Tolkien and the Culture Wars, Part Two: Thoughts on the Tolkien Society Seminar

[PROGRAMMING NOTE: I have not abandoned my “Remembering Postmodernism” series—I’m just having problems putting the next installment into a coherent form that doesn’t run into Tolstoy-length rambling. In the interim, please enjoy this follow-up to my Tolkien and the culture wars post.]

I do so love serendipity. I would go so far as to say it is what most frequently inspires me in my research and writing. Unfortunately, that tends to make my primary research methodology not at all unlike the dog from Up.

This fall, I’ll be teaching a fourth-year seminar on the American Weird. In the original version of the course, which I taught three years ago, we looked at H.P. Lovecraft’s influence on American horror and gothic, and we considered as well how contemporary texts engaged specifically with Lovecraft’s hella racist tendencies—specifically with regard to Victor LaValle’s novella The Ballad of Black Tom, a retelling of Lovecraft’s story “The Horror at Red Hook” (one of his most explicitly racist stories) from the perspective of a Black protagonist, and Matt Ruff’s recently published Lovecraft Country.

Since then, Lovecraft Country was adapted to television by HBO under the imprimatur of Jordan Peele, and the magnificent N.K. Jemisin published an overtly Lovecraftian novel The City We Became. So this time around, we’re going all in on the issue of race and genre in “the American Weird,” not least because the current furor over “critical race theory” in the U.S. makes such a course at least a little timely.

But of course you’ve read the title of my post and might be wondering how this is serendipitous with the Tolkien society’s recent seminar. What on earth does Tolkien have to do with Lovecraft, or questions of race and identity in American literature?

It has to do with the issue of genre and the ways in which genre has come to be both a metaphor and a delineation of community, belonging, and exclusion. Genre has always been about drawing lines and borders: as Neil Gaiman has noted, genre is about letting you know what aisles of the bookstore not to walk down. But in the present moment, we’ve become more alert to this exclusionary function of genre, something that Lovecraft Country—both the novel and the series—took as its principal conceit, taking H.P. Lovecraft’s racist legacy and redeploying it to interrogate the ways in which genre can be opened up to other voices, other identities.

The greatest joy of participating in this Tolkien Society seminar was seeing precisely this dynamic in action—in seeing how an international and diverse cadre of Tolkien scholars found themselves within his works. As I said in my previous post, the backlash against the very idea of a “Tolkien and Diversity” conference employed the rhetoric of invasion and destruction. A post to a Tolkien message board epitomizes quite nicely the zero-sum sensibility I discussed:

The very first paper of the Tolkien Society seminar this weekend was titled “Gondor in Transition: A Brief Introduction to Transgender Realities in The Lord of the Rings.” As you might imagine, the very idea that there could be transgender characters in LOTR has been anathema to the various people slagging the seminar over social media. Tolkien’s world view did not allow for trans identity! has been one of the squawks heard from complainants. Leaving aside the fact that gender fluidity in Norse myth is something Tolkien would have been quite familiar with, this sort of complaint misses the point—which is that Tolkien’s work is voluminous enough to admit a multitude of readings he almost certainly did not have in mind as he composed his mythology.

I wish I could offer a useful precis of the paper, which was quite well done, but I was distracted by Zoom’s chat function and the avalanche of commentary scrolling up the side of my screen as I listened to the presentation—many of the comments being from trans and non-binary Tolkien enthusiasts expressing gratitude for a paper that made them feel seen in the context of Tolkien fandom and scholarship. This was actually the general tone of the two-day seminar: not people who, as the conference’s detractors have charged, look to destroy or desecrate Tolkien, but people who love his mythology and want to see themselves reflected within it. And who in the process demonstrated the capaciousness of Tolkien’s vision—one not limited, as the fellow cited above suggests, to the rigid circumscription of conservative Catholicism.

Genre is an interesting thing—less, from my perspective, for its more esoteric delineations within literary theory and criticism than for its blunter and cruder demarcations in popular culture. This latter understanding is where the real action has been for the past ten or twenty years, as the barriers walling off genre from the realms of art and literature have crumbled—with the advent of prestige television taking on the mob film, the cop procedural, and the western in The Sopranos, The Wire, and Deadwood, respectively; then proceeding to make fantasy and zombie apocalypse respectable with Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead; all while such “literary” authors as Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Colson Whitehead made their own forays into genre with The Road, Oryx and Crake, The Buried Giant, and Zone One, just as “genre” authors like Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Alison Bechdel and others attained “literary” reputations.

But as those walls have come down, so too have those genre enthusiasts of years past grown resentful of all the new people moving into their neighbourhoods. As I mentioned in my previous post, both the Gamergaters and Sad Puppies articulated a sense of incursion and loss—women and people of colour and queer folk invading what had previously been predominantly white male spaces. Like those attacking the Tolkien and Diversity seminar, they spoke in apocalyptic terms of things being ruined and destroyed and desecrated—SF/F would never be the same, they bleated, if these people had their way. What will become of our beloved space operas and Joseph Campbell-esque fantasy?

Well, nothing. They will still be there—fantasy in a neo-African setting rather than a neo-European one doesn’t obviate J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis or any of the myriad authors they influenced. They’re still there, on your bookshelf or at the library or your local bookstore. However much we might use the metaphor of territory, it’s flawed: in the physical world, territory is finite; in the intellectual world, it’s infinite. Tolkien’s world contains multitudes, and can admit those people who see queer themes and characters and want to interrogate the possible hermaphroditic qualities of dwarves and orcs without displacing all its staunchly conservative readers.

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