The Tolkien Lecture

As Kij Johnson said in her opening remarks, the great thing about an inaugural lecture is that there is no precedent, nothing to constrain what you can and can’t talk about. Even the title isn’t much of a straightjacket as the lecture series is not supposed to be about Tolkien, only in honor of him. Thus Kij was free to talk about her own approach to fantasy. Mostly the great man whose spirit we were invoking was absent from the narrative, but having had time to think about what Kij said, I have come to the conclusion that it was very much a lecture that engaged with Tolkien, even as it barely mentioned him.

Kij based the lecture on work that she has done with her students at the University of Kansas, and that in turn is based on Brian Attebery’s work on categorizing approaches to writing fantasy (e.g. in Strategies of Fantasy). This area has since been addressed by others, for example Farah Mendlesohn in Rhetorics of Fantasy. During the lecture I found myself wondering where discussion might have gone had Farah been there (I talked to Kij later and she has good practical reasons for her use of Attebery). Adam Roberts didn’t turn up either — the snow kept a lot of people away — so he wasn’t around to pour scorn on the whole idea of taxonomies, as he is wont to do.

I have a great deal of sympathy with Adam on this point. The trouble with taxonomies is that the people who design them tend to get obsessed with proving that their own scheme is correct and complete, forcing them into ever more bizarre contortions in order to shoehorn every work into the boxes they have created, while writers like Mike Harrison, Kelly Link, China Miéville and Kij herself merrily run around blowing those boxes up.

The usefulness of taxonomy is the way in which it allows us to examine how pieces of fiction work, and that’s how Kij was using it with her students. For me, the most interesting part of the lecture came when she was explaining how her students found ways in which works, particularly her own, did not fit on a simple axis between mimetic (realistic) and fantastic fiction.

Kij’s own fiction is remarkable in the manner in which she drags us into the story with carefully crafted detail (see the following post on the writing masterclass for more discussion of this). And yet she often does this in settings which are totally bizarre. There’s no way in which stories like “Ponies”, “Mantis Wives” and “Spar” can be said to be in the real world, even when they are so obviously about it. During the lecture, Kij made a remark about how fantasy is inherently meta-fictional because its very unreality informs you that you must be reading a story. I flagged this as important at the time, though it took a night’s sleep to work out why.

Of course there is a sense in which all fiction is unreal. That can be a very useful point to make if your purpose is annoying idiot LitFic fans who argue that SF&F are “no good” because they are “not real”. Here, however, it misses the context. As we are discussing literary theory, the remark has to be understood within the traditional theoretical definition of fantasy (as developed by Todorov, and subsequent writers) as being fiction about that which cannot happen, as opposed to that which could be a report of real events (mimetic fiction) and that which might plausibly occur in the future, but cannot happen now (science fiction). Also one’s position on the axis from the mimetic to the fantastic is very much dependent on the relationship between the reader and the text. It is a matter of suspension of disbelief.

And suddenly we are back with Tolkien. In his famous essay, “On Fairy-Stories”, Tolkien argued that it was the duty of the fantasy writer to create a believable world as the setting for the fiction. That’s why the world of Middle Earth is so incredibly detailed. Kij does not do this. Her stories have incredibly realistic levels of detail, and yet their settings are often so fantastic that their unreality is beyond doubt. The reader is forced to confront the unreality of the setting, and ask herself why the author has done this.

Tolkien insists that successful subcreation, and consequent suspension of disbelief, is required when writing fantastic fiction:

The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.

However, in doing so he is casting aside the whole of meta-fiction, the wonderful, knowing nod-and-wink to the audience that we have become so familiar with over the years since The Lord of the Rings was written. Meta-fiction relies for its effect on the fact that both writer and reader are aware that a story is being told. There are all sorts of reasons why a writer might choose this style of work, but in Kij’s case I think it is primarily to draw attention to the deeper layers of meaning within the story.

Tolkien famously insists that The Lord of the Rings is not allegory, and he’s right. There is no sense in which, for example, one character stands in for someone else, in the way that Aslan stands in for Jesus in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. That does not mean that Tolkien’s novel is devoid of meaning. It is simply that the meaning is more subtly expressed, buried beneath layers of plot and character development. Most people now accept that The Lord of the Rings was influenced by factors such as Tolkien’s experiences in WWI, and by the industrialization of England, but I am sure that you can still find reviews that claim such statements are “reading things into the book that are not there” (a phrase that always causes me to cringe).

It is perfectly possible to write a simple, mimetic story about, say, failed relationships. However, fantastic fiction has a long and honorable tradition of being used to address an issue in ways that encourages the reader to think more deeply about it, by divorcing it from actual events. My usual example here is the way that Juliet McKenna uses fantasy to discuss political issues while side-stepping the emotionally-charged link to real world events that would skew the way that readers approach the book.

Unfortunately, the further removed from reality your novel, the less obvious your subtle buried connection to the real world becomes. Readers, many of whom only want comfort or escape, may fail to see it (and get quite angry when some smart-arse critic such as myself points it out). I don’t know why Kij writes the way that she does, but I’m guessing that the purpose of this grabbing of the reader by the throat and forcing her to confront the unreality of the story is a tactic to get people to think. We are invited to ask, “why is she telling me this?” “What point is she trying to get across?” “What does the author want me to take away from this?”

I guess that there will always be people who think that “Spar” is just a cute tale about a human woman and an amoeboid alien having lots of sex, or that “Mantis Wives” is just a story of every-day creative cannibalism amongst insects. There will also be people who don’t want any deeper meaning to their reading. This, however, is an essay about literary theory, and that would probably not exist if all readers were like that. For the rest of us, the message of the lecture is that there is more than one way to do fantasy. Tolkien pretty much invented one very successful approach. Kij happens to be using an approach in which detailed subcreation has a part, but in which jolting the reader out of the secondary world is not just allowed, but essential to the intent of the author.

I’m not sure what Professor Tolkien would have made of all this. I rather suspect that he would have been dismissive of both Modernism and Postmodernism. But literature would be a boring place if Tolkien’s approach to fantasy was the one and only technique that was allowed. A series of lectures on fantasy literature should explore other approaches, and contrast them with the way that Tolkien worked. That’s exactly what Kij did (even if you have to peer below the surface of the lecture to see it).

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10 Responses to The Tolkien Lecture

  1. Farah says:

    I don’t think Tolkien means by “believable” that it must be plausible but that it doesn’t creak.

    Also, not only does chapter 5 of Rhetorics talk about blowing up the forms it details, I can assure you that on one occasion when Mike asked me to read a story in progress, it was precisely *because* he was trying to ensure it fit the liminal category (and not, as it appeared to, the intrusion).

    • Cheryl says:

      I’m not sure that’s what I said he meant, but so we can move forward, what do you think he means?

      My copy of Rhetorics is in California, but I’m not in the least bit surprised that you are aware of the issue.

      Given that I don’t have the book, can you elaborate a little. Was it a case that Mike had a story that was reading like an intrusion, and he wanted to make it read like liminal? Or was it a case of him wanting it to seem like intrusion on the surface, but turn out to be lininal if you thought about it more deeply? (I’m assuming the latter because it’s more impish.)

      • Farah says:

        Mike asked me to read a story because he felt it wasn’t working. He wanted to know why. Keep in mind that we were talking about Rhetorics as I wrote it, pretty much once a month over lunch so he knew what I was trying to do.

        I came back and said “this is an intrusion fantasy”, he responded, “it’s supposed to be liminal” and we spent quite some time working out what had to be pared away. Then he went away and rewrote it. I can’t remember which story it was.

        As Swanwick said in his first comment on Rhetorics: it wasn’t so much that it created categories that was the important thing (actually, I flinch when people ask me to categorise a story for them) it was that the book helped to explain why some stories didn’t work/sound right.

        • Farah says:

          p.s. flinch and decline. My response is *always*, it’s the argument about what it is/might be that’s interesting, not the label (and there are some pieces that could go either way, depending how you read them).

        • Cheryl says:

          Re what Swanwick said: that’s a really good use for a categorization system. Also, as it works, it shows that the categorization system is a good one. What Kij was talking about was presenting students with a categorization system (not yours) that didn’t work for some good stories, and using that to understand how those stories worked.

          Now I still entertain the belief that there is some clever writer out there who will produce a story that works brilliantly despite not fitting into the Rhetorics system. Every theory only lives as long as it takes for someone to produce evidence of an exception. But Newton’s cosmology lasted hundreds of years and is still mostly applicable.

  2. Farah says:

    Oh, I hope so. And I say that in the book also.

  3. Cathy Butler says:

    Hobbyhorse alert – it’s my reading that when Tolkien talked in “Fairy-Stories” about subcreation and Secondary Worlds, he was not referring to fantasy only, but to fiction in general. (Not that this affects your point about meta-fiction either way.)

    • Cheryl says:

      I’m fine with that. Obviously subcreation is easier in a mimetic novel, but it has to be done. Historical novels are an obvious example.

  4. I can’t engage with this in a critical, literary-theory manner at the moment (or, realistically speaking, ever, on the appropriate level); but as a piece of reportage-reaction, this is wonderful, and makes me even more eager to find out if there’s an online text of Kij’s lecture. After all, any lecture which provokes this thoughtful a critical response is either terrible or brilliant, and since you aren’t spending your time tearing it apart, I’m going to assume the latter…

    • Cheryl says:

      As far as I’m aware, the Pembroke folks are planning to put the lecture online. Will Badger should be able to confirm that. I note, however, that Kij didn’t talk much about Tolkien. I was able to put the above together because of long experience of talking to people like Farah, Cathy, Brian Attebery and Gary Wolfe.