China Miéville is a fantasy author, who wrote a January 2002 article in Socialist Review called “Tolkien—Middle Earth Meets Middle England.” In it he argues that the Jackson movies vastly improve on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings story. Whereas the books are “structured by moralist, abstract logic,” Jackson’s characters are “grounded and organic.”
Miéville may prefer Jackson’s characters, but he celebrates Tolkien’s creation of a secondary world as his “enduring contribution to the genre.” Miéville writes, “Readers can inhabit these worlds, and become collaborators in the process of constantly creating them, suspending their disbelief.”
The problem is that having so carefully and consistently constructed this secondary world, Tolkien filled it with what Miéville calls “trite, nostalgic daydreams.” He writes, “Tolkien claimed the function of his fantasy was ‘consolation.’ In other words, it becomes a point of principle that his literature mollycoddles its readers. . . . Troubled by the world? Close your eyes and think of Middle Earth.”
Peter Jackson has no problem with this. He’s been clear throughout his entire movie-making career that the point of a good movie is precisely closing your eyes for a couple of hours while he plays another world across the inside of your eyelids. “I like escapism,” Jackson says. “The reason I go to the movies is to escape. The reason I make movies is escapism.”
Tolkien, on the other hand, put a good deal of work into denying that “consolation” was anything at all like “mollycoddling.” In a lecture called “On Fairy-Stories,” he argues for the value of fantasy fiction as a truth-delivery system.
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscastasrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief (85–86).
Evangelium. The gospel. The good news. A dead Messiah lives again. The last go first. Prisoners walk free. The lonely are adopted. The hungry eat. The blind see. The deaf hear. The lame leap for joy.
In one of Tolkien’s many poignant turns, a disobedient, young, “weaker-sexed” Eowyn defies a mighty prince of darkness and with the help of a hobbit, kills him by accident of good fortune. Yet no one else could have done it.
As a defiant young woman myself, my own heart leaped for joy when I read this passage for the first time.
I was not alone. Am not alone.
Have you read the books multiple times? Memorized quotes like they were Scripture? Played Middle Earth video games? Dressed up as one of the characters? Written your own stories off Tolkien’s world? Do you own a sword for no good reason? (See left.) Or a replica Flame-of-the-West movie prop letter-opener? (See above.) Then you know what I’m talking about.
We don’t want just to read a story that denies ultimate defeat. We want to participate in that story. Somehow.
As a defiant middle-aged, capitalist-ish woman, I don’t discount Miéville’s criticism. He insists that Tolkien is useless because a “fleeting glimpse” is not what is wanted. Rather power for change here and now is what the world needs.
But that kind of power belongs to God. No one else can wield it. He does what he wants with his power, when he wants, how he wants. And I worship him.