Comments on Arthur B's Ferretnibbles 5 - Wrecking Elven Cities and Drawing Elf Porn

Arthur's latest solo Ferretnibbles article has a certain symmetry with a previous one.

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Daniel F at 06:05 on 2018-09-12
There is something pleasantly surreal about reading the early versions of any Tolkien draft and seeing all these references to 'gnomes' and 'goblins' instead of the more familiar elves and orcs. It can be easy to forget that in his day Tolkien was radically revising the meaning of 'elf', with his noble immortals bearing a scant resemblance to the silly, tiny figures of folklore. To read Tolkien using the word 'gnomes' - a word which still, for most people, conjures up images of colourful midgets in the garden - for elves brings back some of the weirdness that the word 'elf' must originally have had.

Still, I'm glad and a little surprised that The Fall of Gondolin was actually finished. I'd been under the impression that Christopher Tolkien was unlikely to manage a third one after Beren and Lúthien. He is getting quite old, after all. Still, they do feel like a set. Túrin, Beren, and Tuor form something of a triad: three men of the same generation, the great First Age heroes of the human race. I wonder if there's much to gain out of a comparative study of them? Notably Tuor is the only one to directly speak to a Vala, and then becomes the only human to actually take on elven immortality, and share their fate in Valinor. In Tolkien's worldview, that might actually be a criticism.

They do, as you say, all share this element of grim fate, or of defiance in the face of an overwhelming foe. One senses that Tolkien had an affinity for such despair. In the published Silmarillion, the eventual defeat of Morgoth is rather quick and perfunctory. The lives of all three heroes, though, concern heroism in the face of defeat, and all three see great kingdoms destroyed in part because of them. (Nargothrond for Túrin, Doriath for Beren, and of course Gondolin for Tuor.) Taken as a whole, and even read alongside The Lord of the Rings, they seem like meditations on the virtue of facing inevitable defeat and fighting anyway.

I come back to something Tolkien wrote (letter #195, 1956): Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect 'history' to be anything but a 'long defeat' - though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.

Thus in all Tolkien's great works, the bulk of the narrative is concerned with endurance against this long defeat, and when the side of good triumphs, it typically does so through divine intervention. Eärendil pleads with the Valar for aid; Eru himself casts down the fallen Númenor; and Sauron is defeated almost through happenstance, when Frodo's strength fails and, through the chance workings of fate and pity, Gollum falls into the pit with the Ring. So Tolkien seems to warn against putting trust in our mortal powers or capabilities, or in trusting to the arc of history. The moral task for individuals is to stand strong against the seemingly-inevitable tide of power and history, knowing that you will eventually be overwhelmed, and yet holding out to the last of your power and trusting in God to make up the difference.

Forgive if that's rather preachy, but it stands out to me upon reflection, and it also strongly differentiates Tolkien from most of the modern fantasy I've read. Tolkien has an ideology, and one which is rather alien to many modern readers, and that gives his work a distinct tenor. Whereas in most of the modern fantasy I've read, the heroes either save the world and look to a bright future within history, or it's just a story of personal success and glory. You do have your grimdark authors as well, your Abercrombies and the like, but I've yet to find anyone who shares Tolkien's simultaneous despair-within-history and hope-beyond-history.

Moving on...

re: Oglaf, I wonder how you'd unpack the heteronormativity criticism? As best I recall, the major difference is just that in many of the later strips, you occasionally find a same-sex couple rather than an opposite-sex couple, and the nature of the couple has no relevance to the joke itself. As I understood queer theory, heteronormativity is performative: that is, it's not reducible just to the sexes of the lovers. A same-sex couple can be heteronormative if their relationship conforms to a dominant cultural script about sex and marriage. (In this sense 'heteronormativity' is not actually about heterosexuality, or about female-male couplings, per se.)

So I'm curious if you just meant "there are more gay couples in the later strips", or if there was something else you were getting at? For the most part I read Oglaf as generically sex-positive - sex is fun, sex is normal, sex is a bit silly - and while you get more gay couples later on, nothing about the comic's overall view of sex seemed to change.
Arthur B at 10:11 on 2018-09-12
To read Tolkien using the word 'gnomes' - a word which still, for most people, conjures up images of colourful midgets in the garden - for elves brings back some of the weirdness that the word 'elf' must originally have had.

I'm reminded of E.R. Eddison (an Inkling buddy of Tolkien's) and his use in The Worm Ouroborous of "Demon", "Witch", "Imp", "Goblin" and "Pixie", all of which have somewhat different connotations from common use.

Tolkien has an ideology, and one which is rather alien to many modern readers, and that gives his work a distinct tenor. Whereas in most of the modern fantasy I've read, the heroes either save the world and look to a bright future within history, or it's just a story of personal success and glory. You do have your grimdark authors as well, your Abercrombies and the like, but I've yet to find anyone who shares Tolkien's simultaneous despair-within-history and hope-beyond-history.

I agree, and I'd go further in fact and say that a lot of the grimdark authors are being just as modern as the cleanbright authors; it's just that the grimdark ones take a more cynical view of things than the cleanbright ones.

So I'm curious if you just meant "there are more gay couples in the later strips", or if there was something else you were getting at? For the most part I read Oglaf as generically sex-positive - sex is fun, sex is normal, sex is a bit silly - and while you get more gay couples later on, nothing about the comic's overall view of sex seemed to change.

The former. Oglaf has never really followed the dominant cultural script about sex and marriage to any extent I've noticed. (Actual committed monogamous couples seem to be a genuine rarity, for that matter.) Early Oglaf didn't seem, to me, to be as good at representation as latter-day Oglaf. I take your points about heteronormativity as a broader concept, but at the same time representation of non-het couples is kind of an essential prerequisite for steering away from it.

In particular: the fact that some of the couples are same-sex and this doesn't change the joke I consider actually genuinely important. In a heteronormative worldview you'd default to straight couples unless there were a specific need to depart from that - just like how you don't get to claim your casting process for a movie is feminist if you have a few important women in the lead cast but more or less all of your extras are men and all the aforementioned women have roles defined solely by their relations to men.
Daniel F at 15:22 on 2018-09-12
On Oglaf: Sure, that's fair. Was just curious. I take the overall sexual politics of Oglaf as being in favour of creativity, inventiveness, and ultimately just having guilt-free sex for fun. The representation of LGBT couples fits naturally into that. I agree that this is not a very 'traditional' approach to sexuality; at the same time, I don't think it's a hugely radical one either. But what is radical depends a lot on your social context, so YMMV.

On Tolkien: I'm really just cribbing from a decade old Adam Roberts review, but there is certainly something to be said for fantasy that holds an alien worldview. In Tolkien's case, that was due to being a painfully old-fashioned scholar of dead languages and a traditionalist Catholic, but there must be an infinite number of other ways to do it.
John at 02:11 on 2018-09-13
There is something pleasantly surreal about reading the early versions of any Tolkien draft and seeing all these references to 'gnomes' and 'goblins' instead of the more familiar elves and orcs. It can be easy to forget that in his day Tolkien was radically revising the meaning of 'elf', with his noble immortals bearing a scant resemblance to the silly, tiny figures of folklore. To read Tolkien using the word 'gnomes' - a word which still, for most people, conjures up images of colourful midgets in the garden - for elves brings back some of the weirdness that the word 'elf' must originally have had.

Now I want to see the Lord of the Rings movies with David the Gnome and friends.

A hundred thousand bearded little men with pointy hats at the Battle of the Last Alliance as the orc hordes charge. A miniature Hugo Weaving shouting commands and bitching about Men. Frodo and Sam peering into a tree trunk to try and see into Galadriel's mirror. A tiny Glorfindel revealed in all his wrath, chasing off the Nazgul.
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