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There and Back Again: Five Reasons Tolkien Rocks (Guest Blogger China Mieville)

      (The City & The City, an Amazon "best book" for June.)

The Author of the Century, of course, needs no help from anyone (least of all a speck like me). No force on earth could undermine either the juggernaut implacability of his sales, nor the world-historic scale of his influence, nor the truly enormous weight of his achievement. The man puts the 'epic' in 'epic win'. However--or, more accurately, because of that--every few years, certain as tides, someone will write a splenetic screed against the Professor, explaining why he's the devil/ worst things to happen to fantasy/voice of reaction/zomg most boring writer EVER /etc. The Oedipal Resentment motivating many of these attacks may be trivially obvious, especially in those from within fantastic fiction, but it doesn't follow that the substance of all the criticism is baseless. There are perfectly reasonable arguments to be had about the impact, nature, scale and success of Tolkien's work. The sheer religious zealotry with which some Tolkienistas defend the master, when it ignores those grounds for debate and refuses to countenance a flaw anywhere in the MiddleEarthian edifice, doesn't, then, help matters. Even more nuanced pro-Hobbit partisans sometimes--and acknowledging that there are always debates on this--choose what look to some of us to be questionable grounds for defence. Because there are arguments not only about what is regrettable in Tolkien, but about what is indispensible. Accordingly, what follows is a list of some Perhaps In Some Cases Somewhat Insufficiently Stressed Reasons We Should All Be Terribly Grateful To Tolkien. It may be redundant strictly qua defence, this defence of a corpus that is thriving, but perhaps it's not pointless anyway.

Tolkien Lordofrings

1) Norse Magic

For too long the Greco-Roman stories have been the Big Pantheons on Campus. Zeus this, Persephone that, Scylla-and-Charybdis the other, the noise is endless, and anyone smitten by the mythic has to work hard to hear any other voices. For some of us, there's always been something about this tradition--and it's hard to put your finger on--vaguely flattened out, somehow; too clean, maybe; overburdened with precision. Alan Garner, perhaps the most brilliant sufferer from this disaffection, once put it thus: to him, the Greek and Roman myths were 'as cold as their marble'.

Compare the knotty, autumnal, blooded contingency of the Norse tales, with their anti-moralistic evasive intricacies, their pointlessly and fascinatingly various tiers of Godhead, their heart-meltingly bizarre nomenclature: Ginnungagap; Yggdrasil; Ratatosk. This is the tradition that Tolkien mines and glorifies--Middle Earth, after all, being not-so-subtly a translation of Midgard.

For those of us who regret the hegemony of the Classicists' Classics, the chewy Anglo-Saxonisms of Mirkwood and its surrounds are a vindication. We always knew these other gods and monsters were cooler.

2) Tragedy

Unlike so many of those he begat, Tolkien's vision, never mind any Hail-fellow-well-met-ery, no matter the coziness of the shire, despite even the remorseless sylvan bonheur of Tom Bombadil, is tragic. The final tears in characters' and readers' eyes are not uncomplicatedly of happiness. On the one hand, yay, the goodies win: on the other, shame that the entire epoch is slipping from Glory. The magic goes west, of course, but there's also the peculiar abjuring of narrative form, in the strange echo after the final battle, the Lord of the Rings's post-end end, the Harrowing of the Shire--so criminally neglected by Jackson. In an alternate reality, this piece of scripting would have earned talented young tattooed hipster video-game designer Johnno Tolkien a slapped wrist from his studio: since when do you put a lesser villain straight after the final Boss Battle? But that's the point. The episode concludes 'well', of course, so far as it goes, but in its very pettiness relative to what's just been, it is brilliantly unsatisfying, ushering in an era of degraded parodies of epics, where it's not just the elves that are going: you can't even get a proper Dark Lord any more. Whatever we see as the drive behind Tolkien's tragic vision, and however we relate to its politics and aesthetics, the tragedy of the creeping tawdry quotidian gives Middle Earth a powerful melancholia lamentably missing from too much of what followed. It deserves celebrating and reclaiming.

3) The Watcher in the Water

Dude. That totally was cool. I mean, say what you like about him, Tolk gives good monster. Shelob, Smaug, the their astounding names, the fearful verve of their descriptions, their various undomesticated malevolence, these creatures are utterly embedded in our world-view. No one can write giant spiders except through Shelob: all dragons are sidekicks now. And so on.

But the thing about the Watcher in the Water is WTF? Here the technique of under-describing, withholding, comes startlingly to the fore, that other great technique for communicating balefulness. We know almost nothing about the many-limbed thing in the water outside Moria. Some think it's a giant squid: me, I say not, given that it lives in fresh water, has too many tentacles, and that those tentacles have fingers. Which squids don't have. But we know three things. It is tentacular; it is badass; and it is weird. And that uncertainty is what makes it rock.

4) Allegory

Tolkien explains that he has a 'cordial dislike of allegory'. Amen! Amen! And just to be clear, there is no contradiction at all between this fact, and the certain truth that his world throws off metaphors, can and should be read as doing all sorts of things, wittingly or unwittingly, with ideas of society, of class, the war, etc. But here is precisely the difference between allegory and metaphor: the latter is fecund, polysemic, generative of meanings but evasive of stability; the former is fecund and interesting largely to the extent that it fails. In his abjuring of allegory, Tolkien refuses the notion that a work of fiction is, in some reductive way, primarily, solely, or really 'about' something else, narrowly and precisely. That the work of the reader is one of code-breaking, that if we find the right key we can perform a hermeneutic algorithm and 'solve' the book. Tolkien knows that that makes for both clumsy fiction and clunky code. His dissatisfaction with the Narnia books was in part precisely because they veered too close to allegory, and therefore did not believe in their own landscape. A similar problem is visible now, in the various tentative ventures into u- or dystopia by writers uncomfortable with the genre they find themselves in and therefore the worlds they create, eager to stress that these worlds are 'about' real and serious things--and thereby bleeding them of the specificity they need to be worth inhabiting, or capable of 'meaning', at all.

This is not a plea for naivety, for evading ramifications or analysis, for some impossible and pointless return to 'just-a-story'. The problem is not that allegory unhelpfully exaggerates the 'meaning' of a 'pure' story, but that it criminally reduces it.

Whether Tolkien himself would follow all the way with this argument is not the point here: the point is that his 'cordial dislike' is utterly key for the project of creating a fantastic fiction that both means and is vividly and irreducibly itself, and is thereby fiction worthy of the name.

5) Subcreation

Middle Earth was not the first invented world, of course. But in the way the world is envisaged and managed, it represents a revolution. Previously, in works such as Eddison's, Leiber's, Ashton Smith's and many others', the worlds of magic, vibrant, brilliant, hilarious and much-loved as they may be, were secondary to the plot. This is not a criticism: that's a perfectly legitimate way to proceed. But the paradigm shift of which there may be other examples, but of which Tolkien was by a vast margin the outstanding herald, represents an extraordinary inversion, which brings its own unique tools and capabilities to narrative. The order is reverse: the world comes first, and then, and only then, things happen--stories occur--within it.

So dominant is this mode now (as millions of women and men draw millions of maps, and write millions of histories, inventing worlds in which, perhaps, eventually, a few will set stories) that it's difficult to see what a conceptual shift it represented. And it is so mocked and denigrated--often brilliantly, as in the ferocious attack by M. John Harrison, that outstanding anti-fantasist, wherein he describes worldbuilding as the 'great clomping foot of nerdism'--that it's hard to insist that it brings aesthetic and epistemological possibilities to the table that may be valuable and impossible any other way.

This is a debate that needs to be had. These are stories contingent to a world the reader inhabits--full of 'ideal creations' that the writer has given, in Tolkien's words, 'the inner consistency of reality'. Whatever else it is, that is a strange and unique kind of reading. Tolkien not only performs the trick, indeed arguably inaugurates it, but considers and theorises this process that he calls 'subcreation', in his extraordinary essay 'On Fairy Stories'. It is astounding, and testimony to him, that his ruminations on what is probably now the default 'fantasy' mode remain not only seminal but lonely. Whether one celebrates or laments the fact, it is an incredibly powerful literary approach, and the lack of systematic, philosophical and critical attention paid not to this or that example but to 'subcreation', world-building, overall, as a technique, is amazing. To my knowledge--and I would be grateful for correction--there is not one book-length theoretical critical work, or collection, investigating the fantastic technique of secondary-world-building--subcreation. This is astounding. In Tolkien, fully 70 years ago, by contrast, we have not only the method's great vanguard, but still one of its most important and pioneering scholars.

There are plenty of other reasons to be grateful to Tolkien, of course--and reasonable reasons to be ticked off at him, too: critique, after all has its place. But so does admiration. Tolkien never lacks for encomia, but that's no reason not to repeat those most deserved, or, even more, to stress neglected reasons for justified and fervent praise.


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Exciting article. I do agree that Tolkien's employment is not without disagreement or fault, but as a original and creative mastermind he has few peers. Thanks for as long as such kind of articles.

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I must thank you quite heartily for writing this article.

Easy, I spose, what with all the half present allegories floating about.

very good.I'm glad someone pointed out the McSweeny's is a parody, because when I read it, all I could think was that it was tongue-in-cheek. I've had similar conversations with friends, and we were laughing our asses off.

These things are clear and, I think, needed to be said because so many silly and vicious things are casually scrawled on the web regarding Tolkien's books.

W. H. Auden said, "I rarely remember a book about which I have had such violent arguments. Nobody seems to have a moderate opinion: either, like myself, people find it a masterpiece of its genre or they cannot abide." To those who "can't abide" in our day are added those who can't abide its influence and those who can't abide Tolkien's beliefs.

Aww, Lawrence...why did you have to go and do that :p

Lawrence, thanks. The Zinn and Chomsky thing was parody written by someone neither Zinn or Chomsky. Thanks for your fantastic 5 points, all of them spot on.I am glad Prof Tolkiens work has endured, and looks to dominate for years to come. I wonder if thats not because everyone who discovers it feel that they have discovered it alone. I always feel like Tolkien is taking me on a private guided tour.Middle earth has 30 gazillion vistors a year and i never run into to anyone else there.

Lawrence, thanks. The Zinn and Chomsky thing was parody written by someone neither Zinn or Chomsky. Thanks for your fantastic 5 points, all of them spot on.I am glad Prof Tolkiens work has endured, and looks to dominate for years to come. I wonder if thats not because everyone who discovers it feel that they have discovered it alone. I always feel like Tolkien is taking me on a private guided tour.Middle earth has 30 gazillion vistors a year and i never run into to anyone else there.

Alright, I know my comment comes in way late, but it's a great article, and one with an interesting view on Tolkien's work I have so far encountered way too seldom. Thank you for writing this!

I think one of the things that many fantasy authors who tried to follow Tolkien's example and failed have underestimated in a very big way is the amount of time and work it takes to build a world as detailed and consistent.

You can't make up stuff like that in a couple of months, even nowadays where research into many fields is made comparatively easy and fast. So they just steal bits and pieces from their predecessors and slap them together in what they pretend to believe to be a new way.

So, as much as Tolkien can be critiqed where appropriate (I could name a handful of things off the top of my head I would really like to strangle him for), he did an awesome job in many ways.

As for those fascism accusations that crop up in various places, I suggest those people try to write a piece of readable fiction that everyone will perceive as completely free of any possible or obvious prejudices. I'd really like to see how long it's gonna take them to find out that this just doesn't happen.

If a fiction is any good, the author has worked hard on it, which means they put in not only lots of time and thought, but also those little beliefs they hold, and thus someone, somewhere, WILL be offended by some part of it, either because the fiction doesn't fit their own ideology, or because they misread something. That's just the way it is, that's because we're humans, goddamnit, and it's okay that way.

I just don't get why some hypocrites have nothing better to do than turn some possibly ambiguous subtext into outright racist statements just to have something to complain about.

Er, make that "On Fairy Stories"-really have no idea of Mr. Mievilles views on the rest of "Trea & Leaf".

Mr. Mieville, that was remarkably mature.
Your going out of your way to praise "Trea & Leaf", not to mention pointing out the fact that it is nearly universally misunderstood, has much improved my day.

One can but hope your honesty does not offend your associates too much-one hopes that they have the objectivity to realize that it actually validates your other opinions.

"For example, would we be extolling the virtues of say George R.R.Martin here if A Game Of Thrones was published in 1954 instead of LOTR. Or what about The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R. Donaldson or even more recently Abercrombies' First Law Trilogy?"

They would propably have written something interesting no matter what, but in Donaldson & Martins case I rather doubt those exact works could have existed without Tolkien.

Assistant Village Idiot:
"There is some that Tolkien wrote badly, in retrospect. Bombadil does not quite work or fit, for example. But those things seldom have much to do with the criticism of him."

I see you are a supporter of the "Tolkien is a dualist if I SAY he was a duelist, goddammit!" school of criticism?

Glad to read something positive about Tolkien for once. I am so tired of all these half-baked fascist/racist readings of LOTR that conveniently ignore half the text.

I agree with most of this, but the recovery of the Northern mythos has roots that go back far before Tolkien. William Morris is the first example that comes to mind.

What did you expect from a book written by one of the worlds formost Anglo-Saxon lit experts. I always had a secret theory that the hobbits were based on the people in his hometown.

I think China speaks from the heart of nearly every (non-devoteful-catholic) fan of Tolkien with this one! He reflects exactly the feelings and thoughts I had (as far as my feelings and thoughts could be called exact) whenever I read something against Tolkien. On the other hand, I have partly to thank many Tolkien-criticisms that I'm interested in much more variety these days than as a teenager. Anyway, I almost suspected that China was far too smart to despise Tolkien altogether.. This blog-entry rocks!

On clomping nerdism and subcreation, there might be an interesting analogue to be found in Hiroki Azuma's critical work, "Animalizing Postmodernity" (translated and just published in English under the market-oriented title "Otaku: Japan's Database Animals"). Azuma is the guy Japanese educational television calls in to introduce Derrida to the masses, but he's also getting more attention in pop culture media/cultural studies circles outside Japan these days.

It's easy to find fault with a lot of Azuma's claims, but his database theory is a fun idea that has an ideological pull beyond the question of whether or not it's based in fact (much like fairy stories, come to think of it). I don't think his theory needs to be limited to Japan or otaku (he simply picks that context because he himself claims to be a participant otaku). It could be interesting to think about it in the context of the fantasy genre and its fans as well. Azuma argues that instead of putting some idea of a single plot first, otaku put the database (i.e., world) first, and actively inhabit it as its animals. World/database-creation, fan-recreation, Oedipal complexes... it's all there in a potentially similar form. I'd have to reread it to say more, but it might be worth looking into--just a thought. Anyway, thanks for the entertaining and refreshingly non-antagonistic riposte to a pretty tiring debate. :)

Just the other day, my brother asked me what I was doing in my spare time. Rather unthinkingly I answered him: "Nothing really, maybe I'll start writing and create a world like Tolkien did." It tickles me that the magnitude of what he did is known but unexamined. Perhaps it's something that Someone Else should Totally Do.

To quote David Brin:

“In several places, Tolkien openly stated his authorial judgment that the elves who made the Three Rings were ultimately to blame, having set the stage for tragedy in Middle Earth. They made their own rings (preceding Sauron's One Ring) in order to control the world, stopping time and preventing change, forbidding anything to die and decay and thus blocking the potential for new growth.”

And yet Brin entitled his essay “J.R.R. Tolkien -- enemy of progress”

Perhaps Brin feels that an enemy of progress is anyone who feels that smokestacks are ugly. Even if this person thinks it is wrong and dangerous to try to prevent change.

Hey Mieville, on another topic, how about learning to write some endings that aren't utterly stupid and pointless?

"On the one hand, yay, the goodies win: on the other, shame that the entire epoch is slipping from Glory."

And this is a startling insight from someone who has just lived through World War II? I always though that, taken in context, this particular "tension" was the most banal aspect of the whole thing.

Tolkien scholarship is full of wankers. How many times do we have to hear a lament that Tolkien was glorifying rural life in his depiction of the Shire? Surely anyone who has read the book will recall he refers to the hobbits as "fat and stupid" in his narrative, disparaging their small-mindedness even as he acknowledges the peculiar virtues of such an attitude. Saruman never gets his due from the critics or the fans; he was the failed keeper, the moral relativist, the industrialist, Adam Weishaupt, the Zionist.

What I thought was one of the most striking and powerful things about the Middle-Earth epic was the dawning realization that I was reading the epilogue... Sauron was just a nuisance, an aftershock left over from the Morgoth incident. Most of the good action was a few thousand years in the past. That little bit of awesome was what finally gave Middle Earth its transcendent status in the annals of world-creation, in my mind at least.

Bob Lock - I just have to respond that Martin, Donaldson, and Abercrombie didn't give the English-speaking world back its Elves, its Orcs, its Giants, nor its Dwarves. As fantasy, as literature, perhaps they might have scored in Tolkien's time without Tolkien -- but as re-vivifiers of English and the love of English . . . not so much.

Interesting article! I wonder what Orwell would have said about your language....

Middle Earth works because it wasn't a means to an end. It just IS. Rocks, trees, water. His landscape wasn't an excuse for stories: it is the story. All the others, mere copiests really, that someone listed above suffer from that simple failure. They used sub-creation to spark stories that sold, and in a way cheapened the veneer on their "map". Donaldson's over written Land series is an excellent case in point. Great books initially, but they show too much mortor, too much "placement"--too fabricated to fit a plot outline. When I read JRRT, I get erosion, weather, the sounds of Treebeard's laughter that bounces off branches and leaves, setting rhythms in motion.

Here from the livejournal of Sherwood Smith. Excellent essay. Thank you for this!

Bob Lock's argument that it was only fate playing a role in JRR Tolkien's primacy seems a bit nonsensical. It's a bit like saying, "Yeah of course the Wright brothers are famous, but I wonder whether we would be talking about them if the Airbus A380 had been built in 1880."

Tolkien needed to be first, in order for the subsequent authors mentioned to write what they did. (And of course, there are others who came before him without which Tolkien wouldn't have written what he did.)

Are you shitting me? Mieville, did you get hit in the head and wake up a different person?

Mr. Mieville, I must thank you quite heartily for writing this article. I am a Tolkien fan who is unfortunate enough to be surrounded by friends who do not recognize Tolkien's genius, simply because they struggle through the first chapter of any of his books, and dismiss it as 'boring'. It is nice to know that there are others who truly appreciate what Tolkien has done for this world.

Much thanks,

I have always thought that one of the main subplots of the trilogy was the growth, both literal and metaphorical, of Merry and Pippin: they start off as irresponsible and end up leading a military campaign. The "scouring of the shire" chapter is key to that subplot. They, like Middle Earth, have lost their youth and moved into a new age.

"There is some that Tolkien wrote badly, in retrospect. Bombadil does not quite work or fit, for example. But those things seldom have much to do with the criticism of him"

On the topic of Bombadil: "Tolkien himself said that some things should remain mysterious in any narrative, hidden even to its inventor".

As a reader its both entertaining and frustrating to not have a definitive answer to some questions. Half the fun is in reading, the other half is guessing/wonder what a character like Bombadil is. Is he one of the Ainur? Is he Maiar. Is he god himself? Tolkien does not say. And thats the point.

Interesting article. I do agree that Tolkien's work is not without contradiction or flaw, but as a creative and imaginative genius he has few peers.

Granted, irony is often difficult to recognize when it cuts so close. I'm glad someone pointed out the McSweeny's is a parody, because when I read it, all I could think was that it was tongue-in-cheek. I've had similar conversations with friends, and we were laughing our asses off.

Bob, while A Game of Thrones and the Thomas Covenant books may be all flavors of awesome, the question remains if they would ever have been written had not Tolkien come first. It's not a question of who beat whom to the punch; there is a potential causal relationship here, and that cannot occur if the factors are shuffled through time.

Excellent post and thoughtful comments.

Another person in addition to Vance who is sadly neglected is Mervyn Peake. He transformed the Dickensian grotesque to a fantasy setting in a way that clearly has been profoundly influential (not to mention a great read).

I read Richard Morgan's Tolkien essay recently and was struck by the narrow limitations that he places on the definition of quality fantasy. If we do not get to learn of the inner motivations of the orcs, for example, then we are being fed a flawed, black and white worldview. In a story that shows the downfall of Saruman and (even more poignantly) the results of the different choices in the Denethor/Boromir/Faramir triad, I think there is enough moral ambiguity on the part of the "good guys" to suffice. There is also the elegiac quality of the story, in which the destruction of the ring also leads to trauma for its bearer, the end of an age, and the diminishing of the elvish presence on Middle Earth. Plus, he gave scant consideration to the astounding quality of the world development, in which, as Mieville puts it so well, the story of the ring flowed out of the long, rich history of the world Tolkien crafted rather than the other way around.


Perhaps me old China (apols) is mistakenly half refernecing that wonderful stroke of middle age apocrypha, the harrowing of hell? Easy, I spose, what with all the half present allegories floating about.

M. John Harrison believes that worldbuilding is a solitary activity that grows hair on the palms.

Hey Tennwriter,

First of all, many thanks for curbing your antipathy :)

Yes, I can see how readers could easily get put off Donaldson's work as he does ramble on and on and you have to persevere to peel back the verbosity to get at the juicy core of his writing. Perhaps another thing that readers won't like about Chronicles and The Gap Series even, is that they both contain anti-heroes which many could find difficult to warm to. For example, if I remember correctly, Covenant rapes a young girl right at the start of the series, not exactly endearing him to the reader. Same goes for The Gap, which has Angus Thermopyle who you immediately take a dislike to.

However, I only mentioned those writers as a quick example in my first post, you could easily put many more examples (as we have already seen posted) in their place. The main object of my original post was just to ask China if he thought that by being the first to come up with something so 'off the wall' as a story containing dwarves, elves, orcs and various monsters etc, Tolkien had a big advantage over those who came after.

Best wishes,

"The Scouring of the Shire" will be reenacted soon, at a
location near _you_ , courtesy of the State Bureau of the
Dark Arts; see the fun, boo the One. :)

Over my years of reading Heroic Fantasy, I have built up
a fairly detailed "Mythical Map" of Europa, and Tolkien
seems to have located his world somewhere between Germany
and Britain; Poul Anderson paints a truer, darker, picture
of the Nordic lands in books such as "Hrolf Kraki's Saga"
and a truly grim short story called "The Sorrow of Odin the Goth".

Nice article.
"Why does nobody mention Vance in these discussions?"

I'm also voting for Vance as an under-rated Tolkein. He was building worlds at around the same time, and I think "The Dying Earth" actually predates Lord of the Rings. There aren't huge armies sweeping across the fields in Vance's work but there are some pretty interesting places and characters.

Mr. Mieville,

Quite apart from the ideas you express here, most of which I agree with, I'm knocked out by your writing. I want to buy one of your books.


China Meiville,

I've seen your The City on the B&N shelves many times, but ignored it till now. I enjoyed your post very much, and will take a look at your book my next bookstore visit.

Folks, please follow McSweeney's link. It is a spot on parody.

I've re-read Tolkien's masterpiece every few years since ... well ... quite a while ago. He withstands the preverbal "test of time." Middle Earth has a depth no other fictional place can match (OK, Ringworld is damn close). Is there any among us who couldn’t hike their way from North Farthing to Minas Tirith (Orcs and Wargs notwithstanding)?
But for me the ultimate proof of his greatness is to listen to Tolkien read from his works. Truly the direct heir to the Nordic Saga singers. This is what Vikings must have felt like while listening to the saga heralds.

I was a tolkien hater, I read them once, and was never able to re-read them. It wasn't until I read a book called Tolkien and the great war, or something like that. It is a biography of Tolkien before he wrote LOTR. This I found was a perfect accompaniment to the series, I re-read them, and enjoyed them even more. He is a Genius.

China, you too are pretty good, I am super excited to read the city and the city

As a world builder, Tolkien was first rate. As a composer of novels not so much, and that is why Peter Jackson was able to improve upon Fellowship and Towers (although he too got bogged down in Return).

Don't get me started on Donaldson.

If we are talking about rivals to Tolkien: the first three books by George R R Martin in the "Song of Ice and Fire" series has set the bar for the genre. If you disregard the Daenerys and later Arya chapters, it is a character-driven tragedy; a portrait of a continent in collapse because of misrule, ambition, and chaos.

Without antipathy, but eh no. I read a lot of Chronicles which while interesting if dreadfully slow is just not on the same scale of goodness or on the level of subtle grandeur, and enough Martins to decide that disgust mixed with boredom was the appropriate reaction. Chronicles would have done better, but it would have probably led to other writers bettering Donaldson in subsequent decades. Martins would have been buried relatively soon, and there's a decent chance most of us would never have heard of the man.

I haven't read Abercrombie.

Moorcock...well, R.A. Salvatore is a lot better. Moorcock had a power to him, that I'll admit, and I've enjoyed a number of his stories, but if he belongs in teh front rank of any army, then tis a sad army.

"Far, far below the deepest delvings of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things."

That line alone, and all it implies, was worth the price of the book.

Well, more accurately, a lot of proto-fascists loved the hell out of Tolkien, usually reading it just before growing out their hair, planting an occult pot plantation in a back holler & breaking out into a massed chorus of:

"The branch of the linden is leafy and Green
The Rhine gives its gold to the sea
But somewhere a glory awaits unseen
Tomorrow belongs to me"

Mieville's quite right about the importance of world-building, although I rather think that there were valid examples of "sub-creation" that pre-date Tolkien. Lovecraft's stuff, for instance, is more world-building than character or plot, to the point where he seemed incapable of anything more elaborate than a short novella, but still there carried over an elaborate poetic paranoia, porting world-details from story to story in a fairly consistent fashion.

And cliffhangers! Don't forget the cliffhangers. The books would have been so boring without the nail-biting suspense that followed when each major character managed to fall off a mountain at some point in the Quest. And adding additional plot tension by making Arwen's life inexplicably bound up with the fate of the Ring was inspired, baby!

Riddle me this Precious:

Q: How would LoTR have been different if Robert Heinlein had penned it?

A: About 50 chapters shorter. Frodo would have flown a giant Eagle to Mount Doom and simply dropped the Ring down the mountain's piehole. The would have been some lovely air-to-air combat scenes with the Ringwraiths, but the issue would never have been in doubt.

DensityDuck, man, if I'd been drinking milk, it would have gone right out my nose at that. My first reaction was, did it have to be so bad to do that? If you've had a long day, chased by Wargs, and the door finally opens, and you're looking into a big black hole, you're going to go six feet in the air and come down running if a bat flies by your ear.

But, I guess it can't be like that. All of the other monsters were plot points by themselves. Bard killed Smaug, Gandalf and Glorfindel were both willing to take on Balrogs by themselves, and Sam got Shelob (and, frankly, if you get killed by a hobbit, I think your monster certification should be revoked), but the Watcher's only purpose was to get the 9 baddest guys in Middle Earth, together, working as a team, to say, "There may be an goblin army of unknown size ahead of us, not to mention Something Else, but if we turn around, we have to get past that thing in the pond." Nothing you describe could be awful enough to make that sound like a good decision.

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Omnivoracious™ Contributors

January 2015

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