Oh wise vintagegeekculture, might I ask your opinion on Michael Moorcock's essay "Epic Pooh"?
I am American as all-get-out. Stranger Things is practically a documentary about my rural childhood; there were a million little sense memory triggers in that series for me. So there is probably a cultural context to that very very English essay that discusses a very very English relationship to lulling sentimentality and class and the countryside that I willfully concede that I am simply not grasping. The English seem to think entirely in terms of debating sentimental imagery: “Mother London” vs. the “Ploughman’s Lunch” and “Little Britain.” Althought it is a serious issue, listening to British debates on Brexit often felt like hearing to the “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” aliens from TNG having a loud argument about who’s Mom loves them more.
But…from my perspective as an outsider and foreigner, I think the general point Moorcock makes is correct: Fantasy was created by men like Tolkien and Lord Dunsany who were violently hostile to the modern world and so their work very studiously avoided talking about the modern world except in opposition to it (for instance, the only person to push industrialization and scouring the countryside is an asshole wizard; the only person who talks like T.S. Elliot’s Londoners is the despicable Sméagol). Lord Dunsany was a great writer, but seems like a thin-blooded aristocrat, like a Brit Ashley Wilkes from Gone With the Wind, who even in the 1970s, wrote his stories with a quill pen and wore an ascot tie to book readings.
Moorcock is right when he says that fantasy often avoids reflecting the world around us, and that being overly sentimental about the past serves the interest of reactionaries (note that he did not call Tolkien and Dunsany and the rest reactionaries…at least in a way that was visible in their work – he did say that about Adams and Lewis though). The most important quote in that essay is “Ideally fiction should offer us escape and force us, at least, to ask questions; it should provide a release from anxiety but give us some insight into the causes of anxiety.” I mean, fantasy as a genre was so detached from “real world” issues that when someone like Tad Williams started to include something as fundamental as economics into his fantasy worlds starting in the 1980s, people treated him like a total genius (Which Tad Williams IS, incidentally - these days, people only really know Tad Williams, if they know him at all, as the inspiration for George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones).
One of the great themes of Moorcock’s work is the way that authoritarians use sentimental imagery of the past to manipulate people. If you read Epic Pooh, also read his other book, “The Dreamthief’s Daughter,” the opening third to half is set in Nazi Germany. It’s actually more helpful to understand the point of this essay to read “Dreamthief’s Daughter,” since, in the words of Francois Truffaut, “the only way to critique a movie properly is to make another movie.” Dreamthief’s Daughter starts with a “Good German,” von Bek, who is horrified that his Germany was taken over by Nazism, how they replace “self respect with a kind of strutting self-esteem.” At one point, our hero has to hide in the German countryside, and he mentions how sinister the small storybook German towns he passes through seem, romanticized by fascists after Hitler came to power, as they were pushed front and center as the “true Germany.”
Of all the books ever written about the Nazis and arch-reactionaries, Moorcock gets it the most right in “Dreamthief’s Daughter.” They were boring failsons, not supervillains. Rudolf Hess was described as the most irritating person to sit next to on the bus to a con and who believed magic and ghosts were real; von Bek said that “in my many adventures, I showed true courage only once: in not throwing Rudolf Hess out of my car.” Von Bek’s comments on Hitler himself: “An evening with Hitler was like an evening with an extremely boring maiden aunt.” He was also the first person I can think of to point out how reactionary fascists often have really bad taste, too: drawing imagery from bad comic operas and American movies about Rome. That last bit should be all too familiar to people who notice how many American reactionaries love the hell out of the movie 300 (a movie I really like too, incidentally, but it’s okay to enjoy something if you understand it).
Also, “Dreamthief’s Daughter” had a great finale: imagine a flight of dragons coming out to fight the Battle of Britain.
The point, that fantasy
can be infantilizing, is a good point, but Moorcock is the weirdest
possible person on the face of the earth to make it. Moorcock got famous by
writing about brooding angsty albinos who cry all the time for the benefit of
teenage heavy metal fans and dungeon masters in Reeboks. I love his stuff but that’s who he is,
that’s the stuff that pays his mortgage, that’s his audience. His stuff is good but it reminds me of
those White Wolf games in the 1990s that look silly and dated in retrospect
because they trowel on the angst and transgression and put on airs (White Wolf,
incidentally, was named after Moorcock’s greatest hero, Elric the White Wolf…and
in the 1990s, White Wolf’s publishing arm dedicated itself to reprinting some
of Moorcock’s less widely seen novels, a service for which I thank them very
much). I am actually legitimately surprised that Moorcock never wrote a “sad sexy vampire” novel. God, can you imagine the kind of satire that the anarchic MAD magazine of the 50s would do of the Elric stuff? Elric screaming his soul is black at the breakfast table, while threatening to kill himself over a hangnail.