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.

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Comments (78)

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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Posted by: pandoralink | Thursday August 18, 2011 at 10:42 PM

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Posted by: Cheap NFL Jerseys | Wednesday August 17, 2011 at 6:25 PM

I must thank you quite heartily for writing this article.

Posted by: spy pen wholesale | Wednesday June 15, 2011 at 11:51 PM

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

Posted by: spy pen wholesale | Wednesday June 15, 2011 at 11:50 PM

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.

Posted by: spy pen wholesale | Wednesday June 15, 2011 at 11:49 PM

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.

Posted by: marly youmans | Tuesday June 7, 2011 at 6:37 PM

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

Posted by: dogcow | Saturday August 28, 2010 at 11:50 AM

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.

Posted by: nestor68 | Tuesday July 20, 2010 at 9:21 PM

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.

Posted by: nestor68 | Tuesday July 20, 2010 at 9:21 PM

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.

Posted by: Lex Mosgrove | Saturday July 10, 2010 at 5:59 AM

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

Posted by: Ian Dall | Saturday May 8, 2010 at 1:22 PM

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?

Posted by: Ian Dall | Saturday May 8, 2010 at 1:16 PM

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.

Posted by: Jonas Kyratzes | Tuesday September 29, 2009 at 5:03 AM

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.

Posted by: William Burns | Tuesday June 23, 2009 at 6:35 AM

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.

Posted by: Kate | Monday June 22, 2009 at 3:35 PM

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!

Posted by: Felix | Monday June 22, 2009 at 2:54 PM

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. :)

Posted by: Jennifer L. | Sunday June 21, 2009 at 7:49 AM

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.

Posted by: zilch | Saturday June 20, 2009 at 8:59 PM

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.

Posted by: ad | Saturday June 20, 2009 at 11:01 AM

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

Posted by: Noah | Saturday June 20, 2009 at 7:57 AM

"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.

Posted by: chris y | Saturday June 20, 2009 at 4:03 AM

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.

Posted by: David Boyle | Saturday June 20, 2009 at 4:00 AM

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.

Posted by: Loren Amsden | Friday June 19, 2009 at 12:26 PM

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.

Posted by: Vetch | Thursday June 18, 2009 at 5:20 PM

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

Posted by: Alana Abbott | Thursday June 18, 2009 at 8:32 AM

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.)

Posted by: Arnout and Camilla | Thursday June 18, 2009 at 4:48 AM

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

Posted by: MCM | Wednesday June 17, 2009 at 10:47 PM

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,

Posted by: VillageIdiotsDaughter | Wednesday June 17, 2009 at 9:49 PM

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.

Posted by: Ted | Wednesday June 17, 2009 at 7:39 PM

"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.

Posted by: Brian | Wednesday June 17, 2009 at 6:32 PM

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.

Posted by: Milo | Wednesday June 17, 2009 at 3:07 PM

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.

Posted by: --E | Wednesday June 17, 2009 at 12:00 PM

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.

Posted by: Astra | Wednesday June 17, 2009 at 11:02 AM


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.

Posted by: NickG | Wednesday June 17, 2009 at 8:43 AM

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

Posted by: supergee | Wednesday June 17, 2009 at 4:34 AM

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,

Posted by: Bob Lock | Wednesday June 17, 2009 at 3:32 AM

"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".

Posted by: M. report | Tuesday June 16, 2009 at 9:38 PM

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.

Posted by: daddy dave | Tuesday June 16, 2009 at 9:25 PM

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.


Posted by: Tyrone Slothrop | Tuesday June 16, 2009 at 8:46 PM

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.

Posted by: Tolkien Fan | Tuesday June 16, 2009 at 7:10 PM

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

Posted by: Curmudgeon Geographer | Tuesday June 16, 2009 at 6:57 PM

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.

Posted by: Stretch | Tuesday June 16, 2009 at 6:40 PM

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

Posted by: Iain Abela | Tuesday June 16, 2009 at 5:45 PM

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.

Posted by: David Ross | Tuesday June 16, 2009 at 5:42 PM

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.

Posted by: Tennwriter | Tuesday June 16, 2009 at 5:40 PM

"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.

Posted by: tbrosz | Tuesday June 16, 2009 at 5:39 PM

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.

Posted by: Mitch H. | Tuesday June 16, 2009 at 4:47 PM

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.

Posted by: Chris | Tuesday June 16, 2009 at 3:31 PM

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.

Posted by: Jonathan Card | Tuesday June 16, 2009 at 2:53 PM

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