Moorcock, Saruman, and the Dragon’s Tail

This essay can also be found in the collection Writing Down the Dragon.


The journalist and historian Paul Johnson has divided all serious writers and critics into two camps, ‘intellectuals’ and ‘men of letters’. Intellectuals are those who, like Shelley, conceive themselves to be ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’; they are the Utopians, the revolutionists, the Angry Young Men; they involve themselves in politics, usually radical, readily form claques, and have a disturbing tendency to write manifestos. Men of letters (the term dates back to less literal-minded times, when ‘men’ could be understood to refer to both sexes) just read things, and write things, and write about what they read. They do not even have a strong tendency to read about what they write: the Platonically ideal man of letters is too comfortable in his ivory tower to care much about reviews and Press clippings. Karl Marx could well stand for the purest form of intellectual, and Emily Dickinson, if you will pardon the Irish bull, was a perfect man of letters.

Of course these extremes are only the endpoints of a continuous line, but most authors show a definite tendency to drift towards one end or the other. Tolstoy was an intellectual, and developed the points of that breed, so to speak, more and more strongly as he grew older, until he gave up imaginative writing altogether in favour of his own weird form of political messianism. Shakespeare was a man of letters, so very much so that it is still hotly disputed what his political opinions were, or whether he ever troubled to form any. Intellectuals have often been quick to dismiss men of letters as reactionary toadies or commercial hacks, and in fact Tolstoy attacked Shakespeare as both in his pamphlet, Shakespeare and the Drama. But for all the fame of both the attacker and the target, that pamphlet would be utterly forgotten today, had it not been preserved by George Orwell’s much more famous rebuttal, ‘Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool’. On the whole Orwell was an intellectual, but he had a very strong streak of the man of letters in him, and his sympathies were very much with Shakespeare.

In our own time, Michael Moorcock could well be described as an intellectual who sometimes masquerades as a man of letters. In The Way the Future Was, Frederik Pohl says that if the Futurians had conquered all of science-fiction fandom, the mere world would have been an anticlimax; and the same quality is distinctly present in Moorcock’s characteristic literary polemics. He takes literature as his battleground, but his weapons and his enmities are drawn from an almost purely political ideology. He seems very much concerned that Utopian writers shall write about the correct kind of Utopia, and his fury with dissenters knows no bounds. J.R.R. Tolkien, on the other hand, was so very much a man of letters that he did not even attempt to publish any of his fiction until a reader at Allen and Unwin chanced to hear of The Hobbit and pried the typescript out of his hands. And while Tolkien seems not to have heard of Moorcock any more than Shakespeare could have heard of Tolstoy, the same kind of bitter one-way enmity has grown between them.

I have before me an essay of Moorcock’s, called ‘Wit and Humour in Fantasy’, first published in 1979. It is ostensibly an argument for the natural and necessary alliance between humour and fantasy (something nobody ever remarked upon before Moorcock); but he makes his argument very badly, partly because it is poppycock, but chiefly because his real purpose is to attack his arch-enemy, Tolkien. In consequence it makes for interesting reading, and I would nominate it for a place of honour beside Shakespeare and the Drama in the canon of foolish diatribes.

Like Tolstoy’s, Moorcock’s essay is not easy to find in print, and so, like Orwell, I shall begin with a summary:

He starts off with a quotation from Scott’s Peverile of the Peak, saying that Scott’s wit redeemed his work and makes it readable today, ‘though’, says Moorcock, ‘he spread it as thinly as he spread the rest of his talents’. Then he proceeds directly to his thesis, which is happily brief and quotable:

Fantastic fiction is happily very rich in comedy, from Thomas Love Peacock to Mervyn Peake. Comedy demands paradox — the juxtaposition of disparate images and elements – just as fantasy does. The square peg was never more delightful than when trying to fit itself into the round hole of a de Camp and Pratt fantasy. Comedy – like fantasy – is often at its best when making the greatest possible exaggerations – whereas tragedy usually becomes bathetic when it exaggerates.

As examples of successful comedy in fantasy he offers A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Cabell’s Biography of the Life of Manuel, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd stories, even Howard the Duck; but he reserves his highest accolades for Mervyn Peake’s series, which he (along with nearly everyone else) incorrectly calls ‘the Gormenghast trilogy’. I shall return to this later.

Throughout the essay, Moorcock mingles passages of eminent good sense with pronunciamentos so peculiar that they simply leave one shaking one’s head. He finds humour in the oddest places, and in the oddest proportions, too. Moorcock is not himself known as a humorous writer, and that, coupled with the examples he offers as masterworks of wit, makes him look rather like a man trying to sing in the opera, who, while perfectly versed in music theory, happens to be completely tone-deaf. But let us be fair, and begin with the eminent good sense. Some representative samples:

What gives Twain’s romance a power which its imitators have in the main lacked is the undercurrent of pathos and tragedy running through the whole story.

The optimist and the pessimist constantly war within the writer of fiction as he gives shape to his chosen subject matter. But it should be the subject matter, not the author’s wishes, which ultimately speaks for itself. If the author forces the material one way or another to achieve a happy or an unhappy ending and thus denies the implications of what he has written he is betraying both the reader and himself.

Horace Walpole said that life was a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel. Since it is fair to guess that the majority of us both think and feel it is fair to expect fiction which appeals to both our thoughts and our emotions.

But a writer must entertain before he has any right to try instruction.… An artist cannot be much of a politician, unless it is during his time off.

To be a victim of one’s own messianism is terrible – to become the victim of someone else’s is even worse.

All good sound advice; and even if a novice writer is so great a blockhead that he cannot benefit from any of it, at least it will do him no harm. Moorcock himself would do well to be reminded at times of the last sentence quoted above.

But let us take a closer look at what Moorcock takes for wit and humour. He speaks highly of Leiber’s use of humour:

To off-set the grandiose, the pompous elements in fantasy, the writer like Fritz Leiber will introduce comedy to ‘humanise’ the characters and make the reader much more concerned in their fate.…

I have only a slight acquaintance with Leiber’s work, but those who know him better offer a rather different verdict. Here is Ursula K. LeGuin, a critic of honest genius, in the endlessly quotable ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’:

Fritz Leiber and Roger Zelazny have both written in the comic-heroic vein, but their technique is different: they alternate the two styles. When humor is intended the characters talk colloquial American English, or even slang, and at earnest moments they revert to old formal usages. Readers indifferent to language do not mind this, but for others the strain is too great. I am one of these latter. I am jerked back and forth between Elfland and Poughkeepsie; the characters lose coherence in my mind, and I lose confidence in them.

It strikes me that this points up the greatest weakness in Moorcock’s argument. Fantasy and comedy may both take colour from exaggeration, but it is done for different purposes and in different directions. Actually exaggeration is nothing like so great an element in fantasy as Moorcock makes out. The juxtaposition of disparate elements, as he puts it, is often most effective when kept simple. The dragon, putting ‘hot fire into the belly of the cold worm’ as Tolkien said, is a much more successful juxtaposition than the cockatrice, the griffin, or the chimaera; indeed, the last of these has become a byword for a hybrid too bizarre to be viable. The more animals you throw into the genetic blender, the less convincing the result tends to be. A lion’s head, a goat’s body, a serpent’s tail, and dragon-fire in the lungs: the combination is too obviously arbitrary. If you exaggerate the strangeness of comedy, progressing by degrees from a plausible beginning, you may produce a brilliant series of toppers; if you exaggerate the strangeness of fantasy, you will only strain your audience’s credulity and break the suspension of disbelief. This introduces a tension between the two literary effects, the comical and the fantastic, that greatly increases the difficulty of combining them well.

All this is mixed in with a rather different line of argument, a direct and rather bitter polemic directed against Moorcock’s most successful competitors, Tolkien and Heinlein. One almost feels that he champions the cause of humour specifically so that he can do dirt on writers he dislikes, and in fact he comes near to admitting as much himself:

While I admire the work of James Branch Cabell, I find his ironies too relentless. He cheats in order to show everything as an example of mere human folly. In contrast to Twain, he uses his talents almost always to avoid pain, though he uses them very cleverly.… Cabell’s kind of fiction may well act as a fine antidote to Tolkien’s, but neither is very satisfying to the demanding reader in the long run.

For ‘the demanding reader’, read Moorcock himself. It is a common rhetorical trick designed to bamboozle the inexperienced. ‘If you were really a sophisticated reader,’ he implies, ‘you would know better than to read that Lord of the Rings rubbish.’ The use of the word ‘antidote’, as if Tolkien were a poison, is a sly rhetorical touch. Cabell isn’t really good for you, you see, but at least he’ll cure you of Tolkien. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

But here, scarcely three pages into the essay, is the nub of his case against Tolkien:

It seems always to have been true that the more grandiose, the more portentous, the less concise, the less truthful, the more humourless a writer is, the more successful he is; at least in immediate terms.

Let us note in passing that this seems not always, or indeed ever, to have been true. Huckleberry Finn, Tom Jones, The Pickwick Papers, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Catch-22, were each of them an immediate commercial success as well as an enduring critical success; and none of them can be called grandiose, or portentous, or wordy, or mendacious, or (least of all) humourless. Tristram Shandy was a tissue of longueurs, I will grant, but it lacked the other four of Moorcock’s sneering prerequisites for commercial success. But to continue:

I think my own dislike of J.R.R. Tolkien lies primarily in the fact that in all those hundreds of pages, full of high ideals, sinister evil and noble deeds, there is scarcely a hint of irony anywhere. Its tone is one of relentless nursery room sobriety. ‘Once upon a time,’ began nanny gravely, for telling stories was a series [sic] matter, ‘there were a lot of furry little people who lived happily in the most beautiful, gentlest countryside you could possibly imagine, and then one day they learned that Wicked Outsiders were threatening this peace.…’

Now, this is almost as gross a misrepresentation of The Lord of the Rings as Tolstoy’s account of one of King Lear’s speeches: ‘Again begin Lear’s awful ravings, at which one feels ashamed, as at unsuccessful jokes.’ One can hardly feel that either Tolstoy or Moorcock is even trying to be honest. Tolstoy is determined that people shall not enjoy Shakespeare, and Moorcock is determined that they shall not enjoy Tolkien, and any stick will do to beat a dog. Shall we catalogue the smears, innuendoes, and outright lies in that passage?

To begin with, ‘relentless sobriety’ is hardly a quality most people would ascribe to the nursery, but let that pass. The image of a nanny telling portentous stories (as if they were ghost stories) to her charges is a deliberate falsification of what Tolkien set out to do. He sometimes took that tone in The Hobbit, a thing he came to regret bitterly, but The Lord of the Rings was written consciously and skilfully for an adult audience. Except for one or two minor stumbles in the opening chapters, there is no talking-down in it anywhere.

The snide pun about ‘series matter’ is magnificently cheeky, coming from a man whose principal fantasy works, to the tune of some fifteen volumes, are rolled up into the gigantic Eternal Champion series; furthermore, it is wide of the mark, for The Lord of the Rings, long though it may be, is not a series except for convenience of binding. This is on a par with Virginia Woolf’s famous sneer about ‘four-volume novels’, except that Woolf at least was not guilty of the alleged sin she was denouncing. Moorcock is merely hypocritical.

The Shire may be ‘the gentlest countryside you could imagine’, but so is the English countryside on which it was faithfully based. Actually all of Tolkien’s settings are beautiful, when not blasted and ruined by Orcs, dragons, or Dark Lords; indeed, his fame as a literary stylist rests largely upon his skill at describing the beauty of nature. In this he is a true heir of the Romantic poets, and most particularly of Wordsworth, who was also bitterly castigated by the general run of the Romantics because he rejected their radical politics. I cannot remember a vivid description of scenery anywhere in Moorcock, and he gives rather the impression of piquing himself on his indifference to such trivialities. But in fact a love of nature is not a mark of childishness, and it is disingenuous of him to imply that it is.

‘One day they learned that Wicked Outsiders were threatening this peace.’ As it happens, this, more than anything else in the opening of The Lord of the Rings, shows Tolkien’s masterly handling of irony. That the Shire is threatened by sinister external forces is obvious almost from the start. Sam Gamgee’s cousin Hal has seen giants on the borders, and the dwarves who pass through the Shire speak of Orcs, trolls, and the growing shadow of Mordor; but the Hobbits, so smugly insular that their very maps show only white space beyond the bounds of the Shire, refuse to believe any of these stories. Ted Sandyman dismisses Sam’s account with sneers and sophistry, and shows himself to be both a typical Hobbit (though more mechanically inclined than most) and a thoroughly disagreeable character. It is the same irony that Douglas Adams made explicit with his Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, which is so stupid that it thinks it can’t see you if you can’t see it, and is completely foiled if you wrap a towel round your head. The Hobbits, so to speak, have had towels wrapped round their heads for generations, and it works for them no better than one would expect. The moment the Rangers withdraw their protection, ruffians and half-Orcs descend upon the Shire, and Saruman comes to turn it into a faithful copy of the polluted desert of Mordor. This is a very subtle and well-informed bit of satire, directed squarely against Tolkien’s fellow Englishmen, who had similar delusions of invulnerability.

Perhaps Moorcock cannot perceive this irony, in which case I could only wonder that he thinks himself fit to criticize any work of serious literature. I perceived it myself when I was twelve, and had lived a life almost as sheltered as a Hobbit’s. I think it more likely that he is merely being disingenuous. In fact, I am certain of it, for he also has this to say:

There are, of course, some whimsical jokes in Tolkien, some ‘universal ironies’, but these only serve to exaggerate the paucity of genuine imaginative invention.

Let me pause again to admire the audacity of this statement. If there is one thing Tolkien is famous for, it is the abounding fertility of his imaginative invention. Even most critics who dislike The Lord of the Rings pay grudging tribute to the size, scope, and sheer technical difficulty of Tolkien’s elaborate invention of Middle-earth.

The jokes are not there to point to the truth, but to reject it. The collapse down the centuries of the great myths into nursery tales is mirrored in recent fiction. We have gone from hobbits, to seagulls, to rabbits and a whole host of other assorted talking vermin in a few short years.…

People were telling stories about talking animals thousands of years ago; Aesop specialized in it; the tradition has continued without interruption from that day to this. Jonathan Livingston Seagull bears no resemblance to anything by Tolkien, and Watership Down is if anything elevated from a ‘talking vermin’ story by the epic tone it copies from Tolkien’s work. It is a gross and obvious lie to blame Tolkien for the existence of talking-animal stories, but again, any stick will do to beat that dog. Now, incidentally, we see why Moorcock made the error of calling Hobbits ‘furry’. They are nothing of the kind; they do not have more body hair than humans, merely a different distribution. But by implying that they are some kind of lower animal instead of, as Tolkien explicitly described them, a divergent branch of the human race, he makes the link to ‘talking vermin’ superficially plausible.

He raises against Tolkien (and even more specifically against Heinlein) the old, threadbare charge of ‘escapism’:

The laboured irony, as it were, of the pulp hero or heroine, this deadly levity in the fact of genuine experience, which serves not to point up the dramatic effect of the narrative, but to reduce it – and to make the experience described comfortingly ‘unreal’ – is the trick of the truly escapist author who pretends to be writing about fundamental truths and is in fact telling fundamental lies.

There, I think, is where the shoe pinches. Let us look at some of the ‘fundamental lies’ Tolkien offers us:

Power is addictive.

The habitual exercise of power corrodes the will and blunts the moral sense.

There is evil in the world that we cannot hope to overcome, but it will never be overcome unless we do what we can to resist it.

By conquering nature, we dehumanize ourselves, but by appreciating nature and preserving it, we supply a deep spiritual need.

Good cannot be achieved by evil means. Moreover, evil itself cannot achieve the particular ends it desires by evil means: ‘Oft evil will shall evil mar.’

There is no good excuse for cooperating with a tyrant. If you think he will spare you because of it, you are fooling yourself.

It is better to resist evil, even if it means war, than submit peacefully to be enslaved and slaughtered.

The desire for immortality is a cheat, for no matter how much power you have, you will never have power over death.

If we oppose evil to the limit of our strength, though that in itself is inadequate, there is a Providence that can make our victory possible.

I think it is this last point above all that offends Moorcock. He is bitterly hostile to religion, and to Christianity in particular, and his own fiction does not suggest that he has a well-developed sense of ethics. The great struggle in the Elric books is not between Good and Evil, nor even between better and worse impulses in the human mind, but between Law and Chaos, either of which can be served just as well by evil means as by good. Actually it is a false dichotomy, as Fabio P. Barbieri has pointed out. Chaos can only occur in a context of order, and order, by the laws of thermodynamics, inevitably decays into chaos. The alternative to an ordered society is not a state of complete anarchy, but death; and everything that exists, however disorderly it may appear, is strictly subject to the laws that make its existence possible. As William Blake said, ‘Reason is the circumference of energy’: they require each other, like the poles of a magnet. But since neither law nor chaos can exist alone, there can be no final victory or defeat in any war between them. The combatants can go on fighting for ever, or at least until they grow tired and discover that the whole donnybrook was fundamentally silly.

Elric makes a pact with Arioch, a Lord of Chaos, who gives him the sword Stormbringer. Stormbringer gives its wielder great power, but also turns him, in effect, into a vampire, who must slay other living souls merely to stay alive. Nowhere in the Elric books is there any indication that Moorcock’s hero regrets his pact, or feels that his victims have any worth comparable to his own. In the end he builds up an army of barbarians, returns to Melniboné, kills the cousin who usurped his throne, destroys the entire city, and then betrays his allies to destruction themselves. From all this slaughter and betrayal he walks away more or less smiling, if the desperately melancholy Elric can ever be said to smile. It is a celebration of heroic nihilism so blatant that even Nietzsche might have averted his eyes in shame. All this is worlds away from the strict Judaeo-Christian ethics and Catholic sense of grace that permeate Tolkien’s work. Moorcock is not the only critic to have scented the presence of grace and reacted like Gollum to lembas: ‘Leaves out of the elf-country, gah! Dust and ashes, we can’t eat that.’ It is significant that Moorcock is a strong admirer of Philip Pullman, whose entire oeuvre is essentially an attack on a Gnosticized strawman version of Christianity.

Orwell observed that of all Shakespeare’s plays, Tolstoy chose to attack King Lear; and he attributed this to Tolstoy’s recognition, perhaps subconscious, of an unflattering resemblance between Lear and himself. Both men gave up their lands and their worldly power, and their families and flatterers turned against them for it. Renunciation brought neither man the happiness he expected, but a depth of misery founded upon his own ignorance of human nature. Moorcock’s attack on Tolkien is so general, and he so carefully refuses to name the ‘fundamental lies’ and ‘whimsical jokes’ of which he accuses him, that it is not so easy to tell if a particular character affected him in this way. But one could make a case for it. I can see points of resemblance, just as unflattering, between Moorcock and Saruman the White.

As Tom Shippey observes in Tolkien: Author of the Century, Saruman is by far the most modern character in Middle-earth. His style varies between the pompous circumlocution of a Parliamentary white paper and the cant of a left-wing ideologue. Like Moorcock’s most characteristic heroes, he has little use for outworn Scholastic categories like Good and Evil; he is a ‘realist’, full of geopolitical calculations and raisons d’état. Here he is as reported by Gandalf at the Council of Elrond, striking his most characteristic note:

A new Power is rising. Against it the old allies and policies will avail us not at all. There is no hope left in Elves or dying Númenor. This then is the one choice before you, before us. We may join with that Power. It would be wise, Gandalf. Therre is hope that way. Its victory is at hand; and there will be a rich reward for those that aided it. As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means.

So spoke Laval and Quisling and Seyss-Inquart, in the very days when Tolkien was writing that bitter parody of their words and attitudes. If Moorcock cannot perceive the irony in Saruman’s speech, then I account him no judge. That may be jumping to a conclusion; but his own fiction, at least the few books of it that I have brought myself to read, is so portentous, so humourless, so drearily earnest, that I find it no very great leap. But if he can perceive the irony, it must wound him bitterly, for Moorcock himself has a strong tendency to talk that way, and his so-called heroes, Elric most notably, live on a moral plane from which they could only look up at Saruman as an impossible idealist. Tolkien’s villains are more heroic than Moorcock’s heroes, and the reading public knows it: a standing rebuke that Moorcock apparently cannot bear.

But to return to this matter of Moorcock’s own lack of humour. His highest praise is for Mervyn Peake, and indeed the two books set in Gormenghast are masterpieces of their kind. There is even a kind of cult of Peake, founded perhaps by Moorcock and his fellow-travellers, which sets him up in opposition to Tolkien and then proclaims him to be the greater of the two. He is the British Left’s answer to Tolkien, rather as the Monkees were America’s answer to the Beatles; and while Peake is a far greater artist than the Monkees, he is no more adequate to bear the burden of such a comparison than they were.

Here (and I apologize for quoting at such length) is what Moorcock calls ‘a short passage from the under-rated third volume, Titus Alone’, and offers as a sublime example of Peake’s uproarious humour:

The Magistrate leaned forward on his elbows and rested his long, bony chin upon the knuckles of his interlocked fingers.

‘This is the fourth time that I have had you before me at the bar, and as far as I can judge, the whole thing has been a waste of time to the Court and nothing but a nuisance to myself. Your answers, when they have been forthcoming, have been either idiotic, nebulous, or fantastic. This cannot be allowed to go on. Your youth is no excuse. Do you like stamps?’

‘Stamps, your Worship?’

‘Do you collect them?’

‘No.’

‘A pity. I have a rare collection rotting daily. Now listen to me. You have already spent a week in prison – but it is not your vagrancy that troubles me. That is straightforward, though culpable. It is that you are rootless and obtuse. It seems you have some knowledge hidden from us. Your ways are curious, your terms are meaningless. I will ask you once again. What is this Gormenghast? What does it mean?’

Titus turned his face to the Bench. If ever there was a man to be trusted, his Worship was that man.

Ancient, wrinkled, like a tortoise, but with eyes as candid as grey glass.

But Titus made no answer, only brushing his forehead with the sleeve of his coat.

‘Have you heard his Worship’s question?’ said a voice at his side. It was Mr Drugg.

‘I do not know,’ said Titus, ‘what is meant by such a question. You might just as well ask me what is this hand of mine? What does it mean?’ And he raised it in the air with the fingers spread out like a starfish. ‘Or what is this leg?’ And he stood on one foot in the box and shook the other as though it were loose. ‘Forgive me, your Worship, I cannot understand.’

‘It is a place, your Worship,’ said the Clerk of the Court. ‘The prisoner has insisted that it is a place.

‘Yes, yes,‘ said the Magistrate. ‘But where is it? Is it north, south, east, or west, young man? Help me to help you. I take it you do not want to spend the rest of your life sleeping on the roofs of foreign towns. What is it boy? What is the matter with you?’

A ray of light slid through a high window of the Courtroom and hit the back of Mr Drugg’s short neck as though it were revealing something of mystical significance. Mr Drugg drew back his head and the light moved forward and settled on his ear. Titus watched it as he spoke.

‘I would tell you if I could, sir,’ he said. ‘I only know that I have lost my way. It is not that I want to return to my home — I do not; it is that even if I wished to do so I could not. It is not that I have travelled very far; it is that I have lost my bearings, sir.’

‘Did you run away, young man?’

‘I rode away,’ said Titus.

‘From . . . Gormenghast?’

‘Yes, your Worship.’

‘Leaving your mother . . . ?’

‘Yes.’

‘And your father . . . ?’

‘No, not my father . . .’

‘Ah . . . is he dead, my boy?’

‘Yes, your Worship. He was eaten by owls.’

The Magistrate raised an eyebrow and began to write upon a piece of paper.

Now, I have tried that passage upon various persons of my acquaintance, including some of the most keenly humorous that I know, and people who enjoy Mervyn Peake, too; and none of them could find anything so very funny in it. At most they get a dry little chuckle out of the bit about the stamps, and another, perhaps, about the light on Mr Drugg’s ear; and a slight smile of recognition at the mention of the owls. Humour is notoriously a subjective thing, but there is, so to speak, a main current, and this is nowhere near it. I may add on my own showing that I do not find Titus Alone underrated at all; I was physically unable to finish it. It is a disconnected string of rather dreary episodes, haunted by the ghost of Peake’s declining wit, for he was terminally ill when he wrote it, and losing his faculties. No doubt the Peake who wrote Titus Groan could have made this scene sprightly and funny and poignant. In the hands of his older and wearier self, it just lies there, glinting dully. I had no trouble finishing either Titus Groan or Gormenghast, though taken together they are nearly as long as The Lord of the Rings; but the accumulation of tedious inconsequentialities, like dead leaves in a rain-gutter, in Titus Alone put me to sleep before I could finish a book of little more than two hundred pages.

Here, on the other hand, is an extract from a different work, which I find to contain more laughs per paragraph than the excerpt above has in its entire length:

But more news came in next day. The dragon, it appeared, was exceptionally large and ferocious. He was doing terrible damage.

‘What about the King’s knights?’ people began to say.

Others had already asked the same question. Indeed, messengers were now reaching the King from the villages most affected by Chrysophylax, and they said to him as loudly and as often as they dared: ‘Lord, what of your knights?’

But the knights did nothing; their knowledge of the dragon was still quite unofficial. So the King brought the matter to their notice, fully and formally, asking for necessary action at their early convenience. He was greatly displeased when he found that their convenience would not be early at all, and was indeed daily postponed.

Yet the excuses of the knights were undoubtedly sound. First of all, the Royal Cook had already made the Dragon’s Tail for that Christmas, being a man who believed in getting things done in good time. It would not do at all to offend him by bringing in a real tail at the last minute. He was a very valuable servant.

‘Never mind the Tail! Cut his head off and put an end to him!’ cried the messengers from the villages most nearly affected.

But Christmas had arrived, and most unfortunately a grand tournament had been arranged for St. John’s Day: knights of many realms had been invited and were coming to compete for a valuable prize. It was obviously unreasonable to spoil the chances of the Midland Knights by sending their best men off on a dragon-hunt before the tournament was over.

After that came the New Year Holiday.

But each night the dragon had moved; and each move had brought him nearer to Ham. On the night of New Year’s Day people could see a blaze in the distance. The dragon had settled in a wood about ten miles away, and it was burning merrily. He was a hot dragon when he felt in the mood.

I could ask you to think it a happy coincidence that this happens to be from Farmer Giles of Ham, by none other than J.R.R. Tolkien, but of course it is no coincidence at all. Perhaps you do not find it any funnier than Moorcock’s pet passage from Peake; but it is said that the Lovelace Society at Worcester College was convulsed with laughter when Tolkien read it aloud for them. At any rate it shows that the alleged lack of humour in The Lord of the Rings did not result from any incapacity on Tolkien’s part. You might suppose that Moorcock would think better of it than of Tolkien’s major works; but I doubt he has ever read it, for the stink of the author’s name still clings to it. ‘Leaves out of the elf-country, gah!’ Besides, as I have said, I very much doubt whether Moorcock’s real objection to Tolkien has anything to do with humour at all. He just hates him so bitterly that he must drag him in by the heels, and spoil an otherwise interesting essay with a mean-spirited and irrelevant attack.

This is how Orwell ends his essay on Tolstoy and Shakespeare:

Tolstoy was perhaps the most admired literary man of his age, and he was certainly not its least able pamphleteer. He turned all his powers of denunciation against Shakespeare, like all the guns of a battleship roaring simultaneously. And with what result? Forty years later Shakespeare is still there completely unaffected, and of the attempt to demolish him nothing remains except the yellowing pages of a pamphlet which hardly anyone has read, and which would be forgotten altogether if Tolstoy had not also been the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

Mutatis mutandis, I could say the same. Moorcock is one of the most prestigious authors and critics of our age, and certainly not its least able essayist. He has repeatedly turned all his powers of denunciation against Tolkien, like all the guns of a battleship roaring simultaneously. And with what result? Thirty years later Tolkien is still there completely unaffected, and of the attempt to demolish him nothing remains except the yellowing pages of an essay which hardly anyone has read, and which would be forgotten altogether if Moorcock were not still alive among us, beating forlornly at the same hollow drum. Like Nietzsche’s battle against God, Moorcock’s battle against Tolkien will die with him.

Comments

  1. Andrew Parrish says:

    This is, I know, a repost but I feel it worthy of a new comment, because the line of Moorcock’s sneering at Watership Down hurts me anew each time I read it. I know nothing of your own views on talking animal stories, but I have always found Watership to be a haunting, ambitious and beautiful story that climbs above its somewhat ’70s initial chapter by its serious focus on the efforts of a society to come to grips with death through myth. Just my two cents.

    • Comments are always welcome, no matter how old the post is.

      My own view on animal stories: They are not often to my taste, but can be beautifully moving when done well. The itch to allegorize, to lecture, to use idealized (or anti-idealized) animals as sticks to beat a straw humanity – that itch seems to be ever-present and too often indulged. It spoilt several parts of The Once and Future King, for instance: especially the bit about the ants. But when the tale is told honestly for its own sake, and not as a kind of extended Aesop’s fable, the results can be wonderful.

  2. When it comes to animal stories, literary unity might be the thing that makes or breaks it.

    Dressed animals who exist (as if drawn by Curdie’s power from McDonald) as pure types of human personalities are charming and effective in the Kenneth Grahame books. As types of animal characters – fairy tale versions of themselves – given the gift of speech, they are an important ingedient of fantastic adventure (and one of my favorites.) All these are well and good, if the author takes care not to lose track of what kind of story he is telling and what kind of animal character is inhabiting it.

    It is realistic animals, their inner lives anthropomorphized for the purpose of first- or tight third-person characterization that can go badly wrong. Since the salient characteristic of beasts is that they do not, in fact think as men do, keeping their beastliness plausible would. Seem to be the thing wanted. And if the writer isn’t pulling an Animal Farm (see the first type of story I discribed above) or a fairy tale, NOT having realio-trulio animal natures, leads to the question for the storyteller: why bother with animal characters at all?

    How this sucees is achieved, however, exceeds my skill of literary analysis. I do know that I have read dozens, possibly nigh on a hundred animal stories, and I can just about count on both hands the number of adult works (Bambi, White Fang, Watership Down, Black Beauty, Animal Farm) that worked. All the rest are children’s books. I include in this set of well-told-tales only those I can still read with pleasure as an adult, not popular stinkers like The Warriors series, or the much better, but still forgettable, Ga’Hoole books.

    What does the medium have that makes the animal stories work? I’m not sure. Perhaps the clue may be found in Diana Wynne Jones’ “Why I Write for Children” essay.

    Either way, thanks for the repost. I find your writing emminently re-readable

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