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July 28, 2012 10:57 AM   Subscribe

Fall, Mortality, and the Machine: Tolkien and Technology From the beginnings of modern fantasy, in the work of Tolkien, technology has always been the enemy of the good life. But does it have to be that way?
posted by infini (82 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
Interesting read.

While the difference between SF and fantasy appears at first glance to be simply a matter of setting, I've been toying with the idea that historically fantasy tends to be inherently conservative while SF is progressive. Lower case conservative and progressive, I mean, not in their modern political meanings. Sure, you can point to a few counter examples but that's true of any distinction you draw.

Fantasy tends towards stories involving a return to some previous status quo. Defeat the invading dark lord. Restore some quasi feudal monarchy. Look to some past golden age. SF is much more about change and progress. That's not exactly a brilliant and incisive insight but I think it's an interesting way to look at a real difference between the (related) genres.

It also lends itself to the view that the last decade or two has seen some pushback against this pattern with a lot of leading fantasists deliberately writing more progressive fantasy. Mieville, etc.
posted by Justinian at 11:25 AM on July 28, 2012 [10 favorites]


But then tobacco has always been part of the good life, a pleasure, in his world, so go figure. . . .
posted by Danf at 11:37 AM on July 28, 2012


What Justinian said.
posted by sciurus at 11:44 AM on July 28, 2012


As fascinating as these conversations get, I fear at the end they boil down to a lot of arguing about what exactly constitutes a genre. (Witness similar debates about if Star Wars is truly sci-fi or is it space fantasy.) I tend to think that defining genres are all fine for the sake of assigning labels for taxonomy and thus making clear Wikipedia organization, but are ultimately dependent upon the leading creators and works within the genre. For instance, while Tolkien shaped fantasy in the 20th century, but if he been just a little less popular and Robert E. Howard more so, we'd be talking about fantasy through the lens of sword and sorcery instead of high fantasy.
posted by Apocryphon at 11:47 AM on July 28, 2012


But these projects are too dependent on Tolkien, even if in opposition to him, and they require a rejection of the whole apparatus of fantasy. Which raises some questions: Is fantasy intrinsically hostile to technology? That is, was Tolkien simply drawing out what is already there in the genre? Or has he limited it in unnecessary ways? What would a fantasy that embraces technology look like? Arthur Weasley's fascination with Muggle tech in the Harry Potter books is simply comical -- though a great source of fun in the books. I'd like to see a writer imagine what technologies would arise in a fictional world where magic rules but is not the only game in town. Is that too much to ask?
Perhaps Diskworld, Zoo City, Bone Dance (and the Bordelands stories), Shadowrun (and spinoff universes), perhaps The Sharing Knife which embraces its early 19th-century setting, The Spiritwalker trilogy (early industrial), Little, Big in its quaint art deco way, Broken Time Blues is a surprisingly good anthology set in the Jazz Age, Star Wars, The Book of the New Sun is perhaps the best use of Clarke's law, The Barsoom stories are arguably science fantasy, and possibly a good chunk of Stephen King, Lukyanenko's Night Watch books.

If anything, the 800-lb gorilla in any discussion of fantasy and technology these days isn't Tolkien; it's Terry Pratchett (although the basic ideas about storytelling as a means or agency can be traced to Beagle and Barrie). In Pratchett's Diskworld, common sense cleverness and magic are frequently synergetic. He frequently makes the case that modern institutions such as civil order, a professional military, postal and banking systems, theater, and human rights, rely on the same kinds of manipulation of belief and story used by Granny Weatherwax.

Pratchett's certainly more of an influence on Gaiman's treatment of myth and magic than Tolkien. Within the frame of Middle Earth, myth is simply a naive statement of the way things are and magic is often a matter of divine/diabolical intervention. In Prachett's and Gaiman's worlds, humanity and myth exist as part of a mutually developing dialoge. Humans change the Hogfather and the Hogfather changes humans. That dialoge has no place in narratives derived from Tolkien.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:51 AM on July 28, 2012 [16 favorites]


What really annoys me about sentiments like this is how the speaker, like Tolkien, always seems utterly blind to the levels of technology required to maintain the 18th century level of development they seem comfortable with instead of the full on Neolithic.

And how blind they are to the correlations between technology and the levels of social development they imply... in real life, tech that low implies widespread slavery and enserfment.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:55 AM on July 28, 2012 [12 favorites]


There's something rather little-c conservative about Tolkien that's there in The Hobbit but kind of charming and affable, which then ramps right up for Lord of the Rings in a way I find intolerable. Plus the songs are worse and go on forever.
posted by Artw at 11:57 AM on July 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


Justinian: Sure, you can point to a few counter examples but that's true of any distinction you draw.

More than a few, I'd say. The same argument has been made that classic science fiction tends to affirm idealized values of the dominant culture.

Fantasy tends towards stories involving a return to some previous status quo. Defeat the invading dark lord. Restore some quasi feudal monarchy. Look to some past golden age.

I think the last fantasy story I read that could be described in this way was my last reading of Lord of the Rings about five years ago.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:06 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Very interesting. It strikes me that yesterday's Olyimpics ceremony was a very conscious and very English answer to, and refutation of, the feudal hatred of the machine in Tolkein.

Danny Boyle celebrates the rise of industry, shared responsibility, unions, democracy, equality, and makes it clear that the scouring of the shire is necessary for the NHS and the Internet.

There are no ringbearers and this is for everyone.
posted by Gilgongo at 12:09 PM on July 28, 2012 [6 favorites]


A lot of epic fantasy is that way. Brooks, Eddings, etc. The kind of stuff we referred to as Extruded Fantasy Product on rasfw.
posted by Justinian at 12:09 PM on July 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Oh, I forgot Princess of Mars which explicitly is fantasy wish fulfillment with a anti-communist screed slipped in the middle.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:10 PM on July 28, 2012


The theme of agrarian versus the factory is not a new one for English writers of a certain time period.

After all, Blake wrote :

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?


Not everyone was a fan of the Industrial Revolution.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:13 PM on July 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


A lot of epic fantasy is that way. Brooks, Eddings, etc. The kind of stuff we referred to as Extruded Fantasy Product on rasfw.

Then the observation is something of a circular argument of definition.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:19 PM on July 28, 2012


I have nothing but love and admiration for JRRT, but there is this:

the speaker, like Tolkien, always seems utterly blind to the levels of technology required to maintain the 18th century level of development they seem comfortable with

Bilbo Baggins glanced at the clock on his mantle and ran out of Bag End without a pocket handkerchief.

A clock is a remarkable bit of machinery, implying precision metalwork. A pocket handkerchief implies a textile industry.

Perhaps this is the distinction between fantasy and science-fiction: in SF, there is no product without process. The Minds of Ian Banks's Culture can whip up pretty much anything you want, but there is always the understanding that there is an awesome manufacturing ability behind this. In fantasy, the appearance of a clock, a pocket handkerchief or a ring of invisibility is just part of the writer's fiat. The clock, the handkerchief and the ring are just there, because the storyteller says so.

(Although I recall JRRT temporizing with his elves. "This is what you might call magic." To the elves, waybread and obedient rope are not magic; they are the product of skill.)

I was re-reading Grahame's The Wind in the Willows a week ago and I was struck by how happily it reflected the time of the author (1908) and how Rat's "messing about with boats" agreed with Jerome's Three Men in a Boat. There is nothing intrinsic about fantasy that sets it in the past. Perhaps this is merely a case of writers following the conventions of the forebears, and the expectations of their readers, without asking themselves, "why a sword? Why not a pistol?"
posted by SPrintF at 12:27 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


What gets me -- what I always find myself worrying about -- is the mortality rate for childbirth. How many little Hobbiton women die each year in childbirth? How many hobbit babies are born dead?

This is something that I feel like Tolkien, and a whole lot of other writers who are wistful for the past, seem to forget. A world without modern technology is a world where a whole lot more women die giving birth. It kind of stops up my appreciation for Middle Earth.

Though, I'm pretty sure the elves have some good magic to help ease childbirth. I imagine elven midwives are pretty bad-ass.
posted by meese at 12:27 PM on July 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


It's worse in the movies - there's all these cities in the middle if nowhere with no visible supporting agriculture or economy or anything.
posted by Artw at 12:30 PM on July 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


To the elves, waybread and obedient rope are not magic; they are the product of skill.

That's not entirely true. The art of making waybread was given to the elves by one of the angels/gods. So it is as much a thing of magic as the rings and the planatir, the making of which was taught by Sauron.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:34 PM on July 28, 2012


I have nothing but love and admiration for JRRT, but there is this:

the speaker, like Tolkien, always seems utterly blind to the levels of technology required to maintain the 18th century level of development they seem comfortable with


No way, you have complex series of roads. You have inns--why would people stay in inns, why go on long journeys but for some gain? Why would towns with inns in them exist if not for complex trade? Why were natural resources exploited by various races in the hills and mountains, and what were the men of Long Lake doing living next to the lake?

We get glimpses of answers to all these questions, but it's not the author's geek-out point.

A lot of this is glossed over, I'll grant it; but it's not absent and its author (for those writing in Tolkien's vein) aren't blind to it.

Pish posh.
posted by resurrexit at 12:43 PM on July 28, 2012


Bilbo Baggins glanced at the clock on his mantle and ran out of Bag End without a pocket handkerchief.

From The Hobbit:
Poor Bilbo couldn't bear it any longer. At "may never return" he began to feel a shriek coming up inside, and very soon it burst out like the whistle of an engine coming out of tunnel.

From The Fellowship of the Ring:
A great smoke went up. It shaped itself like a mountain seen in the distance, and began to glow at the summit. It spouted green and scarlet flames. Out flew a red-golden dragon--not life-size, but terribly life-like: fire came from his jaws, his eyes glared down; there was a roar, and he wizzed three times over the heads of the crowd. They all ducked, and many fell flat on their faces. The dragon passed like an express train, turned a somersault, and burst over Bywater with a defeating explosion.


Forget clocks and handkerchiefs, lets talk about these express trains tooting their whistles as they come out of tunnels.
posted by radwolf76 at 12:52 PM on July 28, 2012 [10 favorites]


Clearly LOTR is a fallen colony world. The higher powers/gods are the original colonists that have made themselves immortal with technology, and taken on aspects and attributes. Now where the hell is Mahasamatamn, I mean Sam.
posted by Chekhovian at 1:10 PM on July 28, 2012 [10 favorites]


I've always thought that it's not really technology that Tolkien fears it's knowledge. What is the ring of power but another apple offered by the snake, another form "forbidden knowledge"? And this fear of knowledge plagues modern society not because we believe knowledge may harm us but because knowledge will change us. Is it possible to write fantasy that regarded knowledge -- and the all-too-human thirst for knowledge -- as something not so bad? It could be done, sure, but it would be difficult as the notion that everything can't/shouldn't be explained lies very close to the heart of fantasy. You would have to embrace a strong perspectivism and at that point it wouldn't be fantasy, it would be boring drama with fantastical elements. There are also many fantasy stories that involve "debunking" though these lie very close to being glorified detective stories. There are also some fantasy stories where "knowledge/evil" wins but these tend to be similarly mechanical.
posted by nixerman at 1:15 PM on July 28, 2012


Clearly LOTR is a fallen colony world. The higher powers/gods are the original colonists that have made themselves immortal with technology, and taken on aspects and attributes
If Gene Wolfe was the writer, perhaps.
posted by smidgen at 1:27 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


radwolf68 - the framing story is that Tolkein has found the Baggins' Red Book of the Westmarch and has translated it for modern English eyes. The original probably didn't have a translatable simile.
posted by muddgirl at 1:31 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty much going to assume any fantasy setting is a fallen colony world unless it can be explicitly proved otherwise, because i juts really like fallen colony worlds. Westeros is clearly inside a Dyson sphere! It's right there in the title sequence! The comings and goings of winter and magic are the waxing and waning of the warp, Warhammer stylee.
posted by Artw at 1:31 PM on July 28, 2012 [8 favorites]


Metafilter is my fallen colony world.


What? we're talking about fantasies right?
posted by infini at 1:33 PM on July 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


"...So everyone is, like, on the bed doing it, in every possible way, getting all infinite diversity in infinite combinations to quote the trek guy, and then we look out of the window and OMG THAT MOUNTAIN RANGE IS TOTES A CRASHED SPACESHIP..."

See? Improves everything.
posted by Artw at 1:45 PM on July 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


That may actually be a psychically channeled spoiler from the next GRRM book, BTW, so apologies if it is.
posted by Artw at 1:46 PM on July 28, 2012


Half the shit it middle earth is magic, that is what Middle Earth technology is based on. Tolkien doesn't explain it the same way a writer writing about 21st century America wouldn't explain how a TV works, it just does. All the toilets in Orthanc? Magic. What keeps the 7 walls and "engines" that defend Minas Tirith from falling down? Magic.

The author also doesn't need to explain trade, the same way an author doesn't need to explain how the TV got from China to my living room. Trade exists or else how did Saruman get pipe tobacco from The Shire?
posted by Ad hominem at 1:58 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]



"...So everyone is, like, on the bed doing it, in every possible way, getting all infinite diversity in infinite combinations to quote the trek guy, and then we look out of the window and OMG THAT MOUNTAIN RANGE IS TOTES A CRASHED SPACESHIP..."


There is not a single story that cannot be improved by adding this to the end.
posted by The Whelk at 2:02 PM on July 28, 2012 [6 favorites]


Actually, in The Hobbit, Tolkien does describe the method of trade between the people of Lake Town and the Elves of Mirkwood.
posted by Ad hominem at 2:04 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


The anachronisms in The Hobbit & the beginning of LotR are quite normal for children's literature of the period. They are items that a child would be familiar with. The first chapter of LotR intentionally mirrors that of The Hobbit (An Unexpected Party::A Long Expected Party), and the style starts out like The Hobbit (a children's book) and slowly shifts into a more mature tone as LotR progresses. Obviously deliberate stylistic choices made by Tolkien in the process of transferring a world from one kind of audience to another. So, basically, in terms of this discussion, a red herring.
posted by sciurus at 2:32 PM on July 28, 2012


"I think he's going to get most of the techies," Glen said finally. "Don't ask me why; it's just a hunch. Except that tech people like to work in an atmosphere of tight discipline and linear goals, for the most part. They like it when the trains run on time.

That always bothered me about The Stand. When I read it as a kid I always though "hey I'm not down with mass executions and general evilness even if it meant I could have a working computer". It also bothered me that Harold Lauder was pretty much the stereotype of a nerd, a fat kid with bad skin who so resents Stu Redman that he tries to assassinate the Ad Hoc committee. The fact that Harold knows everything and can do almost anything is depicted as a flaw in The Stand, what should have made him valuable in a world with few experts makes people wary of him. It is also strange that King notes Larry Underwood perceives Harold as somehow faking emotions.

The other prominent techie, Trashcan Man, a guy who can somehow penetrate top secret bases and bring back nukes is so single minded and fetishisises weapons technology to such an extent that be brings about the destruction of everything he helped to build.

I think that King was really trying to ram home a point with Trashcan Man. The extended version of The Stand has like 1000 extra pages of Trashie blowing shit up all across the Midwest.
posted by Ad hominem at 2:39 PM on July 28, 2012


The deletions from the quote skew Tolkien's primary concern, which was the fear of mortality, for which magic and the machine were the agents of rebellion. The full quote follows:

Anyway all this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine. With Fall inevitably, and that motive occurs in several modes. With Mortality, especially as it affects art and the creative (or as I should say, sub-creative) desire which seems to have no biological function, and to be apart from the satisfactions of plain ordinary biological life, with which, in our world, it is indeed usually at strife. This desire is at once wedded to a passionate love of the real primary world, and hence filled with the sense of mortality, and yet unsatisfied by it. It has various opportunities of 'Fall'. It may become possessive, clinging to the things made as its own, the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator - especially against mortality. Both of these (alone or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective, - and so to the Machine (or Magic). By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of developments of the inherent inner powers or talents - or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form through more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised.

I have not used 'magic' consistently, and indeed the Elven-queen Galadriel is obliged to remonstrate with the Hobbits on their confused use of the word both for the devices and operations of the Enemy, and for those of the Elves. I have not, because there is not a word for the latter (since all human stories have suffered the same confusion). But the Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference. Their 'magic' is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation. The 'Elves' are 'immortal', at least as far as this world goes: and hence are concerned rather with the griefs and burdens of deathlessness in time and change, than with death. The Enemy in successive forms is always 'naturally' concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines; but the problem: that this frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others * - speedily and according to the benefactors own plans - is a recurrent motive.


I find his view of mortality particularly heartening. This is clearly spelled out is another section of the Silmarillion:

The Eldar reported these words to the Valar, and Manwe was grieved, seeing a cloud gather on the noon-tide of Numenor. And he sent messengers to the Dunedain, who spoke earnestly to the King, and to all who would listen, concerning the fate and fashion of the world.

And the Numenoreans answered" 'Why should we not envy the Valar, or even the First of the Deathless? For of us is required a blind trust, and a hope without assurance, knowing not what lies before us in a little while. And yet we also love the Earth and would not lose it.'
Then the Messengers said: 'Indeed the mind of Iluvatar concerning you is not known to the Valar, and he has not revealed all things that are to come. But this we hold to be true, that your home is not here, neither in the Land of Aman nor anywhere within the Circles of the World. And the Doom of Men, that they should depart, was at first a gift of Iluvatar. It became a grief to them only because under the shadow of Morgoth it seemed to them that they were surrounded by a great darkness, of which they were afraid; and some grew wilful and proud and would not yield, until life was reft from them. We who bear the ever-mounting burden of the years do not clearly understand this; but if that grief has returned to trouble you, as you say, then we fear that the Shadow arises once more and grows again in your hearts. Therefore, though you be the Dunedain, fairest of Men, who escaped from the Shadow of old and fought valiantly against it, we say to you: Beware! The will of Eru may not be gainsaid; and the Valar bid you earnestly not to withhold the trust to which you are called, lest soon it become again a bond by which you are constrained. Hope rather that in the end even the least of your desires shall have fruit. The love of Arda was set in your hearts by Iluvatar, and he does not plant to no purpose. Nonetheless, many ages of Men unborn may pass ere that purpose is made known; and to you it will be revealed and not to the Valar.'

posted by dragonsi55 at 2:40 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


A lot of epic fantasy is that way. Brooks, Eddings, etc. The kind of stuff we referred to as Extruded Fantasy Product on rasfw.

"Oh ick, does it contain Hobbit? Hobbit makes me gassy."

We who bear the ever-mounting burden of the years do not clearly understand this; but if that grief has returned to trouble you, as you say, then we fear that the Shadow arises once more and grows again in your hearts.

Yeah, more than once the Valar come across as real jerks. "Our deathless eyes observe: If you're afraid of dying then it must be THE INFLUENCE OF EEEVIL UPON YOU."

Anyway, to respond to the title, technology is absolutely not the enemy of a good life: institutions that arise to wield technology against us certainly is. The physics necessary to create an atom bomb would be discovered eventually no matter what, but it's not like anyone has to build one. Technology is like a force multiplier; like anything else, it makes no judgement as to who wields that force.
posted by JHarris at 3:14 PM on July 28, 2012


No way, you have complex series of roads.

Do you mean that the hobbits could have gotten clocks and whatnot from someone else?

Sure, fine. So?

Tolkien is holding up hobbits and their lives and attitudes as admirable. Where he's blind is in failing to recognize the necessary underpinnings of the lifestyle he's holding up as admirable. Clocks small enough to fit on mantles don't grow on trees, and aren't simply mined from the earth, and aren't farmed in neat rows. If there is a clock, then there are people making clocks. And the making of small clocks necessarily implies relatively high technology, with tools and materials dependent upon whole trees of other machines behind them.

Where those clock-making people are doesn't enter into it. Even if they're far away from the Shire, they are still a necessary element of the hobbits' world. Likewise, there are almost certainly slaves making or growing things the hobbits use.

Tolkien doesn't get to hold up the hobbity lifestyle as laudable while at the same time condemning the things that make it possible.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:06 PM on July 28, 2012


Hobbits also have magic fireworks and crackers that contain tiny but perfectly made musical instruments. Bilbo gave out gifts for his 111th birthday that were noted as "obviously magical". It stands to reason a rich hobbit such as Bilbo would have a magic clock, not a clock made by slave labor in an assembly line.
posted by Ad hominem at 4:16 PM on July 28, 2012


It's one thing to make a clock. I don't think he was antitechnology as much as, again, making a comment about the Industrial Revolution. The whole thing about the seat of production moving from the home to the factory, and how it affected people's lives for the worse.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:16 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Tolkien clearly didn't think through his technology / economy setup as well as he did his linguistics. Which is sort of understandable. I make a few distinctions:

1. There are clear anachronisms (the train reference -- I've always assumed that if an editor had pointed this out at the time, he'd have yanked it).

2. There are what seem like mistakes of logic around the economy -- Hobbiton has level of technology that would seem likely in a rustic corner of the 18th century -- but that also seems more advanced than many of the glimpses we get of more central civilizations (Gondor). I mean, I bet they have nice clocks in Gondor, but we don't hear about 'em. So there's a mismatch which makes total sense from a literary angle (move from low fantasy, which is more contemporary, to epic and therefore farther in the past) and little from a technological. You can try to make it work by waving your hands and saying magic ... lost arts ... Dwarves did stuff ...but it's hand-waving. The logic isn't rally there.

3. There is Tolkien's rhetorical point, which is pretty much "this far, but no farther." So yes, enough technological progress to get clocks and nice clothes and mills and tobacco and tea and all that. But no more! And no big factories or trains! It's the Alan Kay definition of technology: "Technology is anything invented after you were born," except modified for Tolkien because he was a fuddy-duddy (and to be fair, scarred by World Wars) and would like to go back to things that were invented before his father was born, thank you very much.

Now is that intrinsic to fantasy? No, but it does take a bit of work to get away from, and not just because of Tolkien's influence.
posted by feckless at 4:21 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think it is also pretty explicit precision items like the crackers containing musical instruments and clocks came from Dale or were "of dwarf make". Im probably picking at nits here since "magic" clearly just handwaves the infrastructure needed to make clocks away, the fact they seem to be able to conjure up gifts and gewgaws and baubles at will is clearly Tolkien wishing away an entire underclass.
posted by Ad hominem at 4:22 PM on July 28, 2012


It stands to reason a rich hobbit such as Bilbo would have a magic clock, not a clock made by slave labor in an assembly line.

That doesn't help either.

Tolkien wants to hold up the hobbit agrarian lifestyle as good. Good for us. Even if the hobbit clocks were magic, ours wouldn't be. He's still holding up as laudable a way of living that, for humans, would require levels of technology and machinery that he's rejecting.

If his point is just "It would be awesome to live an agrarian life, and to have all these more modern things but without any of the supporting apparatus that created them because magic," okay. But that's not much of a point, any more than "It would be totes awesome to live just like modern Americans but somehow without using up all those resources and with the doodads being made by magic instead of semi-slaves in China."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:33 PM on July 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


If Sauron and Saruman are the antagonists with their technology, then who are they antagonising against? The answer is the remaining elves on Middle-Earth, who for the last Age have been using the power of the Three Rings to achieve their goal to stop Middle-Earth's "history, stop it's growth, keep it as a pleasaunce, even largely a desert, where they could be ‘artists'" (Letter 154).

Of course, the elves are failing in this endevour, and by the end of the books, realise this, and so leave to Valinor. In the end, Tolkien does recognise that the industrial revolution has to happen, that it cannot be stopped forever, which is why the LOTR is set in the past and not an alternate universe. But, it will hopefully not be the revolution as per Sauron and Saruman, but a more gentle, more espectful one. And that there will be a way for those who cannot, wil not live with the change to escape.

The author's American Gods point is pretty weak - Shadow doen't stick around with the old gods because he likes their aesthetics, he sticks around with the old gods because he is one of them, and his actions are being shaped by the story of his upcoming sacrifice.
posted by kithrater at 4:34 PM on July 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


While the difference between SF and fantasy appears at first glance to be simply a matter of setting, I've been toying with the idea that historically fantasy tends to be inherently conservative while SF is progressive. Lower case conservative and progressive, I mean, not in their modern political meanings.

I'd say there's a distinct reactionary strain running through fantasy, though as Pratchett and Mieville demonstrate, it's not an absolute. SF on the other hand tends to be technologically progressive (unless it's doing a morality tale about the faults of new technology), and libertarian in outlook. There's a large streak of authoritarianism and militarism running through SF as well- it's amazing how many SF authors ranging from Anderson to Webber settle on monarchy and Empire as the political system of the future.

I don't think these are absolutes though- at least I hope not, since if nothing else I'm working on a fantasy that takes a positive approach toward progress and is very skeptical of the whole "A man of destiny should rule" nonsense.
posted by happyroach at 4:36 PM on July 28, 2012


There's a large streak of authoritarianism and militarism running through SF as well

Ah, yeah, milSF. MilSF does buck the trend I noted. Or as I like to call them "Baen authors".
posted by Justinian at 4:41 PM on July 28, 2012


To the elves, waybread and obedient rope are not magic; they are the product of skill.

That's not entirely true. The art of making waybread was given to the elves by one of the angels/gods. So it is as much a thing of magic as the rings and the planatir, the making of which was taught by Sauron.


In many myths, the art of making fire was given to the humans by one of the various gods.
posted by 5ean at 4:46 PM on July 28, 2012


Is there really any more to it than "Swords are cool"? Guns make swords obsolete, so you have to freeze the tech tree right before guns.
posted by straight at 4:50 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


The last time we had this debate I found myself in a minority of one arguing that fantasy is not inherently conservative. Tolkien distrusts technology not because he's yearning for an eighteenth-century world where everyone Knew Their Place, but because he's profoundly suspicious of industrial capitalism. Hence the appeal of his writings to bearded lefties as well as crusty old Tories.

The mysterious absence of trade in Middle-earth hadn't struck me before, but I suspect Tolkien was influenced by the Pirenne Thesis, which saw the Dark Ages as resulting from the collapse of long-distance trade. In other words, the West after the decline of Gondor is like Europe after the decline of the Roman Empire. This would explain why the Shire has regressed into agrarian self-sufficiency despite the presence of some luxury goods, like the clock on Bilbo's mantelpiece, that could only have arrived there via well-developed trade networks. (The same state of affairs can be found in another fantasy novel that Tolkien would certainly have known, Richard Jefferies' After London, where a few precious china plates are still preserved, and tobacco and cigars are still traded, despite the regression to a medieval economy.)
posted by verstegan at 4:52 PM on July 28, 2012 [9 favorites]


so you have to freeze the tech tree right before guns

Or you could just not...
[In his hand he carried an ancient and trusty weapon, called by the elves a Browning semi-automatic]
posted by Chekhovian at 5:47 PM on July 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


That doesn't help either.

Yeah I got there too

the fact they seem to be able to conjure up gifts and gewgaws and baubles at will is clearly Tolkien wishing away an entire underclass.

I'm not an expert on how people of Tolkien's class and era would have lived be he probably would have been uncomfortable with mass produced items at all would he not? Going solely on period dramas he wouldn't have had 50 plastic combs he would have had one comb meant to last 150 years whittled by a master comb craftsman and he would have had the watch his grandfather bought.
posted by Ad hominem at 6:03 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


[In his hand he carried an ancient and trusty weapon, called by the elves a Browning semi-automatic]

I want to read this.
posted by The Whelk at 6:07 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]




THE HOBBIT, Production Diary 8
posted by homunculus at 6:29 PM on July 28, 2012


I want to read this.

Bored of the rings
posted by Chekhovian at 6:39 PM on July 28, 2012


so you have to freeze the tech tree right before guns

"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."
posted by tyllwin at 9:25 PM on July 28, 2012


Or you go all Masters of the Universe... Pew pew! Laser beams!
posted by Artw at 9:53 PM on July 28, 2012


Is there really any more to it than "Swords are cool"? Guns make swords obsolete, so you have to freeze the tech tree right before guns.

I don't think it's guns, exactly; it's more like, a world where hand-to-hand combat can realistically change the fate of the world. (I have a pet theory that this is part of the current popularity of superhero movies.) Where the strongest and most skillful warrior rules by right (in every sense) a la Aragorn.

But I think "magic" and "technology" are different, and part of what makes fantasy and sci-fi different. Magic is the direct action of human will on the world, channelled through metaphor. I mean, why does Harry's wand work? Because he wills it to. Magic is a part of him; he wants something, and the world changes so he gets it. That's the thing that's so satisfying about this --- in a world of magic the things we find meaningful would not be merely symbols but truths. Love a mark burned into your skull, a lie a slug that falls from your tongue, desire a liquor you can drink (and be drunk on). Magic battles usually work out to battles of will, in the end, with the purer heart the victor. Magic is godlike: Let there be light.

But technology --- technology in literature, as in life, is agnostic. It does what it does because that's the way physics is, not because the audience clapped their hands three times and wished, very very hard. Technology is in an important way, indifferent to human will, human desire; that's what's frightening about it, what makes it alien and threatening. All the sci fi apocalypses are about losing our ability to work our will on our tech: The robot that wants to kill us, the machine that can't be stopped, the alien ship. We worry about technology's capacity to destroy what is human in us --- clones and replicants and cylons, oh my.

As an aside, I don't know that Pratchett has much to teach the larger world of fantasy about magic, per se. Pratchett is interest in in stories, in their logic and contrivances. The whole discworld started with the idea of sticking a modern man (a tourist) in the psuedo-fuedal word of fantasy to expose its ridiculousness, and as time has gone on magics had less and less to do with the stories.
posted by Diablevert at 11:18 PM on July 28, 2012 [7 favorites]


Not that it materially affects the argument all that much, but you guys seem to be imagining the clock as dependent upon a far more advanced technological and industrial infrastructure than is in fact the case. Spring driven clocks appear in Europe in the C15th. They're not evidence of a heavily industrialized society.
posted by yoink at 7:37 AM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Something smallish with a minute hand I would have thought - 17th century or so. Certainly on the verges of an industrial era.
posted by Artw at 8:29 AM on July 29, 2012


I had thought reasonably accurate small timepieces didn't appear until the 18th century attempts to measure longitude reliably, but would be happy to be corrected.

I still think that a world living his agrarian life would be closer to Roman levels of tech than the cozy rural 19th century he seems to give them, and deep in the 'nasty, brutish, and short' sort of average life.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:58 AM on July 29, 2012


The last time we had this debate I found myself in a minority of one arguing that fantasy is not inherently conservative. Tolkien distrusts technology not because he's yearning for an eighteenth-century world where everyone Knew Their Place, but because he's profoundly suspicious of industrial capitalism. Hence the appeal of his writings to bearded lefties as well as crusty old Tories.

The mysterious absence of trade in Middle-earth hadn't struck me before, but I suspect Tolkien was influenced by the Pirenne Thesis, which saw the Dark Ages as resulting from the collapse of long-distance trade.


I agree with you, but conservative/liberal are the wrong words for this debate.

Tolkien's view is totally consistent with Pirenne (whose focus was more on the decline of the Dark Ages as a result of resurgence of trade after reopening the Mediterranean), that's why I cited that book above.

Also, the reason I say conservative/liberal is a non-starter here is that Tolkien (THE fantasist) was a Catholic, and traditional Catholics are deeply suspicious of industrial capital. The traditional Catholic view of man, society, and economics appeals to crusty old Tories and bearded lefties, indeed.
posted by resurrexit at 9:30 AM on July 29, 2012


And I see now verstegan made the connection to distributism in his comment on the AskMe thread.
posted by resurrexit at 9:31 AM on July 29, 2012


Diablevert: Magic is the direct action of human will on the world, channelled through metaphor. I mean, why does Harry's wand work? Because he wills it to.

I'd say that this only characterizes a fraction of fantasy fiction, perhaps a small fraction at that. In many cases, magic is downright Lovecraftian, the incomprehensible will of greater things imposed on human agency. Take for examples, Elric's burden of a cursed sword, the way in which Ged and other characters are repeatedly smacked down for attempting to control higher powers, and the role of spiritual submission in the Chalion novels. This isn't something that can be attributed to Tolkien either, because his entire premise is that bad things happen when Feanor and the men of Numenor think they can be more clever than the gods.

Quite a bit of fantasy is caveman science fiction with magic.

Pratchett is interest in in stories, in their logic and contrivances.

And I'd say that his interest is shared by many contemporary fantasy writers. My argument for genre definition is that fantasy is often meta-fictional in that it plays with traditional histories, stories, and folklore.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:09 AM on July 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


Usually some mix of all of those, I'd say.
posted by Artw at 11:14 AM on July 29, 2012


On magic in videogames...
posted by Artw at 11:27 AM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


But that's also why those stories where magic itself is a struggle with the Other within oneself (Robin Hobb, Soldier Son Trilogy) or less blithe (McMaster Bujold) are more satisficing a read than simply behold, ye flying dragon or lo the crystal sings. Ursula K LeGuin has also handled this aspect well.

In fact, as I write, the pattern I see in these books is that here magic is the technology, agnostic and to be wielded with skill and practice, for good or evil, rather than simply a *magical force* that makes everything go *poof*. Steven Brust's Vlad struggles with it but also defines and delineates it.




Now if only I could write my 10 page consultant report due next week with the same fluency and references...
posted by infini at 11:28 AM on July 29, 2012


I also don't think that Pratchett has abandoned magic at all. Magic-as-story is just as much a part of the Diskworld as magic-as-light/corruption-of-Eru is for Middle Earth. The result is that magic events even happen for the comic duo of Fred Colon/Nobby Nobs because if you believe yourself to salt of the earth coppers with all your heart, you might just get inconceivably lucky now and then.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:38 AM on July 29, 2012


I see in these books is that here magic is the technology, agnostic and to be wielded with skill and practice, for good or evil, rather than simply a *magical force* that makes everything go *poof*

It was gandalf who sought a burglar, not the other way around.
posted by clavdivs at 11:56 AM on July 29, 2012


The theme of agrarian versus the factory is not a new one for English writers of a certain time period.

After all, Blake wrote :
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Not everyone was a fan of the Industrial Revolution.


That's fascinating, St. Alia; until you pointed it out, it had never really occurred to me how deeply Blakeian Tolkien is.
posted by jamjam at 12:22 PM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


i'm partial to the view that "Tolkien sought to give the English-speaking peoples a new pre-Christian mythology," which if you consider novels as technology (or religion as opiate) in a kind of neuro-linguistic programming sense writ large -- like shakespeare (or anonymous!) inventing the human or at least ushering in renaissance humanism for the masses -- then as a modern day myth maker/world builder/reality constructor (director/showrunner/devmaster) i'd say he was a pretty cutting edge practicising magician :P

also btw i thought vance's lyonnese (like herbert's dune) as a proto-game of thrones quite progressive, re: sociology, group selection and nationalism...
posted by kliuless at 12:56 PM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Lyonnesse is fantastic, btw.
posted by infini at 1:29 PM on July 29, 2012


The theme of agrarian versus the factory is not a new one for English writers of a certain time period.

or matthew arnold :P like in Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse - "Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born..."
English poet Matthew Arnold wrote one of his finest poems, Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse, while briefly staying at the monastery around 1850.[1] The quiet, serenity, and monastic calm became, for him, the susurrations of a dying world which contrasted with what he saw as the violent emerging age of machinery.
or jmw turner (proto-fantasy artist!) viz. Rain, Steam and Speed: "The title follows the Turner pattern of 'nature first' in his titles. A tiny hare appears in the bottom left corner of the painting. Some have interpreted the hare running ahead of the train as a suggestion to the limits of technology.[2] Others believe the rabbit is running in fear of the new machinery and Turner meant to hint at the danger of man's new technology destroying the inherent sublime elements of nature." cf. Snowstorm: Steamboat off a Harbor's Mouth & Sunrise with Sea Monsters
posted by kliuless at 1:48 PM on July 29, 2012


Morlocks vs Eloi might be the most subversive version of it.

UP THE MUTANT CANNIBAL WORKERS!
posted by Artw at 1:53 PM on July 29, 2012


That's fascinating, St. Alia; until you pointed it out, it had never really occurred to me how deeply Blakeian Tolkien is

Not really, no. Blake is radically progressive--actively seeking a revolutionary transformation of the English (and European) polity. He also believed firmly in sexual liberation as a key part of any political or personal transformation. Tolkein is an essentially sexless conservative who views almost all change as loss. It's actually pretty hard to think of two more radically opposed writers. Blake would certainly have seen more true "energy" in Sauron than the tediously unchanging and self-satisfied elves.
posted by yoink at 3:31 PM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


And yet both hump the landscape.
posted by Artw at 3:32 PM on July 29, 2012


In many cases, magic is downright Lovecraftian, the incomprehensible will of greater things imposed on human agency. Take for examples, Elric's burden of a cursed sword

Elric's magic is complicated. There is the magic that the emperor and nobles used to conquer random places, which is part gift and part 'technology'; there summoning, which is pretty much supplication of a deity;

*decades-old spoiler*

there is the sword that is the avatar of a demon.

/spoiler


On the other hand, Moorcock spends a lot of time on whether his heroes use their gifts or the other way round.
posted by ersatz at 3:33 PM on July 29, 2012


And yet both hump the landscape

Again, not really. Here's Blake on Wordsworth (a poet Tolkein would have far more sympathy with):
Natural Objects always did & now do weaken, deaden & obliterate Imagination in Me. 
And again:
There is no such Thing as Natural Piety Because The Natural Man is at Enmity with God.
Blake believes above all in the transformative and liberatory power of the imagination. To worship nature in itself is, for Blake, to subject the imagination to the imprisonment of mere, dead objects.
posted by yoink at 3:44 PM on July 29, 2012


Interesting. That's a very different notion of Blake than I had!
posted by Artw at 3:56 PM on July 29, 2012


On the other hand, Moorcock spends a lot of time on whether his heroes use their gifts or the other way round.

Elric can do incredible things with magic, but magic is physically draining, and Elric is weak so it may kill him, but he has the sword and that can replenish him, but it's addicting and has a habit of killing those he loves...

I don'tt think it's a coincidence that Moorcock wrote a lot of Elroc while hanging out with smack addicted musicians in Ladbroke Grove.
posted by Artw at 4:01 PM on July 29, 2012


Oh, and talking of Moorcock and fallen futures I love Granbretan and all it's jokey puns.
posted by Artw at 4:13 PM on July 29, 2012


Quite a bit of fantasy is caveman science fiction with magic.

Wow. Spot on.
posted by Chekhovian at 6:12 PM on July 29, 2012




I'm becoming more and more disappointed by Hobbit development. I'm a bit fond of The Hobbit because it's such an intimate novel, the story of a guy who's more clever than brave or noble, a fish-out-of-water story that has big implications in the world, but returns back to the cozy beginning. Tolkien writing about Bilbo as Bilbo manages to keep a voice that drags in the multi-threaded narrative of Lord of the Rings.

It's a very different novel from Lord of the Rings, and probably won't benefit from extended exposition of what Gandalf was up to in the second act.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:24 PM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


What is truly privileged, from a Marxist perspective, is the use of fantastic devices, of things that make the unseen seen in a spectacular way. I get this point of view in part from Mieville, but mostly from David McNally’s Monsters of the Market. Essentially it makes the case that capitalist society is grounded in abstractions and fetishes, the whole seen world operates by a hidden, unseen logic and that, therefore, straightforward, realistic narrative strategies of the kind extolled by George Lukacs and performed by the likes of Leo Tolstoy are not adequate for this current social climate.
Reflections on the Theoretical Underpinnings of Science Fiction and Fantasy

Something that just clicked for me is that Ursula le Guin is essentially doing the same thing in Wizard of Earthsea and Lathe of Heaven. In both novels, she creates a fantastic reality where the Taoist concepts of balance and self-knowledge are made explicit and tangible.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:16 PM on August 13, 2012


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