China Miéville on Tolkien

My original intent with this post was to review China Miéville’s young adult fantasy, Un Lun Dun, which contains some striking parallels and dissimilarities to Harry Potter and is interesting in its own right. At this point, though, I’ll have to save that, because a little related Googling turned up this article by Miéville on Tolkien’s contributions to fantasy, and it is just too fascinating to pass up.

Among other points by Miéville:

“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.”

He also comments on the Professor’s innovation and subcreation, superb monsters, distaste for allegory (versus metaphor), and other things. In the process, he makes the only statement I’ve ever heard that made some sense out of one of the primary arguments against the Narniad. (Hey, I love Narnia–I didn’t re-read The Horse and His Boy a zillion times because I was a good little Christian. But at least I can sort of see the point.)

Do go read the piece, if you will, and then I’d love to hear what you think.

9 thoughts on “China Miéville on Tolkien

  1. Wow, that’s a great piece on Tolkien! Thanks for sharing, Jenna. I’m mostly chiming in here to comment on Miéville’s writing style, which I totally dig. It’s this really cool combination of literary intelligence infused with chill, Internet-speak. You don’t see too many essays worth reading that balance that style… I like it a lot. I may need to try reading his fiction. Along these lines, I look forward to Jenna’s review of his YA book soon. What I like about his essay-writing style is that it makes these sorts of conversations about what makes a story good and well-told, accessible to all. Kind of like The Hog’s Head… :)

  2. Haven’t read the article yet, but the quote highlights the way Tolkien, as a medievalist, thought. He was the exact opposite of a “progressive.” Instead, the world has seen its better days already, and it is getting worse and worse before a final eucatrastrophe saves us all.

  3. Ok, read the article. Really great article. His summary on allegory is interesting. He writes:

    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.

    Sort of … but then you have “Leaf by Niggle,” which is most definitely an allegory very much “about something else.” Mieville seems to recognized he’s not following Tolkien’s reasoning at the end of the section there. Tolkien’s reasoning for dislike of allegory was primarily that it sort of bullied the reader. It doesn’t let the reader experience the story for herself, but puts her into an inescapable framework where a specific experience is forced on the reader.

  4. As an editor I was a bit jarred by his shifting tone– seriously, he goes straight from “Dude. That totally was cool” to “the latter is fecund, polysemic, generative of meanings but evasive of stability…”

    That aside, his observations are very strong. The sections on Tragedy and Subcreation, I couldn’t agree more. The Watcher is only one example of many little details like that, just the way we experience things on the fringes in our own world.

    I think the bit about allegory misses some points that Tom Shippey points out–”Leaf by Niggle” as Travis observes, and also that Tolkien’s disdain for allegory in his Preface had a lot to do with the fact that too many reviewers were treating his non-allegory as an allegory. There’s also a splendid little allegory in his essay on Beowulf, about the man who built a tower to see the ocean. Tolkien’s dislike was not really for allegory in itself but for conflating subcreated fantasy with allegory.

    In defense of the Narniad– though I have to agree (reluctantly) that Miéville does have a point– who better than CSL himself?

    You are mistaken when you think that everything in the books ‘represents’ something in this world. Things do that in The Pilgrim’s Progress but I’m not writing in that way. I did not say to myself ‘Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia’: I said, ‘Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as he became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen.’ If you think about it, you will see that it is quite a different thing. (Letters to Children)

  5. Thanks for the link, Jenna. I’m looking forward to the Un Lun Dun review.

    I agree with Eric–China couldn’t make up his mind about his style, and so I had a terrible time trying to take him seriously. My mind woffled between ‘Oh this makes sense’ and ‘Oh, this guy clearly knows nothing about anything’–conditioned knee-jerk reactions to the disparate styles, I suppose.

    But, all style aside, saying that the Watcher rocks because it’s a kick**s and it’s awesome isn’t making an argument, no matter how fancy the language. I’m not saying I disagree–in fact I do agree–but other passages in the essay show that China is capable of better.

    Frankly, I completely disagree with his assessment of Narnia. The books are not, I would say, about something other. They are not allegory. ‘Allegorical tendencies’ are obvious in the books, but we do them no good service if we read them as if they were Bunyan. I think, instead, the idea of the literary icon is more complex and more appropriate. Travis has written about this, but I actually thought it up myself before I encountered his works. (Figure that one out.)

    LWW, then, is not seen as a pure allegory–as in, this is that, and means such. It is an artist’s contemplation and depiction of the Christ-narrative–an artistic re-imagining of the crucifixion and resurrection. It is not meant for us to say, oh, I see this is Jesus here, and that is Judas. Imagine trying to criticize, say, one of Rembrandt’s crucifixions in that fashion! Rather, we receive it as an artistic vision, as an object of contemplation to draw us, imaginatively and spiritually, into a deeper communion with the subject. That, I think, is true to Lewis’s intent–as well as placing a much stronger importance on reader response than mere code-cracking–as the stories arose as works of art while he was himself contemplating these questions.

    As for the claim that ‘the Narnia books [...] did not believe their own landscape’, I think that might be better read as ‘China Mieville did not believe their landscape.’ Long before–and even in spite of–I watched the various movie adaptations, the landscapes of Narnia were among the most vivid fictional settings etched in my memory. I’d dare to say that in fantasy, only Tolkien does better than Lewis in his evocation of place, a nuanced and tangible landscape that evokes itself, a place where I could easily get lost in the uncharted forests, but find my way at least to Aslan’s How if I had thought to bring the map. It is this definition in Lewis’s landscapes, his profound use of feel, for want of a better term, that also makes the (much more allegorical!) Space Triology such a success.

    Lewis’s Narnia is at least as vibrantly real as O’Connor’s South or Frost’s New England, if perhaps just as stylized as either. (But why is that a bad thing when done so masterfully?) It’s steady consistency–including the geological changes–anticipates and complements Tolkien’s Middle-Earth in way that is wholly distinct and original–unlike, say, Hobb’s Six Duchies or Le Guin’s Earthsea, both worlds profoundly real, yet clearly following Tolkien and not–as Lewis was–walking alongside.

    (Sorry for such a long comment! I’m essay writing, and I guess my mind is more limber than usual…)

  6. Thanks for the comments, all of you! Donna, I too got a kick out of his writing style–probably because I find incongruity so thoroughly amusing, and that seemed the point of his vacillations between academic-speak and common vulgarities. Totally made me laugh. :)

    The part about allegory was in some ways the most fascinating to me and I’m glad to see it getting brought up in discussion. Travis, Eric, Mr. Pond, I especially appreciate the defenses of both Tolkien’s and Lewis’ ideas about and use of allegory. Allegory as one of the four levels of meaning, like John Granger talks about, is very different from something like Pilgrim’s Progress, which is strictly and consciously representational.

    I can see someone taking Narnia as “veering too close to allegory,” but Miéville did actually lose me a bit on the “did not believe their own landscape.” Like you, Mr. Pond, I never had any trouble believing in their landscape (and I like your concept of the literary icon too.)

    Sometimes I wonder if the reason irreligious people (of whom I suspect Miéville is one, though I couldn’t say for sure) think of Narnia as tasteless allegory is because Christians claim it as representing Christ kind of loudly and obviously. Maybe I’m wrong, but the whole debate seems to hint at team rivalry.

    ‘Tennyrate, I liked Pilgrim’s Progress for what it was–but I love Narnia and don’t plan to stop for any purpose. And the Space Trilogy is even better, in my opinion. :)

  7. Again, great post, Jenna.

    But–nah, Narnia is better! :P Actually, I’d say OotSP breaks even with Narnia, Perelandra drops behind, THS almost, but doesn’t entirely fulfill its potential. That’s my personal assessment, and I still love the Trilogy.

    I have to say, Till We Have Faces is Lewis at the height of his powers.

    Wow, long comment and rabbit trail in the same thread…what must I be smoking? :D

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