Sunday, December 22, 2013

Tolkien and Moral Complexity

The Boston Sunday Globe has an article in its Ideas section by Ed Power (behind the paywall) today called "What Tolkien Didn't Do". The article is concerned with making the point that Tolkien is not truly the father of modern fantasy (the author has in mind works like Game of Thrones).  The argument is that modern fantasy owes more to the pulp fiction of the 20's and 30's than to Tolkien.

It's clear along the way that the author is not a big fan of Tolkien (guilty of "plodding" prose), and in particular what he thinks of as the simplistic moral universe of Tolkien. Tolkien has an "old-fashioned sense of moral certainty" and his failings include "prudishness, his sometimes archaic prose, and his Boy Scout characters." Power much prefers the grittier worlds of pulp fiction: "A cesspool of inequity [sic - does he mean iniquity?], populated with feuding guilds, conspiratorial cults, and cutthroats lying in wait. Lankhmar feels vividly alive in a way Middleearth arguably never does. You can almost smell the exotic spices, the open gutters, the freshly spilled blood."

I'm not concerned with whether Tolkien truly is the father of modern fantasy, but I would dispute the common presumption that "gritty" fiction is somehow more realistic than the allegedly simplistic fiction of a writer like Tolkien. Ultimately, it involves the mistake of thinking that vice is more real than virtue. But Boy Scouts, whether or not Power has a use for them, are after all real people. And as philosophers since Plato have argued, vice cannot be more real than virtue (or evil than good), because both vice and evil are parasitic on virtue and the good. The feuding guilds, conspiratorial cults and cutthroats of Lankhmar are only possible because somewhere else in that universe are good, ordinary (and, from the sophisticated perspective of Power, boring) people tending the crops, spinning the wool, minding the shops and raising the children. Without the latter the former would soon starve to death. But the latter can get on quite well without the former, in fact better without them, which is why the classical philosophers understood that good is more fundamental, and real, than evil - even if modern pulp writers prefer not to show the goodness on which their worlds depend.

Tolkien was not afraid to show it. The difference between Tolkien and the pulp writers preferred by Power is not the presence of conspiratorial cults and cutthroats in the one and their absence in the other.  Middle Earth has its cult of Saruman and its conspiracies (Grima Wormtongue). The difference is rather the location of the moral center of the story. In  The Lord of The Rings the moral center is The Shire, the pastoral home of the Hobbits inspired by the English countryside of Tolkien's youth (a real place, after all). The Shire is real, perhaps the most real place in Middle Earth (except, perhaps Rivendell), and it is rather evil places like the Mines of Moria and Mordor that suffer a murky reality in comparison. The story has morally complex characters (like Boromir) but there is never any doubt that some things are truly good and others truly evil - and "there is some good in this world, and it is worth fighting for" (Sam Gamgee).

Contemporary writers like Power find such moral certainty unsophisticated- or "old-fashioned." The use of "old-fashioned" as a criticism is revealing, however, as it is nothing other than an historical conceit. Surely the relevant question regarding moral certainty is whether it is true or false, not whether it is old-fashioned, for if moral certainty is possible, would it not remain stable over time? What's really going on is that Power find's Tolkien's description of goodness boring (thus the "plodding") and wants to dismiss it without doing the work to substantively address it, and what easier way to do that than to dismiss it in terms of the calendar.

But Power never addresses the fact that Tolkien has an enduring permanence that his favorite pulp writers do not. The Lord of the Rings is a work beloved by more than just fantasy nerds. And that is because the pulp works provide a certain superficial thrill, but having no moral center - and you can't have one without moral certainty - they have no depth and no staying power. Men may dabble with the fun of the gutter or conspiracies, but what they really want is to come home - to the Shire.