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Gene Wolfe's tribute to Tolkien

Political Conservatives

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Edited: Jun 1, 2011, 5:24pm Top

A couple good quotes from Gene Wolfe's brief tribute to Tolkien:

"There is one very real sense in which the Dark Ages were the brightest of times, and it is this: that they were times of defined and definite duties and freedoms. The king might rule badly, but everyone agreed as to what good rule was. Not only every earl and baron but every carl and churl knew what an ideal king would say and do. The peasant might behave badly; but the peasant did not expect praise for it, even his own praise. These assertions can be quibbled over endlessly, of course; there are always exceptional persons and exceptional circumstances. Nevertheless they represent a broad truth about Christianized barbarian society as a whole, and arguments that focus on exceptions provide a picture that is fundamentally false, even when the instances on which they are based are real and honestly presented. At a time when few others knew this, and very few others understood its implications, J. R. R. Tolkien both knew and understood, and was able to express that understanding in art, and in time in great art.

That, I believe, was what drew me to him so strongly when I first encountered The Lord of the Rings. As a child I had been taught a code of conduct: I was to be courteous and considerate, and most courteous and most considerate of those less strong than I -- of girls and women, and of old people especially. Less educated men might hold inferior positions, but that did not mean that they themselves were inferior; they might be (and often would be) wiser, braver, and more honest than I was. They were entitled to respect, and were to be thanked when they befriended me, even in minor matters. Legitimate authority was to be obeyed without shirking and without question. Mere strength (the corrupt coercion Washington calls power and Chicago clout) was to be defied. It might be better to be a slave than to die, but it was better to die than to be a slave who acquiesced in his own slavery. Above all, I was to be honest with everyone. Debts were to be paid, and my word was to be as good as I could make it.

With that preparation I entered the Mills of Mordor, where courtesy is weakness, honesty is foolishness, and cruelty is entertainment."

"It is said with some truth that there is no progress without loss; and it is always said, by those who wish to destroy good things, that progress requires it. No great insight or experience of the world is necessary to see that such people really care nothing for progress. They wish to destroy for their profit, and they, being clever, try to persuade us that progress and change are synonymous.

They are not; and it is not just my own belief but a well-established scientific fact that most change is for the worse: any change increases entropy (unavailable energy). Therefore, any change that produces no net positive good is invariably harmful. Progress, then, does not consist of destroying good things in the mere hope that the things that will replace them will be better (they will not be) but in retaining good things while adding more. Here is a practical illustration. This paper is good and the forest is good as well. If the manufacture of this paper results in the destruction of the forest, the result will be a net loss. That is mere change; we have changed the forest into paper, a change that may benefit some clever men who own a paper mill but hurts the mass of Earth's people. If, on the other hand, we manufacture the paper without destroying the forest (harvesting mature trees and planting new ones) we all benefit. We engineers will tell you that there has been an increase in entropy just the same; but it is an increase that would take place anyway, and so does us no added harm. It is also a much smaller increase than would result from the destruction of the forest."

— from Gene Wolfe, "The Best Introduction to the Mountains"

Jun 1, 2011, 5:20pm Top

Oh, brother, here we go again.

So... Net adding good things. Does this mean you support the legalisation of gay marriage?

Jun 1, 2011, 6:00pm Top

Bait much, Jesse?

Jun 1, 2011, 6:02pm Top

It's not the first time Wolfe has been under discussion.

Jun 1, 2011, 9:16pm Top

>1 barney67: Monumentally stupid. I'm especially stunned by the mis-use of the concepts of thermodynamics, in which Wolfe achieves a degree of idiocy that rises to level of Art. You can't become that moronic without lots of practice.

Jun 2, 2011, 11:34am Top

It seems to me a fine quotation that reveals Wolfe and Tolkien belong in the conservative camp.

Jun 2, 2011, 11:57am Top

Is resentment towards the modern world a prerequisite for conservatism? And who is Gene Wolfe to be dragging down Tolkien's good name with this silliness?

And further, why is it important for you to evaluate people to determine whether they belong in your "camp"? Have you ever considered that this might be a manifestation of some insecurity with your own positions?

Jun 2, 2011, 4:46pm Top

Wolfe's version of Tolkien makes him sound much like Atticus Finch.

Jun 2, 2011, 5:25pm Top

Is there any real debate, though, that Tolkien was not in a meaningful way a "conservative"? To be so pat about it suggests a shallowness in either us or him. But then as now the word meant something, and Tolkien... well, he wasn't really an edge case, was he? Does anyone disagree? I'm sure someone else is better informed, but I'm of the distinct impression there isn't much doubt here about his basic political—and religious—leanings.

Jun 2, 2011, 5:45pm Top

"In frustration, C.S. Lewis once asked Tolkien 'What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?' Tolkien answered: 'jailers.' Tolkien harbored no love for the progressives–those who would replace God’s vision with man’s visions–whom he considered the modern jailers. Working on the side of God’s enemies, albeit as unwitting atheists, the agents of modernity imprison the soul in the name of liberating the body, only to find that the flesh becomes imprisoned along with the spirit."

~excerpt from http://www.imaginativeconservative.org/2011/05/tolkien-and-hope-of-christian-hum...

Jun 2, 2011, 5:53pm Top

9 -- I think there was something here about it: J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth. Can't remember. I'm about to start Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Tolkien.

Why post this? Well, I like it, it's a good quote. Also, I think, like Tim, that there isn't much debate, and therefore belongs here. And from Eliot:

"These fragments I have shored against my ruins."

Edited: Jun 2, 2011, 6:01pm Top

Oh, I don't doubt Tolkien's essential conservatism, although the word would probably have a somewhat different meaning for him. What I find odd, apart from Wolfe's weird "most change is for the worst" thing, is the need to funnel long-dead persons into a particular contemporary "camp". What is the purpose of this re-defining of the person, except to make those doing the redefining feel that they have someone famous, smart, and/or insightful on their side? From what does this particular neediness arise?

I'm starting to get the feeling that what separates right from left is that the former looks to a falsely idealized past, while the latter hopes for a (most likely) falsely idealized future.

Edited: Jun 7, 2011, 11:25pm Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

Jun 2, 2011, 6:02pm Top

I'm starting to get the feeling that what separates right from left is that the former looks to a falsely idealized past, while the latter hopes for a (most likely) false idealized future.

Heh. Nice.

Edited: Jun 2, 2011, 6:04pm Top

Yes, the world was a cozy and beautiful place for old white Oxford dons.

Jun 2, 2011, 6:27pm Top

is the need to funnel long-dead persons into a particular contemporary "camp"

Right. This happens all the time and is usually objectionable. To a certain extent it's a legitimate question--eg., "are we living up to Jefferson's ideals?" But it flattens and caricatures, both because the issues were different then and because Tolkien wasn't a cookie-cutter guy. For example, few American conservatives would feel comfortable with his denunciations of the atomic bombing of Japan, something I was shocked to find C. S. Lewis half-excusing in his letters. And of course Tolkien isn't primarily a "political" thinker at all.

Edited: Jun 2, 2011, 8:12pm Top

There's nothing wrong—in fact there is much that is right—in discovering in the past what is better than the present. There is a whole lot that has been done better than today. But in the liberal mind, any discussion of the past is nostalgia for the good old days, hence an "idealized past." By shutting down discussion of the past, they prevent themselves from learning anything. Faulkner said the past isn't dead—it isn't even past. I would note, as an aside, in addition to Faulkner's haunted South, there is the admiration of Kirk, Hawthorne, and James for the literary form of the ghost story.

The liberal's hope for an idealized future is utopian—the future doesn't exist, it is mental air. But the conservative's admiration for the past is grounded—the past is concrete experience, it exists. There is much that is right in the conservative's admiration for models from the past, for knowledge from the past, for the tried and true (tradition, convention, norms) over endless experimentation and reinventing of the wheel.

One reason for the long downslide of history is the fact that the past has been forgotten, and that, in Saul Bellow's words, there has been an "assault on the given and fixed" and something essential has been lost. Joseph Conrad wrote that art tries to find what is fundamental in life, its essence. It is one of the purposes of conservatives to redeem the time by recovering and restoring Bellow's lost essence.

I find Tolkien, Wolfe, Bellow, Conrad, and Faulkner philosophically conservative in their attempts to recover this lost essence. My discovery of these authors, more specifically of their way of looking at things and of writing is, I think, a successful discovery of the continuity of ideas, in this case ideas which have been fundamental to the history of conservatism.

Jun 2, 2011, 9:57pm Top

The liberal's hope for an idealized future is utopian

Holy shit! Who knew it was still 1965?

Edited: Jun 2, 2011, 10:09pm Top

The past is not grounded. The past is as much airy and misty as any prognostication. The past is a story, a long narrative in which some parts are emphasized, some not so much, others left out altogether.

Jun 2, 2011, 10:12pm Top


Bravo, grasshopper.

Exclusion being an essential part of the storyteller's tool-kit.

Jun 2, 2011, 10:24pm Top

There's nothing wrong—in fact there is much that is right—in discovering in the past what is better than the present.

For instance, that nice ordered society when trolls, orcs, and elves knew their place.

The question is - better for who? Again, we find that mournful nostalgia for a demographic that will never come again.

Jun 2, 2011, 11:20pm Top

If you accept the idea that history is narrative composed of a hodge-podge of facts and interpretations, then you may come to the startling realization that history is a human pursuit. Like all human pursuits, and I'm certain most conservatives would agree with me, history is subject to error, folly, and arrogance.

If history is an error-prone human pursuit, then revering the past may mean revering something that didn't really exist.

As is often the case, you can only idealize something if you expunge the ugly from it. Idealizing the past, like idealizing a future state, requires one to emphasize positive aspects of that period over the less savory aspects.

If you think about it, those who hope for an idealized future aren't all that different from those who idealize the past.

Jun 3, 2011, 1:00am Top

If you think about it, those who hope for an idealized future aren't all that different from those who idealize the past.


I am obviously missing a whole lot of people. I've been engaged in political discussions for 45 years now, and I don't recall running across a who lot of people over age 12 who "hope for an idealized future" or "idealize the past." I've run across some people who believed and were willing to argue that certain things in certain pasts were better than they are now. I've run across some people who believe that things would get a lot better "if only...." But I guess I haven't known that many defenders of the Natural Order and Honor of Feudalism or believers in the coming of the Political Messiah - at least before next week. In fact, I thought that most sorts were stone cold dead by no later than the late 1940s.

However, there do seem to be an abundance today of people who "have an opinion" and get really pissy when you ask them questions about the support for or basis of their opinion. It gets particularly nasty if anyone dares mention facts or logic. But then, certain sorts of "conservatives" have regularly warned us about how abhorrent facts and logic can be in a world that could have Tradition and Virtue, a world that could become ideologyfrei if everyone would JUST LISTEN AND OBEY.

Edited: Jun 3, 2011, 11:41am Top

Lawecon, you have posted nonsense once again, and once again have insulted me. Every time you post, almost, you manage to insult someone. You just do it in a way that doesn't violate the TOS. You seem to think that others have "opinions," while you utter only "facts." Oh, if only that were true. Again you have accused me of being a false conservative when I have given views well within the conservative tradition—it is you who are ignorant of that intellectual history. Your second paragraph attributes to me things I have never said. It is, in short, a cheap shot. How could a man as brilliant as you stoop so low? Is it insecurity that causes you to add sarcasm to every remark?

As for codyed's response, history is not merely interpretation or a story but objective fact, knowable fact. Obviously when I say revere the past—I never said idealize the past—I don't mean revere human error, but analyze it and learn from it. You said idealize the past. What I said was discover in the past what is worth conserving. I spoke of continuity of certain ideas, not all ideas. I'm aware that this entails a process of selection, which makes the task even more serious and difficult. It can be done and has been done.

Jun 3, 2011, 11:55am Top

history is not merely interpretation or a story but objective fact, knowable fact.

There goes historiography, headfirst out the window...

Really, you believe that everything Arrian, for instance, wrote about Alexander was an objective, knowable fact?

Is it insecurity that causes you to add sarcasm to every remark?

Which brings us back to my (unanswered) question as to why you feel the need to go riffling through graveyards to find people to put in your "camp"?

Jun 7, 2011, 9:51pm Top

More hand-wringing.

With a response.

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