Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Day of the Orcs

"All right, all right!" said Sam. "That's quite enough. I don't want to hear no more. No welcome, no beer, no smoke, and a lot of rules and orc-talk instead. I hoped to have a rest, but I can see there's work and trouble ahead."
This is tangentially related to my last post.

I've instituted a new family tradition: every week we have a movie night. My children, who are four and six, don't watch television – we don't even get it at our house – and have practically no media exposure. So, I thought, maybe it's time to begin introducing them to a rich if vulgar vein of our artistic culture.

Last weekend's showing was The Wizard of Oz. My wife had been concerned that the witch and the flying monkeys would be too scary (they are for her!), but, no, not our kids. I guess all these years of telling them creepy fairy tales like "Hansel and Gretel" and "Jack the Giant-Killer" and "The Juniper Tree" have finally paid off.

Actually, what really bothered my son (the six-year-old) was the implication that the story was all a dream. He asked about it while I was tucking him in, and I told him I thought the movie left it up to the viewer. We decided together that it wasn't just a dream. But I was a bit put out by it too, though I confess that the movie as a whole – which I hadn't seen in a long time – greatly delighted me.

I told someone else about it, and they mentioned that they'd been taught in college (they were an educator) that this is the good kind of children's fantasy, the kind that makes it very clear what's real and what's not, so that the poor dears don't get their heads turned and start looking for Technicolor dream worlds inside tornados. The bad kind of fantasy treats the events of the tale as real events. The child never wakes up or, if they do, they discover the rainbow scepter in their bed.

The main problem I have with the "good" type of fantasy is that it's stupid. When I was a kid I hated dream-stories with a passion. Why on earth would I want to read about a silly dream of the chief pencil sharpener's assistant at Acme Widget? As an adult I feel just the same way, and I discover that my children do as well. Fiction is fiction, I suppose, but the dream machinery just drapes the story with a layer of condescension: "Ha ha! You thought this was real! But it's not." Or: "No, you idiot, things like this don't really happen. You knew that, right?"

Granted, exposing the idiocy of assertions made by child development "experts" is like shooting fish in a barrel. But this particular attitude is, I think, more than just annoying. It's nothing short of damnable. It was beaten out, hammer and tongs, in the deeps of the earth by a secret cabal of Orcs.

Yes, that's right. I said Orcs. Their numbers being too small now to plot large-scale domination, they seek to influence events from behind the scenes.
And what Orcs most dearly want, more than anything else in the world, is for the children of Men to become efficient slaves. They want lesser breeds of imps and goblins to lord it over. They hate anything that makes the children look out the window and dream of a better place, so naturally they heap scorn on Fantasy, calling it a form of Escape (a bad word on their lips).

To which Tolkien replies:
I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which "Escape" is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Just so a Party-spokesman might have labelled departure from the misery of the Führer's or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery. In the same way these critics, to make confusion worse, and so to bring into contempt their opponents, stick their label of scorn not only on to Desertion, but on to real Escape, and what are often its companions, Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt. Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter; but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the "quisling" to the resistance of the patriot. To such thinking you have only to say "the land you loved is doomed" to excuse any treachery, indeed to glorify it.
Now, if the Orcs can't keep children from reading fantasy, they at least want them to understand that it's just a silly dream that we put away when there's real work to be done. Hence their compromise on dream-stories.

Their approach to adults – and, I think, their more recent approach to children – requires a bit more subtlety but goes a step further. Rather than settling for making adults despise the medium – which they still do, to be sure – they aim to make its very ideals despicable in the eyes of its readers. After all, we know what Orcs think about heroes:
"There's a great fighter about, one of those bloody-handed Elves, or one of the filthy tarks."
What's a tark, you ask? For the etymology of the term, please see the Appendix to The Return of the King. However, to our excellent diversity-minded modern Orcs, Frodo son of Drogo is just as much a tark as Aragorn son of Arathorn. It's all the same to them, and they're as tired as hell of it. Enough with your Hectors, your Beowulfs, your Rolands, your Arthurs! No more Gilgameshes and Galahads and Godfreys! Grow up! Give us something different! Except, when they say, "give us," they really mean, "give the great unwashed masses," because these Orcs always know what's best for everyone else.

To accomplish their ends of making the ideals of Fantasy despicable, they create (as Saruman his pitifully derivative pits and engines) meta-stories, stories that masquerade as Fantasy but serve rather to browbeat the casual reader and insult the perspicacious or principled reader through "subversion" and "deconstruction." The condescension of the dream machinery mentioned above now comes out in the open and slaps the reader in the face.

In the end, of course, such stories are read only by critics and other writers, and the sub-genre becomes a Worm Ouroboros, devouring its own tail. The one to whom Tolkien and Lewis, or even Howard and Smith, are like fine wine, decried now as a fool who reads knaves, flees with terror before the face of such insipid, self-regarding, effete, irrelevant "literature" as the Fellowship of the Ring fled the Balrog, except in this case there's no fire to ignite his mantle of darkness, because "No Smoking" signs are hung on all the walls.

Here, then, are the three main thrusts of the Orcs' assault on Fantasy:
  1. Keep people from reading Fantasy.
  2. Make Fantasy seem unreal and silly.
  3. Mock the ideals of Fantasy.
To which I reply with the words of the Marsh-Wiggle:
"Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world."
And so I'll keep looking for the land of the sun, though all the Orcs ever spawned oppose me. I'll keep reading (and trying to write) books that aren't afraid to tell tales straightforwardly, without the winks and nods and other cheap tricks the literati use to dress up the watery barf they call "writing." I'll keep painting pictures of flowers and insects and saints and princesses and knights without an iota of irony, commentary, or self-reference. And I'll read my children the stories I like, and guide them (for a brief time) through the beauties and terrors of the world, and protect them, until they are mature enough to fight for themselves, from the clutches of "experts" whose smiling, concerned faces hide the hearts of Orcs.
"The world is all grown strange. [...] How shall a man judge what to do in such times?"
     "As he ever has judged," said Aragorn. "Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house."
It's not the first time the Orcs have tried to take over, and it won't be the last. The proper responses are the same as ever: Escape, Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt.

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