The following is an original essay by Richard K. Morgan. I hope you enjoy:
“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.
That 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.
The 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.
To learn more about Richard K. Morgan, his titles, or additional essays, visit his website: http://www.richardkmorgan.com/.
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