I can’t get worked up about a lot of things, and certainly not about what books people like to read, so it is always with some amusement when I see someone or other trash someone else’s writing. It is even more amusing (or perhaps confusing) when I find out one of my writer heroes, Michael Moorcock, despised another of my writer heroes, J.R.R. Tolkien.
I’ll spoil the ending of this post right now: I like both of them and I’m cool with that. But I think it’s interesting to look at their different styles, as I experienced them, and see what I can make of Moorcock’s attitude and what effect each writer has had on my own style.
In a recent piece in the New Yorker, “The Anti-Tolkien,” Peter Bebergal writes: “Moorcock, one of the most prolific living fantasists, sees Tolkien’s creation as little more than a conservative vision of the status quo, an adventure that brings its hero “There and Back Again,” rather than into a world where experience means you can’t go home again.”
Moorcock’s work, especially the Elric series, is presented as a rebellion against Tolkien’s traditional fantasy.
Bebergal again: “In the nineteen-seventies, swimming in the shadows like a remora alongside Tolkien’s legacy, was a hero of sorts with a slightly darker nature than that of Bilbo or Gandalf. His name is Elric, a frail, drug-addicted albino and the reluctant ruler of the kingdom of Melniboné, where revenge and hedonism are abiding characteristics, and human beings are enslaved. The inhabitants of Melniboné are not the spiritual, almost angelic elves of Lothlórien, but a race of decadent autocrats whose magical gifts are bestowed by demons.”
I had never really thought of Moorcock’s work this way, probably because I read Moorcock before I read Tolkien (the Lord of the Rings trilogy seemed dense and overwhelming to me in my teens, when I devoured dozens of books each month and formed some of my strongest reader/author bonds).
Granted, I always found something cooler about Moorcock’s worlds and heroes. They were tragic, usually barely hanging on to their lives, and even when they succeeded, it wasn’t long before a cruel world swept the rug out from under them once more. Perhaps Moorcock’s writing better agreed with the way the world felt to teenaged me (and, I’ll admit it) adult me.
I rarely participate in epic quests and ultimately conquer evil. Life is a series of small battles and the outcome is usually questionable, so I can relate more to Moorcock’s heroes in this way. As Bebergal writes, “Elric is not about abstract ideas of good and evil, with faceless powers looking to strip the world of its trees and its hobbit holes. Elric is about law and chaos, and how, sometimes, choosing one over the other is no more or less just.”
All that being said, epic fantasy, with the forces of good eventually winning a hard-fought victory over the nameless evil, definitely has its time and place. I love the scope, the world-building, the mix of characters and personalities. I love that Tolkien’s world feels like a real place, a piece of our own history, with a sense that around any corner of the world, something else awaits, some adventure or hero or villain or ruin with a story all its own.
Even though I tend more toward stories about individual heroes trying to balance law and chaos within themselves, often with bittersweet victories at the end, I don’t feel the need to dismiss one type of story over another.
As a writer I tend toward one side of the balance, but as a reader I enjoy both equally, at least until the next book I read tips me more toward one side or the other.
(Speaking of which, Michael Moorcock’s new book, The Whispering Swarm, is out on January 13!)
Photo credit: The scales of justice, James Cridland.