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Old 04-04-2002, 01:28 PM   #41
Kalessin
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Aiwendil

"To come back to your question: what is the flaw in fantasy? Simple: imitation. In no other genre is almost every work so imitative of a single author. I'm certainly not suggesting anything so modern as that there should be progress in art. It is, however, undoubtedly true that those who merely imitate a great artist will fail to create great art. The fantasy genre is a genre of imitation"

You've done it again, another compelling argument! Thanks also for chiding me, but remember I was acting as devil's advocate [img]smilies/wink.gif[/img] If I really knew the answer I probably wouldn't ask the question. And that doesn't stop me trying to argue positions with as much conviction as possible ... it's all part of the learning process.

Now, your imitation theory is probably the most effective argument I've heard yet. And I think that, as an answer to my original question, it's unarguable. But by the same token it's not therefore an "inherent" or "inevitable" flaw. It's just a reflection of how things have turned out. So maybe there are other, deeper, answers. Leaving aside the 'scared' bit, maybe the de facto UNreality argument does have some merit. Back to you ...
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Old 04-04-2002, 01:45 PM   #42
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I think it's somewhat misleading to say that Tolkien wrote because he had something he wanted to say. That's what modern authors of "serious" literature do. Tolkien certainly had no explicit "message" in his writing. He was, in a way, even more serious than those authors.
You misunderstood what I was trying to say--when I said "say something" i didn't mean that he had an explicit message he wanted to get across (seeing that Tolkien disliked allegory), he "had something to say" in that he had a story he really wanted to tell. (hence LOTR, The Sil, etc.). He valued good stories for their own sake, not the hidden meanings and symbolism and so forth.

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Orcs didn't go around saying "I was only doing my job. They new they were evil and loved it!
I don't exactly agree that they knew they were evil and loved it. In The Silmarillion, chaper 3, it says:

"And deep in their dark hearts the Orcs loathes the Master (Melkor) whom they served in fear, the maker only of their misery."

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"Regular Elvish trick" they say, thinking that the "great Elvish warrior" (Sam) left his companion (Frodo) behind. They seem to view Elves as immoral. Isn't that exactly the way the Nazis or al-Qaeda operate?
Agreed. Oftentimes Evil doesn't really think it is evil, right? They think they're doing the right thing and that the ones who oppose them are the evil ones. They believe that their evil has a just cause, as do the Nazis and al-Qaeda.

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We all know that evil still exists in this world, though we may break it down in to small bites of "greed" or "pettyness", or "racism", or "unfairness". It's all pervasive, and very hard to pin down.
very well said. Maybe that's why many modern critics consider fantasy impossibly unrealistic? Because in today's world evil is more subtle and doesn't declare itself openly the way it does in fairy tales.

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(Galadriel as an example) didn't come off.
This did not overall destroy the enjoyment of the movie for a vast majority of movie goers, but they were flaws.
True, yet I still admire PJ for making the movie so that it could appeal to everyone, even those who knew nothing about Tolkien.
Very good point, also, Goldwine, about how commercial sucess does not equal true greatness. Just look at the music industry today! From Britney Spears, to Nsync to all those other imitators--they're making millions, sure, but who can say that they are truly artists?

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They have made it cool to be a cynic. It is a badge of honor in artistic circles, and a darling of critics.
Agreed! Have you ever noticed that most people think that misery and suffering is what makes literature and art "deep"? As if unhappiness and despair is where all the deep stuff is! *snorts with contempt* It disgusts me and proves how superficial they are, as well as how little they really know.

I agree with you also, Aiwendil, that too many people have forgotten the real purpose of art (which includes music, lit, film, etc.) is to entertain. Too many "artists" do what they do for all the wrong, insincere reasons. They don't do it because they want to communicate what's in their heart, they do it for approval from others, fame, or money. And if their motives are insincere, how do they expect the audience to connect and to be moved by it? It's like someone saying that he/she wants to be an actor because he/she wants to be famous, not because he/she loves acting. It makes one wonder what the world is coming to. So many have strayed so far from the true purpose of doing things that the real purpose is almost wholly lost.

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The better works of any genre have superceded classification.
This is similar to something that Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins said:
"Great music completely obliterates any conceptions of genre."
I generally agree. I love LOTR, and to me it's definitely not just "another fantasy novel." Neither is The Matrix (one of my favorite films) merely a sci-fi flick. As for Matrix, many don't consider it scifi because they say it's just altogether an awesome movie and exceeds classification. However, the fact that it's considered sci-fi doesn't make anyone think less of it. The fact that LOTR is fantasy doesn't bother me at all, because to me, it's just a fantastic masterpiece.

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Learning to distinguish good from bad is the inevitable and unfortunate result of growing older; the classification of books into genres and then the creation of assumptions about that genre prohibit the growth of minds. The better writers are above having their books delineated into some sort of literal conformity.
Good point. That's a big problem in the world today. People feel that they must classify things, that everything must fit in somewhere in the grand scheme. A lot of critics definitely need to realize that, before they pigeon-hole Tolkien books so thoughtlessly. People should look at things individually and not see everything as part of a group.
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Old 04-04-2002, 02:16 PM   #43
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When this thread first started I read about the laments that LOTR/FOTR did not get more of the Oscars they were nominated for. Having lived in California all my life and being quite familiar with the Hollywood scene and the Oscars game I have a few comments. First, in Hollywood the Oscars are VERY POLITICAL. It is all who you know, who likes you, and if you are politically correct with the powers that be. For example, Sean Penn did not have a chance for an Oscar as Best Actor because he has made it quite clear over the years that he hates Hollywood and all the games they play. So guess what? The members of the Academy are NOT going to vote to give him the Oscar for anything.
The same holds true for Viggo Mortensen. Viggo has also been quite vocal and public about his criticism of "Hollywood" so he is just lucky that he is still working as an actor and the only reason that is happening is because he was case as Aragorn and the LOTR is such a big hit (i.e. money wise and all). So....from a producer or director's point of view Viggo is a great actor who is very enjoyable to work with. He works very hard at his craft. However, as far the members of the academy are concerned, because Viggo has been so publicly critical of the Hollywood scene, they would never nominate for dog catcher of LA much less give him an Oscar for best actor.
Also....look how many fine actors, musicians and producers have been ignored by the Academy for an Oscar even though at their craft they are great...George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Barbara Streisand, Randy Newman, Ian McKellan....all of these people are and have been excellent at what they do but it took decades for them to ever get an Oscar and a few probably never will.
In addition...in Hollywood this was the year to politically with it and recognize the African-American/Blacks in cinema (this comment is not meant to be racist so don't anyone take it that way..) Given the fact that Sidney Poitier was slated to get an honorary Oscar and this year the Academy had nominated three other Black actors for it's highest honors, (i.e. Holly Berry, Denzell Washington and Will Smith), the academy was not going to go overboard from their point of view and give Ian McKellan or Peter Jackson Oscars for best supporting actor and/or Best Director.
But look at it this way....I don't believe that the Oscars have anything to do with the difference between fantasy vs. amything else....There are two more LOTR pictures coming out in the next two years and the Academy will have two more opportunities to recognize the magnificence of the LOTR and make this right.
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Old 04-04-2002, 08:33 PM   #44
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Agreed. I would, however, draw a distinction between being cynical in life and being cynical in art. The problem is that modern critics have forgotten that the purpose of art is to entertain. When you start thinking that art must 'say something' about the real world, then the distinction between philosophy of art and philosophy of life breaks down.
Aiwendil, this is a well-made point, but there are certain weirdos out there (like me), to whom, the philosophies of art and life are forever interwoven. It's like this: I breathe, I eat, I sleep, I think, I art...That was trite of me. But I'm sure you get the point.

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Have you ever noticed that most people think that misery and suffering is what makes literature and art "deep"? As if unhappiness and despair is where all the deep stuff is! *snorts with contempt* It disgusts me and proves how superficial they are, as well as how little they really know.
Yes. I do however believe that it is misery and suffering that, by the peculiarities of human nature, allow us to appreciate beauty and joy, as well as make us grow as human beings.
What I truly hate is the fact that our culture seems to have turned sadness into a fashion accessory. I am tired of "the tortured artist, black beret in his untidy hair, paintbrush dripping black paint onto the canvas, cigarette in the corner of the twisted mouth, cocain dusting his little sister's powder-compact mirror..." Ugh. They have turned human emotion into a bleak, unpretty Gucci ad.

...Once again, excuse my trite language. I'll be better next time. [img]smilies/wink.gif[/img]

[ April 04, 2002: Message edited by: Lush ]
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Old 04-04-2002, 09:24 PM   #45
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Lush, I really appreciate the points you have made.

I do not agree that "the purpose of art is to entertain". Firstly, without getting too much into definitions, surely it's enough to point out that many great artists neither considered nor cared what the response was to their work - whether it was successful, whether people liked it, whether it 'entertained'.

Secondly - surely art is art whatever its purpose ... in the end, the purpose of art is the same as the purpose of the artists, as contradictory, wide-ranging, obscure, instinctive and/or multi-layered as you can get. If it is the purpose of art (or awareness/primacy of purpose) that determines its quality, why would 'entertainment' be the best or most valid purpose?

Thirdly - there is a great deal of art whose express or primary purpose was not 'to entertain'. Yet it is still great art. The first examples that comes to mind are the best of the Russian post-revolutionary artists, Malevich, Kandinsky, Shostakovitch ... Another example would be religious art and artefact. And in many cases there is at the very least a clear duality of purpose behind much great art.

I also find myself in agreement with Lush again about the nature and importance of 'misery and suffering'. The 'snorting in disgust' is an unworthy reaction, and implies the supposed superiority of an anaesthetised Walt Disney aesthetic. The experience of sorrow and adversity through art are keys to empathy, self-knowledge and tolerance (among other things). The combination of "happy is better than sad" and "the purpose of art is to entertain" sounds like a sinister political manifesto.

Another more general point is to caution people against the knee jerk cliches ie. "the problem with the modern world is ...", or "people today are ..." - as if there is something definitively worse about today that only we the elite can perceive. Throughout history (right back to Socrates) people have bemoaned the falling standards of art and morality. Let's keep things in perspective. In my earlier reflections on postmodernism I tried to identify some pitfalls, and some of the implications of postmodern culture that I have problems with. But pomo has its good side too [img]smilies/smile.gif[/img]

Lush, I always imagined myself as, someday, a tortured and decadent Parisian garrett artist (minus the cocaine, it plays havoc with your critical judgement as an artist), paying for meals by scrawling works of genius on napkins. How could you deconstruct my dreams with such surgical cruelty? [img]smilies/tongue.gif[/img]

Peace

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Old 04-04-2002, 10:09 PM   #46
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Two points that Tolkein deals with well, and many imitators do not: Character Complications and Language

Character:
I think the original Fantasy/Fairy Tale impulse (way back when stories were memorized and chanted around a fire) was to expand a complicated human personality into a number of simple characters-- one becomes many-- and have them work the conflicts out in a large, mythic landscape with big gestures --like falling into the Cracks of Doom, for example. I think in a work of stereotypicly 'high' literature, Gollum, Sam and Frodo would all be aspects of Frodo, and we would be hearing about an internal struggle-- it would all happen in Frodo's study at Bag End --and it would not be nearly as much fun! Still. A big part of what drives devotees of 'high literature' away from fantasy is this transformation of an internal struggle between different impulses in an individual into an external struggle between characters who are emblems. This simplifying of character seems to happen in any genre-- and it is at its worst when an author wants to reliably punch those same old emotional buttons, and so falls into a formula that guarantees the reader reaction. Tolkein ingeniously manages to have it both ways. He has the accessible, ordinary hobbits, and the grand, remote warriors reciting anglo-saxon verse. And the transition figures, like Gandalf, who function in both modes. Every imitator has tried to follow this formula, so why hasn't it worked for all the others? Perhaps part of it is the author himself. Tolkein was a grown man who'd lost friends and been in a war. For many of his imitators, I think, death and war are symbols of psychic angst. For him, they were real and literal as well as symbolic and psychological, and that may have enriched his characters.

Ok, Language
Part of what makes the books work so well is his marvelous feel for the music of the words. In the movie, or any other fantasy imitation, new-minted nonsense words are hurled at our heads-- as featured in all the parodies in this stream-- Or in the movie-- 'We must cross the pass of $$%^%$& --No! To the bridge of &^*(&)(*(^! You fool! Have you forgotten? The gates of *&%^&^$%$ have been closed against us ever since *^*&^ was slain on the steps of ^&*$%!' It doesn't really matter what the words are. It's like being repeatedly slapped in the face with a dictonary. Ok, a paperback thesaurus, then. Each time Tolkein coins a word, we are treated to a little prose-poem on the word-- 'Lothlorien--oh, the golden woods of laurelindorian in the spring..' --you get the idea-- forgive me if I misquote. That extra paragraph as our author hypnotically murmurs in our ear his jazz variations on the sounds and meaning of the new word is what makes all the difference. These words are coined by a jazz master who loves their music.
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Old 04-04-2002, 10:38 PM   #47
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...the plot is just as important as the magic if not more so. Magic, in my opinion, should just provide an aspect of the setting of the story; magic should not be THE story for its own sake.
This was written on the first page of this marvelous thread! Haven't had a chance to read through all of it, but I do agree with the above.

The Final Fantasy series along with Tolkien does incorporate magic, and I think that's what turns people off. Many of my friends won't pick up that game simply because of the word 'fantasy'. They immediately think "Dragons, magic, save the princess, valiant hero, the end" But this isn't the case at all. They ignore that there IS a plot and there IS a theme to it all. The misunderstanding of fantasy being strictly escape fiction is what I think gives it the bad rap that some say it has.

But seriously, who said fantasy must be escape? Perhaps, I think, it originated as escape, in the fairy tales and children stories we all listened to. What Tolkien and the FF series, and various other authors did, (in my own opinion) was make it deeper. They gave it that deeper meaning, but obviously you can't just chuck old beliefs out the window overnight, so the fantasy genre retained that escapist stereotype.

I say this is wrong, and that you are right. Fantasy and sci-fi, every genre is so much more because of the greatness of the authors who commit themselves to it. Romance, too, has a bad rap of 'lovey dovey' feel, and you mentioned Danielle Steel, I mention Nora Roberts.

Also, there's the actual bad fantasy author who dwells on these stereotypes, in fact, keeping with the old beliefs that isn't helping the genre at all. But, then again, neither is it opressing it. Fantasy, I think, comes in two forms. There's the Fairy Tale, typical, story of prince saves princess. It's a feel good story, and who says that's wrong? But to mix this form with the serious form. Of course, the serious form that I believe Tolkien reigns King in (hehe [img]smilies/tongue.gif[/img]) is escape as well, though it has that 'something' that makes it more. There is theme, a definate plot, developed and round characters who are not static, nor flat. Even Gimli, hardly THE main character, went through a big change in LOTR.

*sighs* I think I lost my train of thought. I need to read through this whole thread before I come with anything concrete.
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Old 04-05-2002, 01:21 AM   #48
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Ah! I haven't gotten my train of thought back, but I've been reading more of the thread and something else jumped out at me while reading some one elses post on the first page. I'd quote it...if I could find it... [img]smilies/biggrin.gif[/img] But it reminded me of something a friend said to me when I asked her if she wanted to go and see FOTR with me. Her response? She said "no" because "It's just a big money-making induced movie that has no relevance at all to the real world". Now, she is my best friend...and I have never wanted to just SMACK her more than when she said those words. I asked her if she had ever read the book, to see that there is MORE to Tolkien, that his world is marvelous, believable and wonderful, and that his characters are memoriable and have flaws like we do, and still they make you love them all the more (I'm referring to Boromir here [img]smilies/tongue.gif[/img] ) She said no, and why again? Elves, Dwarves, and "Hobbits" (she emphasized Hobbits to show her disgust might I add) aren't real, and therefore can not be taken seriously. Again, visual-friend-smacking in my head.

These Elves, Dwarves and "Hobbits" are characters, regardless of race. And while my friend is a realist by all extremes, it astounds me that she can't see this simple concept that she is...yes...Elfist & Dwarfist, which is quite ironic considering her attitude rowards racism...but anyways. What is the difference, then, of loving Elves and loving Vampires? She is a huge fan of Buffy (or more appropriately...Spike [img]smilies/rolleyes.gif[/img] ) and I asked her, once more, This Vampire story you love so much is no different than My Hobbit story that I love so much, why then, do you verbally abuse LOTR? "But Vampires are believable" OHHHH. I get it, right. I mean, what's more believable than blood-sucking humans that turn into dust at sunrise?! *notice sarcasm* (And don't get me wrong, I love Buffy, I was just using it to tick her off)

I think this prejudice against the fantasy genre is ridiculous, esp. when those that give it flack have not exposed themselves, or allowed themselves to be exposed to it fully and with enough sincerity that they give everything else. Critics lean towards the realistic literature, and by realistic I mean modern. Every day, 'in-the-now', disregarding older, much more developed genres such as fantasy and romance (which I pretty much group together considering the type of romance I read) as 'fluff' (as was mentioned before) and trivial escapist literature. I am NOT liking this trend, I think it's wrong, biased and just plain idiotic. That's why I love the 'Downs. I see everyone here as so open-minded that I wish the whole world was consisted of you peeps. Alas, reality sinks in. [img]smilies/frown.gif[/img]
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Old 04-05-2002, 07:21 AM   #49
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Nar, interesting points, both of them! What a fascinating first post! [img]smilies/smile.gif[/img]
Seeing the various characters of the story as aspects of one personality is something I've been thinking about since reading an essay some time ago. It spoke of LotR as a description of the process of individualization. I will have to hunt through my old threads to find that link and will post it here when I do.
Then your interpretation of Tolkien's poetic descriptions as jazz variations on a theme - how lovely! Not limited to jazz, though - Bach did it too! Wouldn't want to miss either!
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Old 04-05-2002, 09:51 AM   #50
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I also very much appreciated the jazz reference. It got me onto a train of thought; I am aware of a slight straying from the original subject matter. If anyone thinks this should be a different thread just nudge me...

Language, in books of the nature we are discussing and I presume many of us are reading, is all important and all pervasive. Nar's point about being clubbed over the head with foreign words in fantastical films rings true for me, and even with regard to books I have read. Many of today's 'fantasy' authors use made-up place names and first names for their characters; their motives are obvious and understandable. When we hear that 'Jeff' from 'Croydon' has to battle with an evil 'more immense than the planet had ever known', we tend to giggle or assume it's a satirical take... Yet as you say, the creative buck should not stop there. Call your city Squendiblebubnimanbullity if you wish, but more understandable for the audience I am thinking of (well, me...(!)) would be the historical and linguistical context of that name.

This of course is where my argument falls a little flat because, as mentioned above somewhere, modern authors work under tighter deadlines and more pressing demands than did JRRT. I find the language and tone of much of the genre almost child-like. Full also of horrendous grammar and even editing mistakes. This for me dramatically lessens the impact of the story on me. Essentially, and you'll appreciate I'm trying to antagonise for response, I would rather read a bad story well told than a good story badly told.

So is the weakness of the whole genre that most modern authors do not have the time to spend creating a truly original or indeed complete world for their fictions to take place in?

That sounds a little too trite for me. Some modern fantasy series are massively wordy and the gaps between books inordinate (Robert Jordan) so, (for the better selling proponents anyway), time is not really the issue. The problem with Jordan's work I would argue is in both tone and soul. It lacks both IMHO, in any discernible quality. So then is it true that the ONLY author in the field with the time and the passion to create really great fiction fantasy was JRRT? Can that really be true? I have read many many books in this area and I can only think of perhaps four writers who come close. And we all know how many books with those horrible covers there are in the bookshop...

So then are we at a dead end? Is the genre exhausted? I would hate to think so. Yet, other than Tolkien and perhaps two or three others (all of whom have likewise stopped writing, due to age or having passed away) I do not read fantasy books. I started reading them two decades ago and stopped a couple of years back. I would love for a writer to prove me wrong. All my reading list comes from other places now (and I read a couple of books a week).

I will confess that to a large degree I am playing devil's advocate and hoping for some spirited responses... [img]smilies/wink.gif[/img]

[img]smilies/smile.gif[/img]
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Old 04-05-2002, 02:55 PM   #51
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Okay okay… after more thinking and considering, I’ve come to the conclusion that entertainment is not the ONLY purpose of art. I think that art is about communication and expression as well as enjoyment. You’re right, Kalessin, in saying that the purpose of art is the purpose of the artist. It’s about whatever the artist wanted to say or about communicating what he felt, whether it was an expression of love or hate, social commentary, both, or something else altogether.

I agree, Lush and Kalessin, that trials and suffering allow people to grow and appreciate beauty more. However, it really annoys me when people think that being miserable is the KEY to being deep. To me, being “deep” means moving me, touching me, opening doors for me, perhaps showing me new ways of thinking and of looking at life that I had never thought of before. It is using your life to touch mine in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. I have a problem with people who do things just for show. People put on a “miserable” demeanor just so others will think they are the “deep, wise, tortured artist who has suffered the cruelities of the world.” As if misery and pain define Wise and Deep! That’s not true at all. And THAT’s what I have a problem with. Expressing pain and suffering does not bother me at all as long as it “comes from the heart” (excuse me for being trite) and is sincere.

As for the “Problem with the world today” cliché, I did not mean that there is something specifically and definitively wrong with our whole culture today. I don’t think that society is getting progressively worse and worse. It’s just that there are some groups/types of people out there that exist today that I don’t agree with and that really DO have falling standards of art and morality. It doesn’t mean everyone, of course. I’m sure that there were problems like that all throughout history, no matter what the time period. Cultures and societies all have their flaws, and it’s not only “we the elite” who can perceive it. Sorry if I came across that way and sounded extremely arrogant and stuck up. Maybe I should have said something like, “The problem with certain/some people today….” to allow less room for misinterpretation and generalization.

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I think this prejudice against the fantasy genre is ridiculous, esp. when those that give it flack have not exposed themselves, or allowed themselves to be exposed to it fully and with enough sincerity that they give everything else.
Agreed! The most frustrating thing is when people so blatantly insult something when they haven’t even given it a fair chance. Take classical music, for example. I, being a pianist and violinist, am a lover of classical music. It really bothers me when people make comments such as “I hate that drippy classical stuff , it’s so dull and boring and lame, etc etc…”. I hate when people say that NOT because I don’t agree with them, but because they obviously haven’t given themselves a chance to appreiciate it. When someone so carelessly insults an esteemed piece of art/literature/music, etc, they are merely proving how little they know about it. They are making themselves look ignorant and narrow-minded. Don’t misunderstand me here…I don’t have a problem at all with people disagreeing with me…I mean, I wouldn’t get annoyed if people said “I don’t’ like it, it doesn’t’ suit my taste, etc.” But one who says something like “That’s gay and stupid” without having given it a chance is only going to make himself look really dumb.

As for the issue of fantasy being escapist, to that I say, What’s wrong with being escapist? [img]smilies/smile.gif[/img]
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Old 04-05-2002, 03:33 PM   #52
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Jessica, people with artistic ambition address sadness and misery because they're trying to work out the problems of existence, and where's the problem with happiness? 'Happy families are all the same, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way' (Tolstoy-- it's either from Anna Karenina or the short story Family Happiness) This is wrong! wrong! wrong! But its certainly easier to find the complications that make good stories and subtle art where there is unhappiness.

Whenever you see an unambiguously happy family that loves each other in current literature or movies, you can be sure it's a horror story and the monster's about to leap out, or a war movie and they're all to be divided into refugee camps, or a legal thriller, and someone's going to jail wrongly accused. On the other hand, an unhappy family can just sit there being dysfunctional when it's Thanksgiving, and that's a story.

If the family's functional you need an external threat to drive the story. It's a shame, because exploring happiness is one of the great uncharted frontiers in literature. Where can the story go? What plot beyond 'slice of life, pleasant time, nothing happens' can we find?

It's worth exploring, because in real life, a happy family, like a good group of friends or a couple in love, is electric. When it surrounds you, it's intoxicating. Maybe we need installation plots to depict this --there's something about being within a network of human connections that make you more yourself that is very difficult to capture in literature.

When I go home to see my family, and we welcome each other and begin to pass a joke from one to another, each of us giving it our own spin, it's as if we've all taken on an electric charge-- everyone's on, everyone sparkles, sparks fly from our fingers, our hair stands on end and ball lightnening rolls around the room. At least, that's how it feels. (As a child I went to the Franklin Museum for a show on electricity, and it made a big impression on me.)

It's something I like very much about Tolkien, how well and lovingly he captures frienship and fellowship, though his plots, of course, are almost always driven by an external threat. (Leaf by Niggle would be an exception, --the threat to Niggle is his time running out before he can complete his great portrait of a huge and lovely tree-- but the friendship there is dysfunctional, which unfortunately supports my point. It's in the Tolkien Reader, but I don't know whether it's in print now.) Can there be a happy family or a loving fellowship of friends that confronts a challenge or otherwise needs to change, but for reasons within them?
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Old 04-05-2002, 04:05 PM   #53
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But by the same token it's not therefore an "inherent" or "inevitable" flaw. It's just a reflection of how things have turned out.
Well, the way things turned out is the way things are - that is, what we have is what we have to deal with. What is "fantasy" really, but a collection of individual works that share certain characteristics? I guess what I'm saying is that if the problem is imitation is one shared by almost all poor quality fantasy novels, then it is by definition a problem with the genre.

If what you're asking is whether it's possible to write a fantasy novel without this problem, then the answer is yes. It's certainly possible if you don't imitate Tolkien. The problem is that mainstream fantasy basically is the imitation of Tolkien, so once you're no longer imitating, you're pretty far along the road to no longer writing "fantasy".

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maybe the de facto UNreality argument does have some merit.
Perhaps it does explain why there's so much bad fantasy. But I wouldn't call it a defect of the genre. It's precisely here that the imitators fail to imitate; LotR stands out from the rest of the genre largely because of its similarity to reality. Unlike many modern fantasy authors, Tolkien did not invent a new world; he invented a mythic prehistory for our own.

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You misunderstood what I was trying to say--when I said "say something" i didn't mean that he had an explicit message he wanted to get across (seeing that Tolkien disliked allegory), he "had something to say" in that he had a story he really wanted to tell.
I apologize for misunderstanding you. It's just that many who subscribe to the modern school use the phrase "something to say" to mean "social commentary". You used it in the more precise but less common way.

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Maybe that's why many modern critics consider fantasy impossibly unrealistic? Because in today's world evil is more subtle and doesn't declare itself openly the way it does in fairy tales.
I think modern critics misunderstand evil both as it is portrayed by Tolkien and as it is in the real world. For Tolkien, evil is real. It is, if not literally a tangible thing, at least a strong force. But evil is also subtle in Middle-earth. Certainly there is nothing subtle about Sauron, but there undoubtedly is about the Sackville-Bagginses, or Saruman, or Eol. The subtleties are ignored by critics. And for all their protestations that evil is not as blatant in real life as it is in LotR, what about Hitler? What about Osama bin Laden? Tolkien's opinions on evil may not be universally accepted, but they are a valid way of trying to understand the world. There is nothing simplistic about them.

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They don't do it because they want to communicate what's in their heart, they do it for approval from others, fame, or money.
Good point, though this was actually not what I originally meant. Certainly what you say is true about so-called "popular" art. The problem in "high culture" is rather different: these people assume that art must necessarily say something about the world; they think that the value of art is not in art itself, but in its interpretation. They are wrong.

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First, in Hollywood the Oscars are VERY POLITICAL.
I agree with this and the rest of your post.

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Aiwendil, this is a well-made point, but there are certain weirdos out there (like me), to whom, the philosophies of art and life are forever interwoven.
Fair enough. What I meant was that it is possible to be cynical about life and still to enjoy (and even create) works of art that are not fundamentally cynical.

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I do not agree that "the purpose of art is to entertain".
And we're back to the "Book of the Century?" argument. But I phrased my point badly. Using the word "entertain" implies that popularity is the measure of success, and that's not what I meant. I should have said: "The purpose of art is to be aesthetically beautiful" - which is basically saying that the point of art is to be art, not to be social commentary, not to be allegory, not to be popular.

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Secondly - surely art is art whatever its purpose ... in the end, the purpose of art is the same as the purpose of the artists, as contradictory, wide-ranging, obscure, instinctive and/or multi-layered as you can get.
But if this is true, then it's impossible to judge the merit of a work of art at all, save perhaps against its intended purpose. We'd have to judge C.S. Lewis by how well he constructs his allegory, Stephen King by how much terror he's able to create, cheap romance novels by how well they sell (Edward Albee by how bizarre his plays are . . .). And if, say, The Shining fulfills all the goals Stephen King had for it, who would we be to say that someone else who wrote with a different purpose is better?

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The first examples that comes to mind are the best of the Russian post-revolutionary artists, Malevich, Kandinsky, Shostakovitch ...
Here's where my poor choice of words comes back at me. I can't really speak for Malevich or Kandinsky, but surely Shostakovitch's purpose was to produce works of aesthetic beauty. Or are you talking about the pro-Soviet aspect? If so, then I would say that it was not the presence of political propaganda that made his art great. If politics plays any part in the greatness of a work of art, it is rather because it contributes to the aesthetic value. For instance, the end of Shostakovitch's 5th symphony (which, we know now, is really profoundly anti-Soviet). Shostakovitch described it as representing forced happiness. The fact that it does resonate with the real world increases its beauty. But art need not have that resonance to be beautiful.

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The combination of "happy is better than sad" and "the purpose of art is to entertain" sounds like a sinister political manifesto
I don't think anyone has suggested that "happy is better than sad". It's merely been pointed out that sad is not necessarily better than happy.

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A big part of what drives devotees of 'high literature' away from fantasy is this transformation of an internal struggle between different impulses in an individual into an external struggle between characters who are emblems.
Agreed. I'd add, however, that fantasy does not always have that transformation as its goal. For Tolkien, the story was what was important; 'applicability' was a byproduct.

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She said "no" because "It's just a big money-making induced movie that has no relevance at all to the real world".
Unfortunate. Particularly because LotR is among the books written with the least intent of achieving commercial success (even more so the Silmarillion).

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So is the weakness of the whole genre that most modern authors do not have the time to spend creating a truly original or indeed complete world for their fictions to take place in?
This certainly is an important weakness. Perhaps Tolkien was so great precisely because he was an amateur.

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Some modern fantasy series are massively wordy and the gaps between books inordinate (Robert Jordan)
Compared to Tolkien, the gaps between Jordan's books are miniscule. He's produced what - eight or nine volumes at about six hundred pages each? In the past ten years or so? Tolkien took ten years just to write LotR, and a whole lifetime on the Silmarillion.

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The problem with Jordan's work I would argue is in both tone and soul. It lacks both IMHO, in any discernible quality
Agreed. But part of this may be due to the time pressure mentioned above. Part of it, on the other hand, is simply that he is Tolkien's inferior.

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I will confess that to a large degree I am playing devil's advocate and hoping for some spirited responses...
I'm afraid this thread is just too cynical to defend pop fantasy.
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Old 04-05-2002, 08:24 PM   #54
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More interesting posts - I don't think this thread is overly cynical (yet). I'm enjoying it [img]smilies/smile.gif[/img]

Aiwendil -

"I should have said: "The purpose of art is to be aesthetically beautiful" - which is basically saying that the point of art is to be art, not to be social commentary, not to be allegory, not to be popular"

I agree that your re-phrasing above is more precise and therefore redresses the populist connotations to which I reacted earlier. However, I do not see an inherent contradiction between 'aesthetically beautiful' and 'aesthetically beautiful social commentary'. If an artist has talent, craft AND insight then there does not need to be a primacy of purpose.

Aiwendil, You also addressed my 'purpose of art' comments thus -

"then it's impossible to judge the merit of a work of art at all, save perhaps against its intended purpose ... The fact that it (Shostakovitch's 5th, as an exemplar of art with a dual purpose) does resonate with the real world increases its beauty. But art need not have that resonance to be beautiful."

Please excuse my merging of quotes from different paragraphs by you - this is simply to allow me to address the key elements together [img]smilies/smile.gif[/img]

The 'aesthetic standards by consensus' vs. 'timeless absolutes' etc. is one that we hammered to oblivion in other threads! Suffice it to say that in my view the purpose of the artist can be a part of one's reading of the art itself - and that clearly includes evaluating its aesthetic merit. Without this, you emasculate the artist, and allow for the 'ten thousand monkeys writing Shakespeare' scenario. This is so beloved of empirical rationalists, yet so antithetical to the the individuality and humanity of art. If a musician creates a piece intended as a lament, yet people think it's a fabulous feelgood party song, whilst he/she may have achieved some aesthetic beauty one would HAVE to include the failure of purpose when judging the work's merit. If it helps to illustrate the point, I find Britney's happy little songs utterly lamentable [img]smilies/wink.gif[/img]

I agree art does not NEED other purposes to be beautiful or valid. "Art for art's sake" and all that. But that exists alongside all the wonderful art that DOES have other purposes. And, to draw the issues back to the topic, it should not devalue (or imply inherent failure in) works of fantasy simply that there are a range of driving forces at work.

Some of these vexing questions arise with the study of postmodernism and it's successors in the 'cultural studies' approach to art and artefact. It is a challenging subject area and there is arguably no prospect of resolving divergent views within even a broad consensus - except to say that, as people, you and I have a respect and appreciation for Tolkien, and perhaps share an idealistic and optimistic approach to art. That's more than enough!

Can I inject a personal note and say that my late father was a painter, yet also a political radical, and in his life he struggled intensely with the 'role of art'. As a devotee of European aesthetics he found it impossible to reconcile the theoretical and economic aspects with the struggle against oppression and the deeper contradictions of 'human nature', at great personal cost. I have perhaps a gentler approach, but I am gratified by the passionate convictions and idealism so articulately expressed in this thread (I'm also rather proud of having started it [img]smilies/tongue.gif[/img]). These are actually the best message boards I have found for stimulating and rigorous intellectual debate. And that is perhaps indirectly a fitting tribute of some worth to Tolkien himself.

By the way Jessica, your posts are very interesting and I was not chastising you at all [img]smilies/smile.gif[/img]. I agree with about 98% of what you wrote - and if someone criticises something by saying (your words) "that's gay and stupid", I think they have more problems than simply lack of artistic insight!

Peace
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Old 04-06-2002, 07:22 AM   #55
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I'm still trying to catch up to the current end of this dynamic thread, so bear with me, please, if this has already been covered.

Some of you have hinted at the problems with the publishing industry, but have not addressed it as it affects Kalessin's original question. The only reason LOTR got published at all was because Tolkien had already been successful with The Hobbit, which itself was published on a fluke of chance (See Humphrey Carpenter's biography to learn more.) and by then a relationship of mutual respect between publisher and author warranted the publishing of what was believed to be a sure loser in terms of marketability.

I said all that to say this: the publishing industry is by nature a conservative animal. It only works on the basis of sure bets. It was true in Tolkien's time, and is more true now because of the multiplied competing genres and technological forms. LOTR could not be published now, at all, unless by sheer fluke.

This points back to the "we're to blame" argument Kalessin put forth, which as he already admitted under the excellent reparte of Aiwendil, was simplistic. That which sells gets published. It sells because the buyers accept it and they accept the substandard rubbish because of other influences. The other influences are (this is not an exhaustive list):

1) Robert E Howard's Conan series (which in itself was quite good but not as good as Tolkien) as passed on to the modern fantasy lover's mind through the media of pulp novels, comic books and movies;

2) AD&D with its encyclopedic mish mash of monsters, spells, hero classes and what not, which has the mass market appeal of making everything accessible for one's own picking and choosing and thus reducing ALL fantasy to the lowest common denominator for those who don't know better;

3) the modern extra-terrestrial fantasy which may be arguably considered sci-fi but has essentially replaced trolls, goblins, elves, gods and goddesses as that which 'fires the imagination' - thus we have fantasies like ET and Star Wars and and Star Trek and X Files and Spielberg's latest, "AI";

4) the failure of modern education - yes, this one is huge and may be the biggest culprit - which has cut modern learners off from the western past in the name of being successful in today's modern world. History, so beloved by Tolkien, has become for the average person, akin to poison - to be avoided at all costs as at least unimportant and at worst useless. Most moderns have LOST dragons and trolls and elves and all those things that make up myth, and have no clue - CANNOT have a clue because they have not been taught how to have a clue as to the richness of what has been lost to them.

If, Lush, and dragongirlG, I am speaking of something that is particularly American or non-Eastern, I would appreciate your thoughts on this.

To summarize, though, imitation is what we have in fantasy because of a conservative publishing industry which is in turn captive to modern marketing necessities based on a shrunken imagination and knowledge base derived from a failure of education, confounded by other influences that tend to reduce the imitations to the lowest common denominator.

Now I'll get back to catching up on this thread....
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Old 04-06-2002, 09:59 AM   #56
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Littlemanpoet, a well-cosidered post. One particular aspect caught my eye ...

"AD&D with its encyclopedic mish mash of monsters, spells, hero classes and what not, which has the mass market appeal of making everything accessible for one's own picking and choosing and thus reducing ALL fantasy to the lowest common denominator for those who don't know better"

Although I enjoyed playing as a teenager, and still believe it is a pastime that allows for a certain creativity, I tend to agree with your critique - and agree that it has played a part in the evolution of the genre (and with an unfortunate 'dumbing-down' effect). But I would widen your analysis to include Final Fantasy and other variations of computer and RPG games. These products are now part of the cultural landscape and extremely influential.

More later ... [img]smilies/smile.gif[/img]
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Old 04-06-2002, 10:22 AM   #57
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hi kalessin! i've been following this excellent thread and am so impressed by the highly intellectual posts here -- i'm utterly intimidated to add mine! but please bear with mine, as i only hope to share a human "face" to some of what's been discussed here.

the arguments above can generally be classified into two areas: (1) the nature of the epic-fantasy genre as art and (2) the appreciation of the genre as art. the first is a matter for the proficient and artistic, as many of the folks above evidently are [img]smilies/tongue.gif[/img], but for many, individual appreciation is their teacher, their gauge for what makes art great.

as the discussion verged into "standards" of postmodernism (child of the 7a, kalessin, aiwendil, etc.), i recalled a very spirited conversation i had with friends involved in the artistic pursuits, and who like many others of my acquaintance have agreed (or succumbed, more likely) to read but resisted "falling in love" with the sublime works of tolkien. in essence and in their words, their reservations are rooted in a feeling that there is a huge "pre-requisite" of socio-cultural knowledge needed to "suspend their disbelief" and effectively "feel and visualize" the novels. the standards for appreciating an epic-fantasy novel like tolkien's, they elaborate, are "too lofty and esoteric", in contrast to other "realistic" fiction like popular human interest documentary et al where the indvidual reader relies largely on his/her own internal set of standards wrought from "social pre-conditioning, experience, introspection". this was surreal coming from artists.

i've previously thought that my friends were just being contrary, or that i'm a bad endorsement for tolkien *sniff*, but lately i've noticed too with the added publicity from the film and common knowledge of my personal passion among peers that i get accused, more often than being a fanatic, of being a nerd. and that gets me into thinking, is there really some form of "pre-requisite" to appreciating tolkien? and if so, is the preference for other human conditon genres over epic-fantasy a form of self-identification RATHER than of recognition of great art?

if so, then this may explain some of prejudice or reservation against the epic-fantsy genre. previous arguments raised about many of the post-tolkien novels being corrupted orcs of the original elf are so true, and all these bear on the very nature of art. but of its appreciation, there is a possibility of another mode of self-identification, self-validation if you will, that operates along with the perception of the merit of art. perhaps for many people, finding some tangible truth and personal enlightenment is their probe, and epic-fantasy having so many imagined elements just defies a lot of "truth" by default.

or maybe i'm just a really bad endorsement, waaaaahhhhhh!
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Old 04-06-2002, 01:52 PM   #58
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However, I do not see an inherent contradiction between 'aesthetically beautiful' and 'aesthetically beautiful social commentary'.
No, these things are certainly not mutually exclusive. But given the choice between art that is aesthetically beautiful but lacks social commentary and art that makes a social point but lacks beauty, I'll take the former any day.

But, as Tolkien realized, the better a social commentary (or allegory) is, the more likely it will have aesthetic merit. And, at least for literature, the more aesthetically pleasing it is, the more likely it will be to have applicability.

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Without this, you emasculate the artist, and allow for the 'ten thousand monkeys writing Shakespeare' scenario.
I think this is the core of our disagreement. I say that if one of those monkeys types Hamlet, it's just as good as Shakespeare's Hamlet. Oscar Wilde said that the purpose of art is to reveal art and conceal the artist. I agree with him.

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If it helps to illustrate the point, I find Britney's happy little songs utterly lamentable
But that's because her music is of poor quality. It has nothing to do with her motives in producing it - all that matters is the end result.

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But that exists alongside all the wonderful art that DOES have other purposes.
Agreed. But such works, if they are great, also have aesthetic beauty, whether independent of or due to their other purposes.

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Can I inject a personal note and say that my late father was a painter, yet also a political radical, and in his life he struggled intensely with the 'role of art'.
I have no problem with art fulfilling a social role - as long as it is beautiful.

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That which sells gets published.
Agreed. The real question, then, is: why do such horrid things sell?

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2) AD&D with its encyclopedic mish mash of monsters, spells, hero classes and what not, which has the mass market appeal of making everything accessible for one's own picking and choosing and thus reducing ALL fantasy to the lowest common denominator for those who don't know better;
As a devoted gamer, I feel I must defend AD&D, though those who remember the 'Book of the century?' thread will no doubt roll their eyes. First of all, yes, there is something of an 'encyclopedic mish mash' of monsters and such. It is up to the DM to select from this mish mash what he or she wishes to use. A well constructed AD&D world gives no sense of there being a 'mish mash' at all. I don't see how this reduces fantasy to the lowest common denominator. Certainly there are a lot of bad DMs out there, but does not imply a flaw in the system any more than trashy novels imply a flaw in literature.

Also, I must point out that the relative merits and disadvantages of any particular gaming system do not have anything to do with the value of the medium of role-playing itself.

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the modern extra-terrestrial fantasy which may be arguably considered sci-fi but has essentially replaced trolls, goblins, elves, gods and goddesses as that which 'fires the imagination' - thus we have fantasies like ET and Star Wars and and Star Trek and X Files and Spielberg's latest, "AI"
I've not seen AI, nor very much of the X files, so I can't speak for them. Star Wars is, as you suggest, basically fantasy in a science fiction setting. But it is good fantasy. ET is a fairly mainstream movie that is based around a simple science fiction premise. It is not really fantasy in any sense. And Star Trek is certainly not. Star Trek is pure science fiction, with high-concept plots and such. It is certainly not fantasy, and has really had no impact on the genre.

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the failure of modern education
I think it's a bit melodramatic to declare modern education an outright failure, though it certainly has its flaws.

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But I would widen your analysis to include Final Fantasy and other variations of computer and RPG games. These products are now part of the cultural landscape and extremely influential.
You can hardly blame things that are not designed to be art for the decline of an artistic genre. Final Fantasy is a good game, and that's all. It's not art. If it's had a negative effect on art, that is the fault of artists who have taken it as an influence, not of the game itself.

I'll bite my tongue and not reopen the role-playing argument.
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Old 04-06-2002, 09:36 PM   #59
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I will be more precise in my critique of AD&D, Aiwendil. By the way, I was a DM many years ago. I quit in order to clear my mind of the foundationless categories I realized were taking over my mind, and also to give my time to writing and reading stories.

The encyclopedic mish mash to which I referred above reduces all the elements to their lowest common denominator because, as published, the 'tomes' have divorced these elements from their original contexts. Yes, the gods & demi-gods tome categorizes according to origin, but the entites are extracted from their stories. The stories were not merely the vehicles of, but the worlds in which the various monsters, etc. existed. By removing them from their contexts the publishers leave the gamer 'at sea' (at least for those who want the context) or worse, the gamer is left with stock figurines to handle as mere marionettes when from their contexts they are so much more.

Sorry for the melodrama regarding modern education. I think the whole system is flawed, but that, as you say, does not necessarily bear on the discussion at hand.

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Star Wars is, as you suggest, basically fantasy in a science fiction setting. But it is good fantasy. ET is a fairly mainstream movie that is based around a simple science fiction premise. It is not really fantasy in any sense. And Star Trek is certainly not. Star Trek is pure science fiction, with high-concept plots and such. It is certainly not fantasy, and has really had no impact on the genre.
I don't consider Star Wars or Star Trek to be bad, but I to consider them to be heavily influential in terms of modern fantasy. I think it is an error to distinguish too strongly between fantasy and science fiction. I agree with C.S. Lewis on this point, who wrote that once we had the whole world discovered, that's when fantasy stopped being written about exotic places on earth and started being written about places not on earth. It's part of why Tolkien and Lewis made their agreement that Lewis would write a space travel story and Tolkien would write a time travel story. They both understood that science fiction, no matter how technologically accurate the modi operandi might be, is the next realm of fantasy.

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You can hardly blame things that are not designed to be art for the decline of an artistic genre.
As to blame, I don't know that I'd go that far. What I am saying is that these things which are not necessarily art nevertheless make up the working categories with which the people who buy and sell and write and publish the banal fantasy happen to work. In other words, by and large, these categories as influences, whether art, or intellectual resource, or philosophical paradigm, are precisely that to which their imaginations are limited.

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But I would widen your analysis to include Final Fantasy and other variations of computer and RPG games. These products are now part of the cultural landscape and extremely influential.
Thanks, Kalessin, for widening my original categories. As I implied, there are more than I delineated. And you have struck the nail on the head as to what I've been getting at as to cultural landscape.

Back to failure of education. Melodramatic, maybe, but there was a shift in emphasis in roughly the middle of the 20th century away from 'essentials', toward 'self-realization'. This was nationwide in America. It resulted in an entire generation being educated in how to express themselves based on nothing but themselves and whatever happened to be in their environment; this as compared to an education based in the 'essentials', consisting of the best art, literature, language and knowledge base that western civilization had produced. The result is that an entire generation has been cut off from the past. This was a grave cultural tragedy. The results we are discussing in terms of banal fantasy are but one arena of the disaster. If I'm being melodramatic, please show me how.

[ April 06, 2002: Message edited by: littlemanpoet ]
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Old 04-06-2002, 10:55 PM   #60
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What a great, great thread! *kisses Kalessin*

I fear I have partied too much this weekend to make for an insightful, not to mention coherent, post, so let me be brief:

Nar-Let's not go knocking Tolstoy just yet! [img]smilies/biggrin.gif[/img]

Aiwendil-Don't know about you, but I am personally disgusted with Britney's motives, or lack thereof.

littlemanpoet-I have a basis of comparison, and therefore I must agree, education in the West, in America in particular, is definitely lacking. I was more challenged as a third-grader in the Ukraine than I was as a tenth-grader in the United States (and this wasn't even public school-this was a snotty, top-whack Southeastern private school, possibly the best in this part of the country...). I was eventually saved by AP classes, but the time wasted is a pity nonetheless.
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Old 04-07-2002, 07:11 AM   #61
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By golly...this thread has gotten so long and deep...who can catch up without spending hours reading what has become a book? Anyway I have been cast in my own roles as Joan of Aragona, a Venetian noblewoman of Queen Elizabeth I and Lady Anne Knolllys, second cousin of Elizabeth, for the Southern California Renaissance Faire. I will be doing Faire for the next 2 1/2 months.
After that I am going to Europe for the next 2 months traveling and getting together with many of my European friends...so I shall not have the time to read all the posts on these dynamic, thought-provoking thread(s).
Take care....I will try to catch up in between and when I get back...
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Old 04-07-2002, 09:53 PM   #62
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the 'tomes' have divorced these elements from their original contexts. Yes, the gods & demi-gods tome categorizes according to origin, but the entites are extracted from their stories.
That's very true. It's only the 'lowest common denominator', however, when the DM is unwilling to be careful and meticulous in constructing his or her world.

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I think it is an error to distinguish too strongly between fantasy and science fiction.
I disagree. Though certainly some science fiction (including C.S. Lewis's trilogy, as well as Star Wars) is basically fantasy in space, there is much of it that is fundamentally different. Most of Arthur C. Clarke's books, or Isaac Asimovs, are not in any way like the fantasy genre. Many of them revolve around scientific premises - that is, premises that are actually true. Many pieces of science fiction are, in fact, completely physically possible. Hard science fiction is supremely rational. Fantasy is not.

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What I am saying is that these things which are not necessarily art nevertheless make up the working categories with which the people who buy and sell and write and publish the banal fantasy happen to work.
Agreed.

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but there was a shift in emphasis in roughly the middle of the 20th century away from 'essentials', toward 'self-realization'.
If this was true at one time, I don't think it really applies any more. At least it hasn't been my experience. I had a very strong history curriculum in high school, as well as an English curriculum that covered masterpieces of both modern and ancient western culture. I am currently a freshman at Columbia and have studied Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, the Bible, St. Augustine, Dante, Boccaccio, and others, as well as analyzing the moral and philosophical systems embodied in their works. Maybe what you're saying is true for some, but from what I've been exposed to of it, modern education is not an utter failure.

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Don't know about you, but I am personally disgusted with Britney's motives, or lack thereof.
So am I. But I am more disgusted with her "music".

[ April 07, 2002: Message edited by: Aiwendil ]
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Old 04-08-2002, 03:35 AM   #63
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Aiwendil, I'm glad to learn that education is apparently improving in America again - although neither yours nor Lush's experiences can be construed to define the whole - still one may hope.

Your considered responses reveal that you are meticulous in intellect and must be a meticulous DM. We cannot be confident that this is true of most DMs.

I'm aware of the distinction between 'hard' and 'soft' science fiction. I accept your distinction as far as it goes. I have read Clarke's 'Rendesvous with Rama' and 'Childhood's End', as well as a piece by an author, whose name nor title of book I can recall, about how life evolved on a neutron star. I've also read a fair amount of (his name escapes me!) the author of Dune. So excluding these obviously scientifically based 'hard' science fiction works, my statement still holds.

But can anything be done to improve the situation Kalessin bemoans in his rants 1 & 2?
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Old 04-08-2002, 09:59 AM   #64
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Littlemanpoet - can anything be done about this situation?

That depends on what you consider the situation to be. A mere glance at the scene will show you: Fantasy books are big sellers. Kalessin mentioned this in the original post. Clearly, from this thread, and indeed from the remainder of the site, a large number of people who read fantasy, or at least the better examples within the genre, are highly intelligent and articulate. This does not seem like a terrible situation.

Yet look a little deeper and you will see that those same intelligent and articulate individuals bemoan the lack of quality within the genre. It has been mentioned several times here that there are only a few authors in the field worth the time of day (White, Lewis, Tolkien and a few more). In the original post Kalessin compared fantasy/sci-fi with Crime and Horror. I would argue that both those genres suffer from the same basic formulaic weaknesses. Romance, Tragedy, Theatre - when you get past the best proponents of the field, there is normally dross. As has been said a few times also - the better works supercede such classification and exist outside of 'genre'. In fact, I said this myself in an earlier post but I am considering revising my position. Well, with regard to LoTR, anyway.

IMHO, LoTR is the finest book to exist within the fantasy genre. If you like to judge books by sales then it hasn't done to badly there either [img]smilies/smile.gif[/img] . The film that many of us have seen was a huge box-office hit and was nominated for a joint record number of Oscars. As has been mentioned previously (I can't remember who), the film's lack of success in the 'important' awards has more to do with Hollywood politics than the quality of the film or even the perceived quality of the film. Yet I, and I am sure others here, know people and of people who didn not and will not see the film because of the attached notions of fantasy. In their mouths the words 'wizard' and 'hobbit' are derisive. Again IMHO, Littlemanpoet - this is the situation. Not the inherent problems of the genre's quality control; all modern mediums have this problem. Not even the health of the literary establishment generally (althoigh I could write on that all day). Rather the opinion of a large number of people who cannot see past superficial elements to see the character and struggle portrayed in the work beneath.

Again this argument is not restricted to the fanatsy genre. There are whole rafts of Television, film and prose that people avoid or 'switch over' from simply because of 'superficial elements'. People might avoid 'anything with guns', or 'anything that's misogynist' (which has already ruled out Hollywood films...). Some people avoid older books because they cannot see past a more archaic form of the language.

The problem is not with the genre or even with art itself. The 'situation' is a situation of poorly educated individuals with short-attention spans and a need for instant gratification making up the majority of the population, both in my home country England and my current abode, the US. The people I see writing here on thr Barrow Downs are a minority and that is a sadness.

I cannot see this changing soon but until that time, revel in the underground nature of good art! Yes, you have to go out and find it, it's not going to be thrown at you but in examplem, half the joy of buying an obscure but great record is browsing through the shelves of dusty second-hand record stores...
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Old 04-08-2002, 07:51 PM   #65
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Stephanos, your post was very astute and a good summary. Thanks. I agree with you. It draws me back to Kalessin's original question.

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But this is my question - are there any valid criticisms? Of Tolkien, or other leaders of the genre - or of the genre itself, is it by definition limiting and lowbrow (I don't believe that). Or, in the end, is it us - the readers - that make it what it is? After all, we're the ones who keep publishers in business.
Tolkien had a unique gift. He was the closest thing to a bard I can think of. Here's what he had going for him IMHO: excellent sense of story; a poet's gift for the music of words; a keen imagination; a love for things Northern; the philologist's craft for knowing the bones, tendons, ligaments, and muscles of words; Catholicism (I am not one but do follow Christ but have little patience with or use for the formal religion called Christianity); personal experience of life not yet overwhelmed by The Machine; integrity; a sorrowful awareness of the end of the pre-modern era and a deep desire to preserve it in some way.

It seems to me that if you take away any one of these elements, Tolkien could not have written LOTR. LOTR (to paraphrase Birdland), transcends the genre of fantasy - it is literature. Tolkien evoked the premodern world which he loved, wrote that love right into LOTR, and equated evil with its end.

The Scouring of the Shire puts this in bold relief. Saruman has turned the Shire from preindustrial beauty to industrial (and fascist) ugliness, and Tolkien makes sure we see this as evil; and the Four Travelers who return things to the way they had always been are the good guys.

Tolkien was, after a fashion, a very, very good taxidermist (I think I can hear some growlings out there [img]smilies/eek.gif[/img] ). It's not the best analogy but I really believe that this is a large part of what Tolkien was doing and why he was so successful with the 60s cultural revolution generation and continues to be into the postmodern era.

Postmodernism's reaction against modernism is in part disillusionment that modernism failed to deliver the goods it claimed it could by means of its science and its machines. Therefore one of the escapes from empty modernism that postmodernists are finding is Tolkien and Middle Earth.

Nothing in the fantasy genre is doing any of this. By and large it is entertainment which has compromised with, or accepted the modern era whereas Tolkien was trying to do precisely what his elves in Lorien were doing all through the 3rd age, preserving the life and beauty of the past. LOTR is art, fraught with the sadness of something lost that can never be regained, whereas most of the fantasy genre is entertainment.

[ April 09, 2002: Message edited by: littlemanpoet ]
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Old 04-08-2002, 09:08 PM   #66
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Littleman, thanks for another well-reasoned and eloquent post. Having noticed the references in Tolkien's contextual writings and (more indirectly) in his works to 'reformers' and 'modernisers', I think you are right in identifying the intensely nostalgic sensibility at work. I am reminded a little of the conscious attempt by the Brothers Grimm to re-infuse Germanic folklore with resonance in their interpretation of old fairy tales, or of the Pre-Raphaelite attempts to rekindle English mysticism and a nostalgic vision of man in harmony with nature, and so on.

Aiwendil, there is a more to the art and politics issue than you seem to acknowledge. The issue of motive and function in art is quite naturally an important issue for anyone with a conscience - the "as long as it's beautiful" argument is arguably both naive and dangerous. Do you feel able to accept unconditionally (or indeed preferentially) art which either deliberately, or by omission, serves to perpetuate oppression or legitimise injustice, on the basis that it has aesthetic merit? An example might be the output by some of the talented artists who provided propaganda for the Nazi regime. There are many examples of this, as well as cultural appropriation ... and whilst one can abstractly appreciate the craft involved, the role of the art is crucial, and an important issue for the artist themselves to deal with.

Even more straightforward is the issue of how to spend your time - to fiddle while Rome burns, as it were, in a timeless bubble of artistic purity, while there are battles to be fought with words and deeds, or to act. These certainly were live issues (note the 'Artists Rifles' in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell etc.), and perhaps still are, certainly in Europe, South Africa and so on. This is the kind of thing I was referring to in my biographical aside, not some cerebral afterthought whilst strolling amidst the Old Masters in their g(u)ilt-edged frames [img]smilies/wink.gif[/img]

As to the value of the "10,000 monkeys writing Shakespeare" ... it seems to me that the fact that another human being uses craft and conscience to create a work of art is absolutely central to art itself. If it is just "the end result" that matters, then you might as well say that a mountain is art, or a cloud. And indeed, this is sometimes posited by those arguing for God as the ultimate designer. But in effect this takes you to the very postmodern view that 'everything is art', and renders any concept of aesthetics meaningless.

Stephanos, the 'instant-gratification' culture was part of what I was referring to when I said we're to blame. But I don't go quite as far as Littlemanpoet in blaming the child-centred educational theory that became de riguer from the 60s onwards. As I said before, the complaint of falling standards and despair at 'how bad things have got' is a pretty consistent feature of cultural commentary since civilisation began!

In relation to gaming and its influence I think Littleman has a fairly robust point. No matter how thoughtful and talented the DM is, taking what are culturally significant archetypes of myth and narrative out of their original setting and mixing them up according to one's personal taste in the context of a points-scoring game - with none of the original (and important) moral aspect or any real spirituality - is in the end a superficial exercise. But that doesn't make it a waste of time, it is an opportunity for ingenuity and enjoyment, and life can be miserable enough, so I have no problem with doing it myself - whilst keeping things in perspective. I've been there in a BIG way, so I am not speaking as an outsider!

So many excellent and thought-provoking points have come up in this thread that I feel as though my original question has been answered many times over. I'm continually amazed and impressed by the depth and quality of argument here. Despite my earlier rants, the content of this thread has made me more optimistic that there is a large body of discerning and thoughtful readers out there for whom good authors will want to write good fantasy ... [img]smilies/smile.gif[/img]

Peace

[ April 08, 2002: Message edited by: Kalessin ]
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Old 04-09-2002, 04:06 AM   #67
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At the risk of making my posts obnoxiously frequent on this thread....

It occurred to me that Tolkien's Hobbit sections in LOTR (that is, those chapters that occur in the Shire and reflect its society) function by themselves as a kind of Goldingesque "Animal Farm" type of parable. By no means do I mean to imply that Tolkien was writing allegory or merely socio-political commentary - I'm just struck all over again by this example of the applicability of his work - something severely lacking in most fantasy.

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But I don't go quite as far as Littlemanpoet in blaming the child-centred educational theory that became de riguer from the 60s onwards. As I said before, the complaint of falling standards and despair at 'how bad things have got' is a pretty consistent feature of cultural commentary since civilisation began!
Your point is well taken, Kalessin, regarding the 'consistent feature'. However, the child-centered part of the educational theory was not the only aspect of the shifted standards that were historical in scope. Education moved away from the classics as it embraced modernism. We stopped learning Latin and replaced it with 'modern short story' and the like. We stopped reading the classics of literature and started reading - ahem - William Golding's Lord of the Flies. These were choices, and they looked good at the time, and to a certain extent they look pretty good to me now, but the crux of the issue for me with the educational reform was its resulting disconnection from the past.
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Old 04-09-2002, 06:25 AM   #68
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Great posts guys! I some think Sci-Fi stands alone because it is merely the extension of reality..eg. if they are predictions of future technology etc. I think the line between fantasy and sci-fi blur when the work goes beyond that to created worlds, peoples etc. far beyond reasonable and factual forecasting. I think that this is why some sci-fi appeals those who would normally prefer works of fantasy. Tolkien's works take this to the next level again (as said above) to a completely created world, creatures, languages, mythology, history etc. etc. It is a further stretch of the imagination, one which some more fact oriented people, are unable to brigde.
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Old 04-09-2002, 10:52 AM   #69
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Littlemanpoet--First of all, let me say that I am in sympathy with your statement that we have lost our sense of the past, and that this has contributed to our alienation from many of the paradigms which Tolkien loved and represented. As I said in an earlier post, I went on to get a doctorate in medieval history, a very impractical thing to do, way back in the 70s, because I felt the same stirrings in my heart studying this subject as when I read the writings of Tolkien and White. Just a small illustration but no person who lives in the West and has a connection with their heritage can pooh-pooh elves and dwarves if they understand anything about ancient literature.

I used to feel that, at least people from non-western areas, still had the connection and ties with their own cultures and mythic truths. Now I am afraid that there is so much cultural imperialism (I don't know what else to call it.) that people all over the world are losing this sense of connectedness.

I don't want to live in a world where everything is judged solely by the standards of 21st century business, science, etc. (not that there isn't goodness and truth in these fields too, but there has to be something more) I certainly don't want to live in a society whose main symbol worldwide may be the coca cola can. Give me elves and those pesky little hobbits any day!

The more I read your post and my own ranting as well, I realize that very similar words could have come out of Tolkien's own mouth and pen. Patrick Curry has some very strong and interesting things to say about Tolkien's rejection of "modernity." Many critics do not disparage Tolkien on the basis of literary or philosophical grounds, but rather because they "subscribe to the very same values of modernity--statism, scientism, economism, and secularism--which are implicated in the pathological dynamic that so alarmed Tolkien." Part of this underlying rejection is what, I believes, draws me to Tolkien and I don't see it in many other fantasy writers. (I do see it in White, especially in his views on the role of war.) Tolkien wanted a society that was different in many ways, at least in terms of values, and I feel and respond to this same yearning. As a Catholic, he had little hope that this would ever come about before the end of time, but he said, or his stories said, we had to keep trying. Today, unfortunately, so many people are cut off from their past, both in terms of concrete history and more distant mythic roots, that these individuals just don't feel or get it! I am not sure how we get past or around this, but there must be a way. [img]smilies/mad.gif[/img]
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Old 04-09-2002, 11:25 AM   #70
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We cannot be confident that this is true of most DMs.
True. Nor can we be confident that all authors are meticulous.

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So excluding these obviously scientifically based 'hard' science fiction works, my statement still holds.
All right, I will agree that the same impulse that drives fantasy is present in many works of science fiction. The line between hard and soft science fiction is not, however, completely distinct, and I think that, as well as the fantastic element, much 'softer' sci-fi also has something of the 'hard' sci-fi element. But I guess that's really beside the point.

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Postmodernism's reaction against modernism is in part disillusionment that modernism failed to deliver the goods it claimed it could by means of its science and its machines.
I think it's a mistake to make too much of postmodernism's reaction against modernism. For all the reaction there's been, the great works of the 'modern' period are pretty much still considered great by postmodernists. And I wonder in what way modernism promised to deliver goods by means of science and machines. Science and machines were never supposed to improve art. As for the real world: there have been both positive and negative effects of technology. But I don't really see a huge change in attitude toward technology between modernism and postmodernism.

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The issue of motive and function in art is quite naturally an important issue for anyone with a conscience - the "as long as it's beautiful" argument is arguably both naive and dangerous.
But I don't equate art with morality, in any way (unless a specific work of art deals with morality). You seem to presuppose that I think that it's all right to produce art that causes evil, as long as it's beautiful. This is not my position. Such a work would be good art but it would not be morally good, and it therefore should not be produced.

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An example might be the output by some of the talented artists who provided propaganda for the Nazi regime.
There are two very different cases I can think of, as well as two different questions. The first question is: is the artist right to produce this work? The second is: is this good art?

First case: a work is produced that propounds, say, Naziism. The answer to the first question here is clearly 'no', the artist is not right to produce it, because it supports evil. The answer to the second question is also probably 'no', because the political element makes the work non-beautiful.

Second case: a work is produced by a Nazi for the Nazi movement, but the work itself does not propound Naziism. The answer to the first question is still 'no', because the work is being used to support evil. The answer to the second question, however, could very well be 'yes', because the work taken alone is not in any way evil. Now, many people (including me probably) would not be able to appreciate its aesthetic beauty, because we are ill predisposed to it due to non-artistic factors. But it could still be good art.

So I agree that the role of art (if it has a political role at all) is important for the artist to deal with. But art is art.

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Even more straightforward is the issue of how to spend your time - to fiddle while Rome burns, as it were, in a timeless bubble of artistic purity, while there are battles to be fought with words and deeds, or to act.
You're assuming a very powerful role for art in terms of politics, and I think you overestimate its capabilities. Very, very few works of art have actually changed the way the world works. Art alone cannot end wars; it cannot heal feuds; it cannot effect political change. It may indeed have a role in doing these things, and if an artist works for a cause, that may be morally good. But it does not necessarily make good art.

But there is nothing wrong with art that is not political, and you cannot condemn a non-political artist for producing non-political art. Many people consider Beethoven's 5th symphony the best or second best piece of music ever written. Yet it has no extramusical meaning; it is merely beautiful.

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it seems to me that the fact that another human being uses craft and conscience to create a work of art is absolutely central to art itself.
Suppose (to take an absurd but informative example) it were discovered that Hamlet had been accidentally typed by a monkey. Would you then deem it 'not art'?

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. If it is just "the end result" that matters, then you might as well say that a mountain is art, or a cloud.
You might. But personally I think that human artistic achievements tend to surpass natural ones. I find The Lord of the Rings more beautiful than a cloud, for example.

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But in effect this takes you to the very postmodern view that 'everything is art', and renders any concept of aesthetics meaningless.
No. There is a huge jump between 'a cloud is art' and 'a can of pepsi is art'. It has to do with aesthetic beauty, the thing that makes art art.

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As I said before, the complaint of falling standards and despair at 'how bad things have got' is a pretty consistent feature of cultural commentary since civilisation began!
Very true. But there certainly is force in nostalgia - as seen in Tolkien.

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No matter how thoughtful and talented the DM is, taking what are culturally significant archetypes of myth and narrative out of their original setting and mixing them up according to one's personal taste in the context of a points-scoring game - with none of the original (and important) moral aspect or any real spirituality - is in the end a superficial exercise.
Yes, mixing various myths and narratives points toward the 'lowest common denominator'. But this is not necessarily what AD&D (or plain old D&D) is. It is perfectly possible, for example, to take have a campaign set in ancient Greece, and completely consistent with Homeric mythology. It is also completely possible to create one's own world populated with one's own deities that has its own archetypes and spirituality. This is (minus the role-playing) what Tolkien did. Or should we condemn him for mixing up dragons and Dwarves and Elves and pagan deities and Catholic theology?

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We stopped reading the classics of literature and started reading - ahem - William Golding's Lord of the Flies.
I see no reason not to study modern literature, nor why such study cannot exist alongside study of the classics. What's wrong with Lord of the Flies? I thought it was actually one of the better pieces of modern literature.
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Old 04-09-2002, 12:24 PM   #71
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Thanks as ever for your considered writing, Aiwendil [img]smilies/smile.gif[/img]

In answer to your comments (in no particular order) ... my 'fiddling while Rome burns' point was not that artists might try and produce politically influential art as a reaction to injustice - but that they might (and did) STOP "doing" art and actually take an active role in civil resistance. My example, the 'Artists' Rifles', were a volunteer regiment the anti-fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War. But that point is only one aspect to this.

IF I found out that 'Hamlet' was produced by chance by 10,000 monkeys it WOULD change how I felt about it. It would then be a work without any authenticity or act of insight, there would be no sense in which I could relate to the vision of its creator(s), it would not be part of any tradition or movement, and so on. It would be 'art' by coincidence alone - and if art can be manifested in that way, then a cloud, or mountain, is art - whether or not you consider it attractive.

Other than our little subtext on aesthetics, I think your point about Tolkien imitators and the provenance of the genre itself is one of the key insights in this thread, and certainly one I had not considered in such depth until you raised it. My compliments [img]smilies/smile.gif[/img]

Peace

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Old 04-09-2002, 12:44 PM   #72
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This has been one of the most interesting threads on the Barrow-Downs. Although I think we've exhausted the topic of the fantsy genre in general, it's pleasing to see intelligent discourse on a plethora of related mediums. I particularly enjoyed the aesthetics discussion, congratulations Aiwendil and Kalessin. Although I think you both restrict the idea of art into a confine in which it does not belong, I see merit in both your standpoints and I think you have done the site a service by outlining those ideals here.

One final point.

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LOTR is art, fraught with the sadness of something lost that can never be regained, whereas most of the fantasy genre is entertainment.
I loved that.
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Old 04-09-2002, 03:27 PM   #73
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Indeed, a fine thread. Kudos to all!

I have come upon this thread rather late, and, as many good threads do, it has evolved beyond the original topic. At the risk of both repeating pieces of what others have said as well as departing from the direction which this thread has taken, I'd like to address some of the earlier issues which were raised.

We're all familiar with the current "genre" of Science Fiction/Fantasy as it presently exists as seen in bookstores and libraries. However, the current genre is not the proper lens with which to examine LoTR; the context is incorrect.

LoTR was begun in the late 1930s and completed in general form just prior to 1950. During this period science fiction barely existed as a genre and fantasy had no existence separate from science fiction at least in the view of the public. Both were lumped together in a general category known widely as "pulps" and existed primarily in the form of short stories published in magazines (I'm ignoring early movie "serials" here). Science fiction novels were rare before the late 1950s and the fantasy novel was almost non-existent before the 1960s. The exceptions were A.C. Doyle's Tarzan and Mars series and Howard's Conan from which the origin of present day garish covers is found.

Prior to this, with the exception of the Oz books which were considered children's stories, anything remotely resembling fantasy can only be found in a resurgence of fairy stories during the late 1800s and very early 1900s. Tolkien discusses these in Tree and Leaf.

While The Hobbit fit relatively comfortably within the category of children's stories, LoTR was unlike any non-classic fiction which had been published before. It was a long, deep, thoughful and ADULT-ORIENTED myth. As I have argued or observed before, Tolkien wrote what he liked to read and he loved mythology, particularly northern mythology, and he wrote it because no similar "modern" works existed. Lost Tales was a mythology for England. The early Silmarillion and LoTR left England behind, save only in the descriptions of the Shire, and presented a wider scope with nearly unprecedented detail.

LoTR was not a "fantasy" novel because no such genre existed when it was written other than the very different category of pulps. Tolkien posits a need in man for mythology or fairy stories in Tree and Leaf and LoTR became immensely popular because it filled that need. Certainly Tolkien did not place LoTR in the same literary category as Conan the Barbarian.

Of course, it generated imitators; the concept of the heroic quest had been reawakened both within the public as well as the publishing companies. Writers who enjoyed LoTR engaged in the highest form of flattery and copied its basic ideas. But by the time Tolkien published LoTR, he had been working on his "Legendarium" for over 35 years. No other fantasy writer could boast of such an effort or provide such detail or sense of "history". Thus the best modern fantasies are those which break from Tolkien and seek their own course. Much of the balance is mere (and generally poor) imitation whether for reasons of flattery or profit.

Thus LoTR was not a fantasy when it was published; it was a modern myth or fairy tale. It did, however, morph the genre or category of (non-science fiction) pulps to adapt to and encompass it. The pulps were not well-regarded as literature and the pulps' progeny, science fiction and fantasy were similarly disdained by critics, often deservedly so. The lack of respect LoTR receives as literature (and now as a motion picture) results not from its own nature and genre but rather from the reputation of the genre which adopted it as its flagbearer.
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Old 04-09-2002, 05:20 PM   #74
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Thanks for your words, Child of the 7th Age. That was a powerful quote from Patrick Curry, with whom I am not familiar. Can you tell me more about him? Also, I'm aware of what your name refers to - can you tell me when the 7th age is supposed to have begun?
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Today, unfortunately, so many people are cut off from their past, both in terms of concrete history and more distant mythic roots, that these individuals just don't feel or get it! I am not sure how we get past or around this, but there must be a way.
I doubt there is much that can be done in a big way. Every one of us must do his small part, as Gandalf said to Frodo at the Council of Elrond (I think that's where it was).

I am pressed for time (I could not stay away) and must answer and 'rebut' later regarding Golding, for example.
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Old 04-10-2002, 04:02 AM   #75
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Aiwendil

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I think it's a mistake to make too much of postmodernism's reaction against modernism. For all the reaction there's been, the great works of the 'modern' period are pretty much still considered great by postmodernists. And I wonder in what way modernism promised to deliver goods by means of science and machines. Science and machines were never supposed to improve art. As for the real world: there have been both positive and negative effects of technology. But I don't really see a huge change in attitude toward technology between modernism and postmodernism.
Postmodernism is admittedly a conundrum. I don't profess to know the ins and outs of it, which is why I qualified my statement with "in part". The goods modernism promised to deliver through science was Progress such that human life would constantly get better; wars were supposed to cease - note President Woodrow Wilson's famous name for World War One - 'The War to End All Wars'. By the middle of the 20th century the horrors of Nazism and Bolshevism and WWII itself, not to mention the horror of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, forced this rosy view to be at least qualified. Progress for the sake of progress no longer looked so possible; this is, in fact, an aspect of the mindset into which LoTR was published. People were ready for something better than what Progress had turned out to be. I've only hinted at the various aspects of this Progress-ism. It was also supposed to make religion obsolete.

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Suppose (to take an absurd but informative example) it were discovered that Hamlet had been accidentally typed by a monkey. Would you then deem it 'not art'?
G.K. Chesterton has said something to the effect that the very absurdity of the supposition is its own explosion. Simply, there is no way a monkey, let alone ten thousand monkeys, would ever accidentaly type Hamlet or anything else of artistic merit. Subcreation - art - is the provenence of humanity.

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It is also completely possible to create one's own world populated with one's own deities that has its own archetypes and spirituality. This is (minus the role-playing) what Tolkien did. Or should we condemn him for mixing up dragons and Dwarves and Elves and pagan deities and Catholic theology?
I don't know that anyone is talking about condemning dungeon masters or the dungeons and dragons systems. Rather, I was pointing out the flaw of a disconnection with the past of which AD&D is just one example.

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I see no reason not to study modern literature, nor why such study cannot exist alongside study of the classics. What's wrong with Lord of the Flies? I thought it was actually one of the better pieces of modern literature.
I should clarify. The reason, Aiwendil, for my 'ahem' was because I think Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm are excellent works. I was watching my own argument seem to unravel before my eyes - until I recalled for myself that even GOOD choices (or at least SEEMINGLY good choices) necessitate the choice AGAINST something else, and the choice in favor of Golding and other modern writers, valuable in themselves, became a choice AGAINST the classics. I wish that the choice had been against something less valuable - but I admittedly can't think of what that something might be...

Must run again.
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Old 04-10-2002, 01:02 PM   #76
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Littlemanpoet--This is Child of the 7th Age. A fast referral to my name. I am only aware of one reference so it is probably the same one you were thinking of. Letter 211 written in 1958 has a footnote where Tolkien says we are probably at the end of the Sixth Age or in the Seventh because it is likely that the Ages have quickened since the Second and Third Age. Now that we have spilled over into the 21st century and the electronic world, I feel justified to think of ourselves as inhabitants of the seventh age. I'm not aware of any other specific references to the seventh age, although there are certainly references to the very end of time, both in Tolkien's writings and by someone like Clyde Kilby who spent an extended period with Tolkien towards the end of the writer's life. If you know any other references to the 7th age, please let me know.

About Patrick Curry...he wrote a book in 1997 called Defending Middle-earth: Tolkien, Myth, and Modernity. I do not have access to this, but I do have an article Curry wrote which summarizes some of his main ideas. It appears in a recent work that Joseph Pearce edited which is called Tolkien: A Celebration. The article itself is "Modernity in Middle-earth". The author lives in Canada and is an "independent scholar and writer" who previously earned a Ph.d. from the University of London. Curry says Tolkien's work is, at least in part, "a resistence to the contemporary threat to three great goods, nested one inside each oher. He outlines these three goods as Community, exemplified by "the hobbits, social to the ends of their well-brushed toes and firmly rooted in their place, the Shire"; Nature, as seen in the wonders of Middle-earth itself; and Spiritual Values, as refleced in the Sea and the lands beyond the sea. Curry argues that the overwhelming worldwide reception of Tolkien's book--50 million copies sold in 30 languages--shows that Tolien's insights, fears, and hopes in relation to modernity strike a profound cord in all countries and cultures, precisely because of "the global extent of the crisis it addresses." Needless to say, Curry places a lot of emphasis on the Scouring of the Shire and the figure of Sarumen and his discendents and how these mirror our own problems of modernity: development, ecological distruction, the drive for short-term profits, and the fragmentation of society. This sounds quite interesting, but, as I say, I don't have his full book. sharon, the 7th age hobbit
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Old 04-10-2002, 03:06 PM   #77
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One final point.


quote:
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LOTR is art, fraught with the sadness of something lost that can never be regained, whereas most of the fantasy genre is entertainment.

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I loved that.
Thanks, Stephanos. Have you ever had it that words seem to come from someplace other than your own mind? Writing those words felt like that.

Thanks, Mithadan, for reconnecting us to the past in terms of LoTR's place in 20th century literature. Very enlightening.

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The lack of respect LoTR receives as literature (and now as a motion picture) results not from its own nature and genre but rather from the reputation of the genre which adopted it as its flagbearer.
I agree with this as far as it goes, Mithadan, but there is also a modernist prejudice against LoTR that rejects straightforward story telling in favor of referential and ironic writing, as Kalessin has pointed out.

Thanks, Child-7th Age, for the reference. There is a web site I've visited. The best of Reunion magazine It bases its subcreativity on our time being the Seventh Age, and I believe the webmaster considers the advent of The Machine as its beginning.

Thanks also for the summary of Curry. It sounds like the kind of book I'd like to read mainly because I already agree with it.

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Old 04-10-2002, 08:42 PM   #78
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It seems as though recent posts are approaching a 'ballpark' consensus on the context of modernism, post-modernism and the current socio-cultural ambience in which LotR retains mass appeal (and a certain level of critical acclaim), whilst the standards of the (highly popular) fantasy genre as a whole are disappointing for a range of reasons.

In addition, the distinction between LotR and the genre - by virtue of the time and the nature of its inception, the subsequent cycle(s) of imitation and the genre market that has evolved, and its particular qualities - has been clearly highlighted and rationalised in the above cultural context.

The posts have been detailed and thoughtful, and I think that much of this critique is persuasive - and I am generally sympathetic to the sentiments expressed.

However, I do NOT agree that the mass appeal for Tolkien is necessarily a reflection of a peculiarly modern 'disconnection' or alienation, nor that it demonstrates a dovetailing between a work that is redolent of timeless values and an audience that, having lost faith in progress, longs to be 'grounded', as it were, in a collectively-mourned and idealistic sensibility.

Nostalgic evocations, attempts to 'return to core values', and so on, are not peculiar to our times (or recent times) and can be seen as a continuum in the production of art or artefact through the ages. In addition, indirectly (and sometimes explicitly) recidivist artistic movements do traditionally achieve popular success. The collective audience has always been, and remains, on the whole conservative and habitual. Against this, innovation and revolution co-exist - flaring up and infiltrating mainstream consciousness until they, too, become assimilated into the sense of what is reassuring, expected and understood.

With this in mind, the enduring appeal of Tolkien could be seen as simply a synergy between a stolid and nostalgic audience and a work that harks back to an imagined "comfort zone" of secure morality and stable social/natural boundaries. In the same way, the (to my mind awful) 'safari' paintings of David Shepherd (sub-19th century photographic-style renditions of tigers, elephants etc.) are tremendously popular ... in this case the method (and the perceived role) of Shepherd's art are the instantly accessible beacons of conservatism. You could use countless examples to illustrate this point - from the dominant musical genres that have reached a stylistic plateau (jazz, romanticism) and are utterly "establishment", to Walt Disney, and so on.

My personal feeling is that, along with the ideas raised in previous posts that I summarised above, this interpretation is ALSO true ... or, a part of the truth, if you prefer.

This means that, at the risk of appearing iconoclastic, it doesn't absolutely follow that LotR is unchallengably profound, or the benchmark of spiritual values, or the 'voice' of our time. Obviously, it's a book [img]smilies/smile.gif[/img] and a darn good one, in my view. But there is a danger, in the current consensus I referred to, of appropriating it (see Trilogy and Bible thread for a similar development of this theme) to legitimise our particular worldview.

Nostalgia is, literally, a psychological sickness. And I think that is in a way how Tolkien himself (in his stories) described the attempts by the Elves to simply consolidate and maintain a snapshot version of their artistic culture ... always looking back - this was the Doom of the Elves. Naturally, change and progress meant destruction, chaos and the loss of beauty. Yet to defy or try and avert/ignore change leads ultimately to sterility, introspection and stasis. This subtle insight by Tolkien is in effect the point I am making. And it also places his work and its popularity in a longer cycle of humanity than merely our modern (and unarguably chaotic and insecure) age.

As I said, this is to my mind a part of the whole, much of which has been expressed with great eloquence by others above.

Littleman, I like your phrase "subcreation - art - is the provenance of humanity". This is why, the human (ie. artists) cannot be divorced from the art. Our aesthetics are a construct that centre upon the object rather than the creator - but our relationship is with the artist, however distant. And therefore the purpose of the artist is part of the 'true' aesthetic.

Peace [img]smilies/smile.gif[/img]

[ April 10, 2002: Message edited by: Kalessin ]
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Old 04-11-2002, 03:52 AM   #79
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I remember a time when works made by Tolkien and others were read only by 'nerds' or people obsessed with Dungeons and Dragons. But even then they do not really read them in the sense intentended by the author/s.

The modern Fantasy genre was pioneered by JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis with their LotR and Chronicles respectively. Both liked fairy tales but did not like Walt Disney. Anybody who has read the original 'Little Mermaid' by Hans Christian Andersen and liked it find it very hard to accept the Disney version (yes, I know Walt Disney was already dead by then, but ol' Disney changed Pinoccio, too, and it was not like the original). Lewis thought that Disney made the dwarves (of Snow White) 'vulgar' or silly. That Tolkien made the dwarves in his mythology a noble race shows that he probably had the same opinion as Lewis.

There is another trend today, however. For those who watched the movie 'Grimm's Snow White' and read the original Grimm Brothers' 'Snowdrop' will see that the movie and the original are completely different. Unlike Disney, the movie-makers decided to make the story as gritty as possible, plus a little social commentary. If Disnay made the dwarves silly, the movie made them non-existent. It seems that for the fantasy genre to be respectable, it has to be 'logical' from the modern point of view, i.e., there are no 'real' dwarves and yada-yada.

I hope nobody even THINKS of doing that to Tolkien or Lewis. Well, there is that silly Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit and Return of the King. But should the modification happen (forbid it!) why would anyone modify the stories? The same reason they modified Snow White and the Little Mermaid: to 'Disneyfy' it would make 'kids' like it better, while to 'de-mythologize' it would make it more acceptable to 'adults'.

That is why I asked if anyone ever played the Final Fantasy series. Here are games which departed from the usual save-the-princess and kid-becomes-special formulae. All that magic, all that fantasy was intended as a setting for the character development of the 'heroes'. The same goes for the Tolkien books. We do not find long explanations on 'dragons are an ancient and mysterious race' or 'the spell for casting is "laiant, corvee, lammao!' Tolkien actually in a sense 'belittled' magic. Like in The Hobbit where Gandalf tried to open the Troll cave with magic but was unable to until Bilbo produced the troll key. And the famous Door of Durin scene where Gandalf's fancy Sindarin is unable to open the passage until a simple word ('Friend') does the trick. Compare THAT with, 'Windgardium leviosa!' and screaming mandrakes and all that D&D preoccupation with magic weapons and armor and tools and. . . well Bilbo, Thorin and Gandalf did have magic weapons but their value was primarily 'historical' in the narratives. People think that in the fantasy genre its the magical element that is the most important. The reason why Star Trek lasted so long was that in their episodes they concentrated more on storytelling than on sci-fi technology.

I have always associated the modernist and postmodernist attitudes as either 'Disneyfying' or 'de-mythologizing'. Given Tolkien's stance towards literature being more or less historico-grammatical (or in his case, historico-philological) as well as his Romish dislike for 'allegory' I am fairly sure that he would have rejected such attitudes. To quote Kalessin, "human (ie. artists) cannot be divorced from the art. . . therefore the purpose of the artist is part of the 'true' aesthetic". Tolkien made his stories so that the languages he composed can have a setting for their development as well as to provide 'entertainment' (yeah, I know some of you guys out there hate this word, but entertainment need not be connected with capital gain; I mean entertainment to mean 'providing enjoyment' to whatever target audience). To interpret his work contrary to his intention is indeed to divorce the art from the artist. No hidden meanings, no moral lessons, no socio-political commentary, no nothing!

Meneg Suilaid,
Estel Ohtarion

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I admit it. . . I AM A HISTORICO-GRAMMATIST!!! BWA-HA-HA-HA-HAAA!!! [img]smilies/biggrin.gif[/img]
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Old 04-11-2002, 07:18 PM   #80
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Kalessin, thank you for hosting this thread with admirable courtesy.

I restate your disagreement in the following question: "Is mass appeal of Tolkien necessarily a reflection of a peculiarly modern 'disconnection' or alienation?" I grant that there may be Tolkien aficianados for whom disconnection from the past, or alienation, is not the driving force of their love of Middle Earth; yet I would wager that it plays a role in the majority. There are different aspects to the desire to escape alienation, such as environmentalist
sensitivity, yearning for community, urge to escape industrial dehumanization (The Machine), a need to be freed from the bland
(brand) homogenization of popular culture, a longing for a sense of purpose and a meant-to-be-ness in life, a craving for Faerie, or a hunger for feeling alive instead of half alive, for light instead of shadows and darkness; I do not doubt that there are other modes (note the root word for modernism there).

All of these modes (and more I'm sure), can be found in LotR. Thus LotR is a modern work of literature. It could not have been written in any century but the 20th, because as much as it evoked all these modes of escape from humdrum modern life, those very modes are themselves accessible to a particularly modern mind. Consider how Tolkien evokes the Shire through dialogue and detailed description of character,
setting, and societal attributes; or how the Ring as a nexus of evil seizes upon the imagination of a particularly modern mind with a whole variety of applications - the drive for power; addiction; the complexity of human (read also elvish and dwarvish) motivation regarding desire for the Ring. I could go on and on but I think my point is established.

Related question: "Does the mass appeal for Tolkien demonstrate a dovetailing between a work redolent of timeless values and an audience that, having lost faith in progress, longs to be 'grounded' in a
collectively-mourned and idealistic sensibility?"

I'll need to be persuaded that there is a lack of dovetailing with collectively mourned sensibility. I'm not convinced that nostalgia is the correct word in speaking of the sense of a lost reality. There is a nostalgic piece in Tolkien, granted. And I take exception to a broad-brush naming of all nostalgia as psychological sickness - after all, is not the lost beauty of the old English and old American countrysides something worth mourning? Of course one must go beyond mourning or fall prey to psychological sicknes. But there is more that is yearned for in Tolkien than a past reality, it is Faerie, a reality that is more
real than the reality we live in. More alive. More full of light and color. This is best evoked by Tolkien in Smith of Wootton Major, my favorite of all of Tolkien's works.

I am not convinced that timeless values and an idealistic sensibility is the sum of that which is mourned. What was lost was myth making. Myth may have been lost, rejected by modernist scientific rationalism (which is not bad in itself, just poverty stricken wihtout myth making), but it is something we cannot do without. The modernist attempt to do so was a historical aberration and the postmodernist embrace of myth is a return to this natural human means of subcreation. The hobbits did reassert their way of life in the Shire after they defeated Saruman, and this way of life was ensured by a benevolent monarchy. Could Tolkien have been prophetic, and we hobbits may yet throw off the oppressive ugliness of modernism and kick Sharky out?

Estel Descending (I like the name): I saw Final Fantasy on the big screen but have never played the game. I enjoyed the story and do recognize that it was not disneyfied nor demythologized. Of course it's no LotR, but that's asking for too much. Another example of demythologizing is "Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister", a retelling of the Cinderella story without the magic and the myth. It was enjoyable, but it was a different story.
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