This all begins on Thursday, 26 December 2002, when I quoted a response to Glenn Reynolds by Eric Tam:
And a little later that same day, I received this Letter of Comment from Patrick Nielsen Hayden:
So if you're still with me after my pop heresy, I want to complain about a little comment that Instapundit slipped in with his Two Towers review:
It's hard to describe anything that generates a more visceral irritation than this kind of tendentious politicized interpretation of a text that I know and love. Since the LOTR trilogy was basically my first exposure to fantasy, this stirred up a revulsion within me that I imagine is somewhat akin to what a lot of music lovers felt when they heard that Kenny G had performed the unhallowed blasphemy of recording a synthesized duet with a reanimated Louis Armstrong.
And yeah, Viggo Mortensen's occasional off-camera antiwar blather notwithstanding, the inevitability of war, and the importance of having the will to resist evil despite the burdens and the horror is a repeated theme, twined in and around the despair and temptation points I mention above. Indeed, one speech in which Aragorn explains to Theoden that this isn't just the usual raiding, but an effort to stamp out his civilization, seems especially on point.
I've previously noted (with respect to Buffy) the fallacious disanalogies that frequently ensnare people when they attempt to marshal fantasy plots to make real-world political points.
Let me say it again: fantasy milieu have specific characteristics that make them fantastic. One such particularly important characteristic that often reoccurs is a very clear divide between Good and Evil, whereas morality in the real world is usually Very Difficult and Complicated, at least regarding the Issues that Matter. It is exactly this divide that makes the genre wonderful and diverting.
A ready example: Sauron and the orcs are a very different kind of evil than Muslim fanatics. For one thing, orcs, like Buffy's vampires, are irredemable creatures without human souls. They are a different, inhuman species. If we were fighting orcs, we wouldn't need to consider the things that any moral human would have to consider if faced with the decision of whether to authorize actions like the bombing of Dresden or Hiroshima. Viewing Aragorn's urging of Theoden to go to war as "on point" with regard to our current situation vis-a-vis Iraq is about as nonsensical as viewing the interactions between elves, hobbits, and humans as carrying an applicable message about race relations in the U.S. I mean, I'd acknowledge that one race was superior to the others if it possessed a 1,000-year lifespan and had leaders who wielded the power of the Silmarils.
If, regardless of the disanalogies, we do decide to pursue the risky business of attempting to draw themes from fantasy worlds that can be applicable to ours, I should note that such hermeneutics can cut many ways. Itís just as easy to draw heavily anti-war themes from Tolkien as it is to draw the hawkish themes that Instapundit wants to draw: war is only tolerable if it is absolutely and truly inevitable (i.e. when it is carried by the soulless forces of ultimate, unwordly evil); evil is characterized by imperialistic, expansionist aims and the desire for (or current possession of) overwhelming force. The most dovish symbol is perhaps the central trope of the One Ring, a good example of WMD if there ever was one: it can only be handled safely (and even then only temporarily) by an intensely pacifistic, agrarian, inward-regarding, and unambitious people who have no aspirations whatever for shaping the world in their image or for spreading their culture. The only safe way of dealing with the Ring is not to insure that it is in the hands of trustworthy people with good intentions, but rather to destroy it utterly, for its power inevitably corrupts even the purest of heart.
I agree with Eric Tam that it's tricky to draw analogies from fantasy tales to real-world political situations. But stories of any sort have moral weight and resonance to the extent that they manage to connect to our own lives.
Sometime Friday, Randolph Fritz sent me e-mail saying all this had rung a bell and he checked it out on Google, and found this quote from The Silmarillion:
"Let me say it again: fantasy milieu have specific characteristics that make them fantastic. One such particularly important characteristic that often reoccurs is a very clear divide between Good and Evil, whereas morality in the real world is usually Very Difficult and Complicated, at least regarding the Issues that Matter. It is exactly this divide that makes the genre wonderful and diverting."
In other words, what's best about fantasy is that it's simplistic, and it should stay that way. I leave it as an exercise for you to speculate what our friend Terry Carr would have said about that.
Personally, it seems to me that while Tolkien has plenty of flaws, this business of THE LORD OF THE RINGS having a "very clear divide between Good and Evil" is a bum rap. Certainly the novel contains as many characters who mix good and evil, and who struggle with difficult choices, as any number of serious mainstream novels I can think of. Boromir is an obvious case, a man led into evil by his passionate desire to do a particular sort of good. Galadriel is another--she's partly responsible for a _great_ deal of the ill in the world, which is why her temptation scene is so important. Most importantly, if the divide between good and evil in Tolkien were truly as "very clear" as Tam asserts, Frodo and Sam would have killed Gollum the first chance they got, and the book would have ended with the triumph of Sauron.
A small example of the sort of bad reading that turns Tolkien into a D&D scenario is Tam's claim that orcs are "iredeemable." In fact, what we're told about orcs is that they came into existence when Morgoth tormented and twisted elves back at the beginning of the First Age. Now, what we know about evil in Tolkien's cosmology is that it has no power of true creation, only the power to twist and corrupt. So it's hard to believe that Tolkien, a Catholic who quite specifically rejected Manichean notions of Satan having powers coequal with God, would sign off on notion that any living thing is "iredeemable". In fact, Tolkien--both in the appendices and in the mouths of wise characters like Gandalf and Elrond--is wisely taciturn on these kinds off teleological specifics.
The better a story, the more likely it is that people are going to elicit a wide range of readings from it. Glenn Reynolds reads the "King of the Golden Hall" chapter of THE TWO TOWERS as a reminder that sometimes it's necessary to stand and fight. Well, sometimes it is. For me, the moral center of THE LORD OF THE RINGS is Gandalf's advice to Frodo: "Many that
live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends." Cue Saturday Night Live routine: "Stop! You're both right!" Eric Tam says this sort of thing demonstrates that "such hermeneutics can cut many ways." I daresay this is true. But it
accords oddly with his claim that moral simplemindedness is an essential characteristic of fantasy.
"...and by slow arts of cruelty were corrupted and enslaved; and thus did Melkor breed the hideous race of the Orcs in envy and mockery of the elves, of whom they were afterwards the bitterest foes. For the Orcs had life and multiplied after the manner of the Children of Iluvatar; and naught that had life of its own, nor the semblance of life, could ever Melkor make since his rebellion in the Ainulindale before the Beginning; so say the wise. And deep in their dark hearts the Orcs loathed the Master whom they served in fear, the maker only of their misery. This it may be was the vilest deed of Melkor, and the most hateful to Iluvatar." - "Of the Coming of the Elves"
Which brings us up to Saturday evening (that's about an hour ago as I write this), when I discover two more letters of comment in my mailbox; the first, which seems to have been bcc'd to Patrick as well, was from David Bratman:
Patrick is essentially right, but I think a little more elaboration might
better explain Eric Tam's perceptions.
And Patrick replied:
Eric claims that LOTR has a "very clear divide between Good and Evil," and
in fact this is true. Eomer asks, "How shall a man judge what to do in
such times?" and Aragorn replies, "As he ever has judged. Good and ill
have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and
Dwarves and another among Men." (Book 3, Chapter 2) It is vital to the
story that there is only one course of action with the Ring that has any
hope of ultimate success; it is thus the only wise course of good. Any
other possibility - using it, hiding it - would lead ultimately to evil.
Patrick's observation is not so much that good and evil are unclear, but
that characters are mixed. Gollum should be spared because there may be
good - even inadvertent good - still in him. "I have not much hope that
Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. ... My
heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before
the end," says Gandalf in the same paragraph as the quote Patrick calls the
moral center of the book.
In later writings, unpublished in his lifetime, Tolkien elaborated on the
case of the orcs, but despite the definitive-sounding statement in _The
Silmarillion_ provided by Randolph Fritz, Tolkien never came up with a
final clear statement, to his own satisfaction, of exactly where they came
from (his last thoughts on the subject were that they were bred from Men,
not Elves) or whether they were redeemable. In LOTR itself they are never
shown to be redeemable, and their plot function is as utilitarian bad guys
and cannon-fodder. Tolkien's belief in the redeemability of evil is shown
elsewhere: in Gollum, the Easterlings, Boromir. No wonder people like Eric
Tam get a little confused about orcs.
Finally, it occurs to me that Eric's position as summarized by Patrick,
"what's best about fantasy is that it's simplistic, and it should stay that
way," seems to partake of the spirit of Dena Benatan's famous pithy remark,
"Science fiction should get out of the classroom and back in the gutter
where it belongs." And I wonder if Terry Carr would have pointed that out.
I always enjoy discussing Tolkien with David Bratman, who is assuredly a
world-class expert on the subject. But leaving aside the fact that Dena
Benatan's remark has been used for decades to justify some of the ugliest
anti-intellectualism in the SF and fantasy field, it seems to me that what
she actually said is defensible, since academic attention is obviously a
mixed blessing for genre art.
Sunday, 29 December 2002
That's a world away from Eric Tam's claim, which seemed to be that fantasy
is "wonderful and diverting" to the extent that it avoids moral difficulty
and complication. To which my first, probably unfair reaction was "Yeah,
and we have natural rhythm, too."
Tam's alarm about the "fallacious disanalogies that frequently ensnare
people when they attempt to marshal fantasy plots to make real-world
political points" could be just as well applied to the "fallacious
disanalogies" that frequently ensue when people refer to Aristophanes, or
Dante, or Shakespeare. Or Mary Shelley, Dostoevsky, Virginia Woolf, and
As I said, stories of any sort have moral weight and resonance to the extent
that they manage to connect to our own lives. There's nothing about fantasy
that makes it any less relevant than other kinds of narrative to the moral
questions of here and now. To claim that THE LORD OF THE RINGS has nothing
to say to the contemporary world because orcs and wraiths don't exist is to
simply reject analogy, simile, metaphor, and story as tools of thought. Of
_course_ people are going to make debatable use of these tools sometimes--I
don't agree with the idea of Tolkien as cheerleader for American
unilateralism any more than Eric Tam does. So what? *Stories are part of
how we think.* The solution isn't to stop doing it, it's to do it better.
After I went to bed Saturday night, Turbulent Velvet sent mail pointing to a blog post entering the fray. And Randolph Fritz e-mailed this:
It is possible for the Orcs to be redeemable without having been
redeemed in the course of the trilogy, not so?
Eric Tam also sent mail, but to another address where I didn't see it right away (I use off-line readers):
But I think one of the ancient problems of christian ethics is making a
showing here; if all souls are in principle redeemable and god is
merciful, why are not all souls redeemed? I think it's the Catholic
heresy called Origenism--to which, were I christian, I would probably
subscribe--to believe that all will be. Also the idea that good and
evil somehow heritable, which is a nasty thing that I wish would just
This seems to be a really interesting debate, although I suspect that
I'm already in way over my head. But I thought I'd take a stab at a
I only realized I needed to check my other address when I noticed this post on the subject at Patrick's site. But by then he'd already sent me this e-mail:
I want to clarify my statement that a frequent characteristic of
fantasy is that it features "a very clear divide between Good and Evil,
whereas morality in the real world is usually Very Difficult and
Complicated, at least regarding the Issues that Matter." When I wrote
this, I didn't intend to say that "what's best about fantasy is that
it's simplistic, and it should stay that way" or to deny that the genre
at its best avoids or is devoid of moral struggle, dilemma, or
complexity (although I can see how one might draw this reading from
what I wrote without some further explanation). I very much agree with
Patrick that stories "have moral weight and resonance to the extent
that they manage to connect to our own lives." I think I said as much
in the post I had linked to regarding Buffy.
Can I get away, though, with saying that part of fantasy's "comparative
advantage" (to use an ugly economic term) is its ability to depict
moral struggles in high relief by drawing on the mythic and archetypal?
That the moral dilemmas in fantasy tend to be simpler, although not
simpleminded? And that part of the reason for this is due to certain
features of the worlds (which are meant to be obviously different from
ours) in which they are set?
As David Bratman points out, we (as readers) know that there is only
one wise course of action with regard to the One Ring. We also know
without any shade of doubt, that Sauron is Evil. In these respects, the
texts make us privy to a form of moral knowledge that only
fundamentalists in our world typically claim to possess (part of this
is the perspective that the text affords us as readers; characters that
don't know this may have to wrestle with the issues, but we will see
this struggle in a different light). Not all fantasy texts do this, of
course, and not all texts that do this do it all of the time, although
it seems to me that this was a big part of Tolkien's project.
For this reason (among others), the struggles of Galadriel and Boromir
on how to deal with the One Ring are very different, for example, than
those of the protagonists of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The former
conflicts seem to cut in fewer dimensions because we of what we know
about the nature of Good and Evil; this doesn't mean that they aren't
compelling (or that they cannot in some respects be usefully compared).
Both the epic and the fine-grained have their place in literature and
human experience. But I do want to say that fantasy stories, in
Tolkien's mould, tend to lean toward the epic and the mythic, and that
if we are to interpret them, we should be alive to key distinguishing
features of the mythic project. My overall point was not that we should
stop drawing moral analogies from fantasy--I agree completely with
Patrick that we shouldn't stop doing this, but that we should do it
better. The idea of my original post was to point out one disanalogy to
which we should be alert if we are indeed to do this better.
Patrick says that "Glenn Reynolds reads the "King of the Golden Hall"
chapter of THE TWO TOWERS as a reminder that sometimes it's necessary
to stand and fight. Well, sometimes it is." But my objection wasn't
that Glenn drew that message; it was rather over his attempt to use
Tolkien to infer that we are living in one of those "sometimes," when
there are very relevant differences between our situation and Theoden's.
Aside: Regarding orcs, I do vaguely remember that passage from the
Silmarillion (let me admit with some degree of shame that I have yet to
finish that itóI hope that this doesn't already discredit all of my
previous comments), but I still have to wonder why, if they are
redeemable in any non-trivial sense (e.g.: amenable to redemption by
the actions of any of the protagonists of LOTR), why so little moral
concern is ever spent on them. Again, my background on both fantasy and
theology aren't exactly sterling, but I will venture that Tolkien's
evident Catholic upbringing doesn't exactly make things look good for
the orcs being redeemed. Melkor's rebellion looks suspiciously like
lucifer's rebellion and fall, and so far as I know, Revelations doesn't
hold out any hope for the redemption of fallen angels, beyond being
tossed into the Lake of Fire.
Second aside: it's funny, but I never thought of Galadriel as being at
all an unsympthetic character. I think that's because I read the
trilogy when I was very young and I was as ensorcelled by her as Gimli.
Whether Tolkien intended this or not, part of my take-away message from
LOTR was the naÔve and enchanted view of women for which he is often
accused; not that he should be blamed for the pedestal feminism I
developed at the age of 10 or anything.
I would certainly agree to Eric's suggestion that "part of fantasy's
'comparative advantage' (to use an ugly economic term) is its ability to
depict moral struggles in high relief by drawing on the mythic and
archetypal". I was fumbling toward something like that myself: fantasy
works when it makes moral problems more vivid than they are in real
life, not necessarily simpler. (Or, as I once jokingly remarked, "fantasy
is science fiction set in worlds where the pathetic fallacy is true.")
And David Bratman had responded to Eric:
Regarding the redeemability of orcs, or the lack thereof, Chris Mooney seems
to agree with me in this Washington Post piece. (Yes, this is the future, and all
the old fanzine arguments now take place on newspaper op-ed pages. Next,
Charles Krauthammer and Eleanor Clift discuss: two staples or three?)
Mooney argues that the film goes a bit too far in the direction of
suggesting that orcs are iredeemably depraved, and cites some incidents in
the book that suggest a more nuanced view. Mostly, though, Mooney is
making the same point that Eric Tam was reaching for: that Tolkien isn't
easily adaptable to one or another "side" of any debate about war and peace.
You write a good response. I would paraphrase your main point by saying
that there is a moral clarity (not a simplicity) in much fantasy that often
seems absent from the real world. I think that a desire for clarity is one
reason why we read fiction, and not just for moral clarity: novels tend to
have plots with more clarity than real-world plots, too.
David also responded to Patrick:
But even _The Lord of the Rings_ is not intended to be entirely
clear-cut. When characters like Denethor and Boromir object that sending
the Ring to the Fire is folly that will only hand it over to Sauron,
Tolkien intends their objections to be taken seriously, as is shown by
Gandalf's comment that in such folly lies the free peoples' only
hope. Though the objectors are wrong, they have a point: their errors are
a tendency towards despair demonstrated in a lack of faith, and a weakness
towards the Ring expressing itself in a lack of comprehension of the fact
that, bad as this course may potentially be, any other would certainly be
Tolkien may not have expressed the legitimacy of the objections in LOTR as
well as he might have. The chapter titled "The Last Debate" is hardly a
debate at all. He did much better in some conversations printed in "The
History of Middle-earth," some of which awed me as fictional depictions of
debates in which all sides have legitimacy. They're a far cry from moral
debates in too many SF stories, which often consist of lectures delivered
by one character presumably representing the author's viewpoint, while
other characters sputter ineffectually or chime in with "Gee, I never
thought of that." I expect I'll be asked for examples of that criticism,
so I'll give one that comes to mind: Spider Robinson's "Melancholy
Elephants." (I don't see that so much in run-of-the-mill fantasy, whose
debates tend towards amoral discussions of tactics.)
The reason the moral redeemability of orcs doesn't come up in LOTR is that
Tolkien hadn't considered the question yet. All of his comments on the
subject, I believe, are post-LOTR, and fall in the category of second
thoughts. In his last years, Tolkien devoted increasing attention to the
teleology of his created universe, and other such large-scale
questions. He never solved many of them. It's one reason he never
completed the Silmarillion.
Galadriel is not meant to be seen as an unsympathetic character, especially
not in LOTR. Repentance for their past follies, including trusting Sauron
in the Ring-making days, is a theme in Elvish behavior in LOTR, and
Galadriel in particular is in exile for her own past actions. But from the
viewpoint of the simple LOTR reader, her final stated prospect, "I will
diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel," can be seen simply
as her reward for passing the test of resisting the temptation to take the
Ring from Frodo. By "diminish" she means to lose her power as an Elf-Queen
and wielder of one of the Three Rings, the expected result of the success
of Frodo's quest; the implication of the Elves dwindling into rustic
fairy-legend is intentional.
What I had in mind by comparing Eric Tam's remark with Dena Benatan's is
that both seem pleas not to spoil the work by misinterpreting or
misapplying it. From reading your comments and Eric's, it appears that
both are open to being used to justify ugly anti-intellectualism. But if
that's not what Dena meant, it's not what Eric meant either.
(Patrick also alerted me to this post by Mac Thomason that seems germane.)
Your comment, "To claim that THE LORD OF THE RINGS has nothing to say to
the contemporary world because orcs and wraiths don't exist is to simply
reject analogy, simile, metaphor, and story as tools of thought," is a
superb rejoinder to the usual critical dismissal of fantastic literature,
and I shall keep it handy.
Elsewhere (28/01/03): "Poul Anderson's classic fantasy, The Broken Sword, knocks The Fellowship of the Ring into a cocked hat, says Michael Moorcock," in Saturday's Guardian.