Tolkien’s myths are a political fantasy

In a world built on myth, we can’t ignore the reactionary politics at the heart of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

What is the Rhetoric of Story?

It’s a double-edged magical sword, being a fan of JRR Tolkien. On one hand we’ve had the joy of watching Lord of the Rings go from cult success to, arguably, the most successful and influential story of the last century. And we get to laugh in the face of critics who claimed LotR would never amount to anything, while watching a sumptuous (if absurdly long) adaption of The Hobbit.

“A balanced telling might well have shown Smaug to be much more of a reforming force in the valley of Dale.”

On the other hand, you also have to consider the serious criticisms made of Tolkien’s writing, such as Michael Moorcock’s in his 1978 essay, Epic Pooh. As a storyteller Tolkien is on a par with Homer or the anonymous bard behind Beowulf, the epic poets who so influenced his work. But as works of modern mythology, the art Tolkien called “mythopoeia”, both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are open to serious criticism.

To understand why takes a little consideration of what we really mean by the word “myth”. The world can be a bafflingly complex place. Why is the sky blue? What’s this rocky stuff I’m standing on? Who are all these hairless chimps I’m surrounded by? The only way we don’t just keep babbling endless questions like hyperactive six-year-olds is by reducing the infinite complexities of existence to something more simple. To a story. Stories that we call myths.

Science gives us far more accurate answers to our questions than ever before. But we’re still dependent on myths to actually comprehend the science. The multi-dimensional expansion of energy, space and time we call the Big Bang wasn’t literally a bang any more than God saying “Let there be light” was literally how the universe was created. They’re both mythic ideas that point at an actual truth our mammalian minds aren’t equipped to grasp.

Myths are a lens through which we investigate the mysteries of the world around us. Change the myth, and you can change the world – as JRR Tolkien well knew when, alongside other writers including CS Lewis, he began to consider the possibility of creating new myths to help us better understand the modern world – or if not to understand it better, then to understand it differently. Tolkien borrowed the Greek term “mythpoesis” to describe the task of modern myth-making, and so the literary concept of mythopoeia was born.

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Tolkien’s myths are profoundly conservative. Both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings turn on the “return of the king” to his rightful throne. In both cases this “victory” means the reassertion of a feudal social structure which had been disrupted by “evil”. Both books are one-sided recollections made by the Baggins family, members of the landed gentry, in the Red Book of Westmarch – an unreliable historical source if ever there was one. A balanced telling might well have shown Smaug to be much more of a reforming force in the valley of Dale.

And of course Sauron doesn’t even get to appear on the page in The Lord of the Rings, at least not in any form more substantial than a huge burning eye, exactly the kind of treatment one would expect in a work of propaganda.

We’re left to take on trust from Gandalf, a manipulative spin doctor, and the Elves, immortal elitists who kill humans and hobbits for even entering their territory, when they say that the maker of the one ring is evil. Isn’t it more likely that the orcs, who live in dire poverty, actually support Sauron because he represents the liberal forces of science and industrialisation, in the face of a brutally oppressive conservative social order?

The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings aren’t fantasies because they feature dragons, elves and talking trees. They’re fantasies because they mythologise human history, ignoring the brutality and oppression that were part and parcel of a world ruled by men with swords. But we shouldn’t be surprised that the wish to return to a more conservative society, one where people knew their place, is so popular. It’s the same myth that conservative political parties such as Ukip have always played on: the myth of a better world that has been lost, but can be reclaimed by turning back the clock.

Whatever the limitations of his own myth-making, Tolkien’s genius as a storyteller rekindled the flame of mythopoeia for generations of writers who followed. Today our bookshelves and cinema screens are once again heaving with modern myths. And they represent a vastly diverse spectrum of worldviews, from the authoritarian fantasy of Orson Scott Card’s Enders Game, to the anti-capitalist metaphor of The Hunger Games. The latter is so potent that the three-finger salute given by Katniss Everdeen has become a symbol of freedom. What clearer sign could there be that the contemporary world is still powered by myth?

Originally published in The Guardian.

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Why teach writing? To learn of course.

There’s a story of a lazy Buddhist adept, whose name escapes me, who was made to teach a lesson by his master. The student never paid attention in class, or did his chores around the monastery. But when made to teach, he gave a long lecture on compassion, that remains a high Buddhist teaching to this day.

I’m guessing the lazy adept didn’t know how much he knew until he taught it.

“In a classroom full of writers, the writing teacher is the most dedicated student of all.”

I think about writing as a practice. It’s a path that many people choose to walk to give their life shape, and that helps us develop and grow. With all the challenges that come with a pro writing career, when I think about who I would be if I’d never disciplined myself to write, I literally shudder.

(I know many writers who can’t rub two pennies together, but none who are shambling shopping mall zombies, so every writer I know is a winner.)

At some point in your writing practice, teaching becomes a logical next step. And here’s the thing. That will probably happen before you reach the titanic success levels of Stephen King. In fact that was true of Stephen King himself, who taught English and writing as a postgrad student, in the space between publishing his early short stories and his first novel. I think it’s likely the teaching process helped King in that evolution.

Teaching makes you do something really hard. You have to take all that knowledge you have acrued as a student, years of it, swilling around in your mind like an ocean, and structure it into a form that you can communicate to others. This is not a comfortable or neccesarily fun activity in and of itself. But you will never understand your own craft as well as you will by teaching it. In a classroom full of writers, the writing teacher is the most dedicated student of all.

My reward for composing The Rhetoric of Story as a course, a process that took over a year, wasn’t recruiting 1300 students or making a useful bonus income, though both are nice, but is that I understand my own storytelling process infinitely better. Now that courses can be preserved forever in video, I love knowing that future writers will be able to see into the process of so many other creators. It’s going to lead to the telling of many great stories.

Game of Thrones is epic fantasy for social justice warriors

Game of Thrones and Hilary Mantell’s Wolf Hall offer two different takes on how social justice overpowers aristocratic elites. In the age of Trump, we need these social justice metaphors more than ever.

The cosmetic similarities between Game of Thrones and Wolf Hall are not hard to list. Both occupy a similar period in history, soon after the fall of the Plantagenet kings (recast as the Targaryens in GoT) and the early history of the dynasty that succeeded them. Both wallow in the power plays of courtly intrigue and its brutal consequences, from the Blood Wedding of fantasy, to the endless beheadings of history. And both have dominated the recent consciousness of storytelling.

“If ever a fantasy character has represented the ideal of a Social Justice Warrior, Daenerys Targaryen is she.”

The differences are also quite clear. There are no dragons, dire wolves, blood magic, white walkers or talking tree roots in Wolf Hall, while GoT wanders rather drastically from the history and geography from which its fantasy is spun. Wolf Hall is crafted as a tight internal monologue that never takes us beyond the perceptions of its protagonist Thomas Cromwell, while GoT moves the reader from one point of view to another in a rather more workmanlike style. These are differences of emphasis: one is designed to play to mass audiences attuned to televisual storytelling, the other for audiences who value emotional depth above narrative lucidity.

The dramatic question at the heart of each story is, nonetheless, identical: Who rules and why? What makes a just monarch? Both stories set their audience the same conundrum. A society dominated by great families and inherited wealth, representing a history where the most greedy, the most deluded, and the most violent have tended to triumph, leaving a world riven by corruption and injustice. We’re always hungry for stories that reflect the dynamics of power because we are never free of them, but it seems more than coincidence that GoT and Wolf Hall have risen to popularity in a period of modern history where the super-rich have reclaimed much of their old power.

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GoT’s answer to this age-old problem is in the tradition of most popular fantasy from King Arthur to Lord of the Rings – to achieve a just world, a just king must rule. Or more accurately, a just queen. Thundering up from the fiery end of the fantasy map in this Song of Ice and Fire is Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, in every sense the most just candidate for the Iron Throne, with a trio of dragons on hand to incinerate any lords who oppose her. And she’s liberating every slave, whore, eunuch or other downtrodden soul along the way to demonstrate just how just a ruler she can be. If ever a fantasy character has represented the ideal of a Social Justice Warrior, Daenerys Targaryen is she.

What is the rhetoric of story?

Wolf Hall’s challenge to social privilege is slightly more radical. Thomas Cromwell is no king in waiting. His story foreshadows the rise of the power that would truly threaten the ruling aristocracy – the modern democratic state. It is the state that will rein in the power of the rich, transform taxation from robbery to redistribution and enfranchise women and the poor with the vote. If Thomas Cromwell resonates as a modern-day hero, it is because we sense once again the need for strong democratic statesmen.

How will these two stories of our time end? History certainly suggests that Cromwell’s will not end well – though Wolf Hall has already ventured close to alternate history in its characterisations (as Thomas More apologists would tell you). Imagine the possibilities if she were to take that further in the third volume. George RR Martin has certainly shown himself more than happy to brutally murder even his story’s most empathetic characters. Daenerys may end not on the Iron Throne but in the basement of the Red Keep as a new plaything for Ser Gregor. A nasty climax to a fantasy story, but not such a long way from reality.

Originally published in The Guardian.

How do stories work?

The Rhetoric of Story isn’t a writing a course. It’s the answer to a question that has fascinated me for over a decade. How do stories work? How do a few words on a page, some flickering images on a screen, convince us for a time that we are a different person, living a different life, in a different world?

When I first launched The Rhetoric of Story a year ago, a good friend told me to give it a more exciting name. Well meant advice. But while “”The 7 Secrets of Kickass Stories” is more eye catching, it’s less useful. Because the Rhetoric of Story is more than a title…it’s the heart of the answer to my question…how do stories work?

Storytelling is magic. It’s a kind of illusion. The storyteller shapes words, images, symbols, and we are transported to other worlds. You don’t have to be a brilliant literary writer, or a genius auteur filmmaker. If you can pull off the magic trick, and immerse people in a story that transports them, they will love everything you create.

The Rhetoric of Story is big and ambitious. Nobody has tried before to set out a simple framework, a “rhetorical mode”, for how the immersive effect of story is created. If your storytelling can embrace all 7 foundations – Change, Self, Other, Conflict, Events, Structure and Emotion – then whether it’s a 2 page short story, or a 10 hour tv show, it will work.

As a teacher, I want to give my students the clearest possible guidance on achieving the single most important goal for any writer – telling a great story. I think in The Rhetoric of Story I’ve achieved that. And now you can find out for yourself…

…the course is now on Udemy and, for one week only, it’s free. Click the link and use course code STORYTELLER at checkout.

The Rhetoric of Story.

Game of Thrones: 6 predictions for season 7

Just watched episode one of season 7 and RAWWWWR that’s some powerful storytelling. George has been skillfully setting up these epic conflicts, getting us emotionally invested in every one, and now they’re all about to pay off. Ice and Fire are ready to clash at last. The only question now is, what twists will GRRM throw at us along the way?

These aren’t spoilers, BUT, I’m spookily good at predicting stories. Don’t be shocked if they all come true.

Things go badly for Daenerys and Jon.

Thrones is a gritty, pseudorealistic fantasy world where death is brutal and strikes at random. But two characters do not live by the established logic of Westeros. Jon can fight an infinite number of men and win, while Dany is literally fireproof and rides the fantasy equivalent of an Apache attack helicopter in battle. George lets his two leading heroes get away with murder…but don’t expect that to last for this season. The two Targaryen’s wedding to unite Westeros is the obvious ending…and therefore the least likely.

Cersei has the bankers on her side.

Things aren’t looking good for the Lannister twins. Cersei is bat shit crazy, Jaime is going grey and jowly. On the strategic map of Westeros, they are a single state surrounded and at war on all fronts. But consider this…the Iron Bank are into the Lannisters for an epic sum. And they’ll only recover it if the Lannisters win. Banking clans have a long real world history of dirty tricks to put their puppets in power. Expect to see the Iron Bank throw some serious black ops behind a win for Cersei.

Tyrion for Prime Minister.

The littlest Lannister carried the first two seasons of Thrones. Most viewers are expecting a new King, but the show has an outspoken social justice agenda, that doesn’t sit well with the values of Monarchy. While electoral democracy is some distance off in Westeros, we could see see a constitutional monarchy with a rudimentary parliament. Tyrion would be the natural choice for PM, with Varys as Chancelor.

Matriarchy for the win.

Strong women are now in charge of most of the map of Westeros. Dany and her Dothraki hoarde, the Dornish Sand Snakes, Cersei in Kings Landing, Olena Tyrell in Highgarden, Sansa in the North, with Brienne as the toughest sword in the land and Arya poisoning entire halls of men while sparing all women. Jon Snow and Jaime are both well under the thumb. Thrones is going to be an all woman affair from here on, as the matriarchy replace the old patriarchy of Westeros.

Bran finally gets to do something.

Bran’s story is the most compelling in the books, a psychological journey through trauma and grief and a slow awakening to magic and grief. All that interiority has never translated well to screen. But in this final season Bran is no longer an adept. He’s now the only true wizard in Westeros, with unbounded powers, ready to make merry hell on the battlefield. Army of zombies? No problem, Bran can field a whole army of wargs.

Personal Betrayls.

The final battle for Westeros will be won or lost on loyalty. Jon and Sansa, Cersei and Jaime, there are serious fractures within each of the camps vying for power. Jaime could well be the one to kill Cersei, and then himself. The open question about Thrones at this point is how willing GRRM is to upset the audience by foregoing pat heroism and epic final battles, in favour of more realistic politucs and human fraility that have defined the show up until this point. Whatever the answer, I’m certain George has a few very nasty suprises for us before the Game of Thrones is won. Or lost.

The principle of creative opposition

I’m reading Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had reading a Pynchon novel. And I think I know why.

Creative. Opposition.

Pynchon is an ideas man. High-concept, conspiracy theorist, humanity as an organic mishap in a grinding clockwork universe kind of ideas.

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Inherent Vice is a small scale, comedy of errors, sundrenched California noir novel. It’s still Pynchon, but with the vast conceptual frameworks snipped into human insights.

This is a brave and good thing to do as a writer. Or any kind of creator. Figure what your strengths are, realise they are also your weakness, and locate a force to oppose them.

  • If you’re a writer of intimate character studies, place your characters in a galaxy spanning quest.
  • If you’re a sculptor of monolithic bronzes, apply those shapes to a pendant.
  • If you’re a songwriter of zippy pop ballads, work with an industrial techno collaborator.
  • If you’re a great cook of French meat dishes, experiment with a vegetarian menu.
  • If you’re an international businessman, spend a weekend running a market stall.

You get the idea. This might not produce your bestseller or top 40 hit, but it will reignite your creative engines. And it might produce your bestseller or top 40 hit.

Creative success can be its own trap. We always need something to resist, a force to challenge our strengths, a source of creative opposition.

Join my course for storytellers.

Or ask me a question on twitter.

The top 5 Iain M Banks novels

30 years after they were first published, the Culture novels of Iain M Banks are more popular than ever.

Our first image of Iain M Banks’s Culture universe is a man drowning in sewage: a stark precedent for what was to come. And 30 years after its first publication, Consider Phlebas remains a novel grimily opposed to the shiny rocketships and derring-do of most space opera. Banks broke the genre apart, and with a little inspiration from M John Harrison and Ursula Le Guin (and some outright theft from Larry Niven), he created a series of space opera novels that remains unmatched.

But for all his mastery of high-octane action sequences, and the sheer invention of his Big Dumb Objects, Banks’s science fiction – credited to M Banks, his fiction going without the middle initial – has lasted because his deft balance of galactic scope with human-scale stories. Stories of loss, grief, rebirth and self-discovery are the core of the best Culture novels. He did not write sci-fi and literary novels – he was a master of storytelling that combined both.

These are my top five Culture novels, but I could have included at least five more. I’d put Use of Weapons at six, which might perplex fans of Banks at his most gung-ho. Seven would be short-story collection The State of the Art, which contains only brief glimpses of the Culture. Matter (eight), Inversions (nine) and Surface Detail (10) all have their own strengths, but lack the genius of Banks at his best – which I think you’ll find here:

 

Five: The Hydrogen Sonata
The final published Culture novel was a return to top form for Banks. The Gzilt are ready to “sublime” to the the next plane of existence. But first some old scores must be settled. It’s the most openly satirical of all Banks’s SF novels, offering an angry critique of “third-way” liberal leaders like Tony Blair. But the star of the show is the Mistake Not, a Culture ship of “non-standard” type IE packing lots of high-level weaponry. It shows exactly how tough the utopian Culture can be.

Four: Excession
Minds – sentient thinking computers – are the secret stars of the Culture novels, but here they take centre stage. What do virtually immortal, super intelligent AIs do for fun? Among other things they play out decades-long plots to topple less developed, more barbaric civilisations. But even Minds sometimes run up against opponents they can’t outwit. Featuring the Affront, a race literally named for how outrageously evil they are, this is Banks at his most playful, comedic and inventive.

Three: Consider Phlebas
After almost drowning the hero in sewage in it’s opening scene, the first published Culture novel goes on a rip roaring killing spree across the major sights of the Banksian universe. Space pirates, ringworlds, cannibal cultists, a lethal card game, and a Planet of the Dead… the Culture is shown through the eyes of those who hate and fear this machine lead society, creating by far the darkest of all Banks’s science fiction writing.

Two: The Player of Games
Both a love poem to the joy of game play, and a warning against the psychology of the game player, the story of the Culture’s best gameplayer, who is on a quest to compete against an alien society where games decide real world hierarchies, is the most complete and accessible book in the Culture series. This makes it a good starting point for the Iain M Banks neophyte, and also the first book I recommend to non-science fiction readers curious about the genre.

One: Look to Windward
I suspect that Look To Windward was Iain Banks showing off at the peak of his talents – and what a great show it is. The meddling Culture have accidentally set off a caste war in a civilisation they were trying to liberate. A young, high born officer, maimed in battle and broken by grief, is manipulated to commit a terrorist attack in revenge against the Culture. Meanwhile, an exiled composer creates a symphony to mark the light of an ancient super-nova, seen at two points and six centuries apart, by the immortal Mind who blew the star up. The fact that half the cast are six limbed tiger-like predators somehow only adds to the poetry. Look to Windward is where Banks’s interleaving of science fiction imagery, and literary themes,reaches it’s own symphonic climax, making it not just the greatest Culture novel, but perhaps the greatest ever science fiction novel.

The poetics of SF

Science fiction is scared of language.

It’s practitioners come, in bulk, from the numbered disciplines. Physicists. Engineers. Coders. The number is absolute. Seven is seven is seven is seven. It’s not six and it’s not eight. This is the whole point of whole numbers.

Infinity is just a slippery sound made by a monkey with highly trained lips and tongue. Represented as a set of scrawled sigils on paper. Even if we can agree on a spelling for spectre (specter to my American readers) it’s still a ghostly concept, summoning one net of denotations and connotations for me, entirely another for you.

Dammit Jim, I’m a semiotician not a mathematician!

Science fiction deals with it’s fear of drowning in uncertainty by staying in the shallow end of language’s infinite slipperiness. It’s science fiction, not science poetry, and it’s remarkable how descriptions of the alien and interdimensional can be so conservative in their use of language.

“Language is the true portal to sensawunda, to other worlds, to alternate realities.”

To be an “easy read” fiction must meet the reader on many levels. Narrative must conform to the psychological rhetorics of story. Language must conform to a shallow pool of concretely agreed terminology. You are going to need to understand these rules before you can break them. But you are going to have to break them.

If I only communicate with you in words you already understand, I can only show you a world you already know. It matters not if that world is in the galaxy Andromeda, in its assumptions about society, hierarchy, the realities of class, gender, sexuality, the operations of the human mind and psyche, it will be only an imprint of the shopping mall world of today.

Samuel Delany talks orniphoters in his collected essays on writing craft. Science fiction finds its poetry when it synthesises new words for non-existant things. Ornithology plus helicopter gives us a bird like chopper. A doorway irises open. Into a wider liguistic world. But this is only the the start of the downslope into the deep end.

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Science fiction’s poets – Delany, Gibson, Le Guin, Ballard, Mieville, Bradbury, Valente, Chiang and sorry for those I leave out – do not write poems (they might also, that’s another matter). They strain at the boundaries of language and narrative, to push them just so far beyond the reader’s understanding that an “easy read” becomes a “rich read”.

Language is the true portal to sensawunda, to other worlds, to alternate realities. There’s a reason great SF is so often about language 1- Babel-17, Embassytown, Arrival, to name a few. To crack your reality open, we need to go Sapir-Whorf on your ass. We need to recode the code your reality runs on – the slippery code of language.

Science fiction is scared of language. You must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.