Playpen

Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.

at 23:04 on 05-10-2011, Claire E Fitzgerald
A propos of nothing in particular - why aren't there ferrets on Only Connect?
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at 20:58 on 05-10-2011, Alasdair Czyrnyj
Well, it appears that Hallowe'en will be upon us shortly. To get into the spirit of the season, I'm going to start sharing some random creepy/disturbing/what have you that's been cluttering up my browsing history. You know, for the kids!

I'll start off with a brief mention of the works of Nikolai ("Kol") Belov, who provides a sober warning as to what can happen if you let a Russian get ahold of Flash animation.

This also applies to Ukrainians.
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at 19:19 on 05-10-2011, valse de la lune
Know something weird? My PC refuses to load Authonomy. Wonder if I "accidentally" hosts-blocked it or something.
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at 08:38 on 05-10-2011, Arthur B
"An online community of discovery where writers become authors."

Oh god I'm going to be mocking that all day.
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at 06:26 on 05-10-2011, Michal
Earlier events in the playpen led me to take a look at authonomy. It reminds me of the old Baen's Bar (now gone, I believe), where various authors would try and spam their way to the top.

I say let the editors read their own damn slush pile.
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at 21:21 on 04-10-2011, Ibmiller
Interesting (also slightly daunting) discussion. I personally really like Tolkien a lot, but then, I tend to share a larger number of his assumptions than I think is common. I'm not sure a response from that perspective would be helpful, though, and almost certainly would constitute derailing, so I shall attempt to merely learn from, and not bother, the conversation.

However, I was reading random links the other day, and found this discussion a very interesting discussion of what exactly Tolkien was doing ideologically. Certainly doesn't answer the whole "kings are good" assertion (and while Aragorn certain is a bit idealized, I don't think that you can look at Thorin from The Hobbit and say he's "rah monarchy" without any nuance or depth).

As for The Last Ringbearer, it sounds an awful lot like Gaiman's "The Problem of Susan," which has always bothered me because of the deliberate cruelty involved. But I've not taken the time to read it (TLR, not Gaiman), so I can't say for sure. I'd say Terry Pratchett's Unseen Academicals (and Snuff, but I've not gotten that yet, so can't say for sure) is a better look at the same concepts (for all the flaws you find in late Discworld).
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at 13:55 on 04-10-2011, Shimmin
I'm slightly bemused how I've ended up defending LOTR, given I read it once about ten years ago :)

@Arthur: I agree with your points, although to be honest Moorcock mostly came across to me as mocking writing styles he doesn't like and being smug about his cosy rural home :)

@valse: Well sure. I just don't feel there's much to be gained from criticizing it for not delving into the progressive possibilities of industrialisation. I don't think it's got anything to do with Tolkien objecting to social mobility or his love of kings. The industrialisation is hellish and destructive and is a visible symbol of Sauron's taint. Veering off into the lifestyle benefits offered to Middle-Earth by easy access to mass-produced fabrics and tableware really wouldn't have improved the book, just weakened the effectiveness of that symbol.

It's true that Tolkien is very keen on absolute monarchies, and obviously those are not okay. Partly I think that's a reflection of the works he's basing LOTR on, which love them. But I think there's a difference between the common fantasy trope of arbitrary monarchies which are allegedly Right and One True etceteras for no particular reason, and a setting in which they are canonically 100% just, noble, fair, good, kind and appointed by the gods, such that it is objectively better for everyone if they are in charge. Obviously we in the real world don't have that luxury.
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at 13:39 on 04-10-2011, Janne Kirjasniemi
On the other hand, in an underground world where everyone seems to feast on fine meats and bread, I might want some explanations. Ditto fantasy worlds where everyone is a laughing elf who spends their time dancing around trees, or a dwarf who just mines all day.

Yes. And another pet peeve's of mine is modern scientific concepts like germ theory or such like in a setting that has no organized scientific community or research going on. Except when the writer's purpose is to mock the backwardness of a certain setting Spec. fiction is harder than it seems and I think these sorts of things just slip in there.
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at 13:19 on 04-10-2011, Arthur B
Broadly speaking though, I just don't think Tolkien was interested in questioning these values or showing the benefits of multiculturalism. That's not what (as far as I understand) he was doing.

Sure you know that and I know that, but the thrust of Moorcock's arguments was that Tolkien not only refuses to question those values but reinforces them, and that furthermore in the real world those values do genuine harm and scream out to be questioned. That isn't to say any of us who like LotR are bad people for enjoying it, but it does mean that fantasy needs dissenting voices like Moorcock's to pipe up when the general trend across the genre is to reinforce the values Tolkien supported.
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at 13:03 on 04-10-2011, Janne Kirjasniemi
The thing, though, is that knowing that means knowing Tolkien took all this deathly seriously (apart from The Hobbit, perhaps) and then I just start smirking a little bit because, come the fuck on.

Well, can't really argue with that. But, the man engraved Luthien for his wife and had them engrave Beren for him on their grave. So very silly, but he went all the way with the earnestnessness. So, I have to give points to him for that level of emotion for his own work. It somehow makes him endearing to me.

BTW, wasn't it Tolkien's idea, that anybody could've expanded on Middle-Earth because it was meant as a mythology and meant to be added to as a mythology, like mythologies are? So that's pretty much carte blanche for fan fiction writers from the author himself. Everything is canon! Perhaps on middle-earth, Harad went through the industrial revolution first? Perhaps the labor movement was started in the bowels of lonely mountain? Perhaps a painless amputation implementation was first put to use as a means of capital punishment to end Elessar's despotic reign by the angry mobs of Minas Tirith up there on that ledge thingie which was in the movie at least.

On Moorcock's criticism, I think it shows very clearly their different personalities, motivations as writers and backgrounds as well. Tolkien was an academic who lived in Oxford and clearly was not very interested in politics and if he was he does not feel like a very progressive or a leftist thinking man in his sentimental conservativeness. And I think the point of his objections against finding allegories to real life in LOTR is that he never intended it to have a clear political message. For a writer like Moorcock this itself is a bourgeois failing, since a writer who does not take politics into the writing contributes either nothing to the discussion or strengthens the grip of the ancien regime. Since politics isn't something you can ever ignore in texts or anywhere.
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at 12:50 on 04-10-2011, Shimmin
@Janne: I did actually write a note on that, but I deleted it as redundant... that'll teach me! I put FSF (=specfic) because those are the books that invent societies and systems. The real world does have functioning systems, so if a book's set in Llangollen or Shanghai or wherever and nobody mentions farms, we can reasonably assume it all still works, and even if it's althist we can reasonably assume that something very similar works. On the other hand, in an underground world where everyone seems to feast on fine meats and bread, I might want some explanations. Ditto fantasy worlds where everyone is a laughing elf who spends their time dancing around trees, or a dwarf who just mines all day.

@Arthur: as I said, it's been a long time and I'm not a Tolkienist. So I'm not in a position to respond to that. Broadly speaking though, I just don't think Tolkien was interested in questioning these values or showing the benefits of multiculturalism. That's not what (as far as I understand) he was doing. It's not supposed to be a plausible fantastical world, it's not an exploration of Hobbitness and its relation to the world, it's a deliberately-written epic English mythology slash linguistic toybox. Though whether it's any good or interesting or valuable or has artistic merit is a separate issue.
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at 12:18 on 04-10-2011, valse de la lune
I think most of us have probably read Moorcock's take. ;) To me he's got a point--but if you like Tolkien to start with (or if he pushes your buttons as it were: as is obvious, he pushed none of mine except my "I spit on this and all it stands for" button), you are probably not predisposed to agree with much of what Moorcock has to say.

Funny thing is, I actually like Tolkien's source material--translated Old English texts, the Eddas, The Siege of Jerusalem, throw 'em at me. Side effect is that much of Tolkien now reads like watered-down copypasta sanitized by Catholic prudery (yes, even the supposedly more grimdark stuff like Turin Turambar).

@Arthur: a huge interdependent set of communities (over which Aragorn now presides)

It tickles my funny bone that nobody at all objects to this, but hey, Aragorn descends from the superior ubermensch Numenorean stock, so that makes him inherently better-suited, wiser and all around best to rule. The question of whether his children might be absolutely fucking shitty rulers or grow into despots would just be too inconvenient. That being descended from whoever he's descended from doesn't mean Aragorn is entitled to rule over so-and-so (especially the Shire) doesn't come up. Middle-earth can be so pinch-its-cheek twee.

@Janne: You mentioned earlier Tolkien's earnestness as an annoyance. For me I think the earnestness is few of the saving graces of the book, if we consider the dissection of Tolkien's text which has been achieved so easily here in a matter of paragraphs and is also fun to do and read.

The thing, though, is that knowing that means knowing Tolkien took all this deathly seriously (apart from The Hobbit, perhaps) and then I just start smirking a little bit because, come the fuck on. Earnestness is the death, I feel, of self-awareness. Even Moorcock has Elric made fun of at the End of Time.

@Shimmin: Also in fairness, the industrialisation is (as I recall) depicted as genuinely bad, with loads of destruction and pollution, and apparently entirely aimed towards destruction and war, so it's not just condemned out of hand.

Sure, but that's the aspect Tolkien chose to tackle. The idea of social mobility as aided by industrialization doesn't come up, because that's anathema to Tolkien's good-old-day vision of feudalism and absolute monarchy as the finest thing ever.
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at 11:57 on 04-10-2011, Arthur B
I think a stronger version of Moorcock's argument can be arrived at if you look at the Scouring of the Shire: there Saruman, Wormtongue and their goons are pretty much reduced to gangsters and thugs, and the industrialisation that has taken place seems to be less about mounting some sort of serious military threat and more about enriching Saruman at the Shire's expense.

Essentially, the problem with the Shire (as Moorcock points out) is that Tolkien never questions the place's values; the only thing the Shire needs to do, in Tolkien's mind, is just get a bit more militant about protecting them. Once Saruman and his lot are kicked out our heroes, despite having travelled the world and seen all that other cultures can offer and realised they are but a part of a huge interdependent set of communities (over which Aragorn now presides) set about making sure things stay exactly as they were. Sam, Frodo and the rest might have grown and become more well-rounded Hobbits thanks to their travels, but all that does in the long run is make them even more paternalistic when it comes to shepherding the rest of Hobbit society.
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at 11:54 on 04-10-2011, Janne Kirjasniemi
*In fairness, I doubt there are any fantasy or sci-fi books out there with convincing economic and agricultural systems.

In fairness, I don't believe that there is any literature especially interested in that. Only, if it's in our 'reality' as it were, we just assume that the world is somehow coherent, because we believe it to be ours. A question on speculative literature compared to other fiction is of course, how much belief can you suspend?
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at 11:42 on 04-10-2011, Shimmin
I imagine one of the reasons some people are very keen on Tolkien is that he actively set out to write some English Mythic History, so it presumably pushes some specific buttons. From that approach, I'm not especially surprised that he doesn't pay much attention to the rest of the world, nor that he doesn't pay much attention to economic systems, which are not the stuff of legend.* In the same way, I'm not surprised that it doesn't do much for people who aren't from middle-England backgrounds because that's not who it's aimed at.

I suspect what people want from mythic backgrounds tends to be heroes who are canonically good and noble, and kings and battles, and not usually moral complexity and farming, and they want great kingdoms and distinctive peoples rather than a realistic melting-pot. Also in fairness, the industrialisation is (as I recall) depicted as genuinely bad, with loads of destruction and pollution, and apparently entirely aimed towards destruction and war, so it's not just condemned out of hand.

*In fairness, I doubt there are any fantasy or sci-fi books out there with convincing economic and agricultural systems.

Not particularly impressed with the Moorcock, seems a bit incoherent, a bit pretentious and a bit smug. On the other hand, given his own style of writing I'm not that surprised he doesn't like Tolkien. A quick gripe: "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."
You can certainly read it that way, as a peon to bourgeois life and values, but it's not how it came across to me. Given the way the Shire and its inhabitants are depicted, I read it as the wider world being the place full of life and reality, where important things are happening, while the hobbits stick their fingers in their ears and ignore it, muttering against anyone who goes out adventuring.

Similarly: "Sauron and his henchmen are that old bourgeois bugaboo, the Mob - mindless football supporters throwing their beer-bottles over the fence the worst aspects of modern urban society represented as the whole by a fearful, backward-yearning class for whom "good taste" is synonymous with "restraint" (pastel colours, murmured protest) and "civilized" behaviour means "conventional behaviour in all circumstances". ... we are not sure - because Tolkien cannot really bring himself to get close to his proles and their satanic leaders - if Sauron and Co. are quite as evil as we're told. After all, anyone who hates hobbits can't be all bad."
Now I'll admit it's been a long time since I read LOTR, but that was not a book that left any loopholes for Sauron not to be utterly evil. He doesn't get drunk and kick down people's fences in the Shire, he razes cities and contaminates the very earth with evil.
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at 10:10 on 04-10-2011, Janne Kirjasniemi
valse:
You mentioned earlier Tolkien's earnestness as an annoyance. For me I think the earnestness is few of the saving graces of the book, if we consider the dissection of Tolkien's text which has been achieved so easily here in a matter of paragraphs and is also fun to do and read. The earnestness(for me, I don't offer this as a reason to start liking anything) makes it believable that this historical linguist was simply writing down stories he liked and found beautiful and which reflected his own fascination with european mythology. So there is literal good and evil, some people are literally blessed by god(s), there are evil nonhuman races and somehow feudal monarchy is the way to go. All the foreigners are evil, because they worship wrong, evil gods. Industrialization is bad, but agrarian idylls are good, because if people die before their time, its because of evil and not because of bad healthcare or swords caused by superstition in a fundamentally wrong, unfair and backwards socio-economical system, which is kinda racist. Of course this is no reason to say that those issues aren't part of the text and are of course a reason to not like it.

Yeah, I have to say Middle Earth doesn't really stand up as an internally consistent world. I'd like to know where all the farmland is; aside from the Hobbits, nobody really seems to do anything as common and plebby as agriculture.

Of course as said, Mordor had slaves. In Gondor, like Dol Amroth, the peas- I mean serfs, no I mean happy freeholders lived somewhere in southern Gondor, happy that their local lord, one of the chosen people, protected them from the wrong coloured hordes from the east and south. Hmm... is it too late to construct a defense of Tolkien on the grounds that it was an attempt to reconstruct the European mindset in the early middle ages? The witch king of Angmar could be Vikings?

If anyone hasn't read Epic Pooh yet, Michael Moorcock contributes also to the fray.
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at 06:25 on 04-10-2011, valse de la lune
Actually, come to think of it, there was that "slant-eyed southerner" (*wince*) in Bree. They speculated that he was "more than half a goblin," but whether they meant actual goblin (the orcs lite from The Hobbit, I guess) or just foreigner wasn't clear to me.

I completely forgot about that one. Very cringe-inducing.
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at 06:15 on 04-10-2011, Sunnyskywalker
LotR gave me the sense that that particular corner off the world existed when I wasn't looking - that the hobbits were off gossiping about who's stealing spoons from Bilbo's estate sale and drinking and swapping tales up at the pub, that they had a large pool of shared history (like that bad winter back when Bilbo was a kid and the wolves came, which was also a good year for wine, or something like that) and stories and songs, all that. At any moment, you can stumble onto a whole species most people only remember in legends (Ents), who have their own history you'll hear bits of (which might relate to that walking tree one of the hobbits saw way back in the Shire... maybe that's where the Entwives went). There's also a sense that they don't have all the history of their world at hand - bits of it are garbled or lost, more like in the real world, and even people who are thousands of years old have to get lucky searching the archives to figure out what happened in the places they weren't visiting at the time. The Mirkwood elves and Laketown are trading apples and alcohol and whatnot, too. And, okay, the hobbits are fairly isolationist, and they're usually our viewpoint characters, so I can let some of the lack of connection to other places slide...

...but only to a certain extent. I mean, does he really expect us to believe that there haven't been Gondor merchants tramping over to Harad and back every few years, bringing back ivory or whatever they consider luxuries in Gondor? That no one except the Blue Wizards ever wandered east? And how are these borders all so sharply drawn, anyway? Shouldn't there be some families in the very south of Gondor's territory with cousins in Harad, and maybe a Dunlending aunt or two?

Actually, come to think of it, there was that "slant-eyed southerner" (*wince*) in Bree. They speculated that he was "more than half a goblin," but whether they meant actual goblin (the orcs lite from The Hobbit, I guess) or just foreigner wasn't clear to me. So where did he come from, and how did he end up in Bree, and why is he the only hint at any kind of intermarriage aside from very, very rare dynastic Numenorian/elf matches? That's just odd, to say the least. So it hits this weird place for me of both feeling very "alive" in many parts and also feeling bizarrely cut off in ways most real societies aren't.

On a totally unrelated note, there is a Soviet swing band out there. Supposedly it is "proclaimed 'compulsorarily available in the Soviet Peoples' Republic of Great Britain,'" so I suppose the Brits here better get listening!
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at 06:01 on 04-10-2011, valse de la lune
And mind you, I sort of understand why the Valar are only interested in the master race, it's a problem you have when your fantasy's creation myth is modeled on a real-world one--for this same reason it's very strange that nearly all angels in the Lucifer comic are pasty--and therefore tied to an ethnocentric narrative, while still being privileged as the literal truth of a fictional cosmos. Which wouldn't be a problem if you were the kind of writer who cares to imply that this is only one perspective and that there are others within the world (i.e. that other creation myths exist or that the Valar don't spend 24/7 wringing their hands over Caucasians--do the brown people even have a place in the Halls of Mandos, I wonder?), but Tolkien wasn't that writer.

Re: this. Trolling Tolkien fans eruditely. Beautiful. Right on the dot one of them had to whip out the "Did you even read Tolkien?!" line, as though anyone holding an opinion differing from theirs must ipso facto have only read the wikipedia summary--or have no reading comprehension at all, unlike the fan, whose reading is naturally flawless and in perfect sync with Tolkien's every whim and intent.
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at 05:13 on 04-10-2011, valse de la lune
No problem, Bryn. I didn't care about anything Tolkien cared about, or what gets most of his fans hot and bothered either. :p

@Andy G: If the songs, family trees, poems, obscure references and maps don't give you a sense of a world not exhausted by the narrative, I don't know what else could do short of a mythology rooted in a real-world culture!

...because there isn't so much a world there as a little corner of it occupied, and obsessively about, Western European aristocrats and royalty? Tolkien evidently thought that was all the world that was needed. I don't. There's honestly no world beyond that in Middle-earth except for some wishy-washy mumblings about the blue wizards (?) and the faceless brown hoards that were hoodwinked into worshiping Sauron and shit. All the songs and family trees and mounds of dreck do nothing for me if all they do is tell you about this one little corner of zzzzzz without even hinting at contact with other peoples, trading, other cultures, whatever. If we take the creation myth as solid fact--and there's no reason we shouldn't, given Tolkien's approach--then the gods only created white people, apparently. Puke.
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at 02:59 on 04-10-2011, Michal
You're all starting to sound like this guy.

(Addendum: Under no circumstances should this convince you to read The Last Ringbearer. It's like reading AU LOTR fanfiction where you're supposed to root for Stalin. About the best thing I can say about it is that the Polish edition had a pretty nifty cover.)
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at 00:50 on 04-10-2011, Arthur B
I'm not sorry you included it. :P
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at 00:49 on 04-10-2011, Bryn
'Nobody (sensible) cares' and other bits like that wasn't reasonable or warranted. I'm sorry for including that in the post below.
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at 00:43 on 04-10-2011, Andy G
If the songs, family trees, poems, obscure references and maps don't give you a sense of a world not exhausted by the narrative, I don't know what else could do short of a mythology rooted in a real-world culture! Which isn't to say that the world isn't boring, elitist or white-European. I've never quite had the sense with other authors, perhaps because they lacked the obsessiveness to really put world (and language) building first. Decide for yourself if the results were worth it!

Regarding farming: Tolkien is clearly interested in details of the world like botany, materials and foodstuffs, so the lack of farming is rather odd. Elitism comes into it; but also perhaps the focus of his interest on wild nature - he clearly identifies with the Ents rather than the Entwives, for those to whom that means something. Though I'm fairly sure there are mentions of farms and farmlands in various human (and hobbit and orc) regions (and certainly space on the maps for them) - it's how the dwarves and elves feed themselves that's more perplexing, but then they are meant to be magical and mysterious (what are lembas made of, after all?).
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