Archives for 2006

The Terminal Orc

This essai is included in the collection Writing Down the Dragon.


If the powers of Morgoth and the nature of the Elves gave Tolkien endless trouble in preparing The Silmarillion for publication, the problem of the Orcs nearly frightened him into giving up the attempt. How this happened sheds light on some interesting facets of Tolkien’s creative process, the mentality of his critics, and the ethics of fantasy in general. [Read more…]

The blue haze of distance

There is a common belief among superstitious people (and nearly all modern people are superstitious, for they persist in believing in newspapers and advertisements) that we are continuously watched by spy satellites that can make out the numbers on the licence plate of our cars. No point of this claim is quite false, but it adds up to a gigantic untruth. [Read more…]

Ad effigiem

The strawman fallacy in Utopian fiction

Of all the habitual fallacies and prejudices that have poisoned the wells of reason in our time, none, perhaps, has been so destructive as what Owen Barfield christened ‘chronological snobbery’. This is the strange belief that modern ideas and habits, simply because they are modern, are inherently superior to those of former times. This belief has become so prevalent that it is now recognized as a category of informal fallacy in itself. [Read more…]

The road less travelled by goes ever on

Long ago, I have read, Irving Berlin offered the young and struggling George Gershwin a job as his musical secretary, for the then princely wage of a hundred dollars a week. ‘But don’t take the job,’ said Berlin. ‘If you do, you may develop into a second-rate Berlin. But if you insist on being yourself, someday you’ll become a first-rate Gershwin.’

In the five years since Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings began to be released, there has been a fresh outpouring of critical, academic, and fannish writing dissecting, rehashing, and expanding upon every facet of Tolkien’s work. Probably no other author since Joyce has been subjected to such torrential inquiry; perhaps none since Dickens. If the flow continues a few years longer, Tolkienology may end up second in volume only to the endless study of Shakespeare.

Not all of this outpouring is wasted ink, and some of it is work of exceptional brilliance and inspirational value. I had a flash of insight — even I get flashes of insight from time to time — when I read Tom Shippey’s excellent and audacious Tolkien: Author of the Century. The Afterword on ‘The Followers and the Critics’ changed the whole focus of my thinking with respect to my own work specifically and fantasy in general. [Read more…]

Genesis 3

Reality, responsibility, and ‘The Eye of the Maker’


To admit the fact that contradicts all one’s assumptions is the mark of an honest man.

—David Warren

Whatever you may think of the Hebrew Scriptures as theology or history, they are certainly sound as psychology: far sounder, in fact, than we parochial moderns (who like to believe that the study of the human mind began only with Freud) can admit without considerable abashment.

Eve, then Adam, ate the forbidden fruit: that, we are told, was the first sin. The second sin, which followed immediately, was trying to shift the blame. ‘Eve made me do it,’ said Adam, and ‘The serpent made me do it,’ said Eve. The serpent seems not to have been available for questioning, but if God did in fact track it down and ask for its account of the story, it probably said: ‘I just told them about the fruit. I didn’t pick it.’ There was enough blame to go round, but none of the three guilty parties would accept a proper share of it. So instead there was enough blame to go round . . . and round . . . and round — and it is going round still. [Read more…]

Smallbold vacuums the cat

I have just spent an hour or two going into the etymology of the name Håkar, given to two characters in the Octopus, one ancient and heroic, one modern and rather ambivalent. It is of course a Palandine name, which accounts for the diacritic, but despite the pronunciation and the obvious shortened form, it has nothing to do with the word hawk.

Orthodox theory derives it from *há-kári, meaning the wind in a high place. Indeed Håkar the Red was partly descended from the mountain-dwelling Ascoli; the trouble is that of his ancestors, they were not the ones that spoke Old Palandine.

B. R. Smallbold, who occasionally drops in to rub my lack of erudition in my face, came to my relief by explaining his own theory; and Smallbold being Smallbold, I am inclined to back him against a whole team of orthodoxen. He says it comes from the dialect of Ulfmark, Old Pyrandine with a strong Palandine overlay, and was originally Hákaru, meaning ‘towering sorrow’ or, alternatively, ‘the cares of a ruler’. Both meanings suit his history tragically well. But he was not content with that. He delved deep into the history of Ulfmark, pulling dusty volumes from untidy shelves, talking about historical periods with queer names like ‘the Grace of Tonúr’, and reading bits of incomprehensibly archaic poetry at me. The upshot is that while Håkar has indeed nothing to do with hawk, people have been linking the two with puns for a thousand years. By the time he had explained all this to me, and then disappeared in his customary way, my evening’s work was rather thoroughly spoilt.

It is very strange when one’s characters volunteer to help one avoid writing about them.

The problem of being Susan

Religious experience and the will to disbelieve

In the very long and interesting (and tangled) skein of comments to R. J. Anderson’s essay ‘The Problem of Susan’, several people expressed their frank disbelief that Susan Pevensie could ever forget her time in Narnia to the point of thinking it had all been a silly childhood game. Actually this is the most grimly plausible of the suppositions behind Lewis’s treatment of Susan in The Last Battle. I can say this from personal experience: I have suffered something very like it myself. [Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]


When I became a man, they said,
I’d put away these childish things:
these princesses too fair to wed,
these elves and dragons, phials and rings. [Read more…]

C. S. Lewis on progress and ‘seeing through’

Late in The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis treats us to a chestnut about progress:

It is like the famous Irishman who found that a certain kind of stove reduced his fuel bill by half and thence concluded that two stoves of the same kind would enable him to warm his house with no fuel at all.

The concluding half-paragraph of the book:

There are progressions in which the last step is sui generis — incommensurable with the others — and in which to go the whole way is to undo all the labour of your previous journey. To reduce the Tao to a mere natural product is a step of that kind. Up to that point, the kind of explanation which explains things away may give us something, though at a heavy cost. But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.