Moorcock's essay on conservativism in fantasy

Discussion in 'Fantasy' started by Tanniel, Nov 18, 2016.

  1. Tanniel

    Tanniel Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune

    I just came across this essay - it is somewhat old, but has been revised fairly recently, as it includes references to newer authors as well as old. Maybe people here are already familiar with it, but I would like to hear people's opinions on it, whether you've read it before or this is the first time. I have my own arguments and critique of it, but since I already know those, I'd be interested in hearing what else might be said for or against his criticism.

    Should anyone not be familiar with him, Michael Moorcock is a British author, especially known for his fantasy series about the infamous character Elric. I haven't read anything by him myself though, so this essay is more or less my first introduction to him.
  2. kenubrion

    kenubrion Journeyed there and back again

    Before I read it, tell me about the person who wrote it. Is he a conservative type or a liberal type?
  3. Tanniel

    Tanniel Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune

    He is left-wing (I don't think "liberal" fits here, because he is British, not American), so this is a criticism of, not an apology for conversatism.
  4. kenubrion

    kenubrion Journeyed there and back again

  5. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune

    I have found very interesting Moorcock’s article and his view on traditional Epic Fantasy, in particular regarding Tolkien and Lewis. He criticises how, in the case of these authors, they perceive and convey the outsider as a foreign, evil enemy. This will conjure the unity of good forces to annihilate the foreign threat because they bring corrupting and perversive influences.
    I never considered this aspect before, and now reflecting upon it I disagree with Moorcock’s opinion. Placing value in a traditional approach, it does not automatically mean that this approach should be unsound. Equally, just because a bucolic description can be beautifully inspiring and comforting, it doesn’t mean they are wrong because they keep the reader in a false sense of security.
    The lack of humour and sarcasm is another point brought forward by Moorcock as a fault in these conservative works. Does LotR lack in humour and irony? Yes, it does. Is this detrimental to the whole work? No, it isn’t, in my opinion.

    I reckon Moorcock values elements of fiction differently to the way I do. LotR, with its faults is, in my opinion, a master piece, and the fact that Tolkien defends the status quo of what the Shire represents against the unknown, it doesn’t rest value to the story.
    The forever dichotomy of Good versus Evil, New against Old, Traditionalism versus Modernism are concepts as old as Adam, intrinsic in the human nature and consequently part of literary works. It depends now on the author’s talent and skill to write an outstanding book, such as LotR, or to fail in the attempt.

    I think Moorcock would have approved and liked the book I recently read Hunting the Ghost Dancer as it portrays precisely the challenge of breaking the traditional barriers, which he so much disapprove of.

    And by the way, I have Moorcock's Gloriana; or, The Unfulfill’d Queen, at home and waiting to be picked up hopefully soonish...
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  6. Tanniel

    Tanniel Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune

    Thanks for the reply, @Elvira. Let me know how those Moorcock books read. I don't foresee I'll have time to pick any up myself anytime soon, but after this, I am curious to know more. Having read his criticism of other authors, I'd like to know how his own work holds up.
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  7. Darwin

    Darwin Journeyed there and back again

    Has anybody else noticed that LotR has the unquestionable status as a masterpiece of literature, while nearly everything else even remotely similar gets labeled a big steaming pile of shit?

    Edit: ha! I should have finished reading before posting:
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    Last edited: Nov 20, 2016
  8. Sparrow

    Sparrow Journeyed there and back again

    You need to be two things to enjoy Moorcock's Elric books; a teenager, and a male.
    Failing that standard, I can guarantee you a miserable reading experience. Though his essay is spot on, except he neglected to include himself on the roster of writers that serve up cold porridge masquerading as Epic Fantasy.
  9. Peat

    Peat Journeyed there and back again

    I have to say, the essay is something I should re-read some time, as all I took in last time was this:

    "Waaaah they don't agree with my political viewpoints and you can see elements of it in their work waaaah that's objectively wrong waaaah."

    I am sure there valid and thought provoking points in there. But they are well masked by the fact they're embedded in a whinge. And considering how prominently Moorcock's own political-philosophical leanings come across in his work, a somewhat hypocritical one to boot.

    His own work is very well worth checking out mind. I've read a few of the Elric books; they're alright. Definitely worth reading to see a very idiosyncratic and influential take on fantasy. You could make an argument for him being the true father of Grimdark.

    The first book of his that I read was Dancers at the End of Time (read it in omnibus form) and I read that too young really, although I am still mesmerised by the weirdness of it. I have an omnibus of the original Eternal Champion and Von Bek series which I love very much.
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  10. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune

    Yes, I remember you mentioning this to me over at the SF forum, but I think you also agreed with Boreas’ suggestion of Moorcock’s more sophisticated stories, such as his Gloriana or Behold the Man.
  11. Darwin

    Darwin Journeyed there and back again

    Though the latter half of this may be hyperbolic to the point of actual inaccuracy (haven't read any Moorcock, but I'm not ready to dismiss him as quite that bad), I think you do raise a good point. It's a lot easier to be a critic than a writer. To take that point somewhere you probably didn't intend it to go: if you read this genre purely for entertainment, deep analysis risks losing appreciation of otherwise enjoyable, if flawed, works. Let's keep our analysis superficial! I like X because it was awesome, but I disliked Y because I thought it was not awesome.

    I do think Moorcock is on to something, especially about the assumed superiority of isolated rural communities. In real life, such communities are often extremely poor and lives there are filled with hard labor. In LotR, however, you get the sense that the Shire is a land of plenty without much effort on the part of the hobbits, a sort of idyllic home for a life free of disease or poverty or want.
  12. Darwin

    Darwin Journeyed there and back again

    It occurs to me that the same theme is absent from WoT, despite the protagonists coming from a small rural town.
  13. Peat

    Peat Journeyed there and back again

    Time and place. Edwardian rural England, insofar as I know, was a pretty decent place compared to the best someone might expect from life at that time. I don't think its fair to read Tolkien's idolisation of the world he knew as being a championing of all rural communities ever.
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  14. Anti_Quated

    Anti_Quated Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune

    I remarked on 'Epic Pooh' a little while back on my blog. Short form is I detect more than a hint of sour grapes from Moorcock (we all suffer it at some point ;)); his razor scalping of a peaceable agrarian society and Tolkien's anti-industrialist perspective was.... reductionist, and too simplified from where I sit. I thought the Hobbits marvellously enthralled by many of the wonders they found beyond their own simple lands; but in the end, the proverbial 'no place like home' rings true. Seeing the gentrification of the inner city where I live, and the insanity of rising house prices and myriad changes to the cultural landscape, I appreciate aspects of the new and modern (revitalised infrastructure, budding tourism, choc-peanut butter doughnuts and southern-fried chicken burgers are all great!). Concurrently, there's a bit of a sting in the recognition and realisation that the transitional nature means aspects of Home will fade, be truncated sharply, or omitted altogether in favour of progress. So too with the Shire and the malevolence of the
    corrupted Istari when the Hobbits return home to Sharkey's/Saruman's desecration and upheaval of their beloved land, a fertile paradise stripped bare and bloated with ill-behaved invaders

    I tend, rather obstinately and often comically, to Tolkien's ideological stance and find discordance with Moorcock's. Stagnation is death (The Elves) yes, but not all progress is good (Saruman's war industry) - a momentive necessity to propagate further developments and renewals, but often with a substantial, unimaginable cost attached. Not everyone wants to, or feels compelled, to cough up, or tow the party line (Boromir's speech at the council in Rivendell, quite rightly, notes this discrepancy between those who shed their blood in the defence of others who contribute naught for their own survival, let alone prosperity, in the face of an all-encompassing and ever-encroaching evil). A sort of scorched-earth to re-sow the field with different crops; a socio-economic and cultural Ragnarok in Middle Earth, if you will.

    It's not all bad though, for Middle Earth, or for us. Alas, for that world recedes ever more, and I can't convince my wife of the benefits of moving to the Scottish highlands, the Fjords of Scandinavia, or the idyll island bounty of Hawai'i. Perhaps when retirement looms a little larger ;)

    @Tanniel Great topic, btw :)
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  15. Tanniel

    Tanniel Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune

    Thanks for your detailed reply, @Anti_Quated, glad you liked the topic. =)
  16. Darwin

    Darwin Journeyed there and back again

    It's true that not all change is progress, but not embracing what progress can be found is an almost alien concept to me. Progress grows exponentially over time, with today's advances feeding tomorrow's. Stagnation isn't death, but it is very quickly extreme poverty, even within just a couple of generations. A 2.5% GDP growth over 50 years yields 3.4 times the output per person. Imagine removing 70% of goods/services your grandchildrens' society would have otherwise produced simply because you don't trust change. *shudders*
  17. Nuomer1

    Nuomer1 Ran bridges next to Kaladin

    I was fully qualified to read 'Elric' (by Sparrow's definition) when I first came across it. With considerable difficulty I forced my way through one book, the first in the Elric series. All I can remember about it is how glad I was that it was a relatively short book. I never read anything else by Moorcock, and have no plans to do so.
    However: Having read through much of this thread, I read most of the essay it refers to - and I think Moorcock may be much better at the academic study and critical analysis of Fantasy than he is at writing it.
  18. Peat

    Peat Journeyed there and back again

    It is worth noting that Moorcock's heroes often find themselves fighting against the powers of Chaos i.e. constant change forced by untrammelled power.

    Nuomer - It would be a shame to judge the man by one fairly pulpy book; not everything he has written is like Elric, not by a long shot.
  19. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune

    So @Tanniel , what is your opinion about "Epic Pooh"?
  20. Tanniel

    Tanniel Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune

    @Elvira, while I can see where he is coming from, I wasn't particularly swayed by this essay. I think it suffers from both simplifying and conflating issues and also being a tad hypocritical.

    I am not at all against criticism that explores political undercurrents in literature, but I feel as if Moorcock makes the connection that if these books have (conservative) political content, they must necessarily badly written. That LotR is a bad book stylistically because in many ways it is conservative. I don't think that is legitimate - I think style and political content are two separate entities entirely, and connecting them via criticism is just bad criticism. I also deeply disagree with his reading of Watership Down, whose success he attributes to it being a "comforting lie". Reading that book as a young teen, I found it deeply disturbing and unsettling, and that was a great part of its brilliance. In short, I question his skills as a critical reader and as a literary critic in general.

    As for the second point, I notice his praise of Phillip Pullman and Rowling. Both of these, from what I can tell, are philosophically or ideologically aligned with him. Pullman's books are even expressly anti-religious in their content (which I would consider in the same grouping as political content). Again he seems to equate political content with style - this time, however, he agrees with it, and thus it must necessarily be well written. Either he is hypocritical or else his main point seems to be that the merit of writing is primarily whether he agrees with its political philosophy. Which I consider an invalid standard of literary quality.

    Setting aside my personal, political opinions, I found this an uncompelling essay with flawed reasoning, but it was interesting to read given that it is by a somewhat konwn fantasy author, and I was curious what others would think of it.
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