The Abuses of Enchantment

Politics, like fantasy and science fiction, is the art of creating and selling an imaginary world.  It can be the world yet to come: Stalin called on his people to create a “radiant future,” Bill Clinton built a “bridge to the twenty-first century” (as if we wouldn’t have gotten there without one), and Reagan’s “morning in America” promised the optimism of a brand new day.  It can just as easily be a restoration of past glory:  Trump bellows his plan to “make American great again,” Milosevic proclaimed a return to Serbian purity, and Putin, after “saving” Russia from an imagined imminent dismantling, is restoring his country to “great power” status  after years of humiliation. 

political wisdom, courtesy of philosoraptor.

political wisdom, courtesy of philosoraptor.

Particularly telling is the increasingly frequent application of the American term “paleoconservatism” to Putin’s program; “paleoconservatism,” like the Paleo Diet, connotes a return to a Stone Age informed less by archeology than it is by Clan of the Cave Bear.  Linking ones politics to a purely fantastic world is but a small step. This might suggest Frederic Jameson’s famous connection of politics with science fiction and utopia, but the example I have in mind are is a more comfortable fit with “heterotopia”: we are dealing with political fantasies rooted in a different, not necessarily better world.  I bring you word of a small but vocal community of Russian patriots who voluntarily, if ironically, proclaim that Russia is not, as the old Soviet joke goes, “the motherland of elephants,” but rather, the motherland of Orcs. 

Through a philologically suspect reading of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, this community has appropriated the trilogy’s largest contingent of villains in defiant response not just to the Manichaeism of Tolkien, but to the equally primitive binaries of the Cold War and its aftermath.  Though it is the result of a clever and subversive appropriation of the tools of postmodernism, the identification of Russians with Orcs is not deconstructive. Even when the same Tolkien references are used by the liberal opposition, the inherent dualism remains undisturbed.   Productive irony cannot save either group from the fact that they are simply reversing Cold War binaries rather than undermining their foundation. [1] 

This tacit acceptance of dualism is consistent with the source material.  J.R.R. Tolkien has been accused of many things, but subtlety is not among them.  Nor is there even the faintest whiff of moral relativism in his most famous works.  After all, one of the hallmarks of old-fashioned high fantasy is a straightforward, dualistic cosmology, a worldview that encompasses works as apparently disparate as Lord of the Rings and Star Wars (a film series that is essentially epic fantasy with Death Stars instead of dragons).  

Such heroic stories bring an extra appeal to the familiar F&SF phenomenon known as “world-building:” we are not only invited to share in the imagining of Tolkien’s  (or Lucas’s) imaginary world, but also find clear and compelling ethical positions for our own imagined selves to adopt.  This is the unjustly-maligned “escapism” that features the simplicity and moral clarity that the real world should best avoid (after all, Aragorn is basically trying to “make Middle Earth great again,” something even Tolkien’s fantasy world rejects when Frodo joins the elves in the exodus of magic from the land). 

We have in Lord of the Rings a famously complex fantastic geography, history, and ethnography, in which all of the forces of good just happen to have languages and cultures with clear Anglo-Saxon roots, while the “dark” and “savage” enemy offers little resistance to familiar racist, orientalist tropes.  The very fact that Middle Earth contains “evil” races is, at the very least, problematic.  F&SF practitioners as varied as Michael Moorcock, David Brin, and China Mieville take Tolkien to task for his nostalgic feudalism and displaced racism.  [2] Brin points out that the “urge to crush some demonized enemy” is old and deep, and satisfied too easily by Tolkien. Of particular concern are the orcs. Brin laments

the vicarious thrill we feel over the slaughter of orc foot soldiers at Helm’s Deep. Then again as Ents flatten even more goblin grunts at Saruman’s citadel, taking no prisoners, never sparing a thought for all the orphaned orclings and grieving widorcs. And again at Minas Tirith, and again at the Gondor Docks and again … Well, they’re only orcs, after all.

 Brin, tongue firmly in cheek, calls for “empathy” for the orcs, a task that could be complicated by two facts 1) they’re supposed to be entirely alien from us, and 2) they don’t exist. The cultivation of empathy is one of the many uses of fiction, particularly when readers and viewers find themselves empathizing with characters who are, in some way or another, alien to them.  

Such empathy can also be problematic, in that audiences might be manipulated into empathizing with characters whose actions and values remain repellent even when the story is over, by the simple virtue of the characters being either the protagonists, the narrator, or both (see American Psycho or Dexter). But what happens when the most alien, most “othered” characters are, by virtue of plot, description, and world building, provide an unexpectedly easy platform for identification by those who are not part of the initial target audience?

 Next: There and Back Again



[1] In his discussion of the paradoxes of Russian paleoconservatism, Viacheslav Morozov notes the double bind enforced by the movement's binary framework: “By grounding its every move in the Eurocentric normative order, Russian paleoconservatism abuses and inverts the hegemonic vocabulary but makes no attempt at transcending or abandoning it."  (Morozov, Vicheslav.  Russia's Postcolonial Identity: A Subaltern Empire in a Eurocentric World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015 

[2] Moorcock, Michael.  "Epic Pooh."  Wizardry and Wild Romance. London: Gollancz, 1978; Brin, David.  Through Strangers' Eyes. Nimble Books, 2014; Mieville, China.  "Middle Earth Meets Middle England." Socialist Review.  January 2002.  Mieville is notorious in fantasy circles for calling Tolkien "the wen on the arse of fantasy literature."