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.
Tolkien can be an ally for radicals (as he was perceived to be by much of the 60s counterculture) because of his anti-capitalism, but his anti-capitalism is so different from any kind of left anti-capitalism that the alliance is pretty tenuous anyway.
And I suppose it is worth pointing out that there is an extensive history of fascists and neofascists of an anti-capitalist stripe (eg the Strasser brothers, Ernst Rohm, and Strasserite factions in later movements like the UK's National Front) effectively trying to push fascism as a "Third Position" opposed both to capitalism and Marxism. This generally involves amping up the socialism in National Socialism, but can also involve Julius Evola-type evocation of a charming precapitalist idyllic past.
So I guess Moorcock's "LOTR = Mein Kampf" angle might be going for that, but trips because he fails to adequately shine a light on how hyper-reactionary anti-capitalism differs from left anti-capitalism and how LOTR fits into the former category.
Factionalism in politics is a plague and a pest, but it is entirely possible for people to go too far the other way and assume that if someone happens to be anti-capitalist they must be an ally without looking too hard at the alternatives they advocate. It's like how left-anarchists and Objectivists can't find common ground because despite both resenting the role of government, what they actually want to do in the absence of government would in many respects be mutually destructive to each others' utopias.
I do think that there is a similarity between Eternal Champion and Anointed King in that both essentially derive their legitimacy from supernatural cosmic forces, whether God or the Cosmic Balance, as opposed to Conan, who derives his legitimacy from the fact that he will kill you if you question it.
Erm, put that way, I don't see much to recommend one of those over and above the others. A plague on all your houses, I say.
I do believe that Tolkien was deeply reactionary, so reactionary that his politics is essentially irrelevant. If you believe that English history took a tragic wrong turn in 1688, as I think Tolkien did (Oxford was always the Jacobite university) then you really have nothing to contribute to current debates. Tolkien can be an ally for radicals (as he was perceived to be by much of the 60s counterculture) because of his anti-capitalism, but his anti-capitalism is so different from any kind of left anti-capitalism that the alliance is pretty tenuous anyway.
You're probably right about my misreading of Moorcock. I'm mostly going on memories of books I read 30 years ago anyway. I do think that there is a similarity between Eternal Champion and Anointed King in that both essentially derive their legitimacy from supernatural cosmic forces, whether God or the Cosmic Balance, as opposed to Conan, who derives his legitimacy from the fact that he will kill you if you question it. But yes, I should probably go read some more books before I bloviate any more on Moorcock.
@Bill: I know Tolkien was anti-Nazi, and I can believe he was anti-fascist, too. Neither of those preclude him being politically reactionary (a much broader category); or even if he himself wasn't politically reactionary, unconsciously writing stories which were. Nothing I've read in his works or learned about the man himself - not that I've conducted an in-depth study or anything - leads me to consider either of those possibilities unlikely, though I'm open to being persuaded.
Do you think Tolkien's writings are - on balance - non-reactionary, perhaps even radical? If so, I'd be very curious to hear your arguments.
The fact that entire races of beings in Tolkien's works are irredeemably evil is pretty disturbing - and to be fair, Tolkien himself apparently wasn't happy with it, either, but could never figure out a way to have his cake and eat it too on that one. What bothers me more about Tolkien specifically is that social stratification (especially by class) in his books is treated as a good and virtuous and noble thing; and that there are some exalted people who just intrinsically know better than the rest of us, whose wisdom and directives are simply beyond question or reproach - let alone disagreement or rejection - by us peons. I guess I'm mostly working off of David Brin's* arguments on this point.
*Definitely not a radical, and someone I disagree with on a ton of issues, but his elitist reading of Tolkien's Legendarium and critique thereof makes a lot of sense to me.
Moorcock's whole Law-Chaos dichotomy, particularly in the earlier work where Chaos is pretty unambiguously the baddies, also goes rather oddly with anti-authoritarianism.
Actually (*attempts to don Pedant Hat, realizes for thousandth time is already wearing it, substitutes Even Bigger Pedant Hat*) in one of the very early Elric stories - like, I think the second one - he meets a representative of Chaos who seems to be perfectly reasonable and who flat out states that the point of their eternal struggle with Law is not to win, but basically to maintain the Cosmic Balance. As I recall, Chaos didn't become aligned with Evil until the Stormbringer quartet, or as I like to think of them, the second half of the original Elric stories. But yeah, at that point, it was pretty much Law=Good, Chaos=Evil, as I recall. (*swaps Even Bigger Pedant Hat back for regular Pedant Hat*)
To go overly Freudian about it, it's as if fantasy writing by British men in the last 50-60 years has been basically an Oedipal struggle with Papa Tolkien.
Kinda makes sense. He dominates the field of fantasy (at least High or Epic Fantasy, or whatever you want to call it) to such an extent that it's impossible to avoid engaging with his works if you want to venture into that field. I imagine this leads authors to form Very Strong Opinions about Tolkien's works.
@Janne: Ah, I see. Actually, as I recall, the book also equated anarchism with leftism and excluded straight up anarcho-capitalists and market libertarians. I think this is also defensible, since my understanding is that capitalist/market types calling themselves anarchist is a much more recent phenomenon (my sources are numerous, but admittedly, just a wee bit biased), and their political and philosophical differences with traditional left anarchists aren't minor doctrinal disputes but rather gaping canyons of disagreement. (I can only imagine these squabbles are sources of great hilarity for those who think anarchy of any stripe is utter nonsense.)
As I remember, the stated reason Heinlein made the list of notable non-anarchists was on the strength of having supported a leftist candidate for California governor at one point, and, apparently, a lot of anarchists really like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
The editor of the book apparently picked up an anti-authoritarian undercurrent in much of Herbert's work, and brought up a passage from one of the Dune sequels which talks about how formal structures of power inevitably calcify and turn destructive, or something to that effect. Tolkien is there entirely because of a letter he wrote to his son once where he said one of the ideal forms of government he found most appealing was "philosophical anarchy." Personally, I would have thought the fact - not mentioned in the book - that the other ideal form of government he favored, and which is much more prominently evident in his books, was "non-constitutional monarchy" would disqualify him, but wide net, I guess.
@Bill: The closest Moorcock series I can think of which fits your model of "persons of noble, or better yet royal, blood have SPECIAL DESTINIES that exalt them over the rest of us peasant shlubs" are the Elric series, and pastiches thereof like the Hawkmoon and Corum crap that Moorcock cranked out for easy money.
You will not find me defending the matter two here. But they did at least contain a vestige of what the Elric series was genuinely excellent at, at its best, which is playing specifically with themes about fading privilege and people's efforts to move away from the destiny and the supposed differences set up between themselves and other people by their birth and social status and how that's actually tremendously hard.
In particular, Elric's regal heritage is a decidedly mixed blessing; it leaves him as the scion of a nation which cultivated massive cruelty to a fine art and used to be a massive world-spanning colonial empire before its geopolitical fortunes declined, but still kids itself that it's super-important. Parallels to the experiences of British people born in the post-Colonial era becoming increasingly aware that their comfortable circumstances are built on generations of blood are quite aptly done. Putting them at the centre of the story does tend to make them look a bit more important, but is arguably necessary to make the points Moorcock wants to make.
Furthermore, I would say that the Elric series in particular actually subverts the idea that Elric is somehow more important than others from the way by the end of the series people are literally jumping on his sword so as to give him power, but all their struggles seem to have done by the end of Stormbringer is
In terms of the Eternal Champion as being an Anointed King in the Tolkien sense: no, the parallel does not work at all. Tolkien was writing as a very reactionary traditionalist Catholic sort who saw legitimacy as flowing from God and passing down from there, and constructed Middle Earth in much the same way; Iluvatar is the supreme source of the good, and rulers, wizard, valar, maiar and people who are aligned with how Iluvatar intends them to be are legitimate, those who make discordance within Iluvatar's planned symphony of creation are illegitimate.
The Eternal Champion, conversely, is just shunted into situations by the powers that be in order to redress one balance or another, taking situations in which an unacceptable flavour of Law or Chaos is about to prevail and knocking them the other way. Balance is the ideal but is near-impossible to judge; excesses from either side are to be disdained.
It is also worth noting that Moorcock's Eternal Champion-related stuff - particularly once you start broadening the focus out to include stuff like the Jerry Cornelius material - does not necessarily concern itself with a realistic secondary creation. It seems to me that Moorcock is less concerned with making a consistent inventive world and is more interested in exploring the nature of the myths and legends we tell ourselves, and how those stories affect our thinking about the world. There are points where it feels like everyone in the story is just a rehash of the Eternal Champion or his hateful nemesis or his lover or his sidekick and that is probably intentional. (There are also indications that the Eternal Champion is less of a single actual individual who has all of these lives in sequence, Erekose's experience being atypical, and that it's more of a Jungian-style archetype that anyone could end up expressing in the right circumstances.)
I have discussed elsewhere in my reviews why I think heroic fantasy contexts are better placed for the Champion siding with Law against Chaos - namely, that the societies in such settings tend to be in more danger from fragmentation, brigandage, and arbitrary bullying than systematic, bureaucratic social ossification, so it makes more sense for the Champion to push Chaos in more modern-day settings. But the Champion very specifically pushes for a balance between Law and Chaos, not one over the other. This is not necessarily about anti-authoritarianism vs. authoritarianism, though that is one way it can manifest. (You could make an argument for the Nazis being an example of "authoritarian Chaos", in the sense that they actually did not give a single shit about the rule of law and worked within its bounds only to the extent that it worked for them and were happy to tear it up as and when it was convenient for them to do so.)
Then again, Moorcock does oversimplify things a fair bit in his essay, regularly in ways that undermine his point. His take on Tolkien being about running down working-class agitators, in particular, is nonsensical; neither Sauron nor Saruman fit that bill. They do seem to be all about making nasty industrialised hellholes in Isengard, or in Mordor, or in the Shire, but I think there Tolkien is indulging in the sort of ultra-reactionary stance that lots of people go for when they bemoan this newfangled modern technological society in that he imagines a sort of bucolic pastoral existence ruled over by an aristocracy which wasn't quite all it was cracked up to be. Essentially, Sauron and Saruman aren't working class agitators, they are far more like the bourgeoisie - resented by the aristocrats for pushing them out, resented in turn by Marxists and others on the left for enriching themselves massively on the backs of the labours of others.
But I don't think a lot of the stuff you've been saying about Moorcock's stuff is a matter of you reading Moorcock as ungenerously as he reads Tolkien so much as it's you reading Moorcock as inaccurately as he reads Tolkien. There is much to criticise in both Tolkien and Moorcock, and some of Moorcock's barbs hit home with Tolkien. In particular, though Orcs genuinely do not seem to stand in for any specific ethnicity the use of them to offer a "barbarian Others at the gates must be resisted with as much violence as humanly possible" narrative is unhelpful. The siege mentality of Western culture, where letting different-looking people in is tantamount to the fall of Rome over again, is a complex we can do without reinforcing.
That would be fine if Moorcock extended the same understanding you think we should show him to other writers rather than beginning his essay by equating The Lord of the Rings with Mein Kampf.
Yeah, that's a point, and generally speaking I don't think he's on the money about LOTR or Tolkien. He tends to use hyperbole and radical language and sometimes goes too far for dramatic purposes, or maybe to get attention. I don't think that invalidates his larger points about sci-fi and fantasy's reactionary bent, and neither do his failures to consistently rise above the tropes in his own writing.
The fact that he sometimes stooped to writing things he lambasted others for writing is less important, I think, than his observations that many authors were perfectly happy to always write in that mode.
I mean, we could look at other last-generation progressive authors that way - Octavia Butler for example fought against racism and sexism in genre fiction, but did sometimes use racist and sexist tropes herself (which is the reason she later kept Survivor out of print). I don't have more trouble taking her seriously because of that.
Hmm, I guess Moorcock wants his readers to implicitly understand that by "radical" he specifically means egalitarian, anti-authoritarian, and anti-elitist, which from everything I hear rules out Heinlein. This was probably taken as read in the venues where he originally published it, so perhaps it's all right that he didn't spell this out?
No doubt. I should have specified I was replying to that reading list in the book of interviews of anarchist writers and why someone would put Heinlein there, who by some works could be considered anti-establishment and against state authority. But then again, in some cases not. I wonder about Tolkien and Herbert though. But a wide net is probably smart, given that radical or even anarchist are not unambigious terms.
I've only read his original Elric stories the once, and on the strength of Arthur's recommendation, probably won't ever check out Hawkmoon or Corum. Those Elric stories didn't strike me as particularly anti-establishment, but I'm not the best at reading between the lines. I'd be interested to get Arthur's perspective on Moorcock's fantasy works.
There's also a subplot about an aristocrat who's also a Robin Hood shout-out in The Coming of the Terraphiles, the only other Moorcock book I've read to date. I found this a little difficult to reconcile with Moorcock's stated contempt for Robin Hood in the article, especially since his character doesn't even rob from the rich and give to the poor. Anyway, the subplot is all about this good-natured but impoverished aristocrat who wants to persuade a nouveau riches to give or sell him back his family's ancestral planet of Sherwood, so that he can set everything right with it again and put a Virgin King on the throne. The end to this subplot is that Sherwood ends up going to the guy's best chum after said aristocrat himself has gotten caught up in the obligatory NuWho noble sacrifice climax. Again, if there's anything subversive going on in this subplot, it went straight over my head - it read more like a straightforward English upper-class comedy of manners a la Wodehouse (but much less entertaining) than anything else.
@Janne: Hmm, I guess Moorcock wants his readers to implicitly understand that by "radical" he specifically means egalitarian, anti-authoritarian, and anti-elitist, which from everything I hear rules out Heinlein. This was probably taken as read in the venues where he originally published it, so perhaps it's all right that he didn't spell this out?
I find the bad faith of everything Moorcock writes on the relationship of politics and literature so overwhelming that I can't take him seriously even when he does have a good point.
Well keep in mind we're examining the views of a human being across a career that spans 50 years. He changed his mind sometimes, he wasn't always careful about what he wrote or said. The problem with his potboiler heroic fantasy stuff was that it typically sold much better than his more politically-minded works - The Ice Schooner, The Black Corridor, the Colonel Pyatt and Jerry Cornelius series - so he absolutely made concessions in his politics for money and fame. Arguably, however, it was all to fund and find an audience for his politically radical fiction, which is what he's been focusing on almost exclusively during the latter part of his career.
Let he who is without compromise throw the first stone.
The thing with having the central character be someone of higher class might have an explanation in expediency, as well as a hidden desire for conservatism in the social order. A character who is of higher class has more opportunities for different plots on the face of it, much like affluene in real life allows more choice in life decisions. If you want the character be educated, or free from some societal constrains without wanting to spend narrative effort to explain the situation, the conventional choice is a higher class male, which might be something that a great many writers of educated, upper middle class backgrounds think they understand and identify with better. Which of course brings with it all sorts of unfortunate implications which might easily overshadow anything else the narrative is ostensibly trying to achieve.
On the subject of reactionary vs. radical authors, one thing to consider is the relativity of one's own political position and also to the different interpretations of what it is to be radical or reactionary. Since if radicalism is taken to be the willingness to change society in deep and (most probably) disruptive ways, which is the original meaning of being on the left(in the context of the French revolution) and of being radical in its political aspect, it is possible to consider Heinlein to be radical, since he can be considered a libertarian or a right leaning anarchist.
Carrying from this definition of radicalness, or being on the left, it could be argued, that those arguing for the dissembling of states and the absolute freedom of the markets are quite radical and on the left, since they are aiming at disrupting the society as it is to create something better, no matter what the short term costs are.
Of course we could then start to dissect whether this free market ideology, call it what you will, is really all that new and it is arguable that it is only reheated classical liberalism with problems raised by the socil liberals and socialists handwaved away and sweeped under the rug of impressive sounding (but ultimately too idealistic and unrealistic) economical theories and political philosophies from the start of the 20th century and especially those that were in their context just very strong reactions to the rise of the Soviet Union in the 20s'.
But getting from that back to the idea of relativity, what we consider reactionary or radical depends very much on our own position politically. If we think that the difference between reactionary and radical is not a discrete thing, but rather a continuous spectrum from one end to the other, with a middle point a sort of mixture of both positions, it seems to me by my own experience, that if one is very radical, everything towards reactionary is reactionary to a degree, even if on the spectrum it is still nearer to the radical end than the reactionary end. It might be a bit too abstract a way of considering it, but I tend to think that it is part of why social democracy was often considered a form of class betrayal by stalinists or why in the american political discourse (and to a degree elsewhere) being on the centre right or social liberalist can be called socialist or communist and there are plenty of people who accept this sort of simplification.
That was a bit long. Apologies.
Moorcock has a lot of problems -- not least of them that his name is, as Metafilter would say, eponysterical -- but he's always been pretty unabashedly anti-establishment.
Ah yes, I remember when that essay was first linked in this site years ago. It's not a very structured argument, bouncing from topic to topic and back again, but the content and the slightly histrionic writing style keep me engrossed.
The central argument: most "classic" science fiction and fantasy is fundamentally reactionary, and so are its writers, seems to me at this point uncontroversial. I have no illusions about Tolkien's politics*, but I must admit I find his storytelling much more engrossing than, say, le Guin's (heresy!). And I could run down a whole list of others, encompassing most of my favorite fantasy and science fiction works, Star Wars certainly included (I have no expectations of radicalism from Pratchett, either, but he still sometimes manages to shock and disappoint me, especially in his last few novels). Then again, we could justly lay charges of sexism and xenophobia against several of the the authors Moorcock holds up as exemplars of radical fiction (mirroring the historical and contemporary problems of sexism and xenophobia and a host of other -isms in radical movements).
*Then again, there's always this, and this.
I'm not nearly so well- or widely-read as some genre fans, but to my knowledge there hasn't exactly been an explosion in far-left sci-fi/fantasy since Moorcock published that essay (though there have been some notable works: The Fifth Sacred Thing being a standout example both in terms of its political sensibilities and its literary quality, by my reckoning). Then again, radical politics are, by definition, a niche interest, and it seems to me the height of silliness for anarchists, communists, and other radical leftists to search for hidden left-wing messages in "classic" and mainstream science fiction and fantasy. Far better, it seems to me, to accept that most of these stories - as with so much else that we interact with on a daily basis - is going to be at odds with our values and sensibilities to a lesser or greater degree, and consume them or not based upon whether we derive enjoyment from them. There, was that really so hard?
(As a sidenote, I recently read a book of interviews with anarchist fiction writers - including Moorcock, natch - with a glossary of other anarchist fiction authors at the back, and another glossary of authors who were not themselves anarchist but were still of interest to anarchist readers. Included among the latter were Frank Herbert, Heinlein, and Tolkien. The book seemed to take a "big tent" approach, not subjecting its candidates to rigorous screening for political and ethical acceptability. Given the penchant of leftists to disown and denounce each other over the most minuscule points of doctrinal or strategic disagreement, this was likely the best approach, but it means some truly puzzling figures made it through the net.)
Also of interest, there's this more recent, more coherent, and less hyperbolic - also much longer - essay by David Graeber on the underlying political sensibilities of the Superhero genre.