‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Huh. What Is It Good For?


I've been pondering war and literature and I’m struck by something which I'd like to lay out here in thinking-aloud blogrambling stylee. The specific context for this thinking is ‘First World War Literature’, which I’m teaching this term, but before I get to the specifics of that iteration of ‘war literature’ I’m trying to get my parade-ground ducks in a row on the larger question. There are—or, perhaps I’m being too hasty: say there seem to be—some general things on which we can agree. Not all novels, after all, are about war. Quite a lot of literature is about other stuff. The Iliad and War and Peace and The Red Badge of Courage are about war, yes, but Clarissa and Middlemarch and Our Mutual Friend aren't. Henry V is a play about war but As You Like It isn’t. Still, that the Iliad remains one of the single greatest achievements of human literature cannot be separated out from the fact that it is a war story. Its magnificence is intimately bound-up with its apperception of war as tragically noble, or nobly tragic, war as the idiom of strength and grace and kleos.



So: to turn to Paul Fussell’s celebrated argument that the literature of WW1 effected the shift from the authentic, holistic, traditional modes of Edwardian writing, via the disillusionment occasioned by actual experience of industrialised warfare, to the fragmentary styles of Modernism and Postmodernism. Fussell argues that pre-1914 and in a few early cases (like Rupert Brooke) in 1914 and 1915 people reacted to war in ways that were authentic and holistic; they were sincerely patriotic, genuinely committed to the cause and so on. But, according to Fussell, the experience of the war itself was so dislocating that writers soon lost their ingenuousness and became ironic, either satirically so like Siegfried Sassoon, or more formally and experimentally so, like Rosenberg and David Jones.

Fussell's thesis is that 1914-18 was the hinge from, broadly, a consensus that war was a matter of patriotism, manliness and bravery to a consensus that War is Hell. The narrator of Tennyson's Maud (1855) is saved from madness and guilt by resolving to join the army and go to war: a healthful, self-sacrificing, manly and noble action, or so the poem insists. We don't write about war like that any more. All war literature is anti-war literature nowadays, to one degree or another, because nowadays we take it as axiomatic that war is trauma, catastrophe, a horror-show, a plague (Saint-Exupéry spoke from first-hand experience when he said: ‘la guerre n'est pas une aventure. La guerre est une maladie. Comme le typhus’). In Apocalypse Now war is a nightmarish and phantasmagoric bad trip. In The Deer Hunter war is a neverending game of Russian roulette. In Full Metal Jacket war is a process of systematic and monstrous depersonalisation. In Saving Private Ryan war is that from which people must be rescued, and in the related, Spielberg-produced TV series The Pacific war is a brutal, prolonged test of individual endurance. When the Judge in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is asked why war endures he answers: ‘it endures because young men love it and old men love it in them’. But the Judge is, in effect, the Devil and him saying this isn’t at all the same thing as being invited to admire swift-footed Achilles or young Henry leading the charge through the breach in Harfleur’s walls. How we think about war has changed.

And yet we still make war. Funny, that.

But wait a moment: I'm misrepresenting matters by concentrating on mimetic war texts. What about Fantasy? Lord of the Rings is a war story. It is, in point of fact, a hugely popular war story—the novel of the century according to some critics—that refuses to fracture itself formally or stylistically, refuses to ironize war à la Fussell. Tolkien, like Saint-Exupéry (and like Fussell) had first-hand experience of how horrific war could be, and yet his war story embodies a martial ethic and aesthetic closer to Henry V or Homer than to Hemingway or James Jones.

The interesting thing here is not identifying Lord of the Rings as a war novel (of course it is a war novel). The interesting thing is noting that it is a Fantasy novel and then asking: are such novels ever not war novels? I’m really struggling to think of counterexamples. All those post-Tolkien commercial Fantasy doorstops—they’re all war novels, all of them, bulletins from the great war between Good and Evil. They’re written in imitation of Tolkien, by the Stephen Donaldsons and Tad Williamses of this world, or else written in reaction against him—with a bittersweet and deliberate decadence of affect in the case of Moorcock’s many Fantasy war stories, or with a self-conscious ‘grimdark’ Machiavellian cynicism in the case of George R R Martin’s endless war novel A Song of Fire and Ice. To write Epic Fantasy is to write war literature. But why should that be? Where is the Epic Fantasy Middlemarch or the Epic Fantasy Twelfth Night? There's an argument that Lord of the Rings is also pastoral; so why does modern-day Fantasy never inhabit that mode? Why is it always war?

To approach an answer we need to sketch a definition of war, and any such definition is going to have to situate itself on the spectrum with Nietzsche (let's say) at one end and Gandhi at the other. In the middle we might find Clausewitz, and his argument that war is something in which human beings sometimes engage. It has rules, it invites good or bad strategizing, but it only happens when other modes of international relations have exhausted themselves. ‘Der Krieg ist eine bloße Fortsetzung der Politik mit anderen Mitteln’, he famously claimed: ‘war is merely the continuation of politics by other means.’ Nations use diplomats to negotiate, but these folk are only taken seriously by other nations because both parties known there are soldiers waiting in the background; that when diplomacy reaches an impasse the military will march in to compel what discussion could not agree. It’s cynical, or pragmatic, depending on your view, but it’s also proportionate. Clausewitz thought war was the proper business of a small group of professionals, something that happened from time to time, but no more than that.

Other thinkers have not been proportionate after this manner. Gandhi thought war without exception a hideous aberration that could be fought, non-violently, and abolished; Simone Weil thought Iliad a masterpiece but also a glimpse into Hell, a hideous vision of the world under the logic not of love or justice but of Force. Implicit in this vision is the sense—utopian, perhaps New Testamentarian—of a world in which the default is love, forgiveness and mercy and war has no place. Nietzsche, on the other hand, thought everything was war. For him war was both the manifest and latent nature of existence: nature red in tooth and claw, humans bashing their will-to-power antlers against other humans in an unending battle for supremacy, the ideal human form the blonde-beast Übermensch the soldierly human ideal (what was it ABBA sang? Über Trooper beams are gonna find me—). ‘Man is for war,’ Nietzsche said, ‘and woman is for the recreation of the warrior.’ Charming! Conan the Barbarian (another war movie) opens with a Nietzschean quotation: that which does not kill us makes us stronger. Nietzsche despised Christianity for its turn-the-other-cheek ethic as a ‘slave morality’, but Christianity, as Islam, has accommodated itself very well to war over the years. There’s no shortage of war in the Old Testament, after all. Paradise Lost contains Raphael’s account of the War in Heaven, but that’s because the whole poem sees life itself as a war, the cosmos entire shaped by war, between Good and Evil, between God and Satan. Everything we do is shaped by this war; it is what lies behind the veil of existence and is immanent in every aspect of our lives. Nor can we evade it: we must choose a side and do our duty.

And this, of course, is why Tolkien writes a war novel. It’s not because he was himself a soldier—or perhaps we should say: it’s not only because he was himself a soldier. It’s because he believes life is war, not in Nietzsche’s post-Darwinian homus homini lupus sense (perhaps he did believe that was the logic of the world, but he also believed that circumstance was a symptom of a more profound struggle, something going on behind the scenes of which man’s wolfishness was a secondary expression). For Tolkien the universe was a great, spiritual war, and art ought not only to reflect that, it ought to encourage to take our proper place in the struggle.

And the genre as a whole has followed him in this: either, with religiously informed writers from C S Lewis through to Robert Jordan and Branden Sanderson because they share his cosmology; or because, despite opposing it, writers still choose to combine a Machiavellian or Nietzschean realpolitik worldview with the formal constraints of Tolkien's genre. The result is the same, either way. Fantasy novels are all war novels.

We can go further. Even such modern Fantasy books as stress the horror of war, and define themselves in opposition to Tolkien's idealism, do so via a pre-1914 anteFussellian de-ironized mode of representation. If Martin's Westeros (say) is defined by realpolitik it is at least genuinely and authentically defined by realpoilitik, at least in the way Martin tells it. Of course it's violent and distressing. So's the Iliad. The deal here is not about pretending that war isn't violent; it's about finding a way of writing about war that isn't ironized and fragmented. How often do Heroic Fantasies deploy any of Modernism's fractured textual strategies in their storytelling? Why does nobody write a story about a Fantasy war in the style of Dos Passos? Inconceivable! Heroic Fantasy takes the disintegration of war on the same literal level as did Homer, on the level of bodies, and not on the formal stylistic or conceptual level like so many of the writers who survived (or didn't) World War One.

Perhaps I'm getting all this the wrong way round. Maybe the case is not that contemporary Heroic Fantasy happens to be about war, but that a particular mode of representing war entails Fantasy. That people who want to write about war in the old style turn to Fantasy to allow themselves to do it: pre-industrial worlds are, after all, pre-industrialised-war worlds: they are worlds set avant la première guerre mondiale. Maybe the point is less pseudo-historical curiosity and more a desire to rewind the possibilities of war representation, to de-ironize and re-authentize the way novels tell stories about combat. And perhaps that's connected with the question, which I've chewed on in this blog a couple of times previously (here for example), of the way the fundamentally Christian frame of Tolkien's Fantasy and Lewis's Fantasy still inform a mode in which most of the writers are not Christian. What was that you were saying, Cormac? It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way… It is the testing of one's will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is god.

---

[Coda. 21st Jan 2019]: I shared a link to this blogpost over on facebook and that link occasioned a good deal of fb kick-back against my ideas, some of which is echoed in the comments below. I'm sure I haven’t expressed myself very well, here (although it’s also possible that my ideas are crap). At any rate, I’m adding a brief explicatory coda, despite the fact that doing so violates the ‘never apologise, never explain’ code of core Englishness. So.

Let’s put our collective finger on two candidates for ‘novel of the [20th] century’: Ulysses and Lord of the Rings. They’re often opposed, the stuffy ‘high culture’ text and the popular culture fan-favourite. I understand this, although it’s also always struck me as a bit ... well, crazy actually. How can we oppose them when they're basically the same thing? They’re two big Catholic novels full of invention and power and fascinated by basically the same things—legends and their relationship to the ordinary (the bourgeois, the mundane), language and the play of language—but I understand that people don’t tend to think of them that way. I sympathise, because I admire Ulysses but I love Lord of the Rings.

How might we think about the difference in reputation? Academics love Joyce but actual people love Tolkien; Ulysses is experimental and difficult, fractured and tricky to apprehend; Lord of the Rings tells a fantastical story in a traditional way: a linear narrative, likeable rounded characters, a prose style that aims for clarity and comprehensibility, and above all a coherent, holistic world-building vision.

So what I’m trying to do in this post is to come at this old chestnut from a different angle. One of the things Fussell argues in his Great War and Modern Memory book is that the war, and literary responses to the war, effected a change in the idiom of literature itself. Literary Modernism was (make-it-new, fractured, ironized and so on) a response to the trauma of the war, but it was also an attempt to get beyond the war. It's not just the fact that Tolkien wrote his fantasy in a traditionalist idiom, but the fact that it connected with so many people, that reflects a reaction against that impulse. This in turn has to do by what we mean when we talk about ‘war literature’ as such. So, to go back to what I argue in the post, LotR is a war novel in the sense that it is about a specific war (between orcs and men/elves, let’s say) but also in the sense that it is written out of a particular worldview that sees the cosmos itself as defined by war (between God and the Devil; between Good and Evil). Fantasy written in the Tolkienian and post-Tolkienian mode is very often war literature in the first of these senses and almost always in the second. That such fantasy is also almost stands, formally and stylistically, as if Modernism had never happened is not coincidental. Or that, at least, is what I’m arguing.

I daresay the way in which I notated all this (to myself and in over-telegraphed manner, which is I don’t doubt lazy of me) was liable to provoke the impulse to name counter-examples. Fair enough. A Wizard of Earthsea isn’t a war novel in the first sense, but the Earthsea series imagines a world divided between opposing forces, our heroes and the pale skinned Atuans, humans and dragon, the living and the dead (The Other Wind, not wholly unlike A Song of Fire and Ice, is about a war between the living and the dead). And so on. Two grace notes. One is Gene Wolfe’s Torturer books, which I readily concede are more (perhaps rather self-consciously) Modernist in styling—and which are, of course, very significant works of contemporary Fantasy. I’ll need to come to terms with them of course, although for now I’ll note that Wolfe, like Cormac McCarthy, sees the cosmos as a battlefield—sees, that is, combat as existentially constitutive of being. Homo homini lupus, and all that. Two is Pratchett. Now, some Discworld novels are war novels (Jingo, Monstrous Regiment) but many aren’t, and since the series as a whole is one of the most widely read and loved iterations of Fantasy of the last 50 years it could be seen as falsfifying the argument I'm trying to make. I wonder (tentatively) if we could put it this way: Discworld starts out as a satire on Fantasy tropes, much as Sassoon (say) writes Rupert Brooke-style well-made-poems but swaps out their point for his bitter and barbed satirical attacks. But as the series goes on the specific satire falls away, Pratchett falls in love with his creation and it grows into something much more holistic and coherent, warts and all.

Too long, didn’t read: it's not merely adventitious that the Homeric poem upon which Joyce built Ulysses was the homecoming Odyssey, rather than the wargoing Iliad.

Monday, 31 December 2018

Blaked Meats



Tyger tyger burning bright
In the forests of the night
I watch thee with anguish. Sir?
Fetch a fire extinguisher!

As the firemen aimed their hose
Where the plume of smoke arose
Did they smile this work to see?
Did he who made Roast Lamb make thee?

Tyger, have we come too late?
Art thou carved upon this plate?
What immortal hand or eye,
Adds Garlic and some Rosemary?

Tyger Tyger in my tum
With this glass of Sauvignon
I salute your fiery soul!
Now: for a profiterole.

Thursday, 27 December 2018

Arthuriana, Fantastica, Eschatology and suchlike polysyllables




Long ago I wrote a book about contemporary Arthurian Fantasy—that is to say, about all the post-WW2 stuff, of which there’s a ton. The context was that, back in the 1990s at RHUL, I used to co-teach a course on Arthurian Literature with my colleague, medievalist Professor Ros Field. Ros taught Term 1 on Medieval Arthurian romance (up to Malory), and I taught Term 2 on the Victorian Arthurian revival (Matthew Arnold, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Morris, Swinburne, Pre-Raphaelite art) and into the 20th-century—T H White, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Monty Python, Rick Wakeman, all sorts.

My interest in the topic predated this course. The truth is I’ve long been fascinated by the legends of King Arthur, something that goes all the way back to a teenage passion fostered by reading Geoffrey Ashe, seeing Boorman’s Excalibur and then discovering Tennyson. (I’d still make the case that Tennyson doesn’t get enough prosodic credit for what he does with blank verse in the Idylls). The book I wrote about the 20th-C Arthurian florescence was not very good, I'm sorry to say. I gave it the title Silk and Potatoes because one of its main arguments was about the way these texts use anachronism: their notionally dark ages peasants all scoffing potatoes, their aristocrats swanning around in silk. I’m not defending myself, mind. It’s a ghastly title, and it is a mercy that the book has now all-but ceased to exist. Even I don’t own it; the author copies I got from the publisher I gave away to friends/students years ago. A small-print-run obscure academic work: you can’t put your hands on a copy now for love nor money, I’m pleased to say.


Anyway bygones be bygones. Recently I've been thinking once again about the appeal of Arthuriana (there is of course a significant overlap between Arthurian Fantasy and Commercial Fantasy of the Tolkien and post-Tolkien variety, more broadly conceived), and something has occurred to me about this form that I didn't realise before, something to do with the reason why King Arthur has appealed so very much, and in the particular ways he does, to the British. And this belated realisation about Arthuriana has implications for how I'm currently thinking about Fantasy fiction more generally.

So: there are plenty of medieval Romances that include Arthur, in English and French, legends in which he is one of the seven worthies, along with Charlemagne, Roland and so on. Fun for all the medieval-romance-reading family: battles, quests, courtly love. But after the medieval period Arthurian legend falls pretty much into cultural desuetude until (there’s been a fair bit of scholarship on this) it comes roaring back into popularity in the 19th-century: Arnold’s Tristram and Iseult, Morris’s Defence of Guenevere, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Wagner’s Tristram und Isolde. This second flourishing of Arthuriana is, inarguably, a significant cultural phenomenon in its own right, as well as something that—it seems to me, obviously—pays forward in significant ways into the next century’s big boom in Fantasy.

To be a little more specific: the latter has to do with a handful of elements on which modern Arthurian fantasy particularly focus: specifically, the return of the king (rex quondam, rexque futurus with a special focus on the latter); the Holy Grail; and Arthur as an English rather than a Continental king. In the medieval Arthurian romances Arthur conquers the whole continent, and his knights are as much French chivalric ideals (Lancelot du Lac: check the surname) as anything else. Recent versions of the story aren’t interested in that. Nowadays Arthur is almost always pointedly English, defending England against incursion from pagan Saxons.

Step back to an earlier piece of Arthuriana. There's a 1962 Frank Kermode essay on Spenser [collected in Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne: Renaissance Essays, 1971] that argues readers misunderstand the allegory of The Faerie Queene by failing to grasp how, for Spenser and his audience, myth, history and religion braid together. In particular, according to Kermode, Spenser's poem expressed a distinctly English Protestantism, one where Una is ‘the True Church’, Prince Arthur the secular true knight and Redcross the true knight of faith. For Kermode the important thing is the breadth, as it were, of Una’s signification, premised on ‘the claim that English Christianity was older than the Roman church.’ Renaissance Anglicans considered this claim—that Anglicanism predated Catholicism, and was the true and aboriginal version of Christianity as such—to be historically as well as theologically true. ‘All the apologists of the Settlement made the appeal to history as a matter of course’:
Whoever agreed that the English was the true catholic church had to think of her history as beginning not with the convulsions of Henry VIII’s reign, but … with the arrival in England of Joseph of Arimathea. For Christianity came here not from Rome, but from the East; and Una is descended from kings and queens whose ‘scepters stretcht from East to Westerne shore’ [Fairie Queene, 1.5] … but ‘this catholic unity did not long continue’ says Foxe—thanks, of course, to the papacy. And Foxe enables us to recognise in Spenser’s text the features of certain especially guilty popes who were the progenitors of Duessa. [Kermode, 17]
This is the context in which Spenser’s fantasy worldbuilding and allegorical signifying is best understood: ‘Rome has divided the world and exiled the catholic church. Who will restore and re-establish it?’
The right and duty of restoring the Church to her pre-Hildebrandine purity (Canterbury independent of Rome, the sacrament administered in both kinds to the laity, no transubstantiation, proper respect for Romans 13) belonged to the heiress of Empire, to Elizabeth, whom Spenser in the dedication of his poem calls ‘most high, mightie and magnificent Empresse.’
This is the reason contemporary Arthurian Fantasy makes such a big deal of the quest for the holy grail—a feature (of course) of medieval and Maloryian texts, but not the central or defining episode the way it later becomes. And I’m interested in this because it seems to me to centrally to inform important aspects of contemporary Fantasy. This, in other words, is what is at stake in a commitment to English Arthurianism: the direct line of Christ's ‘true’ church from Jerusalem to Glastonbury, via Joseph of Arimathea: Eden relocated to Avalon, Christian transcendence specified as an English topographic intensity.

Joachim of Fiore is, it seems, important this larger story. People, from medieval thinkers to seventeenth-century radicals were captivated by the thought that the first two of the three ages ordained by God (a ‘Father’ age, a ‘Son’ age and a ‘Holy Spirit’ age) were completed, and the time for the tertium status was at hand. Various critics have stressed the important Joachim’s weird cyclical historiography and ‘eternal evangel’ theology has been to the later development of Western society— Erich Vögelin isn’t messing about when he asserts ‘Joachim created the aggregate of symbols which govern the self-interpretation of modern political society to this day’ [Vögelin, New Science of Politics (1951)]. The four symbols Vögelin specifically identifies are: (1) a ‘third age’, which Vögelin reads into the third positive stadium of Auguste Comte and the Third Reich of the Nazis. (2) a leader or ‘Fuhrer’ who shows the people the way into the third age (3) an inspired Gnostic prophet. (4) a new order of a spiritual community.

The connection with Fascism can’t be ignored, and the fascistic political logic of much commercial Fantasy certainly shouldn't be brushed under the carpet: the valorisation of the warrior-king, the conflation of politics and magic, the emphatic racialisation of the built world. Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (2nd ed 1993) explores in detail the throughline connecting Joachimites to what he calls ‘modern Nietzschean primitivists and their elite of amoral supermen’ and so on to the Nazi revival of a medievalist chiliast known as the Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine. Kermode quotes Ruth Kestenberg-Gladstein’s theory that ‘Third Reich’ was a translation of Joachim’s tertius status. Lenin and Hitler both, according to Cohn, knowingly ‘secularised and revived’ traditions of apocalyptic fanaticism to serve their own political ends. ‘There are aspects of Nazism and Communism alike,’ he notes, ‘that are incomprehensible, barely conceivable even, to those whose political assumptions and norms are provided by liberal society’ [Cohn, 288]. Very important truth, there; and one that can be restated, in more watery form, by saying: Fantasy, and its idioms of magic and myth, because they are not rational, can never really be liberal, and so are structurally (ideologically) simply more compatible with fascism. I mean, I love all this stuff, and pointing this out is painful to me, but there we are. The dangerous charisma of the warrior-saviour shines in almost every classic example of the mode.

We’re at that dangerous intersection where history blurs into—or is deliberately confused with—myth. As Kermode puts it:
Arthur is not merely a Tudor ancestor, not merely a mirror of that chivalry which preserves the virtues in a troubled time, but also a Tudor version of that ancient eschatological dream, the Emperor of the Last Days. [Kermode, 21]
The eschatological emphasis is particular striking, I think. The question could be framed this way: is Fantasy, as a mode, eschatological? A short answer might be: in a fairly complicated way, yes it is. I’d need a space longer than a blogpost to unpack all the ways in which it is. Wagner’s Ring is, straightforwardly, about the end of the world; Lord of the Rings is set at the end of the Third Age, as the world of magic and wonder the novel construes is dying, and its main storyline is an apocalyptic war to end wars (‘I am glad you are here with me,’ Frodo tells him companion, as Mount Doom spews its cataclysmic lava. ‘Here at the end of all things, Sam.’) in Westeros the dead have declared war on the living, and winter is coming. So there’s an end-of-the-world vibe at play, certainly. The wrinkle is that Tolkien adds-in a new terminus to the Götterdämmerung-y protoype: the eucatastrophe—something so widely copied in subsequent popular culture that it has now become a cliché. (The more I think about it, the more intriguingly problematic the eucatastrophe becomes. I'll say more about that in a moment).

Lord of the Rings, it seems to me, owes much to this English tradition. And there’s one other element which is important here. The religio-political discourse that frames Spenser’s epic is one deeply suspicious of the Papacy for political as well as theological reasons. One last quotation from Kermode:
The most insistent of all [Protestant] complaints against the papal antichrist is, probably, that which concerns the usurpation. Thus Foxe, like Luther, is always on the emperor’s side against the pope, and, like John Jewel, holds that the emperor has the power to call General Councils and the right to exact temporal obedience from the Bishop of Rome; an argument of great importance to the English. [Kermode, 17]
Now, Tolkien was of course a Catholic; but he also self-identified as intensely English, and there are certainly ways in which the broader cultural assumptions of English politicotheology feed into his legendarium, and so through him into late 20th-C early 21st-C commercial Fantasy more generally. Spenser posits two knights, Arthur and Redcrosse, because he believes the secular knight and the knight of faith are both equally needful in the battle against the antichrist. Tolkien divides his anti-Sauron labour between his quondam-et-futuris king Aragorn on the one hand, and Gandalf, an Istar (a kind of angel) on the other, for related reasons. The Tolkienian eucatastrophe is a theological device rather than a plot-trick to toy with our emotions. It is a way of saying that our individual mortality (our human deaths, as functions of our human sinfulness) is brilliantly if unexpectedly redeemed in Christ, such that although it looks like we are doomed and continues looking like we are doomed until the very last moment, in that lastness lies the possibility for doom to be miraculously averted. As for the individual, so for the whole: the gloom of Pagan dying, and the severity of the Old Testament version of the Law, is unexpectedly transformed into mercy by the coming of Christ.

Slavoj Žižek somewhere says of contemporary culture's passion for apocalypsēs, that we find it easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of Capitalism. There's something in that, although it might be closer to the truth to say that it is the very immanence of capitalism today that means we imagine every end as the end of the world. Capitalism, the reduction of everything, including subjectivity, to the cash-nexus, is the apotheosis of a kind of super-charged narcissicism, and one of the features of the common-or-garden narcissist is that s/he finds it genuinely hard to imagine the world will continue after they have ceased to be. I mean, how can it? I'm reminded of a recent bulletin from Donald Trump's White House, where we learn D.T. is perfectly unconcerned by the stored-up disasters of such policy decisions as massively raising the US deficit, just as he is unbothered by non-policy facts-of-life like climate change, because he knows he personally won't be around to have to face them. That's the characteristic psychopathology of the modern world in a nutshell: I'll be dead before this comes to pass, therefore this won't ever come to pass. And this, I sometimes think, is the nature of twenty-first century eschatology. It inheres in this realisation, denied and suppressed though it be: the tragedy is not I am going to die; it’s that even though I am going to die the world will carry on. All these endless cultural recyclings of world's-end, meteors smashing into Earth, ice or fire wiping out humanity, viruses picking the cities clean and leaving us nothing but rolling green fields and a hare sitting up—what these really signify is our variegated resentments, imaginatively projecting our punishment onto a cosmos that cruelly insists on remaining after we have shuffled off our mortal coil.

What we're yearning for, with all this imaginative evil-eyeing of the cosmos, is something larger than ourselves; a sense of continuity with the land that predates and therefeore will survive us. A belonging. And so we're coming back around to the handsomely mounted cine-fascism of Boorman's Excalibur, and more broadly to the fascistic logic manifested by so many contemporary Fantasy novels. Boorman's Perceval retrieves the Holy Grail (the magic trophy uniting political leadership, English patriotism and mystic Christianity) by identifying it as Arthur. ‘What is the truth I have forgotten?’ the grail/king booms at him out of a gleaming dream-castle, and Perceval replies: ‘you and the land are one’ (he is echoing a moment earlier in the movie: ‘you will be the land, and the land will be you,’ Merlin barks at young Arthur when he first becomes king. ‘If you fail, the land will perish; as you thrive, the land will blossom’). At the movie's end Perceval returns the grail to the now elderly and ailing monarch and instructs him: ‘drink from the chalice and you will be reborn and the land with you.’ Even without all the visual splendor and Wagner blaring majestically out of the soundtrack, it could hardly be more straightforwardly fascistic, and one of its unarticulated implications is that, by this logic, the death of the monarch (the king, the President, the emperor-reader in command of his/her favourite imaginative fantasy) is the death of the world, quite literally.



The larger question is the extent to which this strange confabulation of king-and-land-are-one mystic nationalism, rewiring of Christianity to make it an English rather than a Middle Eatern religion and eucatastrophic tinkering with mortality in the service of (to adapt Robert O. Paxton's definition of fascist belief fro, 2004's Anatomy of Fascism) a ceremonial affirmation and conformity reconfiguring relations between the individual and the collectivity so as to erase the difference between the two qualities—the extent that all this informs Fantasy as such, rather than just being a description of Tolkienian Fantasy, is too spacious a question to cover effectively here, I think. And as for the question of why this peculiarly English religio-mythology has migrated so far out of specifically English contexts to become a strand of world culture (since this kind of Fantasy is globally popular): well that's also a large and puzzling question, larger, indeed, than Tolkien (I talk about it a bit here, or at least I ask the question). It's there, up to a point, in the Faerie Queene, hidden in plain sight behind the more trivial allegorical mode of the poem, where (to quote Mary Thomas Crane) ‘allegory repeatedly breaks down into more complex and confusing figures like metaphor.’ It's because this is a function of the poem's worldbuilding, I think, that it says something about Fantasy as a whole: ‘throughout the Fairie Queene Spenser presents us with a world—landscape and characters—which, he repeatedly tells us, ought to be intelligible but rarely is’, Crane, Losing Touch With Nature: Literature and the New Science in 16th-Century England (Johns Hopkins University Press 2015), 101-02]. We could say something similar about Middle Earth, Narnia, Westeros. It's integral to the mode.




A postscript on Curiosity

One thing upon which Tolkienists agree is that The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory. ‘We’ know this because Tolkien specifies that it is not, and ‘we’ are far too mistrustful of the whole Author-is-Dead gubbins to contradict him. ‘I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence’ he announces, rather haughtily, in the novel's preface. Some had suggested that the The Lord of the Rings was an allegory of the Second World War, a reading Tolkien denied, although—interestingly—this was a denial offered not on grounds of applicability as such but rather of the inappositeness of the fit:
The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-Dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied. Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth. In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves.
Tolkien's point is not that The Lord of the Rings exists in some hermeneutically sealed-away bubble by which it signifies only itself, but rather that its broader relevance works according to the right sorts of decoding. The problem is not allegory as such but of too narrowly-conceived an allegory. ‘Of course my story is not an allegory of Atomic power,’ he wrote to a friend in the later 50s, ‘but of Power (exerted for domination)’ [Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (1995) 246]. We could put it this way: Tolkien's Fantasy means, in extra-textual and complex ways, because he believed the world as such had been created to mean, in extramundial and complex ways (Robert Browning's famous lines: ‘this world's no blot for us,/Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good’). Kermode distinguishes between the trivial or obvious allegories of Fairie Queene and the more involved, opaque and complex allegories, and there's something similar at work in Lord of the Rings, I think.

A model might be the Bible itself. Parables have simple morals, to be more-or-less straightforwardly deduced, and more complex interpretations, some of which may strike us as counter-intuitive or even rebarbative. Biblical legends figure as actual events, such that if one is a believer one may believe that Satan literally appeared to Christ in the desert and tempted him; but also as exemplary stories and allegories of deeper spiritual truths. Another and much more influential Frank Kermode book, The Genesis of Secrecy (1980), explores this topic rather brilliantly as a way-in to the reading of narrative as such. Kermode is particularly fascinated by what he calls the double function as parables, something he defines as their ‘simultaneous proclamation and concealment’, feed through into very similar ‘hermeneutic ambivalences’ in a whole range of non-Biblical narratives. [Kermode, 47]

The Lord of the Rings is, importantly amongst the various things it is, a book about sin, as Tolkien understood that concept. The one ring figures primarily as a sort of temptation-mcguffin, and only secondarily as an artefact in the internally-consistent worldbuilding of Middle Earth. Indeed, in the latter sense there are ... problems (I mean, how, exactly does it work? How exactly would one ‘use’ the ring to cobquer the world, say? Do you need actually to own the ring to be corrupted by it, or not? And so on). But in the former sense Tolkien has created something genuinely memorable and effective.

Sin. In his commentary on Psalm 8, Saint Augustine insists that there are three kinds of sin (‘namely, the pleasures of the flesh, of pride and curiosity’) that in themselves contain all sin:
Now these three kinds of vice, namely, the pleasure of the flesh, and pride, and curiosity, include all sins. And they appear to me to be enumerated by the Apostle John, when he says, Love not the world; for all that is in the world is the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. 1 John 2:15-16 For through the eyes especially prevails curiosity. To what the rest indeed belong is clear. And that temptation of the Lord Man was threefold: by food, that is, by the lust of the flesh, where it is suggested, command these stones that they be made bread: Matthew 4:3 by vain boasting, where, when stationed on a mountain, all the kingdoms of this earth are shown Him, and promised if He would worship: Matthew 4:8-9 by curiosity, where, from the pinnacle of the temple, He is advised to cast Himself down, for the sake of trying whether He would be borne up by Angels. Matthew 4:6 And accordingly after that the enemy could prevail with Him by none of these temptations, this is said of him, When the devil had ended all his temptation. Luke 4:13 [Augustine Enarrationes in Psalmos: Exposition of the Book of Psalms (transl Tweedy, Scratton and Wilkins 1847) 1:70]
It was a common-enough Renaissance attitude (Lancelot Andrewes: ‘under these three heads come all temptations’; The Wonderfull Combate Between Christ and Satan [1592], 23) although it strikes a strange note by modern standards to see curiosity singled out like that. We are, I suppose, more likely nowadays to see curiosity as a positive, and indeed as the crucial virtue shared by the scientist and the creative artist. Not so traditional church teaching. It is one of the ways that Lord of the Rings is really quite an old-fashioned book that it takes the Augustinian line here. The most ‘curious’ individual in the novel is, perhaps, Saruman, who uses his gifts and skills to peek and pry into the mysteries of nature, to build all manner of curious devices and generally to make the world a worse place. Gandalf, by contrast is wise rather than curious, and part of Tolkien's point is to encourage us to reflect on the ways those two terms not only aren't the same thing but are actually mutually exclusive.

This line of thought, indeed, leads me to wonder about the ways we fans have, in effect, failed Tolkien's test. Temptation exists in the world for us to measure our powers of resistance against. Boromir, for example, is led astray by his pride and fails the test the ring represents. But the novel itself embodies a manifest temptation to a particular sort of fan: it gives us glimpses, in song and allusion, to a deep past lying behind the story's now. It teases us with bits and pieces in imaginary languages. We could, if we chose, simply take those things as they are offered, and enjoy the affect (let's say: awe, wonder, whatever the opposite of vertigo is) they generate in us. But we don't. We are overwhelmed by our curiosity, and become positively Sarumanic in our eagerness to winkle out all the myriad trivial details of that past, constructing for ourselves elaborate textual machines to that effect. I mean, look at me: I'm doing it now! I'd better stop.

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Reviews Round-up 2018



I've reviewed a few 2018 books and films on this blog and thought it might be worthwhile to post links to them here. For, that is, a latitudinous definition of worthwhile. At any rate, you know the deal with me, I'm sure. Most of what follows are not so much conventional reviews (I've written a bunch of those for various outlets this year too) so much an more-or-less prolix and rambling essays on subjects that interest me.

Books:  R F Kuang, The Poppy War (HarperVoyager 2018)

Madeline Miller, Circe (Bloomsbury UK 2018)

Christopher Priest, An American Story (Gollancz 2018)

Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Moon (HarperCollins 2018)

Andrzej Sapkowski, Season of Storms (Gollancz 2013/2018)

J R R Tolkien, The Fall of Gondolin (HarperCollins 2018)


Films and TV: Ready Player One (dir Steven Spielberg, 2018)

Black Panther (dir Ryan Coogler, 2018)

Doctor Who (BBC 1983-2018)

Monday, 17 December 2018

Tangerine Dream, "Finnegans Wake" (2011)



I own quite a bit of Tangerine Dream, and often listen to it; but, I realise, nothing from the 21st century. So I had a look online and discovered (a) that their discography is now over 100 (!) titles long; and (b) that a few years ago they released an album based on Joyce's masterpiece of ludic incomprehensibility. This I have now purchased. And it's ... pretty good, actually. Here's the whole poppicking earwicking track-listing:
1 The Sensational Fall Of The Master Builder (9:03)
2 Finnegans Excessive Wake (8:14)
3 Resurrection By The Spirit (5:40)
4 Mother Of All Sources (8:54)
5 The Warring Forces Of The Twins (4:34)
6 Three Quarks For Muster Mark (6:17)
7 Everling's Mythical Letter (8:02)
8 Hermaphrodite (8:23)
The album sounds like 1970s-era Tangerine Dream: on-running baselines, throbbing riffs, a spacious top-end with airy wailing and odd noises. All instrumental. The opening track is redolent of a kind of electronic menace. There are some nicely chiming downward-scattery synthesiser arpeggios in 'Resurrection by the Spirit'. After its wrongfooting sloow-dow-ow-own and speed-up start 'Mother of All Sources' settles into a steady unmaternal chug. 'Warring Forces' is a bit meh, but the 'Three Quarks' track has a tremendous, spiralling energy. None of this seems to me to have anything very much to do with Irishness, death, drinking, punning or Everybody Here-Coming, but I'm not complaining. Indeed I think, on reflection, I'm glad they didn't try to incorporate Irish jigs and reels into their distinctive sound. Or bawdy gaelic songs. After all: who's to say that Finnegans Wake isn't actually about a group of German men in the 1970s exploring the sonic architecture of rhythmic repetition? It's as good an interpretation as any.

Friday, 14 December 2018

Tolkien and Race

[image from here]


Recently there have been a couple of new engagements with the vexed question of Tolkien and race (follow @Dr_Dimitra_Fimi on Twitter and read what she has to say, would be my advice). It's not a question that can be evaded. In common with many of his class and generation Tolkien’s imagination was shaped by assumptions it's hard to avoid calling racist.

So: his elves are, to modern sensibilities, rather alarmingly Aryan in conception: tall, slender Überelfen, literally a superior race, in notable (though not all) cases blonde-haired and blue-eyed: a caste of wise, authoritative warrior-artists with a mystic connection to the land. By the same token Tolkien's enemy races, from his pygmy goblins to his orcs and hulking uruk-hai, are manifestly racially othered: barbarous, ugly, dirty, savage, bow-legged and long-armed (simian, we might say), dark skinned ‘as if burned’. If that doesn’t sound orientalist enough, here’s a letter in which Tolkien describes orcs as ‘squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes’ [Carpenter, ed. Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (1981), p. 274]. And then there are the men of Middle Earth who, we could say, exemplify that structurally racist logic whereby characters whose race is not specified default, as it were, to whiteness—figures like Aragorn and Boromir are Tolkien’s version of medieval European princes, just as figures like Éowyn and Théoden are his versions of Anglo-Saxons. So: white. The appearance of Southron warriors out of the Harad allied with Sauron—Frodo and Sam see one of these geezers up close, and note his brown skin, braided black hair and scimitar—confirms, by the contrast, the Caucasian nature of Tolkien’s ‘men’.

There are several directions, critically speaking, we can go from here; but flat denial is not one of them. Tolkien is writing a fantasy in which he imaginatively projects a battle between Good and Evil onto the widescreen of his invented world, and he tends to conceptualise good as, broadly, white, and evil as, broadly, black—it’s light versus darkness, it’s cleanliness versus dirt, its purity versus contamination, it’s all those things generations of scholars have identified as the sort of conceptual binary that underpins systemic racism. And the emphasis on the systemic component of this is important. One needn’t believe that Tolkien was, himself, personally racist to critique the ways in which his writing reproduces and reinforces immanent attitudes and prejudices.

Take the dwarfs, or, as JRRT idiosyncratically insisted on pluralising that word, ‘dwarves’. Now dwarfs are, of course, figures from Germanic and Norse legend (yes) who appear in various Grimms’ tales (of course) and whose anti-Semitic cultural associations certainly predate Tolkien. But nonetheless here they are, popping up in bulk in The Hobbit, a novel published in 1937 at a time when anti-Semitism was in the process legally and officially of swallowing the whole of Continental Europe. Here they are, these big-nosed, bearded, strange, keep-themselves-to-themselves folk, living in underground tunnels and dens like vermin, devoting their energies to accumulating and hoarding money, pursuing their own mysterious rites and secret rituals. We might want to argue that staging a work as Fantasy gives its author a kind of plausible deniability (‘how can you say Jar Jar Binks is a racist stereotype! He’s an alien!’) but we can be grown-up about this. Tolkien's dwarfs are no more to be blithely acquitted of anti-Semitism than are C S Lewis’s Narnian dwarfs, those willing assistants to Jadis, those stubborn refuseniks when it comes to the manifest bounty of Aslan’s grace (even the Calormen, or at least some of them, come to accept Aslan’s grace as Narnia ends in The Last Battle, but not the Lewisian Jews: ‘Yah! The dwarfs are for the dwarfs!’ they yell, turning their backs on the heaven-of-heavens opening directly before them. ‘“You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is their own minds.”’) By the time we get to J K Rowling’s dwarfish goblins, hook-nosed crafty-eyed abstainers from the great battle of Dumbledoric good against Voldemortal evil who literally run the global banking system, the mask has slipped so far it’s lying on the floor.

But stop a moment. Lots of Englishmen were anti-Semitic to one degree or another in the 1930s (lots are today, still, alas) and Tolkien was intensely English, small-c conservative, traditional and Roman Catholic. That’s the core demographic, right, for this brand of prejudice? Maybe not, though. In 1938 Tolkien was approached by the publisher Rütten & Loening with a view to issuing a German translation of The Hobbit: potentially a very lucrative proposition at a time when Tolkien, with a young family and an ill-paying day-job, really needed the money. But there was a sticking point. Under the Nazi race laws, and considering Tolkien’s unusual surname, they needed an assurance that he wasn’t a Jew. So they wrote, asking him to confirm his Aryan heritage. His reply was rather magnificent:
I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject — which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.
(This particular draft of the letter may or may not have been sent, but it is splendid on any terms). The first German translation of The Hobbit didn't appear until long after: in 1957.

Let's go back to Middle Earth for a moment. If we're saying that in some sense Elves ‘are’ Aryans, Men Caucasians, Dwarfs Jews and Orcs Orientals/Blacks then what are hobbits? We could say ‘white’ (although I think I'm correct in saying the only colour-term associated with their skin is ‘brown’, as in sun-tanned: because, I suppose, they're so fond of being outdoors, gardening and walking and so on). But maybe a better way of talking about the semiology of Tolkien's hobbits is to stress not their race but their class. Uniquely, really, in all the peoples of Middle Earth Tolkien characterises hobbits by whether they are upper-middle-class, middle-class or working-class. When I first read The Lord of the Rings as a kid I suppose I assumed Frodo and Sam were just two friends on an adventure, but re-reading as an adult made clear what was obvious: Frodo is of a higher social class than Sam. Sam's not Frodo's servant in the sense that he's salaried staff, like Jeeves with Wooster; but he serves Frodo nonetheless, and Frodo is (in Gollum's phrase) master. All the comedy-of-manners stuff about the Sackville-Baggins's envious attitude to the Baggins's possessions, all the eighteenth-century gentlemanly attributes of Bilbo, and then of Frodo, situate this body of representation in a network of asumptions and unchallenged attitudes about class. I persist in insisting that nothing can be understood about any aspect of English culture or society without first understanding how completely Englishness is interpenetrated by bindweed constrictions of class and snobbery.

I'm not suggesting, of course, that class and race stand magically separate from one another. We need to think, to use the current term, intersectionally, of course. But I am suggesting that because the hobbits are Tolkien's closest approximation to Englishness (as he understood it) it's worth thinking about them is in terms of class in the first instance, and race secondarily. The contrast with the other scare-quotes ‘races’ of Middle Earth seems to me undeniable, and important. Consider the elves (of the field, they toil not neither do they etc). Tolkien's text really doesn't construe them into aristocratic elves, middle-class elves and a large population of solid working-class elvish peasantry. Even thinking about them in these terms seems absurd, somehow. They have their heirarchies of nobility and royalty, but in another sense all Tolkien's elves are aristocrats, because elves themselves are his legendarium's natural aristos. Does dwarf society divide into upper, middle and working-classes? Are there middle-class orcs? Of course not.

Push it a bit further. What ‘race’ is Gandalf? He looks like a man but he's not. He is in fact one of the Istari, supernatural entities sent—by whom is only vaguely intimated in the novels—into Middle Earth as messengers and guides. In one sense we can parse the Istari as angels. (‘You! Shall not! Parse!’) ... Now: it is surely nonsensical to describe angels as a race. Wizards, like elves, are immortal: they can be killed but cannot otherwise die. Immortality is not a racial descriptor. Indeed, putting it like this throws the emphasis, in the terms of Tolkien's legendarium, elsewhere—what's remarkable in the logic of Middle Earth is not that elves are immortal, but that men are not: they labour under some opaquely-explained curse. I say they; I mean, of course, we: mortal men and women, doomed to die.

So let me come at this question of race once again, from another angle, and ask again: what are Orcs? In terms of ethnic semiology their (as it were) discursively orientalist provenance is inarguable, but where do they come from in terms of Tolkien's legendarium? The short answer is: we don't know, because Tolkien never made up his mind. He toyed with three different theories, none of which satisfied him. One was that Orcs were fashioned from mud (this is what he says in the earliest drafts of The Fall of Gondolin, written c.1917: made of mud through the sorcery of Morgoth ‘bred from the heats and slimes of the earth’). In these terms Orcs are something like golems or automata. There's a problem here though: defeating mere automata is hardly heroic, or indeed much of a challenge. Later, then, Tolkien toyed with the notion that Orcs, though they look somewhat like men, are actually a species of higher animal: ‘beasts of humanized shape’ fashioned by Melkor ‘to mock Men and Elves’. But how can they be animals, if they have their own unique language? Tolkien fretted over this question, and speculated. Maybe
their ‘talking’ was really reeling off ‘records’ set in them by Melkor. Even their rebellious critical words—he knew about them. Melkor taught them speech and as they bred they inherited this; and they had just as much independence as have, say, dogs or horses of their human masters. This talking was largely echoic (cf. parrots). [Christopher Tolkien (ed) Morgoth's Ring (1993), 34]
Parrots. Right. Both of these theories proceed from one of Tolkien's core beliefs: only God can create actual life. Evil can pervert what has been created, but cannot itself create. But neither of these theories satisfied Tolkien, so he toyed with a third: that Orcs are descended from elves and men captured by Melkor, reshaped and uglified by dark arts or by some monstrous breeding programme into corrupted creatures. This is the origin-story Peter Jackson's movie trilogy endorses (‘Do you know how the Orcs first came into being?’ Christopher Lee's Saruman explains to his deputies: ‘they were elves once, taken by the dark powers, tortured and mutilated. A ruined and terrible form of life.’ Sarumansplaining, we might call this). But for his own part Tolkien wasn't happy with this theory either, and never fully endorses it. As we have it, Tolkien's legendarium nowhere categorically explains the provenance of the Orcs.

What's his problem? I'll tell you what I think, and why I see reasons therefore for not thinking of orcs as primarily racially-conceived. The ‘problem’ is that Tolkien's entire project in his legendarium is, at root, religious, Catholic, spiritual. Friends noted that Middle Earth, which contains so much carefully worked worldbuilding detail in terms of history, custom, culture, language, geography, architecture, dress and so on, includes no churches or temples, no priests of religious celebrants at all. This was no oversight; it was a deliberate choice by Tolkien. ‘The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,’ he wrote to a friend; ‘unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like “religion,” to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.’ If we ask where is the religion in Middle Earth? we can be answered: Middle Earth doesn't include religion; it is religion. Including specific cults and fanes into the worldbuilding would only tangle obstructively with that aim.

Now, for Tolkien ‘religion’, which can of course mean a thousand things, means certain things above all others, and one of the most central for his imaginative work is: free will. To a Catholic like Tolkien it is an absolutely fundamental fact of the cosmos that God created men and women with free will, such that we can choose to do good or evil. Indeed, Tolkien thinks we must choose: that the choice cannot be escaped or evaded, and moreover that the nature of our fallen world is such that choosing to do good will be difficult, painful, perhaps fatal. But nonetheless we must choose, actively and consciously. This is what The Lord of the Rings is, at root: a great dramatisation of the difficulty and necessity of moral choice, and the ring itself works as powerfully as it does because it foregrounds the urgency and inevitability of that choice, and the implacability of that choice's consequences.

Orcs, then, focus a particular problematic for Tolkien. In a nutshell the question is: do orcs have souls? If not, if they are mere automata or beasts, then the whole battle of good versus evil comes down to a sort of animal management issue, like hunting wolves or de-verminising your barn. Do we really want to conceptualise the Battle of the Pelennor Fields as the heroic defence of Gondor against hordes of evil parrots? We, I think, do not.

But if orcs have souls and therefore free will, how can it be that they all choose, in lock-step, to follow Evil? Wouldn't some of them choose otherwise? Can we imagine an orc repenting and joining the forces of good? I'm not sure Tolkien could, but I'm also not sure he wanted to surrender the idea that his characters were combatting active, wilful agents in a battle between meaningful good and meaningful evil. In fact I don't think he found a way of squaring that circle. Of shireing that cirith ungol.

This, though, has implications for the racial reading of Tolkien's work. Because a racist reads the world via a flattening essentialism, thinks en masse: as it might be ‘you were born with a black skin and that makes you by definition inferior to me, because I was born with a white skin.’ But despite the various (undeniable) prejudice-markers he bore from his generation, class and culture, Tolkien really didn't think that way. For him the most important thing about any given human is not whether they are born black or white, rich or poor, but that they are born with immortal souls and therefore free will; and the most important question is how they choose to engage that will in the world. Everything else, really, is epiphenomena.

Go back to elves. Why are they immortal? Because, I think, they not only have souls but in some representational sense in the (resolutely non-allegorical but undeniably semiotic) logic of this text, they are souls: material embodiments of a spirutual reality. And this is the larger symbolic architecture of Middle Earth: that mortal men exist in the middle between, on the one hand, a spiritual realm of maiar, istari and elves, and on the other a soulless realm of created life: animals and plants and so on. Hobbits are men in this broader sense (the question of whether other creatures are men in this sense remains moot: do Tolkien's eagles have souls? And if they do, why not Tolkien's ravens? How do Ents fit? And so on). It's not that this avoids the racial problematic of course; but it does frame it in a different way. Or so it seems to me.