Tossing out some thoughts on Tolkien

So Erin Horakova just wrote a brilliant essay on "Kirk Drift" about how we have entirely invented a captain Kirk who did not exist in The Original Series.  Go and read it, because the how and the why matter a lot.

And the same day, there's this actually-not-bad-except-kinda-bad essay/interview about "historical diversity", which does a good job of telling the story that racism in Epic Fantasy is bundled up with European Imperial conceptions of race, and its great progenitor Tolkien. It's not a *bad* argument, and clearly there are still plenty of people who are more interested in denying or downplaying racism in genre generally and Tolkien specifically that it needs to be said.


Erin reminds me that:

Thus it becomes a matter of reclaiming texts via attentive reading. In the post-truth world, attention is a skill. Reading is a skill. We must vigilantly listen to the hum of the currents of power running through texts and their interpretations, to actions and their spin. We must insist upon reality in order to meaningfully and morally do the work of relativistic interpretation: there are four lights, for fuck’s sake

And the thing is, I'm pretty sure that this story of genre's Original Sin embedded and cocreated with Europe's great sin elides so much as to be incorrect.  So here are some thoughts and complications, some of which I'm more confident in than others, which I'd like to explore more later.  (When we're moved into a house and I can unpack my library, for instance).

  • The invention of "Race" and "Racism" should probably be located with Portuguese colonizers in something like the 15th century.  It's well fleshed out and embedded by the time Tolkien's writing.
  • Tolkien's also writing in the midst of a broader European project to legitimize various Nations and Nationalities (locating the "volk") by finding or inventing "Great National Epics", pre-Christian (i.e. uncivilized and authentic) culture.
  • Those 400 years of writing and inventing race include a bunch of Epic Poetry (in a different tradition from things like Beowulf and Gawain and the Green Knight, for instance, which we know Tolkien was interested in). There are, in other words, a lot of interesting sources and traditions Tolkien was writing in the context of.  I don't know much about these, but would like it.
  • (So there's a bunch of bullets about what Tolkien was doing, since he didn't spring sui generis, and I think that's rarely engaged with)
  • Meanwhile, the Story of Tolkien as progenitor jumps two decades to the remarkable coincidence of Lord Foul's Bane and Sword of Shannara published in the same year, picks up David Eddings, Robert Jordan, the Canonization of Fantasy Races in D&D, and then the backlash of grimdark as embodied in George R R Martin.  Race and racism are embedded throughout (this seems largely true to me).
    • This story erases (at least) women, magazines, the ways that Fantasy and Sci-Fi are probably interrelated.  It's a fine story, but deserves to be complicated
  • More importantly, this story recreates Tolkien.  His grand mythology is played up at the expense of the ways The Hobbit in particular isn't a fully immersive story and refers back to its readers.  The fantasy that Tolkien's imitators created becomes Tolkien's work.  Which seems unfair to Tolkien and his language jokes at the opening of The Hobbit, at least
  • Something-something marketing creates our readings of books and traditions of inheritance (and other things to, but here I'm far out of my depth).

I want to think about all of these through a rereading of Tolkien, but if you've got suggestions, send me an email at contact at cabbagesandkings dot audio.  At some point, I'll probably work these up into some essays.