July 2nd, 2006

Moorcock, Saruman and the Dragon’s Tail

The journalist and historian Paul Johnson has divided all serious writers and critics into two camps, ‘intellectuals’ and ‘men of letters’. Intellectuals are those who, like Shelley, conceive themselves to be ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’; they are the Utopians, the revolutionists, the Angry Young Men; they involve themselves in politics, usually radical, readily form claques, and have a disturbing tendency to write manifestos. Men of letters (the term dates back to less literal-minded times, when ‘men’ could be understood to refer to both sexes) just read things, and write things, and write about what they read. They do not even have a strong tendency to read about what they write: the Platonically ideal man of letters is too comfortable in his ivory tower to care much about reviews and Press clippings. Karl Marx could well stand for the purest form of intellectual, and Emily Dickinson, if you will pardon the Irish bull, was a perfect man of letters.

Of course these extremes are only the endpoints of a continuous line, but most authors show a definite tendency to drift towards one end or the other. Tolstoy was an intellectual, and developed the points of that breed, so to speak, more and more strongly as he grew older, until he gave up imaginative writing altogether in favour of his own weird form of political messianism. Shakespeare was a man of letters, so very much so that it is still hotly disputed what his political opinions were, or whether he ever troubled to form any. Intellectuals have often been quick to dismiss men of letters as reactionary toadies or commercial hacks, and in fact Tolstoy attacked Shakespeare as both in his pamphlet, Shakespeare and the Drama. But for all the fame of both the attacker and the target, that pamphlet would be utterly forgotten today, had it not been preserved by George Orwell’s much more famous rebuttal, ‘Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool’. On the whole Orwell was an intellectual, but he had a very strong streak of the man of letters in him, and his sympathies were very much with Shakespeare.

In our own time, Michael Moorcock could well be described as an intellectual who sometimes masquerades as a man of letters. In The Way the Future Was, Frederik Pohl says that if the Futurians had conquered all of science-fiction fandom, the mere world would have been an anticlimax; and the same quality is distinctly present in Moorcock’s characteristic literary polemics. He takes literature as his battleground, but his weapons and his enmities are drawn from an almost purely political ideology. He seems very much concerned that Utopian writers shall write about the correct kind of Utopia, and his fury with dissenters knows no bounds. J.R.R. Tolkien, on the other hand, was so very much a man of letters that he did not even attempt to publish any of his fiction until a reader at Allen and Unwin chanced to hear of The Hobbit and pried the typescript out of his hands. And while Tolkien seems not to have heard of Moorcock any more than Shakespeare could have heard of Tolstoy, the same kind of bitter one-way enmity has grown between them.

I have before me an essay of Moorcock’s, called ‘Wit and Humour in Fantasy’, first published in 1979. It is ostensibly an argument for the natural and necessary alliance between humour and fantasy (somethiing nobody ever remarked upon before Moorcock); but he makes his argument very badly, partly because it is poppycock, but chiefly because his real purpose is to attack his arch-enemy, Tolkien. In consequence it makes for interesting reading, and I would nominate it for a place of honour beside Shakespeare and the Drama in the canon of foolish diatribes.

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Thank you, Gentle Readers

Before I carry on with my little screeds, which, if you follow me, I think of as essais rather than essays, I want to thank all of you who have read them, and especially those who have offered comments. Your insights and corrections have been valuable to me, and your expressions of agreement an utterly unexpected pleasure.

In particular I want to thank sartorias, who announced my series on the ‘ten things’ meme to her own much larger circle of friends, and thereby brought me about double the audience I began with, and fpb, whose opinions and counterpoints must have enriched my understanding at least as much as he says my writings have enriched his. But I appreciate every comment I have received, and I want each one of you to know and remember that.

As I wrote earlier this evening in a response to one of fpb’s comments, these posts of mine are not the dogmata of an expert, but the thoughts of an autodidact as he works them out in coming to grips with his material. I have often observed that the very best teacher for a neophyte can be another neophyte just slightly in advance of him: we often teach best the things we have just learned ourselves. If what I have written is of value to anyone, it is precisely for that reason.

One day, no doubt, I shall say something so controversial or so downright foolish that large numbers of you will drop me in anger and disgust. When that day comes, I hope you will remember that once we were friends, at least of the epistolary sort, and think less unkindly of me. Until then, I am honoured that you have chosen to keep company with me for some part of my journey.