Michael Moorcock does not like J.R.R. Tolkien. He calls Tolkien a "second-rate schoolmaster". It's hard to imagine two authors who have been more influential on the development of fantasy literature -- so the reasons for this conflict bear some inspection.
|Elric of Melnibone, painted by the author
Tolkien (who died in 1973) never had a chance to reply to Moorcock. But a thoughtful rebuttal was published by Brian Murphy at the excellent fantasy-literature website The Cimmerian. Murphy has no cheese for Moorcock. He strongly refutes the idea that Tolkien glorified war or shied away from portraying death. But his central point is that Moorcock misread the Lord of the Rings when he claimed that it was marred by a happy ending. For Murphy, the ending is anything but happy:
I would argue that the victory over Sauron is only a temporary reprieve against the encroaching dark. This is the great sadness of The Lord of the Rings... Magic has left the world. The great evil of the Third Age is defeated, but its void will be filled with other, more banal but equally sinister incarnations of evil.There are only two problems with Murphy's analysis. The first is that he avoids Moorcock's main criticism. Although happy endings are part of the attack on Tolkien, Moorcock's focus is on Tolkien's political message: the Lord of the Rings asks us to defer to old men in grey clothing.
And this leads me to the second deficiency in Murphy's defence of Tolkien. He doesn't ask why Moorcock misreads The Lord of the Rings. For me, this is the most interesting question of all.
Bloom's theory is that when a young poet establishes himself, he is compelled to misread and criticize the very writers who influence him most. Without this misreading, the young poet would be paralyzed by his own sense of indebtedness and un-originality. As Bloom wrote in The Anxiety of Influence (1973):
Poetic Influence--when it involves two strong, authentic poets--always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say the main traditions of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature of distortion, of perverse, willful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist.
However, this misreading gives Moorcock the ability to not merely imitate Tolkien, but to go beyond him in crucial ways. And so, the Lord of the Rings ends with the passing of the elves and their magic -- but Moorcock's best novels begin with such extinction. Thus Elric and Corum are each the last of a dying race, making them outsiders in their own world. Unlike Tolkien's hobbits and elves, these outsiders become rebellious, disaffected anti-heroes.
I know some people are horrified by Moorcock's attack on Tolkien. And I guess nobody likes it when mom and dad fight. But for me, I think Epic Pooh is actually a high compliment. Moorcock's misreading of Tolkien proves that both men are what Bloom would call "strong, authentic" artists.
(Many thanks to Stormbringer and others, who inspired this post after our discussion on the Oldhammer Forum.)