Sunday 23 March 2014

Is it immature to regard Tolkien as a great writer?


Do I still think, as I did then, that Tolkien was the greatest writer in the world? 

In the strict sense, no. 

You can think that at thirteen. If you still think it at fifty-three, something has gone wrong with your life

Terry Pratchett, writing in Meditations on Middle Earth edited by Karen Haber, 2003. I have added the emphasis.


This is an important challenge to Tolkien's stature as a writer and as a thinker - it is, indeed, the crux of the wide divergence of opinion regarding the evaluation of Tolkien.

On the one hand, is a strong taste and preference for Tolkien fine and dandy for teenagers, but a sign of immaturity in an adult - as Pratchett argues from his own experience?

Or, as I would argue, is the opposite the case - that Tolkien is fundamentally a mature taste; and it is Pratchett whose evaluation is adolescent?


I should immediately at this point correct any impression that I dislike Pratchett's work; on the contrary I regard Terry Pratchett as my favourite fiction writer alive in Britain today. I think he is blimmin' marvellous. Which is why he is worth debating.


What lies behind this is a traditionalist - and religious - perspective; in confrontation with a progressive - and atheist - perspective: Tolkien is himself, and speaks on behalf of, the traditionalist Christian; Pratchett is himself, and speaks on behalf of, the modern, secular, Leftist and indeed politically correct perspective of modernity.

To the traditionalist, progressivism is immaturity - it is a refusal to grow-up (what I have 'famously' termed psychological neoteny); while to a progressive, traditionalism is a refusal to grow up - it is a 'clinging' to childhood certainties and structures.


So what we have here is a very profound distinction between two utterly different philosophies of life. And it comes through in multiple ways.

Pratchett is topical and satiric, Tolkien is timeless and humorous; Pratchett is cynical, Tolkien is pessimistic; Pratchett's best work has a female-centred perspective, Tolkien's is a Patriarchal world: Pratchett's world is full of antiheroes, there are none in Tolkien; in Pratchett's world the highest values are kindness, the relief of suffering and tolerance - and cowardly selfish people are regarded with affection, in Tolkien's world the highest values are love and courage; for Pratchett equality and counter-cultural rebelliousness are positive values, while in Tolkien deference to hierarchy and obedience are positive... and so on.

These are two utterly different world views - and it is natural that from TP's perspective Tolkien is out of date, and indeed has an immoral basis which can only be acceptable when firmly placed in an ironic frame - or else is regarded indulgently as a teenage phase or craze or fad - which sensible people grow-out-of.


In my opinion Pratchett's work is very uneven in quality - and sometimes very shallow; but it is interesting that the best characters in Pratchett, and the most moving situations and incidents, are very traditional: Granny Weatherwax is hardly a progressive, Tiffany Aching is a great traditionalist, and Vimes's primary quality is decency - a very old-fashioned virtue.

So Pratchett, unavoidably - in pursuit of depth and truth - must include traditionalism and an implicit real-religiousness - inside his essentially modern, progressive, satirical, cynical, atheistic and politically correct framework.

There it is somewhat ironic, distant, against-the-grain and deniable - but it is what gives the best of Pratchett's work the warmth and heart which makes it so worthwhile.


Nowadays, Terry Pratchett is best known outside his fiction for two 'causes':

1. Militant atheism - as a prominent member of the Humanist Association.

2. Proselytizing advocacy of euthanasia - specifically, the view that people should be humanely murdered when their lives have reached a certain threshold of suffering, or lack of dignity, or when they do not experience enough pleasure or satisfaction.

So, from TP's current perspective, this is what mature adults believe and how mature adults behave - thus naturally Tolkien is necessarily immature


Pratchett is, indeed, an absolutely mainstream, counter-cultural, rebellious 'radical' - in that he has accepted a knighthood from the monarch (SIR Terry Pratchett), and supports medical research charities (for dementia) and is a major contributor to a trendy animal charity (Orangutans) and all the rest of it - all very highly socially acceptable stuff.

By contrast, it would be, in the UK, a disciplinary/ sacking/ imprisonable/ hate crime offence to read-out certain passages from Tolkien's letters to certain people in certain situations. After all, Tolkien was a traditionalist Roman Catholic - and it is utterly beyond the pale for anyone to articulate, never mind to advocate, Christian views in the public arena in Britain today.


So we have the usual modern situation that the supposed radical is feted and fashionable; while the views of a reactionary and conservative have become so truly counter-cultural as to be dangerous - requiring coordinated suppression from the state; and a taste for literature rooted in the values and perspectives of centuries is regarded as immature.

To label Tolkien as an immature taste is not just a slander, but also a hinted threat - the threat that if you have not grown out of Tolkien, if you have not stopped taking him seriously, before you reach adulthood; then you are either a bit of a joke, or else potentially in trouble - and if ridicule is not enough to make you abandon your loyalty, then other and even nastier methods can and maybe will be deployed...  



Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I'm surprised to learn that Pratchett, not Rowling, is your favorite living British author.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - I would distinguish between my favourite book by a modern author, and my favourite modern author. TP has not produced a masterpiece to compare with HP (in seven volumes), but has written a lot of very enjoyable books.

But my current taste in novels is really quite strange, because I read so few of them.

My favourite 20th century mainstream fiction author has been, for the past decade or so, Barbara Pym - I just keep reading and re-reading her early stuff and I enjoy almost every page!

Anonymous said...

This depends what you mean by maturity.

My mother was born in the 20's and died in the 80's. She evolved during her life, like many similar people I suppose, from a traditionalist Catholic to a progressive Catholic. The Church itself evolved in this way, but she wasn't following the Church, both she and the church were following the people in power.

To abandon beliefs that are not held by those in power, and to conform to their beliefs, is part of what is in general in human society considered to be maturity. That the people in power are crazy and evil doesn't come in to it, because the people in power are always right, that's also generally accepted by human society.

Samson J. said...

Or, as I would argue, is the opposite the case - that Tolkien is fundamentally a mature taste; and it is Pratchett whose evaluation is adolescent? ... an immoral basis which can only be acceptable when firmly placed in an ironic frame - or else regarded indulgently as a teenage phase or craze or fad - which sensible people grow-out-of.

We talked about something like this before, at my old blog, with respect to Led Zeppelin front-man Robert Plant, who, in Zeppelin's early days, used to write the occasional Middle-Earth-themed lyric, but who, in an adult interview several years ago, that he was ashamed he ever penned such childish verses. We decided that, like Susan Pevensie, he grew *out of* proper child-like wonder.

To the traditionalist, progressivism is immaturity - it is a refusal to grow-up

One of the first times I ever defied Cathedral orthodoxy was in high school, when I had a teacher who argued that the increasing acceptance of homosexuality meant that society had "matured". I retorted that it was - and is - not "mature" to insist that there is no right and wrong.

After all, Tolkien was a traditionalist Roman Catholic - and it is utterly beyond the pale for anyone to articulate, never mind to advocate, Christian views in the public arena in Britain today.

I am currently reading a very good history of the reformation in Britain. It moves one almost to tears, particularly for an anglophile like me whose interest in Britain stems largely from Lewis, Tolken, and my grandfather's wartime experience. How much worse it must be for you to actually live there! It's slightly off-topic, but I meet so many UK expats here in Canadia, and whenever you ask them why they moved, they invariably say something about "more space, less crowded..." but I often wonder if there's more than that.

To label Tolkien as an immature taste is not just a slander, but also a threat - the threat that if you have not grown out of Tolkien

I think this final paragraph may be a little melodramatic. Most people who would call Tolkien "immature" would do so basically because they DON'T get what he was really "on about", and think he's just writing fairy-tales about elves and goblins.

stephen c said...

I happen to be exactly 53, and my opinion of Tolkien's literary gift has only improved as I have learned more about the world over the last 6 decades (first read "The Hobbit" before I was ten). On the one hand, I can see why a prisoner of irony and perpetually-anorak-clad fellow like Pratchett, who probably has felt justified in priding himself on his socially-approved ability to write amusing plots in a jokey-serious tone of voice that "is really making fun of people who really talk that way", might be psychologically unable to do better than associate the works of Tolkien with his own long- gone awkward and lonely adolescence. However, the fact remains that, for many of us, Tolkien was never a "social loser's escape", but always one of those writers who seems to have been allowed, before putting pen to paper, to spend a few minutes a day talking to angels, and to write with clarity about real things like sacrifice, pain, loyalty, friendship, joy and God in a way that seems to me to be more impressive as the years go by. In any event, much as I like certain English genre writers (Christie, Wodehouse, Jerome K. Jerome, Dickens, Conan Doyle - and maybe I would like Pratchett, too, if I were to read him) I am not about to take their opinions on actual literature seriously. Of course, there are things I like a lot less about Tolkien now than 40 years ago - callously giving Cockney accents to villains, focusing too much on the richest hobbits, and copying a little too closely the Edwardian prose styles of H.G. Wells and less talented writers, but I just can't take Pratchett's criticisms seriously.

Bruce Charlton said...

I should perhaps say some of the things I like about Terry Pratchett.

The main things are humour and invention.

He is very funny - in terms of having large numbers of all sorts of jokes, satire, and 'humour' in the old sense of depicting the range of human character, eccentricity, extremes and many types.

And part of this is his invention. In this regard I think Pratchett excels beyond any other writers of which I know. His power to invent, his capacity to generate ideas, is simply staggering. What is more, the whole thing seems effortless.

Pratchett has more ideas - sci fi, fantasy, satire and parody, 'super truth' jokes, learned quips, puns, wise witticisms etc - in a few pages than most authors can generate in a whole book.

And he just kept on pouring them out at more than a book per year for about 25 years (his recent books - post-Wintersmith - show clear signs of having been done in collaboration and with heavy editorial input; due no doubt to his dementia-like brain pathology).

Pratchett did something much like what Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams did - but he did a lot more of it, did it with much less sign of effortful strain, and with a lot more warmth and humanity.

Bruce Charlton said...

How loathed is Tolkien?

A world famous professor of modern languages from Oxford University (having mainstream atheist Leftist views) told me quite seriously, face to face, that if Tolkien's world view (in the Lord of the Rings) was put into practice, the result would essentially replicate Nazi Germany.

Balzac said...

What we might call progressive art in essence has two modes: one which is ironic, questioning and purportedly mature, often aimed at tearing down common sense. This is the "mocking mode" if you will. Old truths are shown to be not so straightforward, and so on; in essence sophistry.

There's also the second one which is surprisingly straightforward propaganda in some complicated cause du jour, the "didactic mode". Such stories switch around some aspects to make the conventionally bad into good and vice versa (martyred homosexual vs repressive christian, for example) but then carefully keep the story conventional up to the point of being simplistic: one side is enlightened, the other rotten; one side is intelligent (and, whisper it, morally superior), the other benighted; let's not get started with Hollywood casting with its essentialist view of humanity and appearance.

It is of course quite unusual (but not unheard of) to see the mocking mode applied to the progressive causes, and such forays seem to be seldom appreciated by critics.

Glengarry said...

"if Tolkien's world view (in the Lord of the Rings) was put into practice, the result would essentially replicate Nazi Germany."

There's more than a tinge of hysteria to such a statement, isn't there?

Bruce Charlton said...

@G - I would rather say it was just completely wrong - but the modern Leftist equates traditional Christianity with secular National Socialism - simply because both are anti-Communist.

Glengarry said...

@BC, agreed, I was being muddled. Still, what a remarkably slanderous thing to say.

(I have a suspicion that the good professor instinctively identifies with the poor misunderstood orcs?)

Troels said...

I shall try to forgo the temptation of entering into a discussion of the quality of diverse authors – the equation, if there is one, is far too complex for any attempt at simple answers :-)

But that is also what I get from Pratchett's response that you quote, and I am inclined to agree with him that if you, at fifty-three, can still believe at all in the idea of one “greatest writer in the world” in the strict sense then something has, indeed, gone wrong in your life – possibly you have not read enough great writers.

Now, I have not read the book from which you quote, and the context may show that my reading of the limited quotation is entirely wrong – and so the above is clearly meant with that qualification in mind – it is suggested as a possible reading of this quotation.

However, I would still think that you in any case do Terry Pratchett a disservice when you say that, “from TP's current perspective, this is what mature adults believe and how mature adults behave - thus naturally Tolkien is necessarily immature.” The belief that those who think differently from himself are necessarily immature is, in my experience, definitely not what Pratchett thinks – rather the opposite, I would say.

Pratchett, in both interviews and in fan-interaction, comes across as very accepting of views that are at variance with his own, and so, regardless of whether my reading above is possible or not, I am convinced that mere philophical disagreement is not the basis for his statements about it being immature to consider Tolkien “the greatest writer in the world” “in the strict sense.”

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with Troels.

I don't know the original context for the Pratchett quotation but the phrase "in the strict sense" seems to be clearly addressing the question of whether Tolkien is literally the *greatest*, not whether he can be considered *great* at all.

I'm not sure the impulse to divide writers into "great" and "not great" or to single one out as "the greatest of all" is a very mature one to begin with.

Bruce Charlton said...

I've seen this phrase from TP more than once - and have also seen him used it in a video interview. I know what he meant by it.

Anonymous said...

On someone has posted a magazine article that Pratchett wrote at the time the films were coming out.

He says Tolkien "wrote a work of a genius".

The rest of the article is consistent with what else I've seen of Pratchett's comments elsewhere as well.

You certainly don't get the impression that he thinks it is "immature" to love Tolkien, and certainly not that whatever reservations he has about it have anything to do with religious views.

Bruce Charlton said...

@P - Well, he kept saying so more than once. Maybe he changed his mind? That would be good.

John said...

Pratchett's comment is not about anything stated in this post. His comment is about quality of writing. Personally, I love both authors, but as a writer and writing instructor myself, Tolkien is a great storyteller but a mediocre writer. LotR, for instance, can be tightened up considerably to be less rambling. Tolkien often spends a lot more time than needed describing the landscape, which creates slow points that don't move the plot forward.

Bruce Charlton said...

@J - " His comment is about quality of writing."

I disagree - if it was that, then he would have said that. Pratchett was making a point about immaturity.

"Tolkien is a great storyteller but a mediocre writer"

That is nonsense. What you mean is that he is not to your taste.

By the same criteria of being susceptible to 'tightening-up', the great prose stylists of the 17th century (Traherne, Thos Browne, Richard Burton) are incredibly rambling, so is Sam Johnson; among novelists so is Walter Scott (arguably the second or third greatest British writer after Shakespeare), so is Charles Dickens - and so on.

Hemingway and Steinbeck did not discover the one and only way to write fiction.

John said...

And, yes, I argue he is talking about quality. There are dozens of writers whom people think are phenomenal when they are 13, say Stephanie Meyer (her first name is probably misspelled) or Dan Brown. But, if someone still thinks Meyer or Brown is the greatest writer ever at 53, then there's something wrong with their assessment of quality (or their range of experience with good writers).

Bruce Charlton said...

@John. But that is not a legitimate comparison.

Brent said...

I'm with John on this one. For note: I've just finished reading Hobbit with my three year old and have Tolkien art in virtually every room in my house as well as three copies of Rings and Hobbit.

That said, one of the things that those of us who study literature learn is to separate our love of an author or text from critiquing it. I fully enjoy Tolkien, but from an objective perspective, he's no Shakespeare (really, Shakespeare's no Shakespeare either, but that's another story).

Pratchett, here, is discussing quality. He doesn't need to say that he's doing so. A little objective thought, combined with context, can parse out his intention rather easily. Pratchett has noted elsewhere that he likes Tolkien, but has some qualms with him. This is perfectly fine (and denotes a level of maturity - the ability to like someone/thing but still be aware that it is flawed). If someone thinks Eoin Colfer is the greatest writer ever at age 13, that's fine. If the same person at age 53 thinks Colfer is the best ever, there's a problem (and I enjoy Colfer's work).

Bruce Charlton said...

@John said: "'ll note that I very much enjoy Tolkien (in fact, I've done one thesis involving his work and read LotR at least every other year). From an objective perspective, he is not a phenomenal writer. He really needed an editor.

"Much like Heinlein did (his early work was edited and works beautifully, his later work was unedited and is all over the place).

"And for the record, I can't stand Hemingway or Steinbeck. Walter Scott needed lot of work as a writer, imo. Then again, I don't hold Shakespeare in high regard either (and I'm an early modernist and medievalist)."


The idea that writers "need" an editor is in my strongly-held view a pernicious modern delusion - a species of decadence and the destruction of literature.

In this I follow the sentiments of Tom Shippey. Tolkien was not a professional writer and did not write like a professional writer; and was all the better for it.

LotR breaks many of the writerly rules - yet it is by some margin the best 'fiction' of the 20th century. This being the overwhelming consensus of the people who most matter - the non-professional serious readers.

I would rather say that a few writers benefit from the editorial attention of a few very specific persons in specific works - as JD Salinger benefited from the word-by-word attention of his self-chosen editor William Shawn for his (first rate) short story Zooey.

But most editors would, given the chance, make most of the best writers worse - much worse.

Of course!

Bruce Charlton said...

@Brent - Much of what I said to John applies to your comment.

What you are doing is akin to the way that Shakespeare used to be evaluated by the criteria of the 'unities' derived from Aristotle; when in fact Shakespeare was actually refuting the unities.

" one of the things that those of us who study literature learn is to separate our love of an author or text from critiquing it"

Just in case you didn't know - I am one of 'those who study literature' since I have an MA (by thesis) in English Literature from Durham University, England - and have published several things (scholarly, critical and historical essays, book chapters, literary biography etc) in the professional literature.

Ken said...

I'm a bit late to this party, but that's never stopped me before. I've read LoTR about two dozen times, at a guess (and just finished my probably fourth or so pass through The Silmarillion), and considered Tolkien the greatest of all for most of my adult life. I didn't question that until I started reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but I'll still go with Tolkien for the 20th Century (followed by my personal favorite American author, Herman Wouk).