Location: Vienna, Virginia, United States

A graduate of Dartmouth College (2005) and Washington and Lee University School of Law (2010). These are my personal blogs, and the musings expressed on them do not reflect the positions of my employer. They do reflect my readings, thoughts, and aspirations, which I figure is good enough.

Friday, August 04, 2006


About a year ago, I bought a set of books off Ebay. Michael Moorcock's Elric Saga was a series I had always meant to read, as it had been recommended highly to me, but I had never gotten around to it, or never found the books. And there they were on Ebay, in a nice lot, four books in total, a complete set of Moorcock's Elric Saga. Such is the lure of Ebay sometimes, I suppose.

In any case, Mr. Moorcock's books are quite fascinating. He has a way of writing that takes some getting accustomed to. He's not afraid of being prosy, and taking a significant amount of time in laying a scene out. If the same scenes had been charged to someone less skilled, they would have seemed very much like a soap opera, or a cheap Sci Fi film. Yet Moorcock is engaging enough that the result is vivid but not lurid, not easy considering the fantastical subject matter at hand.

Doing some more research, I stumbled upon Moorcock's essay "Epic Pooh," which attacks writers like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis for their idolization of a pastoral underclass and their rather shallow takes on moralism. I loved reading the essay, partially because Moorcock's taste in children's fiction runs close to what mine was as a child - he applauds the works of Susan Cooper, Robin McKinley and Lloyd Alexander. But I also find his views on the value of Tolkien, and the message to be found in Tolkien's works, to be thought provoking.

I've written about Tolkien's issues of depicting scenes of battle in the past, namely that he does it horribly, and how he often turns to cliche in lieu of stronger prose, but I was surprised to read the vehement criticism that Moorcock levelled at him.

Moorcock's charges that "moderation . . . ruins Tolkien's fantasy and causes it to fail as a genuine romance, let alone an epic. The little hills and woods of that Surrey of the mind, the Shire, are "safe", but the wild landscapes everywhere beyond the Shire are "dangerous". Experience of life itself is dangerous. The Lord of the Rings is a pernicious confirmation of the values of a declining nation with a morally bankrupt class whose cowardly self-protection is primarily responsible for the problems England answered with the ruthless logic of Thatcherism."

He goes on to point out that Tolkien's rural paradise is not so much lost - Tolkien just doesn't want to go out and find it for himself. If Tolkien were to stray beyond "The Shire," he could find other places just as pastorally pleasant. But the integral trait of his paradise is not the rural idyllism, but the comfort and insularity of home. For the most part I agree with this assessment.

In the denouement of Return of the King, Aragorn gives the Shire to the Hobbits, presumably with the implication that no one will invade them or encroach upon their borders. Thus, isolation is restored. However, one can see how Tolkien extends his xenophobia to his other races. The other races concerned in The Lord of the Rings go back to their isolationist ways after the war - the exception being Rohan and Gondor, but even this is remains a war-like alliance.

But Tolkien's ideal is the Shire, and it is in the Shire where we can observe that the pastoral ideal is more pernicious that even Moorcock suggests. Not only does his Shire express a virulent xenophobia and fear of progress, it also takes on a hypocritical and ultimately destructive view on environmentalism.

The environmentalists who embrace Tolkien as a member of their order can take solace in part of Tolkien's saga - the Ents. The problem is that Tolkien himself never valued the Ents and what they stood for. I think Moorcock's point is valid, still, but it is actually strengthened once one considers how the Ents have no place at all in Tolkien's narrative, even though they are by far his best literary creation.

It is important to differentiate between the halycon existence of the Shire and the encroaching ravages of Industrialism. Just because Industrialism threatens the Shire does not mean that they are the only two entities to be considered in the moral narrative, which is where Tolkien's worst error can be found.

Tolkien makes the point that Industrialism, symbolized by Sauron and Saruman (more Saruman), will invade and destroy the peaceful existence of the Hobbits. But the other threat that Industrialism poses is on nature itself, and of course, those who are familiar with the story know full well the importance that the anger of nature (the Ents) plays in the advancement of the narrative.

What does the Wild and the Ent's tragic search for the Entwives have to do with the Shire though? At the end of The Return of the King, the answer is ultimately nothing; while Treebeard resolves that they may be able to look for the Entwives out by the Shire, nothing ever comes of it.

What would happen if the wood, which made an army of orcs run away in fear, were to come stampeding out in Farmer Maggot's corn fields? This is a possibility that Tolkien cannot address, as the answer is that the order and the Paradise embodied by the Shire cannot exist in the face of the Ents. So while Industrialism (the future) is an enemy of the Shire, so are the Ents, and the wild, untamed forests that they value (the past). And we are thus confronted by a vision of the Shire which is impossible - neither progressing into the modern age nor allowing the past to creep in on its well ordered borders.

Treebeard's quest to find the Entwives is depicted as hopeless, and it is. The Entwives were characterized as more orderly than their male counterparts, enjoying tending to groves of trees. Treebeard mentions that they would have liked the Shire. Maybe they did? Maybe they were subsumed by the colonizers that founded the Shire, reduced to unspeaking symbols and convenient reminders of the bounties of nature, without the threat and danger of the wilderness.

If we see that Treebeard and his Ents symbolize the wilderness, and the Entwives the cultivation of nature, is it too much of a stretch to think that the Shire is thus to Ents what Industrialism would have been to the Shire? In Tolkien's worldview, there is simply no place for the Ents, which he acknowledges.

They are made even more dangerous by their newfound expansionist ways at the end of the saga. Unlike all the other races, the Ents actually grow, from a sedentary forest of trees concerned with protecting themselves (and slowly dying out, going silent, it might also be added), to a wandering race looking for their future.

Unfortunately their future is nowhere to be found. There is no future for those who would wander in search of a home, because all the homes have already been taken. And their occupants are not willing to budge for a group of new colonizers.

The Ents, while being "good," are still dangerous. And the mere existence of that danger is a threat to the pastoral Shire. Above all else, Tolkien emphasizes the control of home, which translates to comfort and a pleasant existence. Outsiders (as groups and not individuals, it should be noted, as exceptions are ok, like Gimli and Legolas, as long as they don't become the norm) need not be considered or tolerated.


Blogger Lee said...

loved almost the whole damn thing!

7:21 AM  

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