Democracy and fantasy: a reply to Simon Whitechapel

Phillip A. Ellis

"If the text is worth its salt, it will survive being 'visualized'. If it meets its match, then word and image will marry, as happened with Dickens, and enhance each other. If image does 'drown' text, then the latter was never going to survive anyway."

John Fowles, "The filming of The French Lieutenant's Woman"
in his Wormholes: Essays and Occasional Writings (London : Vintage, 1998): 46.

"Science or Sorcery", by Simon Whitechapel, makes a number of interesting and debatable points. However, at its core lies an analysis looking at the differences and relative merits of J. R. R. Tolkien and Clark Ashton Smith. Of all the areas and topics addressed, it is here that the basics, the essence, of Mr. Whitechapel's polemic lie, and it is this analysis which shall be addressed. In doing so, a number of topics will be covered in addition to Tolkien and Smith: fantasy, America, and cinema will, at some point, be addressed and discussed. The point, however, is not to persuade Mr. Whitechapel to modify his views; the point is to apply a form of corrective, a form of counterargument to stimulate debate, in much the same way that an antithesis is required before a debate can spring from any given thesis. This, then, is the point of this paper – to stimulate debate, to lead to considerations of the relative merits of two highly regarded authors, and to view these in wider discussions germane to fantastic literature in general.

"[B]eside being Catholic and anti-rationalist," Whitechapel asserts, "Tolkien was, more importantly, a bad writer. His most famous book, The Lord of the Rings, epitomizes what Europeans would see as the worst failings of American popular culture: it is sentimental, shallow, and two-dimensional." This is the essence of Mr. Whitechapel's criticism, and these three points need to be addressed, as he himself had failed to do. Yes, it is sentimental in part, yet it is an alloyed sentimentality, mixed with darker emotions. We have, in the first volume, the episode of the barrow-wraiths, an episode that is, in no way, sentimental. We have also the attack on Weathertop, the fall of Gandalf in Moria, and Boromir's attempt to take the ring, all episodes devoid of sentimentality. In the second volume, the plight of the Ents is discussed, yet the Ents proceed to act, and in a definitely unsentimental manner: they besiege, and destroy, the Ring of Isengard. Theoden is presented likewise in an unsentimental manner. Likewise are the scenes set within the Dead Marshes. In the third volume, the death of Theoden and Denethor are both devoid of sentimentality. So too is the wider siege of Minas Tirith, and the destruction of the Witch-King. Finally, the scouring of the Shire is a far from sentimental catastrophe that the hobbits must face – a more eminently sentimental choice would be that taken by the film: the hobbits return, all is well, and they live happily ever after. Where sentiment occurs, it is almost always with lesser characters, such as the various ponies of the company; this, then, is recognised as a failing, but it is not the overarching sentimentality that we are expected to find, according to Mr. Whitechapel.

The supposed shallowness and two-dimensionality are best addressed together. In order to refute these charges, the reader must note a number of features of the novel. First, the detail presented is far greater than is strictly necessary. There are maps, yes, but with detail and care taken that never occurs within the novel. The nomenclature, the use of names is far from arbitrary, as we find in many fantasy authors, such as Lord Dunsany and Clark Ashton Smith. Tolkien took the invented languages he developed, and used them to create names; he also utilised existing names and elements and, through a process of analogues, used them to develop a sense of verisimilitude. Professor Shippey has pointed out two reasons why names were important for Tolkien: they "may well contain unusually authentic testimony to history and to old tradition" and "they exist in a special relationship to what they refer to: obviously, one-to-one."1 Thus his concern with naming:

Faithful servant yet master's bane,
Lightfoot's foal, swift Snowmane.2

Tolkien also provides a sense of depth, using his imagined mythology for a background, enriching the narrative of The Lord of the Rings. Thus he refers consistently to the past, to events, beings and places within the past, and develops a sense of irreversible change and fading glories. He utilises poetry in particular to develop depth, using it to develop a sense of culture. Compare, if you will Bilbo's hobbit songs to those of the elves, the Ents, or the Rohirrim. Each embodies subtle clues as to each culture's over-riding worldview. He also develops depth in characters: Frodo Baggins is no simplistic fantasy hero, but one that is flawed, vulnerable, and one that resists the allure of facile heroics. This is seen most clearly in the scouring of the Shire, where Frodo eschews the chance to be a hero of reknown, but, rather, took an ethical stance almost aking to pacifism; he says, notably: "I wish for no killing; not even of the ruffians, unless it must be done, to prevent them from hurting hobbits."3 These are not the sentiments of shallow, facile fantastic fiction. Finally, there are the appendices to the story, no mere appendages, but essential impedimenta for the reader of The Lord of the Rings. They cover essentials that give depth to the novel: language, time, place, structure, these and other issues are covered.4 It should begin to be evident, then, that Tolkien is not shallow, nor is he essentially two-dimensional.

We can see, further, a pattern of unverified assertions made by Mr. Whitechapel. He calls The Lord of the Rings a "crude fantasy", but with neither evidence or context for his statement. He continues: "Tolkien's writing is crude and strongly flavored, the literary equivalent of hamburger and coke". How is this writing crude, and how strongly flavoured? It is not my place to provide the evidence; Mr. Whitechapel has made the positive statement, and it is he who must provide the evidence, which he has failed to do. "Tolkien", he says, "the professional scholar of language in the homeland of English, wrote with far less sensitivity and richness [than Clark Ashton Smith], beating drums and blasting trumpets…". Here, then, if we are to believe Mr. Whitechapel's assessment, is an example of drums and trumpets:

"From beyond the porch upon the top of the high terrace they could see beyond the stream the green fields of Rohan fading into distant grey. Curtains of wind-blown rain were slanting down. The sky above and to the west was still dark with thunder, and lightning far away flickered among the tops of hidden hills. But the wind had shifted to the north, and already the storm that had come out of the East was receding, rolling away southward to the sea. Suddenly through a rent in the clouds behind them a shaft of sun stabbed down. The falling showers gleamed like silver, and far away the river glittered like a shimmering glass."5

In short, then, what we have is not an argument, but a polemic, an emotional argument that attempts to persuade by diverting attention away from the requirements of intellectual discourse, and fails in doing so. Thus, given that this element or Mr. Whitechapel's argument fails, then it is fairly likely that others also fail. One such that I wish to address is the issue of democracy and Fantasy.

America, argues Mr. Whitechapel, is a democracy. Fantasy is a reaction against America, it is an attempt to write as if it were not there.6 Yet these assertions also clearly fail. If America is a democracy, so, then are other cultures and nations, including France, England, Australia, and Classical Athens. What distinguishes America is not so much the political system, which is one interlocked element of the culture, but the culture itself. Thus the assertion that Tolkien must be considered a democratic writer becomes, in essence, meaningless.

Mr. Whitechapel himself says: "[Tolkien's] books … contain all the anti-rational, loss-assuaging ingredients listed above: monarchy, magic, and mystery. One of those books is, after all, called The Return of the King…". These elements are a far cry from the Republican democracy of America, and sit more comfortably with the constitutional monarchies of Great Britain and other Commonwealth nations, such as Australia. This is important. The hobbits may have a form of democracy, since they elect the Mayor, yet such institutions exist by the sufferance and good will of the rightful ruler, the King. Thus this reflects not an American democracy, but a British one. One of the principal narrative threads is the restoration of the rightful king to his throne in Gondor, the restoration of a monarchy, which is not a particularly democratic theme.

He also argues that a sign of the democratic in literature we must look at how well it is adapted into film, to the world of cinema. He says "fiction that can be translated readily and successfully into film, as Tolkien's has been, tends to be superficial and direct." In the first place, he would argue that John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman "tends to be superficial and direct" which is, as any with knowledge of Fowles' ouevre should begin to recognise, is a particularly uncharitable and flawed statement. In addoition, he relies on a perceived acknowledgement that the recent apdaptation has been done so both readily and successfully, points which I can easily argue against.

For a start, seeing that, for instance, the sole standard professed by the screenwriter was the inclusion of elements based upon their attraction, not on their importance to the plot, and the addition of more cinematic elements for the sake of themselves, not the plot, then such an assertion starts to become untenable.

In the first film, which I have seen, the handling of the characterisation of Merry & Pippin is inept, and foolish; whereas the novel would have them foolishly endanger the party through their gossip about the shire, here we are expected to accept them directly identify Frodo Baggins when they know not to. The exclusion of integral scenes, the barrow-wrights, for example, the old forest, destroy certain thematic parallels that occur later, such as Caradhas and Fanghorn, and which demonstrate certain important themes, such as the fact that not all evil is under Sauron's sway. The handling of the sword of Isildur was inept, painfully contrived, and blatantly apparent as a piece of material cobbled into the overall plot; it rings, thus, untrue. The teeter-tottering stir in Moria is inept, a travesty designed to heighten suspense that remains, however, purely risible. Of the third episode (I have not seen the second), the characterisation of Sam during the climb into Moria is false, and facile, not to mention inept. The whole battle sequence with the giant elephants strikes me as more reminiscent of the at-ats of The Empire Strikes Back than anything Tolkien ever wrote. The tomfoolery with Denethor, the slapstick whacking him around the head, is pure ludicrousness. And, the ending, the removal of any hint of the scouring of the Shire, is as shallow and facile as any I've seen.

In short then, I would argue that, despite whatever it may have as an example of fantasy film, it is not a successful, but a deeply flawed adaptation. It is an epic film, yes, yet it fails to adequately convey what The Lord of the Rings: it has not been readily, nor successfully, adapted.

But, if we can discount Tolkien as a democratic writer, what then is he. I would like to suggest the possibility of seeing him as a demotic writer. I would suggest that we look closely at his work, and see what the precise elements are that attract the popular attention he has received, and view these in relation to other writers, seeing how they compare to him. In this way, as seeing him as a writer who appeals to his readers in other than the most superficial ways, apart from the "lowest common denominator" of writers such as Sidney Sheldon, Len Deighton and their ilk, we can then begin to understand more clearly his importance and successes as a writer apart from the shallow criticisms he has the tendency to attract.

Thus, in this way we reconcile his emphasis on royalty with his appeal. We can also reconcile his Catholicity, his apparent snobbishness, his deep concern for the pastoral elements of the English countryside. We can reconcile his deep and abiding respect of the rural proletariat.

Of course, there has been a measure of personal interests in this argument of mine. I hold, overall, Tolkien to be a better fiction writer than CAS, due to the subtlety and range of his writing style, and its flexibility in displaying character through speech, for example. Clark Ashton Smith in no ways displays the ability to integrate his poetry into the stories he writes, apart from his style. He is also incapable of writing on a large canvas, or of discussing such elements of human existance as the meaning of evil, or hope and despair. Yet, having said that, Clark Ashton Smith far oustrips Tolkien as a poet, and if we are to adjudicate between the two, whether in prose or no, on the basis of poeticness, on the incantatory quality of their rhetorical qualities, then, if one is inclined towards an Asiaticism, Smith is the better. In my personal, poetic life, I owe Smith far more than Tolkien has, and could, ever give me. It is only right that I acknowledge this, as it is to state, clearly and unequivocably, that for all his importance and superiority as a general writer over Clark Ashton Smith, because of the importance of verse to me, Clark Ashton Smith will always be the more important for me, as a poet and a person.

Where Mr. Whitechapel fails is here: he gives a biased, failed argument that is, fundamentally, no argument, and one that fails to establish any form of a case. By holding Clark Ashton Smith's qualities ashis standard, Tolkien fails. It is harder, as I've found, to attempt to see the qualities and failings in both, and I have attempted to here.



  1. T. A. Shippey, J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (London : HarperCollins, 2001: 57.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (London : HarperCollins, 2001): 827; Shippey, op cit.: 58. This concern with naming is reflected in the over ten pages of names in the index, of persons and beings alone.
  3. Tolkien, op cit.: 986-7.
  4. The structure of the narrative is one area I have not looked at that displays Tolkien's complexity, and lack of shallowness, especially in regards the skill and ramifications of his use of entrelacement: see Chapter II of Shippey op cit.: 50-111. Another question I have not looked at is the nature of evil; see ibid.: 112-60 and T. A. Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth (London : Grafton, 1982): 128-33.
  5. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers (London : HarperCollins, 1999): 140-1.
  6. I should not feel the need to point out a number of fantasies that integrate America within their world: Little, Big - John Crowley; The Land of Laughs - Jonathan Carroll; Fevre Dream - George R. R. Martin; Time and Again - Jack Finney; Peace - Gene Wolfe  – all these are prized volumes in my collection.

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