The Real Fantastic Stuff, an essay by Richard K. Morgan

The following is an original essay by Richard K. Morgan. I hope you enjoy:


“I tell you, it’s no game serving down in the city”
- Gorbag – forgotten orc captain from Minas Morgul
I’m not much of a Tolkien fan – not since I was about twelve or fourteen anyway (which, it strikes me, is about the right age to read and enjoy his stuff). But it would be a foolish writer in the fantasy field who failed to acknowledge the man’s overwhelming significance in the canon. And it would be a poor and superficial reader of Tolkien who failed to acknowledge that in amongst all the overwrought prose, the nauseous paeans to class-bound rural England, and the endless bloody elven singing that infests The Lord of the Rings, you can sometimes discern the traces of a bleak underlying human landscape which is completely at odds with the epic fantasy narrative for which the book is better known.
LOTR.pngThat little twist of urban angst quoted above is one such trace. It comes at the end of The Two Towers and is part of an on-going set of dialogues between two orc captains at the tower of Cirith Ungol. And for a while – until Tolkien remembers these are Bad Guys and sends the wearyingly Good and Wholesome Sam up against them – we get a fascinating insight into life for the rank and file in Mordor. The orcs are disenchanted, poorly informed and constantly stressed by the uncertainties that lack of information brings. They suspect that the war might be going badly for their side, and that their commanders, far from being infallible, seem to be making some serious errors of judgment. They worry that if their side loses, they can expect scant mercy from their victorious enemies. They mutter their misgivings sotto voce because they know that there are informers in the ranks and a culture of enforcement through terror bearing down from above. They also seem possessed of a rough good humour and some significant loyalty to the soldiers they command. And they’re not enjoying the war any more than Frodo or Samwise; they want it to be over just as much as anybody else.

For me, this is some of the finest, most engaging work in The Lord of the Rings. It feels – perhaps a strange attribute for a fantasy novel – real. Suddenly, I’m interested in these orcs. Gorbag is transformed by that one laconic line about the city, from slavering brutish evil-doer to world-weary (almost noir-ish) hard-bitten survivor. The simplistic archetypes of Evil are stripped away and what lies beneath is – for better or brutal worse – all too human. This is the real meat of the narrative, this is the telling detail (as Bradbury’s character Faber from Fahrenheit 451 would have it), no Good, no Evil, just the messy human realities of a Great War as seen from ground level. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that what you’re probably looking at here are the fossil remnants of Tolkien’s first-hand experiences in his own Great War, as he passed through the hellish trenches and the slaughter of the Somme in 1916.
LOTR2.pngThe great shame is, of course, that Tolkien was not able (or inclined) to mine this vein of experience for what it was really worth – in fact he seemed to be in full, panic-stricken flight from it. I suppose it’s partially understandable – the generation who fought in the First World War got to watch every archetypal idea they had about Good and Evil collapse in reeking bloody ruin around them. It takes a lot of strength to endure something like that and survive, and then to re-draw your understanding of things to fit the uncomfortable reality you’ve seen. Far easier to retreat into simplistic nostalgia for the faded or forgotten values you used to believe in. So by the time we get back to Cirith Ungol in The Return of the King, Gorbag and his comrades have been conveniently shorn of their more interesting human character attributes and we’re back to the cackling slavering evil out of Mordor from a children’s bedtime story. Our glimpse of something more humanly interesting is gone, replaced once more by the ponderous epic tones of Towering Archetypal Evil pitted against Irritatingly Radiant Good (oh – and guess who wins).
Well, I guess it’s called fantasy for a reason.
I only wonder why on earth anyone (adult) would want to read something like that.
And I’ve written a fantasy novel for all those adults who wouldn’t.
Hope you like it.


To learn more about Richard K. Morgan, his titles, or additional essays, visit his website:
This essay will also be featured in the upcoming issue of Del Rey’s DRIN newsletter. Want to find out why the DRIN is one of the best genre newsletters out there? Check it out for yourself here: DRIN Newsletter Online.
Or sign up here: DRIN signup.

64 Responses to “The Real Fantastic Stuff, an essay by Richard K. Morgan”

  1. Shawn Speakman says:

    Greg: The whole point of the article Richard wrote is about missed opportunities. Tolkien had opportunities with the orcs that he did not fully take on and challenge himself or the reader with. Earlier you argued that Tolkien challenged the reader a lot. I was merely asking you to quantify your assertion — to find out how many times the orcs are used to tell the story and how many times out of those times those arcs are grey rather than black. That has everything to do with this argument.
    The problem being, of course, is that this argument has become a “why is Tolkien valid” argument rather than what it was originally intended as. Just as Richard has said, it seems like people aren’t reading his words and instead reacting to emotions that he stirred in them. Warranted, he caused that stirring by using such charged language. But the point of the original article remains despite the derailment.
    hacksoncode: But your Irish analogy has the same basic flaw. Richard isn’t criticizing that the Irish book is too Irish. He is criticizing that the Irish writer threw a smidge of English in his Irish tale and doesn’t produce a conflict there, a conflict that in reality has existed for a long time between the two countries. It is a missed opportunity from a storytelling and literary point of view. Keeping the tale strictly Irish would be safe. Adding the conflict between the two countries is not safe. Tolkien, by the large, remained safe.
    Again, don’t confuse the arguments here.
    The question is: Why does Richard Morgan no longer like Tolkien?
    Not: Why is Tolkien a terrible writer?
    You all are defending the latter question. That’s not the point, at least it isn’t for me.
    And as you even acknowledge, that kind of writing is “not the most sophisticated,” and that’s one of the points I believe Richard was trying to make in his original post. Children’s literature, by the large, is not the most sophisticated, at least compared to adult literature, and that’s where Richard is drawing his comparison. So in effect, you both believe the same thing although one chooses to read the more simple narrative and the other chooses not to and embraces something more complex. Richard obviously has a hard time understanding why someone would want to do that. You and I do not. There is nothing wrong with that; it is just a difference of opinion.

  2. Greg Wilson says:

    Nope. What I argued is that Tolkien challenges the reader a lot through the text, including many sections that have NOTHING WHATSOEVER TO DO WITH ORCS. I’ve gone through many examples of that already on my blog post and elsewhere. I have no idea, nor do I have the time to research, how many times orcs are shown to be fully developed characters with hopes and dreams and fears. It may absolutely be true that orcs in LOTR are seldom presented as extraordinarily complex characters with deep thoughts of every description. It is also true that LOTR is not three million words long and is essentially coherent (hence Tolkien doesn’t make Denethor both the Steward of Gondor and Conan the Barbarian, according to Morgan’s rework), and thank God for that.
    Finally, I really hope the point of Morgan’s article was not “why I don’t like Tolkien.” Why on earth would anyone care about this? I hope the point was intended to be “why Tolkien has significant limitations, and here’s why I believe that, and here’s why it should matter to you as fantasy readers / authors.” But if that truly wasn’t it, and this was all an exercise in self-aggrandizement, then…well…I don’t think I need to finish my thought in that case. :)

  3. hacksoncode says:

    Well, and I acknowledge that this essay is really nothing more than crass commercialism combined with truly outstandly trollish flamebait. I happen to like a good flamewar.
    It’s just not a very good argument. It’s a 3 million line novel. Complaining that Tolkien opens a tiny little 1 sentence crack in the fantasy veil (and saying that, in fact, that tiny crack is the only good thing about the novel, by implication if not directly) is, well, childish itself.

  4. Bryan Russell says:

    Thanks for the response. What you said was very interesting, and to my mind a more interesting and complex argument than the one you made in the article. And, having read it, I think our views are coming closer together, though I still interpret aspects of it differently.
    The difference now seem to be less Black and White versus Grey and more Grey versus Greyer. I’ll use the WWII analogy, despite the fact that Tolkien resisted the allegorical connections, as I think there are parallels, whether by choice or by chance. I think, for what it’s worth, Tolkien wrote a WWII sort of novel. You have the nazis who have “evil” aims and must be stopped, a fairly basic truth. He’s written a story about the sort of strength and struggle involved in standing up to such evil. It could seem Black and White… except he does humanize the “Germans”, he does show the greyness of characters (hey, the Allies could commit war crimes too). There’s moral ambiguity (say, the Ents and their choice_. There’s corruption and betrayal amidst the “Good” side. I mean, does Theoden ride to the aid of Gondor because it’s the right thing to do… or because he’s desperate to regain his honor in the eyes of his ancestors, and only a glorious death on the field of battle will assuage that sort of vanity? Heroic? Flawed? A bit of both? To me a grey interpretation is pretty available there. Eowyn rides with him out of a lust for glory and a sort of death wish… and real glory only comes when she defends someone she loves. And still she despairs… She’s not exactly a shining character, or a simple one.
    I do agree that many of your suggested courses for the story would be a greyer interpretation of the possibilities. But that would be more of a Vietnam story, if you would, where everything is almost brutally grey, where everything is, well, a clusterfuck. I think both have value, and I think both are human and grey, though to differing degrees. Your version would certainly be interesting (and just the sort of story I often like) but it would be different, and have different aims and goals. Equally worthy, perhaps, but not necessarily better. You would gain some things… but lose some things, too, such as much of the resonant symbolic power of the tale. Its mythic quality would be reduced, I think.
    Yes, Tolkien’s elevated much of the conflict to a symbolic level with inventions like Sauron. And yet it’s not a simple A Great Evil Arises, at least I don’t think it is. I always find it hard to ignore that ending, an ending to which many of Tolkien’s copyists seem to do just that: ignore. Too complex and troubling, I think, for them. Because in the end once you defeat the Nazis or Sauron, you still have to go home… to greed, to sin, to betrayal, to all the things you’ve been fighting. And the Russians are a pain in the ass… And for all that struggle you went through what do you gain? A chance to live, to have a family, to struggle with daily moral choices and loss (Sam) or perhaps grace in the life hereafter (Frodo). The story always struck me as a grand and fantastical representation of those daily struggles, given a large, violent and mythic form as a way to entertain while it explores its themes: moral choice, pride, the mirrored twins of hope and despair.
    Now, I will say that Tolkien is rather an idealist of a writer. And I get from your comments this might be part of your problem with him. He seems very interested in embodying values and vices in physical form. Representative imagery is constant throughout. His exploration of these moral choices is often on a lofty level, operating through idealized and symbolic representations of the forms rather than through acute psychological studies of particular people. I think in the story the meanings are expansive, in that they flow from a character and situation outward to explore the concept (say, the nature of pride and power), whereas a more psychologically devoted story would probably invert that, taking a larger ideal and then narrowing it down to examine a particularly human moment.
    I think the two goals are certainly different, accomplished with different techniques and with different aims in mind. I think, too, they’re equally valid, and neither of them is inherently more juvenile or adult than the other. They can both operate complexly or simply, though I’ll admit that the idealistic view tends more to the simplistic than the psychological view. And, if I had to choose, I’d probably say I prefer the latter view, the sudden clarity of a human moment… maybe because the human complexity is absent or poorly handled in many idealistic stories. And that preference certainly holds true for my own writing as well, whether in the fantasy genre or not.
    I guess, in the end, I simply don’t feel that LotR is one of those idealistic stories that is poorly handled, as it still seems fairly rich with life, though I can’t say the same for many of the writers who’ve taken it as a model (and so often fail to capture any of that complexity – if indeed they even try). I read far less in the genre than I once did, likely for this very reason. That is, that my personal tastes reflect this desire for a complex story, whether idealistic or physchological in nature. LotR still turns my crank, I guess, and I still see value to be found outside simple narrative enjoyment (as opposed to, say, the Hobbit, which I might read merely for the pleasure of its whimsy. Nostalgia has its moments…).
    Thanks again for the interesting discussion, and my best to you and yours.
    Bryan Russell

  5. Shawn Speakman says:

    Greg: Again, you guys are making this something that it isn’t. By Richard talking about “why he doesn’t like Tolkien,” he does discuss those “significant limitations” you think he should have gone into. Those limitations are what make it interesting. Therefore they are one and the same.
    hacksoncode: Richard can complain about anything he wants in that book. There is nothing wrong with that. And again you almost hit the nail on the head by not even knowing it; out of the 3 million lines of the novel Tolkien chose to insert several lines that don’t line up with the rest of the book. Why? Did he pull it back? Did he even know what he was doing? If he is the consummate writer as you guys state he is, then he did know what he was doing. So why pull that part of the narrative back? Why not fully explore it when the rest of the book is so black and white? What drove him to do that? That is interesting all by itself and Richard brought that up right from the beginning.
    In short, what Richard is saying, is if Tolkien hadn’t reigned that part of the story, Richard would have enjoyed the book more.
    Again, what is wrong with him saying that?
    If you don’t agree with him, fine, but don’t sit there trying to say his criticism is childish simply because you don’t agree with it. That’s childish itself.

  6. Greg Wilson says:

    We’re clearly not understanding each other, Shawn, so I’ll just leave it there. Thanks for the interesting conversation.

  7. TheDude says:

    I agree. This has been a really great discussion (which you don’t see on the Internet very often) and Mr. Morgan’s responses have clarified many of my doubts and misconceptions about him.
    I still think that the essay would be better without the last couple of sentences,though. I can’t really believe that he thinks that nobody above 14 or 15 years old can enjoy LoTR.
    Just as I don’t believe that you have to be at least in your mid-twenties to enjoy Altered Carbon or The Steel Remains.
    Also, whoever brought up The Silmarillion made a great point. That to me is Tolkien’s masterpiece and should satisfy even the most demanding of fantasy fans.
    To finalize I’d like to ask Shawn if he is the one that wrote “In defense of George RR Martin”. If you we’re, then kudos because you did a great job.
    But in this case I think you’re generalising too much. Bryan and Greg have proved in their posts that LoTR is much more complex than simply a “black and white” fantasy.

  8. Finn says:

    I’d just like to comment that there are two different kinds of moral ambiguity being thrown around here. There’s the kind of gray where every person contains both good and evil and nobody is pure one way or the other, and there’s the kind of gray where you aren’t sure which choices are evil, or if there is such a thing as evil at all.
    And in defense of Harry Potter, there actually is some moral complexity in the later books — though it’s certain not a great example of it. In particular you might think that Voldemort represents Real Ultimate Evil or whatever just reading book one. But by the time you’ve got his backstory in book 6 you find out he’s just a man, and in many ways worthy of pity rather than hatred.

  9. Shawn Speakman says:

    The Dude: It was me who wrote the In Defense article concerning George Martin. In short, I got fed up listening to people rant information that wasn’t true at all and had to respond to them all in one fell swoop.
    As for over generalizing, I’m not stating that Tolkien isn’t complex. His world building is excellent, his language creation wonderful, hell, even his story construction was great. But there is literally no ambiguity between good and evil in the entire book. Sure, Gandalf falls “into shadow” for a bit, Frodo struggles with the ring as do various members of his company, but the evil side lacks that grayness, in my opinion. And that’s all I believe Richard is arguing.

  10. TigerScorp says:

    “During these last few months, all but one of his close friends of the “T. C. B. S.” had been killed in action. Partly as an act of piety to their memory, but also stirred by reaction against his war experiences, he had already begun to put his stories into shape, “. . .. in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire” [ Letters 66]. This ordering of his imagination developed into the Book of Lost Tales (not published in his lifetime), in which most of the major stories of the Silmarillion appear in their first form: tales of the Elves and the “Gnomes”, (i. e. Deep Elves, the later Noldor), with their languages Qenya and Goldogrin. Here are found the first recorded versions of the wars against Morgoth, the siege and fall of Gondolin and Nargothrond, and the tales of Túrin and of Beren and Lúthien.”
    Tolkien was tremendously scarred by his time in the trenches. I thought ya’ll might enjoy the quote I posted above. I found it on his official biography. The Silmarillion is an excellant book as are the Books of Lost Tales. His son is releasing a pre-Hobbit book. The tales of Sigurd and Gudrun written back in 1916.
    Tolkien was also good friends with C.S Lewis and though I am a Tolkien fan I am equally a fan of Terry Brooks and Mercedes Lackey and Stephen King in even degrees. Also the works of Robert Howard, author of the fantasy warrior Conan, predate the Hobbit. I think I can consider both Tolkien and Howard early masters in the art of fantasy fiction. IMHO

  11. Elio says:

    I’m very sorry that you feel yourself inadequate to understanding or enjoying Tolkien’s work. Perhaps time and tides will remedy this.

  12. [...] few months ago, Richard Morgan wrote this post about Tolkien’s work (well. Lord of the Rings) and said some interesting things. And [...]

  13. [...] Fantastic Stuff, an essay by Richard K. Morgan, articolo pubblicato il 18 febbraio 2009 su Suvudu: Share this:CondivisioneFacebookLinkedInGoogleEmailStampaTwitterMi piace:Mi piace [...]

Leave a Comment


Del Rey Spectra 50 Page Fridays