Books Culture Fantasy Science-Fiction Teicóg (Geek Culture)

China Miéville: Le Roi Est Mort, Vive Le Roi!

In this 2002 article British Fantasy author China Miéville, l’enfant terrible of the so-called New Weird generation of writers, rallies against the orthodoxy of the field with an examination of the man who helped define its modern form: J.R.R. Tolkien.

‘In 1954 and 1955 a professor of English at Oxford University published a long, rambling fairy story in three hardbacks. And nothing much happened. This was the 1905 of fantastic literature – a dress rehearsal for the revolution. That revolution came in earnest ten years later, when the book, The Lord of the Rings, was published in the US in cheap, pirate paperbacks, along with rapid response authorised versions. And they sold. A generation of students, hippies and potheads found hidden meanings in legends of power, wisdom, magic and secret knowledge. They reconfigured the texts, and turned a quaint, portentous 1950s fable into a key counter-culture text of the 1960s – to the avuncular professor Tolkien’s bemused horror.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien belonged in the rarefied air of Oxbridge, from where he wrote scholarly works, smoked his pipe and constructed his imaginary world, Middle Earth. It would be hard to imagine a man less at home among his new readers, whom he called the ‘lunatic fringe’.

The influence of The Lord of the Rings on modern literature and culture has been enormous and controversial. Its iconography is everywhere, constantly stolen and ripped off. But when it topped a recent poll as ‘book of the century’, many highbrow types were appalled that such a ‘childish’ work of fantasy was so honoured. The literary establishment’s incoherent critique combines snobbish disdain for popular culture with an ahistorical philistinism. It sees the fantastic as pathological, as sub-literary, rather than as one mode of expression among many. Those of us who skulk by those garish shelves in the bookshop have all been told that we’ll grow out of it, or asked when we’re going to start reading real books. And there is a left variant of this dismissal, which follows the Marxist critic Lukács in seeing the fantastic as decadent or socially ‘irresponsible’. But if, as radical critics of both bourgeois respectability and Stalinist agitprop, we defend science fiction and fantasy, does that mean we should be rallying under the banner of ‘Socialists for Tolkien’? Hardly.’

Well worth reading.

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