable characteristics but is a handy motherfucker with a battle axe and repels with great gusto a couple of assaults on the gates of Minas Tirith, while still raging at Gandalf for interfering.
    Theoden rides to Minas Tirith not because it’s The Right Thing to Do, but because he reckons there’s a chance he can lay his hands on Gondor’s levers of power in the aftermath (and Gandalf sells him that idea to get him into the saddle)
    Faramir dies, Boromir lives (with his guilt unassuaged or not, I can see excellent dramatic potential either way)
    The hardiest fighters at the siege of Minas Tirith are a company of renegade orcs who’ve changed sides and have the most to lose if the city falls since they’ll be tortured to death as traitors
    The most terrifying asset in Sauron’s forces is a mercenary army of elves out of Mirkwood. Disgusted by the failings of men, they have thrown in their lot with the enemy on condition they will not be deployed to fight their own kind. The Nazgul hate them and don’t trust them, and those feelings are mutual. At Helm’s Deep the mercenaries come face to face with brother elves and Sauron’s broken promise……
    An orc family provide Frodo and Sam with shelter as they cross the wastes – the family are starving and miserable, and just want the war over and their husband and father back from the front.
    And so on…….
    The really interesting thing is that the mythology Tolkien borrowed from was far more sophisticated in its outlook than the christianised version he made of it. The Norse and Anglo-Saxon peoples knew there was no all powerful force for good (or evil) in the world – their gods all have their own agendas, alliances and grudges to work out, and this is beneficial (or not) to humans who get involved strictly on a case by case basis. And Ragnarok is coming….. I think there was an essential human wisdom in this outlook which christianity completely fails to grasp, and Tolkien in his committed faith was simply unable to access it.

  • TheDude

    I hope I’m not the one that’s responsible por the vitriol. In fact, I’d say that by Internet standards, this discussion has been the equivalent of a 19th century tea party 🙂
    Mr. Morgan, I find the post you just made very inteligent and insightful, and I have to say that you make very valid points, just like you did on the essay.
    My contention was never with the criticisms made to Tolkien, but the tone on which those criticisms were made. It’s perfectly possible to express opinions against a writer without insulting its readership.
    Our defense of Tolkien is not a reflex or knee-jerk action. It is just as thoughful and reflected as the opinions against Tolkien have been (that’s probably not your opinion since you’ve been pretty much ignoring my posts since the beginning).
    To conclude, I would like to describe another moment from the Lord of the Rings that I think Mr. Morgan would agree is another great example of “Tolkien’s Authoritorial Talent”:
    after Sauron’s been defeated and the Hobbits are returning to the Shire, they say farewell to Gandalf, and as he’s leaving Merry or Pippin says something like(forgot the precise words) “Everybody’s leaving.It feels like were waking up from a dream.” And Frodo answers:”Not me. It feels like I’m falling asleep again”
    I’ve read LoTR twice and this small scene is the one that sticks out the most to me and I find it to be a perfect metaphor for any soldier coming back from a war. And I’m sure other people will have other small scenes that stuck in their memories
    Another huge post. Sorry…

  • julia

    So, those of us who might prefer say a book that restores our faith in humanity or just a good old fashioned romp over a dark and cynical story are moral simpletons? Why thanks! /sarcasm
    To be frank, I find your sweeping generalisations regarding the ‘black and white and no shades of grey’ in the characters quite perplexing, as most of the ‘good guys’ have bad qualities, and most of the ‘bad guys’ ( the humans at least) have good qualities. Like real, you know, people. I wonder how nuanced your own characters can be when you completely fail to grasp the nuances of other works.
    Yes, Tolkien has his faults, many of them. That does not mean that he should be dismissed out of hand as a work for children and the morally simplistic.
    I wouldn’t mind so much if this essay were even an original take on Tolkien…but if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s authors who bash other authors just to flog their own book.

  • Silence

    This essay makes a valid point, but, as others have written before, Tolkien’s work shouldn’t be called “children’s fiction”, but rather “Christian fiction”.
    Stories like “the Simarillion” and “the Children of Hurin” are definitely not for children.
    The only “simplistic” thing about them is the “irredeemably evil” nature of the “fallen angel” Morgoth and all the creatures he has created or corrupted (like the dragons or orcs); which in turn reflects Tolkien’s belief that all evil on Earth was the result of disharmony brought about by Satan. The first chapters of “The Silmarillion” make this quite clear.
    So the words “children’s fiction” are not really appropriate, unless one considers that religion itself is childish, but that’s quite another debate…
    But in the end, I think that what is most enjoyable about Tolkien’s works is not what they say about the world, but rather their poetry, their vivid imagery; one enjoys Tolkien’s writings, IMO, in the same way as a fine painting or sculpture. But I can understand that not everyone is receptive to this.
    And I’d probably like to read Richard Morgan’s version of the Lord of the Rings, but I must point out that in the books, unlike the films, there were no elves at Helm’s Deep. :p

  • richard morgan

    Dude – I don’t know how many times and ways I have to re-phrase this before I get it across. I haven’t attacked or insulted anyone. I’ve expressed a personal taste, and a comprehension gap.
    Look, I loved LoTR at fourteen, liked it a great deal less at seventeen and when I went back to re-read in 2003 (ish) found it irritatingly hard work, with a side order of frustration at the lost potential I mentioned in the essay. I wasn’t really surprised by that transition, because I’m a lot different now than I was at fourteen. What does surprise me is that other readers haven’t gone through that same transitional process.
    But.
    This does not pre-suppose some scathing personal judgment of said readers’ morals or intelligence. I once met an American in Edinburgh airport who was avidly devouring a fantasy tome by a well known genre author (not Tolkien) whose work I find banal and utterly unreadable. This guy was a postgrad student at St Andrew’s University and a black belt plus in Taekwondo, which he also taught; he was educated and well-travelled, thoughtful, witty and fun to talk to. I did not (and stlll do not) understand how he could possibly derive pleasure from what he was reading – but my judgement was of his choice of reading matter, not the kind of human being he was.
    (I was also tolerably sure he wouldn’t like The Steel Remains – a suspicion I subsequently confirmed when I gave him my laptop and let him read a few pages, and he gave them back, politely non-committal, and went back to his book. No score. But I don’t feel the need to make a personal judgment of him as a human being because he didn’t like my work, any more than I would because of the book he DID like.)
    Here’s the inverse example – I’m a huge fan of the video game F.E.A.R. F.E.A.R., despite its beautifully rendered creepiness and its intense gameplay, is pretty much your basic first person horror shooter shock-and-slaughterfest, Various of my acquaintances, including close friends and family, simply cannot see what I get out of playing F.E.A.R., and have said so on numerous occasions. I don’t get upset about this (though I will happily proselytise for the game at the drop of a hat) because I don’t need everyone else to like it in order for me to like it too.
    This is called pluralism. It’s also called having a relaxed confidence in your own likes and dislikes. And, as I mentioned in an essay on genre divisions last year, the lack of it is one of the biggest problems we face here in SF&F.
    Here’s the big warning sign: the wording of someone who posted above and called Tolkien “a revered author”
    Whoah, there!
    Like an author? Cool. Respect an author – entirely possible, though I think a healthy separation of writer from text starts to be necessary at this point. But – revere an author???? Get out of here! That’s not literary taste or critical appreciation. That’s religion, man.
    I was asked by my publisher to write an essay in support of my entry into the fantasy field. I was asked to pick an area that interested me and keep the word count down. I chose to pick up on why Tolkien fails me as an adult reader, and how that’s influenced the fantasy novel I’ve written. Anyone reading the piece will now have some sense of whether (or not!) it’s worth their while picking up The Steel Remains.
    And anyone who can’t cope with that without suffering a massive emotional response has got some serious issues to work through.

  • Arnold Montgomery

    I think it’s obvious that this is more than just a critique for Morgan. Look at the language he uses to describe Tolkien – he’s always “in full, panic-stricken flight” and “retreating”, he’s “simplistic”, his values are “faded or forgotten” and all this garbage. He simply HATES the songs of the elves, cannot stand them – even though he’s never actually heard one. Imagine that – hating with a passion songs you’ve never heard that don’t actually exist? “Oh god if I hear this song one more time – one more time than ‘none’, I mean – I will simply go mad!” Why manufacture something like that – phony hatred of non-existent songs known only through passing mention in a third person narration? Because it’s a personal attack cloaked as a literary critique. It’s an attack on Tolkien’s Toryism – Tolkien portrays certain things in a positive light that Morgan reviles – aristocracy, rural folk, the middle class, traditional values etc. These are not things Morgan wants celebrated – they are things that Morgan wants lampooned, ridiculed and destroyed. Tolkien, being who he was when he was, defied what is now the common orthodoxy, and his failure to conform to it is what Morgan loathes. The aristocracy Tolkien respects Morgan plainly finds repellent – he’s a utopianist who rejects the truth that people, each being unique, are simply not “equal” by definition, and aristocracy is as bold an expression of that as there is. This is a fact of life he’d rather not see portrayed at all, never mind in a favorable light – it runs counter to his utopian egalitarianism. Morgan fancies himself a cosmopolitan sort and, accordingly, finds the prospect of seeing rural folk portrayed as other than bumbling, hapless yokels in need of enlightenment objectionable. The absurdity of Morgan reviling Tolkien’s anti-industrialism in a day and age when that industrialism now quite literally threatens the existence of humankind is almost too obvious to comment on. Tolkien’s work contained paeans to the England of his past, to traditional social arrangements, to conventional morality – he was a conservative in the Russel Kirk sense (as opposed to the Bush/Cheney/Gingrich sense) promoting what Kirk called the “permanent things”. I’m sure the very idea makes Morgan nauseous – conventions are to be “challenged”, you see, traditions to be questioned, social arrangements to be upturned (regardless of whether they are found wanting), and evidence of inequality however natural – inequality of merit, intelligence, what have you – to be stamped down by the false, leveling boot of egalitarianism. As an American I myself am no fan of aristocracy, and I see things in Tolkien’s politics and work that should rightly be criticized, but Morgan is dishonest about it, disingenuous and disrespectful.
    In short, Morgan’s problem with Tolkien’s work is *Tolkien*, not the work. It’s a shabbily concealed ad hominem. He speaks of Tolkien “plundering” his sources – this author whose main character is called *Ringil Doriath* -excuse me, “Eskiath” – a name so Tolkienesque I almost didn’t purchase his novel because of it. This desperate, gimmicky writer, who makes sure to note that his hero is homosexual four paragraphs in (in case a reviewer might miss it and fail to mention this, ahem, ‘innovation’), and who crams his novel with as much profanity as possible. And I’m no Tipper Gore here – I’ve no problem with all the pud-yanking sranc and shooting black seed Bakker wants to throw out there, but with Morgan it is *so* forced and transparent. There was a time, twenty years ago, when that sort of thing worked – shock value could sell a thing: shock, cause outrage, get press, sell. He’s a bit late though, and in The Steel Remains it just seems desperate, cliched and obvious. Mind you, I do NOT object to a homosexual hero, or gay sex scenes or love interests or what have you, but this is not a fantasy novel with a homosexual hero, it’s a fantasy novel with an obvious, crass gimmick Morgan’s exploiting with all the subtlety of 2 Live Crew. Neither Eskiath’s sexuality nor much of the profanity help propel or even fit comfortably into the story; they are conspicuous and out of place and seem quite obviously there as a hook, a gimmick, clumsily inserted by a cynical, cagey author to drum up attention and sales.
    Morgan is like a derelict squatting in the palace Tolkien built and complaining about the masonry. I should guess even this critique is another calculated move on Morgan’s part – after all, neither Moorcock nor Mieville were hurt by the notoriety gained by taking potshots at the giant in whose footsteps they followed. Calculated, cynical and unoriginal – par for the course with Morgan, isn’t it?
    PS
    Apologies for errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation

  • hacksoncode

    I’m going to gloss over some of the flaws in this argument (such as the entire book Tolkien spent exploring a much more interesting and nuanced character than Gorbag, to wit, Gollumm, or the tragedy of Wormtongue), and look at this from a different perspective, which is the angle of it being a genre novel.
    (Good) Speculative Fiction or Fantasy or Science Fiction, or whatever you want to call it, as a genre is about taking some speculative element, and exploring what happens in a human context as a consequence of that element.
    The existence of an Ultimate Evil is no more or less a fantastic plot point than the existence of magic, or some McGuffin, or unicorns, or dragons, or whatever.
    Many “fantasy” novels don’t even belong to the fantasy genre at all. They are just novels that happen to incorporate fantastic elements which don’t form the core of the story.
    In summary, what you’re really complaining about is that LoTR is fantasy. I don’t necessarily consider that a weakness.
    Complaining about Tolkien’s fascination with Pure Evil is about as cogent a position as complaining that Iain Bank’s Culture novels are overly focused on a particular form of (implausibly survivable for humans) AI.
    All that does is beg the question (in a negative sense) regarding whether they are good genre novels.

  • Shawn Speakman

    I couldn’t disagree more, hacksoncode. That’s not what Richard is arguing at all. If all speculative fiction was Ultimate Evil vs. Ultimate Good, then your argument would stand. But as we’ve seen in the genre, many books do not have Ultimate Evil or Ultimate Good. Are you saying those books aren’t fantasy?
    And as I said, that’s not anywhere close to where Richard is taking this conversation. In the initial article, Richard isn’t criticizing Pure Evil as much as Tolkien placing some gray areas in some of his characters and not fully exploring that in the rest of the novel — an exploration that would be interesting to have had placed in the book and an exploration that young adults probably wouldn’t even be interested in. It’s like Tolkien put his toe in luke warm water and thought it too hot and didn’t get in.
    The question is: Why did Tolkien do that? or Why does Richard Morgan no longer like Tolkien?
    Not: Why is Tolkien a terrible writer?

  • Greg Wilson

    Just one quick comment to add, since others have covered the ground so well (particularly Bryan, who I think has about ended the argument with his post), for Shawn: I’ll be happy to “get back to you” as soon as I understand what your question means. 🙂 What does the percentage of the narrative run by the orcs have to do with this discussion or my argument? (I’m genuinely curious.)
    Greg

  • hacksoncode

    That’s not what I’m saying at all. What I’m saying is that the essential element of a fantasy genre novel is its examination of the consequences of some fantastical assumption.
    Pure Evil is just one possible fantasy concept. It’s perhaps not the most sophisticated possible one to base a series around, granted. But that’s not really the point. A serious exploration of leprechauns could be a good fantasy novel, despite the puerility of the topic. Complaining that it’s too darn Irish would just be silly. That’s the whole point.
    There are so many grey areas that are explored so fully in LotR that I really don’t see how the failure to examine one particular (fairly oblique) example in the case of an extremely minor character can seriously be considered a fatal flaw.

  • Shawn Speakman

    Greg: The whole point of the article Richard wrote is about missed opportunities. Tolkien had opportunities with the orcs that he did not fully take on and challenge himself or the reader with. Earlier you argued that Tolkien challenged the reader a lot. I was merely asking you to quantify your assertion — to find out how many times the orcs are used to tell the story and how many times out of those times those arcs are grey rather than black. That has everything to do with this argument.
    The problem being, of course, is that this argument has become a “why is Tolkien valid” argument rather than what it was originally intended as. Just as Richard has said, it seems like people aren’t reading his words and instead reacting to emotions that he stirred in them. Warranted, he caused that stirring by using such charged language. But the point of the original article remains despite the derailment.
    hacksoncode: But your Irish analogy has the same basic flaw. Richard isn’t criticizing that the Irish book is too Irish. He is criticizing that the Irish writer threw a smidge of English in his Irish tale and doesn’t produce a conflict there, a conflict that in reality has existed for a long time between the two countries. It is a missed opportunity from a storytelling and literary point of view. Keeping the tale strictly Irish would be safe. Adding the conflict between the two countries is not safe. Tolkien, by the large, remained safe.
    Again, don’t confuse the arguments here.
    The question is: Why does Richard Morgan no longer like Tolkien?
    Not: Why is Tolkien a terrible writer?
    You all are defending the latter question. That’s not the point, at least it isn’t for me.
    And as you even acknowledge, that kind of writing is “not the most sophisticated,” and that’s one of the points I believe Richard was trying to make in his original post. Children’s literature, by the large, is not the most sophisticated, at least compared to adult literature, and that’s where Richard is drawing his comparison. So in effect, you both believe the same thing although one chooses to read the more simple narrative and the other chooses not to and embraces something more complex. Richard obviously has a hard time understanding why someone would want to do that. You and I do not. There is nothing wrong with that; it is just a difference of opinion.

  • Greg Wilson

    Nope. What I argued is that Tolkien challenges the reader a lot through the text, including many sections that have NOTHING WHATSOEVER TO DO WITH ORCS. I’ve gone through many examples of that already on my blog post and elsewhere. I have no idea, nor do I have the time to research, how many times orcs are shown to be fully developed characters with hopes and dreams and fears. It may absolutely be true that orcs in LOTR are seldom presented as extraordinarily complex characters with deep thoughts of every description. It is also true that LOTR is not three million words long and is essentially coherent (hence Tolkien doesn’t make Denethor both the Steward of Gondor and Conan the Barbarian, according to Morgan’s rework), and thank God for that.
    Finally, I really hope the point of Morgan’s article was not “why I don’t like Tolkien.” Why on earth would anyone care about this? I hope the point was intended to be “why Tolkien has significant limitations, and here’s why I believe that, and here’s why it should matter to you as fantasy readers / authors.” But if that truly wasn’t it, and this was all an exercise in self-aggrandizement, then…well…I don’t think I need to finish my thought in that case. 🙂
    Greg

  • hacksoncode

    Well, and I acknowledge that this essay is really nothing more than crass commercialism combined with truly outstandly trollish flamebait. I happen to like a good flamewar.
    It’s just not a very good argument. It’s a 3 million line novel. Complaining that Tolkien opens a tiny little 1 sentence crack in the fantasy veil (and saying that, in fact, that tiny crack is the only good thing about the novel, by implication if not directly) is, well, childish itself.

  • Bryan Russell

    Richard,
    Thanks for the response. What you said was very interesting, and to my mind a more interesting and complex argument than the one you made in the article. And, having read it, I think our views are coming closer together, though I still interpret aspects of it differently.
    The difference now seem to be less Black and White versus Grey and more Grey versus Greyer. I’ll use the WWII analogy, despite the fact that Tolkien resisted the allegorical connections, as I think there are parallels, whether by choice or by chance. I think, for what it’s worth, Tolkien wrote a WWII sort of novel. You have the nazis who have “evil” aims and must be stopped, a fairly basic truth. He’s written a story about the sort of strength and struggle involved in standing up to such evil. It could seem Black and White… except he does humanize the “Germans”, he does show the greyness of characters (hey, the Allies could commit war crimes too). There’s moral ambiguity (say, the Ents and their choice_. There’s corruption and betrayal amidst the “Good” side. I mean, does Theoden ride to the aid of Gondor because it’s the right thing to do… or because he’s desperate to regain his honor in the eyes of his ancestors, and only a glorious death on the field of battle will assuage that sort of vanity? Heroic? Flawed? A bit of both? To me a grey interpretation is pretty available there. Eowyn rides with him out of a lust for glory and a sort of death wish… and real glory only comes when she defends someone she loves. And still she despairs… She’s not exactly a shining character, or a simple one.
    I do agree that many of your suggested courses for the story would be a greyer interpretation of the possibilities. But that would be more of a Vietnam story, if you would, where everything is almost brutally grey, where everything is, well, a clusterfuck. I think both have value, and I think both are human and grey, though to differing degrees. Your version would certainly be interesting (and just the sort of story I often like) but it would be different, and have different aims and goals. Equally worthy, perhaps, but not necessarily better. You would gain some things… but lose some things, too, such as much of the resonant symbolic power of the tale. Its mythic quality would be reduced, I think.
    Yes, Tolkien’s elevated much of the conflict to a symbolic level with inventions like Sauron. And yet it’s not a simple A Great Evil Arises, at least I don’t think it is. I always find it hard to ignore that ending, an ending to which many of Tolkien’s copyists seem to do just that: ignore. Too complex and troubling, I think, for them. Because in the end once you defeat the Nazis or Sauron, you still have to go home… to greed, to sin, to betrayal, to all the things you’ve been fighting. And the Russians are a pain in the ass… And for all that struggle you went through what do you gain? A chance to live, to have a family, to struggle with daily moral choices and loss (Sam) or perhaps grace in the life hereafter (Frodo). The story always struck me as a grand and fantastical representation of those daily struggles, given a large, violent and mythic form as a way to entertain while it explores its themes: moral choice, pride, the mirrored twins of hope and despair.
    Now, I will say that Tolkien is rather an idealist of a writer. And I get from your comments this might be part of your problem with him. He seems very interested in embodying values and vices in physical form. Representative imagery is constant throughout. His exploration of these moral choices is often on a lofty level, operating through idealized and symbolic representations of the forms rather than through acute psychological studies of particular people. I think in the story the meanings are expansive, in that they flow from a character and situation outward to explore the concept (say, the nature of pride and power), whereas a more psychologically devoted story would probably invert that, taking a larger ideal and then narrowing it down to examine a particularly human moment.
    I think the two goals are certainly different, accomplished with different techniques and with different aims in mind. I think, too, they’re equally valid, and neither of them is inherently more juvenile or adult than the other. They can both operate complexly or simply, though I’ll admit that the idealistic view tends more to the simplistic than the psychological view. And, if I had to choose, I’d probably say I prefer the latter view, the sudden clarity of a human moment… maybe because the human complexity is absent or poorly handled in many idealistic stories. And that preference certainly holds true for my own writing as well, whether in the fantasy genre or not.
    I guess, in the end, I simply don’t feel that LotR is one of those idealistic stories that is poorly handled, as it still seems fairly rich with life, though I can’t say the same for many of the writers who’ve taken it as a model (and so often fail to capture any of that complexity – if indeed they even try). I read far less in the genre than I once did, likely for this very reason. That is, that my personal tastes reflect this desire for a complex story, whether idealistic or physchological in nature. LotR still turns my crank, I guess, and I still see value to be found outside simple narrative enjoyment (as opposed to, say, the Hobbit, which I might read merely for the pleasure of its whimsy. Nostalgia has its moments…).
    Thanks again for the interesting discussion, and my best to you and yours.
    Bryan Russell

  • Shawn Speakman

    Greg: Again, you guys are making this something that it isn’t. By Richard talking about “why he doesn’t like Tolkien,” he does discuss those “significant limitations” you think he should have gone into. Those limitations are what make it interesting. Therefore they are one and the same.
    hacksoncode: Richard can complain about anything he wants in that book. There is nothing wrong with that. And again you almost hit the nail on the head by not even knowing it; out of the 3 million lines of the novel Tolkien chose to insert several lines that don’t line up with the rest of the book. Why? Did he pull it back? Did he even know what he was doing? If he is the consummate writer as you guys state he is, then he did know what he was doing. So why pull that part of the narrative back? Why not fully explore it when the rest of the book is so black and white? What drove him to do that? That is interesting all by itself and Richard brought that up right from the beginning.
    In short, what Richard is saying, is if Tolkien hadn’t reigned that part of the story, Richard would have enjoyed the book more.
    Again, what is wrong with him saying that?
    If you don’t agree with him, fine, but don’t sit there trying to say his criticism is childish simply because you don’t agree with it. That’s childish itself.

  • Greg Wilson

    We’re clearly not understanding each other, Shawn, so I’ll just leave it there. Thanks for the interesting conversation.
    Best,
    Greg

  • TheDude

    I agree. This has been a really great discussion (which you don’t see on the Internet very often) and Mr. Morgan’s responses have clarified many of my doubts and misconceptions about him.
    I still think that the essay would be better without the last couple of sentences,though. I can’t really believe that he thinks that nobody above 14 or 15 years old can enjoy LoTR.
    Just as I don’t believe that you have to be at least in your mid-twenties to enjoy Altered Carbon or The Steel Remains.
    Also, whoever brought up The Silmarillion made a great point. That to me is Tolkien’s masterpiece and should satisfy even the most demanding of fantasy fans.
    To finalize I’d like to ask Shawn if he is the one that wrote “In defense of George RR Martin”. If you we’re, then kudos because you did a great job.
    But in this case I think you’re generalising too much. Bryan and Greg have proved in their posts that LoTR is much more complex than simply a “black and white” fantasy.

  • Finn

    I’d just like to comment that there are two different kinds of moral ambiguity being thrown around here. There’s the kind of gray where every person contains both good and evil and nobody is pure one way or the other, and there’s the kind of gray where you aren’t sure which choices are evil, or if there is such a thing as evil at all.
    And in defense of Harry Potter, there actually is some moral complexity in the later books — though it’s certain not a great example of it. In particular you might think that Voldemort represents Real Ultimate Evil or whatever just reading book one. But by the time you’ve got his backstory in book 6 you find out he’s just a man, and in many ways worthy of pity rather than hatred.

  • Shawn Speakman

    The Dude: It was me who wrote the In Defense article concerning George Martin. In short, I got fed up listening to people rant information that wasn’t true at all and had to respond to them all in one fell swoop.
    As for over generalizing, I’m not stating that Tolkien isn’t complex. His world building is excellent, his language creation wonderful, hell, even his story construction was great. But there is literally no ambiguity between good and evil in the entire book. Sure, Gandalf falls “into shadow” for a bit, Frodo struggles with the ring as do various members of his company, but the evil side lacks that grayness, in my opinion. And that’s all I believe Richard is arguing.

  • TigerScorp

    “During these last few months, all but one of his close friends of the “T. C. B. S.” had been killed in action. Partly as an act of piety to their memory, but also stirred by reaction against his war experiences, he had already begun to put his stories into shape, “. . .. in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire” [ Letters 66]. This ordering of his imagination developed into the Book of Lost Tales (not published in his lifetime), in which most of the major stories of the Silmarillion appear in their first form: tales of the Elves and the “Gnomes”, (i. e. Deep Elves, the later Noldor), with their languages Qenya and Goldogrin. Here are found the first recorded versions of the wars against Morgoth, the siege and fall of Gondolin and Nargothrond, and the tales of Túrin and of Beren and Lúthien.”
    Tolkien was tremendously scarred by his time in the trenches. I thought ya’ll might enjoy the quote I posted above. I found it on his official biography. The Silmarillion is an excellant book as are the Books of Lost Tales. His son is releasing a pre-Hobbit book. The tales of Sigurd and Gudrun written back in 1916.
    Tolkien was also good friends with C.S Lewis and though I am a Tolkien fan I am equally a fan of Terry Brooks and Mercedes Lackey and Stephen King in even degrees. Also the works of Robert Howard, author of the fantasy warrior Conan, predate the Hobbit. I think I can consider both Tolkien and Howard early masters in the art of fantasy fiction. IMHO

  • Elio

    Richard,
    I’m very sorry that you feel yourself inadequate to understanding or enjoying Tolkien’s work. Perhaps time and tides will remedy this.

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