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.
(Cribbing liberally from Norse Mythology and a bit from Greek was apparently a-ok, though.)
Don't forget Finland! We're always happy when our modest ugrian existences are noticed in the big world. I also love Tolkien and perhaps it is not so bad to like something that is problematic, as so many things are. I would be much more worried, if the things I like had no negative qualities at all in my view, since that might be an indication of obliviousness on my part.
But the thing with a romanticized national mythologies is that they are not only connected to fascism and the Nazis, thay are pretty much prevalent everywhere and across most political movements, since it connects so readily to people's self-identification with a certain place and society, which I would argue can be a good thing as well and very hard to eliminate, if it is considered a categorically bad thing. But appealing to some abstract national identity is a very common tactic of trying agitate people against groups and people considered to be outside this identity. But that is a much older thing than reactionary violent political movements of the 20th century.
On anarchism, I think that lack of easy books to peruse was my hurdle the last time, as I usually go about learning stuff by getting a book on the subject and then get frustrated, if there is too much hassle about it. That approach has its limitations and it does seem reasonable that anarchism as a political movement has more of a home outside old-fashioned publications, especially contemporary anarchism, as the movement was all but wiped out by the Spanish Civil War and Stalin as a larger political force and has not really recovered to its former glory.
So thanks for the recommendations again. I would personally recommend Kropotkin, even if I find some of his facts a bt suspect. Mutual Aid is, I think a good read.
I concur with Arthur about the role of divine authority in Tolkien's works. Actually, I was thinking less of kings, than folks like Elrond, Galadriel, Gandalf, and Aragorn to a lesser extent. These are exalted people, in a class of their own, not quite above question, but close, and in general things would be a lot better if lesser people would shut up and follow their guidance already.
Yes, elites in Tolkien go bad, but that never calls the existence of a class of elites set above everyone else into question. Elitism, in Tolkien's mythos is a good thing, which bequeaths greater knowledge, wisdom, and judgment to those elites who haven't gone bad. These elites are deserving of their lofty position over the common riff-raff and of being deferred to by said riff-raff. This is (one of) the things I find disturbing in Tolkien's writing, even if the specific kinds of elitism he advocated were fossils even by the time he was writing it.
Another point which slipped my mind until recently was Tolkien's obsession with nationalism and national identity and the "purity" of that identity. His original notion for his Legendarium was to create a national mythology for England, and he rejected existing candidates such as Arthurian Myth because of the polluting effect of furren influence such as the French. (Cribbing liberally from Norse Mythology and a bit from Greek was apparently a-ok, though.) This fixation on a romanticized national identity and national mythology, while it doesn't make Tolkien a Nazi or fascist fellow-traveler, makes his stories a lot more compatible with their ideologies.
Again, I want to stipulate that I'm speaking as a huuuuge fan of "Lord of the Rings" and The Hobbit, and my contribution to this discussion is from the point of view of "How to be a fan of problematic things."
@Janne: Well, given anarchism is by nature a rather free-wheeling political philosophy, it's hard to classify any particular facet as "essential" reading. Plus, as you say, all political ideologies contain a vast diversity of cooperating, competing, and contradicting beliefs and opinions under their general umbrella.
Here in the US, I've managed to get by with very little knowledge of Makhno or the pre-civil war Spanish anarchists, for whatever that's worth. (I also haven't read much of the "classic" 19th century anarchists, just like I've barely read any actual Marx.) And I can't think of anything in terms of an academic approach as you describe it - which is odd, because I feel like I've had that kind of experience, but I can't think where. Mostly, I just pick up the history and contemporary thought from tidbits in books and articles, podcasts, videos, conference panels, informal conversation, and the like.
Actually, now I think about it, Oppose and Propose!, published by AK Press, talks about a Quaker-founded activist community which operated in the US in the 1970s and 80s, and how it influenced a lot of the ideas and practices which have been largely adopted by Western anarchist and anti-authoritarian groups in the intervening years. The book is short, and it provides a scholarly approach to one small piece of the history, and some of the contemporary thought.
A couple of years ago, the LSE hosted a panel which was turned into a podcast, looking at late 19th/early 20th century anarchist understandings of sexuality, and how much they have influenced contemporary mainstream views. That's another small piece.
Then again, most of what I know is stuff considered relevant in the USA - and, to a lesser extent, the other English as first language countries and parts of Western Europe - I don't know how that compares to which parts of history and contemporary thought is more relevant in Eastern Europe.
@Bill: You are correct that there were often bad kings in Tolkien, but I don't think that undermines the point about divine authority - in fact, bad kings are bad usually because they deviate from the order of things as mandated by Iluvatar.
Well, I agree that it can't be reduced to that exactly. But will and the ability to force it is a strong element of both fascism and nazism. I'm not about to go and reread Mein Kampf now, but the violent struggle of races and conflict as the primary force in history does feature prominently, as I remember. The leader's embodiment of the will of the people is of course a part of it, but I don't think these two elements are mutually exclusive, rather they support one another.
Thank you for the suggestions. I have read Kropotkin at one point, but was frustrated with his rather cavalier historical arguments. Also, I would really like to learn more about Makhno and the Spanish pre civil war anarchists, but are they more historical curiosities than essential reading I do not know. I'll have to begin somewhere I suppose. Have you any experience of academic approaches to the subject, that trace the development and basic elements of anarchist thought and with maybe some approaches to contemporary thinking? Graeber sounds like a good place to get into this. I guess it is pretty much builtinto the genetics of anarchism that it would contain a multitude of ideas. And on the other hand, all political ideologies are more like bunches of multiple ideas by different people grouped together by some basic categories to differentiate it from others schools of thought.
Well, "anarchism" is a pretty broad topic, with numerous possible approaches; what about it in particular were you wanting to learn more about? I generally find Graeber's writings to be good and thought-provoking reads, though some of them are more overtly anarchist in outlook than others. (Also, as I recall, his "Are you an anarchist? The answer might surprise you" is equally parts thought-provoking and infuriatingly smug.) James C. Scott's Two Cheers for Anarchism is a short, enjoyable read, but interestingly has little to say about political anarchy directly, and is more about applying anarchic sensibilities to a surprising range of other topics. The Crimethinc Ex-Workers' collective did a decent pair of episodes contrasting anarchism with both anarcho-capitalism and Stalinist Marxist a couple of years ago.
I don't think Tolkien is saying that divinely ordained authority figures can't be questioned. Certainly in his invented history there are lots of bad kings who make bad decisions and can be condemned for doing so. His kingdoms look a lot more like medieval kingdoms where the king can be checked by the nobility than seventeenth-century absolutisms. And the Shire, which I think is as close as it gets to his ideal, is certainly not an autocracy.
I don't think Fascism or Naziism rested their claims to legitimacy solely on superior force--that's something I would more associate with imperialism--but on the idea of the Leader as the embodiment of the will of the people, or the race in the Nazi case.
I think Moorcock's problem is that he fails to see Tolkien as anti-capitalist at all, which brings us back to the point that he's just not a very good reader of Tolkien.
If I recall correctly, The Silmarillion mentioned that orcs are elves corrupted by Morgoth. So in addition to the barbarians at the gates metaphor, the vil race is made up of creatures irrevocably corrupted by evil, which could be read as heretics or infidels or people of a wrong political ideology, who are beyond reason and can be destroyed without mercy. I wonder if Tolkien's insistence that his work is not an allegory for anything was precisely because he could see that all sorts of meanings can be interpreted from it and which are very hard to deny. His reactionary politics always seemed to have an air of romanticism and escapism in it, a sentiment not uncommon in academics who are mostly interested in medieval history. Although this is strictly my own experience of that. And it doesn't make him any more relevant politically. His preference for philosophical anarchism would fit, though.
Conan's claim to power expressed like that is pretty much the justification the fascists and the Nazis gave for their Will to Power, isn't it?
I admit that I have not that much konowledge of anarcho-capitalism or whether it is a valid form of anarchist thought. It does seem on the face of it that if it follows capitalistic thinking in its conception of property, it would be a bit of an open question of whose freedom to do what it is actually concerned with. And hilarious squabbles aside, all political ideologies are nonsensical, in a way. I would be interested to get a bit more on top of anarchism though and it's been a while since I've read up on it. Seeing as that piece on superheroics and how it can't but help to be conservative was very interesting, do you have any recommendations on good reads on the subject? Or any one else, for that matter.
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.