“… an effete regurgitator of watery folk tales…”? Not at all.
An IrishMan’s Diary
By Ed Power
The Irish Times – June 3, 2000
Horror writer Clive Barker has a word for it – fantastique. The literary establishment is less effusive, dismissing the oeuvre as mere adolescent frippery, the preserve of bedroombound teenage gawks and Star Trek-besotted square pegs.
To consumers of commercial cinema it is a byword for big, dumb movies; celluloid Big Macs distinguished by limp plotting, starched dialogue and overwhelming special effects. Ireland, once a hot-bed of outlandish fiction, spawning ground of some of the greatest pioneering exponents of the genre, colossi like Sheridan le Fanu, Lord Dunsany and Bram Stoker, shuffles its skirts and glowers, muttering that flighty malarky about sexed-up vampires and imaginary worlds is all very well but scarcely merits ranking alongside cultural totems such as Joyce, Behan et al. Devotees (and there are millions of us) loftily trumpet science fiction and fantasy – the twin bailiwicks which together comprise Barker’s fantastique – as the literary force of the past 100 years; the one best equipped to mull over the grand issues of the machine age – suburbanisation, nuclear war, the immolation of individualism at the alter of mass production, the Internet’s promise/threat of a boundless dystopia.
Few outside the pale would agree. They disparage us as outsized kids enamoured with rocketships and Dungeons and Dragons. Even the publishing industry is riddled with anti-SF prejudice; any genre title finding favour with “mainstream” reviewers is hastily re-packaged, geeky origins masked behind day-glo cover and blurbs that wax about “slipstream prose and categorisation-defying surrealism”.
Thus intelligent SF by authors such as J. G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Kurt Vonnegut and Christopher Priest is dressed up as “quality” literature. It is easy to discern publishers’ logic; these writers rarely bloat their novels with alien landing craft or eight headed demons, so they simply can’t be common peddlers of SF hackery, can they?
Well, we may yet have our revenge. A lavish $300 million big screen adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (indisputably one of the pivotal works of the 20th century) went into production in January and already the distant thunder of pre-movie hype is rumbling across the cultural horizon like a tsunami gathering strength. Take cover, SF haters, an onslaught of Tolkien mania is imminent. When the first Lord of the Rings previews were released over the Internet earlier this month, 1.7 million people logged onto the official web-site in a single day, nearly twice the numbers which flocked to catch the earliest online shots of the Star Wars – Episode One.
While there have been murmurings that the smattering of token female presences in the book have been fleshed out to provide the mandatory lurv interest (purists should note that pouting pretties Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett are pencilled in for lead roles), early clips suggest the adaptation will remain largely faithful to the original text. Intriguingly New Zealand director Peter Jackson has chosen to steep the film in Celtic mystique, his Lord of the Rings promises to evoke the melancholic grandeur of a mist-wreathed Connemara dusk, the sleepy fastness of a Kerry lakeside copse. Many of the principal characters will trot out their lines in soupy, Gaelic brogue.
Tolkien was famously loath to claim any allegorical subtexts for his masterpiece. A sprawling saga rooted in Western Europe mythology, The Lord of the Rings is heavy on grandiose storytelling and light on humour, infused with a leathery, boys-own ambience which betrays the paternalistic bent of its author, a doyen of the musty, male dominated intelligentsia of 1950s Oxbridge.
But many commentators have construed the epic as a slab of religious nostalgia (Tolkien was a fervent Catholic), hailing it as an admonishment of society’s rush towards industrialisation to the detriment of community spirit. The Lord of the Rings’ multitude of outlandish villains are feverish industrialists, they march to war with chugging, fume spluttering, engines of destruction in tow, verdant pastures reduced to grey slagheaps in their wake. Mordor, the seat of the book’s principal villain Sauron, is described as a vast stretch of toxic wasteland poisoned by his great castle, Barad-dur, a sort of medieval THORP plant. Within the SF body politic, many scorn Tolkien as an effete regurgitator of watery folk tales, expressing unease at the stifling morality which permeates his canon. Sixties surrealist Michael Moorcock (another major SF figure whose work has been relegated to the literary stalls in a bid to woo the Nick Hornby-devouring masses) disparages the masterpiece as rigid Christian proselytising po-faced sermonising tarted up in mystical filigree. But hey – do we really care? Sod the metaphors. Few works of fiction are as beguiling as The Lord of the Rings. Once drawn in to the weave of the vast plot, it is difficult not to be consumed. Would that mainstream literature were so engaging, so utterly absorbing. To paraphrase Kevin Spacey in American Beauty – Tolkien RULES!