Friday, 29 January 2010

Karen Haber (ed), Meditations on Middle-Earth

There may be a trades-descriptions problem with the title here: Meditations on Middle-Earth. The word ‘meditate’ comes from the Latin meditari, which means ‘to contemplate, to consider deeply, to think’. But very few of the seventeen big-name Fantasy authors who have contributed these short pieces on the impact of Tolkien appear to have thought very deeply about the topic. ‘How did he do it?’ ponders Lisa Goldstein. ‘How was he able to write an epic in a time when epics were all but forgotten? How did he tap into the collective unconscious of so many people?’ Her answer? ‘I don’t know. Sorry.’

Right. And Constant Reader is paying her £6.99 for … what exactly?

We might assume these various writers received an editorial brief to keep their ruminations (‘ruminate v. intr. to meditate, ponder’) accessible rather than erudite, to personalise their accounts, to keep it readable. But the resulting volume demonstrates how easily personal reminiscence strays into fatuousness. In this case it has resulted in a book in which many eminent fantasists say the same thing over and over again. ‘I discovered The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in summer 1966. I was seventeen … I was utterly entranced’ [Harry Turtledove]; ‘1965? I think that is right. Odd that I cannot put a more precise date to it … I was about thirteen … I have lost track of how many times I have reread it over the years’ [Robin Hobb]; ‘The Lord of the Rings was what started me on my present course of writing’ [Diane Duane]; ‘I first read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the summer of 1973, when I was thirteen years old … completely engrossed’ [Douglas A. Anderson]; ‘I don’t remember exactly when it was that I went on to read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings … it changed my life’ [Charles de Lint]; ‘it was about 1966 when I discovered Tolkien … it hooked me’ [Raymond E. Feist]—and so on, and on, and on. The overall effect of this is not meditative. It is stupefying. Who did the publishers have in mind as a potential reader for all this mush? Which fantasy fan needs to spend £6.99 and wade through all this in order to learn that Raymond E. Feist’s Midkemia owes a great deal to Middle Earth?

I don’t know. Sorry.

Many of these authors stir old tidbits into their goulashes, informing those not in the know that Tolkien wanting to create a mythology for England, that Ace books ripped Tolkien off by publishing a 1960s paperback edition without paying the author copyright, that Tolkien was an Oxford don. But these sorts of details have such wide cultural currency that surely even non-fans know them. Most observe that Tolkien did not invent fantasy. OK. Many deplore the fact that the wicked literary establishment refuses to accept that Tolkien is any good, preferring instead works such as Joyce’s Ulysses. There’s a grain of truth in this tediously repeated caricature of literary studies, but only grain.

Perhaps it really does not occur to Orson Scott Card that many people love Ulysses just as genuinely as he loves Lord of the Rings, but this doesn’t excuse the wincing inverted-snobbery at the very idea—‘you lucky Smart people; you really have it over the rest of us poor peasants who find it to be one long tedious joke … pay no attention to us as we close the door to your little brown study and get back to the party.’ Nowhere is it mooted that it is possible to love both Ulysses and Lord of the Rings, although I can attest from my personal experience that not only that this is the case, but that there are many virtues the two novels share—a fascination with language, a multifarious inventiveness, a deep engagement with the epic underpinnings of seemingly banal and quotidian lives, and with the importance of moral choice. But such a comparison would have involved thought, and thought (‘sober reflection or consideration’) is not the currency of this volume.

Not all the pieces in this collection conform to the general level of awfulness. Michael Swanwick reflects movingly on the centrality of loss to Lord of the Rings (Sam’s last sentence, he says, is ‘the most heartbreaking line in all of modern fantasy’). Terry Pratchett manages to be funny even when rehearsing the same schtick as the others about reading Tolkien as a teenager and the sinful neglect of the wicked literary establishment, because it’s almost impossible for Pratchett to be anything other than funny no matter what he writes. And the great Ursula Le Guin says a number of thoughtful, even meditative, things about the rhythms of Tolkien’s prose, and the larger pulse of his narrative technique. But even she can’t quite keep away the sense that these pieces are toss-offs, to be executed hurriedly: ‘perhaps some day,’ she says with the weary air of somebody who really can’t be bothered, ‘I or a braver reader can identify the larger patterns of repetition and alternation through the narrative.’

Otherwise, this volume is plain not worth its seven-pounds-less-a-penny cover price. I tried (believe me I tried) to suppress the shudder that ran along my spine as I read the ghastly winsomeness of Esther M. Friesner’s ‘If You Give A Girl A Hobbit’, but there’s only so much that human willpower can manage:
Having admitted to the crime of Authoring in the First Degree, with Premeditation and Malice Aforethought, I have no qualms about adding to my scroll of melfeasance by saying that what I write is generally fantasy and science fiction. This would be viewed as bad enough, in most respectable venues (i.e., periodicals such as the Pays-in-Copies Review or the Deconstructionist Quarterly), but I have piled iniquity upon iniquity … I have written funny fantasy and science fiction. On purpose.
Not on the evidence of this piece you haven’t.

Perhaps I’m only breaking a butterfly upon a wheel, except that all these gooey professions of love for Tolkien do attest to an important truth: The Lord of the Rings remains a book that matters profoundly to millions. It would be nice to know why. It would also be nice to have some sense of the ways in which the book is put together, its resonances, its contexts. It would be nice, in short, for some informed and illuminating criticism: but none of the authors here have anything but contempt for criticism, which is a pity; and is doubly a pity when one realises that in place of critical disinterestedness and insight they are offering vague reminiscence, blandly hyperbolic praise and a repeated reference to a notional fannish unity every bit as cliquish, oppressive and blinkered as the ‘literary establishment’ or ‘academy’ they invoke only to deplore.

There are also lots of black-white illustrations, scribbled rather hazily by the excellent John Howe, possibly whilst waiting for his washer-drier to finish its cycle so he could get on with the ironing. I would, generally speaking, walk over broken glass to affirm my admiration for Howe’s art: Peter Jackson’s films, for example, achieved their visual brilliance mostly by carefully reproducing in cinematographic form Howe’s unique vision. But his doodles for this volume are, frankly, poor: his Amon Hen shows Frodo sitting in what looks like a large pram, and his triple-portrait of ‘Legolas, Aragorn and Gimli’ is so rubbish that even I could do better. And that’s the strongest dispraise of visual art in my lexicon.

David Langford once concluded a review with the words ‘do not buy this book, not even to read on trains’. Can I put it more succinctly? Well, can I? I don’t know. Sorry.


Rich Puchalsky said...

Wow, "not on the evidence of this piece" was really funny. I await the authorial blog by one of these authors saying that you're a fuddy-duddy English professor who doesn't like humor, and the first comment by someone pointing out the work of A.R.R.R. Roberts -- how many R's are there, anyways?

At any rate, these people sound like their going about it the wrong way. What's an index of an author's impact, if you can't analyze the author's texts? One of them is the formation of a sort of archetype around the author instead of around the work. The myth of Tolkien has gone beyond an appreciation of the books -- which most of these authors, I'd guess, read in adolescence, and can't say anything about any more than people can say anything useful about The Catcher in the Rye -- and into the myth of the author-as-Tolkien. Which is deserved, I think; he did more in theory and practice with the idea of what he called subcreation than anyone else before him.

One of the signs that PKD has achieved this archetypal status was his appearance as a character in other SF books. I thought it was interesting that the Inklings (or a sort of parody of them) appeared as characters in Kage Baker's series.

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Thras said...

I always thought that a great part of the satisfaction of reading Ulysses was the smugness you get out of being the sort of brilliant mind who likes to read Ulysses in his spare time and enjoy it. If Ulysses fell in the forest and no one knew you read Ulysses, would anyone still read it? I wonder.

Anyway, that's the impression that the positive Amazon reviews give me.

I haven given the novel some hours of my time once or twice, and mostly regret the experiences.

The people who read Tolkien do it because they are generally interested in escapist fantasy more than social signaling (or at least that kind of social signaling).

So Orson Scott Card may well have a point that generally holds true. The sorts of people that read and enjoy both Lord of the Rings and Ulysses are rare and strange birds.

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