Why I Stopped Reading Tolkien

So it wasn’t really that long ago that I’d announced I began reading the Lord of the Rings. Turns out I’m setting it down again.

“But Jesse! Lord of the Rings! It’s like the bible of fantasists!”

Or conversely:

“Ahh, most understandable, Jesse. What’re you reading instead?”

This time around, I’ve at least made it as far as approximately 50% into it; the chapter The Taming of Smeagol, to be precise. The sad truth is that listening to LotR has become much less of an interest so much as a chore. I felt more compelled to read it not because I genuinely wanted to learn what happens (and I am thoroughly aware that had I never seen the movies, there might be a little more intrigue, but seriously, come on now), but rather because it felt as though it was something that I ought to be expected to do as a fantasy writer. Personally I’m not really big on doing what people expect.

Turns out there’s quite the community of anti-fans of LotR, some of whom are downright ornery about it, too. The most outspoken of whom that I’ve yet discovered goes by the name of China Miéville, and I feel I cannot put what he’s said better. I believe his thoughts are, while strong, well thought-out, and I believe he makes solid points. I’m inclined to say I subscribe to these ideas.

One day, perhaps I will jump back into the world of Middle-Earth and subject myself to the remainder of the story, if even just to say I did it. But that’s no reason to read a book, is it? I don’t know about you, but I tend to read books because I like the writing, or the characters, or dig the story or the setting. Tolkien has much of this, but there’re too many … obstacles.

China Miéville:

“When people dis fantasy—mainstream readers and SF readers alike—they are almost always talking about one sub-genre of fantastic literature. They are talking about Tolkien, and Tolkien’s innumerable heirs. Call it ‘epic’, or ‘high’, or ‘genre’ fantasy, this is what fantasy has come to mean. Which is misleading as well as unfortunate.

Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature. His oeuvre is massive and contagious—you can’t ignore it, so don’t even try. The best you can do is consciously try to lance the boil. And there’s a lot to dislike—his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity. Tolkien’s clichés—elves ‘n’ dwarfs ‘n’ magic rings—have spread like viruses. He wrote that the function of fantasy was ‘consolation’, thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader.

That is a revolting idea, and one, thankfully, that plenty of fantasists have ignored. From the Surrealists through the pulps—via Mervyn Peake and Mikhael Bulgakov and Stefan Grabiński and Bruno Schulz and Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison and I could go on—the best writers have used the fantastic aesthetic precisely to challenge, to alienate, to subvert and undermine expectations.

Of course I’m not saying that any fan of Tolkien is no friend of mine—that would cut my social circle considerably. Nor would I claim that it’s impossible to write a good fantasy book with elves and dwarfs in it—Michael Swanwick’s superb Iron Dragon’s Daughter gives the lie to that. But given that the pleasure of fantasy is supposed to be in its limitless creativity, why not try to come up with some different themes, as well as unconventional monsters? Why not use fantasy to challenge social and aesthetic lies?

Thankfully, the alternative tradition of fantasy has never died. And it’s getting stronger. Chris Wooding, Michael Swanwick, Mary Gentle, Paul di Filippo, Jeff VanderMeer, and many others, are all producing works based on fantasy’s radicalism. Where traditional fantasy has been rural and bucolic, this is often urban, and frequently brutal. Characters are more than cardboard cutouts, and they’re not defined by race or sex. Things are gritty and tricky, just as in real life. This is fantasy not as comfort-food, but as challenge.

The critic Gabe Chouinard has said that we’re entering a new period, a renaissance in the creative radicalism of fantasy that hasn’t been seen since the New Wave of the sixties and seventies, and in echo of which he has christened the Next Wave. I don’t know if he’s right, but I’m excited. This is a radical literature. It’s the literature we most deserve.”

What are your thoughts, dear readers? Agree or disagree with the above statement?


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