Sunday, September 18, 2022

Can I, In Fact, Be Arsed To Watch The Rings of Power?

I have started this article literally five times. Each time it has got bogged down in the same argument that I've had with myself twenty times before. You know how it goes. 

It wouldn't necessarily have been racist to leave Edward Colston where he was; but fishing him out of the river and putting him back on his plinth would be a huge Alan-Moorish magical act in support of white supremacism. Blackface Morris dancing was a harmless and silly tradition until people with no particular interest in folk dance started to say that the Morris was to the Indigenous White Race as the Sun Dance is to the Sioux people and that they were going to BOYCOTT any festival where the dancers painted themselves green instead. (A very intelligent teenager, when I tried to Teach Them The Controversy said "There wouldn't have been much point in using black paint as a disguise and then sewing bells into their costumes, would there?") Rule Britannia was a daft old fashioned tune that came at the end of a medley of nineteenth century sea songs, until it became an inalienable symbol of our very justifiable pride in having conquered the world (why do people do our history down? why do they consider it NECESSARY) at which point the song, and probably the whole concert, had to go away.

Very conveniently, history has provided me with a new example. If every other house on my street had placed a picture of the Queen in the window, then not having a picture of the Queen in my window would be a sign that I was a fanatical, cynical republican. If no other house had a picture of the queen in the window, then putting a picture of the Queen in the window would signify that I was an extreme, sentimental royalist. I slightly regret that the silly American tradition of Halloween has replaced the slightly mad English tradition of Bonfire Night, but as a matter of fact it has: so not having a bag of sweets to share with passing urchins would mark me out as a grumpy old sour puss, or at any rate one of those evangelical Christians who take everything slightly too seriously. I did, in fact, join in with the clap for carers ritual, and a very quiet street celebration of the V.E day anniversary during the Plague Year. I would not have joined in a Clap For Boris, even if every body else did.

We inhabit a universe of signs. I think that is probably what Plato and Jack Kirby and Carl Jung were trying to teach us, and what Richard Dawkins will never understand. Things signify what they have come to signify. I am not twelve: I do not giggle if an old song or comic book uses the word "gay" to mean happy, joyful, or brightly coloured. But neither am I a Daily Telegraph reader, I do not pretend that I think that the people with rainbow flags have "a deep pleasure, self-regard or satisfaction" in the fact that they are "joyful and brightly coloured". (Although some of them arguably do, come to think of it.)

Does anyone remember fanzines? Do you remember standing by photocopiers with bags of five pee pieces? Do you remember begging parents who worked in offices to let you use the photocopier after work, promising to pay for the ink out of your paper-round money? Letraset and pritt stick? The taste of postage stamps after you had licked twenty stamps, and standing behind a stand at conventions, joyful if you sold even one copy? Gesneter machines you had to crank? Drawing on wax stencils with special sharp pens (which never, ever worked).

I don't know if Dungeons & Dragons and Doctor Who and Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and Diplomacy and En Garde brought on a particular kind of madness that Jane Austen and Agatha Christie and Coronation Street and Chess and Backgammon never did; or if there are so many Chess players and soap opera watchers and Whodunnit readers that "finding other people who like what you do" becomes a hobby in its own right. Heterosexuals in the 1950s didn't make up funny cants and code words to identify themselves to each other, so far as I know.

I remember a very circumspect essay in an old DWAS fanzine, that said that it didn't really matter that Douglas Adams and this new guy Tom Baker had ruined the programme forever, because Doctor Who wasn't about the programme: it was an excuse to get together, write fanfic, make models, wear costumes, draw artwork. A Doctor Who convention in the 1970s was  rather like a Puffin Club exhibition, and I am well aware how that sounds. More space was taken up with stuff that the fans had made and written than with actual props from the show.

But that means texts go round and round in circles and disappear up their own fandoms. Unearthly Child is not, for me, a very old piece of TV, and I am slightly resentful if that is what it is for you. Unearthly Child is sitting in (I think) Imperial College London, almost the first time you have travelled on a tube train without your parents. We made a deal that I would be allowed to go to the convention by myself, but my Mum and my Baby Sister would have a day in London and pick me up when it was over, so I would not have to brave the mean streets of South Ken by myself. For other people it may even still be the first show that the BBC showed after the 24 hours of enforced mourning after a very terrible event in Dallas, Texas. 

Someone reading this doesn't know what Unearthly Child is, which kind of proves my point. We all have secret code phrases. Detective Comics 27. John 3:16. Child 10/Roud 8.

I once heard an Actor say that Hamlet is not a play: it is a cultural discussion that the west has been having for four hundred years. You kind of see the point. If you go to see Hamlet, you are going to see this particular Hamlet, and you want to know how this particular Hamlet answers questions about the text. Why does this version of the Prince delay, does this Prince really go mad; why did this version of the Queen marry so quickly after the King's death? Every production is in dialogue with every other production and this is true even if you are seeing the play for the first time. And each play is also the protrusion into our dimension of a vast and incomprehensible mass of academic papers, and that is true even if the audience and the producer don't read the Times Literary Supplement. Hamlet matters. Hamlet is a living thing, not a dead facsimile in an academic library. Doubtless the particular collection of words that editors have created out of the folios and the quartos and the pirated prompt copies have objective qualities that have allowed Hamlet to become a text which matters. But it is perfectly possible to imagine a world where a different play had been endowed with that significance. Or where the Legitimate Theatre didn't exist at all.

There was an academic who may have been called Stanley Fish who wrote a clever book about Paradise Lost which may have been called Surprised by Sin which argued that the poem took shape in the subjectivity of the reader. People sometimes say that it is a bit of a problem that Milton's Satan is so heroic and Milton's God is such a thug. Fish, replies, in effect: "You don't say? In a book about rebellion, sin, and the fall, you end up hating God and liking the Devil? Might that not possibly be the whole entire point?" He says it over several hundred pages and I suppose I should read it one day. I suppose I should read Paradise Lost, come to that.

C.S Lewis, incidentally, was both duller and righter when he said that people who say they don't like Milton's God really mean that they don't like God. Devout atheist critic William Empson felt he'd hit the nail on the head.

I believe that Fish also said that he didn't think that there was such a thing as Paradise Lost, or at any rate, that when people talked about paying attention to the actual text, he didn't understand what they meant. It is, of course, an excellent strategy, if you are very clever, to pretend not to understand something which everyone else thinks is very simple and obvious. But one sees what he is getting at. No book. No thing. Just lots of different subjective impressions of the thing; the intersection of all the things which people have said about the thing over the centuries.

I believe there has been an Old School Revival and I believe that some people are producing paper fanzines again. I understand that the OSR has also become in some circles a Colstonian Fetish, there being a suspicion that people who wish that Dungeons & Dragons was more like it was in the 1970s wish that everything else was more like it was in the 1970s as well. But there is no longer any particular need for them to exist. Blogging and Social Meejah and the Tick Tock mean that we are all in contact with ever other like mind person at every moment. There is no longer any need to write a stiff letter to the BBC about Talons of Weng Chiang or submit your review of Deadly Assassin for consideration to the editor of TARDIS magazine, or even to ask Mum to type your review on her manual typewriter and staple it together in SCARF MONTHLY (circulation: 10). You just tweet it.

Do not, please God, confuse "is" with "ought". It might be better if every thought that proceedeth out of the mind of the geek was not instantly transmissible to every mobile phone in the Western hemisphere. It might be better if we made friends with people over the garden fence. It might be better if going to the movies involved putting on your smart clothes and buying pop corn and watching Pathe News and Donald Duck. It might be better if the BBC still closed down at six o clock so all the mummies and daddies could put their children to bed. We are precisely where we are.

I would not in principle, have a problem with a person who said that they were fine with a black actor playing James Bond, a black actor playing Batman, a black actor playing Superman, a black actor playing the Human Torch, a black actor playing Doctor Who, a black actor playing Hamlet, a black actor playing Jesus and a black actor playing Othello, but that the Little Mermaid was a special case and there is some particular reason why Mermaids needed to be caucasian. I would not necessarily agree, but I would not automatically assume that the person had bad motives. But when the same people object to black Batmen, black Supermen, black Human Torches, black Doctors Who, black Hamlets, black Jesi and black Othellos then one starts to suspect that their issue is not with canonicity and fidelity to the original text (which does not exist) but with black people. Don't change an existing character, they say, make up a new character! And when someone makes up a new character, they say that the whole idea of a brand new female Pakistani New York super-heroine is woke and pandering and box ticking. Cast a black man as Hamlet, and they will howl that there weren't any Africans in medieval Denmark; cast a black man as Othello and they will say that great white actors are now BANNED from this role and that from now on only Jews will be allowed to play Shylock and only murderers will be allowed to play Macbeth. 

George Takei recently came right out and said what everyone already knew: that the word "woke" now simply means "has black representation".

Actually, I would go a lot further. It's a single word that embodies a dangerous conspiracy theory: to call a TV show "woke" is to simultaneously say that it has black people in it, AND to say that unknown operators are mandating the casting of ethnic minorities for sinister political reasons. It means that "they" have forced "an agenda" on the text. We are very often told that non-white, or non-straight, or indeed non-male fictional characters only exist because of an arcane process called Box Ticking. They are only there because some bureaucratic paperwork requires them to be there.

Woke in fact means nothing more or less than n*****-lover; and people who use the former word should be treated with the same contempt as people who use the latter.

I admit that I would have been conflicted in any case. On the one hand, making up new stories set in Tolkien's imaginary time line doesn't seem any sillier than making up stories about Queen Elizabeth and Robert Dudley; or Richard Sharp and the Duke of Wellington. A particular piece of historical fiction may be sensible or silly, done well or done badly, but Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and War and Peace both seem legitimate imaginative enterprises. You could research the life of a definitely real pioneer and politician named David Crocket, or you could tell a rip-roaring and ever so slightly racist cowboy story about a fella who killed him a bear when he was only three. Photocopier or not, I'm a recovering role-player: tell me that Hobbits used to live with the dwarves near the mountains and then migrated through toil and hardship to the Shire, and my dungeon master brain says "Who are the player characters; where is the map; I want to play that?"

I mean, come on Tollers: Elendil escapes from Numenor before it sank beneath the waves saving a seedling of the sacred tree and and the seven seeing stones. That's not a paragraph, that's a trilogy.

On the other hand, I am concerned about taking the inchoate ambience that Tolkien creates, the vast distances of time looking back into the Second Age and the Elder Days and crystallising them into particular actors and particular stories. An actor playing Gil Galad will thereafter always to some extent be Gil Galad in our imagination, and that will to some extent spoil Bilbo's translation of the old poem about the elven king of whom the harpers sadly sing, because part of the point of that poem is that we its telling a story we don't know and wish we did.

On the third hand, official fan fiction is going to happen sooner or later: whether a TV show or a licensed novel. Control of Tolkien's estate was always going to pass from his children to his grandchildren and great grandchildren and they are not going to be purists in the way Christopher was: and even if they were, texts eventually go out of copyright.

I don't know what Tolkien would have thought about a TV series based on the appendices to Lord of the Rings. I think he would have been pleased that fifty years after his death people were reading them and caring about them; I don't think it is possible that he would have agreed with every point of interpretation that a secondary story teller made up; we know that he would have accepted that a cinema adaptation has to be cinematic. I don't think he would have even understood what computer generated animation meant. Christopher Tolkien thinks that he would not have approved of the published Silmarillion, which is based on his sons scholarly conjectures about how he would have assembled the text. I don't know what Jane Austen would have thought of Pride and Prejudice With Zombies. I don't know if you could have explained it to her. 

"Two hundred years in the future your characters will still be so famous, and so beloved, that a witty writer will write a comical burlesque in which he imagines them embroiled in a shocking gothic romance." 

"Upon my soul, what fun."

But I am pretty sure that what a dead author, or anyone else would have thought is pretty irrelevant; and I am absolutely sure that bad adaptations of their books do not impede their journey through the afterlife, however much people like to imagine them "turning in their graves". I believe that some right wing American pundits think that you should interpret the text of the Constitution based on what the founding fathers would have said. 

"Yesterday" said C.S Lewis "I stopped myself only in time from saying about some trifle 'Joy wouldn't have liked that.' This is unfair to the others. I should soon be using 'what Joy would have liked' as an instrument of domestic tyranny; with her supposed likes and dislikes becoming a thinner and thinner disguise for my own."

There is a discussion to be had about ethnicity in Middle-earth. We know that there is a land in the South where you could find elephants and dark skinned people. The first official Tolkien roleplaying games included a map of the whole of Middle-Earth, even the bits Tolkien never wrote about and inferred an Africa-shaped land sticking out of the bottom of the map. Years later Christopher Tolkien reproduced a sketch map of the whole world drawn by his father, it turned out that Iron Crown Enterprises guess was pretty much on the beam. So either some accelerated process of evolution changed Men's secondary characteristics after they had migrated to the South; or else some of the Second Children of Illuvator were black to begin with. (Unless Africa-analog only came into existence after the world became round; and Illuvator created new darker skinned humans to populate it? But the idea of just creating new beings doesn't seem to fit in at all well with the idea of the ainulindale.) Hobbits are a sub-class of men, so if there were non-white humans there were non-white hobbits, and if not, not. 

Tolkien was a white English dude, and represents himself as quite freely translating an ancient text. Hobbits didn't really speak English, and certainly not English with regional accents, and they didn't really have umbrellas and post offices. A white English dude naturally chose to represent the halflings as white and English, but if the Red Book and been discovered by a Scotsmen or an Indian, it might have been very different indeed.

A couple of years back the BBC did a quite good adaptation of Les Miserables with all the songs removed. Some people affected to be confused that Gavroche and Javert were played by not-white actors. No-one was at all confused that they were speaking English, with English accents, and that Thernadier sounded cockney. TV is an illusion; an exercise in the imagination. The map is not the territory. 

Gender is a bit more complicated. Tolkien was certainly a catholic, and certainly had traditional catholic views. (He felt that C.S Lewis's views on Christian marriage were a good deal too liberal, and actually got the better of the argument.) A lot of people have pointed to his description of the Valar (the secondary gods of Middle-earth) as implying a kind of trans-friendly outlook, although I don't think it really does. (He says that bodies are to the gods as clothes are to humans: a human is not necessarily male because they are wearing pants; a god is not necessarily male because he is wearing a male body.) And he is very clear that Elves only really do sex for procreation: and that once they have made enough babies, they mainly lose interest in it. But that said it is reasonable to ask how a Catholic academic in the 1940s would have described the relationship between, say, two homosexual servicemen and the answer is "exactly as he describes the relationship between Frodo and Sam. 

Once you claim that your book is a translation or a description of real events, you destabilise the text; you let us ask what is "really" going on.

But now is not the time to have that interesting discussion. Now is the time when white supremacist keyboard warriors tell me, directly, that if an actor would not be appropriate in a film of Beowulf, they are not appropriate in Tolkien, and if I cannot see that I obviously have never read Lord of the Rings. (I rather flounced out of the Facebook C.S Lewis group at this point.) Now is the time when a tie-in edition of Lord of the Rings triggers a cohort of fragile white snowflakes to say "We hates you forever, precious, the professor is turning in his grave." Now is the time when the Lord of the Rings is an accessory for a certain kind of weirdo white nativist activism. 

There was another story about a Ring. It became an accessory for another group of Fascists. They ruined Wagner for fifty years; for some people they ruined it forever. Tolkien called Hitler a bloody ignoramus and a blasphemous tyrant; but there was genuinely something in the Ring Cycle that allowed it to be appropriated by the Nazis. Maybe there is something in Lord of the Rings which allows it to be appropriated by born-and-bred kith-and-kin white nativists.

So, anyway: that's the article I've been trying to write. The Rings of Power has been subsumed into the backlash and the backlash against the backlash to the point where it is debatable whether the TV series exists.

Stewart Heritage made the point in slightly fewer words in an essay in the Guardian:

So here we are. It is now impossible to remain neutral about The Little Mermaid. You are either opposed to the idea that a mermaid might not necessarily always be white or excited to watch it out of principle because you don’t want the racists to win. It’s one or the other. The lines have been drawn, and that means the film won’t be properly evaluated on its merits until all the noise has died down, which won’t happen until long after its release.

So here we are. I ought to be looking forward to this stuff, throwing myself into reviews and critiques. But I haven't summonsed up the strength yet. The fascists have sucked all the joy out of it. Of course they have. That's their job. 

I notice that Disney+ has put up three seasons of Gargoyles. Maybe I'll watch that instead.


I'm Andrew.

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Richard Worth said...

My sense is that some novels have become like folk-tales told around the camp-fire, so the Muppet 'Christmas Carol' is as fair a take on Dickens as the classic Alistair Simm movie or the latest BBC version (or indeed, a certain episode of Dr Who'). Providing you don't start with a kind-hearted and generous Scrooge, or a Marley who is very much alive, then gender and ethnicity don't really matter. Curiously, Jane Austen may have been aware of zombies, but how a lady of the Regency era related to the folk of the West Indies is best dealt with by an explanatory note which will be criticised by the 'Telegraph' as being Woke.

Achille Talon said...

Meaningless nitpick: Thenardier, not Thernadier. (Thénardier if you want to be fancy.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

Thanks. As mentioned, “blogathons” mean my proof reeding is worse than usual.

Andrew Ducker said...

Enjoying the blogathon, totally understand proof-reading issues.

On which note, should "Jesi" be "Jedi"?

Rachael said...

@Andrew Ducker No, it's a tongue-in-cheek plural of "Jesus" from the previous line.

Andrew Rilstone said...

@Rachael: Think goodness at least one person in the world understands me.

melchar said...

The 'Little Mermaid' tizzy very much puzzles me. If those concerned with 'true' skin tones are going to get in an uproar, shouldn't they be insisting that the mermaid's skin color should be grey or green or even gold? Fish do not have Caucasian skin tones. That said, black skin is closer in shade to many varieties of fish skin shades, so I think it makes a more pleasing color choice than peachy-pink.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I don't think it is about Science. Mermaids are mythical creatures. I think that some people may possibly be said because the main character in the Live Action version won't look like the cartoon character made flesh, in the same way I was sad when Galactus turned out to be a big cloud of purple smoke.

Someone said that some fans have a belief in a thing called STORY which exists separately from any telling of it: so although all adaptations necessarily change things, each change is perceived as an act of violence.

But I am sure that the overwhelming majority of people who have objected are not in the least bit interested in children's films, but are just using it as pretext to talk about their nativist agendas.