On Reading Tolkien

So I said I wanted to blog more, and Twitter has, this week, given me an opportunity.

If you’re a part of writing Twitter, and specifically of fantasy writing Twitter, you’ve likely seen the Tolkien-centric turmoil. It started when Chuck Wendig Said A Thing. In response to a prompt about unpopular epic fantasy opinions, Wendig said that Tolkien is not the end-all and the be-all of epic fantasy fiction. He then said some other things, which some readers took to be criticisms of Tolkien in particular when they were not, necessarily, and the whole thing spiraled from there. Some of those spirals were actually fairly erudite discussions of literary canon, who gets included in it, who decides what gets included in it, how we can disrupt the norms of who gets included in it, and so forth. Some of those spirals were… less erudite, as we might expect. And in the way of Twitter battles, it’s all wandered a great deal off-course from the initial discussion.

I’ve resisted commentary on Twitter because, honestly, I didn’t have enough of a dog in the fight. But then I started seeing one line of comment that I sort of bumped on, and I decided to blog rather than tweet about it because Twitter is not a great platform for nuanced discussion. The tenor of this line of commentary was, “I don’t owe Tolkien anything”. And that… Enh. Whether or not you like Tolkien, whether or not you’ve even read Tolkien, if you’re reading and writing fantasy in the English language, you owe something to Tolkien, at least indirectly.

The analogy that sprang to my mind was that Chaucer. Tolkien : fantasy fiction :: Chaucer : English language and literature.

Whether or not you’ve ever read The Canterbury Tales, if you’re speaking and reading in English today, you owe something to them. They had lasting influence and the helped in shaping the English language as we know it today. Part of that was sheer dumb luck, writing in the right place at the right time. Around 1400, English was still really fractured. For example, The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were both written in Middle English. The Canterbury Tales is hard, but not impossible, to read without a translation.

A knight ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To ryden out, he loved chivalrye,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye.
Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre,
And thereto hadde he riden (no man ferre)
As wel in cristendom as hethenesse,
And evere honoured for his worthinesse.

That’s recognizable as English, even if it’s quite clearly not the English we speak today. It’s not even the English of Shakespeare, two centuries later. But it’s English.

Now check out a sample of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written at the same time, but in Northern England:

After Crystenmasse com þe crabbed lentoun,
Þat fraystez flesch wyth þe fysche and fode more symple;
Bot þenne þe weder of þe worlde wyth wynter hit þrepez,
Colde clengez adoun, cloudez vplyften,
Schyre schedez þe rayn in schowrez ful warme,
Fallez vpon fayre flat, flowrez þere schewen,
Boþe groundez and þe greuez grene ar her wedez,
Bryddez busken to bylde, and bremlych syngen
For solace of þe softe somer þat sues þerafter bi bonk;
And blossumez bolne to blowe
Bi rawez rych and ronk,
Þen notez noble innoȝe
Ar herde in wod so wlonk.
After þe sesoun of somer wyth þe soft wyndez

That is… not the same language. We call them both Middle English, but you can tell at a glance that they are not the same. The northern dialect in the 14th century was still much closer to Old English and its Nordic influences.

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Because The Canterbury Tales was written in London-English, it was written in the English which eventually “won”. London-English came to dominate because, a few decades later, London was where the printing presses were — and printing presses helped to begin the process of standardization of the language into what we know today. So Chaucer benefited from that — and he influenced it, since his work was proliferated in that dialect and influenced future works. He was also part of a trend towards vernacularization in English literature. He may not have been the first writer in Middle English to write in that fashion, but he was the most popular. And so, he became a tentpole of English literature.

Now, do you need to have read The Canterbury Tales in order to speak English or to tell stories in it? Of course not. But if you want to study how English language and literature came to be as they are today, it would be difficult to avoid engaging with the work. If that’s your goal, should you only study Chaucer? Of course not! Chaucer isn’t the end-all and the be-all of late medieval literature, let alone the whole of English literature. Even just looking at his era, many scholars credit the Chancery Courts with having a greater influence on the standardization of language that moved England towards its Early Modern form. Chaucer is not the sole definition of English language or literature, but a number of factors combined to make him an outsized influence on both.

And I feel similarly about Tolkien in the context of the fantasy genre. You don’t need to have read Tolkien to be a fan of fantasy fiction, to enjoy it, even to write it. But if you want to understand how the genre developed and came to be as it is today, it would be foolish to ignore him. And it would be equally foolish to study only Tolkien and to assume that he alone defines the genre.

There’s a lot to criticize in Tolkien, particularly where issues of race and gender are concerned. There’s also a lot to enjoy, if you’re the right sort of reader in the right frame of mind. I feel very fondly towards the books now, but I didn’t always, and I still can’t just pick them up to re-read in any sort of mood. I couldn’t get through them at all until after I’d seen the movies, a sin for which I’m sure many gatekeepers would be delighted to flagellate me. I’m someone who loves to luxuriate in detailed world-building, so my problem isn’t the pace or the digressions, but rather that I find the writing itself sometimes dense and stilted. And the lack of women is and always has been a big problem for me. But there’s still a lot in Tolkien that I appreciate. After the 2016 election, for example, I had basically lost all faith in humanity, and I couldn’t get through reading anything. Until I decided to pick The Fellowship of the Ring back up. In that moment, that was what I wanted: simple morality where good eventually triumphs, and I was happy to lose myself in the Middle Earth when the myriad complexities of the world I lived in felt overwhelmingly cruel. But I’m far more likely to revisit the stories by way of the movies than the books, because I find them more accessible and emotionally moving.

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I’m firmly of the opinion that Tolkien could never get published today. He’d be told his pacing is uneven, his story starts far too slowly, he spends too much time on world-building, he introduces too many characters in the first chapter and we never hear from many of them ever again. He couldn’t get published today. But if he hadn’t been published in the mid-20th century, a lot of other books never would have been, either — for better or for worse. I don’t know what the fantasy genre would look like if there had never been Tolkien. We’d likely still be facing the same issues of race and gender, because, considering the era, whoever stepped into the void he left would likely also be a white male. It might have taken the genre more time to achieve the popularity it currently enjoys and the faint measure of respect it’s still striving for in many literary circles. It might not have. Swords and sorcery might still have been the dominant form for decades, or maybe it would’ve been something else. I don’t know. No one can know. Because Tolkien was, and he shaped the genre.

We don’t owe him all, any more than modern English owes all it is to Chaucer. And maybe what we owe him is equal parts honor and a kick in the pants, for both the good and the ill in his work. But suggesting we owe him nothing strikes me as either incredibly naive or willfully childish. Even if you’ve never read him, doubtless some of the authors you do read were influenced by him. They may have been influenced in the negative, driven specifically to do something different, not to replicate his form and format, but that’s still an influence. And there’s no extricating Tolkien’s popularity from the development of the publishing industry’s fantasy wing. The publishing world we work in, whether or not we’ve read Tolkien ourselves, was partially shaped by Tolkien and his legacy.

Should you read Tolkien? I don’t know. What do you hope to get out of it? If you’re looking for a good tale, it may or may not suit your fancy. If you’re looking for detailed and well-researched world-building, you’ll get a lot of that (if in a narrow northern-and-western-European scope — Tolkien was a truly remarkable scholar of what he studied, but it certainly had its limits). If you’re looking to learn the history of the genre and how it developed, then yeah, you probably ought to have at least some familiarity with such a major tentpole. But you don’t have to know that history or have a desire to learn it just because you want to read or write in the genre. It’s a subset of what there is to enjoy, a dish on the menu. It doesn’t make a meal, and it’s not the only thing the restaurant serves.

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And that winds me around to the idea of literary canon and what one “must” read.

“Must” is a silly word. The books you “must” read to be a fan of a genre, or to create within it, are the books which speak to your soul, the ones that resonate with you.

Enjoying a thing need not be the same as studying it, and studying the thing itself is not the same as studying its history. I’m a historian, so I know that influences my viewpoint. It’s why the Chaucer analogy leapt to my brain. It’s not the place everyone stands, nor the place everyone should. It does, though, lead me to the following consideration:

If we’re looking at fantasy from a scholarly viewpoint, perhaps we ought to consider that the genre is large enough and has been around long enough to need more than one intro course, as it were. A survey of fantasy literature and a history of fantasy in the English language would have different syllabi, and maybe you’d only find Tolkien in the latter. And that’s fine. It’s not like he’s suffering for exposure. Nor are many of the other authors you’d likely find in such a course — Lewis, Le Guin, Brooks, Jordan, Pratchett, Gaiman, Martin — though some of the longer-ago forbears, like William Morris and Lord Dunsany, would be little-remembered outside of it. The purpose of such a course would not be to say that every work studied in it deserved to be a tentpole of the genre, but rather to acknowledge that they have become sofor a variety of reasons, and to examine the effect that each had on shaping the genre as we now know it. Whether or not you think Tolkien merits his outsized importance, he has long had it, and a scholarly course on the history of fantasy literature would have to address that — in part to understand why and how the “established canon” has so long excluded certain voices, and what needs to be done to remedy that in the future. Understanding how the past failed the present can help the present choose how to shape the future.

But a survey course in fantasy literature? Now, that ought to be different, more diverse, less focused on the history of the genre and more concerned with giving students a taste of everything the genre is and can be. It should look at alternate influences, and it should look at subgenres, and it should look at those works which have grand merits on their own yet did not spawn a legacy of imitations in the way that the tentpoles did. If I were to devise such a survey course, I’m sure my syllabus would look a little different from that of anyone else who might do so — and if I were teaching a real course, with real students, I’d be adjusting it a bit every semester, to take new works into account, and to try and provide representation for the cultural makeup of the class.

And all of that would be different from the books that were my “musts” — the books I have read which brought me to the place I am now. My tentpoles of the genre, which have shaped my reading and writing. Like a history course, it might have gaps and omissions — things I ought to have read, things I wish I’d read earlier than I had, things that slipped by me. It might have things I read and which shaped me which didn’t deserve that influence, or which were important at the time but which I wouldn’t recommend to anyone else now. That list is going to be different for everyone. Certainly there are things I’ve read that I didn’t enjoy, that were high-quality but didn’t resonate with me, that have had a huge influence on others. But the wonderful thing is, it need never be a finished list. As readers, we can always keep doing better, reading more broadly, exposing ourselves to new influences.

So when it comes to the idea of Tolkien and fantasy canon and all of that, what I really come down to, I guess, is this: Build your own canon. Figure out why you like the things you do — what calls to you, what resonates? Map your own personal history within and without the genre, and know how it has affected you. That’s what matters most.

Rosy

There is  moment, in Man of La Mancha, that struck me very powerfully from a very young age. Cervantes, in prison and interrupted in his tale of Don Quixote, is challenged by another prisoner, who asks him why poets are so fanciful, why poets can’t just face up to life as it is? And Cervantes responds gorgeously, bitterly, passionately:

I have lived nearly fifty years, and I have seen life as it is. Pain, misery, hunger … cruelty beyond belief. I have heard the singing from taverns and the moans from bundles of filth on the streets. I have been a soldier and seen my comrades fall in battle … or die more slowly under the lash in Africa. I have held them in my arms at the final moment. These were men who saw life as it is, yet they died despairing. No glory, no gallant last words … only their eyes filled with confusion, whimpering the question, “Why?” I do not think they asked why they were dying, but why they had lived. When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. To seek treasure where there is only trash. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!

I have always been a storyteller, and I have always been an optimist. This, I think affects the way in which I tell stories.

I’ve said — and written — before about how sci-fi and fantasy hold a mirror up to life and question it, but there are a lot of ways to go about that. The dominant trend for the past fifteen years or so has been the grimdark version. Not so much a mirror as a magnifying glass, turning the saturation up on misery and pain. Everything from Batman Begins to A Game of Thrones to Altered Carbon — these things dwell on agony. They stripped down the glitz and color of the 80s and 90s, and with them, the hope. The prevailing message is that everything is terrible, everyone is terrible, and there is no escape.

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Now, obviously, that’s not 100% of what’s out there, but it’s quite a lot of it, especially in SFF. I consume this media, because it’s the current paradigm, but it’s not what I most enjoy. And it’s not what I write.

I’ve been analyzing this in myself lately, and I’ve realized that, when I write, I look at the way things were in the past or the way things could be in the future, and then I ask: “What would change if we, individually and as a people, made better choices?” I imagine life a little more as it should be.

And then, because of the way my brain works, I set about trying to figure out what tuns that should into a could. I’ve watched myself do it in far-off history, re-imagining the Romans; I’ve seen myself do it with nearer history, re-imagining America in the 19th century; I’ve seen myself do it with the future, imagining life in space. I never want to create a utopia. Those go too far; I tend to find them somewhere between boring and unbearably bleak, and they just don’t ring true. No matter how good we humans get, we’re never going to be perfect. We’re messy, emotional creatures, and we’ll always make messy, emotional mistakes. But if we were just a little better, a little kinder, a little more aware, a little less selfish, a little more long-seeing — How might that change things?

And it’s not just about the past or the future. As I started thinking about it, this desire to imagine a better world plays into the characters I’m drawn to in fiction, as well. It’s particularly noticeable in, though not exclusive to, romance.

Because let’s face it: scoundrels with hearts of gold are a rare commodity. Most of them are just irresponsible jackasses. Maybe they’re not bad guys, really, but they’ve never learned to be better. And those dark, brooding types? Entitled jerks, on the whole. Selfish and self-righteous. They are not really the kind of people you want to give your heart to.

But in fiction… they can be.

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In fiction, you can spend at least a few hours imagining that people can change for the better, and that the redemptive power of love can make them want to do so — that the Beast works to prove himself worthy of Belle’s love, that Han Solo does care about something other than his own skin, that the rake reforms. And yeah, I get the argument that portraying relationships like that in fiction sets a dangerous precedent in real life, that it encourages girls and women to think wrong-headedly and invest in men who don’t deserve them. I get it. I’ve lived it. Heart many-times-broken; lesson perhaps-eventually-learned.

It doesn’t stop the yearning to imagine that it still might be true, that loving someone enough could make them want to do better — by you and by themselves and by the whole damn galaxy.

Just like I understand the instinct for the grimdark stories. I understand the idea that forcing us to view our darkest natures might make us own up to them. There’s a place for all these stories. But there’s a place for the rosier versions, too. There’s a place for people to dream, to hope, and to imagine something less brutal. In some ways, that’s a relief; in other ways, it’s a necessary coping mechanism. It’s what keeps us from dying despairing. A story of hope gives us something to keep reaching for.

I know there are some who find that point of view naive, irrational, or unsophisticated. They’re wrong, of course, because they’re assuming it comes from a place of ignorance or insulation, and that’s often quite far from the case. Rather, when you’ve been battered about by the Real World, it’s not unreasonable to want to believe in a version of the universe that could be just a little bit better.

I rather think it’s a thing of courage, to gift your heart with such imaginings.

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This is why I like fluffy romance novels. It’s why I like Rogue One so much, because even through the tragedy, the message is one of hope, not of annihilation. It’s why I liked the X-Men of the 90s. It’s why Cap and Thor are my favorite MCU Avengers. It’s why I like the vision of the future that Star Trek presents. It’s why I still love and weep at Disney movies. And it’s why I write books the way that I do.

If I’m going to spend time in a fictional world, whether my own or someone else’s, I want it to be a place where I can imagine, at least for a little while, life as it should be.

Change is the constant

Change is the constant, the signal for rebirth, the egg of the phoenix

[Warning: What follows is a heavy, introspective post broken up with humorous gifs, because that’s how I roll. I’ve been writing this post over the past few weeks, as I am wont to do, but it got harder to resolve myself to its spirit yesterday, when I lost the feline companion who has been my best friend since I was thirteen years old. But then I remember her royal sassiness looking at me, those beautiful yellow-green eyes seeming to say, “I love you, but get it together, woman.” And so I think I must do even better than I promised myself, for her.]

In the summer of 2012, I launched something that I called the Bold New Me Initiative. It was two years after the end of an abusive relationship, though it had taken me most of those two years to stop mourning for it and instead to realize that what had happened had been abuse. And, having realized it, I was mad as hell and determined to refashion myself into someone who could never have “let herself” be treated that way. I had finished drafting and doing initial edits on what would become From Unseen Fire. I was going to go to a convention and pitch it, and then I was going to query, and by the gods I was going to be the novelist I’d always said I would be, come hell or high water. I was going to glitter and glow as I knew I was meant to. I was going to recreate myself as something astonishing.

It almost worked.

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My intentions were certainly good, but there were still things in my life I was blind to. Those things held me back from managing to evolve entirely into the sort of person I wanted to be.

It’s rough to look at yourself and know you have been susceptible to toxic people. To know that you still have that susceptibility, that that weakness will always be in you, however strong and independent-minded you want to think yourself. To know you will have to learn to vigilantly guard against it.

It’s only a little mollifying to know you’re not alone, but the internet does occasionally help in that regard. I don’t know what reasons other people have that give birth to that vulnerability, but for me, it’s entirely because of how badly I want to be liked. Gods, I wish I didn’t. Life would be so much better if I gave as few fucks as I sometimes pretend I have to spare. But that’s just not who I am.

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I want to be liked, to be loved, to belong. And it makes me horrifyingly susceptible to the love-bombing that toxic people open and often sustain damaging relationships with. In 2012, I had freed myself from one poison but didn’t realize I was drinking another on a daily basis. And that would lead to… a whole lot of bad. It would keep me from living up to the image I have of myself. It would trap me and encourage me to make myself small in ways I wouldn’t be able to see clearly for years. It would cause me to isolate myself more than I realized, ignoring opportunities for fulfilling friendships and letting slip some of those I already had. It would dial my anxiety disorder up to 11 on an almost-constant basis.

Living like that… the center cannot hold.

Last year, I tried again. I left the city I’d lived in for close to a decade, the stable job I’d gotten right out of grad school. It all felt right, at the time — cleansing. So many things happened all at the same time — the car I’d had since I was 16, for example, finally gave up the ghost. It seemed like a sign. Yes, move out and move on. Let go of everything that has so ill-defined you these past few years. Start over, entirely fresh.

I still think the time was right for it. I very clearly needed to make some changes, or I was going to lose my grip on sanity entirely.

But I didn’t stick the landing.

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In a few weeks, I’m going to be going back to my high school to talk about careers and adulting. I’m likely to be a bit too honest about it. One of the things I’m going to stress? Don’t make decisions in crisis mode. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

Because that’s really what I can trace this past Lost Year to. I had let myself get so knotted up that the only way I saw to get out was hacking through everything with a sword. And, I mean, that works… but then you’re left with a bunch of frayed ends that don’t do anyone any good.

I spent the dark of the year in a very dark place (literally as much as figuratively). I started my self-imposed exile a few weeks before the autumn equinox; I returned to a familiar home a few weeks before the vernal. The symbolism is too much for a pagan to ignore. A cold, lonely hibernation. Everything folding in on itself, unfed by the sun, blasted by icy winds. A journey to the Underworld, bleak and grey.

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But spring always comes. Snows always melt.

As miserable as it was, I’m starting to think this year nonetheless had Purpose. Perhaps I had to go through this year in order to really and truly strip away all those things I don’t want to be. I think I had to die a little in order to figure out how I want to live.

The phoenix, after all, has to reduce herself entirely to ash before she can blaze again.

So from here on out, I blaze. (And if I say it to all of you, perhaps that will force me to be accountable to myself and actually land on my feet this time.) No more excuses. No more ducking my head. No more making myself small. From Unseen Fire comes out in a few weeks, and I think I have a few lessons to learn from my own heroine. Starting now, I walk with my head up and my core tight and my hips under me, rather than slouching my way through the world. (You know, like this). I’m going to go back to wearing clothes that say “pay attention to me” rather than “please ignore me”. I’m going to start wearing high heels again. I will be the lioness, not the mouse. I will take what is mine — with fire and blood, should that prove necessary.

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I will live up to the image I want to have of myself — and I will live up to the image that those who love me have of me, because bless them, that my friends can still think me worthy of affection seems a miracle, some days. I don’t want to let them down any longer. I will spend more time nurturing those friendships. I will remember that I am an extrovert, that avoiding people makes me unhappy, and so I will engage with the world rather than shutting it out.

And wherever I land next, I am going to summon every ounce of regality in me, and I will own that place.

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Bold New Me Initiative, v2.0.

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And, as is appropriate, an accompanying 2.0 playlist:

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/1270613493/playlist/4Kk5oVSgDDLaIl9qf6KIho