Epic Pooh Essay

Michael Moorcock's "Epic Pooh" essay on Tolkien and the Inklings

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Some 25 years ago I came across Michael Moorcock's essay focused on Tolkien in a collection of essays entitled Wizardry and Wild Romance (1987, Gollancz); and I have just been re-reading it.

http://www.revolutionsf.com/article.php?id=953

It strikes me as an uncriticizably-bad essay - in the sense that it is an almost perfect example of that inversion of Good which is the hallmark of New Leftism in its post-sixties and politically correct form.

So, from Moorcock's perspective; virtue is wickedness, courage is cowardice, deep scholarship is criticized as populist, everything beautiful is named ugly, truth is put down as evasion - and all the opposites.

This is also the situation in Moorcock's fiction - it is a world of moral subversion, inversion and destruction; in which entropy is embraced and chaos is king (except that 'kings' are baddies).

I have, indeed, read a lot of Moorcock's books - at least twenty, probably more; at the time of my life when I embraced his nihilism. But, although I was always expecting to find evidence that Moorcock was (as so many journalists said) an important, perhaps great, writer; and although I kept trying book after book; I never could perceive it.

He seemed superficial and inept - in the sense that the books felt slapdash, pointless; and I could seldom understand what was actually going-on (this, I assume, was due to narrative inability, poor storytelling technique).

And I never re-read any of them - which is, for me, decisive; except for a comic James Bond parody called The Russian Intelligence, which made me laugh out loud.

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But the Epic Pooh essay is well worth re-reading; not (I hasten to add) for its critical analysis nor its ludicrous pretense at objectivity of standards; and certainly not for its sprawling, hasty, lazy non-structure - but as a case study of the phenomenon of middle class disaffection.

Because Moorcock's main term of abuse is 'middle class' - yet of course he is himself middle class (far more so than I am). However, Moorcock is a characteristic part of the upper middle class; which is the bohemian artist, drop-out, liberated, sexual revolutionary, drink and drugs type middle class.

These drop-out upper middle class  types imagine themselves tougher, realer and more honest than the  lower middle class and the respectable skilled and semi-skilled working class (i.e. the kind from whom my own ancestors and relatives were drawn) - these are despised as smug/ pathetic/ infantile/ square/ repressed/ hypocritical (etc etc).

The bohemian middle class have a snobbish disdain amounting to disgust, directed against the old English hard-working and (mostly) clean-living 'bourgeoisie'; and always they side with tramps, prostitutes, muggers, thieves and beggars; their values are aristocratic: amoral and hedonistic; their gods are style and cool.

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All through Epic Pooh, Moorcock is continually, swaggeringly advertising his own toughness in contrast with what he depicts as the the escapist timidity of Tolkien and co.

But Moorcock's idea of toughness is 'smoking behind the bike sheds' teenage rebel stuff; like getting expelled from his experimental private school, drinking to excess, taking drugs, advocating bizarre and promiscuous sex, going on 'demos', and participating in the rock music scene.

Against such indomitable modern heroism; what have the likes of Tolkien and CS Lewis to offer other than serving in the front line trenches during the first world war?

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The irony is that Moorcock's brand of middle class moral rebelliousness is now the official ethics of mainstream bureaucracy and civil service; his transgressive sexual practices and orientations are now taught and advocated in primary schools; his once-edgy feminist privileging is now enforced by everybody including the Royal Mail, the Royal Mint, the Royal Society and the Royal Family; the 'revolutionaries' of the sixties are now the recipients of knighthoods and peerages.

Meanwhile, Tolkien is still excluded by the literary establishment, still maintains his devoted readership; Tolkien's values of Christianity and traditional morality cannot legally be expressed either in public or in private.

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In his recent interviews, Moorcock apparently still romanticizes himself as a bold and dashing Robin Hood liberationist of 'the people'; indomitably fighting the overwhelming forces of repressive tradition, pervasive patriarchy, and hegemonic Christianity.

Pose is all. And all there is, is pose.

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Author's Note: 'Epic Pooh' was originally published as an essay by the BSFA, revised for its inclusion in the 1989 book Wizardry and Wild Romance, A Study of Epic Fantasy, and slightly revised again for this publication. It was written long before the publication and much-deserved success of Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy which, in my view, merits all the optimism I have expressed here. The essay did not attempt to deal with all fantasy, such as Alice in Wonderland or other children's fantasy, but only epic fantasy from its origins in romance poetry to the present day.

Certain highlighted phrases indicate additional comments from the author: mouse over the phrase to read the note.

Epic Pooh

Why is the Rings being widely read today? At a time when perhaps the world was never more in need of authentic experience, this story seems to provide a pattern of it. A businessman in Oxford told me that when tired or out of sorts he went to the Rings for restoration. Lewis and various other critics believe that no book is more relevant to the human situation. W. H. Auden says that it "holds up the mirror to the only nature we know, our own." As for myself I was rereading the Rings at the time of Winston Churchill's funeral and I felt a distinct parallel between the two. For a few short hours the trivia which normally absorbs us was suspended and people experienced in common the meaning of leadership, greatness, valor, time redolent of timelessness, and common traits. Men became temporarily human and felt the life within them and about. Their corporate life lived for a little and made possible the sign of renewal alter a realisation such as occurs only once or twice in a lifetime.

For a century at least the world has been increasingly demythologized. But such a condition is apparently alien to the real nature of men. Now comes a writer such as John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and, as remythologizer, strangely warms our souls.

Clyde S. Kilby: "Meaning in the Lord of the Rings",
Shadows of Imagination, 1969

I have sometimes wondered how much the advent of steam influenced Victorian ballad poetry and romantic prose. Reading Dunsany, for instance, it often occurs to me that his early stories were all written during train journeys:

Up from the platform and onto the train
Got Welleran, Rollory and young Iraine.
Forgetful of sex and income tax
Were Sooranard, Mammolek, Akanax:
And in their dreams Dunsany's lord
Mislaid the communication cord.

The sort of prose most often identified with "high" fantasy is the prose of the nursery-room. It is a lullaby; it is meant to soothe and console. It is mouth-music. It is frequently enjoyed not for its tensions but for its lack of tensions. It coddles; it makes friends with you; it tells you comforting lies. It is soft:

One day when the sun had come back over the forest, bringing with it the scent of May, and all the streams of the Forest were tinkling happily to find themselves their own pretty shape again, and the little pools lay dreaming of the life they had seen and the big things they had done, and in the warmth and quiet of the Forest the cuckoo was trying over his voice carefully and listening to see if he liked it, and wood-pigeons were complaining gently to themselves in their lazy comfortable way that it was the other fellow's fault, but it didn't matter very much; on such a day as this Christopher Robin whistled in a special way he had, and Owl came flying out of the Hundred Acre Wood to see what was wanted.

Winnie-the-Pooh, 1926

It is the predominant tone of The Lord of the Rings and Watership Down and it is the main reason why these books, like many similar ones in the past, are successful. It is the tone of many forgotten British and American bestsellers, well-remembered children's books, like The Wind in the Willows, you often hear it in regional fiction addressed to a local audience, or, in a more sophisticated form, James Barrie (Dear Brutus, Mary Rose and, of course, Peter Pan). Unlike the tone of E.Nesbit (Five Children and It etc.), Richmal Crompton (the 'William' books) Terry Pratchett or the redoubtable J.K.Rowling, it is sentimental, slightly distanced, often wistful, a trifle retrospective; it contains little wit and much whimsy. The humour is often unconscious because, as with Tolkien, the authors take words seriously but without pleasure:

One summer's evening an astonishing piece of news reached the Ivy Bush and Green Dragon. Giants and other portents on the borders of the Shire were forgotten for more important matters; Mr. Frodo was selling Bag End, indeed he had already sold it-to the Sackville-Bagginses!

"For a nice bit, too," said some. "At a bargain price," said others, "and that's more likely when Mistress Lobelia's the buyer." (Otho had died some years before, at the ripe but disappointed age of 102.)

Just why Mr. Frodo was selling his beautiful hole was even more debatable than the price...

The Fellowship of the Ring, 1954

I have been told it is not fair to quote from the earlier parts of The Lord of the Rings, that I should look elsewhere to find much better stuff so, opening it entirely at random, I find some improvement in substance and writing, but that tone is still there:

Pippin became drowsy again and paid little attention to Gandalf telling him of the customs of Gondor, and how the Lord of the City had beacons built on the tops of outlying hills along both borders of the great range, and maintained posts at these points where fresh horses were always in readiness to bear his errand-riders to Rohan in the North, or to Belfalas in the South. "It is long since the beacons of the North were lit," he said; "and in the ancient days of Gondor they were not needed, for they had the Seven Stones."

Pippin stirred uneasily.

The Return of the King, 1955

Tolkien does, admittedly, rise above this sort of thing on occasions, in some key scenes, but often such a scene will be ruined by ghastly verse and it is remarkable how frequently he will draw back from the implications of the subject matter. Like Chesterton, and other orthodox Christian writers who substituted faith for artistic rigour he sees the petit bourgeoisie, the honest artisans and peasants, as the bulwark against Chaos. These people are always sentimentalized in such fiction because traditionally, they are always the last to complain about any deficiencies in the social status quo. They are a type familiar to anyone who ever watched an English film of the thirties and forties, particularly a war-film, where they represented solid good sense opposed to a perverted intellectualism. In many ways The Lord of the Rings is, if not exactly anti-romantic, an anti-romance. Tolkien, and his fellow "Inklings" (the dons who met in Lewis's Oxford rooms to read their work in progress to one another), had extraordinarily ambiguous attitudes towards Romance (and just about everything else), which is doubtless why his trilogy has so many confused moments when the tension flags completely. But he could, at his best, produce prose much better than that of his Oxford contemporaries who perhaps lacked his respect for middle-English poetry. He claimed that his work was primarily linguistic in its original conception, that there were no symbols or allegories to be found in it, but his beliefs permeate the book as thoroughly as they do the books of Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis, who, consciously or unconsciously, promoted their orthodox Toryism in everything they wrote. While there is an argument for the reactionary nature of the books, they are certainly deeply conservative and strongly anti-urban, which is what leads some to associate them with a kind of Wagnerish hitlerism. I don't think these books are 'fascist', but they certainly don't exactly argue with the 18th century enlightened Toryism with which the English comfort themselves so frequently in these upsetting times. They don't ask any questions of white men in grey clothing who somehow have a handle on what's best for us.

© Michael Moorcock.

London born Michael Moorcock is one of the most prominent, prolific and popular writers in the Western world. As the editor of New Worlds, Moorcock was a primary motivation behind the 1960s "New Wave" literary movement. His prodigious output includes rock songs, comics, screenplays, essays, and over seventy novels. Perhaps best known for his interlocking heroic fantasy series, Moorcock's recurring characters include Elric, Corum, Dorian Hawkmoon, Jerry Cornelius, the Eternal Champion and others. A multiple winner of the British Fantasy Award, Michael has won the Guardian Fiction Award (The Condition Of Muzak), the World Fantasy Award (Gloriana), the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (Gloriana), Nebula Award (Behold The Man) and was a finalist for the Whitbread Prize (Mother London). He currently lives with his wife Linda in Lost Pines, TX. His work can also be found at newworldsmagazine.com.

Illustrations are © Doug Potter.


 

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